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Humpty Dumpty: An Oval

by Damon Knight

hardcover edition

I am usually content to wallow in mediocre fantasy, but lately I have been so overexposed to clumsy prose that it's making me ill, and if I encounter one more earnest farmboy with a sword, I shall scream. As an antidote, I picked up Damon Knight's Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, and immediately zipped right through the first hundred pages in sheer relief at the deft writing. It's a surreal stream-of-consciousness story about a man who has been shot in the head and finds reality slowly going to pieces around him -- or starting to show through the cracks.

Wellington Stout wakes up in a hospital room in Milan after being shot in the head by a disgruntled waiter. The bullet remains lodged in his brain, but the only apparent ill effect, other than headaches, are the voices in his head that insist on providing uninvited commentary in aphasic punnery. It turns out that Stout travelled to Italy for his stepdaughter's wedding; as a favor to his brother, he stopped in Milan to deliver a package. The mysterious package has disappeared in the confusion, and the mysterious intended recipients are unsympathetic toward his plight. Stout is forced to pursue a slim clue to the package's whereabouts to England, then to America. Along the way, he has to dodge a secret order of dentists, menacing shoe salesmen, alien soldiers, battlefrogs, and raining fragments of an alien planet.

Knight perfectly evokes that peculiar logic of consciousness that some dreams have, where free association causes location and events to shift in impossible ways that make perfect sense to the dreamer. As Stout travels across America from his birthplace to his boyhood home, figures from his childhood and bizarre creatures pop up to chase him or accuse him or give him a lift.

There are, of course, multiple interpretations of the story, and knowing that this is certainly the author's intent doesn't make it much less disorienting. Wellington is either hallucinating the whole mess while he lies in a hospital, or hallucinating it while he rambles across a continent and a half, or saving the world, or destroying it. Or perhaps his life is circling before his eyes as the bullet strikes. Or all of the above.

"Cis, I wasn't in New York on the twenty-third. That was the day the meteor hit. They diverted my plane to Boston."

She looked at me sorrowfully. "That was one of the things you kept talking about. And being persecuted by dentists."

I found the second half of the book overlong, disjointed, and increasingly confusing. The overall story in Dhalgren was opaque, but at least the individual episodes made concrete sense; in Humpty Dumpty, events grow increasingly more unbelievable (including a direct nod to Slothrop's sewer dive in Gravity's Rainbow), and less connected to one another. As the story crumbled further and further into disjointed surrealism, I kept reading, assuming that Knight would provide a startling and brilliant revelation at the end that would somehow cleverly explain everything while maintaining the validity of the different interpretations. If this epiphany is in there, it's too well camouflaged for me to find.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book; I did. I just wish I understood it better. The writing is effortless and wry; the wordplay is clever; the puns are dreadful (particularly the title, the true awfulness of which didn't sink in until I finished the book). Knight gradually sketches in Stout's character and history to portray a man who was never notably deep or tragic or interesting until he was shot in the head.

Be warned that this is a book that will mess with your head for days after you finish it. I highly recommend it to anyone who didn't instantly doze off in Lit class when Joyce was discussed, particularly if you're also paranoid or mentally unbalanced. And if any of you have a coherent explanation of the ending, kindly send it to me.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
July 1997

hardcover edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: September 1996
ISBN: 0-312-86223-7
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 287
Price: US $22.95, Canada $33.95

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Sep 2001 / CMS