masters of atlantis by c. portis

Masters of Atlantis by C. Portis is a silly, ridiculous book, filled with humorous descriptions of oddballs and misfits, and their profoundly ironical behavior. Although the novel’s characters never laugh at themselves or each other, so serious is their business, readers certainly do. That’s part of the charm and hilarity of the novel.

Everything has a beginning, and Gnominism is no different. It’s born of a tramp looking to make a quick buck off the first sucker silly enough to buy the “Codex Pappus,” a beat up old text which purportedly contains the secret wisdom of Atlantis, and a ceremonial robe for $200. The Codex is filled with puzzles and riddles, with alchemical metaphors, and illustrations of cones and triangles. Its hermetical teaching is buried deep under endless layers of obfuscation. “The only way out is in,” or “Some things are easier to see in the dark.” The Codex is larded with suggestive ideas that can’t quite be grasped by the customary five senses. The more obscure a teaching is the more genuine it has to be: “He had not yet learned to appreciate the beauties of allegories and allusion and Gnomonic obfuscation—that fog was there for a purpose. He couldn’t see that to grasp a delicate thing outright was often to crush it.” Who “he” is doesn’t matter. Trust me. Some things are easier to see when you don’t see them at all. Like all mystico-religious traditions, Gnominism has its own concepts and relics. There are “perfect strangers,” “adepts,” and “masters”; there are “three secret teachers” and “the cone of fate”; and there’s even “the rod of correction” (“a little rod you couldn’t correct a dwarf with”).

Of all the pleasures of reading Masters of Atlantis, none ranks higher than the pleasure of watching Austin Popper in action. He’s the great character creation of Portis. He steals the show outright. Never has there been a schemer, dreamer, crank, sponge, tramp, and drunken bum so humorously bent on protecting and transmitting the secret wisdom of Atlantis. Popper’s got a knack for putting plucky upstarts in their place, i.e., “I’ll look for you when I see you,” and for dropping spot on historical references, “Wasn’t it Bismarck who said, ‘He who holds the — something or other — controls the — something else’? Controls the whole thing, you see. It was Bismarck or one of those boys with a spike on his hat,” and for riffing on gastronomic necessities, “It’s one of God’s most merciful blessings that people grow to love the things that necessity compels them to eat… The Hindoos love rice, and you’d have to use bayonets to make them eat chicken and dumplings. Whatever you do, don’t try to snatch blubber away from an Eskimo and force on him thirty-two-ounce T-bone steak, medium well, with grilled onions and roasted potatoes.” He’ll kill you. And Portis will kill you, too, with humor as his only weapon.

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4 Responses to masters of atlantis by c. portis

  1. Ellen Rhudy says:

    Masters of Atlantis is my least favorite of Portis’s books, but your review is managing what no level of affection for his other novels has managed – make me want to reread it. It’s good to see another Portis fan!

  2. Biblibio says:

    Gahh, I actually have a problem with books where the characters who take themselves so seriously while the reader is expected to laugh and mock them. I don’t know why, but it really rarely works for me. I think it’s because I end up feeling so sorry for the characters…

    • I wouldn’t have thought it would work for me, either. But Portis’ droll humor won me over in the end. Still, it’s not my favorite work of his. That distinction goes to The Dog of the South and True Grit. Great novels.

  3. Brian says:

    I think the secret of this book’s humor is that Portis *loves* these people and expects (and impels) us to as well — even while we’re laughing at them. Laughing at something or someone you love becomes a way of laughing at yourself. This book seems to posit (albeit without coming out and saying it) that our lives could look just about as strange to an outsider as Popper et. al. look to us.

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