Self-published debut novels invariably fall into one of three categories: diamonds in the rough (which are as rare as actual diamonds in the rough); those that may induce vomiting; and those that, while riddled with errors, long-windedness, and other poor choices, display enough chutzpah to be particularly memorable. Ghosts of a Tired Universe fits squarely within that third group.
Jonas Samuelle, like many other people these days (many of whom haven’t decided to write novels as a result), is feeling a bit fed up with the world. He doesn’t think we’re headed down the right spiritual paths. And, in his case, that frustration has manifested itself in the form of a fictional psychological apocalypse.
Samuelle introduces us — ten years after the fact — to a world in which the people of Earth have all lost their memories and are in the process of piecing together both individual pasts and collective human history. The Forgetting, which came spontaneously and inexplicably, is believed to have been brought about by a worldwide terrorist group led by an artist named Charles Du Pont. But a journalist, after being sent out to Arizona on a tip, meets an exceedingly strange man who ends up shedding light on the events that led to humanity’s change of fate.
The unnamed man takes over in omniscient third person to tell the tale, which revolves around sculptor Charles Du Pont, his lover Mira and his best friend (and poet) Dormius. After Mira is raped and subsequently lost to the throes of insanity — and her assailant is released with a slap on the wrist — Charles, with Dormius at his side, begins to unleash his fury on the structures, physical and social, that rule the status quo. His “art” turns from creation to destruction, as he goes on a rampage of arson directed specifically at courts and churches, which he perceives as the elements of societal order (or bondage).
What we discover is that, amidst all the emotional turmoil, Charles is being subconsciously led by two immortals, Donatello and Gray, who seek to use his rage to annihilate the universe in order to begin the cycle of human life all over again. The kicker is that they’ve done this deed innumerable times — since the birth of life, in some unknowable distant past.
As a result, Charles (when not burning down buildings) is sent on a surreal journey through alternate worlds and states of mind, ranging from an eternally absurd war between ghostly figures to an underwater factory that feeds on sheer misery. What he finds is that, as Samuelle puts it, there is an incurable “hairline fracture” that runs through the soul of humanity; what he gains is the supernatural power to wreak a new form of havoc on his world. Charles comes to the conclusion, at the urging of Donatello and Gray, that it is his duty to end everything, to wipe the slate of existence clean in order for the next race to begin anew.
But on the precipice of ultimate destruction Charles makes a choice, and a sacrifice, that changes everything — and finally gives the world a real chance to heal itself.
All fantastical elements aside, Samuelle has put together an extremely ambitious first novel here. It gives us a lot to discard, but it also gives us much to think quite seriously about.
On one hand, the frame narrative of the journalist wasn’t effective or necessary, as the story itself had enough legs to work on its own. That kind of stunted writing, along with some grammatical blindness and mediocre ear for dialogue, was intermittently present throughout the novel.
But it’s to Samuelle’s credit that those elements really didn’t distract from his theme — this idea of the immensity (or, perhaps, the impossibility) of thought it might take to set straight the tunnel vision of humanity. With prose and conception that at times invoked the diverse spirits of authors such as Roger Zelazny, Paulo Coelho and Philip K. Dick, I found plenty to get hooked on. Like I said, Ghosts of a Tired Universe is certainly worth remembering, if not for its own success, then at least for the rich potential it shows. I’d love to see what Samuelle could do if he had a decent editor looking over his shoulder.