The War of the Encyclopaedists, the debut novel from Seattle writers Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite published by Scribner last month, depicts the vastly differing experiences of two friends during the Iraq War. In one scene late in the novel, another character paints Mickey Montauk, one of the novel’s protagonists, dressed as a Civil War soldier, lifting a bayonet threateningly above Halifax Corderoy, his best friend, while the latter reads a book, smugly unaware of his impending doom.
While the novel risks that its central characters be pigeonholed in this fashion—Corderoy as the self-absorbed grad school dropout and Montauk as the noble, imperfect soldier—the characters elude tidy classification, due in part to the perspective offered by the books dual-authorship. Robinson and Kovite met as college students attending a University of Washington-run study abroad program in Rome and they write with a sharp and intelligent voice, albeit one that is frequently congenial, high and horny—to borrow Corderoy’s self-description. There’s a winking quality to the writing, one that suggests that self-absorption may be endemic to the early 20s and that the authors know the limits to impulsiveness and amour-propre.
“The Encyclopaedists” in the book’s title refers to the arts collective founded in Capitol Hill by Corderoy and Montauk in the early 2000s. Post-graduation, despite having “no real artistic talent,” the pair creates the group as a means to critique the “arbitrary nature” of modern art. Following a few good parties and some local press attention, the group becomes part of the duo’s self-identity until geopolitical events intervene.
The book begins on the day of the final Encyclopaedists party. The plan had been for Montauk and Corderoy to room together while attending different graduate schools in Boston, but Montauk learns that his National Guard unit has been called up for duty and he must join what one Iraqi barber will refer to later in the novel as America’s “carnival of problems” in Iraq.
Corderoy is left to attend grad school in Boston, where he finds himself wandering a hellscape of Post-structuralism and self-regard; one professor can hardly deign to ask “Has anyone not read Ulysses?” Corderoy’s response to this setting reveals his insecurities to be twofold: first, a self-doubt toward his intelligence and then a cultivated cynicism toward the very project of developing an intellect.
During the novel’s scenes in Boston, Corderoy grieves many things—among them his stillborn career as an academic and an embarrassing romantic interlude with an online scammer—but the root of his sadness is the absence of his friend. Montauk expresses his feelings toward Corderoy more fitfully. He remembers Corderoy in a handshake or the brief, quiet moments amidst daily bombings, security inspections and misunderstood cultural mores.
Montauk and Corderoy’s relationship is most transparent during the novel’s recurring motif of a Wikipedia entry about their defunct collective, which Montauk and Corderoy edit from afar as a means of communication and which often reflects the vicissitudes of their friendship. The Wikipedia page is another forum for self-regard—where better than the Internet can the ego masquerade as a guise for the greater good?—but it also offers unguarded insight into the interior lives of the characters. One such entry reads, “The Encyclopaedists pop in and out of being like particles on the edge of a black hole. That hole is war.” Seeing Montauk menace an obstinate Iraqi citizen with his handgun, we know this to be true. For Corderoy, the war is more abstract, a specter arriving in the form of marches, die-ins and idealistic discussions. One of the novel’s strongest aspects is its manifestation of the war stateside, where, despite these protests, the majority of the country has bought into an impossible promise of shock and awe and military might.
Ultimately, the book demonstrates that in an amorphous war we can find personal resolutions. What begins as an idealistic lark ends with real heft. We learn some answers to the question that Brutus asks, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when a poet enters the stage: “What should the wars do with these jigging fools?”