Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Books to look for: 'Zanesville' by Kris Saknussemm

Review: Zanesville: A Novel
By Kris Saknussemm
(Villiard Books, 2005)
     There are so many books published every year that it is easy to miss some, even most. Many times I don't even learn of an author's debut novel until several other books have been published. The World According to Garp was John Irving's fourth novel, but there was little awareness of his first three until "Garp" took off.
     Which brings me to Zanesville, Kris Saknussemm's first novel, published in 2005. I may have seen it on the bookstore shelves before, but it didn't register on my radar until a review of his latest novel, Enigmatic Pilot, appeared in Locus magazine. That review referenced back to Zanesville because they take place in the same skewed universe. The second book expands on a few paragraphs in the prologue of the first. Both are science fiction, though "Zanesville" was marketed as fiction in the Thomas Pynchon-Tom Robbins-Kurt Vonnegut mode. That also means it's not a terribly easy read, but rewards the effort.
     Another reason it may not have registered with me is that, in my opinion, Zanesville isn't a very good or descriptive title. Maybe Saknussemm felt it reflects the theme of the book or is a metaphor, like Roman Polanski's film Chinatown (in which very little of the film actually takes place in Chinatown). Zanesville is mentioned in the book, but it’s not the locus of action.
     Zanesville takes place in a dystopian future America where the Vitessa Corporation runs almost everything. Into this world a man appears with no clear memory of his identity or knowledge of the world in which he finds himself. He soon discovers that he has scars on his back forming the message "FATHER FORGIVE THEM F" on his back that seem to burn, figuratively and literally, at times of emotional distress. DNA tests suggest he is a former porn star and religious cult leader who died 30 years earlier, or possibly his clone. He goes on a quest or tour of important sites in that man's life, meeting people and discovering more details of the world, and exhibiting seemingly supernatural powers. He's attacked by Vitessa Corporation minions, makes and loses many friends and, in the end, he finds some answers, but the stage is set for sequels. The overall work is called "The Lodemania Testament."
     Unfortunately, those sequels are probably far in the future. It's taken Saknussemm 5 years to complete a second volume (Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True), a prequel, and he may expand further on that period before he looks again to the future.
     The book is divided into seven parts, each prefixed by a quotation (my favorite is by Nietzsche: "Madness is something rare in individuals -- but in groups, parties, peoples, ages, it is the rule"). The 62 chapters are all titled, sometimes a descriptive phrase, sometime word play, sometimes just amusing.
     You probably won’t find this on the shelves at most bookstores (I did see a used copy at Second Story Books in St. Clair Shores, and the Suburban Library Cooperative has at least one copy in its system). However you can read an excerpt here at a dedicated website for the book, still up and running, that also has other features that nicely complement the book. Recommended.

     NOTE: When I checked on Aug. 10, 2013, I couldn't find the the dedicated website for Zanesville, so it may have been shut down in the intervening two years. Pity. 


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