Thursday, 22 September 2016

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis Review


A couple of gullible fools are conned into believing a book of gibberish contains the mysteries of the universe. They establish a secret society based around the text and spend the rest of their lives being idiots. 

Charles Portis’ Masters of Atlantis is a light comedy/satire on cults and secret societies that should never have been a full length novel given what little substance there is here. There’s no plot or story, just a revolving door of dipshits pretending to each other that they’re wise, trying their hands at bizarre get-rich-quick schemes like alchemy, and attempting to grow their cult across America by obtaining a measure of influence in the US government (which they of course fail at). 

Watching the two deluded self-appointed “masters” convince themselves of their brilliance was amusing at first but, once you realise early on that it’s not going anywhere and is basically repeating itself with one moron after another believing they’re onto some major secret that doesn’t exist, it becomes oh so tiresome. One character towards the end sums up the reading experience well with “You get hardly any sense of movement or destination”, so I think Portis was at least aware of what he had with this turkey. 

It’s not a successful comedy – I never laughed once because there’s nothing really funny here – nor does it say anything especially worthwhile about secret societies or the psychology behind its members. Portis does keep most of what the Gnomon society is about enshrouded in mystery for the reader throughout, which is cleverly appropriate given the subject matter, until we get a passage from their Bible towards the end which reveals that it’s full of unreadable meaningless drivel. But we didn’t really need to underline how stupid these people are given that there isn’t a single scene that shows them otherwise. I guess it was a joke. Ho… ho… 

I got the strong impression that this would make a really good Wes Anderson or Coen Brothers movie (the Coens directed the latest version of Portis’ best known novel, True Grit – great movie but I wasn’t as impressed with the book. Guess I’m just not a Portis fan!) as it has the same kind of eccentric characters and absurd tone of movies like Rushmore and Burn After Reading. In their hands this material might well turn into gold but in Portis’, Masters of Atlantis remains a very dull and unremarkable novel about nothing.

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