The Short Version: Five economists at a conference in Latin America all receive injuries that keep them from the conference at large. In their conversations, they develop the idea of animal money – a currency that is qualitative as opposed to quantitative and also alive. The world quickly begins to spin out of control, as does the narrative, all because of one idea…
The Review: Imagine a generic sci-fi B-movie. The scientist is in his lab, readying the latest attempt at some massive world-changing experiment. He flips the switch and the batteries begin to hum and the temperature rises and gauges are whirling… and the thing starts to do what he hoped it would do! His eyes are wide as he sees success approaching – but the power is too much! The experiment begins to wobble and teeter. “Shut it down!” somebody cries. But the scientist keeps on, gritting his teeth, pressing buttons and doing things and trying to pull the experiment back in line even as his assistants and hangers-on are fleeing the lab for their very lives.
If you can, now imagine this entire scenario compressed and metamorphosed into a novel. Not the actual event of the experiment, although such a moment does feature in the novel (perhaps more than one such moment, depending on how you qualify them) – but rather the sense of something that even the author recognizes is becoming almost too unwieldy but he is not willing to let go of it because he knows that what’s at the other end could be outstanding. This book, not unlike the currency it proposes, evolves and mutates and expands as it continues to be read, which makes for a truly unique reading experience, for one thing. The book feels nearly organic, which is actually kind of disconcerting when you think about it.
It begins simply, and rather sillily, enough: “Although unavailable for analysis the moment it happens, being struck a violent blow on the head is a very interesting experience.” Sounds like a Marx Brothers or Mel Brooks quote, doesn’t it? Similarly farcical things happen in the opening hundred pages, like several strange cab rides and a not-very-funny but still oddly farcical visit to the zoo. Our five professors are all a little pitiable, a little ho-hum, and it’s only their idea that really makes them interesting. But at the end of part one, Cisco writes: “You think we’re all still there, until the ribbon of storytelling breaks and you realize not only that you are alone, but that you have been alone.” It’s not just a great description of what happens when you put down a book or when reality intrudes upon your reading experience; it’s a pretty solid sentence regarding what’s about to happen.
Except it’s not that the ribbon of storytelling so much breaks as it does snap, come to life, wrap itself around you, and feed you a tab of high-powered acid. Cisco begins to play with form as well as content, introducing a questionnaire, several new narrators (including, perhaps, the author’s voice itself), layers of metafictionality, and a spin into the totally science-fictional. To say nothing of the ongoing anarchy caused by the introduction of this idea of Animal Money. There is truly too much to describe; an accurate encompassing of everything in this novel would be the novel’s own length – a Remainder-esque nesting doll of continually retelling the story.
The thing that impressed me the most is perhaps Cisco’s serious economic credibility. He’s not just coming up with a system and imagining that it changes the world – he’s actually aware of how our current economic system works, he’s conscious of the ways in which it is flawed and the arguments both for and against it. Some of the economists go to visit with a much-older economist after they go on the run (because they’ve been slandered, discredited, and had attempts on their lives) and he talks to them about the market system, about surveillance, about the fact that “no economics theory, no monetary policy, could possibly overturn capitalism of course” before telling them that their idea does have potential. As someone who sits on the relatively far left of the political spectrum, I’m always intrigued by the flaws inherent in the capitalist system – and Cisco turns animal money into a workable alternative, because it takes away the driving force: capital. If you exchange animal money and it multiplies… the inherent basis of capitalism, that you do work and are given money in return with which you’re meant to buy goods and the cycle keeps going, is destroyed. Animal money is best described via analogy twice in the novel: one as having a child (perhaps the best analogy possible; two people exchange something and an entirely new thing comes from that exchange) and the other as memes, which are always one sharp wit away from becoming something new. But neither of those things can or ever will be truly monetized, sitting as they do outside of the capitalist system. Animal money, arcane (and fictional) though it may be, would do the same.
As the world – and the narrative – begin to fracture further, it does become more difficult to keep things straight. Assiyeh, for example: is she real? was she created by the economists? Depending on which one of these things is true, it affects how we understand the rest of the story. Ditto to the tale of SuperAesop, who was the poor man in the chimp cage during that odd zoo trip – and he’s a sort of radical messiah, an anarcho-terrorist of an older stripe, the kind that people could also (without argument) call a freedom fighter. As Cisco himself, in a way somewhat reminiscent of my recent Robert Coover adventure, begins to intrude into the actual words on the page (as opposed to just being their conduit), all of the characters and their narrative voices begin to merge together – a thing that I’d ordinarily have a problem with, as I prefer characters to be distinct and interesting and for authors to create truly vividly different people, but that I here found to be an essential part of the experience.
“If I never lived any of my memories, then how are they mine?” asks SuperAesop (I think) at one point, conscious not only of this narrative bleedthrough but also again poking at the very experience of reading: for I ‘remember’ the occult practices that brought about the first animal money, I ‘remember’ Assiyeh on a spaceship falling in love with her AI companion, and I ‘remember’ the strange vampire squid thing that assaults pregnant women and eats their fetuses. I remember these things vividly: I can picture the chemistry lab, the planet Koskon Kanona, the park restroom where the first woman was attacked. But they did not happen to me – they ostensibly didn’t happen to anyone. There’s a moment, a tipping point, where the reader realizes that absolutely nothing here can be trusted beyond the moment that it’s read – and yet it must also be taken on faith that these things are connected, that they are building to a greater whole. I do not doubt that many readers will be absolutely confounded, many even disgusted to the point of repulsion at the very idea of this book’s unruliness, its eternal unknowability. But for the reader who is willing to give themselves over, to buy the ticket and take the ride (as it were), there is so much to be uncovered and explored and perhaps a bit of animal money is created between you and the book. After all, you’ve both ‘given’ each other something: the book has given you its narrative and you’ve given it a read. And there is something… different in the world after you’ve finished, almost like a magic book that needs to be read in order for the spell to be cast.
Perhaps only time will tell. Perhaps the changes are already happening. Or maybe they were just a novel. The sliver of doubt, though, is what’s interesting.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Jeff VanderMeer called it “not just possibly the finest weird novel of the modern era, but also an uncanny Infinite Jest by way of early Pynchon and Robert Bolaño’s 2666. This novel requires your full and undivided attention, but you will not come away from the experience unchanged.” I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s the finest weird novel of the modern era, but it sure as hell will change you – and it is absolutely a towering achievement, worth the plunge for any daring reader who doesn’t mind having their head spun around a few times more than usual. Cisco somehow blends together hard economic critiques with gonzo weird science fiction, political thriller, Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trips, and more to create something that often feels unsustainable but somehow manages to keep on going and keep you going with it. The book requires a downright unusual commitment and it’s not for the faint of heart but the rewards are truly one-of-a-kind.