David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet opens with a shot of an ultra-typical, American suburban home. Slowly zooming in on the lawn, the view descends through blades of grass to the swarm of insects in the earth beneath. While Lynch used the symbolism to represent his opinion of what was happening behind the white-picket fence, 1.5 children veneer of suburban America, it’s also possible to transpose the symbolism into other areas, the human mind among them. The veneer the late 60s and early 70s free love and groovy times, Robert Silverberg uses his 1971 The Book of Skulls to dig beneath its surface, particularly the era’s male youth to find what swarms beneath. It isn’t pretty.
But the novel starts in thriller land. Four will enter: one will commit suicide and another be murdered, and the last two will exit immortal. Thankfully, The Book of Skulls is more than this cheesy idea would promise. Hovering uncertainly between realist fiction and satire, the premise is engaged and resolved via character rather than plot or melodrama. Rendered in smooth and subtly affective prose, Silverberg presents the machinations of four human minds in all their dirty detail while taking to task aspects of the (post?) flower-power mindset.
The “four who enter” are college students living in NYC: Ned, an Irish Catholic homosexual; Oliver, a blond-haired Midwestern guy come to the big city to make something of himself; Eli, a morbid Jew specializing in Latin philology; and Timothy, the son of an aristocrat floating through school on his laurels. Eli encountering the eponymous Book of Skulls in one of his library deep dives, he spreads the word, and together the four make a compact—who will be killed, who will kill themselves, and who will attain immortality—and set out on road trip to the wilds of Arizona where the temple granting their wish purportedly exists.
Knowing the premise, I went into The Book of Skulls deathly afraid (sorry…) Silverberg would resolve the novel along Hollywood lines. What tricks will he play resolving who dies, who kills themselves, etc.? Of course, things cannot turn out as simple as the guys’ initial compact would indicate, can they? Will there be doppelgangers? Projected selves? Moral backdoors (a la A Tale of Two Cities)? Cheesy horror elements? In what form will immortality actually appear? Portraits? Fame? Children?
But Silverberg plays things straight. As mentioned, the focus is digging into the heads of the four characters. Their situations, mindsets, fears, darkest secrets—nearly everything is exposed such that the lawn becomes the insects, the psyche of the four youth is laid bare to the reader.
Mostly a meditation on life and death, from the artistic (a la The Sorrows of Young Werther or Kurt Cobain’s life in media) to the metaphysical (religion, spiritualism and beyond), The Book of Skulls is occupied with mortality and further reality. Unlike Silverberg’s other works “Born with the Dead” and “Sailing to Byzantium,” immortality is not a reality to the four young men, only a potential reality, resulting in much discourse on what it could mean, and does mean. Sex the other major component (there is much, much jutting of cones, jiggling of melons, swaying of cannons, etc.), Silverberg reduces the four to their most basic instincts in his examination of character.
In the end, Silverberg may go overboard with the sexual content (given four 20-something males are his protagonists and each is presented first-person, it may not be so unrealistic, however), but all else is an engaging look into the mind of youth in the late 60s/early 70s. Their stances on life, death, and mortality presented, turned upside-down, and then turned upside-down again, the Hollywood-esque premise is used to scrutinize, and most likely satirize, their generation’s path through American society. Another way of putting this is, for that portion of spec fic readers who believe science fiction is not science fiction unless there are aliens, ray guns, or space ships, this book is not for you. For those interested in the cultural and human elements, this may be for you.