Review of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
I was surprised by this book, first, because it was not science fiction. At least, in my opinion.
Nothing supernatural happens, though the characters concert toward a supernatural goal. To me, this was a realist novel, driven by the four main characters. It is told in alternating first person, with each of 42 short chapters labeled with the narrating character’s name. There is some repetition, and about 25% of the content relates to the sexual psychology of college-age males, with the backward political incorrectness characteristic of the sixties. Oliver, Ned, Eli, and Timothy are the main players in the drama, and they are pitted against one another in a trial that begins as a comradely, light-hearted road novel with dark undertones.
The essence of what they are doing is seeking immortality, cheating death. In their reckless, short lives, they have never attempted something so ridiculous and so serious. They travel in a group toward a cult-like enclave destination in Arizona to fulfill sacred rites outlined in an esoteric text they stumbled upon. Along the way we learn more about their relationships with stray women (objects of desire) and one another, but most of all, we witness their delving into themselves. The internal monologues are raw, unfiltered, and crass, reducing human experience into a tunneling wormhole of psychological insight. It is rude, profane, and American in its concerns and discussions of privilege, religion, free-thinking, free-acting, self-indulgence, and regard for the underlying impetus of mankind’s existence. With Silverberg’s salacious style, the book sustains high-level readability while challenging the reader to predict the outcome and figure out the hidden depths of character beneath the clichéd surface personas initially presented.
In the spirit of denying society’s strictures, these children learn what it means to grow up, to face themselves and to attain a deeper understanding of their flaws.
Silverberg is an incredible author, not only for the 25 million words he published, but because he never once passed a Bechdel test within his entire ouevre. He channeled a massive fount of inspiration and determination to grind out mountains of literary material, some of which is actually worth reading. Sometimes you will wonder if he could go two pages without bringing up sex, but then you read something like Lord Valentine’s Castle and the plethora of ideas are resonant in a fictional world brimming with life. In his best work, Silverberg makes for very addictive reading. If you can stomach his personality, which is unveiled more often than not, he can stand next to the greats in the science fiction pantheon.
I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s realist novels while reading this. Don’t go in expecting science fiction or fantasy. I will be reading many more Silverberg novels, but will he be able to top this?
Why is it so good? That’s hard to pin down. The simple premise works. It’s nothing revolutionary, but the intent and voice and execution are clear, hard-edged, and pristine. The prose is lucid in its fluid arguments. The central conceit is universal in nature, and memorable. The ending is powerful because the astute reader will see it coming from a mile off. It all fits together.
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