February 2008

Rosette Royale

fiction

The End of the World Book by Alistair McCartney

If it weren’t for the World Book Encyclopedia, there’d be no The End of the World Book. At least, that’s what Alistair, the narrator of this bare bones debut novel/memoir will have us believe.

It was as a young boy in Perth, Australia, that little Alistair fell asleep while reading the World Book. His mother interrupted this catnap, his “drool streaming onto the gold A of the book’s spine.” Or maybe she didn’t, because Alistair, now grown up and living in Los Angeles, still can’t shake the feeling that his mother was never able to rouse him. To this day, he remains convinced he’s still a child, dreaming away on top of the encyclopedia’s Volume A.

This bit of information opens the book, which is structured like -- you guessed it -- an encyclopedia. From A to Z we travel, covering “Abercrombie and Fitch,” “Dreams, Wet,” “Homosexual,” “Memory, First,” “Tolstoy, Leo,” “Witches,” “Zoo, The,” and hundreds of other entries in between. Along the way, we learn about Alistair, his childhood in Perth, his passion for teenage boys and daydreams of being a “white hip-hop bride” to Jay-Z, the rap artist. He’s also sweet on “Kafka, Franz,” whom he describes as his “type,” with cinema slasher “Krueger, Freddy” a close second. And he muses on suicide and tattooed tears and long-dead philosophers and all manner of disparate topics. Taken separately, each entry works as its own self-contained story; taken collectively, however, these musings feel held together by the weakest of threads, with most bearing very little connection to another. It’s this lack of cohesion that derails the book, sending it upon countless divergent paths that never manage to converge by story’s end.

Sure, Kafka gets mentioned on numerous occasions, and the narrator’s family members recur throughout (particularly in the M entries: see “McCartney, ______”), and the specter of HIV/AIDS rears its head at surprising moments. But the narrative components that drive a novel and literary nonfiction forward -- that readerly connection to characters, the crises that act as crucibles for a protagonist’s fate -- have been forsaken for a concept: that of encyclopedia as novel.

One wishes McCartney’s premise had worked, because there’s no denying he’s a gifted writer, his words moving smoothly, at times, lovingly across the page. “My heart is like Anna Karenina’s red handbag,” he writes in “Heart, The,” “which matches her plush red lips, the one she takes on the train after she’s first met Vronsky, on that night journey where she’s trying to suppress her delight, but she can’t. Let us be more like Anna Karenina.” (Except for her suicide, one imagines.) Whether writing of fascist dictatorships or Liberace, his words can be graceful, revealing faint glimmers into the life of the narrator. If only those glimmers were enough to illuminate this work and send you rushing back to its pages, to find out what makes Alistair who he is.

But there’s a clue to why the book never satisfies quite as much as you hope and it’s written on the first page. There, Alistair, recalling the 20-volume World Book of his youth, writes, “[W]henever I closed a volume and placed it back on the shelf with the others,  I felt distinctly let down upon reentering the world.” Those words wind up foreshadowing what ultimately ensnares this book as well: coming back to The End of the World, to pick up where you left off, you feel disappointed. Not so much in McCartney the writer, because you realize he’s an author who possesses true literary gifts. The disappointment, instead, arises because this encyclopedia never engages you as much as you would like, which is a misstep on the part of McCartney the novelist. If he’d have focused on drawing us into his characters and the arc of their lives, instead of steering us from A to Z, he might very well have spun a tale that lived up to the title. One hopes that before the world does indeed end, McCartney makes use of his talent and gives us a book that will linger a while longer.

The End of the World Book by Alistair McCartney
University of Wisconsin Press
ISBN: 978029926305
314 pages