Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space

There are so many books published every year, such a deluge of good, bad, and indifferent writing, that it's easy for books--even very good books--to disappear. They get tucked onto shelves, or added to reading lists only to be forgotten about. And eventually time passes and they haven't become classics so they fall out of print. Which is all to say that there are more good books than there's time to read and as a result, every reader has their little--or big--mental list of books that aren't as well known as they deserve to be and/or are out of print when they should be in print. Kathryn Cramer's A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space is one of the books on my list. I bought it several years ago at a Strand sidewalk sale where you could fill a bag with books for $10. I've been thinking about the book lately and was surprised that I'd never blogged about it before. I must have read it just before I started this particular exercise in solipsism. 

Published in 1984, Handbook now feels very much like a product of it's time. It opens describing a war that isn't the Cold War but resembles it: 
The war had been going on for some time now, through sun and sleet, through lenient days when the buds bloomed according to the old seasons and the light breeze rattling windows and doors brought thoughts of white triangles scudding across a blue surface, through March thaws when the heavy, wet snow slid from the tankslike blankets from people asleep.

No one knew when the war had started, by whom or with what purpose. It had not been declared. Those who tried to join up could not discover where to present themselves. They knocked on doors of official-looking buildings, wrote letters to the government, but received no response. The government appeared to draft its forces according to some rationale not divulged to the public. Nor did it provide information about the progress of the war; ambiguous reports occasionally appeared in the newspapers but were printedin the back pages among advertisements for notepaper and knitting wool, so that onehad to look hard to find them. Tradition, people complatined, entitled them to more than vague uneasiness--someplace to volunteer their services for the wounded, a slogan or two, a battle hymn. But in this war there was nothing to do except wait around to see what would happen next.

An apocalyptic novel (which is normally really not my thing) that revolves around the disintegration of the traditional world and of meaning, Handbook slots in nicely with contemporary post-modern novels like White Noise.  Except without the pop culture reference piled atop pop culture references (which are also really not my thing). Instead Cramer gives us a memorably quirky royal family in exile, about as far removed from popular culture as it's possible to be.
"Royalty in exile is a curse, like insanity or an enherited inclination to murder," the woman who had called herself the Crown Princess Theobalda said on her deathbed. "Find the cure!" she whispered hoarsely, and expired. (This was in New Jersey, in 1902.) But her son Langoustino (so named in tribute to one of the Crown Princess's gastronomical fondnesses, not by way of a clue to the Ludwickers' country of origin) was more impressed by the cleverness of his mother's epigram than by its entreaty and did little during his unofficial reign to advance the family cause. His only contribution was to produce, with the half-hearted assistance of a frivolous but apathetic local girl named Jeannine, four children to carry on the Ludwicker line.
The Ludwicker family lives in isolation from the rest of the world, and whenever they leave their estate they upset the balance and bring chaos with them and this clash between old and new is what the book revolves around. But as nutty and divorced from normal people as they are, they do, on a certain level, represent tradition. They're a stand-in for modern people, overwhelmed and unable to comprehend the pace at which the world has changed around them. This is all a tremendous oversimplification of course, and it doesn't sound terribly appealing. I mean, if someone told me about this book I would probably think hmm . . . doesn't sound like my thing. But I love Handbook despite that. Or perhaps because of that. Unexpected loves are always particularly satisfying.

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