Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.
The book opens with the untimely death of a prehistoric horse. This end, however, is really the beginning: “Death exists, but only in a practical microscopic sense,” the quirky omniscient narrator intones. “Biologically, one cannot distinguish between life and death; the transition is a continuum.” And so, ever so slowly (over fifty-five million years), the heart of this horse is transformed into a drop of crude oil. Once refined, “our drop” is pumped into the engine of a Ford Pinto. It then combusts, becomes exhaust, and a few hours later, transforms one last time into a carcinogen. And that’s Machine in a nutshell.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it. Ostensibly, this is a novel about unlikely intersections, about the connection between the death of one horse, millions of years ago, and the meeting of two young strangers—a skeptical biology student named Clarissa, and a one-armed, immigrant oil worker from Azerbaijan—on a Utah highway in 1975. Rather than settle for a bland Everything-is-Connected collage, however, Machine reduces everything from characters to biological phenomena to their smallest parts, earliest origins, and most mechanical functions. The narrator, taking the patient tone of a kindly professor giving a physics lecture to English students, deconstructs the process through which organic life-forms decay, fossils become fuel, crude oil is refined, and LSD interacts with serotonin receptors.
Consider the following description of developing cancer:
Cancer is both a slow and fast-moving disease. The second the carcinogenic agent penetrates the healthy cell, it launches a frenzied attack on the double helix of the hereditary genes, but decades can pass before external symptoms manifest themselves. In Clarissa’s case, less than one minute passed from when the soot particles hit the inner surface of the bronchiole to when benzapyrene, the carcinogenic agent, buried itself in a specific epithelium cell where it programmed the death of the cell, apoptosis, thus rendering the cell immortal—that is, transforming it into a cancer cell. However, thirty whole years would pass until she was diagnosed with “metastasized adenocarcinoma (stage III).”
In the presence of these entertaining (and informative) tangents, plot truly ceases to matter. The reader can simply become immersed in the ebb and flow of the narrative, sharing in Machine’s wonderment in the natural world, in the connectivity of living beings and the utterly meticulous and lengthy process of ‘Becoming.’ This is a novel in which God is truly in the details.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .
I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .