[Full disclosure: One of the authors, Christopher Robinson, and I were in a class (on Joyce, if you’re interested) in graduate school together, and we have a friend or two in common.]
Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy (yes, you’re hearing the Holden Caulfield in that one) are Seattle college graduates who, as “the Encyclopaedists” host huge house parties with arch themes (“monocularity” and “pupa,” for example). On the night of what turns out to be their last party, Montauk is preparing to tell his best friend that they won’t be in Boston for grad school together that fall—Montauk will be deploying to Iraq with his National Guard unit instead—and Hal in turn is trying to figure out how to distance himself from his unpredictable girlfriend, an artist named Mani.
Over the next year, we watch as Montauk, Corderoy, and Mani each struggle to adapt to new environments and new ways of seeing each other. Corderoy finds himself lost and unhappy in his classes and with his brilliant and driven roommate Tricia. After an accident, Mani searches for a way to make art again. And most urgently, Montauk tries to stay alive—and keep his men alive—in a Baghdad that is crumbling around them.
The four characters cross paths in sometimes-contrived ways, but their tangled relationships give War of the Encyclopaedists the wide-angle lens that makes it so interesting. Novels about war often point to the daily absurdities of military life, but when juxtaposed with the absurdities of South End art openings, they appear in a whole new light. Still, the novel’s interest is in both the serious and the shallow, with what happens when the best of intentions come up against human frailties.
Montauk and Corderoy keep in touch not through letter-writing or e-mailing, but by editing a Wikipedia page they’ve made about themselves (the book is set in 2004, when Wikipedia was in its early stages). It’s very meta, but the use of the conceit is limited, which means that it packs a punch when it appears.
War of the Encyclopaedists moves quickly, shifting perspectives among the characters. In general, the writing styles of the two authors blend together seamlessly, though occasionally it does feel as if one is reading one author rather than the other. The novel’s style tends more toward the experimental as the book goes on, which I think is promising for the duo’s future efforts; I’m very interested to see where their model of collaborative authorship takes Mr. Robinson and Mr. Kovite when their subject matter isn’t autobiographically inflected.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.