Anthropocene Rag by Alex Irvine
I’m of mixed feelings on Anthropocene Rag (2020), by Alex Irvine. On the one hand, the writing is often quite strong, and the novel has a creative, imaginative flair to it in many moments. On the other hand, its episodic nature didn’t fully work for me, and I can’t say the novel fully met its rich potential. Still, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and there’s often a true pleasure in reading it.
The story is set in a post “Boom” America, the Boom being when AI ran free and randomly (to human eyes at least) transformed things and people, “revising” the known world and creating beings called “constructs” that can’t always be distinguished from humans. Various parts of the country are varied in their degree of change and danger, with San Francisco one of the better “boomscapes” thanks to having electricity and food. Even there, though, things like this still happen regularly:
A week later a team of Boom constructs wearing New York Yankees uniforms appeared in the Giants’ old ballpark and haunted it for the better part of the year … Then a few months later the Boom remade the ballpark into a greenhouse — in the middle of a game, with maybe three thousand people in the stands.
For reasons that eventually become clear, an AI uses a construct named Prospector Ed to distribute six Golden Tickets allowing the entry into the semi-legendary Monument City, a place that “was supposed to be the new Eden, Shangri-La, where the Boom and humanity had found a perfect equilibrium.” We follow Prospector Ed, who is slowly becoming self-aware, as he delivers the tickets one by one and then follow the lucky invitees as they head toward their goal, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups.
If Golden Tickets that promise an entry into a magical legendary place sounds familiar, leaving you thinking of Willie Wonka and his fantabulous chocolate factory, well, Irvine gives you some time to pat yourself on the back for how clever you are until just coming out and making the connection for you later in Anthropocene Rag. And like Dahl’s group of lucky kids, these recipients are a mixed bag, coming from different cities, different backgrounds, different traumas, and journeying with different agendas/goals as well. One, for instance, is highly religious, while another stole his twin brother’s ticket and took off, leaving his brother and ex-girlfriend to follow if they can. Another is a shape-shifter working in a theater company managed by a talking buffalo (yes, a talking buffalo).
There’s a like to lot here, beginning with Irvine’s description of the Boom’s effects, which run a gamut of lovely, moving, surreal, whimsical, and terrifying. Such as the talking playground, where “The hippo rocking back and forth on its springs shouted in Chinese at the turtle and the horse … The horse never answered, and the turtle spoke only Spanish.” That’s the “whimsical.” In the “terrifying” category is this:
After [the school] collapsed, the Boom brought the dead children out … Their eyes rolled and focused, then twitched in different directions … The Boom tried to remake the children, but most of them died again. Then when the Boom tried to reanimate them, their organic parts rotted away and the Boom had to replace them.
I’m also a sucker for the plural narrator, which can be tricky POV to employ but which Irvine handles deftly here, though I don’t want to say too much about that as it’s a nice slow unveiling of who that plural narration is and what their purpose may be. I will say they offer up some of the most lyrical, most thoughtful, and most moving lines, and I’d recommend Anthropocene Rag probably based just on their narration. Finally, I also liked the focus on “becoming,” on personal growth, whether it came via the human characters or an AI like Prospector Ed.
On the downside, the episodic structure of the novel, where we follow one or a few characters for a while then switch over to the next character(s) meant, over the course of a relatively short novel, that we don’t spend a lot of time with any individual character and so there’s not much connection to any of them. The events themselves also feel more than a little random. Granted, I think that’s part of both the point and the charm, but it’s a fine line to walk, and I can’t honestly say Irvine stays on the right side of it throughout. The introduction of a Mark Twain construct, for instance, felt like it could have been mined for some serious humor and poignancy but never really evoked either. The ending also fell more flat than I had hoped for based on what had come before.
Even with the flaws, though, I thoroughly enjoyed nearly all of Anthropocene Rag, and if it didn’t quite fulfill its potential, it still provides more than enough pleasure in its individual moments, themes, and style to recommend.