What’s going on here? Something, or Someone appears to be breaking through. A dynamiting on July 4, 1899, presages the cataclysmic violence of the approaching century. Indeed, the sands of distant deserts are shifting in unprecedented ways.
Cyclones and tornadoes occur with alarming frequency, revolutions break out in Mexico and Russia, and Serbians and Turks dutifully slaughter one another. Jack the Ripper butchers London prostitutes. Nikolai Tesla’s dream of creating universally available inexpensive energy goes seriously awry. And in 1908 in Siberia, Kit is among those who observe the climatic phenomenon later known as the Tunguska Episode: a devastating and prolonged explosion apparently caused by a falling asteroid or comet.
Is the apocalypse on the way? That is perhaps the message brought by time travelers from the future, who (as the Chums, to whom they appear, gradually realize) are actually hoping to bypass 1893 and retreat to the comparative safety of the more distant past. Perhaps they aren’t the only ones — as readers may infer from this very novel’s willed resemblances to the matter and devices of juvenile fiction, spy and detective stories, westerns, science fiction and comic strips.
As scientists, military men and policy makers work on inventions and strategies designed to foil their enemies and ensure their survival (the lethal “Q Weapon,” the use of probability theory to predict terrorist violence, a biochemical “means to unloose upon the world energies hitherto unimagined”), a millenarian logic worthy of the Marx Brothers confirms the findings of the age’s self-appointed protectors: “The only way to address the problem of the State is with Counter-Death, also known as Chemistry.”
Still, there are those time travelers. There is the idealistic energy of the Chums, which contradicts the fatalism embodied by the Traverses, even if the flights of the Inconvenience appear to be describing directionless imperfect circles.
And there is the example of those who witnessed the strange events at Tunguska, which brought, along with bewilderment and dread, a “sense of overture and possibility,” and a stoical acceptance experienced as the power “to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day.”
Behind the usual scattering of stupid-jokes (“So, [an elephant] charges us. What do we do? Depends how much he’s charging”) and stomach-churning puns (an Icelandic eatery advertises its specialty “Meat Olaf”) lies something very like a threnody for a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Something out there (“What is coming to part the sky,” as we learn on the novel’s final page) knows that we may achieve our perverse goal, may think and invent and work our way out of trouble yet again.
Perhaps the answer lies in the mythical Asian paradise of Shambhala (the goal of Kit’s ultimate quest, which provides this unruly book’s best pages). More likely, it’s in ourselves. Readers who aim to decode all of the novel’s embedded and interwoven messages, like seekers after one nirvana or another, will probably have to settle for incomplete answers. And yet — wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — a novel designed to demonstrate exhaustively that nothing ultimately coheres nevertheless manages to fuse its dozens of disparate, baffling, ragged elements into an imposing and satisfying whole. There’s mystery for you.
Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine, and writes regularly for the Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer, Kirkus Reviews and other publications.