A genre-bending romp.
September 21, 2020 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Review with 4 comments
It’s difficult to explain, without sounding like a lunatic, what David Hollander’s new novel “Anthropica” is strictly speaking “about.” So here are some of the specific things that it is at least momentarily about, which gives us a place to start: How it’s impossible to know if free will can exist. How dumb tenure is. How sausages are the most dominant expression of meat.
The cast of characters are just as eclectic. There are maniacal robots who are obsessed with chess, vexed by pornography, and say things like “you make of the beautiful game a house of disease.” There are swarms of carrion birds who are engaged in both literal and metaphorical warfare with totemic crabs. There is a death cult made up of oblong weirdos who are captivated by the more vapid points of The Matrix. And, fittingly, there are people who care way too much about ultimate frisbee.
To cover all of this (and a lot more), “Anthropica” veers wildly through time, narrative, character, and formal structure to tell an oddball story of a crackpot plot to rid the universe of itself. If that sounds like a lot, the work is well aware. The reader is addressed head on, with lines like “The sheer volume of errata in the text you are about to assimilate is massive enough to overload the processors of all but the most advanced organisms,” words shaped by an authorial tongue that knows it should be placed squarely in cheek but can’t help seeing some truth in what it’s saying.
Through formal and narrative invention, the collective monologues, mysteries, and miseries of “Anthropica” ask how humans are supposed to deal with the crushing burden of a general, constant awareness of all things, all the time. Of knowing that the sheer amount of stuff in the world is so vast that one cannot possibly make sense of it all without losing their mind, or at least losing all capacity for joy.
For several of the novel’s characters, and for many of you reading this, the answer is to play ultimate frisbee.
This may well be the author’s answer as well. Hollander is an accomplished ultimate player in addition to being a published novelist and a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He won a national title with NYNY and spent most of the late ’90s and early 2000s bouncing around on teams you may recognize, like Pike, or teams you may be surprised to even know existed, like “Cojones” (who made semis at Nationals!). He also is credited with inventing mini, at least in a standardized format.
Ultimate features heavily in “Anthropica,” as a main character named Finn Daily is a starting O-line handler on his club team, Truck Stop Glory Hole. Yes, this is a world where the G.H. still exists, as does the UPA. However, this world’s Truck Stop are from New York, not DC, and play in the Northeast region along with, as though against god, Furious George. Even the stuff that seems familiar in this novel’s universe is still presented at odd, dreamlike angles.
Hollander uses his character’s obsession to convey a level of specificity about the sport so as to make it seem insane. In one bravura page-long run-on sentence, he manages to cover everything from suspect pre-game dietary habits of ultimate players, to the whole Wham-O/Frisbee controversy at the heart of the sport’s dumb name, to the significance of the impending Nationals in Sarasota, to lamentations of Grand Masters players about the three finger flick grip. Any reasonable person would assume that everything they had just read was some fictional, impossibly eccentric subculture that David Foster Wallace created in a lab. One that surely does not actually exist in real life. And yet…
Finn’s, and ultimate’s, primacy in the novel present as one of the more reflective elements of the work. The character is written with a stream-of-anxiety approach that maps onto the larger themes of the novel and whatever worldview of the author you want to pull out from the text. Finn’s internal monologue portrays an entirely disquieted figure who is equally anxious about his own failures on the field as he is about his strong suspicions that the universe means nothing, and quite frankly may not exist.
Not every ultimate player in “Anthropica” is as afflicted by the disease of postmodernism, but those free of such creeping doubts are depicted as more or less a Florida Ultimate player from 2008. To wit: “I was a motherfucking Boy Scout and I dominated that shit. Little League? Dominated. Pop Warner? Dominated. The President’s fucking Fitness Test? I owned that bullshit. SATs? Okay, I did not dominate the SATs but I totally dominated college which is where I discovered the activity of Maximum fucking Domination, Ultimate Fucking Frisbee. It’s like it was dreamed up just for me. It’s not even a fucking sport, just a bunch of domination-ready left-wing douchebags dreaming of life on the other side of the fucking bayonet that has always fucking stabbed their guts out.”
Hollander writes convincingly that any ultimate player who is not actively wracked by the dissonance of how much they care about something that is nonsense is a) delusional, but also b) probably going to beat the person who does spend energy worrying about it.
It is sections like that which make it clear that the inclusion of ultimate as a major plot device isn’t merely an aesthetic nod. The borderline irresponsible level of commitment and sacrifice to something as facially unrewarding as ultimate is the beating dark heart of the novel. As we follow the story’s long tangled arch forward and backward in time, Finn’s journey from Sectionals to Regionals to Nationals propels the narrative. It is seeming completely inconsequential next to, say, genocidal robots waiting to escape from a lab and erase all organic life from the earth, but imbued with the meaning that characters in the novel invest into it.
“Anthropica” is packed with big ideas about life and the universe and formal conventions of fiction. But underlying all of these ideas is a struggle with the concept of choice: which choices we get to make, how we come to make them, what consequences (if any) there are of choices, and what consequences stem from believing in the ability to make a choice at all.
The choice ultimate players make to spend so much of our time, money, and energy on something that is seemingly so unimportant in the grand scheme of things is squarely under the microscope here. But “the grand scheme of things” is the real target of “Anthropica,” and there is a sympathy here for anyone courageous enough to make choices in the face of a vast, unknowable universe. A brief exchange midway through the novel clarifies this dissonance, or offers as much clarity as anything dealing in such contradictions can.
“‘Remember,’ Lazlow said, ‘everything you are, everything you think, everything you do, is completely and utterly meaningless. But..’ He paused as Finn breathed deeply in and out, feeling the slick polypropylene of his Truck Stop Glory Hole jersey chafing against his nipples. ‘… it is very important that you do it.'”