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Thursday, 19 May 2011
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
As pick-me-ups go, I would heartily recommend a Charles Portis novel. After slogging through Sebastian Faulks (see Engleby) I was in a vile humour - as can be attested to by my lovely wife - so I was in the market for something less oppressive and more, well, Kurt Vonnegut-esque. Vonnegut is my regular antidote to being miserable, but I had used up most of my virginal Vonnegut resources in a bleak spell during so-called halcyon university days.
Having bought and read everything I could find which Vonnegut has published (including the delightful Sun Moon Star with Ivan Chermayeff and the script of the NET Playhouse production of Between Time & Timbuktu) except for his latest posthumous collection (which I’m keeping for a far rainier day than this – but more later), I worked through some of my lists of American authors of whom could be said that they were in some way quirkily satirical or blackly comic. Tao Lin (too bizarre for today), Jim Dodge (read ‘em all), John Barth (I just don’t have the energy) tried and failed to interest me, so in the end, I took the vicarious advice of a trusted bookseller friend who knows about these things and picked up Masters of Atlantis from his Cult Fiction shelves.
Being my first Portis, I decided to research him a bit, and rummaged around online to give me some context. I read somewhere, possibly on an unofficial fan / scholars’ website that the quest motif is prevalent in Portis’ novels, and this article went on to prove it not so much at length but in sufficient detail as to render it soporific. Having now read the book, I can say without fear of contradiction that this quest was never going to end well. Lamar Jimmerson’s grudgingly accepted mission, that of preserving and disseminating (albeit without actually giving anything away) the “lost” lore of Atlantis, is destined to fail from the moment Mike from Alexandria (or is that Phletho Pappus from Malta?) “gifts” Lamar – for the tiny sum of $200 – the only copy of the Codex Pappus which contains the ancient mathematical, geometrical and verbosely obfuscatory wisdom of the deluged civilization. From such seeds of deception grow a fairly vivid if slightly meandering comic narrative.
In terms of entertainment, to be washed downstream by the unstoppable flow of Portis’ imagination is an absolute pleasure. The story is relentless if less than aerobic, and characters appear and disappear at whim, often with complicated but enjoyable back stories, but also, as in the case of “Bulldog” White, with no more than a swift introduction before becoming integral to the story. It may seem a little like improvised cookery at times, with characters serving as short-lived literary spice to the overly full pot-au-fer that is this rambling storyline, but it just about holds together. There are several set pieces of genuine laugh-out-loud excellence, none more so than the scene where initiate Austin Popper defends Gnomonism (the name of said Atlantean mysticism) before a Texas panel convened to interrogate rogue cultish elements in the state. And, being Portis, it’s all told with a completely straight face.