Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.
This week in my alphabetical quest to read all kinds of books I haven’t gotten around to yet, I’m reviewing Zarathustra Must Die, by Dorian Alexander (more on Mr. Alexander later). To get from Edwin Abbot (who I reviewed last week) to Mr. Alexander, I had to pass through a few authors I’ve already read. The first of these was Chinua Achebe. I read Things Fall Apart four years ago and loved it; it has everything I want in a good book—mainly brevity and scenes where people eat locusts. I’ve since collected a few more of his novels, and I will read them someday, but since this column isn’t about authors I’ve already read, that day will not be today.
I also passed by my handy Douglas Adams omnibus, which includes every book in the Hitchhiker’s series except for Mostly Harmless. But don’t worry—I’ve read that one, too. Probably too many times. In fact, most of my time in junior high and high school was taken up with reading his books.
Finally, I passed by a weird book called Alternative Alcott, which is a collection of some of the pulpier stuff that Louisa May Alcott published just for the cash under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. And you can tell why she published them under a pseudonym—they aren’t very good. “Behind the Mask,” a novella in the collection, is the kind of book that seems like a lot of fun to write, but not that much fun to read.
After those books, I came to Mr. Alexander. Speaking of pseudonyms, Dorian Alexander most definitely is one—the pen name of a “prominent academic,” according to the back jacket of the book. I’ve been told that the pen name is a mix of Dorian Gray and Alexander the Great. With influences like that, I’m guessing that whoever is behind Mr. Alexander is the type of person who would think of himself as a prominent academic.
Zarathustra Must Die (henceforth shortened to ZMD, because “Zarathustra” is a mouthful) takes on as its subject Friedrich Nietzsche, who “…intended to supplant Christ as the central figure of Western culture” (2). With someone as hubristic as Nietzsche for a subject, my question to Mr. Alexander is, “Why didn’t you go bigger with your pen name? Why not Elvis Apollo? Why not Sid Vishnu?” (Sid, of course, being short for Siddhartha.)
To understand this book, we have to go in a non-intuitive direction. Let’s take a quote at random: “Inspired by hash and sex, I stood erect and danced naked as their withered eyes became transfixed with longing by my vermicular writhing” (6). My first response to this is a whoop of joy—I mean, with sentences like that, we could be in line for the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, the book does not live up to the promise of this sentence. Sure, it may be about a doctoral student’s adventures while researching his dissertation (sounds fun to me!), but half of the time, the text is so cloudy that I can’t even tell what’s happening. Reading ZMD is not an enjoyable, picaresque romp. It isn’t even a guilty pleasure, because none of the action in the book is coherent or concrete enough to make me feel guilty, and there’s no pleasure in reading what amounts mostly to an undergraduate-level paper about nineteenth-century philosophers.
The people who blurb on the back jacket of ZMD try to convince you that it is genuinely funny. I disagree, though I do detect what I think are attempts at humor throughout. I might be wrong in my disagreement, though. You might find this book funny if you enjoy penis jokes that aren’t actually jokes, but just mentions of the word penis. A particularly awful example of Mr. Alexander’s “humor” is the therapy session on pages 78-80, where Dorian regresses to baby talk and says vulgar things to his therapist. Really hilarious. (Sarcasm.) But if you do like that kind of humor, this book is certainly for you.
Part of the book’s problem is that Alexander never sticks with one subject. The book is about everything and nothing, and it never stays in one place long enough to support any one point. ZMD is at its best when it tries to syncretize old philosophers’ ideas and make them new and real. It never succeeds in that endeavor, however, because of its thick, stew-like prose. At times it sounds like an essay (one wonders if Mr. Alexander needed new material quickly, so he raided his college philosophy notebooks and old journals), at times it sounds like a Joycean stream-of-consciousness rant, and at times it sounds like an attempt at poetry. Looking for any kind of unity in the prose, then, is a waste of time.
Mr. Alexander probably expected that criticism, however, because his book seems to offer a counter to it. While talking about Dorian’s doctoral defense, the prose takes on metanarrative-type qualities. In speaking about the dissertation, Alexander writes, “On the one hand, the work revealed philosophical talent. On the other, the bizarre inclusions suggested at best a maverick and at worst an unstable mind. Revision was initially proposed as an option, but he would not hear of it. ‘The work is an indivisible whole’ he urged…” (96) Coming very near the end of the book as that segment does (yes, ZMD is blessedly short), I am forced to admit the possibility that Mr. Alexander may have been trolling me the whole time. The ultimate joke is that I stuck with it.
So, should you read this book? Do you appreciate difficult, unenjoyable books that offer very little in the way of payoff at the end? Do you like reading books that hide their insecurity and lack of content in convoluted phrasing and impenetrable jargon? If you do, then I highly recommend this book. For everyone else, find something better to do with your time.
Alexander, Dorian. Zarathustra Must Die. Etruscan Press, 2012. 106 pages.