By Alistair McCartney
Published February 13, 2008
Reviewed May 25, 2009
While the Internet has wreaked its share of havoc on the newspaper and magazine industries, a less prolific casualty of its spread has been the encyclopedia. The format itself is certainly still popular – moreso than ever in fact with the advent of wikis – but hard-copy, multi-volume encyclopedias have essentially been phased out in favor of easily updated online editions. The new format may be more convenient, but it removes the physical feeling of having complete knowledge in front of you, and the youthful belief that you can learn everything from A to Z.
It’s this feeling that Alistair McCartney clearly longs for, and pays homage to, in his first novel “The End of the World Book.” Well, “novel” doesn’t quite cover it – it’s a work that’s part memoir, part essay, part collection of poetry, part social commentary and part compendium of knowledge. It’s certainly like no book that has ever been written before, an experiment that may not be for all readers but is certainly to be commended for its scope and creativity.
Like an encyclopedia, “The End of the World Book” is split into 26 alphabetical chapters and filled with entries on historical figures and events, professions and religions, activities and items. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia, however, McCartney’s entries are heavily dependent on his own interests and connections, mixing in the names of loved ones and personal totems. Additionally, none of the entries are presented as straight fact, but rather brief prose where he considers just why it is matters.
McCartney falls on this classification system because to him “when faced with existence, it seemed the only thing to do was to describe and categorize.” A melancholy, almost fatalistic tone permeates the entirety of the book, regularly trying to escape into a dreamlike state where each item cataloged can achieve some sense of permanency. While the writing style comes across as overdone for some entries (“you can always find me in the space halfway between the world and its destruction”), the fact that there are hundreds of topics means readers shift easily to the next and not be turned off by the work.
And it’s truly surprising the amount of things that matter to McCartney and what he can write about. In one letter alone – F for example – entries range from the mortality of fingerfucking to flies cutting their wrists to the Dominican monk Fra Angelico to Marie Antoinette’s taste in furniture. It’s random but creative at the same time, each entry going off in a direction sometimes only tangentially related to its topic. As a result some absurd extensions result, such as comparing the Bronte sisters to Los Angeles cholo gangs or speculating on how Franz Kafka would have written gay pornography.
While the format may not lend itself to a narrative, McCartney manages to tell stories by linking up the various entries, using successive articles on hair and dreams as mini-biographies for his childhood. There are also several recurring items: “Anna Karenina” and Kafka make multiple appearances, as do several almost Burroughsian references to young men and assholes (one particularly entertaining section points out no two are the same and they identify as well as fingerprints).
Ironically, “The End of the World Book” ends up something very hard to classify under one word or even one letter. At various points inspiring and frustrating, and by definition not the sort of book to be read in one sitting, it’s an ambitious work that occasionally gets bogged down in pretension but immediately makes you laugh or think with the next entry. McCartney’s entry on the world itself states he loves “every object and every hairline crack in every object,” and that fascination shines through and makes his book as weighty and interesting as any gold-edged encyclopedia volume.