Man in the Holocene

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Thumbing quickly for the first time through the pages of Man in the Holocene, one is immediately struck by the fact that this is a curious book, a book which—even in its appearance on the printed page—is unlike the novels to which one is accustomed. Where the reader expects to find neatly arranged, orderly paragraphs following one after the other, he finds instead paragraphs of radically varying lengths separated by gaps of empty white page. Stranger still, sections set off by a gray background are found, and these sections contain such diverse materials as biblical quotations, lists, sketches of prehistoric animals, and dictionary definitions. Returning to the beginning and reading slowly—for this is a book to be read slowly and savored—through these odd-appearing pages, the initial impression of strangeness is confirmed. The realization is made, however, that this is strangeness for a purpose, strangeness which is integral to the very subject matter of the book. Man in the Holocene portrays with devastating accuracy and effect the vain effort of an elderly man to stay the disintegration of his mind and to find for himself a stable and enduring place in the universe. Lest this description make the book sound like a weighty philosophical tome, let it quickly be said that this is a book of unusual clarity and directness, a book which is, in short, a small literary masterpiece which brilliantly weds subject and form while remaining entirely free of literary artiness.

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Herr Geiser, age seventy-three, is a widower who lives alone in his house in a small Swiss village. For several days the village has been deluged by rain. The power has intermittently been off, and the mail truck has been unable to get through. There may have been landslides along the roads, but the news is conflicting. Herr Geiser first appears at night with thunder clapping and rain pouring down outside while inside he tries to build a structure of crisp-bread. To no avail, however, for as the fourth floor is being constructed, the whole edifice wobbles and then collapses into ruins. This is the first image of collapse and disintegration, but others appear throughout the book: a collapsed wall in the lower garden, the sound of rushing water signifying new streams channeling changes into the earth, a television screen on which figures appear and then flicker and disappear, an apparent fissure in the ground outside Herr Geiser’s window. Geiser perceives these images and fears the collapse and disintegration of his world. Further, precisely when Geiser perceives these external images, he—and the reader—also perceive the lapses in memory and the fragmentation which signal the collapse and disintegration of his mind.

“What would be bad would be losing one’s memory,” Geiser thinks. “No knowledge without memory.” Knowledge becomes Geiser’s obsession. He feels the necessity to organize and to categorize, to put all meaningful information into orderly arrangement and to have it available for instant recall. This, in fact, becomes Geiser’s mission. Elsbeth, his deceased wife, read novels. This retreat, however, is not for Geiser because novels deal with the relationships among people “as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.” Facts are what Geiser is after. Facts about creation, about the geological changes the earth has undergone, about prehistoric animals, about emerging man—thus, Geiser seeks facts. He listens to the thunder and isolates sixteen or more different types. He plunges into his encyclopedia, his dictionary, and his other books that provide facts. Shortly, however, he realizes that the facts slip from his mind soon after he has acquired them. So, he begins to write them out in longhand and to attach his writings to the wall; however, this process is too...

(The entire section contains 1572 words.)

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