In Cook’s (American Rococo, 2017, etc.) satirical novel, a 55-year-old university professor time travels to the ancient past and a dystopian future.
One day in 2015, Jeff Malmquist, a semiotics instructor, is teaching a class in Illinois when he suddenly and inexplicably finds himself in New Gary, Indiana—45 years in the future. In this year, America is gun-obsessed and fearful of a “looming pedophile menace”; as a result, AR-15s are in the hands of teenagers, citizens freely wield assault weapons and kill each other, and innocent people are shipped off to labor camps. When someone gives him a gun, Malmquist blacks out and finds himself in New Rome, China, where there is a slave population of Italians; it appears that China is becoming a superpower that will eventually run the world. The professor then sees what the United States is like under Chinese rule after he jumps another 100 years further into the future. Later, he time travels back to ancient Rome, as well. For readers, the various timelines aren’t always easy to follow; most of the story is told in dialogue, which results in a great deal of unnatural exposition. This, in turn, creates a disorienting effect that somewhat mimics Malmquist’s constant uneasiness with time travel. Overall, this is a challenging and discomfiting book, and the satirical humor gets buried underneath its heavy-handed depiction of society’s shortcomings. What the novel has to say about language, however, is poignant; language barriers abound, with dialogue in Cantonese, Italian, and Latin, but Cook isn’t merely interested in verbal language—body language, customs and rituals, and symbols are also on full display. The book also explores Americans’ complicated relationship with sex, juxtaposing it against their seemingly comfortable relationships with weapons and violence.
An insightful, unconventional, and risqué view of present-day culture.