Saturday, January 11, 2003


Oh, my dear readers, I hardly know where to begin. Do I lead off with the stunning revelation I had last night at the Rustic Bar, that Viagra is, in fact, the Philosopher’s Stone, that mystical substance sought by the alchemists of yore for its mystical property of turning lead into gold?

Ah, there’s no place like the Rustic for philosophizing: Socrates himself would have been at home there, and indeed my companions of Friday evening often employed his Method in the midst of trying to settle such disputes as what are the true hallmarks of civilization? We wound up with a list of five things as we chirped in our cups: 1. The development of the ability to inhibit defecation, 2. The discovery that fermentation produces alcohol, 3. Soap and sanitation, 4. Fire, and 5. Duct Tape. To which, as the discussion turned to more prurient matters, we added Viagra, the crowning achievement of the century just passed. There you go: the six things that make us human, that separate us from the apes. O glory!

But I digress, as usual.

My mind now is occupied with yet another crowning glory of civilization: the ice fishing shanty, a stunning, home-built example of which was added this very hour to the toybox at Fort Sherrod. Seems a good friend of My Own Dear Personal Dad got a schnazzy new one for Christmas and now no longer needs what MODPD and his newest Partner In Crime (husband of my fellow novelist and walking buddy and the newest member of my coffee group, to boot!) have already christened The Yellow Submarine – lo, they are busy even now deciding with what sort of artwork they will ask Sketch to adorn it when he customizes it for them.

For yellow it most certainly is, a tiny yellow sheepwagon of an ice fishing hut, furnished inside in a grand style, with a built-in propane stove and stovepipe, built-in seats, shag carpeting, a sound system a comfy mattress… Oh wait, I’m thinking of my ex-fiance’s van, never mind.

My Own Dear Personal Mom, for her part, is busy wrestling in her mind with the geometry that will come into play when MODPD tries to fold and stuff his massive frame and form into that little bitty shack, and then share it with another person.

For hours at a time.

On the ice.

After dragging it god knows how far.

But, of course, all things are possible with Budweiser and schnapps, aren’t they? As long-time LIANTies may doubtless remember, I spent quite a lot of time in an ice fishing shack last winter, on a voluntary basis, even!

Purely for research purposes, of course, as my very first day spent snugly tucked inside, watching “the movie screen” in the floor and puffing on a cheap cigar and downing too much Dr. McGillicuddy’s, brought to me another one of those revelations for which I am fast becoming famous: that the sport of ice fishing is man’s ultimate triumph over nature.

Think about it: outdoors, biting wind, freezing cold, a bleak, pitiless expanse of ice and snow, glittering fiercely in the first rays of the rising sun, but indoors, indoors, separated from the elements only by a thin skin of neoprene or something, people sit in their street clothes, basking in the warmth of a propane heater (propane should maybe be added to The List, but the list is getting a bit long, don’t you think?), drinking, smoking, spilling smelly fish attractant all over themselves (and let me tell you, the perfume thereof lingers: my ice fishing buddy of last winter was terribly fond of trying to sneak up behind me to make me jump, but I could always whiff him coming) and staring down a little hole in the ice, jiggling a piece of plastic up and down, up and down, waiting for a fish to come, oblivious to nature’s fury outdoors… Rejoicing in all six of humanity’s greatest accomplishments… well, except maybe for #6, but then again, who really knows what goes on in those huts in the early morning sun or late at night by the light of a Coleman lantern?

But then again, who wants to know?

Monday, January 06, 2003


By Umberto Eco
(New York: Harcourt, Inc. 2002)
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

With every book of Umberto Eco's that I read, fiction or non, my impression that he and my tall-tale-telling great-great grandfather, "Old" Sherrod, are quite kindred souls grows stronger.

I reach this conclusion because, as in my ancestor's life, there is a pervading theme in several of Eco's novels in particular, in which a small group of overeducated ne'er-do-wells sit down together and have a laugh at the expense of their lessers by creating an intellectually respectable but nonetheless bullshit-laden confabulation that winds up causing trouble for all. It's the entire plot of Foucault's Pendulum, in which three employees of a publishing house paste together an amusing version of the Plan of the Templars out of the half-baked theories they pull from a hundred crackpot manuscripts submitted for publication. Two of the "conspirators" wind up dead and a third is hunted and haunted to the very end of the story by some of the very same crackpots he has mocked, who have come to believe that he has the true secret of the Templars and thus a means of ruling the world.

Baudolino takes this theme a little farther. Baudolino, a peasant's son with a gift for the gab that even I must envy – he picks up new languages within days, and within weeks can sell flood insurance to Saharans in their own speech – is adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor as an honorary son and is educated in his court until finally he is sent, fatally, to Paris, where he meets students with even stranger backgrounds and wilder imaginations than he. Charged at his patron's brother's deathbed with finding the legendary kingdom of Prester John (a Christian king, rumored to be descended from the Magi who visited Christ in Bethelehem, who was believed throughout the Middle Ages to rule over a fabulous land in the East beyond "the Three Indias) but embroiled in the emperor's struggles with the Pope and many Italian cities, Baudolino despairs of finding Prester John until he hits upon the idea of inventing him anew.

There ensue many amusing scenes in which he and his student buddies eat hashish (of course one of said student buddies was once a captive of the Old Man of the Mountain, and was nearly made one of the hashashim!), scribble away, and concoct a fictitious letter from Prester John to the emperor that could help put that pesky old pope in Rome in his place. The fellows outdo themselves in their invention of fabulous creatures, scenes of peace and plenty, and architectural design and decoration, until, in perhaps the funniest part of the book, Baudolino is ready to throttle someone who even uses the word "topaz" in his presence.

Of course this same band of foolishly inventive students, in rather a silly plot twist, wind up traveling themselves to find Prester John, which is kind of where, for me, the novel starts to fall apart: up to this point, it has been a fun historical romp as Baudolino engages in court politics, the laughable beginnings of what would someday be the Sorbonne, the founding of the city of Alessandria/Caesaria in Lombardy, and the on-going debate over whether or not Prester John is anything but a fairy story.

With the departure from Constantinople, though, the novel gets bogged down, at times just a dull travelogue, its romance and humor gone, at other times really dull as Eco indulges himself way too much even for my funky tastes in a seemingly endless argument between two characters over the existence of the vacuum. Eco here seems to be trying to bring back the amusing "school of comparative irrelevancies" schtick from Foucault's Pendulum (in which the three leads amuse themselves making up ridiculous subjects for an imaginary university; I know I would get a huge kick out of "Urban Planning for Gypsies," to say nothing of "Crowd Psychology in the Sahara") in direct and minute form, but the result is painful rather than pithy.

Furthermore, taking, it would seem, pages right out of C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eco drags us into the non-existent kingdom of Prester John itself, and we spend more than a year with the heroes as they live among one-footed "skiapods", "blemmyae" who have no head but whose faces and mouths adorn their chests, other, similarly freaky creatures, and a whole passel of eunuchs who run everything and perpetuate the fiction that somewhere far away Prester John himself is in control.

This section had the potential to be much more amusing than it was, as A) Prester John's kingdom turns out to be a real shithole, a city of monsters – each species of which subscribes to a different Christian heresy and never tires of sharing it – who have never mastered the use of metal and whose cuisine is beyond awful, and B) Prester John's heir presumptive has himself been raised on tales of the fabulous WEST from which Baudolino, et al, have come, and is eager to hear more about the fabulous riches, the walls of topaz and chalcedony, the unimaginable beasts, etc. I'm still pinching myself that Eco didn't go absolutely banantas with the ironic possibilities here, but the idea is no sooner mentioned than cast aside in favor of yet another tiresome court intrigue subplot I'm not even going to bother summarizing here.

The overall motif here is that Baudolino, a prodigious liar whose whoppers wind up coming true in various bizarre ways, himself no longer knows when he is fibbing and when he is telling the truth, and the narrative I have outlined here is, weirdly, conveyed in a time-honored fashion – a tale told to a would-be chronicler long after the fact, when the principles are supposed to be dead or disbursed* – so at the end we are supposed to be left uncertain how much suspension of disbelief is being required of us as readers. We are already expected to swallow a lot – here's this peasant boy, made a ministrial of Barbarossa himself, intimate correspondent to the emperor's wife, etc., but that is, after all, part and parcel of every historical novel. Are we or are we not, though, supposed to believe in the skiapods, the blemmyae, the hypatia, the basilisk?

We are, and yet we are not. As modern readers with at least some education (the opening passages, written in an entertaining polyglot in Weaver's translation of English, German, Latin and Greek, are sure to deter the more casual sort of reader), we know that these marvels never existed, but I think our sympathies are meant to be bound up with the chronicler to whom Baudolino is telling his story, for whom the possibility of a lizard whose gaze kills on sight is as likely as a race of women philosophers with the hindquarters of goats. Didn't Herodotus, the "Father of History," fill that history with second-hand accounts of (my favorite) giant fuzzy ants that mined gold on command? Yup.

And maybe it's as a medieval Herodotus that we are meant to take Baudolino, though that, unsatisfyingly, makes us smug know-it-alls laughing at the simpletons who did not see through his patter. This is sure to turn off the historal novel crowd, who turn to these books out of admiration and wistfulness and not in the spirit of mockery, though a certain loyal cadre of Eco fans (of which I am one, though I am not proud of it) who actually do get a charge out of 20-page-long debates over the vacuum or long yet trenchant narratives about the Nestorians will still like Baudolino, though it pales in comparison with Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

The later book, by the way, is also briefly re-created here when Eco inexpertly drags in a mystery sub-plot just before the departure to Prester John Land and then drops it until Baudolino has caught his chronicler up on everything and the story must go forward. No tension about whodunnit is ever created, though, and so this device is, alas, rendered intolerably lame, nowhere near the sublime and creepy historical mystery in the monastery which earned Eco his original fame as a novelist.

Some writers have dozens of good books in them, and Eco is one of these – if you count his compulsively readable essay collections, his semiotics texts, and his amazing look at America's cult of copies, Travels in Hyperreality, but I'm sad to say that his novels still really number only two.

* This narrative style, too, is clumsily implemented, as the direct dialogue between Baudolino and his chronicler, in which he speaks in the first person, is mixed in willy nilly with the typical "omniscient" third person narrator throughout.