Some Assembly Required
by Michael Strelow (Goodreads Author)
S. Barckmann's review Oct 27, 2021
also available on Amazon Kindle etc.
The history of madness in literature is ancient and long standing. The gift of prophecy was a form of madness. Cassandra could see into the future, but after spurning him sexually, she was cursed by Apollo to never be believed. When Cassandra warned the Trojans what was to come they didn’t believe her, and she ended up suffering worst of all.
From the majestic wailing of King Lear we learn what he saw that he could not see before he was blinded.
The delusions of Don Quixote give us a sad yet comic tour of the ridiculous side of medieval chivalry. Up until the 19th Century great writers saw tragic wisdom in those called mad by the world.
The Russians began to explore mental dissonance and existentialism crept into the story of madness.The tragic wisdom sometimes gave way to just plain crazy. Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” was a first person account of a minor Russian bureaucrat living in Czarist St Petersburg who slowly sinks into at first believable hallucinations and paranoia and ends up convinced he is the King of Spain. Dostoyevski wrote about madness a number of times, in fact much of his literary output focused on mental disturbance. “The Double” was a novella about a man convinced there was another man who looked exactly like himself and who is gradually replacing himself in his own social world. His stories “A Ridiculous Man”, “Notes from the Underground”, “The Gambler” and the great novel “Crime and Punishment” all deal with men who lose touch with what is commonly (if loosely) agreed is reality.
And in China, Lu Xun wrote a story, also called “Diary of a Madman” where mental illness is a result of oppressive economic and social conditions and barriers. The list of stories dealing with characters whose sense of reality is a transitive mental state goes on and on.
Michael Strelow’s “Some Assembly Required” is an original and very different look at the sources of madness, where the fruits of 21st century science are at the root of the horror. The narrator, Jake, is an erudite man who writes articles for science magazines. He says about himself, “I render the science into foundational English, maybe with a cute metaphor, a diagram, a piping of my own flute.”
He goes to a bio genetics conference and hears a Professor Sewell talk, (mumble actually) about his new experiment.
“He said, essentially, that he could, someone could, break down an animal into its component chemistry and register that recipe into zeroes and ones and then compress the whole set of instructions into storage and then later bring out (hash functions) the recipe and reassemble the critter.”
As Jake circles around Prof S trying to look for an angle for an article to write and sell, and he finds the “experiment” the Professor is hiding. It looks like a pile of spilt oatmeal. Jake comes to realize that the “oatmeal”, named “Rex”, is conscious and is talking to him telepathically.
Jake says, “This voices business. I learned later, of course, that this is a very old epistemological problem: what is there we can know? And how do we know it? It’s the next questions, though, that grabbed me by the ass very early on, earlier than if I had had no voices, I think. Who else knows what we know? And all the corollaries: who else knows stuff we can never know? That one has kept a circus of philosophers very busy.”
Jake is a well educated man who lives modestly with his wife in a middle class, mid-life kind of relationship. Jake slowly begins to see Rex flex his muscles and have an influence on everything. He sees Rex manipulate the universe as a self-learning tool, and plaything. Jake tells his wife what he is seeing and experiencing, and she believes him, sort of, and makes an effort to see what he is seeing. But there is always an alternate explanation to Rex’s seemingly material manifestations.
“I could have avoided it if I’d really made my voices go hide out in a cave. Not so easy a thing, it turns out. Rex, the voice of thunder, my Loki and coyote trickster is sitting on my shoulder, though I could deny and deny and deny.”
Jake explains to us, with detailed and humorous analysis, how Rex’s is affecting the environment. Jake’s manner is so dispassionate with seemingly clear minded self reflection that he begins to convince (this) reader that his view of things is cogent and part of the accepted common reality.
Rex talking - “… a fracture in the equilibrium that leads anywhere. The need I am speaking about is strongest in those who hear me now. The ones without the need are … well, just let me say that they are getting inklings and intimations without the logos—the word. They too yearn but insufficiently. They also yearn palely.”
Jake says - “…I thanked my genetic stars that I got a set of amusing, even soothing, voices. I knew, after a little research, that there were much worse versions.”...“I spent the afternoon shifting around the park asking myself Thoreau-like questions: what does the thin layer of the natural world mean to tell us about being alive in it? What does the next layer deeper want to give us as metaphor? And then, once again, the Tina Turner question: what’s love got to do with it?”
Through Jake, Strelow gives us a vaulted tour through the conundrums and bad dreams of scientists working on all levels of problems from physics, linguistics, biology, nano-technology, mathematics and chemistry. In the end Jake and his wife (who copilots his journey into the abyss), are enveloped with a placid and bucolic backdrop while being drawn into a dark drama of a shifting reality that seems inescapable.