Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True Paperback – Mar 22 2011
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Praise for Enigmatic Pilot:
The language is superb, the subject deliciously original and the story like nothing else I've read. This book is hilariously funny and grim at the same time. I feel privileged to read it. There's a new star up there. Kris Saknussemm is a brilliant writer. Enigmatic Pilot could have been written by a stripped down Pynchon. It's not just tasty -- it's delicious.
"Enigmatic Pilot is a rip-roaring trip through a fantastic mid-19th century America...written in the spirit of Mark Twain's novelistic journeys."
-The Wall Street Journal
Kris Saknussemm's Enigmatic Pilot, with its shades of Twain and Melville's Confidence Man, its own unique style and vision, sense of humor and remarkable characters, is a balls out adventure story, a fascinating "historical" account of the Civil War era, a love story, and a mirror within which a reader might glimpse the current state of the union.
A tapestry of wonders, a new American myth.
Praise for Kris Saknussemm’s Zanesville
“Part picaresque, part brilliantly inventive black comedy, Zanesville is one of the most creative, edgy, and entertaining novels sf has spawned in a decade.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A savage, fiercely intelligent satire.”—January magazine
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Time of the End
Where does the time go? The year is 1844. Karl Marx is in Paris playing indoor tennis with Friedrich Engels, who has just authored The Condition of the Working Class in England. In Iceland the last pair of great auks have been killed, while in the booming and embattled United States the first minstrel shows are packing in crowds in the East, as former slaves Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass lecture on abolitionism, and hosts of eastern white folk are packing up and heading west via the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. War looms with Mexico, the lunatic bankrupt Charles Goodyear will receive a meaning- less patent for the vulcanization of rubber, the shrewd bigot Samuel Finley Breese Morse takes credit for inventing the telegraph, and a deluded mob murders the deluded visionary Joseph Smith, Jr., and his brother Hyrum in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. Many people are asking themselves, “What hath God wrought?”
One such individual in Zanesville, Ohio, was just straggling out of a peculiar iron sphere, about the size of three B?&?O hopper cars, which sat balanced in a cradle of railroad ties ringed at a distance of ten feet by an assemblage of timepieces that ranged from hand-rolled, graduated beeswax candles to sundials of various descriptions, a tribe of hourglasses, and an assortment of borer-eaten cuckoo clocks—along with a once dignified but now gaunt and weather-faded grandfather clock that leaned into its own shadow like an old coot trying not to nod off in the middle of a story.
The bantamish man of apparently mixed breed wedged himself out of a fire grate–size hatch in the sphere and fished a pocket watch from his overalls. The watch casing was silver, but it had the dirty, worn fog of lead now. Still, the gears and springs gave out a satisfying report, as loud as the grasshoppers in the grain bin and as strong and regular as a healthy heartbeat.
“Hephaestus,” he heard a woman’s voice insinuate.
The name mingled with the call of the clocks, which began to chime and ping and cluck, not quite at once but close, followed a silent moment later by an answering echo from inside the sphere, which caused the man’s paprika-colored face to brighten for an instant. He heaved himself down to the ground, mopping his slick scalp with a handkerchief, and glanced up at the slanting August sun.
“Hephaestus . . .” he heard his wife, Rapture, call gently again.
The man, who was now standing in the circle of timepieces, looked scrawnier than the bulk of his cranium would have suggested. A scarecrow that had turned into a blacksmith, you might have said, and this would not have been far wrong. His name was Hephaestus Sitturd, and he was indeed skilled as a blacksmith, as well as a wood turner, cooper, tinker, and carpenter of great ingenuity (but no discipline); he was also a middling gunsmith, a dedicated fisherman, a maker of moonshine, a spinner of yarns, and a rhabdomancer (water diviner) of some repute. His white father had been the master mechanic re- sponsible for the operation of a large cotton gin in Virginia un- til a religious vision prompted a change of career to Baptist preacher, a vagabond calling he set out to pursue with his son Micah Jefferson Sitturd, following the loss of the boy’s mother to peritonitis. This led to various digressions as a keelboat pilot, dance-hall tenor, tent boxer, and garrulous rainmaker. Along the way he met a half-breed Shawnee woman who was related to the great Chief Tecumseh and fathered another son, to whom he gave the name Hephaestus because of one slightly clubbed foot.
This clubfooted boy was the man who now stood in the Ohio sun beside the hollow iron sphere he had forged and hammered together himself. The rainmaker minister and his half-Indian bride were long dead, and Hephaestus had been left with their crumbling ruin of rabbit-weed farm on the outskirts of Zanes?ville, overlooking the Licking River. Half brother Micah was believed to be a Texas Ranger who had taken a Comanche wife, but Hephaestus had not heard from him in years. His family now consisted of his wife, Rapture, and their son, Lloyd, and they were such a blessing to him that he thought of little else—save his inventions.
Unfortunately, he was afflicted with that American misconception that the world was in constant, dire need of a better mousetrap, and that he was just the man for the job. He had, in fact, invented several different kinds of rodent traps (over fifty at the time), as well as a series of wind-driven bird frighteners, an automatic fishhook, a foolproof tree straightener, a hand-?operated drum-cylinder motion-picture machine (which had been dismantled by the local church matrons because he had made the tactical error of demonstrating the capability with some rather bold Parisian postcards that a man in a marmot hat had sold him in Cleveland), a flyswatter that could also be used for toasting bread, as well as a wide range of outside-the-box ideas for things like disposable dentures and the creation of a pigeon-winged federal postal system.
The mania had started innocently enough, as such things often do, when he was still a wet-behind-the-ears young boy and his father had come home wounded from fighting in Benoni Pierce’s Light Horse Company at the Lakes in the War of 1812. Laid up as he was, the old man could not go fox hunting in the Moxahala Hills, which had been his great passion, and so was forced to sell his beloved hunting dogs—or would have been forced to had not the young Hephaestus hit upon the idea of using the dogs to run a drum treadmill to power the drill for gun boring. Gunsmithing became the family’s primary source of income until the father died of pneumonia.
Now, years later, the sphere was by far Hephaestus’s most ambitious undertaking. It had exhausted all his resources as well as his family’s finances and patience. Yet he was intensely proud of it, although he knew there was still much work to be done—and so little time. Time was the problem, for the sphere was not simply a hollow iron ball. Oh, no. It was meant to be a refuge, a shelter, an ark—the Time Ark, he called it, or, in sour mash–fueled moments, the Counterchronosphere.
Although not a full practicing Christian, he had become influenced by William Miller, the numerically minded New York State farmer who had worked out that the world was soon going to end or that Christ would return, depending on your point of view. Miller, who based his theory on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, supported by calculations from Ezekiel and Numbers, had taken to sermonizing and lecturing at camp meetings back in 1831, and had since become a national and indeed international celebrity, with several newspapers devoted to spreading the word of imminent advent and hopeful paradise for the worthy.
Believing firmly in mathematics and partially in the Good Book—and being superstitious about his wife’s name and undecided about the question of “worthiness,” Hephaestus had become a default Millerite—and a very worried one at that. After all, a comet had been spotted in recent times, and just the year before a dairy farmer in Gnadenhutten had found a cow pie in the shape of the Virgin Mary. Clearly, the world was working up to something decisive. So Hephaestus had turned the bulk of his attention to the problem of how to escape time and so shield his loved ones from doomsday.
Many exceptional minds and more than a few competent engineers would have been daunted by such a challenge. But not the Sitturd patriarch. When not hobbling between the forge and the distillery shed, he pored over both engineering pamphlets and Scripture, devotional tomes and Mechanics Hall literature—anything and everything he could get his hands and mind on to help answer the eschatological call.
However, with the revised countdown on to the Lord’s Return (the original Miller prediction had put it in 1843) He?phaestus was forced to admit that the technical issues were still troubling. In the evenings when he sat watching the fireflies blinking in the pea patch—his wife, Rapture, brewing some ?extract of wolf mint, dressing buckskins, or working at her spinning wheel; his son, Lloyd, cataloguing his trilobites or dreaming of his twin sister, Lodema, who had died at birth—doubts would overcome Hephaestus. It was when these doubts took their darkest form that the sphere grew hopelessly heavy. Gleaming in the sunshine now, it appeared to him to be cumbersome beyond all description—ridiculous—so that all his reckonings, all his research, shone back in mockery from the surface of the hot metal.
“It needs to move,” a boy’s voice announced. “Time is a vibration. So the Ark must vibrate in time with Time—to become transparent.”
As remarkable as it may seem, the speaker was none other than his five-year-old son, Lloyd, and as the boy spoke a wishbone and paper airship wafted around the door of the barn. Powered by miniature spindlewood propellers and guided by rudder wings of dried bluegill fins, the delicate machine floated above the goat pasture, then around the barn, and finally over the peppergrass that surrounded their corncrib house, landing intact just beside the man’s mangled foot. Hephaestus looked at the airship in dismay and then over at Lloyd, the craft’s designer and fabricator, knowing that the ingenious trinket had been constructed in but a matter of minutes.
The child’s inventive life had begun in the cradle (or so it seemed to Hephaestus). In addition to a hyper-accelerated acquisition of language skills, although small physically, the boy’s manual dexterity was unnaturally adept while he was still theoretically confined to the old kindling scuttle that had been converted into his bassinet. His curiosity was inexhaustible, and by the time most children are just beginning to make sense of a...
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and practice of illusion that we learn the art and science of the
truth, and this philosophy has proved immensely effective.
It suddenly struck him, for instance, that the definition of a
complex machine was one that was five-dimensional--time
defining the fourth, psychology the fifth. Mind transcended
time, the same way that language tried to, and could indeed
Lloyd Sitturd is an unusual six year old at any time in history, but particularly in the year 1844 in the hotch-potch attempt at national definition called 'America'.
'America' is a strange place. It is filled with disparate groups of wandering souls looking for something to latch on to, some hope to propel them forward. People are lawless, and godless, trying to establish order in a barren wilderness filled with strangely spiritual savages. The time is ripe for a great force to move in and exert its will. The only question is, which force will it be?
Lloyd was young when his parents first saw the signs of how unusual he was. For his mother, Rapture, Lloyds constant communication with his dead twin sister was understandable. His intelligence that alienated him at school is more difficult to manage. For his father, Hephaestus (a carbon copy of his Greek God namesake) the boy is a mixture of wonder, pride and some jealousy. How is it that he is able to make these machines that are far more elegant and functional than anything his father could conceive? And what is the dark streak that runs through his only child, that had him perform a vivisection on a rabbit while it was still living?
When Lloyd's strange intelligence, his mothers witchcraft, and his fathers debt plunge the family into dire straights they feel hopeless. At this crucial moment they receive a letter from Hephaestus' brother, begging them to cross the country to be with him, no matter how dangerous a journey this may be, and start a new life in Texas. For three people searching for a miracle, Texas becomes a talisman of hope, a promised land, and a justification for a perilous journey of escape from a life they can't manage and a world that doesn't understand or appreciate them.
And thus begins the unusual journey of Lloyd Sitturd, a six year old who may or may not be six forever, and his bewildered parents who are victims of a life they don't understand and want nothing to do with.
Enigmatic Pilot is largely the story of Lloyd and his experiences. Adeptly hidden in its pages, however, is an examination of the thing we call history, a philosophical examination of the concept of time, and the way time is encased in language.
It is also an examination of a certain kind of America, the relationship between human beings and mechanistic science and the wonders of magic. It is a blurring between life as we see and touch it and the life we can feel, intuit and use to connect to other human beings. It is a road story, of three individuals caught up in a battle of the gods that has been raging through time. It is the story of the human quest for its own immediacy through scientific knowledge.
It is also a series of questions that the author wants us to ask ourselves about time, its relationship to experience, and its importance in defining and creating our lives through history.
Kris Saknussemm has put together three separate books that form three separate aspects of Lloyd Sitturd's development from a boy into a 'man'. In some ways Enigmatic Pilot is a coming of age story. Lloyd is formed and shaped by the people who come into his life. Some of these are there to guide him, others are there simply as part of a seemingly random occurrence, but all the people Lloyd meets in his life go toward forming him, defining him, and ultimately, revealing him to himself. The narrator informs us regularly of historical events being formed and shaped at the time and in the place Lloyd walks, as if to constantly remind us that history is alive and interpreting us just as we think we can interpret it. Time stands still for Lloyd, the man-child, just as it appears to stand still in our own experience of it.
However, the rush of events is always around us, and despite our own relationship with our own evolution, and our own desire to comprehend it, time is obeying its own rules.
He thought back to Mother Tongue's remarks about Spiro of
Lemnos, the Enigmatist who had glimpsed more deeply than
all others into the mesh of things--all that was hidden in plain
Enigmatic Pilot is set in a time in American history of great industrial, political and social change. Another great theme of this book is the relationship between life, death, machines and power. There is a tension being drawn by this talented author at all times, between the connection we have with all things (people) past (history, the shadows and the ghosts of what has gone before us) as well as the mechanistic future being built by our own hand; the human striving toward itself, its endless demand for the realisation of its own creative spirit. Machines attach themselves to flesh in this world. Time stands still and history is made out of deliberate forced action. People are purchased and sold, men are deformed or maimed and women are both the vehicles for the realisation of the mysterious and the agents for salvation. Nothing is as it seems, and the answer to everything lies within.
It also came to him for the first time that if the complicated
workings of something like a plantation--a machine both built
by humans and including them as critical components--could
be understood as a machine, working within a network of other
similar machines to form a bigger, still more complicated machine,
then there were two contrary but very pregnant implications.
First, the notion of mechanism, as in the mechanistic philosophy
he had become acquainted with in Schelling's bookshop--
as in a reductionist strategy--was categorically
deficient, if not totally wrong.
Second, the far more interesting
idea that such a thing even as multifaceted as a plantation
could be rendered diagrammatically, as could any machine. It
was just a question of what the hierogram looked like. Then he
said to himself, "I meant diagram."
Imagery and language are used by the author in this exciting book, to transport and engage the reader in a partnership of creativity that brings all the characters alive. Enigmatic Pilot relies heavily on the myths and legends we are used to - from Lloyds crippled 'fallen-god' father, to a crucial Icarus-style flight toward the sun that ends in tragedy. Age old themes that we recognise are given fresh life as we seek to examine science versus faith, the seen versus the unseen, evidence versus the power of the talisman, real evil versus supernatural evil, and the redemptive power of love.
Names are used in a Dickensian fashion - the holder of all wisdom is called Mother Tongue, and the hapless undertaker who murders his wife as she she takes his life is Othmieal Clutter. There are more shades of Dickens as a graveyard dwelling Miss Havisham style 'Mother Tongue' seeks to use the young boy for the realisation of her vision of truth; elements of the realist grandeur of a nineteenth century Russian novel as the young protege is educated by those who cross his path - with more than a touch of Jules Verne to excite and spice up the plot. People are old beyond their years or young beyond their years, trapped within the walls of time but never defined by it.
"It struck them all that every camp is made amid graves. It is just unknown who lies buried."
Amongst all of this is rich and often witty language, lush in its descriptive quality (pregnant drops of rain) filled with the enigmatic qualities of its young protagonist (Marked where the world becomes mind. Where the world becomes time. Where the ghosts become flesh).
I read Enigmatic Pilot almost in one sitting. I found it difficult to put down. This exciting journey, nicely sliced up into the vignettes we recognise in life, was not one I will forget in a hurry.
ENIGMATIC PILOT is part metaphor for a journey to a seductive destination; part surreal traipse across the American frontier; and part fast moving tableau of hard philosophical questions. Six year old Lloyd, the prodigy-protaganist, uses his precocious intellect and imagination, to access occult forces & the Great Enigma of Spiros of Lemnos. As a precocious mutant, Lloyd, gifted as he is with a rich intellect (and also a prodigious libido), astounds us with not just channeled images from Martian Ambassadors, but also his pragmatic grasp of mechanical and quotidian processes.
Literary masters like Sam Clemens and Thomas Pynchon lurk & loom throughout the background, reverberating echoes across this narrative, while startling imagery and language uphold this story, so gravid as it is with pulsating force and fire. For instance: "He stared out through the glistening webs of slowing water into the rainbow obscurity before him ..."
This would be my first encounter with the writings of Kris Saknussemm. Not being familiar with this hybrid genre, I have to say I am thoroughly captivated by the manifest fertility of his imagination. He is amazingly adept at weaving motifs in fractal pulsation across the textures of literary space-time. I am not really "down with" the Steampunk thing or current literary trends, but I can recognize great writing when I read a entrancing narrative such as this one. And this book would certainly be that.
As Rilke said once, Live the Questions. ENIGMATIC PILOT beckons us do this very thing. This then, would be a most highly recommended read.
"I was introduced to Saknussemm's writing five years ago when I reviewed Zanesville, the first book in a proposed series called The Lodemania Testament. Enigmatic Pilot is the new installment in that series but while Saknussemm's writing remains strong, the book suffers not only from being an installment in a series but from the fact that those unfamiliar with Zanesville may not realize it is part of a series. For some inexplicable reason, nothing in the book and none of the written or online promotional material from Del Rey, Random House's science fiction and fantasy imprint, tells readers this story of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd is about a key character of The Lodemania Testament. As a result, portions of the book that draw out detailed information about Lloyd's background and influences may strike those who have not read Zanesville as lengthy diversions that slow down the story."
Gee, it would have been great to know this beforehand. Thank, Del Rey.
This is no stab at magical realism. Magic is alive in these pages.