“Huge and menacing aqua-dogs, ready to go fetch Madagascar”

Gog and Magog

Gog and Magog (Psalter Map detail)

I’m only a couple chapters into The Island of Lost Maps, and I find myself simply floating along from one well-timed diversion to the next, smiling at some delightful turns of phrase (like the post title, referring to the imaginary creatures illustrating maps; another favorite is “the hellish spawn of Big Bird’s one-night stand with Jaws”). Harvey makes a virtue out of necessity: lacking the cooperation of his purported subject, Gilbert Bland, Jr., he is not restricted to ferreting out the “truth” (psychological or methodological) of the crimes in question. His map of Bland is in the mold of the medieval mappae mundi, diagrams of legends and perceptions and morality rather than objective geographic information. The comparison unfolds with such a practiced inevitability that I wonder how doggedly Harvey pursued Bland as a source, and how disappointed he was to be rebuffed. After all, flesh-eating denizens of Gog and Magog are much more interesting than anything in the vicinity of the Caspian. How could the prosaic life of a habitual criminal compare to a story woven around tantalizing details and the author’s own obsession?

The book was described as a page-turner, which it’s not. I do not mean to imply that it is not good, or that I am not enjoying it. But it’s very deliberate, very polished, and for me a true page-turner needs a little more rawness (or the appearance of rawness). I’m admiring it in the way that, for example, I admire recent William Gibson…but it’s Neuromancer that I re-read. There’s a through-line from that book-of-the-moment-with-staying-power to the books that are obviously the work of a more mature author, similarities of theme and milieu, but even with the warts it’s the gleeful (if self-aware) pulpiness—and best rationale for artificial nails ever—that will drag me in every time.

And on that thought, I will gracefully segue into public history (as opposed to academic history)* which, in our inaugural Managing History class, was defined (following Denise Meringolo) by four pillars: scholarship, collaboration, public service, and immediacy. This last puts me in mind of the distinction† between literary and genre fiction. It’s the genre fiction that’ll keep me up late reading; it’s immediate, even if it shouldn’t be. Chiba City is a dated version of the future—that’s clear in the first line of the book‡—but still trumps a book set “last Wednesday” dealing with the actual twenty-first century, with nary a horse plague nor Soviet Union to be seen.

Maybe it’s because we need time to process the present; it can only be made real with distance and reflection, and only the unreal (nonexistent or no-longer-extant) can be rendered as convincingly real (immediate). It’s all a conjuring trick. The “office historians” (to use the parlance from class) have to be concerned with describing the trick, providing technical documentation for making the rabbit appear. The public historians have to make the trick work on stage. Both are valuable abilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but requiring somewhat different skill sets.

* Problematic as such distinctions may be.
† Also problematic, and often deployed in a counter-productive, mud-slinging sort of way.
‡ “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”