This may be one of the most creative books I have ever read, but also one of the strangest and definitely one of the most horrific. It is way, way out of my comfort zone, but I am glad I stuck it out.
The book is probably best described as a fantasy, but it also has elements of horror, science fiction, alternate history, and is a very funny and astute social satire, in a sort of Vonnegut vein. I might even be tempted to throw in romance into the mix. It’s a disturbing book, with some of the worst images I’ve encountered in reading. But there’s also redemption, kindness, some laugh-out-loud moments, and lots of thought-provoking scenarios.
The plot centers around Carolyn Sopaski, a woman in her thirties who lives with eleven other people of around the same age, all under the thumb of a man they all call Father. They live sort of outside time and space, as opposed to in “America.” Each of the twelve is assigned to master a specific area of expertise called a catalog, the books for which are found in Father’s “library.” This not an ordinary library, and these are not your ordinary catalog collections you might find in an institution of learning; while some disciplines sound relatively normal, like medicine, math and engineering, or languages, there is also “murder and war,” liaising with animals, and something that might be called “rummaging around through dead people.” Through this knowledge, the librarians have infinite power. Thus, control over the library is contested every 60,000 years or so; Father’s hegemony is officially “The Fourth Age of the World.”
As the story begins, Father has gone missing, and they have all undertaken to employ their various skills to try to locate him. They are also going to ask the Emperor of Beasts to help, and for that purpose, they ask Caroline, who can speak “American” is asked to go into the world of America and bring back “an innocent heart.” She counters: “An innocent heart? In America?” But she doesn’t mind going out into America; for one thing, she really likes the guacamole.
In a bar, she picks up a person she deems to have a good heart, and explains to him what she needs him to do. Then all hell breaks out, in many senses. The Department of Homeland Security gets involved, and even the President of the U.S., who knows all about Father, and, like everyone else, is afraid of him.
In the end, we take a brief foray back to the beginning of the characters’ stories, and learn how they came to the library. One of these characters, in a hilarious tribute to Richard Feynman, decides to leave our universe, because he doesn’t understand it. And as for the rest, there is a new beginning, in ways I guarantee you could have never anticipated.
Evaluation: Not all the plot threads thrown out into the story were fleshed out (so to speak). But some aspects of the book – the social satire, the incredible originality – are outstanding. There are many things to love: the idea of a “heart coal”; how dead people pass the time (watching television, of course); funny contemporary cultural references (of course Wolf Blitzer is all over it when chaos erupts!); and then there is the way that even under the very, very worst of circumstances, it is love, or even just the memory of love, that can keep you sane.
Rating: 3.75/5 (and XX-Rated for sex and violent images)
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015