Ken Kalfus isn’t exactly a Johnny-come-lately to the lit-fic scene: in fact, he’s been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the National Book Award, and Equilateral is his fifth book, following two novels and two story collections; and plus he comes blurbed by DFW, Franzen and (the most cheerfully prolific of all blurb-meisters) Gary Shteyngart. So it shamed us just a little that he hadn’t appeared on our radar sooner. Unlike the tomes of the former duo, too, Equilateral clocks in a mere 207 pages, making Kalfus not only critically hyped, but also eminently portable. So! What have we got here?
A strange little historical number, Equilateral is the story of 19th century man’s attempt to communicate with a race of purportedly hyper-intelligent martians. Earth’s astronomers, led by Professor Sanford Thayer, have spotted Mars’ canals and have imputed them to have been artificially constructed, backed up by indications of cultivated land on the red planet. Thayer’s grand scheme to alert the Martians of Earth’s own advanced peoples is the construction of a giant equilateral triangle craved into the Egyptian sand and to be set alight on a particular day. It’s a feat, not only of engineering ingenuity, but of diplomatic audacity – he’s raised funds and garnered cooperation from numerous European powers, as well as the local authorities in Northern Africa. The novel opens as the project nears completion but faces significant last-minute problems, including the workers’ insurrection and Thayer’s own ill-health. While he struggles to make the politicians and the builders understand the intellectual and spiritual significance of his project, Thayer is also grappling with his conflicted feelings for his native serving girl and his assistant, Miss Adele Keaton. (Get it? Geometric triangles and emotional triangles!) It’s a story that swings between the problems of personal intellectual and moral ambition and the machinations of political and economical cooperation and disputes, spattered throughout with the nitty-gritty of heartache and desire.
Generically speaking, Equilateral is a publishing oddity, fitting in no neat niche; it’s sort of SF, sort of a love-story (albeit a very inconclusive one), sort of a period story, and sort of a colonial expedition (both African and interplanetary). It’s about the scope and scale of human ambition and the intersection of intellectual endeavour with lived human complications. Stylistically, the prose is rich and evocative, and, in its formality, mildy old-fashioned – just enough to convey ‘historical’ without fully investing itself in period authenticity (or, given the steam-punk-esque aspects of the plot) pastiche). An anomaly in the excavations is ‘a blot in the desert, a stain on the endeavour, a rat that gnaws at Miss Keaton’s shivering heart’. It’s beautiful to read; in what’s, in summary, a slight and potentially dry plot (man excavates big triangle; politics gets in the way), Kalfus succeeds in making mathematics sexy.
Big thumbs up, then? Well, not quite. Although it’s undoubtedly a sumptuous read, and the concept is as clean and compelling as Thayer’s geometry, it still knocks a couple of significant hurdles, and given the context, they’re pretty obvious ones. First up: it’s a book that uses a North African colonial setting to query man’s colonial enterprises. Which is interesting, right? The quest to contact Mars becomes corrupted by economic interests, just as the European expansion into Africa did; Thayer is naive and idealistic and in the vast minority, and Kalfus is reminding us of the dirty underbelly of many an apparently noble scientific or exploratory enterprise. Thayer is an unwitting accomplice in the commercialisation and probably militarisation of interplanetary exchange. It’s a clever, if obvious, analogy. But, what, then, of the Africans in the text? Like the Martians, they’re voiceless. While Kalfus is critiquing the colonial enterprise, I’m not sure that he’s particularly undermining Western expansion any more than, say, Achebe’s reading of Heart of Darkness would suggest that Conrad did. By which I mean that in Equilateral, Africa is the setting and the backdrop for the West’s folly, used because of geographical congruities (it’s vast and sandy and visible to Mars), and in which the African characters are an amorphous group that, sure, in their suffering reinforce the point that the Western people are exploitative, but that aren’t at all differentiated in the way those Westerners are. Doesn’t the text then at least partly utilise the same laziness that it critiques in Thayer’s political bosses?
A counter-argument to that could probably (partly) be built on Bint, Thayer’s serving girl; occasionally, we get access to her thoughts, and they are, of course, as intelligent as Miss Keaton’s; does Bint, then, counteract the Othering of the Africans that goes more or less unquestioned elsewhere in the text? No, not really; she’s presented at all other times as the mute recipient of Thayer’s desire and Adele’s jealousy; she embodies a sort of wise woman figuring of the African woman, which hardly individuates her; in her later pregnancy, she’s the archetypal mother of the Other. Kalfus recognises this, of course; Bint’s role is to remind us that Africans aren’t mindless and that Europeans wrongly class them as such. And yet, as an individual character, compared with Adele, she’s got little personality; she’s a symbol of Western hubris and arrogance. I can’t help but think that Achebe would have had as fine a time with Bint’s mysteriousness as he did with Marlow’ coastline’s inscrutability.
The second issue I’ve got, more briefly, is with women in the novel; all two of them, that is – the intelligent, underrated Adele, who’s the novel’s signalling of ‘women were underestimated in the past’ and of course, Bint, the underestimated African. That’s a pretty low ratio, given that everybody else is male, and a hell of a burden of representation for both. And both, of course, are smitten with Thayer. Alison Bechdel would have a ball with this one. I should add that Bint isn’t Bint’s real name; Thayer belatedly realises that it’s the Arabic for girl, and so he’s been unwittingly quite rude to her all along, in not referring to her by name. I’m not well-placed to speak for the American author, but the massively derogatory associations of the word ‘hint’ here in the UK probably cast this particular device in a more extreme light that might have been intended: the joke is certainly spoiled in advance, as it’s clear this couldn’t be her actual name, and Thayer’s nod towards unthinking cruelty certainly comes across as more misogynistic than it perhaps was meant to.
Any Cop?: I’m in two minds. It’s clever and beautifully written, but I think it falls, unfortunately, into a couple of the same pitfalls (Colonialism and misogyny) that it sets out to deconstruct. It’s not a straightforward book, though, and some debate could no doubt be had along those lines. Still, an interesting attempt.