It begins simply. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
Astonishingly, it is 40 years since Douglas Adams published The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. We’ve since replaced digital watches with smartphones and virtual assistants, and we rarely describe them as “neat”. Yet the themes of the book have hardly dated. As ecosystems are destroyed to make way for roads, artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to get seriously unruly and the Universe continually reveals it’s a lot more complicated than we thought, Adams’s creation and its deadpan surreality never seem to fade.
The best conspiracy theories make sense of what has always seemed senseless. They let you believe you are finally connecting the dots, finding the missing pieces, experiencing the world as it really is. The most powerful theories—the mind blowers—name something you’ve always known, even if you hadn’t known it consciously, or did not believe it could be named. There is no invention, just discovery. The best explain why you feel like you’re being watched, have lived all this before, knew what would happen before the film even started. That’s the case with what’s become my favorite conspiracy theory: the notion, argued by futurists and tech visionaries, that we live not in the real world but in a simulation, an intricately detailed game cooked up by a demigod, hacker, or AI mastermind, which, if true, explains the uncanny sense that this is not my real life, that these are not my real memories. Or, as my friend Mark, standing on Oak Street Beach at 2 A.M. with Chicago aglow behind us, said, “None of this shit’s real, man. We’re all just figments in a crazy dream.”
This idea that this is not the real world is way older than Pink Floyd (“We’re just two lost souls / swimming in a fish bowl”) and way older than the defining movie, The Matrix. You hear it in the Hasidic wisdom of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”: “No doubt the world is an entirely imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” You hear it in the writing of the nineteenth-century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, whose book Omphalos argued that the fossils that proved the world is older than the six thousand years of Genesis had been put in the ground by God to test man’s faith. You hear it in the Buddhist folk tales, most famously the “butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi, in which the author is uncertain if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. It’s the uncanniness you experience not when you are drunk and not when are you are high, but when you are drunk and high, the insight you stumble across the way you stumble across certain bars only when it’s very late and you are very lost and absolutely need them to exist. It’s not that the stimulant creates the dream, but that it opens your eyes to the big truth you’ve been trained not to see.
Yet dutifully record them I will, in order to maintain employment — and because I recognize that there are many, many cooks who don’t share my sloth, who are perfectly willing to take a paring knife to whole artichokes, even though there are innumerable less-onerous vegetables that deserve to be eaten, or crank out fresh fettuccine, which unless you have serious pasta-making chops is never nearly as good as boiled De Cecco. I, too, aspired to such grandeur until recently, when, for reasons of emotional maturity and poor time-management skills, I reexamined my personal culinary dogmas and decided that I will never again, of my own accord, zest a lemon.
And so, with the verve of a cooking guru devoted to helping level up your dinner, I present to you my advice on leveling down: a litany of personal heresies that bring me shame to report but pleasure to perpetrate. My hope is that these don’ts embolden the apprehensive among you in the same way that the typical pro tips animate the rest.
My father would call me from time to time during this period to tell me that my mother spent her days either weeping or angry, veering back and forth between these two emotional poles. Weeping for what she could grasp had become of her, anger at my father who had claimed the unenviable task of trying to take care of her. She didn’t like for him to tell her what to do even if he was just trying to help her. To her, he was interfering, pressing her and pressing upon her, and she didn’t like it. She lashed out at him, as he was the only person available to blame or resist or absorb whatever knot of emotions welled up in her from time to time. She had to lash out, and he was there. When my sisters and I tried to intervene, which we did, he abruptly hung up the phone or showed my sisters the door.
A few weeks before she died, my sisters, in conjunction with my father, told me I had to come regardless of whether my mother would want it or not. They kept my impending visit from her and I drove with my children from Michigan to Allentown. In a way, the last frontier had been reached. She had given up caring about her hair and that was truly unthinkable. She couldn’t be cajoled to get it cut and she refused to wash it. Her teeth had chipped and she wouldn’t fix them either. The innumerable pairs of glasses she had were strewn about her bedroom with their arms missing or snapped in half, as if she had stepped on them in the dark. Indeed, my mother was in the dark. The whole house of cards had collapsed.
Stories within stories within stories: It's a conceit that could easily turn into a mess in lesser hands. But Kingfisher pulls off her complicated construction with both ease and charm. There's a wry, Southern-droll sense of humor underpinning The Twisted Ones, especially as Mouse — a book editor by trade — begins to deconstruct Cotgrave's text. It all unspools on the page, and it's a testament to Kingfisher's skill that an entire two chapters of literary examination and annotation are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Lee Rourke’s admirably economical third novel is an intellectually playful exploration of entropy, mutability and chance. It’s also a moving portrait of a son caring for his ailing mother, and coming to terms with the grief of losing her.