As I was reading Kris Saknussemm’s debut novel Zanesville, I kept wondering, “In what part of the universe does this guy’s mind reside?” I know it’s an entirely different plane then mine — but that’s a good thing.
If forced to pigeonhole Zanesville, you would probably categorize the book as science fiction. But that is an understatement — it defies categorization. How does Saknussemm describe the book? As “techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville.” Now maybe you have a glimpse of why I was wondering what universe his mind inhabits.
Zanesville, which Saknussemm plans to be the first in a proposed series he calls The Lodemania Testament, actually starts in 1838 with the birth of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, “one of the most neglected geniuses in history.” As a young boy, Sitturd is whisked up into a tornado on July 4, in Dustdevil, Tex., only to be returned to the exact spot unharmed some 20 minutes later. On July 14, 1913, after a life as an inventor, businessman, recluse and cult leader, Sitturd again disappears in another tornado in Dustdevil, this time never to be heard from again.
Suddenly, we are in a post-apocalyptic America, where a man we will come to know as Elijah Clearfather awakens in New York’s Central Park, not knowing who he is but believing he was deposited there by a whirlwind. This is an America far different than Sitturd’s or ours. It is run by the Vitessa Cultporation. The California coast has disappeared in an earthquake called Bigfoot and the new center of “culture” in the western U.S. is LosVegas, Nevadafornia. McDonald’s has been converted to McTavish’s, which has replaced the hamburger with haggis (“sheep stomach with your choice of filling.”) Modern technology consists of cyberneering, genetainment and neurotecture. America has survived (?) a Holy War waged by Al-Waqi’a. Much of the country is roamed by bandits, some of the Mad Max variety, with the cannibals among them distinguished by the Mickey Mouse flags they fly.
Clearfather is taken in by a group of anti-Vitessa rebels whose camp in Central Park is hidden by a “Mirror Field.” Sensing his latent abilities, they fill him with psychoactive drugs and inject mind probes. When the results they obtain leave them uncertain whether Clearfather is a messiah, a Vitessa Cultporation intelligence agent, a “weapon of mass instruction” or simply an amnesiac, the rebels set Clearfather loose. He is given a Greyhound bus pass and a map indicating places from his past they derived from the psych probes. As Clearfather searches for his past and himself, he takes us from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis to Dustdevil to LosVegas and, ultimately, to a canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the way, he meets and travels with a variety of people, having significant effects on each and society, and sees the state of American life and culture.
Once in South Dakota, where “the speed of culture” runs slower, Clearfather learns who and what he is and what is expected of him. Yet this discovery also involves even more and deeper layers of the reality he has experienced so far. Both the varying levels of reality and the depiction of a damaged and dystopic America make Zanesville occasionally reminiscent of Philip K. Dick‘s work. Yet Saknussemm is more original than imitative. Vortices are a common theme in Zanesville. They are not only an integral part of the story but seem equally indicative of the narrative and Saknussemm’s use of styles. Ranging from satire to straight-out humor to political and religious commentary, this is one of those works that has you chuckling one minute, scratching your head the next and then pausing to think deeply. Saknussemm’s description of his book is dead on and it is the expressions of a “techno-theological” philosophy that will cause you to not only pause and ponder while reading, but keep you thinking long after you have put it down.
I’m still not quite sure what type of universe Saknussemm and Clearfather inhabit. There is, however, no doubt that Zanesville is a whirlwind of concepts and ideas that are worth a series to explore.
There’s nothing like the gentle, reassuring sound of a civilization falling down around you.
Kris Saknussemm, Zanesville