War of the Encyclopaedists

War of the Encyclopaedists

by Christopher Robinson, Gavin Kovite

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Overview

War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson, Gavin Kovite

In a superb, rare literary collaboration, two major new talents join their voices to tell the story of a generation at a crossroads, and a friendship that stretches over continents and crises—from the liberal arena of Boston academia to the military occupation of Iraq—in this ambitious and electrifying debut novel.

On a summer night, in the arty enclave of Capitol Hill, Seattle, best friends Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy throw one last blowout party before their lives part ways. At twenty-three, they had planned to move together to Boston for graduate school, but global events have intervened: Montauk has just learned that his National Guard unit will deploy to Baghdad at the end of the summer. In the confusion of this altered future, Corderoy is faced with a moral dilemma: his girlfriend Mani has just been evicted and he must decide whether or not to abandon her when she needs him most. He turns to Montauk for help. His decision that night, and its harrowing outcome, sets in motion a year that will transform all three of them.

Months later, Corderoy and Montauk grapple with their new identities as each deals with his own muted disappointment. In Boston, Corderoy finds himself unable to play the game of intellectual one-upmanship with the ease and grace of his new roommate Tricia, a Harvard graduate student and budding human rights activist. Half a world away, in Baghdad, Montauk struggles to lead his platoon safely through an increasingly violent and irrational war. As their lives move further away from their shared dream, Corderoy and Montauk keep in touch with one another by editing a Wikipedia article about themselves: smart and funny updates that morph and deepen throughout the year, culminating in a document that is both devastatingly tragic and profoundly poetic.

Fast-moving and compulsively readable, War of the Encyclopaedists beats with the energetic pulse of idealistic youth on the threshold of adult reality. "A wise and wise-assed first novel...with sweep and heart and humor" (Mary Karr, author of Liar's Club and Lit) it is the vital, urgent, and utterly absorbing lament of a new generation searching for meaning and hope in a fractured world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476775425
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 05/19/2015
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Christopher Robinson, a Boston University and Hunter College MFA graduate, is a MacDowell Colony fellow and a Yale Younger Poets Prize finalist. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The Kenyon Review and McSweeney’s.

Gavin Kovite was an infantry platoon leader in Baghdad from 2004-2005. He attended NYU Law and served as an Army prosecutor. His writing has appeared in literary magazines and in Fire and Forget, an anthology of war fiction. He lives in Seattle.

Read an Excerpt

War of the Encyclopaedists

1


It was the Friday before Independence Day and the twentysomethings of early-millennium Seattle were celebrating alcohol and freedom as they had done every Friday since time immemorial. And though they breathed and imbibed as one massive citywide organism, each group thought itself discrete, with its own goals and exclusions, its own playlist gurus and backroom smoke-outs. On Fifteenth Avenue, in Capitol Hill, Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy were hosting their sixth event as “The Encyclopaedists.”

They had no real artistic talent, but they had a knack for carrying stupid jokes to their absurd conclusions. Six months ago, following one about the arbitrary nature of modern art, they decided to put on an art show themselves. They chose their subject, “monocularity,” by flipping randomly through a 1914 Anglo-American Cyclopedia. They built a multimedia installation involving cyclopean monsters, monocled British financiers, a chandelier made of dildos and periscopes, and a video loop of the burning eye of Sauron. They wore eye patches and threw a raging party. They both got laid, which was reason enough to continue the monthly “exhibits.” After their third event, whose theme was “pupa,” The Stranger, Seattle’s widely read and ever-relevant free arts weekly, had profiled “The Encyclopaedists of Capitol Hill.”

Tonight’s theme was “conspiracy.” The cavernous Great Room on the main floor of Montauk’s house had been retrofitted as a lunar soundstage—papier-mâché craters, glow-in-the-dark stars, and tripod-mounted lights and cameras. Montauk was dressed as an astronaut, welcoming guests with slow lunar movements.

•  •  •

Corderoy and his girlfriend, Mani, were four miles north in the Roosevelt neighborhood, where the I-5 overpass shadows a park-and-ride littered with brown-bagged forties and the occasional hypodermic needle. Corderoy stood at one end of a fourth-floor hallway in a rundown apartment building. He was facing a police officer.

“Who are you supposed to be?” the officer asked.

Corderoy wore a dark blue suit with a red tie; his lapel was pinned with an American flag. His eyebrows, so blond they were normally invisible, had been dusted with white makeup, his reddish-blond hair was covered with a neatly combed powder-gray wig, and Mani had given him wrinkles around the nose and eyes with eyeliner pencil. Corderoy was six-one (though a mere one hundred and fifty pounds, with a posture reminiscent of Gumby) and he wasn’t used to looking up at people, but the officer must have been at least six-four.

“President Bush,” Corderoy said.

“And she’s what, bin Laden?”

Mani stood at the other end of the hallway near the open door to an apartment, opposite another police officer. She wore heels, a low-cut white minidress, and a camouflage bolero jacket, which was little more than a pair of sleeves and two short flaps near her bust that could not possibly fasten together. Her long black hair spilled out from a white turban, and the olive skin of her face was obscured by a scraggly black beard with streaks of gray. Her costume was perfect, or it would have been if they’d managed to retrieve the pièce de résistance from inside the apartment. Mani was smoking a Camel Light.

“Sexy bin Laden,” Corderoy corrected.

The officer clenched his jaw. “Why are you dressed up?”

“We’re going to a party. We just came by to pick up her AK.” He was speaking faster than he could think.

“Her what?”

“Her AK-47. It’s a toy. A toy gun. For the costume. It has an orange tip.”

“Take your hands out of your pockets.”

“Sorry. So, we had to get the AK, and she’s been living here with Steph—”

“She’s on the lease?”

“Well, no. She just met Steph a few months ago, when she moved to Seattle. Steph usually leaves the apartment unlocked because Mani doesn’t have a key. But when we got here, the door was locked. We knocked and knocked and tried calling Steph, but no answer. So . . . I tried to pick the lock.”

The officer stopped writing. “You picked the lock?”

“No. I tried to pick the lock.” Corderoy had read the MIT Guide to Lock Picking when he was in high school and had made his own picks out of coat hangers. It had taken him two weeks to pick the lock on his own front door. That had been his only success.

The officer’s face was expressionless.

“So Mani said maybe go up to the roof and I tried that and it was easy enough to hop down to the balcony. The sliding glass door was locked, too, but—”

“Hands out of your pockets.”

“Sorry. Can I just take my jacket off so I’m not tempted to do that?”

“No.”

“So, I checked the window, which also opens onto the balcony, and it wasn’t locked. All the lights were off, so I thought, No one’s home. I was just going to climb in, open the front door from the inside, take the toy gun, and leave. But when I opened the window, there was Steph, sitting by herself in the dark, and she screamed, ‘Get the fuck out of here I’m calling the cops!’ So I climbed back onto the roof and came down to the hallway. And then you got here.”

“You entered the room?”

“Well, I opened the window and leaned in.”

“But you crossed the threshold of the window.”

“I suppose, yeah.” Corderoy looked over at Mani. Her officer was speaking with Steph just inside the apartment. Steph’s hands flashed into view through the doorjamb. Mani looked away from Corderoy, then lit another cigarette. Corderoy felt like an idiot. Sure, he thought, I’ll break into someone’s house for you. Because you’re hot, no biggie. I do that all the time.

“Son, do you know what that’s called, what you did there at the window?”

Corderoy took a moment to respond. “Breaking and entering?”

“We don’t have breaking and entering in Washington State. It’s called burglary. And it’s a felony offense. That’s a minimum of five years in prison.”

“Oh.” Corderoy’s eyes slipped out of focus.

The officers went to converse with each other, and Corderoy and Mani were finally able to speak.

“Steph’s crying,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I think they’re going to arrest you.”

That’s when Phil arrived.

Before the officers could stop him, Corderoy yelled down the hall, “Hey, man, can you talk to Steph?”

“Do you know these two?” one of the officers asked Phil.

Corderoy and Phil were on good terms, but they barely knew each other. Phil was Steph’s friend, and business partners with a guy named Braiden, whom everyone called “Bomb,” as in, That shit’s the bomb. Braiden and Phil were pot dealers and they routinely smoked out Steph, who was flirtatious enough to get her pot for free. There was no guarantee that Phil’s intervention would be positive, and in all likelihood he had drugs on him, which wouldn’t be good for any of them if the officers found out.

The cops let Phil through.

Corderoy couldn’t hear Phil’s voice, but he heard Steph’s high-pitched exclamations. After a minute, they emerged and Steph spoke with the officers.

“You’re dropping the charges, then?” one asked.

Steph went catatonic.

“Steph . . .” Phil said.

She nodded.

“What about my stuff?” Mani asked.

Steph whispered to Phil, then ducked inside.

“It’s in the parking garage,” Phil said.

The officers took their information, gave Corderoy a stern warning, and left.

Mani wobbled down the stairs in her new heels. Corderoy was about to follow, but Phil pulled him aside. “I’m looking out for you, man. Get rid of that girl. She’s trouble.”

“I know,” Corderoy said.

“Seriously.” He leaned in closer and spoke softer. “She’s a thief. Ditch the bitch.”

Corderoy resented that. Whatever else Mani was, she wasn’t a bitch.

“Sooner the better,” Phil said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“I know,” Corderoy said again. But he didn’t know. And of the many things he didn’t know, this uncertainty in particular had been gnawing at him for the past few weeks. Even Montauk had pointed out that Mani had been mooching off him since they’d met. He’d paid for her food, her drinks, her tickets to shows. He’d bought the plastic AK and the turban for her costume. He’d even bought the heels she was wearing. But he’d done it all gladly. And she’d been gracious and grateful and goddamn beautiful, and somehow, though she didn’t have any money, she’d been generous, generous with her time, her heart, her self. Corderoy was convinced she was a much better person than he.

When he reached the parking garage, Mani was sifting through a trash bag filled with her scant belongings, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. He could see the strap of her bra beneath her white dress. “This is crazy,” he said. “She just threw all your shit down here?”

Mani started laughing, dropping her forehead into her hand.

“It’s not funny,” Corderoy said.

“It’s hilarious,” Mani said. “My charcoals and sunglasses are missing, but Steph made sure I had this.” She pulled out a half-eaten avocado swaddled in plastic wrap. “Hungry?”

They tossed the bag in the back of Corderoy’s (dad’s) Suburban and pulled out of the garage. Corderoy thought about telling Mani to throw the cigarette out—his dad hated the smell, and Corderoy didn’t look forward to admitting that he had not, in fact, quit. Instead, he rolled both their windows down, lit one of his own, and tried not to think about it as they drove to the Encyclopaedists party at Montauk’s house.

Mani leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. His face flushed. It had taken a few minutes, and that kiss, for him to realize that he hadn’t been arrested, that everything was fine. And now that he had, a warmth flooded his body, the relief of being alone, safe, with a beautiful girl, this beautiful girl, who excited him, who was dangerous, whom he couldn’t be mad at. He drove in silence for a moment, riding out that feeling, but his confusion slowly welled back up to the surface.

“Okay,” he said. “What the fuck just happened?”

“Right? It’s like we’re in a Beckett play. I guess Bomb and Phil started dealing coke. And they were keeping the cash at Steph’s. Neutral territory for their joint bank. Then last night Phil did the count, and it was four hundred dollars short. Phil asked Bomb about it, and he said I must have taken it.”

Corderoy glanced at her as if she were an imposter. What have you done with the real Mani? “But then who . . . ?”

“Bomb probably blew a couple eightballs himself, and there was no money to begin with.”

“But what was Steph’s deal?”

“I don’t know, she’s known Bomb for years. I’ve only known her two months. It was his word against mine, and Steph decided I had to go.”

“But why didn’t she tell you? She just threw your stuff in a trash bag. That’s insane. Even if you did take the money—”

“I didn’t take it.”

“I never said you did. It’s just weird, right, that Steph would kick you out and not even tell you.”

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing. It’s just really weird on her part.” Corderoy turned the AC up a notch. “You look cute, you know.”

“I didn’t take the money.”

“Even in that bin Laden beard, you look damn sexy.”

“You look old,” she said. She looked out the window for an unbearable second. “But I like older men.” She reached over and rubbed her hand on Corderoy’s crotch as they pulled onto Fifteenth Avenue to look for parking.

Normally, Corderoy would have been hard at the instant the muscles in her shoulder alerted him, subconsciously, that her hand was about to reach over to his lap. But the lust centers of his brain were confused by Mani’s sexy bin Laden getup. Worse still, he was beginning to think Phil was right. That he should get rid of her, cut his losses. It had only been two months. And besides, he’d started dating her with a Get Out of Relationship Free Card: he was moving to Boston at the beginning of August, for grad school. She knew this. He’d told her the night they’d met, at the fourth Encyclopaedists event. It would have been a simple decision, if not for one problem: Corderoy loved Mani—maybe—and she was now homeless.

•  •  •

Capitol Hill had been the nesting place of Seattle’s early patricians—gold rush and logging men, mostly. Now it hosted Seattle’s hip postcollege crowd with divey-chic watering holes, gay karaoke bars, fringe theaters, and tattoo parlors. At the top of the hill, though, the neighborhood still felt regal. Like many of the houses there, Montauk’s dated to the early nineteen hundreds and could be considered a mansion, with its bay windows and colonnaded porch. He lived there with eight other people. Since the article in The Stranger, they’d been referring to the house as the Encyclopad.

Montauk had a stout, muscled frame, and in his bleached-white jumpsuit, stuffed with newspaper, his thick white gloves, and an old white motorcycle helmet, he made a fine-looking astronaut. He opened the front door in slow motion and watched Corderoy and Mani stare at their own reflections in his visor, then lifted it to reveal his goofy grin. He was already several beers deep.

He eyed Mani’s legs as she and Corderoy slipped into the party. Death Cab for Cutie played over conversations about JFK and Roswell; everyone clutched keg cups. The Great Room, which was almost the whole first floor of the mansion, was terrible for soundproofing. With each new Encyclopaedists event, Montauk had worried that the neighbors’ noise complaints might finally tip the scales and the cops would shut them down for good. But today he had found the official Department of the Army letter in his mailbox, and Encyclopad-based concerns had dissolved. A new reality was setting in. He had called his platoon sergeant and his four squad leaders, who would notify the rest of his forty-man platoon, completing the chain-of-command phone tree, which likely originated in some flag-draped office in the Pentagon. He was Going to War.

He had yet to tell Corderoy. They had planned to room together in Boston, and now Montauk was essentially being ordered to bail on his best friend. It wasn’t the right time to bring it up. He found Corderoy and Mani drinking red box wine from a gravy boat and a teacup, looking at the first items on display: the old Anglo-American Cyclopedia and a Black’s Law Dictionary, both laid open on music stands to “conspiracy.” “More people than last time,” Montauk said.

Corderoy toasted him with his gravy boat. “Mission accomplished,” he said in a Texan drawl.

Montauk smiled. He found Mani’s slutty bin Laden costume disconcerting. But it fit the party, which was full of the kind of people who would laugh at it. Mani was still a bit of a black box to him. She seemed to be reeling in his buddy like a hooked trout. On more than a few occasions he had reminded Corderoy that she was basically a freeloader; by her own admission, she’d trekked from Massachusetts to California on her ex-boyfriend’s generosity—meaning credulity. Corderoy was certainly credulous, but when Mani was around, he was also happy, and who could argue with that?

“Gotta make the rounds,” Montauk said, and he dipped into the crowd.

“You okay?” Mani asked Corderoy.

Corderoy turned to her. “You’ve barely touched your wine.”

“I always drink slow.”

“Cheers to that,” he said, and he took a drink, holding the gravy boat to his lips for a long time, trying to get her to match him. She did.

“So . . . you’re homeless again,” Corderoy said.

“We’ve got bigger problems,” Mani said. “I think they’re after us.”

“Who’s they?”

“You know, them.”

•  •  •

They drank. They smoked. They danced in slow motion on the lunar soundstage. They trampled a crop circle in the neighbors’ grass. Corderoy and Mani told the story of the burglary again and again, with differing degrees of hyperbole. But the issue of where Mani would sleep that night went unmentioned. And Corderoy had to keep his keg cup filled and frothy to hide his preoccupation. Did he actually love this girl enough to invite her to move in with him? Into the basement of his parents’ house, no less? His parents wouldn’t bat an eye—their hospitality was nearly a form of psychosis, and it had been a great boon to Corderoy in the past. Now it meant that the onus of this decision was on him. And Mani, unaware of his parents’ attitude, would likely interpret an invitation as a serious move, which would leapfrog their relationship over the months of courtship it normally took to reach a place of domestic intimacy. And so he filled his cup, he lit a cigarette, he made out with Mani on the porch, he avoided Montauk because he needed Montauk’s help, he clung to Mani because he feared he would leave her, because he imagined her down in Santa Cruz bumming around with potheads and surfers, playing guitar on the beach. He imagined her back in Newton, Massachusetts, living under the strictures of her immigrant parents. He imagined her warm breasts pressed against the side of his torso, her leg angled across his waist, sleeping through the night until tomorrow morning and forever.

•  •  •

Mani was intelligent but surprisingly ignorant of things Corderoy considered common knowledge. She had never heard the phrase cross that bridge when we come to it. She couldn’t describe a catapult. She’d never heard of Nikola Tesla. She wasn’t religious, but she believed in a force. Corderoy was quick to hate spirituality, but this sounded so much like his childhood love of Star Wars that he couldn’t hate it. He used to cry, and still got teary-eyed, during Yoda’s speech before lifting the X-wing from the Dagobah swamp. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Mani’s parents had emigrated from Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution, when her mother was pregnant. It took them some time to regain their footing in America, but eventually they landed solidly in the upper-middle class. Her father was a doctor and her mother a professor at Boston College; they were strict in their desire to see Mani succeed, which meant: doctor, lawyer, possibly optometrist. But Mani wanted to paint. Her parents wouldn’t finance an education in art, so she’d dropped out of UMass Amherst and moved to California with her then-boyfriend. She’d lived with him—and off him—for the better part of a year, painting portraits of the junkies and homeless who roamed the streets of Santa Cruz. When they split, she moved out, becoming homeless herself, sleeping in parks and on the beach, until one day she traded a few watercolors for an old bicycle, sold off her belongings, and made her way up to Seattle over a period of several months, living off her charm, camping or crashing with strangers in San Francisco, Portland, Olympia, helping old hippie couples with their gardens, moving from co-ops to art lofts, reminding everyone she met how great it was to be alive, to share a cigarette or a bottle of wine with an unfamiliar but fascinating human.

This is why Corderoy loved Mani: She could roll her own cigarettes with one hand. She could recite large passages from Hunter S. Thompson. She looked exotic, with her olive skin and black hair, but she spoke like any college-aged American girl. One night she took him out to the woods in Interlaken Park with flashlights and beers to huddle in the dark and tell stories. When she wanted something, she had a way of setting her face in an almost-smile, a mischievous deadpan that held years of squealing, squirming mirth just below the surface.

When they’d met at the fourth Encyclopaedists event (“moss”), they’d spent the night on Montauk’s futon. They had sex, quietly, while Montauk’s friend Tim slept just feet away from them, and afterward Corderoy reminisced with her about the video games of his youth (Mega Man 2, Castlevania). Mani found this endearing. She sketched his face in pencil, out of proportion and somewhat grotesque, and he thought it perfect.

Corderoy loved Mani because he couldn’t figure her out, and he had a deep need to solve things. She was a Rubik’s Cube with one too many sides. No matter how he manipulated her, twisting her colors this way and that, she would always present another face, not quite aligned.

•  •  •

The party was a success by all the standards a party is usually measured by. The cops arrived once and only once. Traces of puke wound up alongside the piss on the floor of the bathroom. By four a.m., the music was off and only a few people were left among the wreckage of empty beer bottles, red plastic cups, and stomped-on papier-mâché moon craters. Corderoy found Montauk in the kitchen, spread out on a folding table like an etherized patient. He nudged him awake. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Montauk said. “Just got tired.” He sat up.

“You have a bed upstairs.”

“Like you said, upstairs.”

“So, Mani’s passed out in the band room,” Corderoy said. Montauk’s housemate Ian was in a bluegrass band, and they practiced in the basement, where Corderoy and Mani had just had sex. Afterward, Corderoy had drunkenly tossed the condom across the room, and he was hoping it hadn’t landed on any of Ian’s musical equipment.

“What’s your deal, man? You two have been acting weird the entire night.” Montauk stood and picked up a bowl of Cheetos.

“She’s homeless. Where’s she going to go?”

“Shit. That’s right.” Montauk looked out the back window while he methodically chewed and swallowed a stale Cheeto. “Family?”

“They’re in Massachusetts. They don’t even know where she is.”

“You care about her?”

“Of course. She’s great.”

“But you’re not ready for her to move in with you.”

“Into my parents’ house.”

Montauk walked over to the sink and filled an old keg cup from the faucet. He gulped it down, water dribbling off his chin. When he finished, he said, “Screw it. Just leave. She’ll figure it out in the morning. And she’ll throw herself into something new. She’ll find some other dude to—”

“That’s great. Thanks.”

“I don’t know, man, then fucking marry her.”

“What?”

“I’m too drunk to be having this conversation. You’ve only known her two months.”

There was a creaking sound from the steps to the basement, and they both turned and listened for a tense moment.

“Look, you can love her and still leave,” Montauk said, a little quieter. “They’re not mutually exclusive. If there’s anything real there, it will still be there. If you change your mind.”

“Yeah?” Corderoy said. At this late hour, and running on fear, he couldn’t see any holes in the idea. It was a test: could their connection transcend his sudden departure?

“Yeah. Go. Just go. I’ll come up with something to tell her in the morning.”

“It is the morning. Whatever. Thanks.” Corderoy went out the front door, stumbled down the steps, and got in his car.

That moment, in the early morning of July 3rd, 2004, was the beginning of a fantastic and formidable knot in the lives of Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk. The first such knot was formed the summer before, when they met at random in Rome. Montauk was leaning against a tree in the Piazza San Giovanni, where Beck was about to perform at an outdoor music festival, when Corderoy approached, asking if he could bum a cigarette. Montauk slipped him a Fortuna Blue, and they began talking as crowds congealed near the stage at the other end of the square. By an absurd and, they would later say, fateful coincidence, they were both from Seattle, and they had both just graduated from the University of Washington. Montauk had done ROTC and had switched majors three times, finally settling on Comparative History of Ideas. Corderoy had confined himself to the English department. They had several mutual friends. A light rain began to fall, and the Italians retreated from the stage and started huddling beneath the trees at the edges of the piazza, ripping canvas banners off fences to use as cover. But Corderoy and Montauk were Seattleites: umbrellas were for pussies. They walked casually up to the very front of the stage to wait for the show to begin. As it turned out, Italian rain was not Seattle rain. The sprinkling became a deluge, and Corderoy and Montauk were soaked through in under a minute, soggy cigarettes still in their mouths, each laughing at the other.

From then on, they traveled together. They got high in a cathedral; they wandered into a strange abandoned castle graffitied and occupied by anti-fascista punks; they flew in a hot-air balloon; they threw bottles at the Carabinieri; they slept on a rooftop in Capri and under a bridge in Florence; they drank cheap Chianti and poured a bottle of Barolo on Keats’s grave; they each fell half in love with the same Italian girl. In the span of a month, they had connected so deeply and so thoroughly, there was no doubt for either of them that they would be lifelong friends. It was a rarity, and they didn’t question it, though Montauk’s mother did. In e-mails home, he’d been talking about his new pal so much that she asked if he and Corderoy had a gay relationship. Nothing wrong if you do, she stressed. The two had a good laugh over that one.

But no sooner had they returned to their post-college lives in Seattle than Montauk received orders from the National Guard to report to the four-month Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he would get the tactical training given to all new infantry officers.

Corderoy moved back in with his parents. Having quit his job as a part-time manager at GameStop, he found employment teaching SAT prep. Each night he came home, shut himself away in his parents’ basement, uncorked a liter-and-a-half bottle of cheap Chianti, and played EverQuest for hours. He had little desire to join his friends at the bar; he figured if he’d be drinking there, why not drink here, relaxed in his chair, slaying wyverns and collecting experience points.

When Montauk returned after four months at Fort Benning, he no longer felt comfortable in his hammock of post-graduate malaise. He was now a platoon leader, and rumors of an Iraq deployment wended through his Guard unit. Civilian life suddenly felt like a much too short vacation, and Montauk intended to make the most of it. So it was that after dragging Corderoy out of his parents’ basement, Montauk hatched the idea to form an art collective. The first Friday that February, the Encyclopaedists were born.

Corderoy managed, through his highly developed powers of willful ignorance, to think of Montauk deploying as an unlikely possibility. It didn’t help that Montauk had applied to grad schools along with Corderoy. They were both accepted: Corderoy at Boston University and Montauk at Harvard—a point of minor resentment for Corderoy. The plan was to room together in Boston, starting at the beginning of August. By the fourth Encyclopaedists event in May, when Corderoy first met Mani, the idea of Boston had grown in his mind to the extent that he sometimes thought he was living there already and merely visiting Seattle. But after tonight, it was painfully clear to him that he was not in Boston, that he was stuck in Seattle for another month, that he was alone, and that he had done something he could not undo.

It was five-thirty a.m. when Mani woke up alone and wandered into the living room, her unwound turban draped around her shoulders. She’d lost her fake beard sometime during the night, but she was still toting the plastic AK-47. Two guys dressed as Roswell aliens were leaning over the coffee table, snorting lines. They were Montauk’s housemates, but he had so many that she could never remember their names.

“Have you seen Hal?” she asked.

“Who’s Hal?”

“Mickey’s friend. Looks like President Bush.”

“Sorry.”

“Where’s Mickey?”

“I think he went to sleep. Check his room?”

Mani walked toward the stairs, but a wave of nausea hit her and she stumbled into the bathroom. The vomit burned her throat, and as she leaned over the toilet bowl, spitting her mouth clean, she wondered if it was just the alcohol. She’d missed her period last month and hadn’t told Hal; it was probably nothing. Before Steph had gone psycho and kicked her out, she’d given Mani a bottle of Prozac, and Mani had been taking it for almost four weeks. She didn’t feel any happier. But maybe she was late because of the Prozac. And if it wasn’t the Prozac, well, how could she even talk to Hal about that? Any of it. Mani stood and rinsed her face in the sink.

•  •  •

It was just after dawn, and gray light filled Montauk’s room. Someone was talking to him. He sat up in bed. Mani was standing in his doorway. Her eye shadow had smudged across her face. Her black hair was tangled and oily. “What?” Montauk said.

“Hal. Where’s Hal?”

“He left,” Montauk said.

“Where’d he go?”

Montauk shrugged.

“When’s he coming back?” A note of uncertainty had entered her voice.

“He . . . didn’t say.”

“Mickey. Why would he leave without telling me? What’s going on?”

“He was getting a little freaked out. That it was moving too fast or something.”

“So he just left? He’s just gone?” Her voice was rising.

“Yeah.” Montauk looked out the window.

“Is that all you can say?”

“It’s not really my business.”

“You.” Mani threw her hands up, pointing the toy gun skyward. Montauk pictured those Hezbollah tapes of some bearded guy in camo firing an AK, down with Israel, Allahu Akhbar. Mani lowered her hands and sighed.

“Sorry,” Montauk said.

“Fuck you,” she said, and she left the room, slamming his bedroom door. He heard her running down the stairs, then the front door opening and closing. He pictured her unwound turban trailing behind her in the dim light as he closed his blinds and lay back on his bed. Was she crying? She didn’t seem the type.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for War of the Encyclopaedists includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

As US forces in Iraq grapple with a growing insurgency through the summer of 2004, Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk are stateside and dreaming of master’s degrees. The twentysomethings of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district know the two friends as the Encyclopaedists, an art collective formed largely as an excuse to throw outrageously themed parties that will get its cofounders laid. But after Montauk, a lieutenant in the National Guard, is called up and stationed at a security checkpoint in Baghdad, Corderoy must travel east alone to wage his own battle—as an intellectual skeptic dropped into the unfamiliar culture of Boston University’s graduate program. As both begin to find their expectations for adulthood challenged by circumstance, their experiences remain linked by relationships with two women: Mani, a rootless painter dodging the high expectations of her Iranian-born parents, and Tricia, a whip-smart humanitarian trying to find a place for herself in the shifting terrain of global politics. By jointly revising the Encyclopaedists’ Wikipedia page, Corderoy and Montauk manage to hold on to shadows of the past, but the shared platform ultimately helps them to forge new identities in the tumult of the ever-changing present.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Over the course of War of the Encyclopaedists, Montauk and Corderoy’s revisions to their Wikipedia page remain a constant. How does the evolving online entry come to influence the way each friend thinks of the other as time passes? In what ways might their editorial process echo Mani’s feeling that “if she had kept a journal, she would have written that . . . she was slowly rewriting the associations this place held for her, replacing that awful night with something newer, something better” (page 55)?

2. Early in the novel, before his deployment, Montauk avoids confronting his responsibilities to Mani and his parents by thinking about Odysseus’s trials in The Odyssey, “the irony [being] that in choosing to avoid the difficult thought chains, Montauk inevitably fell into their metaphorical counterparts, which left him depressed and not knowing why” (page 19). How else do characters in the novel elude their problems by escaping into fiction?

3. Montauk vacillates between thinking of his service to his country as “a classic rite of passage that most of his coddled generation was denied” (page 23) and dreading “whether the choices that had gotten him here had been subconscious attempts at the sort of hipster irony he’d claimed to be done with” (page 210). How common or rare do Robinson and Kovite make Montauk’s self-consciousness seem among young men in the military?

4. In response to Corderoy’s suspicion of the purpose of his degree, Professor Flannigan points out that he is “training to be an academic. This degree doesn’t lead anywhere else. If you want to survive in this career, you need to learn the language upon which the grand discussion is based” (page 134). How does the novel’s depiction of graduate school both challenge and celebrate the role of higher education in American society? Does Corderoy come to a definitive conclusion about his place in the world of academia?

5. Tricia and Corderoy share a critical view of the “crisis patriotism” that followed the September 11 attacks, but when Tricia thinks of a college friend she spent that morning with in uptown Manhattan, she texts her “Never forget” (page 99). In chapter 12 of the novel, what kind of portrait do the authors paint of 9/11 and “Where were you when . . .” exercises in national solidarity?

6. When Montauk first arrives in Baghdad, he finds that the Cavalry has installed the American and Texan flags in Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace (page 149). Then he discovers that the Iraqis had tiled a floor with President George H. W. Bush’s face, but “nobody had bothered changing the flooring because the insult of walking on your enemy’s face was lost in translation” (page 159). Discuss the symbolic value of flags, statues, and other representations of leaders. What role do such symbols play in the actual dismantling of a government or system of beliefs?

7. Montauk sympathizes with Corderoy’s “frustration and bafflement that life was subject to the dictates of chance,” but finds his friend’s framing of the idea too “intellectual, metaphysical . . . It could live only inside a library. It would fall apart as soon as some junky BMW raced toward the barricades with who knew what in its trunk, his men forced to shoot the dirt, then the tires, then, if the car kept coming, the driver” (pages 200–201). Do you agree that intellectualization is incompatible with the reality of war? How does Montauk grapple with the same “frustration and bafflement” as Corderoy in the novel?

8. Aladdin’s death prompts Montauk to offer money for information on the translator’s killer, but the citizens who come forward feed him only misinformation. What does Olaf mean when he responds to this series of events by saying “It’s Iraq” (page 205)? What does the content of the interviews on pages 186–99 reveal about everyday life for Iraqis in Baghdad?

9. Robinson and Kovite make the stylistic decision to juxtapose Urritia’s encounter with a suicide bomber against Ant’s story about his date with a paraplegic. How does Ant’s story serve to increase the tension of the imminent suicide bombing? How does the girl’s disability echo the specific dangers of serving in Iraq?

10. Compare the differences between Corderoy and Montauk’s experiences of going home for the holidays in the section titled “Festivus.” How might their unique upbringings have influenced the decisions each has made as an adult?

11. When Mani first paints Hal in order to work through “that unresolved cluster of resentment and curiosity and anger and lingering love” for him, she finds the experience deeply cathartic (page 272). Only later does she decide that “she had been so reactive, it had made her art reactive, [and] perhaps she was ready now to make art not in relation to anyone, art that was causal, not caused” (page 425). Discuss these conceptions of art. What relationship do the artist’s personal feelings have with her inspiration? What do you think it means for visual art to be causal?

12. Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, a fact to some extent mirrored by Mani and Corderoy’s conversation about whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. What effect do the representations of the jumbled pamphlet Mani visualizes as she undergoes her abortion (on pages 380–83) have on the authors’ overall portrait of the procedure?

13. On page 402, Corderoy likens his recent experiences to those of Sir Ernest Shackleton navigating the Weddell Sea off Antarctica in 1914. Unlike Shackleton’s vessel, Endurance, which ultimately sunk, Corderoy feels he has “found solid, unsinkable land, right where he’d left it, land at the end of the known world, a rocky inhospitable island leagues from civilization, but land, immovable, magnificent land.” How does Corderoy use nautical exploration as a metaphor for his life? Why might he identify with an expedition that ended in disaster?

14. When Mani and Corderoy visit Montauk in the hospital, the latter admits that while “it was good to see his friends, . . . it would be even better for them to leave now. He hated feeling that way, but hating the feeling didn’t make it go away” (pages 419–20). Why does Montauk want to put distance between himself and his friends? What change of heart might he have subsequently had to bring him to the last Encyclopaedists party?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Soldiers and civilians alike have unique and personal reactions to the fact of war, as Robinson and Kovite capture on page 423 when partygoers try to navigate Ant’s disfigurement. Have you ever been in a social situation where directly addressing the sacrifice of a service member felt uncomfortable? Discuss.

2. Try drafting a mock Wikipedia page with a friend or family member celebrating your relationship and share it with your book club. What common values does the exercise reveal you to have that might not otherwise have come up?

3. Turn your next book club meeting into an Encyclopaedists party with one of the themes from War of the Encyclopaedists. How does the way you interpret the theme diverge from that shown through the costumes in the book, fictionally representative of the year 2004?

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War of the Encyclopaedists: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
clgyger More than 1 year ago
What a ride!  Read it and weep...and laugh!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago