The plain, even soporific titles of Matthew Sharpe’s books—Stories from the Tube (1998), Nothing Is Terrible (2000), The Sleeping Father (2003), and now Jamestown—belie one of the most energetic and laudably fluid prose styles going. On any given page, Sharpe can swing contagious exuberance (“How unpleasant and interesting it is to be alive!”) and aphoristic head-scratchers, shrewd pop-culture quotation and hairpin dialogue, the brilliant joke and the dumb joke and the dumb joke repeated enough times that it becomes brilliant. His breakthrough novel, The Sleeping Father, engineers a nuclear-family meltdown striking for its luminous sadness, as well as for its buzzing word games. As that hilarious and haunting tale closes, the teen protagonist officially enters adulthood, contemplating with clear eyes “that finite loop of breakdown and consolation known as the future.”
In Jamestown, the future has arrived, and we get that loop writ large: a postapocalyptic Eastern Seaboard teeming with misunderstanding, wobbly truces, Technicolor violence, and moments of grace. But it’s also loopy: In the wake of a massive, undefined “annihilation,” Manhattan and Brooklyn are at war, having recently waged the Battle of Joralemon Street. A Manhattan exploratory party, heading south in search of fuel, encounters a Virginia tribe of ambiguously ethnic Indians (one is named Sit Knee Find Gold—or is it Sidney Feingold?), who use wireless devices and appear to know English. In contrast to the ennobling austerity of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s recent foray into calamity lit, Sharpe amps up the Grand Guignol and the wisecracking, hurling the “linguistic detritus” of the early twenty-first century at us at warp speed. The story is a laudably freaked-out (and occasionally bewildering) cover version of the early-seventeenthcentury founding of Jamestown (England’s first sustainable colony in the New World), rendered as a narrative round-robin à la As I Lay Dying and reset in a rusted-out day after tomorrow that owes something to the variant futures of Philip K. Dick.
In short, you couldn’t ask for a book more different from The Sleeping Father, which underneath all its verbal wizardry and deft absurdity has the heart of a crowd-pleaser. Sharpe isn’t one to rest on his laurels, and some (if not most) admirers of that book will be turned off by the often deliberately cartoonish nature of this latest offering. (In an inspired bit, colonist John Martin gets an arrow permanently lodged in his head but survives to become like his wild and crazy namesake Steve.)
More than in any of his previous fictions, Sharpe delivers breathtaking sentences, and nearly every page has an example or three worthy of our awe. Similes crackle, and even when they don’t, their not-crackling crackles, as in John Rolfe’s description of the now-destroyed Chrysler Building: “Back when it was built you could stand at the top and feel the clear, clean, cold, blue, crazy-ass air hit your skin like— like— like— like— like— air.” Language gets spun into labyrinths, elegant stalemates (“The bus we thought would take us to our new home may turn out to be our new home”) captured between capital and full stop.
Pocahontas, whose doomed love for the Manhattan Company’s Rolfe constitutes the book’s most compelling story line, writes early on: “Oh English! How I love to write to you in English, even though it is so slow to do anything in English, because English moves at the speed of talking, whereas my language moves at the speed of thinking. . . . When I think of the world in English, or look at the world in English, it moves so slow, like English, and that feels good cuz life’s so short!” In English, she notes, “you can talk about only one thing at a time.” Sharpe’s carefully crafted prose has the freeze-frame effect Pocahontas alludes to, while simultaneously packing so many surprising nuances that at times it’s as if he’s communicating in a different, more advanced tongue—one that his heroine would grasp.
The book begins as a perverse epistolary novel, in which Rolfe and Pocahontas send messages into the ether, first electronically and then, it seems, mentally, with no specific recipient in mind. Pocahontas addresses her first missive with the hopeful “To the excellent person I know is reading this”; Rolfe’s greetings range from the dubious (“To the one whose existence I doubt”) to the ornately Stevensian (“To nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”).
Are they simply writing into the void? Any blogger, faced with depressingly low site traffic, has had to ask this question. And those of us living in the midst of the wordwild Web have pondered the impermanence of it all, not to mention the exact date the book will die. Sharpe exhibits the virtuoso’s simultaneous and contradictory infatuation with, distrust of, and fear of language. “Talking is dangerous. Writing more so,” Pocahontas decides. “Best not to.” This is shortly before she publicly blurts out an off-the-cuff prophecy that the strangers from the north will defeat the tribe. “I can’t believe what I just did. I opened my mouth and changed the world.” You can choose silence, if only it were a choice. If you know how to write, you write.
The mutual ignorance that the Manhattanites and Indians harbor for each other’s cultures could correspond with this country’s current stagnant occupation of Iraq, the citizens of which remain opaque to many of us, and vice versa. Pocahontas reveals that what the northerners thought was a welcoming song actually translates to “Fuck You, New York Shits”; in a sly reversal of the notion of the Other, it’s the men from Gotham whose identities merge, their sturdy Anglo names less distinctive than those of their native counterparts. That the book is set in Virginia and New York suggests redstate/ blue-state tensions ratcheted to their absurd zenith. Jamestown both is and isn’t about this. As Rolfe (“GreasyBoy”) puts it in an e-mail to his inamorata (“CornLuvr”): “Art, though sometimes nice, has always been perfectly useless against war.”
Ed Park is an editor of The Believer. His novel, Personal Days, is forthcoming from Random House next year.