Sunday, March 18, 2007

Review of Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown'

Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown'


SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, March 18, 2007

For reasons that are too obvious to belabor, over the past five years storytellers have become obsessed with the apocalypse. Think of Cormac McCarthy's haunting "The Road," the stunning film adaptation of P.D. James' "Children of Men" and television series such as "Jericho," "Heroes" and "Lost." The common thread among these stories is that each features a group of refugees trying to recover some semblance of their old lives.

Add to this list Matthew Sharpe's "Jamestown," a gonzo re-imagining of the founding of the famous Virginia colony. Sharpe moves the story from 1607 to a post-apocalyptic near future in which the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan are engaged in a war that has left New York besotted with ninja-like assassins.

After watching the Chrysler building tumble into ruin, a coterie of Sun Tzu-toting business executives representing the "Manhattan Company" set forth along Interstate 95 ("whoever controls I-95 controls the world," we're told) in an armored bus for Virginia, where they hope to find food and oil for their war machine. Soon, the would-be colonists/occupiers encounter the "spectacularly ugly" natives, all marked with "an unnaturally reddish hue."

A key element of Sharpe's beguiling, but ultimately baffling, satire is to refashion historical figures into contemporary caricatures. Jamestown's leader, John Smith, has become Jack Smith, a mechanic responsible for maintaining the bus; Algonquian chief Powhatan is recast as a lethargic, fat patriarch; Pocahontas (nicknamed "Poke a Huntress," among other, bawdier names), becomes a gabby, sex-starved "irreverent scamp"; her husband, the tobacco farmer John Rolfe, is reimagined as the book's narrator, Johnny Rolfe, the Manhattan Company's designated "communications officer" who is recording the events on his PDA. New to the story is Powhatan's right-hand man, a psychiatrist named Sidney Feingold (sometimes referred to as "Sit Knee Find Gold").

For the most part, Sharpe hews to what details are known from the historical record. Nearly half of the original Jamestown colonists were self-described "gentlemen" who knew little about surviving in the wilderness. Centuries later, the suit-wearing refugees are no different, derided by the natives as a "pack of weaklings" without "a single skill to live beyond their fortress town up north."

This inability to cope with their new circumstances has transformed the men into brawlers who, spurred by even a moment's frustration, turn on each other with knives drawn. As Rolfe writes early on: "Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I've seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife."

A number of historical events are recreated here, the most mythological of which is the saving of Capt. John Smith from execution by Pocahontas. (In Sharpe's version, Smith is to be beaten to death with baseball bats.) But Sharpe's true agenda lies in recasting language and storytelling itself.

While typing her journal on her own PDA, Pocahontas explains why she is recounting her story in English, instead of her native "secret" language: "I feel like if I were to lie or dissemble in English you would know right away because every English sentence goes by so slowly that you have this time to examine it and decide if it's true." Sharpe's prose demands such close attention: "Jamestown" is narrated through a trippy barrage of different forms, including snatches of pop songs, vulgar frat-boy limericks and, in particular, a hilarious and bizarre exchange of instant messages between Pocahontas (whose online name is CORNLUVR) and Rolfe (GREASYBOY).

It's all quite entertaining, but will baffle anyone hoping for a more conventional narrative (not to mention anyone unfamiliar with the history of the real Jamestown colony). If Sharpe's exuberant prose has any literary forebear it's Samuel Beckett, especially the early satirical novel "Murphy," which revels in wordplay, literary pastiche and also stars a sexually charged heroine. In fact, Sharpe even offers an exchange of dialogue between two voices described as "A Couple of Fops" that sounds like a reworked riff from "Waiting for Godot":

'How did we get here?'

'By bus.'

'No, I mean how did we get to the end of the world.'

'By bus.'

'I mean metaphysically.'

'By bus.'

'Do you ever wonder what did it, finally, what killed civ?'

'What's civ?'

'Civilization.'

'You have a nickname for civilization?'

'We were close before it died.'

"Jamestown" is a sui generis work of the imagination, but, like much of Beckett's work, it often feels cold in its cleverness. At one point, Pocahontas breaks the fourth wall to explain that she has a "secret name" that, if uttered, will kill the reader — the very model of the sort of postmodern game Sharpe enjoys playing with his readers.

It's also unclear whom we're supposed to sympathize with here — the ill-mannered settlers come to a bad end or the na├»ve natives who are transformed for the worse by exposure to the nefarious Manhattanites. Perhaps it's best to root for the lovers Pocahontas and Rolfe, who in their gleeful IM exchanges offer a glimmer of hope that love might persevere in the face of annihilation.

Despite his literary curlicues, Sharpe's rather complicated novel boils down to the old saw about what happens to those who ignore history — a point, perhaps, too obvious to repeat.

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