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Equilateral: A Novel

Equilateral: A Novel

by Ken Kalfus

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It's the late nineteenth century, and British astronomer Sanford Thayer has won international funding for his scheme to excavate an equilateral triangle, three hundred miles to a side, from the remote wastes of Egypt's Western Desert. Nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin have been put to work on the project, even though they can't understand Thayer's obsessive


It's the late nineteenth century, and British astronomer Sanford Thayer has won international funding for his scheme to excavate an equilateral triangle, three hundred miles to a side, from the remote wastes of Egypt's Western Desert. Nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin have been put to work on the project, even though they can't understand Thayer's obsessive purpose. They don't believe him when he says his perfect triangle will be visible to the highly evolved beings who inhabit the planet Mars, signaling the existence of civilization on Earth. Political and religious dissent rumbles through the camps. There's also a triangle of another sort-a romantic one, involving Thayer's secretary, who's committed to the man and his vision, and the mysterious servant girl he covets without sharing a common language. In the wind-blasted, lonely, fever-dream outpost known only as Point A, we plumb the depths of self-delusion and folly that comprise Thayer's characteristically human enterprise.

Illustrated throughout with black-and-white astronomical diagrams, Equilateral is an elegant intellectual comedy that's extravagant in its conception and intimately focused on the implications of empire, colonization, and what we expect from contact with “the other.”

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Egypt’s Western Desert in the 1880s provides the setting for this slyly satirical novel from National Book Award finalist Kalfus (A Disorder Peculiar to the Country). Convinced that intelligent life exists on Mars, famous astronomer Sanford Thayer has won worldwide backing to excavate an enormous equilateral triangle from the desert as a signal to the Martians. But a workforce of nearly a million Arab laborers, or fellahin, working toward a goal in which they don’t believe, combined with the arrogance of their British overseers, make for a combustible mixture. Thayer battles malingering illness as his self-imposed deadline approaches, while his chief engineer, Wilson Ballard, keeps the men in line with increasingly harsh methods, only partly tempered by Thayer’s trusted longtime secretary, Miss Keaton. Past romantic history between the two, coupled with Thayer’s new interest in Bedouin servant girl Bint, produces another kind of triangle. Kalfus wittily skewers the Europeans’ cosmic fantasies before reaching the ambiguous ending, which somewhat strains credibility but befits the story’s equal attention to the wonder of prospective first contact and absurdity of human self-delusion. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Co. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“A virtuosic portrait of the animating power of self-delusion.” —Nathaniel Rich, The Daily Beast, Novel of the Year

“Kalfus writes so well that his storytelling carries us along...that narrative becomes darker and more complex, evolving into a more intricate fable, an exploration of man's hubris.” —Andrew Wulf, New York Times Book Review

“Few American novelists get as many rewards from their investment in ideas.” —The New York Times

“Like Thayer's enormous triangle, the Big Idea underlying Equilateral the novel isn't illuminated until nearly its completion. It's a pretty neat trick for a novelist to pull off, to obscure the fact that what at first looks like an intricate fantasy novel actually contains pointed social commentary.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's "Fresh Air"

“Equilateral reads as a compact and deeply satisfying work of fiction, which, moreover, boasts that rarest of endings: one that's surprising yet, if you've been reading closely, inevitable.” —NPR.org

“Thayer's late 19th-century fascination is enough to carry the book, but Kalfus adds a love triangle as well as a cast of characters -- some who support the professor's efforts and others who rebel against them -- for an even richer story.” —NPR's "Morning Edition," Critic's List: Summer 2013

“Kalfus…has woven a tale that is both fantastical and believable. He's done it not just with an expansive imagination and sharp writing skills, but a convincing aptitude in the disciplines of astronomy, trigonometry and history…erupts in a satisfying climax.” —Denver Post

“Intriguing . . . a slender but substantial new novel by Ken Kalfus…who manages here to blend history, humor, politics, science--and even a little bit of romance.” —Los Angeles Times

“By turns sophisticated, suspenseful, and entertaining, Equilateral uses this fantastic conceit to deconstruct the late 19th century's empirical, Social Darwinist ("survival of the fittest"), and colonialist worldviews, elements of which remain dominant in our own time.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“Just crazy enough to work.” —Flavorwire, "20 Highbrow Books to Read on the Beach This Summer"

“Kalfus has as demonic imagination. The glamour of consistent disaster is recognizable in every line, every scene, every lacquered articulation: it is what we moderns like to call a neo-classical construct. I'm overcome by the splendor of what he's done.” —Richard Howard

“Magic. . . . As it progresses, it's hard not to regard the novel with something akin to the awe with which the characters regard their project.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“When a new Ken Kalfus novel appears I stop eating, drinking, shaving, and breathing until I finish it. Equilateral is one of his smartest and most ambitious books yet. It left me thinking and wondering well past my bedtime.” —Gary Shteyngart

“This is an interesting twist on historical fiction, bringing to life a bygone worldview rather than dramatizing a real-life event . . . . The novel contains a shimmer of science fiction without ever coming untethered from the realities of earth, desert and humanity . . . . Profound.” —Kansas City Star

“Kalfus has crafted a powerful, mesmerizing story about ambition--and its limitations.” —The Daily Beast

“Kalfus maps the boundary between science and mysticism while simultaneously muddying, in a way the 20th century soon would, the previously bright line between scientific certainty and arrogant, self-deluded error.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Startlingly original . . . Equilateral overflows with intrigue and action . . . [Kalfus] invest[s] characters like Thayer and his devoted private secretary Adele Keaton, among others, with a depth that engages us fully in their bizarrely inspiring quest . . . . Kalfus nicely balances a fast-paced plot with consideration of the big themes that lurk under the surface of the story.” —Bookpage

“[A] slyly satirical novel…. Kalfus wittily skewers the Europeans' cosmic fantasies before reaching the ambiguous ending, which... befits the story's equal attention to the wonder of prospective first contact and absurdity of human self-delusion.” —Publishers Weekly

“Kalfus's previous novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, won raves…and garnered a National Book Award nomination…. His latest work…takes a big step forward with stylistic elegance and deeper insights into human nature.” —Booklist

“A thoughtful, wisely rendered modern science fiction pastiche with just the right dash of an Ibsen play.” —Shelf Awareness

Kirkus Reviews
The fifth book and third novel by Kalfus (whose wonderful A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a National Book Award finalist of 2006, dared to make 9/11 the backdrop to a divorce comedy) is a slender but ambitious tragicomedy of ideas set in 1890s Egypt. British astronomer Sanford Thayer has mounted a gigantic international scientific and engineering effort--employing 900,000 fellahin--to dig out an equilateral triangle, each side 300 miles long, in the desolate Western Desert. His plan is to put nearly 5,000 square miles of pitch into the excavation and to set it afire...at a moment in the summer of 1894 when the desert will be clearly visible to Mars. The geometric conflagration cannot fail, he believes, to attract the attention of the no-doubt highly evolved inhabitants of the red planet, beings whose phenomenally impressive canal-building Thayer and other stargazers have for years been watching and mapping and/or fooling themselves about. There is another sort of triangle in play here, a romantic one involving the obsessive Thayer, a man near physical collapse and largely confined to quarters in the makeshift village at remote Point A, and two females: Miss Keaton, Thayer's limitlessly competent and patient helpmeet/assistant, and a young Arab serving girl who speaks no English. A compelling portrait emerges not only of Thayer and his brand of scientific imperialism, but also of 19th-century positivistic science at its most arrogant. Thayer proceeds with an air of utter certainty. Progress knows only one path, as he sees it, and the Earth is a pliant female creature whose duty it is to yield her secrets to the probing male scientist and his adjunct, the engineer. But there are forces and mysteries at work here that are beyond him. Kalfus maps the boundary between science and mysticism while simultaneously muddying, in a way the 20th century soon would, the previously bright line between scientific certainty and arrogant, self-deluded error.

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt



By Ken Kalfus


Copyright © 2013 Ken Kalfus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-006-7



Bound by the Qattara Depression in the north and the Gilf Kebir Plateau in the south, Dakhla Oasis in the east and fabled Cyrenaica in the west, the central portion of the vastness known as Bahr ar Rimal al 'Azim, or the Great Sand Sea, may be reached in eight days by caravan on the Concession track from the steam packet port of Nag Hammadi. At Point A, a shimmering, heat-warped village or town that exists in the absence of a water source or any natural conditions that would make it attractive or even sufficient for human habitation, our journey ends. There we find a sprawling encampment comprised of tents, brick and mud shelters, earth-moving machinery, wet-eyed beasts of burden, and a swarm of dusky men mostly stripped to their waists. In the fever of the day the men scream recondite obscenities at the camels and the mules and especially, most viciously and most creatively, at each other.

As rude and tumultuous as it may seem to those who have just arrived, the city is only the fulcrum of a tremendous manual exertion. Around the encampment, spread over barrens that occupy thousands of square miles, hundreds of thousands of other men are scattered into work gangs. They have spades. They dig furiously into the sand and loose dirt, banking the debris on either side of their excavations. The excavations appear to be exceedingly wide roadways into which a lining of pitch is being laid, yet it's not obvious what conveyances they will bear or to where. The men certainly don't know, despite repeated instruction.

This is Professor Sanford Thayer's empire, cast under a pitiless star. He can barely drag himself from his camp bed to defy his physicians. At the opening of the tent he gazes upon the settlement and dwells, for the space of a tremor, on the drive and the daring, the de cades of work and the moments of impulse, the mountains of paperwork and the massifs of cash, that have brought these animals, this machinery, and these men into the field of his famously acute vision. In that tremor two sentiments take up arms and rise against each other.

The first combatant is despair: despair at his own folly, despair at the workers' incompetence, despair at the human primitiveness that mocks the greatest accomplishments of industry and culture.

But despair is dealt a wounding blow. Consider the nobility of this striving, by mule and man. Consider man's ingenuity. Consider this project as a pure, uncompromised expression of human intelligence. Progress is slow, but the endeavor approaches completion. It will be completed. The fourth planet, high above the horizon in Sagittarius, unseen behind the screen of day, will be visible in the hours before morning dusk tomorrow, a fierce, unquenchable ember.

Excerpted from EQUILATERAL by Ken Kalfus. Copyright © 2013 by Ken Kalfus. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ken Kalfus is the author of two novels, The Commissariat of Enlightenment and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He's also published two collections of stories, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His books have been translated into more than ten foreign languages. He lives in Philadelphia.

Brief Biography

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:
April 9, 1954
Place of Birth:
Bronx, New York
The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University

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