Saturday, 14 December 2019

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

What. A. Name.

Yes. It's comfortably the most metal book name I've picked up in some time. That's why I picked it up out of the work book pile.

You liar, you'll pick up pretty much any book put in front of you.

True. Plus Silverberg has one hell of a rep. But it was mainly the name. You just know if you picked up an album called that, it was be compelling, uncomfortable and full of meditations about death. Particularly with a cover like that! And that is exactly what the blurb promised and that's why, after a quick look at the prose, I took it back to my desk.

Okay. I'll allow it. Blurb/premise, hit me.

Four American college kids set off to the Arizona desert in search of a cult that promises immortality to any group of four that joins them - providing two of them die first.

How is this not a metal concept album?

I don't know. I'm tempted to find my copy of guitar pro and get to work rectifying that.

How about you get to work doing this review?

Chill snarky inner voice. The Book of Skulls is told with all four of the boys getting their own first person chapters and the way Silverberg captures their voices and experiences is the key to this book. Dislike them, find them boring, and you might as well put the book down. Be fascinated with them and you'll be fascinated with this book. Plot wise its a little thin and reliant on tiny subtleties for its increasing sense of tension - this is very much character driven. It's all about how Eli, Timothy, Oliver and Ned react to the creeping realisation of what they are seeking entails and that yes, it is real after all.

They're a very All-American cast (its set shortly after 'Nam). Eli, the discoverer of the eponymous manuscript detailing the cult, is a nice Jewish boy from New York, intellectually precocious and socially backwards. Timothy's a preppy athlete from a New England family with lots of money and heritage, convinced the whole thing's a fake but happy to have an adventure with his friends. Oliver dragged himself up from his poor roots in rural Kansas through relentless hard work and brilliance; a real Abe Lincoln. He desperately wants to beat death. And Ned's an openly gay poet from Irish Catholic Boston, full of mockery at the world - in it for the romance of it. They are stereotypes, but stereotypes with depth and awareness and a few deadly blind spots. Silverberg's ability to throw his voice as all four of them, and to create nuanced social dynamics between them, is masterly.

It's a short book, and the amount of time spent on the road trip itself might throw some people. It's filled with teenage interests, which is to say lots of sex and casual disdain. Other than that and what I've said, I can't think of any reason somebody would particularly dislike this. Its fascinating, it's well written, its creepy - its a masterpiece.

And since I've covered everything a review should - this book is simple in concept - I will now witter on about some of my thoughts about how it plays out. What follows is less spoilers and more me telling you how it ends. Uber-spoilers maybe? Don't read if you don't want to know.

The exact nature of the two must die is that one must commit suicide and the other must be murdered by the other two. And from pretty early on, they start talking about how that will go down, and they all see a likely pattern. Ned's talked about killing himself; he's the most likely suicide, and he even names his price for doing so in his thoughts. And that leaves two strapping great athletes and poor helpless Eli, so that's the end of him. They talk about it so much it becomes natural to suspect it won't turn out that way due to simple laws of drama and sure enough, Eli and Ned are the survivors.

And the why of that, and the wondering about the small little signs on the way, has stuck with me in a big way.

Timothy's the murder victim. He tries to leave and because that results in the cult killing three of the others, Eli murders him. It's not that surprising as from the beginning, he's insistent that it's all a load of crap and he's only along as it'll be a fun thing to do with his friends. Oliver's the suicide, as his suppressed homosexuality catches up with him and he decides he can't live like that. The hints about that are harder to catch, but we do know he's considered suicide because of his perfectionism and constant exposure to death, and there's a certain mechanical approach to his dealings with women. At first it looks like that's because of how obsessed he is with finding immortality, but it spills out by the end. And - I somehow forgot about this until writing the review - Ned's price for suicide includes sex with Oliver, and he seems pretty sure he'd go along with it. For immortality, right? But as Ned says later - he thought Oliver was a classic closet case.

But the exact chain of events leading us there? It starts with the monks in the cult ordering the four to share their darkest secrets; one to another, only one at a time, never reciprocal - never to be shared. Ned starts and admits to Timothy that he manipulated a gay couple into falling in love with him, so hard that they both threatened to commit suicide if he didn't stay with them. Ned called their bluff, they killed themselves, and Ned was left feeling guilty because of just how much of a rush he got from it. Timothy confesses to Oliver than in a drunken rage at being turned down by other women, he raped his own sister. Oliver confesses of his gay experience to Eli, who in turn tells that to Ned - hoping that breaching a trust will be his own worse secret. But when Ned rejects that, he eventually admits his real worse secret - that his scholastic reputation is built on plagiarism.

Or is that not the real reason Eli told Ned? Did he do so knowing, consciously or subconsciously, that Ned will then try it on with Oliver and that might do bad things to Oliver's psyche, removing one obstacle on the way to his own immortality? Did Ned go for Oliver out of lust, or out of manipulative instinct? Eli isn't exactly comforting when Timothy starts to question why he's there either - disdain for Timothy being unable to cope with things he can't fully understand, or a desire for eternal life?

The idea that we're not really sure what we are underneath - what the skull is under the skin - is a big part of this book. The prospect of looming immortality and death forces all four to face themselves in the mirror. Timothy, filled with guilt over his crime and a certain amount of disgust at the meaningless patrician lifestyle he'll lead, doesn't want to live forever. Never thought it was real and when faced with it, he doesn't want it. An eternity of being Timothy isn't worth the candle. Oliver thinks he desperately wants it; after all, a lifetime of watching people die in smalltown Kansas is what led him to become a pre-med student. He wants to fight the Reaper. But he more desperately wants to not be gay. The vehemence of this confuses me a little, even allowing for unstated midwestern conservative values, as it doesn't come through in Oliver for me. He seems very unfussed about life. But maybe that was part of his denial.

Ned's the easy one to figure out. He's the one who knows himself best and has the least shame in being so. He can believe both sides of a contradiction with no fuss. Maybe he came onto Oliver because he's a manipulative little so and so, maybe because he'd had the hots for him for ever. Maybe both. Both would fit; there's a destructive side to his lust, and both fit well enough that I don't mind the lack of certainty. Eli? Eli is the mystery to me. Eli is, from the beginning, someone who keeps wanting to change the rules when it suits him and full of rationalisation over it. But he is also the most socially gauche, the one with the least insight into what makes people tick. But then he was the most desperate for immortality - and it is sad that we hear his plan for immortality in full, but realise he will remain part of the cult for as long as his life does actually last and will never fulfil it. All that death for nothing. Maybe that's the point of the book.

In any case, I will be thinking about the point of The Book of Skulls for a long time. And that's the point of any book.

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