Book Review by Robert Clark Young: Burn & Learn: Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era
Burn & Learn: Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era
by Eric Paul Shaffer
Leaping Dog Press, 2009
Reviewed by Robert Clark Young
The Ecstasy of the Do-It-Yourself Novel
If Kerouac were alive today, he would be updating his status on Facebook every three minutes, and the literature he would be creating would look very much like Eric Paul Shaffer’s Burn & Learn: Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era. Even so, the use of the term Cenozoic has confused at least one Facebook user, who posted on Shaffer’s wall, “Wow! You are really, really old! A dinosaur,” only to be informed that the Cenozoic Era is, of course, our current era.
There could be nothing more current than Shaffer’s novel. It is a non-linear narrative that exploits the fact that millions of us now read in a non-linear fashion, skipping from blogs to Twitter to Facebook to the New York Times to our own work as we multitask at our screens.
Burn and Learn invites us to browse its pages in whatever order we choose, just as the Internet does, with the intoxicating promise that as we go from chapter to random chapter, we are creating our own book, our own entertainment, our own meaning. This literary breakthrough is intentional and overt. Indeed, Burn and Learn comes with its own set of reading instructions, modestly presented—and none-too-soon!—on page 179:
“The truth is every reader edits every novel creating his own version with his own vision of every word run by his eye by his hand, but the Ideal Edition of Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era is the only one encouraging every reader to make the most of reading by making a bookmovie of one’s own from the lines and points appealing to the eye on the page.”
The Cenozoic Era has evolved into the era of the status update. Like the ones found on Facebook and Twitter, the updates posted in this novel are personal ones from the only moment that ever exists, the present one, that pinpoint of existential pulse which, when plotted in succession to the next and the next, we refer to in our banal and inadequate manner as “daily life.”
Shaffer shows us that there’s nothing banal about it. He expands these moments into dramatic vignettes that are charged with the narrative arcs and compelling characterizations of fiction. It’s as though Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and every other true-life fictioneer were so high on existence and honesty that they had decided to collaborate on a mosaic made up of every sub-atomic particle of crisis and conflict—Life!
On the surface, the book is the story of five friends attending the University of New Mexico in a mythologized Albuquerque of the early 1980s. The central character is Shaffer’s doppelganger, the zig-zagging narrator known, appropriately enough, as Reckless. Other characters include the mysterious “K.C.” and King Charles the RagMan. But perhaps the most beguiling character is Shaffer’s dog, Rufus, who bounds from page to page in leaping paroxysms of canine metaphor, representing the novel’s wild, sniffing, exploring, exuberant, life-loving spirit.
Like Kerouac, Shaffer has fascinating friends, and he invites us into their intimacy and their immediacy with a casualness that is so sly that its denouement is almost always shocking. As he sits drinking coffee and eating sweet rolls with his beloved friends at the Frontier Restaurant, the significance of morsels of food becomes Proustian, with the discourse soaring and leveling and soaring again through everything mystical and wondrous to be had in the seemingly mundane, in the dreary cheat of lost love, in the surreal glory of being down-and-out, in the light-footed wisdom to be found in the alleyways of Albuquerque.
Why are we so delighted to share in these “true-life fiction moments”? Well, not only because they constitute an almanac of the philosophical, of the fraternal, and of the amatory, but because, like all good fiction, they are riveting, fun, irresponsible, tender, ever-humanizing, and hilarious—in short, a damn good read.
Shaffer does the immediacy of Beat writing one better, because it’s exhilarating to skip around in Burn and Learn and read it in whatever order we please, creating the novel we would wish to read; this reminds us not only that reading is an activity, but teaches us that when we participate this fully in that activity, the motion of the mind becomes athletic. This is what Burroughs was trying to do with his cut-ups, but Shaffer does him one better too, because the immediacy of Burn and Learn does not depend upon the author’s freedom of association, but upon the reader’s.
This democratic opening of the reading experience is congruent with the compassion of Shaffer’s voice. One of the reasons the book is so readable—in whatever order one chooses to read it—is that Shaffer’s compassion soon becomes a character in itself, perhaps even the leading character. Finding what is compelling, poignant, and beautiful in the smallest and most ordinary of things—in broken pieces of colored chalk, in a birthday cake, in a bottle of beer—underscores the fact that Shaffer understands the difference between a memoir and a book of memoirs. This is not a whole constructed of its parts, but parts that assemble into an infinite number of shapes that show us our own humanity.
These life snippets are so engaging, in fact, that I kept looking for the comment button. Since there wasn’t one, the only thing left to me was to go online and tell you about this book.
As amazing as the reader will find Shaffer’s ability to lend epigrammatic stature to the day-to-day crises of friends sitting around a table in a diner, posing existential questions to one another as they eat their way through the menu, what is even more extraordinary is the way that the book’s history of composition has flowered into literary prophecy.
It is a matter of record that Shaffer spent over twenty-five years writing Burn and Learn. This means that in the early to mid-1980s, at a time when the only people with access to a fledgling Internet were academics in computing and scientists at government agencies—posting professional updates on primitive electronic bulletin boards—Shaffer was sitting in a coffee shop in Albuquerque, already writing in this new way in his notebooks, already expanding the range of writing to include the personal, the quotidian, the momentary, the clickable, the surfable, inventing the literary Internet all by himself, and indeed prophesying, with a kind of confident genius, that this would become the literary reality of the future, that one day millions of ordinary people would be reading and writing in precisely this manner.
How could Shaffer have known all of this a quarter century ago? The eye wanders the page in awe, as incredulous as when it discovers the drawing of a helicopter in Da Vinci’s notebooks. While it took four hundred years for an actual helicopter to lift from the ground, it took only a quarter century for Burn and Learn to come lifting toward us, a book arriving specially made for our time, as flashing-hot and twitching-new as this morning’s Twitter feed.
The mechanics of genius and prophecy must always be a mystery. But what is no mystery is that Burn and Learn, shaped in co-authorship between you and its author, and enjoyed in whatever sequence you wish to enjoy it, not only deserves its place in the history of letters, but is one of the most enchanting books you will ever write, even as you sit there thinking that reading has never been so much fun.
Robert Clark Young’s controversial novel, One of the Guys, is out from HarperCollins in hardcover and paperback. His short stories and literary essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Warrior Review, the Brooklyn Rail, Gulf Coast, the Houston Post, New Millennium Writings, New Orleans Review, New York Press, Onionhead, Owen Wister Review, the Portland Oregonian, Quarter After Eight, San Diego Magazine, San Diego Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Monica Review, Southern Humanities Review, the Southern Review, the Washington Post, West Branch, and ZYZZYVA.