Keith Roberts Gerald Jonas - Essay

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yes, of course, ["The Chalk Giants"] … is too ambitious. How else can a reviewer describe a novel that attempts to chronicle the rise of a new, post-nuclear-holocaust civilization—wars, religion, politics, philosophy, literature and all—in less than two hundred pages? But having faulted Roberts for his lack of proportion, let me immediately add that "The Chalk Giants" is far more successful than it has any right to be.

The premise of the book is that the Bomb has wiped out all traces of civilization-as-we-know-it, leaving a handful of human survivors in a state of savagery. As these survivors begin the long climb upward, on an island that was once England, they unwittingly retrace the paths their forebears took…. Synopsized, it sounds too pat, too easy: a dollop of "The Golden Bough" here, a bit of "Morte d'Arthur" there, stir in some "Bullfinch's Mythology" and Biblical echoes, and serve with an air of wide-eyed discovery.

But Roberts avoids most of the pitfalls of this kind of S.F. myth-making, primarily because his narrative strategy is impeccable. Writing a sturdy, richly detailed third-person prose that wins our confidence without ever asking for it, he introduces us in each chapter to some ordinary people who are driven by circumstances to extraordinary acts of creation and destruction. In the following chapters, the people we have just met are spoken of as legends by other ordinary people, who are then stretched on the rack of history to become the legendary figures of succeeding chapters….

What seemed on first reading to be a fable of man's unquenchable spirit comes, in retrospect, to stand for everything that precedes myths—all the false starts, the misguided efforts, the unsung exploits, the lucky and unlucky turns on which the fragile superstructure of civilization rests. (p. 22)

Gerald Jonas, "Of Things to Come," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975, pp. 22, 26.∗