Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown is this quarter's Read This! selection by the Litblog Co-op (of which I am a member), and while I agree with its selection--it was the best of the three books under consideration--I am nevertheless ambivalent about the novel itself.
For me, the least compelling element in this novel, one which was brought up in almost all of the reviews and in interviews with the author, is its political satire, its putatively allegorical rendering of a post-9/11 America and the Iraq War, etc. Although Sharpe himself said in one of these interviews that "If my goal had been simply to state my opinion about the Bush administration's egregious mistake of invading and occupying Iraq, I'd have written an op-ed rather than a novel," he also admits that his novel's evocation of "the Bush administration's rhetoric regarding the war in Iraq" is not a "coincidence." Indeed, one suspects that the machinations of the Bush administration provided the most immediate provocation for writing the novel, and to that extent Jamestown risks being viewed in the longer run as a curiosity, a book-length comedy sketch skewering the powers that be of the day.
On the other hand, in using one of the American foundational myths--the Pocohontas story--to create what he calls an "ahistorical fantasia," Sharpe does broaden the focus of his satire to include the very assumptions through which Americans understand their history and their national purpose. As John Clute puts it in his review of Jamestown, "Jamestown tells two stories of the terrible cost of living in order to demonstrate not only that the two stories told are the same story, but that laid on top of one another they make the lines of the map clearer, that they are diagnostic. That the doomed utterands of Jamestown past and future do not only tell us that scarcity and stupidity and the male fist and hierarchy commit suicide in this particular context, but that Jamestown is us. Not just us as spear carriers in the drama of the suicide of the West, but us inherently."
From this perspective, Jamestown does not re-tell the story of Jamestown in order to comment on the present (or the near future, at any rate), but uses current historical developments to re-tell the story of Jamestown. It doesn't indulge in "fantasia" in order to illuminate current affairs so much as it recasts the present as historically-grounded fantasy in order to illuminate the continuities of history, to show where present and past meet.
This is a plausible interpretation of Jamestown, and for me does push it beyond the contemporaneous confines of satire and also allows it to transcend the equally enervating constraints of the "post-apocalyptic" genre in which it does otherwise seem to belong, as well as those of the historical novel concerned most of all to recreate the past "as it really was." (Although Jamestown's comic distortions do encourage us to see historical events as they more likely did occur--which is to say, not like they are depicted in most historical narratives.)
However, to the extent that Jamestown does belong to the increasingly popular genre (increasingly popular among writers generally considered "literary" writers, that is) of the post-apocalypse narrative, it shares an aesthetic problem I have with the genre itself (and to some degree with science fiction as well). According to Laura Stokes, "Perhaps because of these more “literary” novels, the focus of post-apocalyptic literature has also shifted away from the logistics of the world’s end to the specifics of survival—that is to say, less of a preoccupation with how the world ends, and more of an interest in who is left behind." Jamestown certainly appears to fit this description--it focuses primarily on "who is left behind"--but I don't think the "logistics of the world's end" is ever very far removed from the writer's, or, more importantly, the reader's interest.
Because the ostensible emphasis in Jamestown (or in Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro or Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things) is on "the intimate details of apocalyptic experience," as Stokes further puts it, any simple exposition of what happened is excluded, the details of the apocalyptic event are delayed, only alluded to, left cryptic. The reader surely wants to know what happened--a generic "things went bad" seems like cheating, especially when one feels that things are already going bad in reality--and thus is likely to read largely for clues, for those moments when the backstory gets moved to the front. To say the least, this makes attending to the "intimate details of apocalyptic experience" problematic, since such details seem like part of a concerted effort to avoid the real issue at hand.
Jamestown's final chapters actually do clarify the backstory, clearing up most of the uncertainties the reader might still have about just what has happened to prompt the return to northern Virgina and the building of a new Jamestown. Yet, for me at least, the very attempt to avoid passages of "infodumping" and to stick to the perceptions of the novel's main characters as they are recorded in various kinds of first-person accounts (variations on the epistolary form, as Anne Pelletier points out) paradoxically converts the entire novel into a kind of infodump leading us to the revelations of its final pages.
Many readers and reviewers of Jamestown have dwelled on its humor, its lively prose, and its creation of distinctive voices among the various narrators who collectively provide us with this account of a new Jamestown. But I was unable to fully appreciate the humor (too much of which is, in my opinion, created by the rather cheesy use of anachronism) or the prose and its evocation of voice because I didn't understand the context in which the jokes were supposed to be funny or the reason why, for example, Pocohantas talks in such a late 20th century, young girl idiom (even at times breaking out into what seems an African-American dialect of sorts). I just didn't get it, although after finishing the novel I was able to retrospectively recognize the skill with which Sharpe manages to get his story told (not settling for the plodding conventions of "psychological realism") and the energy he invests in his prose from sentence to sentence. Still, I also finished the novel thinking that too much of that energy had been expended in painting a portrait of the post-apocalyspe that seems rather tepid and familiar in its depiction of human society gone feral after the worst, predictably enough, has happened.
This doesn't mean I think Jamestown is an out-and-out failure. I would call it a worthwhile experiment that only partially succeeds. It may turn out to be the kind of novel I think more highly of as time passes or when I ultimately decide to read it again. It also makes me want to read more of Matthew Sharpe's work, which probably is more indicative of my response to its particular, and real, strengths, as opposed to my more general reservations about the genre in which it participates.