I was going through some bookcases, trying to consolidate, and found copies of Smile on the Void, a novel from 1983 that I really think is quite unusual and worthwhile. I think about this book quite a bit, because the author is pretty much forgotten now, and yet this novel is so original. Somehow doesn’t seem fair. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago.
Publicized as “the stunning novel of the coming millennium,” Stuart Gordon’s novel uses the conceit of a fake biography to tell the story of Ralph M’Botu Kitaj, a “conjurer, arms dealer, visionary, con-man,” and possible messiah-a man who disappears in plain view of 100,000 people on December 25, 1992, in Venice, but promises to return at the beginning of the new century.
As Big Lies go, Smile on the Void is one of the biggest: an engrossing tale supposedly penned by one of Kitaj’s followers as he evades the authorities, Kitaj’s religion having been banned in most countries. With wit and sincerity, the book relates the story of Kitaj’s rocky path toward ultimate enlightenment. Just as any good biographer should, Gordon, through his narrator, grounds his novel in precise detail. The book convinces at a micro level even as it teases the reader with impossibilities at the macro level. Few books manage to get under the skin the way this one does and few novels of any type-fantastical or mainstream-manage to portray a character as convincingly, flaws and all.
Due, I suppose, to the “new age” marketing of the book, Smile on the Void has been lumped in with The Illuminatus Trilogy, but the novel has much more to offer than jokey conspiracy theory paranoia. Ultimately, despite disavowals and disclaimers, Gordon tells the story of a difficult and heartfelt search for individual spirituality in our sometimes soulless consumer world.
Originally published by F&SF