A mammoth and a tyrannosaurus skeleton find themselves in a storage room … This set up, which sounds like a joke, is the premise for Chris Flynn’s novel Mammoth. It’s 2007 in New York, the eve of the GFC, and the two skeletons are waiting to be sold off in auction the next day. They pass the time by telling the stories of how they came to be where they are. In this world the dead remain sentient and communicative, as long as their remains are above ground, like Ancient Greek wandering spirits. More ghoulishly, they continue to experience their surroundings even if their parts are separated – the mammoth continues to feel a molar at the bottom of the Missouri River; the tyrannosaurus has a tooth in a Melbourne antique store.
The mammoth (really an American mastodon, Mammut americanum) was exhumed in 1801 in Orange County, New York, his first time above ground since he died at the end of the ice ages 13,354 years ago. He drones on and on in his stuffy 19th-century museum director tones, boring his companions, describing how he came to die, and the remarkable journey of his skeleton after he was found. He’s like a pachyderm Forrest Gump, present at major moments in history: America’s foundations, France under Napoleon, Irish rebellions, and the colonial frontier.
While other remains join him – a pterodactyl from Nazi Germany, an extinct penguin who may be from fiction, the mummified hand of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut – Mammut dominates the story-telling, like a blokey Scheherazade. The tyrannosaurus (not rex but a related species, bataar) was exhumed in Mongolia in 1991, but learned English in Florida after being exported by fossil smugglers, so speaks like a loutish 90s kid.
Writing about animals is notoriously difficult – let alone embodying a sentient skeleton – and Mammoth is least successful when inhabiting the once-living animal bodies (although the tyrannosaur’s asteroid-induced PTSD is quite funny). Mammut‘s tale of how he came to die in ice age America, featuring glacial floods, cavemen crushed to death under mammoth feet, and an alliance with dire wolves, is cartoonishly bloodthirsty, like a vivid diorama in a natural history museum. Still, these scenes set up Mammut‘s very understandable disdain for and fascination with the creatures he addresses as hominids.
But the novel really gets into its groove when it takes up the story of the humans who exhumed and examined Mammut, puzzling over his meaning. Billed as mostly true, it is an endlessly fascinating and surprising story. Mammut is accompanied on tour in France by Moses Williams, the son of enslaved parents. In Paris, he is examined by Georges Cuvier, who is about to come up with the revolutionary idea that animals can become extinct. At the same time, Cuvier is originating scientific racism, explaining to an astonished Moses that that Caucasians are the naturally dominant race. Later, Mammut will take a detour via Ireland, before ending up back in America.
These humans are wonderfully drawn. One of the features of this novel is that the characters, by necessity, mostly speak in exposition (or jokes). It works remarkably well, because if you think about it people really do often speak in information dumps. At times it reads like 200 years of very interesting pub trivia, including two significant moments in booze history. Mammut‘s tale of two Irish siblings navigating the American frontier at the time of Lewis and Clarke has the unsentimental chill of Carys Davies’ novella West (which not coincidentally also centres around a man setting out to find fantastical beasts).
Mammut‘s tale proves rich ground for examining our relationship with the environment. His first encounters are with Clovis people, the hunter-gatherers who first settled the Americas, and may have played a role in the extinction of megafauna. While the discovery of ancient beasts changes humans’ understanding of the world (it’s much older than the Bible would have it for starters), it is accompanied by theories of racial and species superiority that would go on to cause immense suffering to people and animals over the next 200 years. Throughout, Mammut wonders at the racist and colonial structures that allow such suffering.
Mammoth is about how we construct stories. His companions interrupt constantly to question the truth of what he is telling, and complain about its tedium. There are plenty of puns and jokes, often revolving around dick size (a running gag is about the tyrannosaur’s tiny hands, reminding us of another predatory male). While the pub humour occasionally gets a bit wearisome, Mammut points out that the remains of giant beasts have often been used to furnish the masculinity of presidents, saloons, and Hollywood stars (in real life, as Flynn explains in a nonfictional epilogue, the tyrannosaur was bought by Nicholas Cage at the 2007 auction).
But all of this somewhat blokey humour builds to a surprisingly moving and resonant conclusion. “You lean towards the tragic,” the tyrannosaur tells Mammut, with affection. Mammoths were there at the beginning of our age of mass extinction and climate change, and Mammut‘s final offer is generous and hopeful. As he says, “A mammoth problem requires a mammoth solution”.
Gay rating: not gay