What does a prehistoric horse that died in the Eocene era have to do with a nine-year-old boy in Austin, Texas, in 1975? In MACHINE, a “story of a speck of matter,” it takes Danish author Peter Adolphsen less than 100 pages to explain the seemingly improbable but totally convincing connection.
This very short novel starts 55 million years ago when a storm frightens a herd of prehistoric horses no bigger than fox terriers. One of these was a five-year-old mare who gets separated from the others and injured. Although she survives one night alone and hurt, she falls again into a muddy river the next day, and this time she dies. Over millions of years the river changes: it dries up, and the body of the little mare is covered with tons of sediment, which turn to rock, her own body changing to oil.
Fast forward to 1973 when a young Azerbaijani named Djamolidine Hasanov (or Jimmy Nash, as he is now known) is working on an oil pipeline in the Uinta Basin of Utah. He was born in Baku in 1948 and as a child was an avid and somewhat successful competitive cyclist for his national team. But he longed to escape the Soviet Union, and his athletic abilities helped earn him passage to the United States. One day an accident at work blows his arm off.
Clarissa Sanders is a 22-year-old biology student in Texas when she picks up Jimmy hitchhiking. They spend the afternoon together taking LSD and eating snacks. Since she was seven, Clarissa had had a fear of dying and a fear of going insane, so she had no desire to take drugs. However, when Jimmy held out to her the small square of paper soaked in acid, she impulsively accepted.
Later that day, her car's exhaust pipe released its emissions into the air, and one speck was caught in a spider's web. That speck of soot will find its way into Clarissa's throat and eventually transform her body. A witness to this change in Clarissa is a young neighbor whose life will be impacted, as were Jimmy’s and Clarissa's, by the oil that was once the beating heart of an animal.
Woven into this story is the science that make everything happen --- from life and death, to the creation of oil from living matter, to the brain on drugs and the combustion of a car engine. In fact, the majority of the book is concerned with these dry (yet fascinating) scientific details. Readers find out less about the characters of the book than about the processes that shape them. Still, we learn that Jimmy writes haiku and that Clarissa has full confidence in science as a problem-solver. Adolphsen also interjects some interesting tangents on subjects such as ethnic/linguistic/cultural identity, American advertising and Mormon history.
MACHINE is an odd novel: an experiment in style and content. It is vast in its subject yet extremely concise, and the story it tells is often obscured by the method of telling itself. Adolphsen plays with the Chaos Theory and the idea of coincidence, unpacking these complex ideas with rapid speed. Life and death, oil and identity, and over 55 million years in less than 100 pages may not seem possible. But Adolphsen's attempt is admirable, interesting and sometimes even beautiful.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 7, 2011