Chosen by an Odyssey

An interview with Thomas Keneally about his new book, "The Book of Science and Antiquities."

In Thomas Keneally’s new novel, The Book of Science and Antiquities, meet award-winning Australian documentary filmmaker Shelby Apple, who lives a life of love and fame, a life in many ways to be envied, even applauded. Then travel backwards in time, forty-two thousand years earlier, and meet fellow Australian and Homo sapien Shade, known to the twentieth-century archeologists who will unearth him as Learned Man.

Despite the brutal realities of his time and place, Shade also lives a good life, one focused on the unambiguous rituals of Paleolithic existence. In time, however, the gods grant Shade certain visions, appalling as much as inspiring, that compel him to fashion meaning both for himself and his tribe through an atonement of self-sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Shelby, a genuinely decent man, sees and records a deeply conflicted world through the brave witness of his camera, yet remains only dimly convinced of the value of his existence. Shelby is granted no beatific visions, save for the cinematic ones he creates through film and leaves for history. And, before his death in a Sydney hospital, there is a final, transcendent trip through his dying consciousness. For the modern man, these must do.

Shelby and Shade’s entwined, often parallel stories — literary journeys as well as philosophical inquiries — bind to form a narrative that connects readers directly to these characters. As we reach the novel’s close, we realize that, as distinct and vital as each one of us is, we are also ‘Everyman’ incarnate: singular, unquestionable representatives of the human. Sometimes hopefully, sometimes desperately, Shelby and Shade, and all of us, are inside what our prehistoric brother tells us are the “unseen fibers” between our “hardest earth” and “the succulent and illuminating heavens.” Keneally’s novel suggests that we do not understand this great gift of our lives, despite the keenness of our modern ways of seeing, nor can we even begin to fathom what our lives were intended to be by the divine.

With the publication of The Book of Science and Antiquities, Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, the Booker Prize-winning novel of 1982 and progenitor of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, has gifted literature with thirty-three novels. In this interview I talk with Keneally about his new novel, his country of Australia, writers and writing, climate change, the importance of the quest, and other matters.

Ryan Asmussen

            I delighted in being moved back and forth so seamlessly on the novel’s massive timeline. Your narratives fuse wonderfully. Did you know how much you wanted to mine the commonalities of these men’s lives before you began writing. Was this the game plan early on?

Thomas Keneally

            Ryan, I am very flattered you think the parallel time and character strands, and their reflection of each other, seems smooth. That was the game plan, but it was difficult to make them echo with an emotional validity and to have the Learned story somehow inform the Shelby story. For some time I’ve been fascinated by the increasing evidence of Paleolithic human occupation of Australia, and the life the first humans lived here. Learned Man is in real life Mungo Man, and he is the earliest ritual burial of a human that we have on earth. His skeleton, discovered in the 1970s, is like Learned’s: 42,000 years old. His ritual burial shows that he was a man of quests and pilgrimages, and a human worth knowing. I wanted to sing the lives and deaths of two men separated by 42,000 years on one continent.

Ryan Asmussen

            Geomorphologist Peter Jorgensen tells Shelby that the remains of Learned Man inform us that “being human is a test that kills us.” Later on, Shade reflects, “If you prevail you are given tasks.” Is there something of your own personal philosophy in this blend of examination and responsibility?

Thomas Keneally

            It’s true of Jorgenson and of the real finder of Mungo Man, my friend Jim Bowler. We are a species who acquire odysseys. Sometimes the odysseys are crazy and demented and ill-advised, and sometimes they endow our lives with drama and a certain nobility. One of the characters, Dr. Ted Castwell, is based on a doctor I knew who persuaded me to go to Eritrea. He was a reformer of Aboriginal eye health, of the blindness at the heart of Australia. He was a human of odysseys and used to travel into Eritrea from Sudan by truck to do his work while suffering terminal cancer.

Ryan Asmussen

            Looking back on your writing process, what was the most important find in your research? Was there an item or quote that really galvanized something?

Thomas Keneally

            I thought the key to the book is what an old woman of the Muthi Muthi people of Lake Mungo said to my friend, Professor Bowler: “You didn’t find that old man. That old man found you.” This apparently simple statement became the mantra on which I judged the validity of what happened in the book. Not the human claiming an odyssey or a destiny, but the odyssey choosing the human.

            I was also anxious to show the environmental lushness of the lives of early humans on the Willandra Lakes system. I wanted to convey how, surrounded by giant fauna now disappeared, it was protein heaven for those Paleolithic Australians, until the end of the last Ice Age rendered the area semi-arid. I think Learned lived a plusher life than my Celt ancestors on the plains of Eastern Europe or Central Asia or wherever we came from.

Ryan Asmussen

            Shade’s reverence for the natural world hits a crescendo when he tells the story of his son’s death by the Slicer. As the she-beast emerges from her lair, he says, “And it was possible to believe that she had come forth with her heroic indifference just to show us what life should be. That it should be her. That in us was a failed and imperfect thing.” The creature understands its own impending demise as Shade questions humanity’s value. Is this a theme that motivated you?

Thomas Keneally

            Well, I was astounded that this magnificent beast once lived in Australia with her giant throat-slashing koala-style paw and her terrible spine-snapping incisors. And now her line is extinct. But when humans entered Australia they were not yet the top of the food chain, nor the killers of all species that we have become. At this stage it was as if life was trying out its favorite forms against each other. And humans did not see themselves as distinct from nature but communed with animals, sang to them, saw their gods and heroes in animal form, and their own identity through animal totems. We were not yet locked into the polarity that emerged from the Christian proposition of the immortal soul dominating other life-forms as a manifestation of the divine will.

            In any case, due to the cognitive advance our species made about 70,000 years ago, we began to get an edge over even the mighty mechanics of a life-form like the Slicer, which now is called the marsupial lion by paleontologists. I think when the marsupial lion left its lair to hunt other beings, it would have moved with an awesome authority and power that would have chastened the human imagination and asserted itself as having rights of supremacy. I wanted to celebrate that old relationship between lifeforms, the inarguable right of the Slicer to take the boy. And to show how contingent we all are: biological accidents waiting, as Ted Castwell says in Eritrea, for another burst of cerebral DNA to take us to the next level of cognition, one perhaps in which our reason and our malice, our poetry and our gift for mayhem are more reconciled.

Ryan Asmussen

            Through the character of Shelby, the novel suggests that we human beings need our illusions. Of course, they will all go, but they can be sweet, perhaps even helpful. What does the illusion of fiction, in the best sense of this word, do for mankind?

Thomas Keneally

            We are slaves of our time and slaves of our little place, but fiction liberates us from the narrow confines of time, place and culture. Fiction is a strange phenomenon in that much of its authority seems to come from the pool of gods, heroes, maidens, wizards, stories and rituals called the collective unconscious. The process of writing fiction, when it goes splendidly, delivers and re-delivers figures and avatars and fables from that deep source, and liberates us from our who-ness, our where-ness, our when-ness. That’s why, though many humans have disengaged from fiction, it’s still the biggest magic of the lot.

Ryan Asmussen

            What do you hope to achieve in your writing? You’ve written so much and so well for so long now. Is it more of a spontaneous matter of creation? What compels you?

Thomas Keneally

            I can’t help myself. When I was younger, I had the belief that the world needed my books. Now, I know I need them and that a few fans like them, and that is a pleasing and miraculous by-product. I have lived to a considerable age, and I come from a compulsive and obsessive Irish clan (some of them convicts in earlier Australia, as I wrote about in a history Hibernophiles like, called The Great Shame). My career is marked and tagged by the Schindler book and movie, but it isn’t at base finding another Schindler that keeps me going and writing. It’s the reach towards saying final things of the kind I say in this novel, with a circle of kind souls listening.

            Narrative is important, too. Narrative is what counts. Without its power, everything else is palaver. And narrative is addictive. While I’m here, I’ll go on trying it. I’m bloody lucky to have a publisher!

Ryan Asmussen

            Tell me some of the novels you couldn’t do without.

Thomas Keneally

            I’m afraid I’m a vulgar, big-canvas guy. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (cozier than Karamazov), Tolstoy’s novels, Dickens. See? The appeal of the big sweep and crowded cast! George Eliot’s Middlemarch takes my breath away with its uncompromising view of relationships. I also love the great but controversial Australian Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White. Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison. Alice Munro is astonishing, a goddess of big things from small things. And when I met Barbara Kingsolver at Hay on Wye in the UK, while thanking her for her work I burst into tears at the thought of her authenticity and her gift for making issues of global warming into genuine art.

Ryan Asmussen

            As The Australian rightly puts it, this work is a “meditation on last things.” What hope do you have for the future of our planet? Is it a topic you devote much thought to?

Thomas Keneally

            I fear we are a satanic species. I have seen — yes, seen — the permafrost meat-pits in Alaska and Siberia melting at a rate indifferent to the competing bullshit of politics. My city, dear old harbour-smacked, blue water, surf-bedazzled pagan Sydney has for more than two weeks been smothered in smoke swept from the hinterland, sitting in summer humidity over us. I am bewildered about what will happen to this continent and what has already happened with global warming, such as our rivers drying up. We have storm surges on the coast, the same surges which UNESCO says will de-populate the Punjab and the coast of Bengal. And our leaders are criminals in their chosen ignorance. I emphasize, criminals! They deserve a class action.

Ryan Asmussen

            A final question: what does Learned Man have to teach us?

Thomas Keneally

            It’s no life without a quest. Yes, we have a time in the sun. We flex our muscles, we deliver our best lines. But it is the quest that defines us. It comes to more of us than we might acknowledge.

The Book of Science and Antiquities
By Thomas Keneally
Simon & Schuster
Published December 10, 2019

RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator. He has published criticism in The Review Review and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and two short stories in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Having earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Boston University, he is now pursuing a master’s in creative writing and literature from Harvard Extension School.

1 comment on “Chosen by an Odyssey

  1. I am in the process of reading ‘The Book of Science and Antiquities’ and at this point, am sad to come to the end of the tale. I agree that fiction is the genre that is most important in feeding our minds and souls. I am grateful and I n awe of writers who have the knowledge, talent, and patience to research and develop multiple stories that satisfy the reading audiences voracious appetite. Public libraries deserve our continued funding support as they make books of all genres available to all of us! Thanks for posting the interview with Thomas Keneally by Ryan Asmussen. Reading it contributed much to my understanding and enjoyment of the writing.


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