John Barnes, Gaudeamus [Library of Babel]

In some ways, John Barnes's metafictional novel Gaudeamus is the proximate cause of the huge backlog in my book logging. I was more-or-less caught up at one point, but then stalled on this book, unable to think of what to say about it. I'm still not entirely clear on it, but I'm just going to bang some stuff out so that I can finally get the damn thing off my desk.

I should start off by noting that Gaudeamus is definitely the work of the Good John Barnes, responsible for One for the Morning Glory, and not the Evil John Barnes who wrote Mother of Storms. That's a critically important distinction to make when dealing with his work.

This particular novel is narrated by a fellow named John Barnes, who is a writer and college professor living in Colorado, married to a woman named Kara. If you happen to know that the real-life John Barnes lives in Colorado, has taught college there, and was married to author Kara Dalkey, you immediately have some idea what sort of book this is going to be. It's not exactly like the real world, of course, as the fictional Barnes is a fan of an online phenomenon called Gaudeamus, that is somewhat reminiscent of Kelly Link's fictional TV show "The Library" in Magic for Beginners:

Gaudeamus was described, by the sort of people who are paid by Time or the Atlantic to explain trends to nonparticipants, as a "comic-book serial on the web," and "interactive anime soap opera with footnotes," "an online hybrid between a computer game and an editorial cartoon," and "the product of one weird mind." That last came closest. [...]

The plot was intricate and complex, with a heavy dose of political or social satire. For example, Gaudeamus fans heard about the Monica Lewinsky affier about three days before Matt Drudge, if they clicked on the book on one shelf in one scene (the title was Fat Beaver and the Cigar of Joy). The week that Travis dropped by, in late October 1997, many of the fans were complaining, in the many dedicated Usenet groups and online bulletin boards, that Gaudeamus was getting too morbid and into very bad taste, because it contained many references to the ongoing hunt for the Hardware Store Killer.

The story is kicked off by the arrival of Travis Bismarck on Barnes's doorstep one early morning. Bismarck is a friend of the narrator's from college, and is always looking for a ride to somewhere. On thier way, he tells an improbable sounding story about mysterious defense contractors, telepathic industrial espionage, and a mysterious device that also goes by the name "Gaudeamus."

The whole book proceeds like this. The narrator never actually sees anything all that weird, but Travis keeps turning up, each time with a more baroque story about the various mysteries associated with the name "Gaudeamus." By the end, this involves not just telepathy and drugs and the mysterious Xegon and Negon corporations, but also multiple groups of space aliens, some of Barnes's academic colleagues, and a deliberately awful Native American rock band.

You can sort of see why this is a hard book to write about. The set-up is so tangled that it's nearly impossible to lay it out in a way that makes any sense, without also completely spoiling the book. It's kind of maddening, really.

It's also a weirdly fascinating read. The mysterious plots related in Travis's stories are inventive and delightfully paranoid, and all the cloak-and-dagger stuff is handled with a good deal of humor. The characters are entertainingly drawn, and the real-world stuff feels nicely real.

This book isn't remotely like One for the Morning Glory, but it's definitely the product of the same mind. Instead of playing with language and classic fairy tales, Barnes is playing with the modern myths of alien abduction and post-Cold War paranoia, but the game is similar, and it's fun to watch.

Unless you're badly allergic to metafiction, it's worth a read.


More like this

Here are the answers to last week's list of quotes from seventeen books: 1) "The way to a man's heart is through his chest." Use of Weapons, Iain Banks. This one was a little sneaky, as it's in the poem on the opening page. 2) "...Highly Unpleasant Things It Is Sometimes Necessary to Know..." One…
I'm a picky reader when it comes to entertainment, and if I don't like the first 50 pages of a novel I rarely continue. The most recent casualty of this policy is a book I was very kindly given by Birger Johansson, Rob Thurman's The Grimrose Path (2010). Its a modern urban fantasy with angels and…
One of the perils of book reviewing, or any other form of literary analysis is putting more thought into some aspect of a book than the author did. It's one of the aspects of the humanities aide of academia that, from time to time, strains my ability to be respectful of the scholarly activities of…
In Tooth and Claw, Season 2 Episode 2 of Doctor Who 2.0, we see the formation of The Torchwood Institute and the banishing of The Doctor (and Rose) from the United Kingdom. Fat lot that does. Anyway, we also see Queen Victoria make mention of the multiple attempts at her assassination. I suppose…