The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six
By Jonathon Keats
Random House, 221 pages, $13
In 2003, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats sold his brain. Or rather, he sold options to buy his neurons in lots of one million immediately after his death. That is, to buy not the physical bits of brain, but the information they represent. (He had previously copyrighted the totality of his thought as a sculpture he made by thinking.) According to Wikipedia, because the act of licensing his thought would itself constitute thought, in a Cartesian sense, the licensing would allow him, in a philosophical sense, to survive his own death. The BBC article cited by Wikipedia, on the other hand, never mentions Descartes, and suggests that the piece was about intellectual property law. The whole thing, in other words, was a clever and incontestably entertaining idea that may or may not have amounted to anything, but which was, in any case, thought-provoking.
This month sees the publication of Mr. Keats’ The Book of the Unknown, which purports to be a book of fables drawn from Jewish folklore, based in particular on the idea that in every generation are 36 anonymous saints for whose sake God sustains the world. Mr. Keats establishes this idea with a mock-foreword by an academic mock-author (Jay Katz, Ph.D.), in a Princess Bride sort of vein, about finding, among buried papers excavated from the ruins of a lost German synagogue, the records of a rogue cabalist who blasphemously wrote down the true stories of some of these 36.
There follow 12 fairy tales about characters named, in the Hebrew fashion of using letters for numbers, Alef the Idiot, Beit the Liar, Gimmel the Gambler, and so on, through Yod-Beit the Rebel. Some of the saints, like the long-suffering Alef, held in contempt by his brainy wife, or Dalet the Thief, who steals only just enough to keep the other townspeople working, are clearly virtuous, while others, like Gimmel the Gambler or Vov the Whore, are not; what’s common to all of them is some crucial but generally overlooked role in the working of the world. (“Saintliness, unlike heroism, is quotidian.”) Heyh the Clown, for example, a poor little girl sold to a circus for a sack of potatoes, seems to make a terrible performer because she’s so clumsy, but before long people are coming to the circus just to watch her fall down. In the end, she marries the king.
Mr. Keats’ language is always smooth and engaging, and the stories, though sometimes cloying, are just as often bright with vivid images and brilliant premises—the town where no one sleeps; the dybbuk with a sticky jar full of squirming souls; the consummation of a love story that lights up a hovel against the sky with “the pyrotechnics of desire.”
The only real sticking point is that a book so explicitly founded on a high-concept premise must ultimately succeed or fail, not by its other virtues, but only by whether it fulfills that premise—and, in this case, it’s hard to say. Are Mr. Keats’ characters saints, or are they not? Does the well-worn idea of the invisible saints serve to anchor and unify these fables, or is it merely a gimmick? Perhaps The Book of the Unknown is simply meant to make us wonder. It is, at least, entertaining—and certainly thought-provoking.
Will Heinrich is the author of The King’s Evil (Scribner). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.