In his slim but beguiling novel Equilateral, Ken Kalfus places us inside the heads of his characters with such deftness that the line between what is true and what they believe to be true fades to obscurity. It's no coincidence that the heads in question belong to scientists who pride themselves on their evidence-based worldview; Kalfus delights in having readers continually gauge and recalibrate the distance between the world and his characters' seemingly objective observations of it. It's this same tension that provides Equilateral with its narrative engine, propelling us further and further into the story in search of definitive answers.
As the 19th century neared its end, astronomers made a stunning announcement: They had documented the presence of an elaborate system of canals on the surface of the planet Mars. Several scientists went even further, asserting that they had also witnessed shifts in the coloration of Mars' surface consistent with seasonal vegetation, proving that these canals were, in fact, an elaborate and fantastically advanced system for irrigating the planet's parched red desert.
These so-called canals were soon revealed to be natural surface formations. But in the alternate history Equilateral constructs, that infamous instance of conjecture overtaking evidence provides the impetus for the single largest feat of human engineering ever undertaken.
The brilliant astronomer Sanford Thayer manages to convince the world's governments — and several private investors — to inscribe into the shifting sands of Egypt's Western Desert a simple geometric sign of almost unimaginable scale, an equilateral triangle so huge it will prove to Martian astronomers that human beings are here, and ready for first contact:
"This figure, so easy to draw on a sheet of foolscap, requires more vigorous exertion when carved into the desert, each side 306 miles and 1,633 yards in length, precisely 1/73rd of the Earth's circumference ... each side a trench five miles in width."
As the novel opens, construction of the Equilateral, undertaken grudgingly by 900,000 Arab fellaheen, is beset by delays. Thayer burns to complete the project, as the brief window when Mars and Earth will pass closest to one another is fast approaching. When his metaphorical fever becomes a literal one (malarial, specifically), his ruthlessly efficient secretary, Miss Keaton, quietly assumes control of the undertaking. Meanwhile, Thayer is tended to by an alluring Egyptian servant girl whose name he doesn't bother to learn.
Ken Kalfus' 2006 novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, was nominated for a National Book Award.
A straightforward setup with clear stakes, perhaps, but Kalfus' approach is a layered one: Equilateral's seemingly objective narrative voice remains so close to Thayer's perspective that it slowly manages to insinuate itself into the reader's consciousness, ultimately implicating us in Thayer's Victorian, colonialist worldview:
"The girl looks very much like [Thayer's servant], with the olive skin and almond eyes characteristic of the Near East's women. As a rule, males and females of the Eastern races do not display the variety of physical characteristics that distinguish individuals among the Europeans. Compare, say, Miss Sarah Bernhardt with Miss Eleonora Duse; both lovely and talented, yet as different in appearance from each other as the ocean and the sky (with the tempestuous Divine Sarah being the ocean, of course). Thayer can't be blamed for confusing the identity of two ordinary Arab serving girls."
Kalfus allows us to sense, bubbling furiously beneath his intentionally stiff-necked, very British, pleasantly fusty prose, Thayer's growing capacity of self-deception. Yet there is real tension here, as we find ourselves wondering just how alternate the book's alternate history will prove, and whether, for example, the furious activity Thayer's telescope descries on the surface of Mars may be something more than wishful thinking.
Equilateral's central conceit — that Thayer and his colleagues would so fixedly obsess and yearn for the distant world of Mars that they consistently ignore the world of Egypt that surrounds them, teeming as it does with breathing, bleeding, entirely nontheoretical life — isn't a particularly subtle one. Which is why it's so gratifying that Kalfus' novel weighs in at an economical 207 pages.
Yet given the richness of Kalfus' multilayered approach to storytelling, the book's brevity doesn't make it seem slight. Instead, Equilateral reads as a compact and deeply satisfying work of fiction, which, moreover, boasts that rarest of endings: one that's surprising yet, if you've been reading closely, inevitable.