Originally written for sfstation.com:
By Erin Jourdan
If you had a metaphorical paintbrush and a blank canvas and you were able to completely rewrite the past/present and future of America what would you do? In Zanesville, author Kris Saknussemm invents an America that is part comic book and part post-apocalyptic rollercoaster ride. Our hero is Elijah Clearfather, an amnesiac with a convoluted and colorful past, attempting to put together his past—jigsaw piece by jigsaw piece.
In the novel, Elijah Clearfather is a man filled with eerie powers he does not know how to control. While on a journey across America trying to figure out who and what he is Clearfather is chased by agents of a “cult-poration” called Vitessa. Through myriad, bizarre situations Clearfather is helped out by a zany cast of characters: a cross-dresser named Aretha Nightingale, three Chinese men called the III Chings, drug addict Wilton Brand, a dog named Warhol, and a television obsessed Marshall. Through each character, Clearfather’s kaleidoscopic story hints at past lives lived as an abused child, a porn star, and a cult leader.
Reading Saknussemm’s Zanesville is what being in a random particle accelerator must feel like. Eclectic concepts collide, ideas explode, and fireworks go off in the brain. Hypermodels. Chrome noise. Diagonal Thinking. Chimeralogy. Robot locusts. Tasmanian Devil Syndrome. It is this wild and inventive writing that keeps the story’s serpentine road trip plot on course through numerous secret societies, bus trips, and sub-cultural bunkers. In each situation Clearfather gets another nugget of information that helps bring clarity to the swirling morass of conspiracy theories in the disjointed world that is Zanesville’s America.
The grand cultural scope of Zanesville lends itself to being read as a satire of America today. Star culture is skewered, and eidolons, or computer-generated characters, appear life-like and life-size in the everyday environment. Cryptic pronouncements by enigmatic huckster Stinky Wiggler sound like a self-help guru’s provocative but essentially empty spiel. Dooley Duck, an eidolon that comes to life in the book preaches the message that is at the heart of the book, “Forgive us our insatiable need for stimulation and abundance. Forgive us our impossibly high opinion of our supposed generosity and our merciless disregard for anything but our own prosperity. Forgive us for seeing you—the war-torn, weary, diseased, and deserted people of the world in your billions—as simply billions—indistinguishable cartoons of despair.”
The situations and language in Zanesville are reminiscent of a mix between Neal Stephenson’s technology saturated worlds and Anthony Burgess’ creation of an eccentric language for his characters. It is an interesting mix for an intricately plotted book with a main character who is a powerful, but empty, hero. The reader’s journey through Zanesville is guided by the power of the writing and the passionate description of the characters that fill the landscape. Zanesville is a book is to be read for its brilliant color, not classic form.
Raised in the Bay Area, Saknussemm currently resides in the countryside outside Melbourne, Australia. Trained as a painter and an anthropologist, Saknussemm’s visual language and prescient cultural perspective excel in making Zanesville a fascinatingly rendered canvas of a jabberwocky America.