UNASSIGNED TERRITORY By Kem Nunn Delacorte. 305 pp. $16.95
MARK VAN DOREN observed of The Tempest that this great play is like an electrical field in that if you touch it at any point, it dazzles you with light. That applies to Kem Nunn's new novel, Unassigned Territory, which runs on a lesser current: despite a few short circuits that leave us in momentary darkness, it produces a great variety of pyrotechnical effects.
This novel's episodic plot involves three distinct journeys, with the travelers seldom together, but instead always following or being followed. The principal actors are Obadiah Wheeler, who is attempting to avoid the Vietnam war by studying (as little as possible) for an evangelical ministry; Harlan Low, an elder in the same sect, which can be described as having been forged from what is left over after every other form of Protestantism has done its best and its worst; Delandra Hummer, the promiscuous and savvy daughter of Sarge Hummer, the late inventor of a hidiously real and perhaps living monster known as The Thing; and Rex Hummer, half brother of Delandra and son of Sarge, an inventor in his own right and, like Obadiah and Harlan, a visionary.
Through a series of accidents and complications both hilarious and horrific and impossible to summarize but delicious to read, this motley group of misfits searches for the location of one Ceton Verity's Electro-Magnetron, a utopian device that, if perfected, will reverse the aging process and perhaps reveal the mystery of the universe. Verity, a renegade scientist of great genius, is apparently dead. The site of his great experiment has been grabbed by his loony and criminal disciples, three of whom are mysteriously murdered.
EACH OF the four main characters tries to reach the Electro-Magnetron and plumb its secrets, and one finally succeeds. All four are subjected to great danger and nearly killed while conducting a quest that is, by any reasonable standard -- and even within the limits of this wonderfully satiric novel -- mad and hopeless.
Nunn uses the Electro-Magnetron and its related symbols and mythology to epitomize many of western man's silliest compulsions -- scientism and technocracy (including science fiction and UFOs ), information theory, research, myth (including tribal primitivism and fascism), evangelical religion and perhaps even that dreaded chimera of today's cultural scene, secular humanism -- lampooning any effort to provide a single answer to humankind's complexities.
Each of the main characters seeks his identity while searching for the others and for the site of Verity's failed enterprise. Each also thinks he has the answer to the Mystery of the Mojave (a thematic phrase that echoes throughout the novel).
The action is by turns rollicking and side-splitting, comic and pathetic, serious and heart-rending. Like all good comedy it begins in disorder and ends in apparent order. The preoccupations of this insane world, as seen unfolding haphazardly in California and Nevada during the disorderly times of the Vietnam war, bear a nightmarish resemblance to the obsessions that continue to haunt western man. Nunn's satire, like all good satire, extends beyond the lunacies of the moment to embrace the idiotic aspects of life in general.
Kem Nunn strikes me as a latter-day Charles Dickens or Flannery O'Connor appearing in the American West to chronicle the manias and delusions of a society rapidly becoming post-Christian. This version of picaresque will make you see the world around you a little more sharply, and we can ask little more of fiction than that.
George Core is editor of the Sewanee Review.