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BOOK REVIEW

What's missing in the family encyclopedia

The End of the World Book; A Novel; Alistair McCartney; Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press: 306 pp., $26.95

April 08, 2008|David Ehrenstein | Special to The Times

"This encyclopedia is a dream," author Alistair McCartney declares right at the start of what he formally bills a novel. And in a sense this giddy literary jape is all three. Its form is that of an eccentric encyclopedia, with entries including "Head Lice," "Hummel Figurines," "Sex Addiction in Antiquity" and "Plane Crashes, the History of." Its content is quasi-fictional with elements (there's no real plot or characters to speak of) that sport a woozy dream-like logic to their assemblage. And this in turn relates to McCartney's coolly casual observations about sex which "is, after all, just a variation on dream." As for the title, "The End of the World Book," it's less apocalyptic than you might think. For McCartney's point of departure is the World Book Encyclopedia. "The End of the World Book" is its addenda; filled with entries that the most hallowed of suburban middle-class family encyclopedias somehow left out.

"The first encyclopedia was created by Aristotle in 322 BC; it was an attempt to bring together all the ideas of the time, but he also made things up," McCartney notes. But those tomes we know today have no particular author -- culling their information from a wide variety of sources that are then alphabetically organized. "The End of the World Book" just has McCartney -- singular and specific a writer as all get-out.

Born in Australia, he has for the last 14 years been what polite society refers to as the "life-partner" of noted Los Angeles performance artist Tim Miller. McCartney regards the term with icy disdain: "I'll refer to my boyfriend as my insurgent." The literary "insurgency" that "The End of the World Book" proceeds from is almost entirely French -- the not-quite-novels of Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski, Raymond Queneau and Louis-Rene des Forets invariably called recits (accounts).

One thinks especially of "Exercises in Style," a 1947 compendium by Queneau in which a bus ride is recounted 99 different ways. There is however, one notable English-language precedent for McCartney -- the writings of artist/aphorist Joe Brainard whose "I Remember" series mixed nostalgia with puckish wit in haiku-like recollections such as "I remember 'come as you are' parties. Everyone cheated," and "I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts."

McCartney's thoughts are more expansive. He writes of a Gertrude Stein who would "catch glimpses of the Holocaust, waiting there for her behind her endless sentences: a void so great it could not be covered up by any amount of repetition, one so vast it threatened to swallow up all her things" and notes of the so-called golden age of the sexually freewheeling 1970s, "The golden age actually begins in 1981, and then, not confined to the space of a decade, stretches backward like a long gold streak, far away from us, far away from disco, all the way back to antiquity." By contrast, in the 1980s, he claims, "pocket calculators were the height of eroticism."

What "The End of the World Book" aims for, and often achieves, is an interrogation of literature -- how we think about writing, what we choose to write about and why. "Anna Karenina" rather than a tragic romance, is for McCartney "a book of blushing." What interests him about Marie Curie is not the discovery of radium, but the stylish dress she so often wore. Henry James evokes for him not literary style but "a cholo by the name of Ricky." Goethe inspires comments on heavy metal music, and Kafka the rise of gay pornography in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. "I would say I've been a Communist ever since I was about nine or ten and saw a picture in the World Book of an Eastern Bloc gymnast." Clearly the much celebrated gay lit of David Leavitt and Edmund White isn't postmodern enough for him.

Born in 1971, McCartney grew to adulthood in shadow of AIDS, which he dryly observes "would probably win the prize for the most interesting disease." Moreover he's well aware it's not the only tragedy of modern times. "Here at the 'End of the World Book' we firmly believe that we must keep categorizing and that this is the only thing keeping the world, and us, from ending."

And what if the world does truly come to an end? "God will simply strip us of all our irony. . . . Unable to bear the literal, we will die almost immediately from exposure to the world's day-glo elements, its harsh beauty." An impressive image. But after reading this book one can't imagine McCartney dying from contact with beauty, however harsh, or operating without the irony that gives his recit its delightfully peculiar kick.

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David Ehrenstein is the author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998."

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