- Publisher: GOLLANCZ (1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1857989147
- ISBN-13: 978-1857989144
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
- Shipping Weight: 299 g
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,488,922 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Very much rooted in the hedonistic early 1970's milieu, the story is presented as a series of journal-like chapter entries told by each of four New York college boys embarking on a very unusual cross-country trip - in search of eternal life. One of the four, Eli, has 'discovered' a mysterious centuries-old text buried in the dusty bowels of Columbia University's library collection. The Latin translation of the text we come to know as the Liber Calvarium - or the Book of Skulls - can be interpreted as a Mystery Tradition that proffers immortality to two of four individuals who embark on the journey. Four individuals must embark on the quest, knowing that two must die in the process - one must be sacrificed unwillingly, the other must commit suicide to fulfill the pact.
How exactly can you unify four people to work toward a single elusive goal when one of the "givens" is that only two will make it out alive? It's a gamble with the greatest of stakes: you will either live forever, or you will die prematurely. As the tale unfolds and the boys come closer to their destination, layers of questioning reveal each of the four's inner natures. Is the Book of Skulls real? Does the monastery exist? Do the Keepers exist? Is the Keepers' promise of life eternal real? And finally, is life itself real?
The four young men are as diametrically opposite as can be, almost allegorically representing the Elements. Studious, bookwormish (but neurotic) Eli comes across as a less libidinal (and almost humorless) Woody Allen type; filled with the uniquely dark East European Jewish view of life. WASP-ish, earthy Timothy comes from moneyed deep American roots that go back to the Mayflower, so to speak; and has wanted for little in his life. Blond, burly farmboy Oliver comes from humble Midwestern stock, but is fire-intense and very intelligent; he seeks to cure the pain of his mother's and father's early deaths by becoming a surgeon. Finally, there is Ned, a flightily-portrayed lapsed Boston Irish Catholic acolyte to the priesthood, who ultimately couldn't reconcile his same-sex desires with the vow of celibacy.
It almost sounds like a bad joke: what happens when you pack a spoiled rich boy, a homosexual, a farm boy and a Jew into a car and send them to the Arizona desert? An engrossing road-trip adventure - and one that only gets more interesting when they find the mysterious Keepers of the Skulls who dwell in a desert "monastery" near Phoenix. What the Book of Skulls succeeds so well at is examining the baroque intersections of social class, ethnicity, belief systems, physical appearance, and how our preconceptions of our fellow man can be ultimately deceiving.
If you can set aside the novel's shameful portrayal of women (every female is a personality-less Stepford Wife whose sole purpose is to provide an outlet for "release", essentially. I know it sounds horrible, but there isn't a single thoughful line spoken by a woman or girl in the book, and every description is couched as a function of her sexual attractiveness - or unattractiveness.) as nonentities, and gays as manipulative, unstable, troubled souls, there is a wealth of character development and procedural insight I've rarely seen in a book this size.
Objectively, I can file away my objections under the 'personal and historical flaw' category; Silverberg is part of a different generation and it is clear from this novel he has some strong psychological issues with both the female gender, and homosexuality - he dwells far too much on the details of certain episodes of the boys' sexual lives for that not to be the case. A person who hasn't thought long and hard on such matters wouldn't write so knowingly of that inner turmoil that Ned and Oliver suffer from, and the dysphoric undercurrents speak of a self-loathing of what I think may be the author's inner affectional longings.
At under 200 pages, The Book of Skulls is a dense, chewy and satisfying 'retro' read that calls for close attention to every word. I found myself reading many of the lines silently under my breath, amazed at the lyricism and potent truths that lay just under their surface. Think Umberto-Eco-meets-Jack-Kerouac. You won't find a glittering future of spaceships and time travel here, but if you seek high interpersonal drama and thoughtful characterization melded with supernatural philisophical mystery, this book is a must-read.
This is not a SF novel at all. There are no special effects; the story is told in the present tense, mostly, by the various members of the group. In spite of this, and their apparent good old American roots, it is clear that these roots themselves are going to lead them them, singularly, and as a group, into the abyss, and while the theme of immortality is constantly present, from the beginning it is clear that it is either irrelevant to them, and that they are simply chasing dreams of a dank and musty type, or that it is the sort of immortality which would be spent in places indistinguishable from the frontiers, if not the interior of Hell.
The genius of Silverberg, and this label is thoughtfully applied - is to draw the pictures of the genesis of the characters - and their eventual actions - well before the narrative starting post. We actually hear and see more of each of them in the past than the present. The intent is show the inevitability of their journey-but it also has the odd effect, which I am sure is not accidental, of making the past and the future for these boys of far greater concern than their own shallow and mean relationships in the present. The narrative used in the novel has the effect of making the novel skid uncomfortably across the present tense, uncomfortably fast.
This is not SF in any real sense. However, It is full of allusions towards linguistics, Jewish History and Culture (a particularly rich part of the book is here), baseball culture, and even gay culture.
The characters have to enter a rite of confession - ironically the whole novel is a series of damnable confessions of various types - but the apex of the novel is this specific ritual confession, which leads eventually to murder and suicide. How different this is from the cathartic prototype it might have otherwise have been!
In this case, the true motive behind the long journey to Arizona is confused, not illuminated. The descent into immortality is also a descent into madness and darkness, in spite of the long, swealtery chapter at the end of the book giving some illusion of peace. You have the impression that Silverberg has met this darkness before and is giving a clear and most eloquent warning against it.
Do read this if you possibly get the chance. It's a unique feat of writing which I don't think Silverberg managed to perform so well more than once.