War of the Encyclopaedists: Review


'War of the Encyclopaedists' cover

Title & Authors: War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite
Genre: Literary Fiction, War
Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In a superb, rare literary collaboration, two major new talents join their voices to tell the story of a generation at a crossroads, and a friendship that stretches over continents and crises–from the liberal arena of Boston academia to the military occupation of Iraq–in this ambitious and electrifying debut novel.

On a summer night, in the arty enclave of Capitol Hill, Seattle, best friends Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy throw one last blowout party before their lives part ways. At twenty-three, they had planned to move together to Boston for graduate school, but global events have intervened: Montauk has just learned that his National Guard unit will deploy to Baghdad at the end of the summer. In the confusion of this altered future, Corderoy is faced with a moral dilemma: his girlfriend Mani has just been evicted and he must decide whether or not to abandon her when she needs him most. He turns to Montauk for help. His decision that night, and its harrowing outcome, sets in motion a year that will transform all three of them.

Months later, Corderoy and Montauk grapple with their new identities as each deals with his own muted disappointment. In Boston, Corderoy finds himself unable to play the game of intellectual one-upmanship with the ease and grace of his new roommate Tricia, a Harvard graduate student and budding human rights activist. Half a world away, in Baghdad, Montauk struggles to lead his platoon safely through an increasingly violent and irrational war. As their lives move further away from their shared dream, Corderoy and Montauk keep in touch with one another by editing a Wikipedia article about themselves: smart and funny updates that morph and deepen throughout the year, culminating in a document that is both devastatingly tragic and profoundly poetic.

Fast-moving and compulsively readable, War of the Encyclopaedists beats with the energetic pulse of idealistic youth on the threshold of adult reality. “A wise and wise-assed first novel…with sweep and heart and humor” (Mary Karr, author of Liar’s Club and Lit) it is the vital, urgent, and utterly absorbing lament of a new generation searching for meaning and hope in a fractured world.

I received War of the Encyclopaedists in a recent Book People Trust Fall shipment. While I wasn’t a big fan of the primary book in the shipment, Barefoot Dogs, I held out hope that I would enjoy this one. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed War of the Encyclopaedists, though I did find it lacking in some areas.

The main characters–Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoyare witty and sarcastic, much like the book itself. I somehow seem to really enjoy books that are set amongst the backdrop of war and this was no exception. What makes WOTE unique is the fact that it’s set during such a recent war: just after the tragedy of 9/11 and the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the book is set in the recent past, things were familiar yet slightly foreign. Reading about what the characters were doing during the attack, or as the Twin Towers fell, was familiar; I’ve had that conversation myself many times.

Corderoy and Montauk both graduated from the University of Washington but met randomly in Rome. They quickly bonded and became close friends. After returning to the States, they started throwing monthly art exhibits/parties of a very hipster variety, calling themselves The Encyclopaedists and christening Montauk’s domicile the Encyclopad. The two planned to move to Boston to start their grad programs but Montauk, a reservist, was called to serve in Iraq. At their last party, Corderoy gets nervous about his girlfriend–Mani–possibly wanting to move in so he abandons her at the party, like you do. She of course winds up getting hit by a car the next morning. The guys visit her in the hospital but leave before she wakes up.

Montauk and Corderoy want to stay in touch but know that they’ll never exchange letters via mail, so they decide to update a Wikipedia page (that they created) about the Encyclopaedists in order to communicate what’s happening in their lives. I guess it worked for them but it would be too cryptic for me. Many of their posts made me want to scream because they were so vague and hipster-y; others were filled with beautiful, haunting prose.

Corderoy goes to Boston without Montauk to start his grad program. Montauk stays in Seattle for a bit for his training before heading out to war. During this time he get reunited with Mani, who has nowhere to stay after being discharged from the hospital. He feels bad and lets her stay with him. They become close and ultimately get married so that Mani can get support from the military while Montauk is away. (He feels bad about how he and Corderoy left things.) Of course he tells none of this to Corderoy because reasons.

In Boston, Corderoy is involved in his grad program and spends a lot of time feeling out of place. He befriends a pretty girl on Myspace [remember Myspace? Awww…] and has some awkward interactions with her. His roommate–Tricia– is infatuated with a war photographer and wants to be a war journalist (largely to be closer to the photographer, I think).

While some things are described in detail, others felt barely sketched out. Mani, for instance: why was everyone so enthralled with her? She was an artist, described as being beautiful, and seemed to always need a man to take care of her in one way or another. Other than that, I don’t remember much about her. It seemed as though the authors ran out of time to create a full character, or just fell back on some tropes. There were some interesting moments with her, particularly related to the art she created, but we never really got to know her as a person. I know she wasn’t the main character but I had no reason to care about her.

And Tricia…she wants to be a war journalist to hang out with this handsome photographer, then she starts a relationship with Montauk (who she’d originally met via Corderoy in Boston) in Iraq. The two trade information and meet in shady locations to have sex. It feels like another female character who needs men to have a purpose.

At the end, someone removes the Wikipedia page about the Encylopaedists because it had no real meaning and was a bunch of gibberish. Nothing lasts forever, even online.

Verdict: WOTE was enjoyable overall and had some good moments. It was decently written (some parts were exceptionally beautiful) and had some enjoyable characters, though others fell flat. I think the book would have been more successful with a bit more revision and if the female characters hadn’t felt like such complete afterthoughts.

Recommend for: people who enjoy coming of age novels and/or novels set during war-time, especially if you don’t need too much character development.

Price: around $13 (Kindle and paperback) or $19 (hardcover) on Amazon.

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