The Voice of the Butterfly (2001) by John Nichols
“We have become inured to the tragic consequences of human personality on a rampage, and our disinterest is casually destroying The Meaning of Life on Earth.”
John Nichols has sadly faded from public view as of late. While his New Mexico trilogy (including most famously The Milagro Beanfield War) is a justly-celebrated series on the ongoing rape of the land and the effects of said rape on its inhabitants, Nichols has kept a lower profile for the past decade or so, slowing his output, releasing a few novels to some acclaim but less impact. This is a horrible error that must be corrected.
The Voice of the Butterfly shows that Nichols has not lost his taste for satire nor his anger at the continuing destruction of the Earth. While the New Mexico trilogy had flights of craziness, Butterfly finds Nichols in full-on Tom Robbins mode, spewing forth sentences of breathtaking insanity and wordplay. You have to have a love of over-the-top writing to fully appreciate this novel, but if you are thus equipped, you are in for one hell of a treat. A bizarre, hilarious, profane, and tremendously entertaining rant, The Voice of the Butterfly is a raging voice in the wilderness, crying out for common sense and decency over money interests and rampant consumerism.
The butterfly of the title is the Phistic Copper, an obscure little insect whose entire existence as a species is threatened by development prospects. The Butterfly Coalition, led by lefty eco-lover and librarian Charley McFarland and his slipping-into-dementia ex-wife Kelly, is frantically trying to get the word out. The developers, a slimy bag of reprobates you should be lucky to never meet in reality, will do everything and anything to push the project through.
This is not exactly a subtle satire, and nor is it unbiased. Far be it from me to equate a character’s beliefs with that of its author (a charge often leveled against me for arguably good reasons), but when Charley opines, “If the radical right had its way we’d all be church-going polyester heterosexuals driving around in white Cadillacs eating meatloaf and wax beans while mammoth bulldozers leveled all our forests and even hummingbirds were extinct,” it’s hard not to feel that Nichols may be wearing his heart on his sleeve. When you combine that with the fantastic names Nichols comes up with for his characters—unwieldy Pynchonesque monikers such as Farragut Wallaby, Edna Poddubny, Charity Gingivitis, and Mookie Dirigible walk through the pages—you get a rollicking socio-political trek through both the worst and the best of America.
Like Robbins, there is just so much overt burlesque wildness one can take, and it can be somewhat tiresome after a while to see the well-meaning but limp liberals crushed under the unthinking monstrosity of Republican ideals again and again. But Nichols unhinged is an astonishing thing, and if you are pure of heart and stout of will, The Voice of the Butterfly is a weird, wonderful ride.
GRADE - B+
by Tim Davys
"Here I stand, hiding, he thought, inside a stall in a men's restroom along with a drug-intoxicated homosexual prostitute gazelle who is particularly popular with the masochists of the city."
How, I ask you, could I not fall a little in love with a novel that has sentences such as that?
I have a true soft spot for the anthropomorphization of animals (animate and inanimate) when it comes to literature. William Kotzwinkle's The Bear Went Over the Mountain is one of my all-time great reads, with bear-turned-novelist Hal Jam a creation of sublime delights. Clifford Chase's Winkie, a dark satire involving a teddy bear accused of terrorist activities, was one of my favourite novels of 2008. Penn Jillette's Sock took the lovable sock monkey to deliriously obscene new heights. Not to mention the Douglas Adams-esque hilarity found within the pages of Robert Rankin's The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, as a teddy bear detective tries to unravel the clues and save his beloved Toy City from a serial killer. And let's not forget that beloved graddaddy of animal satires, George Orwell's Animal Farm.
Tim Davys would initially seem to be taking the same tact as Rankin, creating in his new novel Amberville an entire city of stuffed animals who fear their eventual removal from the city when their names fall on the fabled 'Death List'. But as Davys travels the back alleys of a decidely unfriendly world filled with enough unsavory characters and degenerates to fill several Spillane ominbuses, the Swedish author shows his creation to be nothing less than a pure-blooded film noir mystery thriller sans humour to leaven the situation. These may be stuffed animals, but there is nothing cute about them. As a novel, Amberville is more in line with the dark noir of Gary Wolf's Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (a novel leaner and meaner than the movie adaptation [great though it is] would have you believe).
Eric Bear seems to have it all; a good job, a sexy wife in Emma Rabbit, and a lot to live for in Mollisan City. But his past comes rushing back in the form of Nicholas Dove, an underworld heavy who has discovered that his name is likely on the Death List. Nicholas wants Eric to have his name removed, or Emma is dead. But does the Death List even exist?
Amberville's main flaw is that, despite its trappings, it takes itself utterly too seriously. For a time, it is uncertain why Davys would even bother shoehorning the toys into a decidely classic mystery plotline. But it soon becomes clear that stuffed animals can, by their very nature, possibly unearth answers that more 'realistic' characters never could.
By placing his gritty mystery into the framework of a breathing toy city, Davys is able to explore questions of mortality that a mere human sleuth could never hope to answer. Who are we? Who is our creator? Why do we die? A stuffed animal could hypothetically live forever, but the existence of a Death List calls into question tricky issues on morality and religion that could otherwise never be answered. And Amberville asks some questions that could make certain elements of society cringe with outrage. When Eric's brother Teddy muses, "Religion [was] a two-edged weapon. It was all a matter of daring to believe in the unbelieveable which in all other contexts was described as stupidity," it's hard not to wonder how some people might take such questions."All stuffed animals have asked themselves questions of life and death at some point, when young or old. Why must the factories manufacture new animals? Why must those who were already living in the city be carried away by the Chauffeurs? Why did they all live in open or concealed terror of what would happen in the next life? And who had established a system so cruel?"
Which, aside from an assurity of plot and character, is Amberville's major strength. Aside from it's classic mystery underpinnings (done up in an often spectacular fashion), Amberville raises philosophical questions that encourage further thought. Amberville is a classic noir, filled with ambiguity, menace, and deceit. It also has a brain, and isn't afraid to use it in search of meaning.
GRADE - A-