Reviewed by Chris Emslie
James Tadd Adcox's The Map of the System of Human Knowledge supplies almost exactly what the title suggests: an assembly of short fictions, anecdotes, poems, hypertexts and everything in between that catalog the means we have developed, as a species, to reckon with our own existence. The contents page is an elaborate diagram, illustrating how 'human knowledge'—as large an umbrella term as there has ever been—breaks down into sub-, sub-sub- and sub-sub-sub-categories, each of which Adcox addresses with a story. (A word of reassurance to those of you who, like me, are intimidated by anything more complex than a pie chart: you do not need to understand this diagram to enjoy this book. In fact, going in blind and letting each piece reveal its own place on the map seems the natural way to read it.)
Adcox's writing simultaneously cultivates distance and intimacy. He opens recognizable spaces while exerting forces on them to make their familiarity strange. We can trace a recurring fascination with disappearance, reappearance, dissolution and distortion in these stories—lost possessions are coughed up by kitchen sinks, rooms shrink and expand arbitrarily, unknown animals uncurl in vacuum-cleaner dust. Several of Adcox's characters are defined not by the milieu he has constructed for them, but the one they have written themselves into. In 'Statics' the narrator's home empties from the inside out until its body, too, starts to disintegrate:
[…] I begin picking up things around the house, testing their weight. Things look solid enough, but as soon as you take them apart…
The phone? Gutted. The stereo, likewise. I sit down on the couch and open a bottle of wine. I try to think but my head feels dry and brittle. From the bottle of wine, nothing but dust. And I'm out of cigarettes. On the way to the corner store I wonder if my apartment, too, will be empty by the time I get back.
Adcox's interest in collapsing borders (physical or philosophical) resolves into an anxiety of modern convenience. Many of his narratives focus around a disruption of the domestic idyll. Rather than using this as an avenue into an unexplored liminal space, Adcox allows these breakdowns to interfere in the dynamics of his characters' relationships. In this way images of contemporary life are distorted by the strangeness Adcox has imposed on them. In 'Practical Architecture' we see another domestic space taken to pieces as a young couple's home rattles nails and window frames from their fixtures, directly contributing to the breakdown of the marriage: "Bill scours the uneven floorboards looking for things to plug up the holes. His wife calls him every night, but each time she does, less and less of her makes it through over the line."
Perhaps surprisingly, this is consistent with the book's logic—to map out human experience Adcox must unpick the reader's expectations of context. By introducing disturbance into such a small space he forces us to confront exactly why we are so disturbed. In these stories change is the only constant—more often than not these transformations are bizarre and miraculous. A narrator questions the existence of Minneapolis and checks several maps to find "[a] city labeled 'Minneapolis' is on each map , but that's where the similarity ends." Each time a girl name Rose is kissed "something new [springs] up from the ground. Daisies, violets, poison ivy, kudzu." Every structure is fluid and 'human knowledge' represents the attempt to keep them held in cupped hands.
Similarly, Adcox's exhilarating and unstable narratives prove difficult to sustain—few of these texts stretch to more than a page. Though it is brevity that compels us into these collapsing worlds, some of their inhabitants could use a little more room to develop. This is perhaps most evident in 'Art of Conjecture, Analysis of Chance', a paragraph-long story in which "[t]he quantum physicist in love thinks to himself what a shame it is that he's spent so much of his life devoted to something that he doesn't understand in the least." The story gives us a tantalizing glimpse into a mind in doubt, and then moves us on. The result is punchy, but vaguely dissatisfying. To Adcox's credit, it isn't closure we're left craving but more time with his quantum physicist, who even in 78 words is intriguing enough to warrant our continued attention. A talent for characterization persists in these texts even when they read like memoir, but Adcox's tendency to rush to the point before exiting headfirst through the window gives the reader small opportunity to see this talent fully realized. For the most part though, his stories are incisive and zippy, handing the reader snapshots of humanity caught in vital moments small enough to pass others by unnoticed.
The Map of the System of Human Knowledge approaches our understanding of the world (and the inevitable holes therein) with imagination and unexpected humor. James Tadd Adcox describes a series of worlds in microcosm, where the limit of experience manifests as a destabilizing, sometimes threatening, sometimes invigorating presence. These worlds, populated by genuflecting pianos and quantum physicists in love, offer us shelter from that terrifying unknown. Here we are invited to follow Adcox's example and build ourselves a mountain, an artificial womb, a landscape of impossible architecture.