‘His cursor hovered over the send button for a moment and then, with the terrified bravery of a defeated general plunging his sword into his own abdomen, he clicked it.’ –A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

August 17, 2019 at 2:59 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Oscar Boatwright is a 29-yearold professor of philosophy at an unnamed California college. He is single and lives in a small apartment. It’s a frugal, almost ascetic existence, in which nothing very dramatic occurs. Then things begin to happen.

This is the novel’s opening sentence:

Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a  flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body.

Every traveler’s nightmare, right? This awful happening and Oscar’s grief over it underlie all that happens next.  And as if this is not enough, his father has some disturbing revelations to impart.

But this is not what the novel is actually about, or not entirely. Oscar flies back home to Indiana with his father (also accompanied by his mother’s ‘remains’). After the funeral, he returns to California. He is still disoriented by grief. Over the weekend, after a short stint at a bar, he takes a comely young woman home. He doesn’t actually know her. He beds her, and the sex is  great.  (I’d like to note at this point that the erotic passages in this book are beautifully written, no mean feat, as we all know.)

On Monday, Oscar returns to teaching. The semester is just beginning. It’s an Introduction to Philosophy class. He stands in front of the room, surveying the group. A disturbing revelation awaits him.

Now at this point, I thought I knew where the story was headed. I was wrong – very wrong. The narrative careens forward at a frenzied pace, toward developments that are completely unanticipated, at least by me.. The tension was so great  that I had to keep putting the book down, in order to regain some semblance of equilibrium. And all this time, the writing is replete with the kind of figurative language that I’m glad writers still know how to deploy.. It’s like firecrackers going off at irregular intervals. Oh, and there is humor, also, albeit of the darkest hue.

Oscar could feel a great force amassing itself just outside his city walls, just  beyond his perception, and for an instant he was able to appreciate the inevitability of his own destruction, truly understood with a loving acceptance, but the it was gone.
Even when during the day he paused to suss out a point in a paper he was reading or to spar with an astute student (in other words, when he was “doing philosophy”), his thoughts had a way of functioning alongside language: solving problems, achieving tasks, figuring things out through dialectic. But in the dark, his thoughts became unhinged from physical or linguistic application and floated above him as a meaningless terror.

(That is some powerful cogitation. No wonder  he grabbed a beer right afterwards.)

A line of Schopenhauer returned to him, one that he had committed to memory as an undergraduate: “Does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?” Once, he had found it funny.
It is nighttime, like now, and the stars are even brighter, not yet robbed by science of  their mystery….
Oscar understood that he was having one of  those moments, he figured you might only get one in each epoch of your life, where  the massive clockwork that ticks just outside  the boundaries of perception in order to maintain the motion of reality is revealed for a single instant, and something totally inexplicable and impossible becomes perfectly, obviously clear.

The issue of free will versus determinism keeps percolating to the surface of this novel. Oscar has actually written a paper on combatibilism, a school of though which seeks to reconcile the two.

As I was reading this novel, I kept recalling the opening sentence of Dickens’s David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

In my estimation,  A Philosophy of Ruin is a bravura performance. I hope for more from this exceptionally gifted author.

Nicholas Mancusi

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