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.
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Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .