The Ecphorizer

Book Review: The Unspeakable Experiment by Henry Thatcher
reviewed by Bob Holmes

issue #04 (December 1981)

Henry K. Thatcher has done it again. Since his first novel, in 1978, The Cistern of Conviviality, none of his 17 novels has borne any relationship or similarity to any of the others. Each is a unique experience. In spite of the variety of format, approach, and subject matter, there is, nonetheless, a theme -- an ongoing leitmotif. Thatcher has a massage -- make no mistake about that -- and he delights in making his readers try to ferret out just what it is.

The Unspeakable Experiment (Houghten-Hooten, Inc. $12.95) may well be Thatcher's oeuvre-d'oeuvres. In it, he fulfills -- nay, reiterates and expands -- the promise of his earlier works. In Nancy Banks, Thatcher has created a heroine/antiheroine who will haunt you for years to cane. Nancy is a woman who knows what she wants. She also knows that what she wants will [quoteright]mean the end of civilization as we ncw know it. There are times when Nancy feels the urges common to all women -- indeed, to all personkind - but she fights them off.

The symbology that Thatcher employs may, at first glance, seem obscure. As one reads between the lines, however, the message on the page becomes clear. Len Rickard exemplifies the sometimes real, sometimes ethereal, representation of the forces that shape the destinies of lesser man who are bruited about by the vagaries of unknowing and uncaring movers and shakers who are driven by ambitions that know no bounds nor definition. This, of course, is the existentialist interpretation. On another level - in a different framework -- these megaheroes -- the thematic counterpoint to Nancy and Len's hopeless, yet meaningful, love-hate affair -- suggest the movement of the Magyars in the thirteenth century to cast off the bonds of personal striving and to unify mankind in a search for the true meaning of animal-vegetable relationships.

Thatcher continually challenges the reader with his seemingly random changes of tense, person, number, gender, country, compass direction, and subject. Beneath it all, however, is a unity of purpose. One perceives the pattern as one applies the crypto code hidden in the final chapter to a second, third, and fourth reading: i.e., the real meaning of meaningfulness is that there is no meaning. Rick Holmes' conclusion that the elimination of rose hips and lecithin from the diet can reduce the incidence of herpes simplex II is simply Thatcher making a statement. The Statement is, to wit, that natural foods lie in the eye of the beholder. Seen in this light, the subsequent slapstick comedy episode takes on substantial significance.

One may wonder why Thatcher failed to focus more attention on Kay Grant, the Tasmanian refugee who tempts Len to give up speleology and come out into the open. The answer, in the eyes of this reviewer, is that Kay is meant to be thought of as the earth mother Len never adjusted to as a child. The Oedipal implications here are best left to the reader's imagination.

The Indian renegade, George Towner, the fifth major character in the novel (or the sixth, depending on how one regards Ulysses S. Grant), is an enigma wrapped in a Navajo love blanket. Through the hole, one catches snatches of savage passion played against a background of tribal customs that would give a customs inspector pause.

Then there's Dr. Johnson, who the Royal Entomological Society brings up on charges of buggery. In his work with NASA, he has been implicated in aiming a probe at Uranus. Thatcher's predeliction for word play may get a bit cut of hand here, as he refers to Johnson's so-called "proctored" exam for qualifying for Mensa, which, as everyone knows, means "ass" in Mexican slang. The connection of Dr. Johnson, whom one naturally associates with etymology, with entomology is borderline. The shallowness with which Thatcher draws this character is demonstrated by Johnson's attitude toward his wife, which is, in essence, I'm OK - you're just Caye.

Thatcher's attempt to present John Cumming as a messiah doesn't quite come off. And his symbolic representation of Eva as a manifestation of the second coming can only he regarded as arrant sexism.

In this novel, Thatcher proves that the use of an Apple II computer as a tool of literary composition can indeed be the use of an Apple II computer as a tool of literary composition can indeed be the use of an Apple .................... 

This month's book reviewer was formerly an announcer for a Shanghai radio station. His hobby is attending Mensa parties and taking snapshots of people in compromising positions.

More Articles by reviewed by Bob Holmes

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