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.
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
(Review copy courtesy UQP and literary agent Brendan Fredericks)