Occluded Realities in “The Circumference of the World” – Chicago Review of Books

Though a fairly slender book, and a compelling read, Lavie Tidhar’s The Circumference of the World is difficult to summarize—a stream of stories and events flowing into each other like a Möbius strip. Delia Welegtabit, a mathematician, reflects on her island childhood in Vanuatu and hires a rare book dealer to track down her missing husband; a Russian mobster shares his origins and elaborate paranoia with a therapist; in excerpts from a science fiction novel, a woman also named Delia searches for her father among aliens and celestial beings; letters and diary entries sketch out the life of Eugene Charles Hartley—a clear analog of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Though each section of the novel plays at setting up quest structure—a string of MacGuffins that promise to restore order and certainty—The Circumference of the World ultimately leans into a kind of wistfulness for lost and imagined worlds, an exploration of absence and the struggle to fill that with meaning.

Tidhar has previously mimicked the “fix-up” to good effect—a type of novel stitched together from previously disjointed short stories, popular among pulp writers as the industry shifted from magazines to books. Consciously replicating that style in works such as Central Station and Neom allows Tidhar to portray a place and a culture with a multi-faceted and tonally-varied narration, not wedded to any one plot or throughline. The stylistic and formal shifts of The Circumference of the World are even more stark: changing between first and third person over a range of characters (with supernatural or extraterrestrial interjections), embracing hard-boiled noir archetypes for one chapter and pulpy science fiction for several more (although, to my ear, these echo C.L. Moore or Cordwainer Smith more than they do Hubbard), and containing a minor blizzard of epistolary sections, with correspondence from figures such as Campbell, Heinlein, and Kerouac tracking Hartley’s strange journey.

Tidhar is not above sly or not-so-sly references to other science fiction, with quick allusions to Frank Herbert, Iain M. Banks, and many more—but what I love about this novel is how it goes beyond some omphaloskeptic collection of Easter eggs. There’s a gesture here not just to the works, but to what those works reached for: how fantastic stories, no matter how cheap and flashy, are dreams, trying to envision a future, trying to grapple with larger realities, even as they capture their own moment in history like a fly in amber. I was thinking a lot of Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau throughout this—the way the practice of dreaming, even in the often-tawdry, often-tragic business of writing and publishing, threads through and changes real lives.

Where Tidhar’s fix-ups are not particularly concerned with an overall arc, The Circumference of the World is in thrall to plot—not in the sense of some easily-sketched sequence of action, but in the sense of conspiracy. The tonal jumps between sections underscore how the narrative focus merely transits a larger, weirder reality. Each section’s character is convinced and convincing of their own centrality—so when the next chapter jettisons the previous protagonist for a seemingly-secondary character, repeatedly, the effect is more than disruptive. One doesn’t get the sense of some larger dramatis personae being built out to be returned to; rather, the effect is to feel pulled in—led onward by partial clues, pulled into new orbits by something else’s mass.

The elephant in the room for this novel is Scientology, and L. Ron Hubbard himself. Eugene Hartley is the thinnest of fictionalizations, practically the only pseudonymous character in the novel’s historical sections. And while these brief biographical sketches of Hartley/Hubbard are fascinating—I highly recommend Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb multi-biography Astounding, which explores many of the bizarre intersections and episodes gestured at here—one can’t help but wonder what, exactly, Tidhar is up to. There’s no attempt to dress up Hartley’s greed and grift, his narcissism and paranoia, and his religion’s transparently financial motivations and risibly science-fictional theology read like easy swipes at Scientology. But, setting the whole enterprise off at an angle, there seems to be at least the possibility that Hartley’s vision—black holes as God’s all-seeing eyes, all human existence just a data construct being devoured by malicious forces on the edges of an event horizon—is real. It changes how one reads the whole character, and it infuses the novel’s various flavors of paranoia with a really interesting, convoluted relationship to seeing and being seen.

Careful stylistic homage is one of Tidhar’s proven strengths. Another is metafictional alternate histories with provocative subjects: Hitler reimagined as a sleazy private eye in A Man Lies Dreaming, an East African Israel resonating discomfitingly with other realities in Unholy Land. An alternative Hubbard would fit the pattern nicely, but this is no repeat of earlier work. Hartley’s story hews so closely to Hubbard’s; his constant cloud of distortions camouflages him against the novel’s reality-hopping structure; and, largest and strangest, there’s the strange grace Tidhar affords him. What if, the novel asks, science fiction’s greatest liar and conman—wasn’t lying? 

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It’s a paradoxical tragedy, musing through how that bit of truth would make the whole saga sadder, and a really deft bit of writing in how it renders the anticlimax emphatic: all these formulaic plot-driven stories, these fictions, fall apart in reality. People, facts, somehow harder to describe than the most outlandish inventions, remain. And I can’t help but wonder if the eaters and all-seeing eyes of the novel, the mobsters and cultists in deadly pursuit of a book, tearing apart reality in search of story, might just be—readers. The Circumference of the World is an ambitious and ambiguous book showing Tidhar at top form, and all the more interesting for how it rejects easy resolutions.

The Circumference of the World
By Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon Publications
Published September 5, 2023

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