Has a whimsical conceit ever been inflated to such mammoth proportions? In his third novel, Australian writer Chris Flynn proposes that the remains of once-living creatures acquire a special sentience after they’ve been disinterred. They can observe what goes on around them and communicate with other nearby fossils. And so in 2007, in a warehouse in Manhattan, we find an American mastodon narrating the adventure of his life and afterlife for the edification of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar.
The first part of his tale takes us back to the final years of the Upper Pleistocene. Mammut americanum are being hunted to extinction. The remaining herds decide it’s time to quit the spruce forests of what will one day be the midwestern United States and head north. Alas, it’s too late. The merciless humans are everywhere, from sea to shining sea. But at least the brave mastodons put up a fight, signing off with much goring and trampling and comic pathos.
In 1801, the more-or-less complete skeleton of our long-nebbed narrator is ploughed up in a field. Thus he begins an ignominious second life in which he is gawped at by the descendants of his enemies. He is eventually shipped off to France, where he’s examined by none other than Georges Cuvier, the so-called founding father of palaeontology. The fact that Cuvier was also the father of scientific racism does not go unmentioned.
T. bataar, who seems to have learnt English on spring break in Florida, frequently interrupts and complains of the narrator’s colourless oratorical style. And it’s true. Our mastodon friend sounds like a talking textbook with tusks. Next, he tells us, after a brief entanglement with Irish revolutionaries, and for no very straightforward reason, he ends up somewhere on the Missouri River at the very moment when Lewis and Clark are setting off to map the American frontier.
And it goes on. Stories about animals have a way of shining new and sometimes strange lights on the things we know or think we know about our own lives and relationship with the world. And this book does point to moments showing the enmeshment of racist and colonialist attitudes with the development of the modern sciences. But a pontifical pachyderm is not the spirit guide I would have chosen for such a reckoning.
UQP, 264pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Chris Flynn, Mammoth ".
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