BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Elijah Clearfather awakes in Central Park with no memory of himself or his past. What follows is a psychedelic journey of self-discovery through an America of tomorrow.
PROS: Interesting setting, unique and memorable characters, lots of humor and a mind expanding ending.
CONS: Exceptionally outlandish which led to overload, satire sometimes murky.
BOTTOM LINE: I enjoyed reading Zanesville just for the setting alone. The satirical elements and humor added to the mix, even if I wasn’t always able to delve into the other layers of meaning.
Zanesville is a satire of modern day culture, set amidst a future America gone psychedelic. Elijah Clearfather’s journey to discover just who and what he is, at times a reincarnation of a religious cult leader or porn star or even a modern day savior, allows Saknussemm to comment on, and take shots at, just about everything in today’s culture. From religion, to consumerism, politics, and corporatism, nothing is left out. Saknussemm uses heavy doses of humor to make his points, often times bordering on the bizarre, but almost always very funny. This can either be in word play or just the bizarre settings he’s created for the characters to travel through.
In fact, the main attraction to me was the setting. Think of Stephenson’s America in Snowcrash, only more fractious, hopped up on LSD, and cranked up to 11. America has been taken over by the Vitessa Corporation, who has a hand in almost everything, especially drugs. In this future America, Saknussemm introduces us to holographic cartoon characters who take on a life of their own, mutilated lesbian biker gangs in the Midwest, seemingly sentient tornados in Central Texas, 50 foot remote controlled celebrity robots engaging in a larger than life Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot battles, and the new city of Los Vegas, which extends for most of the entire length of The New Left Coast. Most of the old left coast having fallen into the sea after the big one, called Bigfoot. Into this setting comes Elijah Clearfather. A man who has no idea of who or what he is, Elijah travels the breadth of the US, trying to discover why his memory is gone. Along the way, he meets an impressive variety of characters, including an ex-football player turned drag queen now resistance leader, his to be love Kokomo, who has problems of her own but seems to mesh with Clearfather well, and a ton of other interesting characters.
Ultimately, Clearfather does discover who and what he is, and the reveal had that Stephen Baxter feel where, suddenly, the scope of the story broadens enormously, and becomes something completely different from what you thought. But then again, maybe not. There was enough ambiguity at the end to allow the reader to attempt to reach his own conclusion about Clearfather. I will say that I liked Clearfather’s meeting with Stinky Wiggler, his possible father, in a valley that reminded me of John Galt’s valley in Atlas Shrugged, only not about objectivism.
With so much going on, its clear that Saknussemm is layering the story with lots of deeper meaning. Unfortunately, due to my present circumstances, I could not give the book the time or attention it deserves to ‘get’ all that was going on. That bothered me to a certain degree. Also, the book is non-stop insanity from beginning to end, with few breaks to catch your breath. At times I would become overwhelmed by all that was going on and couldn’t remember people’s names or the sequence of events leading up to where I was. Again, not necessarily the fault of the book, more a result of my limited reading time. But since we review the reading experience here, I knock a star off.
If you liked Snowcrash for its setting, or you like humorous satire, you’ll like Zanesville, a strong debut novel from Kris Saknussemm.