Saturday, 1 August 2020

Chris Flynn's Mammoth

For the second COVID month in a row, we were able to meet in person - appropriately socially distanced of course. How nice it was - and now full it was. With none of us able to travel, our usual depleted winter turnout was again not in evidence!

Our chosen book was the recently published novel, Mammoth, by Irish-born Australian writer, Chris Flynn. It's a surprising novel, narrated by a mammoth fossil, telling his story to a bunch of other, mostly incomplete, fossils, as they await going on sale at an auction. As usual, we started with our First impressions.

First impressions

While no-one disliked the book, our first impressions fell into two camps, those who loved or really liked it, and those who enjoyed it but didn't love it.

Those who loved, or really liked it, said:
  • Loved it, quirky, humorous. 
  • Enjoyed it, comic.
  • Ripping yarn, great imagination. 
  • Very interesting read, loved being reminded of her knowledge of old/prehistoric history; found the encounters between ancient and modern civilisation interesting; felt the novel was too short to get sick of it; and liked the ending.
  • Didn't like beginning, because the humour felt too corny but grew to like it; liked how it looked at human brutality; loved his commentary on writing (including such issues as veracity and believability, tone) and loved Mammut's statement that "No story’s gold from beginning to end", suggesting that this is the novelist fending off in advance criticisms of the boring parts of his novel.
  • Enjoyed the book, an easy read and an interesting diversion in COVID-infested Melbourne (emailed in.)
Those who liked it, but were more luke-warm, said:
  • Enjoyed it, but the banter was too disneyesque, and the narrative was confusing. 
  • Started with a bang, but got sick of it at the end.
  • Enjoyed the start, but got tired as it progressed, some of it was intriguing, but other parts were laboured.
  • Found it a clever concept, but got tired of the banter; however did enjoy Googling some of the historical information; felt Mammut went on a bit and didn't like T. bataar’s contemporary voice. 
  • Strange, cartoonesque, fragmentary 

Subsequent discussion

Our discussion was rather fragmentary, a bit like some found the book was! It was interrupted by a lively discussion about Blue Cornflower Corningware, which one member had discovered now has vintage status. It was a case of ancient Corningware facing off against ancient fossils!

In terms of the writing, we all agreed that the two epilogues were wonderful, and we also liked the book's opening with Thomas Jefferson's letter. In terms of criticism, besides the style of humour, various members felt there were some unnecessary digressions and some over-explication (such as in the Cuvier section.) 

A member commented that the novel felt like an Irish tale, and noted Palaeo's comment that

"this tale of the Irish siblings is damn fine storytelling. I'm pretty confident none of it is true, but, hey, I'm past that now" (p. 206)

She commented that this reflects the old idea of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but, she said, Flynn did weave a story around facts. 

Another member commented that the idea of collecting "memories", of exploring the idea "if these bones could talk", was inspired. And one proffered that Flynn was brave to write about America the way he does.

Of course, we discussed his exploration of environmental degradation, species extinction, and climate change. Some felt it was hard to believe that some of the ideas are true, such as the impact of mammoths (and their stamping on the ground) on climate change. However, others pointed to research, such as this and an Economist article shared by a member, which gives the idea some credence. One member shared the mammoth's comment early in the novel:

“Our world was changing and there was nothing we could do about it.” (p. 44)

She suggested this helplessness is exactly how our animals and land would be "feeling" today. 

We couldn't help turning to Australia, with one member noting the impact of introduced hooved animals on the Australian environment. We also discussed recent forecasts that the koala could be extinct in under 50 years. And what are we doing about it, one member asked? Still allowing development to continue in a rare koala habitat area! Unbelievable!

We also noted the reference in the novel to people in the 19th century not believing scientists, such as Cuvier's theory of extinction, just as there are people now who don't believe climate scientists. 

One member quoted the statement made late in the book - “Relentless growth is not sustainable” (p. 252) - and asked how do we find the balance between destructive "relentless growth" and human desire to imagine, create, improve? 

We talked about other contemporary concerns Flynn weaves in through the story, such as racism, speciesism, and the idea of history being in the hands of the survivors.

Related to this is another of the novel's concerns - trophy mentality, or, the idea of self-aggrandisement through big animals. This idea is introduced in the novel's opening - Thomas Jefferson's letter enquiring about the availability of mammoth bones. The fossils talk about the equation of large animals with men and power. Pterodactyl tells the group of being using in Hitler Youth training: 

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

The novel was, in fact, inspired by a 2007 auction in Manhattan of fossils - those represented in the novel - that Flynn had read about. One of the novel's two epilogues chronicles some of the outcomes of that auction, at which celebrities like Nicolas Cage and Leonardo Di Caprio vied for big fossils! As Pterodactyl continued from the above:

Yet again the hominid males appropriate motifs of power from the natural world in order to make themselves seem strong. (p. 160)

The novel also provides a potted view of human history through selected - fragmented as some in the group thought - events. The focus, in particular, was human brutality, which is something Flynn himself has seen in Ireland. He has had guns pointed at him, and he has heard nightmarish stories, he has said. In the novel, he chooses historical events/times like British suppression of Irish rebels, the Nazis, the decimation of Native Americans to make his point about the way humans behave and treat others, about their relationship to power.

The novel also represents are rather fun roll call of some of the 19th century's top palaeontologists and naturalists. Many of us enjoyed reading about them, and researching them in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

In the end, this book that garnered mixed responses generated quite a wide-ranging discussion.

Present: 10 members

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