The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue

Playing the Beautiful Game: David Hollander’s Anthropica

David Hollander
(Animal Riot Press, 2020)

A grubby mathematician whose wife copulates with everyone but him, Stuart Dregs, has discovered an impossible truth: the human race depletes the Earth’s resources every 30 days, and therefore life—everything in the knowable cosmos—must persist only because we want it to. Dregs’s theory of creation-as-desire powers the premise of Anthropica, a new novel by David Hollander that amplifies the imminent dangers of global warming while destabilizing the familiar patterns of both modern life and mainstream fiction, such as the notion that characters (humans) are driven by a sense of purpose toward a climax (a life-defining event such as marriage).

The climax of Anthropica would be an apocalypse if not for a deliberate loophole in its narrative logic. Consider the case of Laszlow Katasztrófa, the terrorist mastermind behind Exit Strategy, a movement to end world suffering by eradicating the virus known as humankind. He detonates North Carolina’s largest repository of human sperm:

“Crazy,” said waitress Matilda (Matty) Blinth. “85 degrees and all of a sudden it was snowing.” Miraculously, no one was injured in the blast, which blew out windows in a two-mile radius and sent a cloud of smoke, ash, and semen soaring over the normally quiet Denny’s and then deeper into the neighborhoods surrounding Route 54. Sperm reportedly rained from the skies as far distant as Carrboro, where participants in a pro-life rally were quick to call foul.

That no lives are lost in this debacle suggests a force equal and opposite to the impossible findings of Stuart Dregs—that Laszlow’s apocalyptic visions may never come to fruition unless he can manage to eliminate desire itself. The notion of causal determinism—that whatever is going to happen will happen regardless of the appearance of free will—steers Laszlow through his failed attempts to “conjure up scenarios of a world without anyone who could conjure up scenarios.”

Hollander is well aware of the total failure of reason corrupting his story’s design, evidenced by his characters’ numerous acknowledgements of infinite regress (“She [Grace Kitchen] taught fiction writing to writers who sought to teach fiction writing to writers”); his use of recursive imagery (see: the ominous vultures exponentially proliferating on the outskirts of most scenes); and concepts such as the God Fractal: this is Finn Daily’s observation that all matter is composed of a single substance which can be expressed as a pattern endlessly repeating itself. Given this intrinsically exhausting organizing principle of self-generation ad nauseum, it is easy enough to see why Laszlow is anti-procreation and why he echoes the Hindu teachings of Lord Krishna: “Everything you do is completely meaningless, but it is very important that you do it!”

Such absurdity could disarm a scrutinizing gaze on the subplot involving a trifecta of giant super-intelligent robots, who just might be the solution to the problem of an indestructible world. Jaro, Kuzo, and The Great and Powerful Fexo are locked away in an underground hangar, making something like small talk and playing “the beautiful game”:

: f5.

: Rd1.

: Be6. Ambivalence is a dangerous language-token, Kuzo.

: They are all dangerous language-tokens, Jaro. The language is designed to prevent the expression of the One True Thing. It is built on non-agreeing concepts like hope and surrender, belief and cynicism, the pursuit of sameness and the pursuit of otherness. Not to mention all the pronouns. As if there were more than one substance. It is … absurd? That is the token flashing across my language-visor.

: Ridiculous.

: Meaningless.

: Making it of course doubly contemptible that our creators would have burdened us with the most primitive method of communication.

Unlike the other robots, Fexo is fascinated by human endeavors such as storytelling, a glitch-like obsession that yields interludes of smut that fully imagine how a machine would narrate sexual activity. The peripheral presence of these robots, especially Fexo, steadily complicate Laszlow’s Exit Strategy while making the familiar strange again.

Recruits to Exit Strategy include “advanced paralytics and Stage 5 invalids and one burn victim whose face was so ridiculous that even Laszlow had trouble holding the young man (or woman’s) gaze,” a detail which should further illustrate the novel’s propensity for unapologetically dark humor. As a facially disfigured burn survivor with a complex disability, I saw an opportunity here to feel offended by Hollander’s play with identity politics. However, I recognized this moment and others like it as bold works in service of the investigation of desire and what it means to be human, targeting a central contradiction posed by the text: that no one on this crowded Earth is special. Indeed, no character in Anthropica can be called the main one—not even the sporty man-child who Laszlow deems “The One.”

Perhaps this is why it takes 156 pages to fully meet the character who pens the prologue, and why they only return much later in the third-person point-of-view. “Sexless, raceless, cultureless, Joyful Noise was a physical conundrum.” Joyful Noise sets the stage of the novel as a battleground between competing authors such as Fexo and their (Joyful’s) rival Grace Kitchen, a man-hating nihilist whose failed novel Human Be Gone! has captured the attention of Laszlow. Joyful self-identifies as the one and only true author, an ancient being worn thin from “keeping the universe from collapsing in on itself for thousands for years.” Until Joyful returns in the 23rd chapter (and thereafter), the novel takes turns following seemingly unrelated characters with a variety of formal approaches that will surely test the reader’s patience (e.g. transcripts of interrogations that are missing the questions; news features in lieu of pivotal events; and one truly nightmarish episode of a talk show that is reminiscent of a deus ex machina chapter from Hollander’s debut novel, L.I.E.).

There lurks a sense that the universe of this text verges on its own collapse, that the reader’s desire is the only thing holding it together. Yet, the absence of any sustained lens or favoritism toward a protagonist deeply matters for the truth that Anthropica is interested in. As do the implicit connections that emerge as subtle echoes divorced from their contexts by more pages than short-term memory should allow, challenging the reader to pay close attention to whatever seems superfluous or apropos of nothing.

The many characters of Anthropica mirror each other to the point of anonymity, prompting the question: “whose world do we belong to?” Conflicting loyalties trigger a simultaneous expanse of doubt and clarity about the narrative stance and agenda. Microcosmic apertures begin to open and close: Kitchen’s view from a moving train—of a community gathered at dinnertime despite their separate houses—rematerializes as a panoramic sweeping of visions across the world according to Henry, a philosopher with locked-in syndrome. Later, a flashback throws these analogous phantasmagoric reels into relief: the boy version of Kitchen’s father (who is strikingly akin to Henry) sits on a riverside train that has collided with something on the tracks and he must look to a kayaker for insight into the accident, who tells him, “No single perspective could yield the entire experience, but taken together these points in the triangle created something strong and solid.” The reader learns to look through windows that look through windows, revealing not merely a never-ending chain of competing authors but also readers of the metafictional text(s) that constitute Anthropica. A narrative stance that initially seems overinflated with omniscience ultimately shrinks to a pinhole aimed at the paradox that is consciousness: how every limited perspective contains something of the unlimited whole. What also happens in the space between the aforementioned mirrorings: a paragraph becomes a chapter becomes a sentence becomes the novel.

Since Anthropica is shaped like a fractal—recursive in its enfolding parts—it possesses an air of infinity. We should read Anthropica multiple times in order to fully appreciate the endless possibilities of its intricately woven resonances and negative spaces. Perhaps most importantly, the invisible armature linking the chapters reflects the faith required for the co-creation of language and meaning—faith that an intended message will transcend the time-space continuum and be received by someone, becoming a part of their psychic landscape and advancing the collaborative story that is human existence.

Lovers of science fiction and postmodernism will trace a lineage of influences across these 475 pages: Philip K. Dick, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, David Foster Wallace, Mark Danielewski. But David Hollander is the only fiction writer I’ve known to take an endlessly illogical premise to its logical end, encoding a totality of vision into every unit of meaning and revealing more about our working sense of reality than some writers of nonfiction. The labors of his craft will push even skilled readers to check their abilities, since every flash of lucidity is merely a false awakening from his enchantment. To survive Anthropica is to abandon a great many lies we tell ourselves, replacing them with the hauntingly unspeakable facts of our complexity, especially our capacities for love and destruction.

I’d call that “the beautiful game.”


Dina Peone

Dina Peone teaches nonfiction at the University of Chicago. She is at work on a memoir about escaping a house fire with severe burns when she was a morbid teenager.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues