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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Motorman by David Ohle

I came to read this novel because I heard Brian Evenson recommend it during a talk he gave at the Fiction Collective 2 conference I attended last summer. Am I glad I read it.
It was first published by Knopf in 1972, but Soft Skull brought it out again in 2004. I read the original version: there was a barely touched copy at a local college library.
The book enjoyed cult status for a long time, and it is not hard to see why. It is close to wholly original, and it deals with a dystopia more gripping to me than the prophecies of either Orwell or Huxley. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
The book is divided into 109 sections over its 116 pages. Some sections are only a few sentences long. But, as with many if not most books that could be dubbed 'science fiction' on some level, the setting is perhaps the most important factor.
Ohle never tells us anything about this setting. He simply lets it sink in. Apparently, early in his life Moldenke, the main character, lived in an atmosphere similar to the one we inhabit: there was only one sun and one moon, people did not have to wear special goggles, and people had only one heart.
By the time Moldenke is more mature, artificial suns and moons compete with the real one, 'jellyheads' rather than people do a lot of the work, and, most bizarrely, he has four hearts, three of which came from sheep. And there is a river so thick and polluted it can be walked on.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to fully orient ourselves to the timeline in this book. There are a lot of unnanounced flashbacks and, to make matters more complicated, undated letters that could come from any number of places on the time line. I have figured out a rough timeline: perhaps a future literary critic will complete the job (and I have no doubt there will be a lot of critics writing on this book).
1. Childhood - "they kept him in a crumbling home."
2 &3 - Working as a bug taster at a lab run by a jellyhead named Featherfighter - Working at Tropical Gardens. Meets Cock Roberta, the love of his life.
4. - Fights in "mock war." He agrees to sacrifice a minor broken bone and the continued ability to feel a list of feelings, including it would seem love.
5. After war he and Cock Roberta exchange letters, but never seem to meet again. Moldenke tries valiantly to feel again, but fails.
6. Kills two jellyheads
7. I am a little unsure about this, but I believe Bunce, a hardboiled talker who seems to control most everything in this more and more artificial world, imprisons Moldenke for the crime.
8. Bunce calls Moldenke on the phone repeatedly and threatens him. A Dr. Burnheart, who implanted the sheeps hearts in Moldenke, tells him how to escape.
9. He wants to 'go South' across 'The Bottom' to where he believes Burnheart is
10. Stops by Shelp, the weatherman's place. Learns that Bunce orders the sort of weather he wants, and Shelp is to announce it.
11. Runs into Roquette. He helps him walk across the Jelly River. They get on a boat that seems to be like a cruise ship. Cock Roberta is on the ship but they never meet up.
12. Things get really crazy: the boat seems to be, at the same time, a boat, a vehicle on a street, a vehicle in a tunnel, and so forth.
13. The end, which I won't divulge.
Let's just say that this book is about the overwhelming artificiality that threatens our very human dignity. In the end, poor, lonely Moldenke, makes a stab at reasserting his dignity. It might not work, but the attempt alone is enough: it proves that Bunce and his crew have not completely destroyed who we are.

1 comment:

  1. Richard Nash (Soft Skull) ":

    FYI, we published The Age of Sinatra, the sequel in 2004, and then, in
    turn we're doing The Pisstown Chaos in July. To try to help get the
    word out about The Pisstown Chaos (sales of David's books have
    been...slow...), we've created a free ad-supported eBook. Here's the