I have two confessions to make — long-hidden nerd secrets about which I simply have to come clean. One: I read science fiction. A lot. And two: If things aren't funny, I tend to ignore them. I realize this doesn't fit the image of a literary novelist who writes about serious issues, and that it also puts me in good company with most socially challenged middle-school boys. But that's just how it is. At some point we have to accept ourselves.
So it is with the full weight of my geek-cred that I tell you: You must read Karel Capek's The Absolute at Large. A piece of genre work so hilariously sophisticated, revelatory and stealthy, it delivers one of the highest subtextual critiques of modern society while achieving the lowest of lowbrow accomplishments — among them making the reader spit her drink, split her sides and suffer a full three minutes of post-hilarity hiccups.
In The Absolute at Large, the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance as the world is overtaken by fundamentalist religious fervor caused by an invention called the Karburator that produces free energy and releases "God" or "the Absolute" as a byproduct; something initially mistaken by the novel's protagonist as a poison gas because of the way it affects people's behavior.
Once God is unlocked from all of the places it resides, a multiplicity of religions spring up — the church of industrial machinery and the church of the merry-go-round compete for worshippers while the businessman who invented the Karburator hides in the mountains away from the deleterious side effects of new energy (one of which is giving money to the poor).
I also love this novel because of the scenes that take place in a variety of harried newsrooms, with baffled reporters struggling to turn out papers amid an outbreak of madness that threatens to engulf their objectivity.
Capek's dialog is fantastic, his characters richly drawn. But his vision of a world transcendently captivated by an apparent higher calling and then hoodwinked into war for nine years over a source of fuel is so prescient, it makes the novel seem like it was written today.
Cara Hoffman is the author of So Much Pretty.
Capek wrote the book in the 1920s, and the work presaged two of my favorite authors, George Orwell and Philip K. Dick. More modern examples of Capek's reach can easily be seen in The Onion and off the page in The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But Capek is not as distant, nor as desensitized a narrator.
The Absolute at Large illustrates perfectly how important social critique can be slipped into genre fiction and is able to have a broader impact as a result. The novel is as accurate as any work of nonfiction, as slyly weighty and refreshingly un-mannered as some of the best literary work out there. It lifts the veil on the dystopic slapstick of politics and religion, and, through wit and surrealist speculation, delivers the reader to understanding like administering a pill to a dog in a spoonful of peanut butter — or, should I say, the Eucharist to the supplicant in the form of a waxy white wafer.
Do yourself a favor and read this book. It has never been more timely or significant, and the jokes just never get old.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.
The Absolute at Large By Karel Capek Paperback, 248 pages Bison Books List Price $17.95
Chapter 1: The Advertisement
On New Year's Day, 1943, C. H. Bondy, head of the great Metallo-Electric Company, was sitting as usual reading his paper. He skipped the news from the theatre of war rather disrespectfully, avoided the Cabinet crisis, then crowded on sail (for the People's Journal, which had grown long ago to five times its ancient size, now afforded enough canvas for an ocean voyage) for the Finance and Commerce section. Here he cruised about for quite a while, then furled his sails, and abandoned himself to his thoughts.
"The Coal Crisis!" he said to himself. "Mines getting worked out; the Ostrava basin suspending work for years. Heavens above, it's a sheer disaster! We'll have to import Upper Silesian coal. Just work out what that will add to the cost of our manufacturers, and then talk about competition. We're in a pretty fix. And if Germany raises her tariff, we may as well shut up shop. And the Industrial Banks going down, too! What a wretched state of affairs! What a hopeless, stupid, stifling state of affairs! Oh, damn the crisis!"
Here G. H. Bondy, Chairman of the Board of Directors, came to a pause. Something was fidgeting him and would not let him rest. He traced it back to the last page of his discarded newspaper. It was the syllable TION, only part of a word, for the fold of the paper came just in front of the T. It was this very incompleteness which had so curiously impressed itself upon him.
"Well, hang it, it's probably IRON PRODUCTION," Bondy pondered vaguely, "or PREVENTION, or, maybe, RESTITUTION....And the Azote shares have gone down, too. The stagnation's simply shocking. The position's so bad that it's ridiculous.... But that's nonsense: who would advertise the RESTITUTION of anything? More likely RESIGNATION. It's sure to be RESIGNATION."
With a touch of annoyance, G. H. Bondy spread out the newspaper to dispose of this irritating word. It had now vanished amid the chequering of the small advertisements. He hunted for it from one column to another, but it had concealed itself with provoking ingenuity. Mr. Bondy then worked from the bottom up, and finally started again from the right-hand side of the page. The contumacious "tion" was not to be found.
Mr. Bondy did not give in. He refolded the paper along its former creases, and behold, the detestable TION leaped forth on the very edge. Keeping his finger firmly on the spot, he swiftly spread the paper out once more, and found — Mr. Bondy swore under his breath. It was nothing but a very modest, very commonplace small advertisement:
Highly remunerative, suitable for any factory, for immediate sale, personal reasons. Apply R. Marek, Engineer, Brevnov, 1651.
"So that's all it was!" thought G. H. Bondy. "Some sort of patent braces; just a cheap swindle or some crazy fellow's pet plaything. And here I've wasted five minutes on it! I'm getting scatter-brained myself. What a wretched state of affairs! And not a hint of improvement anywhere!"
He settled himself in a rocking-chair to savour in more comfort the full bitterness of this wretched state of affairs. True, the M.E.C. had ten factories and 34,000 employees. The M.E.C. was the leading producer of iron. The M.E.C. had no competitor as regards boilers. The M.E.C. grates were world-famous. But after thirty years' hard work, gracious Heavens, surely one would have got bigger results elsewhere....
G. H. Bondy sat up with a jerk. "R. Marek, Engineer; R. Marek, Engineer. Half a minute: mightn't that be that red-haired Marek — let's see, what was his name? Rudolph, Rudy Marek, my old chum Rudy of the Technical School? Sure enough, here it is in the advertisement: 'R. Marek, Engineer.' Rudy, you rascal, is it possible? Well, you've not got on very far in the world, my poor fellow! Selling 'a highly remunerative invention.' Ha! Ha! '...for personal reasons.' We know all about those 'personal reasons.' No money, isn't that what it is? You want to catch some jay of a manufacturer on a nicely limed 'patent,' do you? Oh, well, you always had rather a notion of turning the world upside down. Ah, my lad, where are all our fine notions now! And those extravagant, romantic days when we were young!"
Bondy lay back in his chair once more.
"It's quite likely it really is Marek," he reflected. "Still, Marek had a head for science. He was a bit of a talker, but there was a touch of genius about the lad. He had ideas. In other respects he was a fearfully unpractical fellow. An absolute fool, in fact. It's very surprising that he isn't a Professor," mused Mr. Bondy. "I haven't set eyes on him for twenty years. God knows what he has been up to; perhaps he's come right down in the world. Yes, he must be down and out, living away over in Brevnov, poor chap ... and getting a living out of inventions! What an awful finish!"
He tried to imagine the straits of the fallen inventor. He managed to picture a horribly shaggy and disheveled head, surrounded by dismal paper walls like those in a film. There is no furniture, only a mattress in the corner, and a pitiful model made of spools, nails, and match-ends on the table. A murky window looks out on a little yard. Upon this scene of unspeakable indigence enters a visitor in rich furs. "I have come to have a look at your invention." The half-blind inventor fails to recognize his old schoolfellow. He humbly bows his tousled head, looks about for a seat to offer to his guest, and then, oh Heaven! with his poor, stiff, shaking fingers he tries to get his sorry invention going — it's some crazy perpetual motion device — and mumbles confusedly that it should work, and certainly would work, if only he had ... if only he could buy . . . The fur-coated visitor looks all around the garret, and suddenly he takes a leather wallet from his pocket and lays on the table one, two (Mr. Bondy takes fright and cries "That's enough!") three thousand-crown notes. ("One would have been quite enough ... to go on with, I mean," protests something in Mr. Bondy's brain.)
"There is ... something to carry on the work with, Mr. Marek. No, no, you're not in any way indebted to me. Who am I? That doesn't matter. Just take it that I am a friend."
Excerpted from The Absolute at Large by Karel Capek. Copyright 2005 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Published by Bison Books. All rights reserved.