Of the many books I read in 2008, there were virtually none (excepting Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I wrote about here and here) so well-crafted and page-turningly brilliant as The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, by New York writer Arthur Nersesian. It’s the second in Nersesian’s Five Books of Moses series, a set of novels taking as their model the Odyssey epic. They’re set against the backdrop of a counterfactual history, in which late 1970s/early 1980s New York City is a dirty-bomb fallout zone and a manufactured urban center in the Nevada desert called Rescue City (or New York, Nevada) serves as both refugee camp and internment zone for political dissidents. While the end of the first book, The Swing Voter of Staten Island, saw the epic hero Uli — an amnesiac lost in Rescue City who becomes something of pawn in the New York, Nevada, political back-and-forth, a phenomenon peculiar to any contemporary megalopolis but holding a particularly high degree of violence here in the desert — on his way down a sandy drain from the politically neutral Staten Island territory to purported freedom, the resumption of Uli’s move toward recall in the beginning of the second book rings forth with the force of the great 1980s graphic novel Watchmen, whose own counterfactual history was equally political, if less concerned with alternate realities so much as a highly inventive and original explosion of comic-book conventions (I read this book for the first time this year, and, according to the rented copy of Dark Knight I watched recently, it will be a movie very very soon: be advised to read the book first, surely). Both books are crystalline expressions of the prevailing paranoia of the past 30 and more years — in spite of the hope so many, including myself, feel with the political ascendancy of Barack Obama. The more recent damage done by the Bush years to the American psyche (not to mention the American economy, worldwide rep and outlook for peace) won’t be instantly undone, of course. New lit might be expected to increasingly interrogate the cultural and psychological byproducts. And the attraction of counterfactual dystopian “historical dramas” like Nersesian’s series, and, of course, Watchmen, rests not only in occasionally merciless satirical negativity, but in the ultimate humanity of men and women coping with unintended consequences.
As Sacrificial Circumcision begins, Uli’s rush to freedom has been snagged in a net over the drain. As the drug he was given to keep him alive in transit wears off, he struggles his way into an underground trap beneath the Nevada desert, populated by other castoffs from Rescue City. The upper section of the bunker is referred to as the MKultra, after the confidential chemical mind-control experiment program of the CIA in the 1960s. But Uli, making his way into the MKultra and proceeding to lead certain of its denizens in an attempt to escape, only commandeers half of this novel’s action; the other half is the fictionalized story of Paul Moses, older and decidedly less historically significant (in the real world) brother of Robert Moses, the public-works czar ultimately responsible for the landscape of modern-day NYC. Moses’ story comes to us as a series of visions breaking up Uli’s slow manipulation of the underground trap. It appears to him as if in visions broadcast into his brain, short yet vivid bursts of recall Nersesian effortlessly — in most cases — transitions to.
The character of Moses’ presence in the novel is initially as perplexing to us as his seeming memory is to Uli. But Nersesian slowly chips away at the confusion, rendering both characters equally real and crafting a plot that rivals any great thriller’s. Their connection, too, not to give away anything too important, comes slowly, crystallizing when, as with the very fact of Uli’s amnesia, one of Moses’ own brother’s highway projects splits the protagonist’s Bronx neighborhood in two, displacing him for life.
Finally, the parallel stories of men reaping the rewards of unintended consequences converge in an ending to Moses’ story (chronologically parallel, incidentally, with the Weather Underground’s 1970 accidental explosion of a Greenwich Village townhouse) that provides us the reality behind New York’s decimation at the heart of Nersesian’s series and provides Uli a relief from some of his amnesia. He and Moses are connected by more than just recovered memory, after all, and Uli’s role in the post-apocalyptic world Nersesian is creating becomes much clearer.
If Nersesian keeps the book-a-year schedule he’s been on with the first two, expect the third in the fall of 2009. You can bet it’ll be equally dynamic.