Somewhere along the way, while reading Kris Saknussemm's Enigmatic Pilot, I was compelled to ask myself: why am I reading this story? Saknussemm's novel has buried within it many potential answers to that question, but never commits to any of them with any certainty. That is, all except one: to be entertained. Even at the height of my bewilderment at what exactly Saknussemm was saying through the teeming snarl of plots and characters that compose his tale, I was never bored or regretful at having picked up his novel.
The novel's recurring motif of a whirlwind (both as a phenomenon and a symbol) is all too apt—Enigmatic Pilot is a veritable tornado of different genres, elements, and ideas, all spinning around in a narrative vortex that allows none of them precedence. It's bildungsroman and picaresque, with its young protagonist Loyd going on a highly episodic journey, and transforming into a new "man" even though he's still (apparently) a child by the end. It's western, science fiction, steampunk, and alternate history, with discussions of the non-linearity of time, and a nineteenth-century America where impossibly advanced technology seems to be developing alongside the squalor of western expansion. It's fantasy and conspiracy story, with occult supernature rearing its head along the battle lines of secret societies. It's romance, with Loyd discovering love and sexuality on the road. It's even philosophy, with entire chapters devoted to Loyd's ruminations on time, language, and perception.
Each chapter, in fact, introduces enough new plotlines and idiosyncratic characters to supply its own novel. You can either allow yourself to get caught up in the whirlwind, or run for cover. If all this sounds like too much for one book to bear the weight of, it is. But the madness of the whole endeavor is both admirable and contagious, reminding me a little of the brilliant, dense clutter of Alan Moore's history-spanning, genre gumbo comic book series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
It all begins in 1844, with five-year-old genius Loyd Meadhorn Sitturd and his parents, Hephaestus and Rapture, an unsuccessful inventor and a Creole medicine woman, setting off on a journey from Zanesville, Ohio towards Texas in search of a new life. Loyd is preternaturally precocious, a polymath far surpassing his father's skill as an inventor, dwarfing the intellects of any and all of the adults around him. Saknussemm's omniscient third-person narrator is conversational and far from reticent, revealing much about the characters in gushes of exposition, such as the fact that:
There was a scary side to the child [Loyd] . . . as Hephaestus had discovered to his disgust and anguish one afternoon when he interrupted the young student in the midst of a vivisection of his once favorite Flemish giant rabbit, Phineas. (p. 36)
This "scary side" is well exploited by Saknussemm, who often makes it unclear whether Loyd will succumb to his darker instincts and whether he will use his formidable genius for "good" or for "evil" (the steampunk-ish retro-futurism inherent in his vision of the Old West makes it a setting that begs for the presence of the mad machinist and genius supervillain that lurks in Loyd's potentialities). The thematic specter of that dead rabbit comes back to haunt Loyd in unusual ways as he struggles with his enormous capacity to direct the course of the history he is a part of.
Loyd's inner conflict is analogous to the aeons-long secret war between two secret societies, the Spirosians and the Vardogers (who loosely seem to represent good and evil, or a sociocultural id and superego for the world), which Loyd unwittingly becomes a part of. Humans need both id and superego, and this truth becomes rather sinister when applied to these shadowy entities warring behind (and directing) the history of Loyd's world. And so we come to sympathize with Loyd even when he proves himself cold and calculating, cruel and sadistic; because this is a child that represents his young and growing country. And not just his country, but his whole race—a floundering young creature, capable of brilliance, compassion, and evil, without a clue as to how to align himself to those nebulous human concepts of justice and fairness and find his place in a confusing and bewildering universe.
Though he holds the potential to become either a messianic superhero or supervillain (he is at times reminiscent of Dune's Paul Atreides, or Ender from Ender's Game), Loyd is still a scared little child in way over his head. And how: the labyrinthine nature of the various plots he finds himself in can't even begin to be described in a few paragraphs.
The problem with so much being stuffed into one book is that the novel is filled with fascinating subtext and thematic echoes that never fulfill their promise and are never explored as fully as they deserve to be. For example, the fact that a male child carries messianic promise in the story—as in other speculative fiction bildungsromans like the aforementioned Dune and Ender's Game—but is somehow dependent on or shaped by the females in his life, seems to hold great weight in the story. Loyd at one point meets a female Spirosian leader, tellingly named Mother Tongue (tying in with the prominent theme of language, which I will also discuss), who tells him that Spiros, "the original philosopher-scientist," was said to be "a hermaphrodite—both a male and a female" (p.119).
Loyd, too, carries with him a female aspect; the "ghost" of his twin sister Lodema who died at birth, whom he venerates like a deity. He also discovers his sexuality long before the age of puberty, and his "lovers" and the effect they have on him become a formative part of his change in the course of the bildungsroman. These are compelling hints that point to something significant, but none of them are explored in any depth, and remain only hints. Parallels can be drawn to the Spirosians and Vardogers representing the male and female aspects or impulses of human socio-historical progress, and Loyd having to choose one or the other or find balance between the two, but the promise of this thematic richness should be evident without resorting to critical analysis.
The lack of answers or closure makes the story feel like the first part of a trilogy, which isn't a quality standalone novel should have. Saknussemm's 2005 novel Zanesville possibly exists in the same universe as this one, but since the book makes no mention of Enigmatic Pilot being part of a series, and there is no indication that Saknussemm will write a sequel to it, I'm judging it on that basis. Ultimately, the story's appealing profusion of ideas, characters, and events leads one to expect a thunderous revelation that never comes, leaving a hankering for another novel or two's worth of further exploration.
Yet, I forgave Saknussemm this lack of resolution. Yet, I was never less than absorbed, from beginning to end.
As the Professor, a charlatan and traveling showman, says to Loyd in response to the latter's assertion that all the showman does is fool people:
As a rule, people like to be fooled. If you mean inspired, surprised, delighted—made to wonder and to wish for things. If I can make the world bigger and brighter for a moment for some boot stone or put even a tintype star in the eye of some leather-skinned lass, where's the crime in that? (p. 86)
When I read those words, it occurred to me that that's what's going on here. This is a novel made, as so many good stories are, to fool its readers into thinking that they're moments (or sentences) away from glimpsing the ultimate truth of its universe, which is close enough to our own to further convince said reader that Saknussemm is unveiling the grand truth behind all time and space, behind human existence itself. That the novel is just a puppet-show prelude to the final act, where Saknussemm will pull away the curtains of reality to reveal our puppet-masters and their ancient, awful, glorious, terrifying plan. This is what makes this book so compelling, so readable.
Of course, the novel doesn't reveal the truth behind its universe, nor ours, no more than any book can. But Saknussemm pulls this trick of leading his audience on with the promise of meaning off intelligently, not pointlessly (unlike, say, the misdirections of a narrative like TV's Lost). By making observances both obvious—"The world is not always what you think it is, and history is most certainly not what you have been told" (p.120)—and insightful—"it is through the study and practice of illusion that we learn the art and science of the truth" (p.123)—he delineates the idea that reading a book is a metaphor for the creation of human history, because language creates history, and language itself is an illusory way of perceiving an unfathomable universe and our passage through it.
The novel works because of these thematic cues, which urge the reader to draw a meaningful truth of her own from the various puzzle pieces presented, even as Loyd tries to do the same. Though these puzzle pieces are delivered through the mouthpiece of a narrator and characters, in them we can discern the author bolstering the reader for the ultimate lack of resolution—there is no one singular truth at the end of the novel because truth itself, like history or time, is a subjective illusion.
And so reading this novel becomes an act of creation on the part of the reader, of crafting the history of an alternate world by taking control of its enigmas like, perhaps, a pilot.
There is a reason, then, that Loyd wonders: "What would human culture look like—or sound like—outside language?" (p. 294). Like nothing we can imagine, because we imagine according to language, according to the medium with which we're taught to decode the world. Books are little worlds in and of themselves, because they contain their own unique arrangements of language, acting as prismatic lenses with which to see our perceptions anew. As human beings, we are our own puppet-masters, and that is something Saknussemm is acutely aware of.
He uses that awareness to craft a rich entertainment, something to tickle the senses and the intellect. It may all be a bedazzlement of smoke and mirrors, but it makes you think, without sacrificing the visceral thrills of good entertainment. For all his discussions of language as illusion, Saknussemm never loses the tactile reality of his world, constantly serving up striking images like "skinned rabbits swarming with yellow jackets" (p.59) or "Travel-weary Baptist women as stiff as split-oak rails . . . stirring great boiling kettles of laundry with fence pickets" (p.238). His vivid writing keeps the reader immersed in the novel's frontier world, a shadow of the one we know from our "history," populated with ghosts from out of time who are no less real for their transposition into our personal reality. Consequently, the dangers to our young hero feel as real as the world he lives in.
Saknussemm makes his point, one indicated by the novel's subtitle (A Tall Tale Too True), brazenly: every human idea, no matter how outlandish, is real, because language makes it so. Language, literature, and history are already fantasy, which makes fantasy as real as everything else we perceive—and you don't need genre for that to be true. It's only apt that he uses language to solidify the uncertainty and wonder of the human experience into one synesthetic tome; a flashy magic trick that gives the illusion that it contains all human ideas, distilled into one boy's archetypal journey towards something surpassing even adulthood.
Enigmatic Pilot is about—to paraphrase Saknussemm—finding the place where the mind ends and the world begins, and rendering it flesh. It's rambling, freewheeling philosophy as gut-punchy, gritty pulp entertainment, and I didn't mind it a bit.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, Apex Magazine, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or his Flickr page.