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The Crab Fractal: A Review of David Hollander’s Anthropica

By Jared Marcel Pollen.

David Hollander, Anthropica (Animal Riot Press, 2020)

Plot, character, setting and theme. These are the four elements that the novelist John Hawkes described as the “enemies of fiction,” going on to say that once he’d abandoned such constraints, “totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.” Hawkes, who might be best known for his novel The Lime Twig (1961), was attempting to initiate an evolution out of a certain kind of formalism that had dominated literature until that point. This evolution we sometimes call Postmodernism, and the style that upheld the primacy of “vision” was taken up by Donald Barthelme, John Barthes, Robert Coover and Rick Moody on the American side, and writers like Thomas Bernhard and László Krasznahorkai on the European.

I would be hard-pressed to summarize neatly any of the novels written by the above authors, and the same is true of David Hollander’s new novel, Anthropica (Animal Riot Press, 2020) which takes the Hawkean declaration to heart. I could tell you, for example, that there are several protagonists: a statistician named Stuart Dregs, who discovers that humankind exhausts the Earth’s natural resources every eight days, a discovery that leads him to the “Anthropica Theory,” which states that the universe continues to exists only because humanity wants it to; there’s Finn Daily, an Ultimate Frisbee player who simultaneously discovers a crab-shaped fractal pattern that underwrites the architecture of all matter in the universe; a Hungarian doom-prophet named Laszlow Katasztrófa, author of Exit Strategy, a plot to harness the two aforementioned discoveries to bring about the end of the world; and Grace Kitchen, a writing professor at an east coast liberal arts college, who has a fatal romance with Laszlow. Add in a Three Stooges gang of intelligent robots, a genderbending humanoid named Joyful Noise! and a structural game in which several characters believe themselves to be the author of Anthropica itself, and you’ll have some idea of what Hollander’s novel is about.

Hollander’s first and last novel, L.I.E., which is an exploration of consciousness and the concept of the Self, was published in 2001. In an interview with Seth Katz in The Millions, Hollander revealed that L.I.E. was roundly rejected, but it was serendipitously picked out of a slush pile because his name resembled another author’s. The novel generated a bidding war and was soon picked up by Random House, which ran a generous first printing. However, once it appeared that sales would not meet projections, the printing was scaled back, and what was supposed to be a national book tour was confined to the New York area.

Over the next twenty years, Hollander wrote three more manuscripts that were all rejected by mainstream publishers, who were becoming increasingly cramped and uncomfortable with “difficult fiction.” Hollander himself acknowledges that his obsession with difficulty was status-seeking, a trap that many a vain young writer can fall into. Anthropica is likely to be described by some readers as “difficult,” but unlike his previous books, Hollander said that Anthropica was more of a fun project for himself and his close friends, and for the first year or so of its development, he was convinced he wouldn’t publish it. Spurred on by his agent, Hollander worked on the novel for another two years before sending it out. It too was met with rejection. The novel then lay dormant for several years until Animal Riot Press, founded by two of Hollander’s former students, offered to publish it.

Since Anthropica blends several stylistic elements––science fiction, dystopia, philosophy, and social realism––it shouldn’t come as a surprise that no publishers found it marketable, which is the chief metric of a book’s value. And yet it should surprise us, because the novel is a sprawling and ambitious force, a mobius strip of fiction whose virtues are impossible to ignore

Anthropica is at its heart a book driven by language––specifically, the ways in which language can start to feel like a container for ideas and experience, leaving one writhing to break free of its determinism. Indeed, all characters in the novel, in one way or another, are driven by this Desire––Desire being the perpetual motion machine that powers the universe itself, which is the foundation of the “Anthropica Theory,” described thusly:

Anthropica didn’t mean that the world was broken. It meant that the world could not be changed. It meant that it was only here because we wanted it to be. It meant the worst thing of all: it would go on and on, evolving toward nothing and unbeholden to anything. Christ, talk about depressing.

Given its subject, the reader might expect the novel to be grim and fatalistic. What it achieves rather is a smiling nihilism, nicely aphorized as: “Everything you do is unimportant, but it is very important that you do it.” Hollander has described this as “the toggle,” switching back and forth between impossibly meaningful experiences in an otherwise utterly meaningless world, and the novel’s dialectical movements dramatize this beautifully.

Without giving too much away, the realization of Anthropica’s corollary––that the universe can be destroyed if Desire is eliminated––is made possible by the intersection of several characters––Finn, Dregs, and Grace Kitchen’s father Henry, an ALS-ridden man bound to slow death in a wheelchair, who discovers he can make things happen simply by wanting them bad enough. Laszlow, the orchestrator of this apocalyptic symphony, brings the cast together in the eponymous fallout facility Exit Strategy, located in Iksan Korea along the 35th parallel, together with what is known as “the Consciousness Factory.”

As with L.I.E., consciousness, and the feeling of being “locked inside” consciousness, is a central theme. In this case, Henry is literally locked in, Dregs, who eventually achieves a kind of disembodied state, remains locked in, and a cheeky robot known as Fexo, who might be self-aware, gives us a glimpse of what an artificial consciousness might look like under the same constraints.

Hollander manages all of this by virtue of speed and elegance. Anthropica is a novel that does not slow down, and it is driven by the strength of its prose. Hollander’s sentences are often rushing and headlong, requiring operatic breaths if being read aloud. The prose is consistently beautiful, and lines like this––

He was the weapons-grade plutonium of wanting…

And like this––

The dog leapt beneath a neon sign that flared brightly and blinded them with its jubilant ruby light before going suddenly dark here at the bottom of the world, here at this entrance to a life without end.

––appear on almost every page. Hollander can clearly stand with the best of his contemporaries as a stylist. Anthropica’s prose is close and almost always internalized in its respective character’s point-of-view, giving it the quality of a long modulating inner-monologue, but the briefness of the chapters and some forays into strict dialogue/transcript sections keep the style from cloying.

The Nabokovian dictum to dazzle is definitely on display here. However, the Nabokovian ethic—that the style should be beautiful and effortless, easily bringing the reader through the world it fashions––is somewhat at odds in Hollander’s novel. Hollander can dazzle, certainly, but it comes with some demands. A beautiful style can bring you in and make you marvel, or place you at distance, and the challenge for any writer, regardless of style, is to find the balance. Some of the writers mentioned above, like Bernhard or Krasznahorkai, sacrifice a certain ease of reading for sake of the “totality of vision,” and their style could easily be described as “alienating.” Hollander manages largely to achieve the balance, though not without pressure at points. For all of Anthropica’s thematic heaviness and philosophical musings, nonetheless remains a darkly funny and entertaining read, and like the same crab-shaped fractal upon which it is built, it will twist and expand your sense of what fiction can do.

Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada and currently lives in Prague. His work has appeared in Quillette, Areo, The MillionsBright Lights Film Journal and Political Animal. He is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (forthcoming). Grievances can be filed on Twitter @JaredMPollen

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 21st, 2020.