The novel published this year that speaks most eloquently about America in 2013 takes place in Egypt’s Great Sand Sea, in 1894. In the middle of the vast desert Professor Sanford Thayer, one of the world’s leading astronomers, is presiding over “the greatest international peacetime undertaking in the history of man.” But even that’s an understatement. At twice the expense of the Suez Canal, 900,000 men have been employed to carve into the white sand an enormous equilateral triangle. The workers consume nearly 800,000 gallons of water every day, most of which have to be brought in tankers from the Nile, a process that is itself “the greatest transport of liquid substance in the history of civilization.” Each side of the triangle will measure five miles in width, a foot in depth, and nearly 307 miles in length. After completion, its trenches will be flooded with 22 million barrels of petroleum from newly discovered oil fields in Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Persia—a quantity of oil that surpasses the total amount that has ever been extracted from the Near East. When lit aflame, the burning triangle will be visible from Mars. Thayer expects that sophisticated Martians, seeing this clear indication of man’s intelligence, will respond in kind, beginning a correspondence with Earthlings that will bring about a glorious transformation of human civilization. “Mars,” believes Thayer, “may well be the force that makes us truly civilized, truly kind to each other, wise, prudent, responsible to the natural world, courageous in facing our global challenges, and, paradoxically, truly human.”
Thayer seems loosely modeled after Percival Lowell, the gentleman astronomer from Boston who, for more than three decades, was one of the world’s most prominent observers of the red planet. He detected through his telescope more than five hundred Martian canals, which he believed to be the sophisticated infrastructure of an industrious civilization. Lowell’s errors, which multiplied over the years, were inspired by the mistranslation of a single Italian word. In 1877, the Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced that he had observed a network of intersecting channels on the surface of Mars. The Italian word for “channels” is canali, which credulous Americans commonly mistranslated as “canals.” The word “channel” denotes a natural formation, while “canal” denotes an artificial waterway used for travel, shipping, or irrigation. The world was at the time canal-crazy: the Suez Canal had been completed eight years earlier, and the Panama Canal was being surveyed. These triumphs were seen as the apotheosis of human enterprise and might. But Lowell observed that Mars’s canal system was growing even faster, and larger than our own. The leading newspapers of the time made what seemed to be the only reasonable conclusion: there was life on Mars, and Martians were much like us, only more industrious, stronger, and wiser. This view was accepted by much of the public, though not by many professional astronomers, until 1909, when other forms of analysis cast doubt on Lowell’s theory. Still the belief in Mars’ canals persisted in some quarters until 1971, when NASA’s Mariner 9 photographed most of the planet’s surface at close range. The photographs not only revealed the absence of canals, but of almost all of the physical features observed by Lowell and many of his peers. Mars’ canals were a collective fantasy, one of the greatest in the recent history of human science.
Equilateral, Ken Kalfus’s first novel since 2006’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, is a virtuosic portrait of the animating power of self-delusion. Thayer is Equilateral’s most powerful delusionist, his observations persuading six nations to contribute enormous quantities of treasure, men, and resources to his grand project, but every character in the novel finds strength in the lies they tell themselves. Thayer’s faithful, long-suffering secretary, Adele Keaton, nurses the hope that the self-absorbed Thayer loves her. Sir Harry, the director of the consortium of private and public interests that have funded the project, justifies the expense by telling himself, and his investors, that trade with Mars will be highly lucrative. The Khedive of Egypt persuades himself that the success of the equilateral will silence his local political rivals. And the project’s pragmatic chief engineer, Wilson Ballard, willfully ignores the short cuts taken by his workers because they ensure that the project will finish on time. (The engineer’s name is a tribute to J.G. Ballard, whose feverish novels of obsession and paranoia, particularly The Day of Creation, seem to have influenced Kalfus.)
The delusions extend beyond the enigmatic, disorienting desert, with its mirages and its “great expanse of nonmeaning.” When Thayer notices new canals on Mars, rival astronomers around the world wire their confirmation. To fail to see a new canal is to admit incompetence or dereliction. But Kalfus’s characters are not cynical. They don’t pretend to see what’s not there. They want deeply to believe that the canals really exist. And they do believe.
Problems plague the project from its conception. The work is too grueling to be completed on time. Workers lollygag, die of dehydration and exhaustion, and revolt. Money runs out; an assassination attempt is made on the Khedive; an armed insurrection ignites the petroleum preemptively, incinerating thousands and burning every hair off Thayer’s body. He contracts Kharga Fever, which renders him delirious and causes him gradually to lose his eyesight. But still he is unbowed. Staring through his telescope at a planet 130 million miles distant, straining his eyes “against the limits of sight,” Thayer observes wispy clouds rising through Mars’s atmosphere. He concludes that the Martians have launched an airship for Earth, which will arrive at the site of the equilateral within the year. Nobody questions Thayer’s judgment. In fact, it spurs additional construction and speculation. Ballard builds a new city to greet the visiting Martians, and dignitaries from all over the world travel to the desert in preparation for the landing.
Kalfus’s prose—eerie, Delphic, as stark and sere as the Great Sand Sea—gives itself easily to allegory. Equilateral can be read as a parable of the ways we blind ourselves through vanity, love, and greed. But the book has a timeliness that Kalfus may not have foreseen. The news of the past year was dominated by stories that were shocking only because they revealed the absurdity of the lies we have told ourselves. Our government, it turned out, has taken advantage of the vast troves of private information we have willingly committed to our service providers, creating a federal surveillance program as aggressive as it was foreseeable; the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case was particularly disillusioning to those who had convinced themselves that the election of a black president meant that the country’s race problems had been resolved; the civil war in Syria claimed its 115,000th fatality, but received relatively muted coverage, and little thought was given to the lasting consequences the crisis would have on the region and our national security. And scientists continued to revise upwards their grim predictions about the warming planet, while carbon dioxide emissions continued to soar, surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history. (This brings to mind Thayer’s prediction—perhaps his only correct one—that “Mars permits us a vision of our own future…our planet too is destined to lose its oceans and great lakes…the deserts will spread like an infection…What will civilized man do in that event?”)
Self-delusion may be a universal affliction, and perhaps a necessary one, but even by historical standards we are outdoing ourselves. At the end of Equilateral, presented with a final image of Thayer—blind, freakishly hairless, insane—one doesn’t feel horror so much as empathy.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
National Book Award:
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Bestselling novel of the year:
Inferno by Dan Brown
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright
1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones