Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Tales from Novel-Space: the Sumerian Waitresses of Planet Pluto

My exploration of novel-space is leading me to an endless series of discoveries. Novels may be a way to probe the human mind, or simply a way to peer into new and different universes. And, I must say, highly chaotic universes. Yet, as Terence said, "nothing human is alien to me", then there has to be a logic even in the weirdest novels I can put my hands on. Recently, I found myself reading in parallel two novels which couldn't be more different. One was "Diligent Waitress" by Yewande Erinle (2010), the other "Into Plutonian Depths" by Stanton Coblentz (1933).

Beware: reading these two novels together may short-circuit your mind and generate the "Necronomicon Effect" - you surely know about the metabook imagined by Howard Lovecraft which drives mad whoever reads it. I think I survived the effect, but let me go on.

Let me start with the "Diligent Waitress." This is a book that I wouldn't believe could exist if I didn't have it in my hands. To explain what I mean, let me report an excerpt from the introduction:
The Lord is looking for men and women who will wait on Him, just like a waiter would on you. He wants us to wait on Him always with our trays filled with praise and worship for him. As you approach him with your tray, he begins to take in the sweet aroma of what's on ite and He comes down for a better view of what you have chosen to serve Him with. He delights in what's on your tray and more importantly He loves it when you wait for Him to finish ejoying His meal. He wants to hear you ask Him for His needs and He wants you to keep Him company, too. God has desires too. 
I don't know if you find this as amazing as I do. This is pure Sumerian: it is the concept that humans are the "stewards of the Gods" - an idea invented some 5 thousand years ago. In the myth of Enki, we read that the Gods decided to create humans in order to serve them. And there is more in Ms. Erinle's book: the protagonist, Hadassah, speaks with God all the time, she hears Him giving her good advice and that's the normal thing in her world: everybody she knows (that is, the good people) hear the voice of God. This is a phenomenon described by Julian Jaynes in his book, "The Origin of Consciousness" (1976). An attitude that was typical of ancient civilizations, long ago people spoke with their Gods and they spoke to them. Today, most of us would find it strange to hear the voice of God ringing in our head but, at the same time, we think it is normal to keep speaking to Him, although he doesn't answer.

I don't know if Ms. Erinle is an expert in Sumerian culture. But we don't need to be Sumerians to chat with God. Read the book by Tanya Luhrmann, "When God Talks Back" (2012) and you see how this idea is common with American Evangelicals. Why such an attitude is re-emerging today in our Western civilization is hard to say, but it does. In any case, as a literary piece, "Diligent Waitress" moves on slowly, but with a certain inner logic. It is the story of Hadassah, nice, Christian girl who learns how to speak with God, becomes a diligent waitress, marries her boyfriend, and in the end becomes the owner of three restaurants. Not exactly the "epic" genre, but it has a certain charm that makes it much more readable than ancient Sumerian Hymns.

Then, let's go to the other book: Into Plutonian Depths. I think I can say that this is one of the worst novels I ever read. The problem is not so much because it is poorly written - it is, but it is not so bad. Nor because it is a boring book: it is not. It is a book full of inventions and the plot moves onward at a fast pace. And you have to recognize to Mr. Coblentz a remarkable originality. In 1933, the idea of extraterrestrial civilizations was an absolute novelty that was just starting to be explored in the following decades by many science fiction authors.

It is a bad novel, rather, because it is such a nasty story. The protagonists are two Americans named Andy and Dan (Coblentz was not so original in naming his characters). They travel a billion miles to Pluto to find a sophisticated and gentle civilization existing in the depths of the planet. But the Earthlings don't seem to be especially impressed and they do their best to regain their spaceship and return. In the process, They behave horribly in various ways. Just to give you an idea, the Plutonians are said to be vegetarians and the two Earthlings don't like the food they are served. So, they feel entitled to kill, roast, and eat an animal they happen to stumble upon - something that their hosts correctly find gross and disgusting. But the worse is how they seduce a poor Plutonian girl only to leave her alone to her destiny while they manage to get back to their ship and go back to Earth.  

No, really, these two guys went all the way to Pluto behave like hooligans in a trip to follow their football team. You could say that this novel is "entertaining" but it is the kind of entertainment that you could get from kicking people's butts. And if you think of it as a metaphor of how Westerners tend to behave with non-Western people, well, it is nasty, indeed. If Mr. Coblentz had written a sequel to this novel (fortunately he didn't) he might have described how the Earth forces invaded Pluto and exterminated the natives.

So, why did I put together these two novels? One reason is that, as I said, novel-space is an incredible place, full of the strangest things. It is amazing that the authors are creatures belonging to the same species (homo sapiens) - you would rather think that one of the authors is Plutonian, the other an Earthling. So, both novels are completely absurd if compared to the real universe: do you find stranger that Pluto is inhabited by human-like creatures or that an all-powerful, invisible being cares about what you serve Him at his table? But that's the miracle of literature - the impossible is possible in novel-space.

Perhaps the point I find most interesting is that there is an unexpected link between these two novels. You know what is metafiction, I guess. It is the contamination of plot elements and of characters from a novel to another - the equivalent of DNA mixing in biology. And there is a metafiction element that links the Pluto novel to the waitress novel. In a sense, the Christian protagonists of Enrile's novel look like the Plutonians of Coblentz's novel. They are gentle, nice, good, law abiding, and a little boring. Plutonians are not said to have a religion, but they have a sort of lamp on their head that makes them look in part as fireflies, but also like the Christian saints as they are depicted in paintings, with supernatural "auras" around their heads. Metafiction at the extreme level! Plutonians and Evangelical Christians, what can you ask more?

In the end, Ms. Erinle's novel may be a little boring, but it is immensely superior to the entertaining but nasty novel by Coblentz. Never forget that the meek will inherit the Earth (and perhaps also Pluto)

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