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'The Only Words' Remembers Love And Science After The Apocalypse

Rowan Van Zandt has never been alone. That's because he has lived his entire life in the company of his family: his mom, his dad, and his fraternal twin Faron. Where Faron is strong and impetuous, Rowan is bookish and quiet. The Van Zandts love each other, despite their differences, but they stick together for another reason: The America in which they live, many years in the future, is not an easy place to survive, especially if you're poor.

Rowan's father works in a food processing plant, cracking eggs for plates of ready-made airplane food. Flying in a plane, for the few rich enough to do so, is the highest point humans can now reach. Much of 21st-century civilization — including the space program — has been lost or obscured. In fact, astronomy itself has fallen out of use, to the point where most people once again believe that the Earth is the center of the universe.

This is the world Jeffrey Rotter imagines in his new novel The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering. Told from Rowan's point of view — as dictated to his 3-year-old daughter Sylvia — the book is a cautionary science-fiction tale about the dire loss of science, rather than some runaway advancement in it.

But it's not a dour book, by any stretch. Rowan's voice is as unique as it is charismatic, a rough hewn mix of Southern drawl and precious wonder. And there's a vein of humor that runs through his narrative, dry yet unmistakable. The absurdity of the book's premise, after all, demands a certain amount of levity: After the discovery of an ancient NASA rocket deep beneath Cape Canaveral — now called, with a straight face, Cape Cannibal — the hardscrabble, blue-collar Van Zandts are pressed into service as the first astronauts in many a moon. So to speak.

Jeffrey Rotter is also the author of <em>The Unknown Knowns. </em>His writing has appeared in <em>The Oxford American, The Boston Review </em>and<em> The New York Observer.</em>
Margaret McCartney / Courtesy of Metropolitan Books
Courtesy of Metropolitan Books
Jeffrey Rotter is also the author of The Unknown Knowns. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, The Boston Review and The New York Observer.

The substitution of "Cannibal" for "Canaveral" comes off as little more than a jokey eggcorn at first, as do the many other humorous plays on words that Rotter introduces into his patois of the future. "Orange Tan" means orangutan. "Floriday" means Florida. "Gunt" means government. The last example is particularly telling; it's as if the George W. Bush-inspired "gummint" has devolved even further. Rotter doesn't scramble words gratuitously. He uses this technique in the service of satire as well as texture, showing how distortions of language can reflect distortions of history. At times he does lay it on a little too thick, though, and it's one of the few things that occasionally hampers The Only Words' otherwise compelling flow.

The plot of The Only Words is simple, but sturdily so. Following a bizarre and ultimately tragic regimen of astronaut training, the Van Zandts (who are descended from the late Texan songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt, although Rotter is careful to be somewhat sly with that punchline) wind up parting ways, leaving Rowan to crisscross the weirdness of America on his own.

Coping with separation and alienation, he's searching for his own kind of connection to outer space and inner truth, one that jumps backward in time to flesh out the farcical, folktale-like legacy of the Van Zandts while artfully revealing Rowan's homespun philosophy. As his road trip takes him to "Californdulia," "Arizone," and beyond, things take a turn for the metaphysical — especially after he discovers the long-suppressed device that has the potential to liberate humanity: the telescope.

"It is a comfort to know how swiftly and thoroughly a civilization can crumble when nobody wants it anymore," Rowan says early in his story, when he still believes that his world is an improvement — even an advancement — over what came before. Taken with the irony and self-awareness in which it's intended, that observation is more than just a wry criticism of our current defunding of space exploration. It's an indictment of the entire anti-scientific mindset that's become increasingly, alarmingly prevalent in too many pockets of American society today. Rotter is making a statement with The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering; more than that, though, he's sculpted a humbling monument to the sorrow, and the power, of loneliness.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller