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May 17, 1987|John Clute | Clute's new volume of reviews and essays on science fiction, "Strokes," will be published this fall by Serconia Press (Seattle)

For a while, it looks as though there may be a story in this book. A bumbling professor at Corinth University in Upstate New York comes to believe that he has been contacted by an extraterrestrial presence called Ohcnas, who has a tale to tell. He has murdered another alien named Nod. The bulk of "Kayo" is made up of his confession.

They may sound straightforward enough, but no one who reverses the letters of Ohcnas and Nod will be fooled for more than a moment. The confessor is Sancho Panza and the victim is Don Quixote. Through this extremely broad hint, and through a number of other nudges of the authorial elbow, James McConkey signals to the reader not to take anything literally. We are in Looking-Glass Country, like Alice.

Ohcnas, whose real name turns out to be Kayo Aznap, inhabits a Wonderland version of America governed by a President who has been in power for decades, under a succession of names. His current incarnation is as a canny old duffer. But always, beneath the surface, it is the same man, the same policies, the same world endlessly rehashed.

Theme parks cover the land, for Aznap has convinced the administration that their construction offers the best way to "make people value anew what they've complacently lived with for decades." Fences, therefore, are put around "ghettoes, disposal dumps with their leaky fluids, wilderness areas with their dead lakes and leafless trees, depressed farming regions" and so on, and admission is charged. Federal welfare is thus eschewed, and the "downtrodden" are made proud of "what they were."

Over this "Unitedian" paradise extends a vast dome, providing a defense against aggressors, and transforming the Associated States United themselves into a vast theme park. The President is satisfied. Life can go on in safety, except for the fact that Nod torments him with his quixotic visions of a finer humanity. Who, asks the President, will rid me of this Nod? Aznap is forced to volunteer.

Nod and Aznap--Don Quixote and Sancho Panza--meet in a pastoral parkland somewhere in the hinterlands. It will spoil no one's pleasure, for the murder is described in a teaser prologue to Aznap's long narrative, to mention the fact that Sancho eventually kills Nod, in a Wild West theme park, in front of an admiring audience. The message ends.

But the original professor, who closely resembles Nod, has disappeared. A second professor, who finds the text of "Kayo" in the first professor's computer, speculates about the disappearance in terms that make it clear that he thinks very little of Professor "M," or of his contrivance of a tale from outer space. Through this coy device, McConkey himself may be attempting to disarm any disappointment his readers may feel at finishing a tale that so glaringly fails to develop, that indeed ends where it began.

And no one is any the wiser. What any paraphrase of the thin narrative of "Kayo" must obscure is the fact that McConkey, himself a professor at Cornell University, has written an intensely academic, self-referential "post-modern" spoof of the satirical utopias more often found in European than in American science fiction. Perhaps because they are undemanding of either author or reader, mirror worlds proliferate in this sort of satire. The trouble with them is that no one--neither the author, nor the characters in the text, nor the reader--ever believes in them for a moment.

This exiguity of Aznap's contrived world suits Prof. McConkey's purposes very neatly, for he is much less interested in realities than he is in the textual games he plays with his mirrors, his references to Cervantes' masterpiece, his continual elbowing the reader with hints that "Kayo" is nothing but a lot of words signifying only that they are words.

But games of this sort collapse into tedium and nullity if they are not infused with some overriding passion--for life, for the act of fabrication, for words themselves. McConkey's obvious models for "Kayo" are books like Vladimir Nabokov's deeply elegiac "Pale Fire" or John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy." Both of these texts are self-conscious, arch, and self-referential; but both are energetic and full of love for the act of storytelling. "Kayo" on the other hand lacks energy, lacks love. Because it is only a game, it crumbles into dust.

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