From gay to Z
by Jim Provenzano
The End of the World Book , a novel, by Alistair McCartney; University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95
Although described as a novel, Alistair McCartney's debut fiction work turns the 20th-century writing format on its ear, alphabetically. Moving from A to Z, McCartney weaves his own life, or revised parts of it, with whimsical descriptions of hell, orgasms, sodomy, Britney Spears, even vampire bats, all in a tribute to his childhood fascination with the World Book Encyclopedia.
Some passages are autobiographical, and tell of his childhood in Australia. Under A, Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, provides an introduction into the author's history with his mother's birthplace. But even those passages turn fanciful in parts. Instead of the usual geographical facts, McCartney veers from the melancholy memory of his mother's front porch to a series of 1970s child abductions that took place in that city.
Morbidity, eroticism, and obsessions pervade the work in each letter's entry. McCartney often takes a witty pleasure in presenting topics while addressing them in scathingly visual poetic terms. For example, PSYCHOANALYSIS, THE END OF presents Sigmund Freud, his concept of ego, "which in lay terms is sort of like a black patent-leather bag," the id "a glossy pterodactyl," and Freud himself envisioning a far future where people would curse him, and "science would no longer be capable of explaining anything, let alone the hearts of humans, when it would make more sense to say the heart contains gleaming razors, the heart is made up of night and the night contains pearls."
Such fanciful prose in a formal structure makes for a neatly compartmentalized collection of pithy, sometimes tart anecdotes and descriptions, many in the form of lush dream journal entries, others with a moody, declarative pomposity.
In the foreword, McCartney states, "this encyclopedia is a dream." But while other people's dreams can be boring, McCartney's memories, fantasies and unfinished scenes gradually reveal themselves as a neatly ordered collage of memory.
Most entries bear an acuity of vision, with the repeated themes of hunky Los Angeles cholos, Kafka-esque cabinets full of endless detritus and information, angels having wings sawed off in gruesome past and future holocausts, and the occasionally hilarious piece of satirical perfection.
One of the briefest entries is under H. Surely many gays have secretively looked in dictionaries and encyclopedias for a definition of themselves. But in McCartney's realm, under HOMOSEXUAL, it reads, "I think I am mentioned somewhere in the Bible, if I remember correctly."
Other seemingly unrelated entries weave personal accounts about McCartney's culture shock after leaving Australia, his fascination with his current home in Venice, California and Los Angeles, and his boyfriend, performer Tim Miller, as well as McCartney's problems with US immigration.
It is in the tiny details that McCartney excels. As expected, references to dead gay poets are frequent, but the interleaving of the references is what fascinates.
Under RIMBAUD, ARTHUR, McCartney describes a copy of Miller's book of Rimbaud poems, and a short poem written inside the book by his partner at the birth of the AIDS epidemic; everybody likes rimbaud/everybody looks like rimbaud/everybody wants to fuck rimbaud.
They say that history is written by the victors. But McCartney's book comes from the perspective of a queer survivor of some nondescript apocalypse. I imagine a man in a Twilight Zone episode written by Jean Genet and filmed by Todd Haynes, in spectacles, capriciously sorting musty jockstraps of long-gone boyish hunks, memories and their artifacts mulled over, sniffed, and cataloged in this alphabetized cascade of vivid and eccentric passages. Meanwhile, the world outside crumbles to a rubbish pile. When you think about it, McCartney's vision isn't so futuristic after all.
If you're looking for some lighthearted beach reading, please move on. If, however, you have the taste for a literary box of delicacies that occasionally includes spiders dipped in chocolate, enjoy The End of the World Book. It's tempting to gorge on entire chunks, but take it slow, letter by letter, and savor the eccentric beauty of McCartney's prose.