Backlist to the Future: 42

Quizzically, I gaze at myself in the mirror. I notice half my face is covered in thick stubble, the other smooth as a baby’s butt. Apparently, after my car was dropped off I’d forgotten to finish the rest of my shave. Now that explains people’s reaction to me while in Powell’s, while shopping for sticky notes and shampoo, while drinking my lunch. I was obviously some freakish eccentric with his “Rottie” and a half-shaved face. –42, M. Thomas Cooper

Whenever I read the quote above, I can’t help but feel that this is the perfect embodiment of what it is like to have a split personality. Two sets of consciousness inhabiting one body, each with their own definition of morality. Even more, it visually shows what it feels like to fight to hold on to a reality when one’s mind is slipping deeper and deeper into a state of psychosis through the pairing of the shaved and unshaved face. This is George Olsen.

42, a novel by M. Thomas Cooper, follows George as he descends into paranoia after his wife and daughter disappear. At first, he believes that everything will soon go back to normal, but the longer they are missing, the more George begins to realize that something more disturbing must have happened. During this time his cat and dog also go missing, his wife’s van is found in a lake with a dead man inside, and the number 42 (the answer to everything in the universe as determined by Douglas Adams in his novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) begins to pop up around everything in George’s life.

Through first person narrative, Cooper tells the story of George as he hunts for the reason why his family disappeared and why the number 42 is following him. At the beginning of the novel, it feels as if you are reading the diary or testimony of an ordinary man who is overworked and continuously contemplates the world around him. While sitting outside a Costco, George watches the masses of people enter and exit the warehouse. He states, “It seems logical that at some point along the chain of supply there’d be a gap, which would affect things here. That the store would eventually run out of products, of things, of stuff, and be forced to close.” Not only does this show just how normal everything is for him, but is also an unconscious commentary on how he feels in his marriage. As the novel continues, George begins losing track of himself and starts repeating words and phrases, so much so that you think you might just go crazy along with him.

The best part about the book, in my opinion, is that the design of the book begins to take on a life of its own. As you move through the chapters, the page breaks begin to fill and darken with the numerals 42 until they completely cover the pages in patterns, just as they are taking over George’s thoughts. Other design elements include text repeating off the page, crossed out names, and the use of handwriting to differentiate from notes and George’s main voice.

Put the crazy repetitions and the design strategy aside, Cooper has created a character that ultimately is a man searching for an explanation to his life. He wants to know what it means to be George Olsen and will discover the answer by any way he can devise. This is more than your average whodunit thriller novel. As Elliott Swanson puts it, “the book is a meandering, infuriating, and ultimately wonderful journey that lands its main character—as well as its readers—on strange shores of mind and spirit.” Don’t you want to take that journey too? George is waiting.

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