Book review: Mammoth by Chris Flynn

(cover image courtesy UQP)

Humanity, you have been judged and found wanting.

By a 13,000-year-old extinct mammoth fossil no less.

While that revelation may be sobering, the good news is that the judgement is delivered by the extraordinarily imaginative novel, Mammoth by Chris Flynn, a book which takes the traditional anthropocentric view of the world, in which everything only has value in its relationship to people, and turns it wildly and with great joy, and yes, tragedy too, on its fossilised head.

Mammoth is quite simply unlike anything you have likely read before, and in a world where so many things feel like tired retreads of something you have read before, that is an exceedingly good and rewarding thing.

The quirky premise is part of the reason why Flynn’s book is such an arrestingly compelling read.

The entire story is related from the perspective of Mammut americanum aka Mammut, one of the most engagingly fun characters you have ever met in a book, a Mastodon – technically, the now-extinct proboscidean (a taxonomic order which also includes elephants) residents of North America are known by this name – who has lived a long and interesting life and has no qualms about talking about endlessly and at length.

“‘Died from my wound, eventually. The ice froze around me, and I was encased for years. Then the years turned to centuries, and the centuries to millennia. Thankfully my spirit had gone to the happy hunting grounds, otherwise that would have been a nightmare.’

‘You were not aware, as you are now, Palaeo?’

‘No, sir. Dead and gone, or so I believed. It wasn’t until 1836 that I found myself back in the land of the living, or whatever you guys are calling this plane of existence.'” (P. 110)

The audience to whom he relates his long and sorry tale are a captive one, quite literally, fellow fossils including a Tyrannosaurus bataar dug up from Mongolia and illegally smuggled into the United States, a hand cut off from the mummified body of Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, a ten-million-year-old penguin ancestor Palaeospheniscus patagonicus and pterodactylus antiquus, the first pterosaur species to be named and identified as a flying reptile.

This motley collection of fossils, all of whom exist on a strange afterlife plane where they are aware of the world around them, and can learn and grow as individuals, are all awaiting sale at the Natural History Auction in March 2007 and have time to kill the night before the event takes place.

So they talk; yes, these are fossils who are not only self-aware but who have personalities, opinions – oh, they have opinions, the expressions of which are gloriously good and give Mammoth such vitality and a witty sense of fun – and a perspective on the natural world that omits one major player who sees itself as the centre of all things – humanity.

This is where a decidedly quirky premise pays off magnificently.

For Mammoth is no less than a breathtakingly original look at the macrohistory of the planet from animals who were here long before us and who have a unique perspective of watching humanity arrive on the scene, all while knowing full well that we are not, despite our own skewed assessment, the beginning and end of all things.

Chris Flynn (image courtesy UQP)

Their view of things, as the opening sentence of this review would intimate, is not a good one.

That’s not to say they don’t have some sort of twisted affection for us, mostly borne of the time they have spent, post-excavation, with us in places as diverse as a Boston bar, a French chateau and a whiskey distillery in Kentucky, but by and large they find that hominids are we uniformly referred to, as greatly lacking in their understanding and appreciation of the world around them.

Put simply, we see the world only from our vantage point, and while that is in part wholly understandable, the sad fact of the matter is that we don’t even try to understand that the world may not march solely to our big-brained, destructive drum.

Mammut, for instance, who largely holds court in the novel to the annoyance but nevertheless sustained interest of his table mates, talks about the arrival of Clovis man to North America, an event which upset a delicate arrangement between the megafauna of the time, who disappeared relatively quickly, in geological terms at least, due to the suggested combined effects of climate change and human predation.

While people view the natural world through a fairly simplistic lens, the reality is, says Mammut, that animals have long enjoyed profoundly interwoven relationships with each other and are far more clever, empathetic and intuitive than humanity has every given them credit for.

They are also not simply food to be eaten or resources to be exploited, with Mammut making the salient point that while every other living thing sees itself as part of an interconnected web and acknowledges the responsibility that comes with being an inextricable part of that world, humanity sees itself as above it all, a mindset which leaves havoc and chaos in its wake and the planet all the poorer for our presence more often than not.

“‘Hold on, Mammut. Is this going to be another of your sad endings?’

‘I am afraid so, T. bataar. Perhaps you should cover your ears.’

‘If I could do that, I would have done it long ago, buddy. I’m just saying, what’s with the pterodactyl’s reports on Nazi torture techniques and your habit of finishing stories with death and destruction, this whole tale you’re spinning is enough to make a tyrannosaur dive headfirst into the nearest tar pit.’

‘What can I say? The lives of hominids are replete with tragedy.'” (PP. 168-169)

If that sounds like a heavy duty message atop a lighthearted premise, in many ways it is, with Flynn adroitly and winningly bringing two quite different threads together in such a beguiling way that you turn page after page quickly eager to see how Mammut and the others view the world, and how their time among us has changed their perspective of us.

It is a brilliantly imaginative way of getting those of us who know the planet is in trouble and fading bit by bit, or in great horrifying slabs, each year but don’t fully appreciate the history behind it.

Mammoth is natural history teaching as you have never read it before, filled with enrapturingly fun characters, witty lines of clever, postmodern, self-referential dialogue and a sensibility that is able to take some incredibly weighty issues and present them in an invitingly accessible way that never once diminishes their importance.

The novel is mischievously playful and deeply serious all at once, able to having you loving aloud before musing, sometimes in the very next paragraph or two about the seriousness of life on earth and how humanity has quite clearly underestimated its impact on the planet and its place in the natural world.

Through the garrulous talkativeness of Mammut, who is tusks-down one of the most lovable, hilariously enjoyable and benignly narcissistic characters you will have spent time with in any book, you will come to appreciate in a wholly new way how much we need the natural world around us and that if we stopped to listen to and heed it far more than we do, might just need us right back.

Stranger things have happened – just ask Mammut (and if you do, make yourself comfortable, you’ll be awhile).

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