The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite has received a far number of critical reviews that to seem unfair to this constant reader. I think none of us are read many books written by two people and mistake two voices for uneven writing. Literary collaborations that set out to seamlessly integrate two voices are rare. I think the War of the Encyclopaedists succeeds because there are two distinct voices in the two main characters, two characters who closely mirror the biography of the two authors.
Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy are a bit too precious at the onset. Two Seattle hipsters who are glibly confident of their future and their worth, they create an ironic art collective called The Encyclopaedists in order to be cool and attract women. Of course, they are taken seriously, because…Seattle and are written up in The Stranger. This gives them the legitimacy to create a Wikipedia entry for themselves when they go their separate ways as a way to communicate that is more cool than the e-mail, phone or letters we non-hipsters might employ.
Both are ready to head off to Boston for graduate school when Montauk gets called up in the National Guard, soon to be deployed to Iraq. Meanwhile, Cordery is getting ready to head off to grad school and unhappy that it will be alone, without his best friend. He is, however, falling in love with Mani, the artist, but too hip to admit it. Thanks to Montauk’s intervention, Cordery abandons Mani in an epic act of cowardice and weakness, escaping to grad school. Cordery is set to head off to Iraq, but before he goes, he tries to redress their sins against Mani as best he can, but not with any honesty about his own role.
The novel is about the separation of these two great friends, their betrayals of each other, their lies to themselves and to each other. Montauk’s time in Iraq is, of course, more exciting, more dramatic, more thrilling and Montauk changes more than Cordery, becoming stronger and more confident. Cordero finds himself overshadowed in grad school, ill-prepared relative to the private school elites who are the more natural fit, he struggles and flails and becomes increasingly weak and ineffectual.
Their stories diverge and converge and there is plenty of dishonesty to go around. I enjoyed the writing, particularly the occasional stunning insights or descriptions. For example, Montauk remarks that every bombing has some certain element that would make for poignant photos and memories like a single baby shoe among the wreckage with a baby’s foot still inside it. Meanwhile, the satiric descriptions of grad school literary criticism is hysterical. Someone who can get through the section on the different angles of literary criticism of Star Wars without laughing out loud is made of sterner stuff than me. That is also balanced by a foray exploring the military love of acronyms. These writers don’t take themselves too seriously and that makes for plenty of humor.
There is more coincidence that I might like. Of course, Cordery’s roommate Tricia who goes to Iraq to write for alternative media blogs critical of the war ends up meeting Montauk and of course, Mani turns out to be originally from Boston and happens to run into Cordery. Of course, these encounters are essential to the story and they are not completely outside the realm of possibility.
I enjoyed War of the Encyclopaedists and highly recommend it despite the frequent critical reviews from the serious newspapers. I think some of the criticism is part of the entire cultural disdain for hipsters and “kids nowadays” – how dare they write something so ambitious without paying their dues. It is ambitious. It is trying to be new, non-referential and I think it succeeds.