The Martians came to me in bed,
“The earth is decomposed,” they said,
“Come to the moon, it’s made of cheese.”
I went with them. We sailed the seas
Of Nectar and Serenity
Where I met God and God met me.
We walked through stilton hand in hand,
“I think,” I said, “I understand.”
My head was like an open spout
My cerebellum dribbled out
And God replaced my brain with brie,
“I’m free at last,” I cried. “I’m free.”

This week, I participated in a reading in New York City’s West Village. All I knew when I entered was that I was going to a new “science fiction” bookstore. That turned out only to be partially true. Ed’s Martian Book is indeed new, but what it stocks is nonfiction, namely author Andrew Kessler’s debut book, Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission (Pegasus). There’s something extremely surreal about being in a store where shelf after shelf, case after case, table after table only have one title. Perhaps that is science fiction-like. It’s mesmerizing, and I kept being tempted to open the books to make sure they weren’t blank inside (I gave in to temptation and, in fact, they were not blank inside). I emailed Kessler to find out more about his mission to Mars and his “crazy” bookstore brainstorm.

I love my office. It calls to me. The sleepy glow of the computer is a beacon as I go about my household chores. It’s in a hallway and yes I can think of better locations. But for now it’s an okay space.  Tempting to put down my basket of laundry to check my email or jot down an idea, to sneak away from the family, glass of wine in hand, to reread a passage.

The fact that my office is in a hallway may have something to do with why I also like to work in cafes. I love the anonymous crawl space at the edge of a crowd, the kind of concentration possible in chaos. But not if the music is rubbish, not if it’s one of those places that specializes in babyccinos or 423 varieties of muffin holes.  I have my favorite joints based on the pure grunt of the joe, the quality of the music and/or whether or not they are friendly to dogs. There’s a place up the road called Scrambled, where the lesbians churn out nothing but pitch-perfect espresso, brilliant breakfasts and non-stop tunes. And another, a slightly longer walk away, where there are tables outside and a big bowl of water for the dog.

But in the end, and hallway or not, it’s my office that calls to me. I love that first kiss of my fingers on keyboard. Don Quixote cheers me on from a small set of drawers I picked up at a garage sale. The Don is a present from my kids and is one of my most precious possessions. My prized collection of City Lights Pocket Books—Kerouac, Ginsberg— is stacked on a shelf above him. Oh there is a cactus, and my speakers, and CDs and pictures and maps.  A pile of papers I shuffle from a pile labeled ‘In’ to a pile labeled ‘File’ and back again. A grape vine that snakes its way past my windows. I can step outside onto the back steps and look up at the clock tower of the Petersham Town Hall, where Baz Luhrmann filmed Strictly Ballroom. And at my feet, the dog.

Across three continents and over a dozen years, I remember all my offices. In San Diego it was a tiny patch of space off the end of my daughter’s change table. She was in the car with me when I drove to deliver the first piece of writing I was ever paid for. In Christchurch, a cold corner room I shared with my husband. In Sydney, a fabulous sunroom I had all to myself in the bowels of a sprawling Victorian pile on the harbor foreshore. And now this cluttered little passageway that is stifling in summer and too cold in winter and from which I can hear my son on his bass and my daughter on the phone and the neighbors playing Mahjong and through which my better half may wonder at any time, oh, looking for his reciprocating saw or trumpet mute… a space which I can and do make into a room of my very own.

Patchouli Morning

The metaphysical impishness, erudition and breadth of vision in this sexually charged roman à clef is Smith at his most vulnerable. We recoil in horror as he recounts a series of heartbreaking trysts that recall — then exceed — Flaubert in both emotional power and literary merit. Curiously, the novel stagnates for the first twenty pages with inane references to pedestrian, adolescent love themes directed toward a sophomore called only “Emily,” but it then soars for the remaining 344 pages with a narrative and vision as taut and authentic as anything in the Western canon since forever. And while the inclusion of the lyrics to Metallica’s “Fade to Black” in the prologue offers little in the way of relevance, one is reminded that — like black holes — not everything should be easily understood.

Lachrymose in Transylvania

Intoxicating, tantalizing, always potentially violent, this captivating tome helps define not just the current state of Inuit America, but the world at large. It is a book so erudite and well wrought that its aura somehow illuminates the rest of Smith’s oeuvre, sustaining his post-apocalyptic vision. And although Smith asks a lot of his readers (would Dracula really show up for the soap-box derby, uninvited?), we are rewarded for our efforts later in this tour de force when it becomes clear everything has been a dream — but not in that hokey, St. Elsewhere way — in that way that only Smith, at the height of his creative powers, can manufacture so convincingly.

Da Nang Disco

Can anyone write about the horrors of the Vietnam War like Smith? Maybe Tim O’Brien, but does O’Brien dare to set his narrative against the backdrop of a colonial discotheque struggling to keep the party going during the Tet Offensive? No. Smith weaves his flawless prose seamlessly through the trenches and pop hits of 1968 Vietnam while exposing the artifice and shady underbelly that was the 2001 Little League World Series. The daring cadenza that begins the novel is, as often seems to be the case with Smith’s first chapters, categorically unreadable — but not in the sense that they are ill-conceived or poorly written — they are simply too much to bear, like much of Joyce. The Emily character makes a dramatic entrance, screams, then leaves the novel for good. Again. It’s so haunting! Maybe I should just come clean here and admit that I am not smart enough to comprehend what Smith is getting at, usually.

Toggle & Yaw

Just when you get the feeling that Smith may nave reached the limits of his vast fecundity, he treats us to a space novel like no other. To call Toggle & Yaw a “space novel,” though, is tantamount to calling The Bible a “sand novel.” The book begins quite predictably with a string of complaints (as is becoming Smith’s modus operandi) related to a character named “Emily,” who appears quite substantially in earlier chapters then disappears without a whimper. What are we to think of this “Emily?” Who really cares, when, later in the novel, Toggle (a Type A cosmonaut from the future) explains to Yaw (a robot/fire hydrant with a history of drug abuse), “Thy sample science programs, like deep surveys and slitless grism spectroscopy of exo-planet transit, will compromise ye olde mission’s capabilities in near-infrared, m’lady. Anon.” Can you think of another writer who can meld flawless Victorian patois with deep-space discourse like Smith? This reviewer cannot.

The Rending

If it can be said of any writer living today that he/she has fused lyric virtuosity with a kind childlike aplomb, that writer must be Mr. Smith. The Rending begins with the tale of a particularly devastating train accident, I think. Of course, Smith knows that, in fiction, it’s often what’s “not there” that lends to the visceral beauty inherent in certain exchanges and turns of phrase. Indeed, The Rending, Smith’s fifth and finest book thus far, is an artistic blitzkrieg on literary expectation and norms, as the novel, coming in at just under 600 pages, features not a single word. If Kafka, Proust, McCullers and Nabokov pooled their best work and created a kind of “Dream Team” book, one wonders whether the ensuing scribbles could even be put up for consideration next to Smith’s magnum opus. The culminate car-chase through the byzantine streets of Caligula’s Rome recalls I, Claudius, with lasers. Not-to-be-perused.

Emily

On first read, one wonders whether Mr. Smith actually typed the word “Emily” 2,011,740 times, or if he in fact used the “cut-and-paste” option on his PC. Either way, this paean to lost love compels the reader to ask: “Is this The Great American Novel?” or perhaps, “What’s your return policy?”