Burn & Learn: Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era
By Eric Paul Shaffer
Leaping Dog; 415 pages
When is a novel not a novel? When it’s a quasi-fictional memoir—filled with short stories, koans, lists, charts, observations, futuristic imaginings and a high-dose of speed-like energy—called Burn and Learn: Memoirs of the Cenozoic Era. Previously published only as a poet, author Eric Paul Shaffer, a Honolulu Community College English teacher, has branched out with his new book—one that has no discernable beginning, middle or end, that can be delved into and put down at any point without losing the thread because it lacks a structured plot—aiming to create a new interactive literature genre.
Borrowing from Kerouac, Shaffer ambitiously clepes his ‘novel’ a “book-movie,” setting the bar quite high. Readers are asked to transform the book’s many parts—that seemingly include everything jotted down in Shaffer’s Moleskine compiled into a deconstructed and reconstructed totality—into a whole. Rather than read detailed description, they are also instructed to visualize elements when an asterisk appears, such as at the mention of a gray whale when the arguable protagonist Reckless and his girlfriend K.C.—not to be confused with his Uncle K.C., though it happens easily—go whale watching.
Shaffer’s prose zeroes in on mundane details of everyday life, including—but not limited to—pennies and dimes, gas meter arrangements, stamps, the thumb, and his great-grandfather’s grave. Its frantic speed jolts between topics, genres, and characters, at times reading as if Shaffer is trying to channel Hunter S. Thompson. Everything is untethered—time, place, people, writing style—and everything is lighthearted, to be taken with a gigantic bucket of salt. Though there are some sections that stand out as clean, entrancing and often touching and meaningful stories and observations, generally we’re encouraged not to take the book too seriously or ponder it too deeply—what is perhaps Shaffer’s real message, or life philosophy.
The nature of this mercurial prose was fully disclosed early on, when Shaffer in turn calls Burn & Learn “a compleat guyde to nowhere,” “an all-in-one-book fiction kit,” or “a discontinuous chronicle of self-organized moments revealing Rufus, Reckless, JT3, and the marvelous multiplicities of K.C.” But thus he begs the question: Why? Why read a novel with no story arc and characters that morph into each other, where you have to put the story together—a somewhat risky endeavor that can be interpreted as work or play?
The answer may simply lie in Shaffer’s early assertion that “[t]here are as many ways to read a novel as there are people on the planet.” What he neglects to mention, however, is that some of those people will like to read a novel in this very original and charged way, but some simply won’t.
–Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Originally published in the Honolulu Advertiser 1/4/10