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Chris Flynn, Mammoth (#BookReview)

July 29, 2020
Book cover

Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (UQP $32.99)

I am not a big fan of anthropomorphism and have read very few animal-narrated books. Animal farm is one, while Watership down, so enamoured by many of my generation, is not. However, I was intrigued by Chris Flynn’s Mammoth, which is narrated by a 13,000-year-old American Mastodon fossil, and was glad when my reading group decided to schedule it.

It is an ambitious book, encompassing the story of humanity’s destructive, often brutal march through time as seen through the eyes of those we supplanted, that is, the fossils of extinct creatures. Our narrator, Mammut, is accompanied by a number of other fossils – the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a pterodactyl, a prehistoric penguin, and the severed hand of an Egyptian mummy – who have found themselves together in 2007 Manhattan, waiting to be sold at a natural history auction. This auction did take place, and was, in fact, a major inspiration for the novel.

The story is framed by Mammut’s story of his life, death, disinterment as a fossil, and subsequent “life”. As he tells this long story, he is interrupted by the other “characters” who share their own stories, albeit far more briefly than Mammut’s. Each tends to use the voice of the time when he or she was first disinterred, meaning, for example, that Mammut’s voice is the more formal “arcane” one of the early 19th century, while T. bataar’s is the hip voice of the late 20th century.

As Mammut tells his story, he takes us to selected (representative) hot-spots of human brutality such as the Irish Rebellion of 1803, the oppression of Native Americans in the early 1800s, and Nazi Germany. He also covers theories of extinction, climate change, and the equation of big animals with power in the minds of men. The novel starts with a letter written in 1800 by Thomas Jefferson seeking mammoth bones (which he does eventually acquire for the White House), and ends with male celebrities vying for our fossils at the auction. Early on, Mammut tells T. bataar:

Let me tell you, and I say this as an original American, nothing compares to this nation’s willingness to promote patently false notions about itself in order to create a myth of American potency … Who do you imagine will buy us? You said it yourself, T.bataar. We represent power, for that’s what we were: Behemoths, Colossi, Titans. (p. 15/16)

Later, Pterodactylus tells the group about being used in training Hitler Youth:

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

Mammoth is, then, a provocative book, confronting head on the ills of humanity. It could be deeply depressing – and in a way it is – but Flynn has taken his own advice (more on this anon) and told his story with humour, mainly through repartee between his fossil characters. I must say that I initially found this humour a bit silly, a bit obvious, and I wondered whether I was going to enjoy the book. However, the more I read, the more fascinated I became by what Flynn was trying to do. I didn’t find it as “hilarious” as some blurb writers did, but Mammoth offers such an idiosyncratic journey that I’m glad I decided to go with the flow.

One of the book’s main pleasures for me, besides its commentary on humanity’s destructiveness, is the writing master class contained within its over-riding story. This started with some digs about the writing life, such as Mammut’s “no-one gets into the writing game for money these days. No-one in their right mind, at any rate”. A sentiment that is reiterated later by French writer, Bernadin de Saint-Pierre.

However, more entertaining was the discussion of writing, or storytelling, itself. As Mammut’s tale progresses, his listeners begin to question him. Sometimes, it’s the issue of disbelief, to which Mammut responds by explaining his sources, by arguing that it’s perfectly valid for his molar to be observing action in one place while his head is elsewhere, or by allowing himself a little leeway:

I know you’re technically an elephant and all, but your recall of events is a little too precise. Not to mention the verbatim dialogue. Surely, you’re making some of this up? This is my problem with the memoir genre. There’s always more fiction in it than people let on.

I possess a remarkable memory, Palaeo, though I will admit to the occasional romanticism of the narrative. For the most part, what I am recounting is true. But, as you say, I am a storyteller who enjoys indulging in a yarn. (p. 143)

There’s also discussion of tone, regarding the degree of brutality and tragedy in Mammut’s tale:

… This entire tale has been a veritable famine of LOLs. Really, Mammut, next time you tell this story, you need to inject some humour, bro.

No too much, I think, T. bataar. No comedian ever won the Pulitzer … (p. 235)

Flynn, thus, cleverly engages with some current issues in criticism while simultaneously fending off potential criticism of his own work. He crowns this early on with the pronouncement that “No story’s gold from beginning to end” (p. 66). How can you argue with that!

There’s much more to this book. I haven’t touched on the fact that almost all its hominid characters are historical personages, many findable in Wikipedia. Mammoth offers an entertaining, accessible introduction to the history of palaeontology and 19th century natural science, and provides a springboard for further research, should you be so inspired.

For now, though, I’m going to end with a poignant statement made by Mammut early in the novel. “Our world was changing”, he says, “and there was nothing we could do about it” (p. 44). I fear this is exactly how our earth is feeling right now. Flynn, I think, would like us to take note and consider what we might do to prevent avoidable extinctions under our watch. An imaginative, engaging read.

Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes) enjoyed this book too.

Chris Flynn
Mammoth
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
254pp.
ISBN: 9780702262746

(Review copy courtesy UQP and literary agent Brendan Fredericks)

31 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2020 2:00 am

    Great review there, Whispering Gums. I’m not a fan of anthropomorphism either (although I enjoyed Watership Down, and Animal Farm) but this book sounds like a good history book. And about the world? I have almost given up. There will always be privilege and corruption no matter what any government claims. We seem hell bent on destruction of the earth and ourselves with it. Eat, drink and be merry . . .

    • July 30, 2020 8:50 am

      I think you’ll find this book interesting Elizabeth if you are interested in a perspective on the history of the world.

  2. July 30, 2020 4:54 am

    This sounds very different and very creative. It sounds like it varies from the typical anthropomorphic book. I also have not read a lot of these, Animal Farm being the exception.

    Hopefully humans will figure out how to stop all the extinctions that we are causing.

    • July 30, 2020 8:51 am

      My concern Brian is that we have figured out much of it … like habitat destruction (ignoring climate change for the moment) but don’t have the will to do anything about it!

  3. July 30, 2020 6:21 am

    What a .. surprising ? impressive ? – certainly interesting way of writing not only about mankind but also about writing !

    • July 30, 2020 8:52 am

      Look out for the audiobook M-R. I think it could be a fun one to listen to with a good reader.

  4. July 30, 2020 7:57 am

    I enjoyed revisiting this book through your review. And thanks for the link!

    • July 30, 2020 8:52 am

      Thanks Theresa. I really enjoyed your review. Nicely written.

    • July 30, 2020 11:38 am

      Great comments on the believability of story telling. I also liked his commentary on the range of beliefs that people hold, as in Cuvier’s progressive views about extinction, but his very mistaken views on race. We as humans don’t always back the right horses in the beliefs that we follow, sometimes from ignorance, but as we see now, from blatant economic greed!
      Certainly a thought provoking read, despite some of its smart alecky humour!

      • July 30, 2020 1:30 pm

        Thanks Kate. Yes, I had thought about discussing that issue about not believing scientists. I also wanted to mention the point about uncontrolled growth. So much to discuss. As you know, I agree, to some degree, about the humour, though I got used to it as the book p[progressed.

  5. July 30, 2020 10:11 am

    I have this too so I will read your review later… I thought I wasn’t interested in this book until I heard Flynn talking about it at the Auckland Writers Festival (without leaving my desk, of course) and I’ve also have tickets to hear him at the Melbourne Writers Festival. (Which is *brilliant* this year, after a two-year drought of events to go to, I’m spoiled for choice in 2020).

    • July 30, 2020 10:47 am

      Crikey, Lisa ! – that must be the most positive statement I’ve read since March ! 🙂

    • July 30, 2020 1:35 pm

      Thanks Lisa … I’ll be very interested in your review. I heard him at the (online) Yarra Valley Writers’ Festival. I already had the book by then, but that discussion did enthuse me. I haven’t looked at the Melbourne Writers Festival program yet because my time is so committed (despite COVID restrictions) but I do hope to get to some events. I’m hoping that online events won’t have the same sort of restrictions that face-to-face ones have.

      • July 30, 2020 2:26 pm

        The only restriction seems to be that you have to sit at your desk to be there…

        • July 30, 2020 4:23 pm

          That’s what I hoped. I will try to get to some that are on at a time I can do that. Must check the program soon!

        • July 30, 2020 6:22 pm

          Yes, what I liked about the Yarra Valley festival is that I could access it at other times too…

        • July 30, 2020 8:44 pm

          Yes. That was a great option though it in the end I didn’t get the time to take advantage.

  6. July 30, 2020 12:45 pm

    I loved this Mammoth, Sue, and appreciated reading a book that made me laugh out loud at this particular time. A great way to engage with history, too.

    Though not a fan of anthropomorphism either, I can also highly recommend Laura Jean McKays new novel The Animals in that Country, which portrays a society infected with a virus (stay with me) that enables humans to understand what animals are saying. To my mind, LJM takes us into animal thoughts without anthropomorphising. A great story and a technical stroke of genius.

    • July 30, 2020 1:37 pm

      Thanks Angela. I agree that Mammoth offers a wonderful way to engage with history.

      I gave The animals in that country to my daughter for Easter, but I haven’t heard whether she’s read it. I am intrigued to read it too. It sounds really fascinating.

  7. July 30, 2020 4:14 pm

    Great review! I loved this book, just my kind of cool and quirky 🙂

    • July 30, 2020 4:26 pm

      Thanks Thoughts. “Cool and quirky” is a good description. I liked how he slipped in all sorts of little zeitgeisty concerns.

  8. Sue permalink
    July 30, 2020 7:00 pm

    This sounds rather tantallising Sue but my “to read” list is so long it’s getting out of hand! I will see if the local library has this one… (I’ve just finished reading Astleys Reaching Tin River, I can imagine you enjoyed the parts about librarians, chuckle!)

  9. Sue permalink
    July 30, 2020 7:06 pm

    I was afraid of that Sue – the library here has it. Now I’m going to have to read it. You should see the pile of my “to reads” – help!!!

  10. July 31, 2020 5:39 am

    I find palaeontology quite interesting (for some reason your review reminded me of a podcast I heard, which explained how a new dinosaur sub species was discovered because someone put the bones on sale on facebook…). The book appeals to me and I like how the author uses the animals to give a commentary on us humans, amongst other things.

    • July 31, 2020 8:19 am

      It sounds like this book would be up your alley, Stargazer. That Facebook story is interesting!

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