In his 1989, Julian Barnes apparently wrote the history of the world in ten and a half chapters. And in W.C Bamberger's new collection of literary essays, he attempts something just as ambitious; trying to reach an understanding of the modern world through the lens of some of its more off the wall cultural movers and shakers.
Written over the space of twenty-five years, the essays feature musicians, including Margaret Leng Tan, Mauricio Kagel, Gary Lucas; and writers: Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, W.M. Eastlake, Harry Mathews; and a trio of artists (Donna Dennis, Trevor Winkfield, Darragh Park). What they have in common is a profound desire to experience the mysterious; to ascend to higher plains of understanding than the one we inhabit in our day-to-day lives.
Of course, it's a thankless project; one which raises far more questions than it answers, but through it all, there is something magnificently admirable about Bamberger's quest for meaning. Indeed, in his Author's Note which prefaces the work, Bamberger acknowledges the difficulty of his task. Of course there are going to be absences in the text, he says; these are the glaring omissions which inspired the title of the book. But in these days of soundbite culture and mass dumbing down, it's a welcome diversion to read something which even attempts to engage with some of the big questions.
But then there's the question of that pesky half business. In the Barnes novel, the half chapter is like a jangling alarm bell, drawing the reader's attention to that parenthetical chapter, in which he finally comes clean and admits that his novel is not actually a history of the world at all, but rather, some rather interestingly told asides, or nests 'spun by paper wasps' as Bamberger so poetically puts it in his own work.
Bamberger approaches his subjects with the novelist's obsessive eye for detail; he's always on the look-out for something which will make their lives a little less ordinary. He writes about people that revel in unplayable piano concertos, overly complicated, masturbatory guitar solos, obscure 'world music'; he's rather like Umberto Eco in his endless theorising about single words in the bible. He delights in the absurd.
Take Margaret Leng Tan, for example, the first professional toy piano player. Bamberger's essay begins with a wonderful diversion. He tells us about how she became the first woman to graduate from Julliard with a doctorate in piano performance, and then in the next breath he tells us that "the first move she made… was to give up being a pianist in favour of training hearing-assist dogs."
Or consider his essay on Maurizio Kagel's Compass; in which he reminds us that Kagel composed the work "as if... writing an acoustic review of a book that had long since been lost." Then there's Captain Beefheart's former compadre, Gary Lucas, whose work is variously described as "an anthem for psyche-delic dormice" or like "the Mickey Mouse Club Theme played in goose-step time."
After the almost impenetrable first essay on the Genesis Ziggurat, such essays are like a breath of fresh air. Bamberger's unexpected humour is allowed to come to the fore and his lightly teasing tone persists for much of the rest of the book. His is an engaging voice; lively much of the time, argumentative at others, but always informative. One gets the impression that he would be a great member of a quiz team. The sheer breadth of his knowledge is impressive, but he's also disarmingly modest with it. At the conclusion of his essay 'From a Place Apart: On Harry Mathews' Tlooth', he concludes with the following lines:
"And so, dear reader, it is with this explanation and my own seconding of the opinions expressed within this fragmentary essay that I pass these pages along to you, in lieu of any original ideas of my own."
Bamberger was being too hard on himself here. His epic work is a tour de force in original thinking. And perhaps with this in mind, it seems necessary to riff on his ideas of originality. At times in 'Hydrogen', he seems convinced that the only way to be truly original is in attempting the outlandish, often showy behaviour of some of his subjects, or else all we have is endless repetition of what's already been done before, and we're all wailing into the nothingness without a hope of true transcendence. But creativity is always lurking when we least expect it; us paper wasps can still spin our nests. We can still attain some level of understanding by engaging with the kinds of people that populate Bamberger's book, flawed though some of them might be. Because the most important thing is the trying, and in letting the imagination run free.
 Or does he? Does he not instead try to show us something about the nature of ourselves by looking at the interesting minutia in the lives of other, admittedly remarkable people?
 He tells us all about the story of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose school project into the chemical elements missed out hydrogen of all things.
 His footnotes are marvellously discursive, too.