Every night I meant to walk until I reached the top of the mountains, and every night I went farther, but in the end I always got exhausted and ended up sitting down on some stone high up in the mountain, looking down at Pasadena’s cold, banal glitter. I felt that I had, for a moment, escaped, and regretted that I had to go back, thinking that if I were just strong enough, I could reach the top of the range and then the next and finally find the high-desert of silver-blue dawns and a long road that led somewhere else.
Author Zachary Mason sounds like an interesting guy. He graduated from high school at 14 and started his doctoral work at age 19. He’s a computer scientist specializing in AI. He sent his first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, to the New York Times Book Review inside a wooden Trojan Horse, made expressly for that purpose. He didn’t get a review out of it, but when he entered it into the New York Public Library’s Young Lions competition, he found himself not only a finalist, but hooked up with FSG. Not bad for a guy who avoided writing workshops. He describes his next project as “the imagined literature of artificial intelligence, like a fictive translation of the stories the machines tell themselves.”
“The Duel” follows a hollow CalTech senior from his expulsion from his family (following his declaration of atheism) to an affair with his best (and only) friend’s girlfriend to a fencing duel. The real thing, this duel, not the usual practice with suits and blunted edges. He does something I see as suicide by proxy (the duel being between him and life itself, I think, since he is so determined to ruin everything in his life, his relationships with his family and friends, his career, his conscience), then discovers his future isn’t as bleak as he’d imagined: he has a job offer and acceptances from top grad schools after all. But the duel, this violence, is central, and even the dean is intrigued and wants to know what was in his mind, because after all, civilized people just don’t go around slashing each other with swords. Epees, actually. He lives from regret to regret. It’s a kind of paean to anomie, this young man who knows he should not do all kinds of things (break into dorm rooms to look around at other peoples’ stuff, have the affair, sharpen the epees, pierce the flesh of his best/only friend) but does them anyway because, why the hell not, doing things and regretting them afterwards is the best of both worlds. I wonder if this is some kind of comment about atheism. And that kind of pisses me off, because I’ve known atheists who were decent, caring, compassionate people. But not this one. There are some amazing moments, the final scene is terrific, but I hate this character. Which is, of course, better than not caring.
In some ways, he seems to me to be the flip side of Critter from “To Psychic Underworld:”, which involves a young man dealing with heartbreak and also retreating into a kind of self-silence, but doing so without harming others along the way, and thus leaving bread crumbs for his soul to follow on the way back to humanity. I have no such hope, no such concern, for this dueler.