This article is an excerpt from a longer piece entitled "Science Fiction & Fantasy - The many guises of literary fantasy - from comic short stories to slip-stream fiction to mega-novels of alternative history." published in Washington Post Book World, December 15 2002

A Secret History of Our Time

How to summarize in a few hundred words or less a series of maximalist, encyclopedic novels replete with scores of major characters and totalling nearly 2,000 pages? An impossible task! All that can be done is to limn roughly the charms and flavors of Edward Whittemore's long-unavailable cult classics, and point you toward their new publisher, the ambitiously indefatigable Michael Walsh of Old Earth Books, who has republished them in paperback and gone the extra mile by assembling new introductions and biographical essays for this project of rediscovery.

Edward Whittemore (1933-1995) lived a very full life before he ever turned his hand to fiction, working mainly as a spy for the CIA. Like his cosmopolitan comrades Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, Whittemore brought to his second profession a quirky, instantly mature style, a vivid imagination and a deep knowledge of both the world's glories and its evils. The five novels he managed to complete before dropping into silence constitute a rambunctious, boisterous yet ultimately touching secret history of the 20th century, focusing mainly on the Orient and the Middle East. Quin's Shanghai Circus ($17.95) from 1974 centers on World War II-era Japan and China. Explicitly linked to Circus, the Jerusalem Quartet (1977-1987) - Sinai Tapestry ($17.95), Jerusalem Poker ($19.95), Nile Shadows ($19.95), and Jericho Mosaic ($17.95) - transfers the spotlight to Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo. In these polymorphously perverse pages, we are introduced to a heretical Bible, eccentric British lords, immortal beggars, poker games that span a decade and a host of other magical-realist conceits. (The fantasy quotient tapers off in the last two books, and the final volume is almost purely mimetic, and frighteningly timely in its focus on terrorism.)

Whittemore's grand themes - the mutability of identity, the tragicomic nature of life, the way pretense becomes reality, the war between faith and materialism, the nature of failure and redemption, the struggle either to fulfill or overcome one's heritage - ensure that his massive story, however baggy its pants, will still inspire strong frissons and catharsis, as well as many laughs. The tangled lineages of his characters - think Ross MacDonald squared - illustrate his desire to make the essential connections that alone confer meaning to life. And his intricate plots ultimately invalidate any of the small logics humans employ to make sense of creation, in favor of the heart's intuition under the light of the soul.

Aside from making the standard comparisons to Pynchon, Borges and DeLillo, genre readers will spot Whittemore's link to the erudition of Avram Davidson, the tall-tale loquaciousness of R. A. Lafferty, the agglomerative appetites of Neal Stephenson and the gleeful transgressiveness of Philip Jose Farmer. Whittemore is the pluperfect postmodernist, whose prime audience is perhaps only now ready for his visionary tales.

Paul Di Filippo had four books published in 2002, and will have four more appear in 2003.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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