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Book Review: The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering

By (April 17, 2015) No Comment

The Only Words That Are Worth Rememberingthe only words cover

by Jeffrey Rotter

Metropolitan Books, 2015

Rowan Van Zandt, the narrator in Jeffrey Rotter’s remarkable, fantastic new novel The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, lives in a world very different from our own, and he hopes that his young daughter Sylvia will grow up into a different world still. The dystopian United States Rotter has lovingly and sparingly crafted has only the murkiest memories of our present time. Huge corporations and quasi-feudal oligarchies rule flooded and overheated lands from a distance, and most people live lives very similar to that of Rowan’s father, an uneducated laborer for a vast combine called Airplane Food. When Rowan and his more aggressive twin brother Faron are still young boys, Pop loses his temper at work and kills another worker by dropping him into a boiling processing vat:

The man’s organs were roasting inside him now. A fork would have slipped easily into his thigh. Gore jetted from his neck to thicken in the heat. Rusty knobs, blood sausage. Some faces you will recall your whole life. I have seen a few of them, silent begging at the end. [his] mouth made a line. It parted as if to speak. His lips drew back. I believe the muscles were contracting as they cooked. His teeth were silver.

The family – Rowan, Faron, and their parents – are presented with a daunting choice of punishments for Pop’s crime and the crimes committed by the boys: they can either get shipped off to separate prison sentences that would certainly mean they’d never see each other again … or they can accept the most extraordinary offer, presented to them by a man named Terry Nguyen, who informs the family that a long-buried vault has been broken open underneath what was once Cape Canaveral, and in that vault has been found an apparently functional spacecraft. Nguyen’s offer is that the Van Zandt family pilot the craft and, basically, find out where it can go.

On the surface, it might seem like an easy choice of fates, but in the busy and bleak world Rotter has devised, Copernican astronomy has been entirely forgotten. “The stars are not real,” Rowan narrates to a grown-up Sylvia in some unknown future:

The planets are not real. Astronomy, if spoken of at all, is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than the Jesus Lovers. The Chiefs long back did the decent thing and decided to put both gangs out of business. The Jesus Lovers dug in; you still see their lowercase t scratched on fenceposts with a ten-dollar nail. But the Astronomers went off quietly and without leaving a trace or sign.

“They were easily dispatched because their ideas so nearly resembled fiction,” he continues. “You will learn better, Little Sylvia, but to the rest of the world Astronomy is nonsense, magic on par with weather-knowing and poetry cures.”

The extent to which the Van Zandts rekindle any kind of hope – or embody it – is one of the many fascinating strands running through Rotter’s book as we follow Rowan’s adventures in a life he never imagined for himself. The result is a novel that stands out even in the grotesquely overcrowded current field of dystopian fiction.