“If the garbage man doesn’t come for a couple weeks, we all die of cholera.”
If you are unfamiliar with Jack Pendarvis, there is really nothing I can say that would adequately prepare you for a foray into his debut novel, Awesome, except perhaps that the “best” modern humor seems to come at you in throngs of grotesque hyperbole. From the concept of fueling a car with ejaculate (instead of oil or alcohol) to the detailed castration of that very member which produced the semen-fuel, Pendarvis sends you to a place where you realize consciously or not that blatant sexuality is no longer the exception, but the norm to which you become desensitized. By the time you find the narrator commanding his true love to masturbate atop a camel in front of friends and family on their wedding day, you don’t really blink an eye. This, incidentally, is the very male-female interaction that propels the plot of our absurdist tale.
Simply put, Awesome is a love story. Pendarvis’ protagonist, a pariah in the shape of a derby-wearing giant named Awesome, narrates his quixotic adventure across the United States to collect treasures in the hopes of wooing his true love, Glorious Jones, back after the aforementioned marital mishap. Awesome simultaneously epitomizes naiveté and genius. While reading, you can embrace your inner schadenfreude in watching him stumble through human social cues while also naturally being the most brilliant traversing the land - your typical MIT student (just ten times larger).
Every Quijote needs his Sancho, and in this case, the secondhand plot line is a result of Awesome’s forte in life: robot building. He single-handedly creates both his companion in his quest and his arch nemesis in one, Jimmy the robot. The story primarily focuses around this trio: Awesome, Glorious Jones, and Jimmy - with Jimmy as a mere “side kick” until ultimately, we find it to be Jimmy that thwarts Awesome’s efforts to efficiently win Glorious because he exceeds robot expectations and adopts human emotions (jealousy and loneliness). This is perhaps, in part, to say that we all serve as the creators of our own worst enemies, one of the many cliché messages ironically interspersed throughout this short novel.
Awesome isn’t a life changing read, but it takes the most typical story lines in literature and presents them with a twist for an intriguing social commentary. At first, I found this novel to be shockingly male-authored. I was quite turned off by the harsh depiction of sex in the male mind, despite how accurate it probably is (think: Heath Ledger’s experiment gone awry in I’m Not There challenging Charlotte Gainsbourg to write down on a napkin the nastiest thing she could think of and compare it to a male’s version). But this was necessary in order to show the contrast of a transformed Awesome post-castration, the point at which he discovers that sexual endeavors are a distraction in his attempt to complete his mission for Glorious. This very incident serves as a feminist overture.
This book is successful because, by the end, Pendarvis has made you joyfully accept that the human condition is an absolutely absurd and redundant one. The very trait that sets humans apart from all other animals, the capacity for rationale, is elucidated as wasteful and our fear of purposelessness is hilarious. And originality, that which humans ideally seek, only truly lies within the grasp of a robotic creation who suffers from the very same thing humans do: loneliness. It ends up being this very touch of humanness that drives his originality. In a whirlwind of circular logic we realize this, in itself, is highly not novel. Knowing the kind of comedian Pendarvis is, though, he probably just wrote his novel with one thing in mind: make it funny. And that, he did.