Best Novel of 2013: Ken Kalfus’s Equilateral

http://fletcherco.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/equilateral.jpgI’ve been writing on this book for a while now for my second book project, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by it—which is why this post. I know this was once supposed to be a theory blog (and I’ll say something on Slajov Žižek’s three latest books, all 2014, sometime soonish), and this is more like a review again. But bear with me, two or three people who actually read this.

Let’s give you a brief recap and few data points, the data points first: Equilateral is a very economical 207 pages short and four main characters. It is set in 1894-5 in Egypt, where, under the supervision of astronomer Sanford Thayer, the so-called Mars Concession is excavating a humungous equilateral triangle. Thayer believes (as do many of his colleagues) that there is a civilization on Mars, as proven by the excavation of the so-called “canals,” which resists the planets growing desertification and, given their landscaping prowess, must be old and powerful. Thayer wants to gain their moral and technological insight to prevent Earth following in Mars’s footsteps; the Concession wants Mars’s technology and markets. Assisting Thayer are Miss Keaton, his assistant and the manager of the project; Ballard, the chief engineer; and the Egyptian servant girl Bint (not actually her name, as we learn later).

Kalfus’s novel is inspired by the controversy over Martian civilization following Giovanni Schiaparelli’s real-life “discovery” of canals, which led to a veritable Mars-craze in the late 19th century until it was discovered to be something of a collective hallucination: an initial failure of optics compounded by the willingness to see what was not there. But the novel is more than a mere creative retelling of this craze: it is a meditation on the imagination, on the possibility of utopia, on the failure and success of transnational communications, on imperialism and power, on seeing and believing, on hope and loss. This is what’s the most astounding achievement to me: the sheer economy with which Kalfus manages to cram so much into so little space and such sparse but eloquent language—and with nary any action at all. It would be unfair to say that nothing really happens in the novel (there’s a Mahdi raid on the construction site, and of course the excavation itself), but what’s important is not so much what happens, as what is being thought. Thayer sees Mars as the possible source for all kinds of utopian possibilities, most of which remain mere gestures, but about which to think forces him to reappraise his entire world-view: if initially he holds with the Spencerian conception of social evolution, by the end of the novel, the possibility that Mars has taken a different track: a track that, quite possibly, includes some form of socialist polity.

There’s a variety of fascinating vignettes that say much about the human condition in few words: there’s the scene where Thayer elaborates expansively on the metaphysical and historical qualities of the equilateral triangle, only for Ballard to tell him that it’s “bloody difficult to dig, though”; there’s this scene:

“Merrikh,” he says, indicating the planet [Mars] again, and then he points to the ground. “Earth.”

She says, “Masr.” Masr is the Arabic word for Egypt. She pronounces it with a Bedouin drawl.

He corrects her gently. “Earth.”

“Uurth, Masr. Masr, Urrth.” She smiles again, believing that she’s learned another word of English.

Perhaps if Thayer knew the Arabic name of our planet he would set her right. But he doesn’t know it and the thought occurs to him that a separate word for Earth, analogous to other planetary names, presumes an awareness that Earth, Mars, and Saturn are analogous entities, similar spheres similarly hurtling through the same celestial environment, an airless, matterless medium know as “space.” It also presumes an awareness that other political and national entities have been established on Earth, apart from Egypt. (57)

Which says much few words: about nations as constructs that may be impossible to translate even here on Earth (not to mention to Martians), about the difficulties of communications between well-meaning people.

It’s an almost perfect book down to its ending, which refuses (I think) to decide on its central question: whether or not the Martians really exist. We’re left with an ambivalent image that could be either Martians arriving or Bint giving birth, and the possibility that anything that Thayer hopes for for contact with Mars will come true (a true betterment of the human condition); or that it will not, and that everything that the 20th century has to offer, from World Wars to Cold Wars, will come to pass. Yet whatever will come to pass: Equilateral sets forth a sense of hope that there’s nothing inevitable about these events, and that by extension, we should question our own inevitable events, our own necessary futures.

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