I have two confessions to make — long-hidden nerd secrets about which I simply have to come clean. One: I read science fiction. A lot. And two: if things aren't funny I tend to ignore them. I realize this doesn't fit the image of a literary novelist who writes about serious issues, and that it also puts me in good company with most socially challenged middle-school boys. But that's just how it is. At some point we have to accept ourselves.
So it is with the full weight of my geek-cred that I tell you: you must read Karel Capek's The Absolute at Large. A piece of genre work so hilariously sophisticated, revelatory and stealthy it delivers one of the highest subtextual critiques of modern society while achieving the lowest of lowbrow accomplishments; among them making the reader spit her drink, split her sides, and suffer a full three minutes of post hilarity hiccups.
In The Absolute at Large the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance as the world is overtaken by fundamentalist religious fervor. Better still, the religious lunacy is caused by an invention called the Karburator that produces free energy and releases "God" or "the Absolute" as a byproduct; something initially mistaken by the novel's protagonist as a poison gas because of the way it affects people's behavior.
Once God is unlocked from all the places it resides, a multiplicity of religions spring up — the church of industrial machinery and the church of the merry-go-round compete for worshippers while the businessman who invented the Karburator hides in the mountains away from the deleterious side effects of new energy (one of which is giving money to the poor).
I also love this novel because of the scenes that take place in a variety of harried newsrooms, with baffled reporters struggling to turn out papers amidst an outbreak of madness that threatens to engulf their objectivity.
Capek's dialog is fantastic, his characters richly drawn. But his vision of a world transcendently captivated by an apparent higher calling and then hoodwinked into war for nine years over a source of fuel is so prescient it makes the novel seem like it was written today.
Capek wrote the book in the 1920s and the work presaged two of my favorite authors, George Orwell and Philip K. Dick. More modern examples of Capek's reach can easily be seen in The Onion and off the page in The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But Capek is not as distant, nor as desensitized a narrator.
The Absolute at Large illustrates perfectly how important social critique can be slipped into genre fiction and is able to have a broader impact as a result. The novel is as accurate as any work of non-fiction, as slyly weighty and refreshingly un-mannered as some of the best literary work out there. It lifts the veil on the dystopic slapstick of politics and religion, and through wit and surrealist speculation delivers the reader to understanding like administering a pill to a dog in a spoonful of peanut butter. Or should I say, the Eucharist to the supplicant in the form of a waxy white wafer.
Do yourself a favor and read this book. It's never been more timely or significant and the jokes just never get old.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.