Really three novellas strung together, sans schwerpunkten
, though--and linked tenuously by details of setting alone, with the exception of one character. The setting itself is now standard post-apocalypse.
Text opens with the continuity character, "a wiggling iota of black caught in the shimering haze," an iota that "materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway," and an iota that "suggested a tiny apparition spawned by heat demons" (3). The iota (I
, the ego of the author's dear Latin) turns out to be the Wandering Jew, who is first presented as a writing
, a gramme on the horizon. Much like how writing is the manifest mark on the page of the always already absent presence of the signified, so too the Wandering Jew is the manifest mark on the world of the always already absent presence of Christ. Our "iota" will return at the end of the first novella, just in time to get someone killed who tries to read him from afar (116). He'll show up again in the second novella, referrng to how "I've been staked, stoned, and burned" (170), an accusation read as "Or did his 'I' mean 'We' as in 'I, my people?'" (171), the "converse of the imperial 'We.'" He'll return for the final novella, under the alias of Lazarus (278).
Writing was once thought a poor copy of and inferior substitute for speech or thought, and some might think the Wandering Jew a poor copy of and inferior substitute for Christ--so, too, each novella presents us with ambiguous copies. The first, an illuminated copy of an electrician's schematic, drafted allegedly by the eponymous saint, is mistaken for the true writing (102)--a brilliant passage, invoking both Baudrillard's hyperreality thesis and Benjamin's aura proposition: our protagonist values the original because it is the original of his copy, whereas the antagonist values the copy for its supplemental components, regarding the copy as the original (& vv.).
The second occurs when a secular researcher proposes that "man was not created until shortly before the fall of the last civilization," and "was developed by a preceding race which became extinct" (231). The Simplification, then, was "a rebellion by a created servant species against the original
creator species," explaining "why present-day humanity seems so inferior to the ancients" (232) (emphasis mine). The current species is a copy that substitutes for the original, and yet adding to it new value--a true supplement, a Wandering Jew that has, at the very least, the virtue of actual existence over the supposed absent original. The picture is muddied, again, by conflicted interpretation, as the scholar's view is ridiculed by the priests as arising out of "a fragment of a play, or a dialogue," a "probable fable or allegory" (233). The priests at least are consistent, regarding Genesis as "more or less allegorical" (231).
The third comes in the form of the bicephalous tomato woman, whose dysfunctional second head is alleged to be requesting baptism, "an excrescence growing out of her shoulder" (274)--rather than a "simple case of Siamese twins [!]," this second head "wasn't there when Mrs. Grales was born" (id.). Of course, after the bomb drops, the original head "had grown gray with the impersonal mask of coma," but the copy interacts with the narrator (334). There's, once more, a difficulty in hermeneutics, as the narrator is dying--and yet he attempts to baptize the copy--she refuses and offers him the eucharist: "I do not need your first sacrament, Man, but I am worthy to convey to you this Sacrament of Life" (335). Some have accordingly taken the copy to be the Virgin. Hells if I know--it's not really an important question--except, here, that it's the copy that is capable.
The central writing of the setting should be Scripture, and yet it is not directly presented, showing up marginally as Latin or Hebrew--a refusal to substitute in an additional copy for prior copies, perhaps. An irony, considering how greatly the setting forefronts the value of literacy as against the Simpletons, but surely the author realized that his readers very probably do not read either Latin or Hebrew. We are neo-Simpletons, I suppose. Certainly, also, most readers now (if not at the time of composition) are likely to be unfamiliar with Roman doctrines prior to the 21st Ecumenical Council (I'm certainly not familiar).
Overall, the master figures of text find their center of gravity in certain modern linguistics concepts about writing and interpretation--not at all surprising, considering that the setting is very much concerned with the preservation of literacy--even to the point, in extremis
, of regarding "the principal reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually," even though persons undergo real suffering because of the doctrines of the bookleggers (197). Numerous other moments of interpretation and disputed interpretations, including interpretations that are presented as manifestly erroneous. Much might be said about all that, as well as for tracking the iota/ego through the volume (IIRC, there's an inversion of cogito ergo sum
at one point.)
That the volume ends with the collected writings of the world being shipped off-planet on a hidden ship with a handful of actual human persons, while the others burn, is suggestive of a certain fascist hyperliteracy. I never thought I'd suggest that too much reading is a bad thing--but there it is.
Otherwise, many little local gems tucked here and there, including much humor. Some folks have made much about the science v. religion or church v. state issues, but those are fairly blithely and ineptly presented. Some philistine commentary on politics and war also, included at no extra cost.
Recommended for heathen war parties out of Utah country, those who procure the noli molestare
as insurance against highwaymen, and persons with a negotiable and transferable apologetics.