Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
Man in the Holocene takes place during the last few days of a major rainstorm which has caused a road blockage and some interruptions of power and telephone service. The story records the protagonist’s response to his isolation during the storm and to the broader isolation of old age.
In the opening scene of the novel, Geiser attempts to ignore the sound of the rain as he builds a pagoda out of crisp bread, but he finds himself turning to the encyclopedia, reading the entries on lightning and thunder and making lists of the nine types of thunder he has been able to distinguish. Although he continually reads the books in his house for distraction, his reading inevitably returns to subjects that relate to weather, local geography, and geology. These topics reinforce his concern with landslides and avalanches, which historically have recurred in the Alps. His obsessive reading also becomes a way for him to test his memory, which he fears is fading. In fact, some of the articles he reads in his encyclopedia have to do with memory loss and other dimensions of aging. In addition, he does some research on Iceland, dinosaurs, and the human condition. Many short excerpts from Geiser’s reading are included verbatim in the novel, and the author includes sources for the quotations as if to assure the reader that they, too, are not fictional.
For a period, Geiser makes notes on his reading, but finally he decides that it will be more efficient simply to cut the relevant pages out of his books and tack them to the walls of his house. He reflects that his wife, who has been dead for some years, would not have approved of the holes in the plaster. Soon every available space on his walls is masked by clippings. He even takes down a portrait of his wife at nineteen in order to find more space to cover with the clipped pages that quickly begin to curl up in the humid air. When neighbors come to check on him or offer soup, he refuses to answer the doorbell because he does not want to reveal his transformed house.
Geiser finds that the evening passes with excruciating slowness, and he understands why someone would consider suicide to escape the sound of his own footsteps. In the morning, he picks up his rucksack, raincoat, and umbrella and embarks on a hiking expedition along a mountain path he has traveled in previous years. The footing is tentative and in places running water blocks the path, but Geiser presses on. Initially, the reader does not know why he has taken this hike. Only when Geiser decides to turn back is it clear that the town toward which he was heading would have provided means of transportation to the city Basel, his former home and the present home of his daughter and son-in-law. In turning back, Geiser accepts the isolation of his mountain home, and once he has returned, he ignores the ringing telephone, which he presumes signals calls from his daughter.
Geiser discovers himself lying on the floor beside an overturned chair, feeling dizziness and a numbness in part of his face. His thoughts and actions become erratic: He imagines that he resembles a newt, and he roasts his pet cat as if to eat it for dinner. He cannot bring himself to eat the cat, however, and buries her in the garden. As he drifts into a long reminiscence of a perilous mountain climb that he made fifty years earlier, his daughter, Corinne, arrives from Basel to make sure that he is all right and to restore order to the strangely altered household. The sun has come out again, and Geiser’s final reflections suggest that his world has returned to normal, that he recognizes the reassuring continuity of life in the valley, from earlier historical epochs to the present day. Nevertheless, it is evident that his fears and meditations during the past few days have reinforced his sense that individual human beings are essentially alone and essentially inconsequential compared to the grandeur and longevity of nature.