A great philosopher’s masterwork, a lifetime’s inquiry culminating in a grand theory of everything, is unraveled by a simple question from his young daughter about a duck. The intellectual world looks on in horror as he struggles to find an answer. “Duck” is the appropriate last story in The World Is Round, a collection of seventeen short stories that are always weird, sometimes bleak, and often humorous.
The book forms a single structured arch supported by three bizarre journalistic reports of great political, historical, and social upheaval. The brutality and stupidity at the heart of these merciless alternative futures serve as disorienting backdrops to personal tragedies and ridiculous lives, and set these stories in a wider context. This upheaval is laid bare in the opening story, when an influential talk show host begins exposing corrupt and vile guests on his show and executing them live on air. Society convulses but remains transfixed, and in doing so is irrevocably changed.
At the heart of the book, though, is the simple and haunting story of a man alone on a raft escaping the swirling floods engulfing the continents who realizes that his broken heart has been the cause.
Many of the stories are starkly written parables that are deliberately absurd and sometimes deeply troubling. A magical young girl is maimed by an angel and committed to an insane asylum where she renounces God’s love for man. An office worker in Purgatory sends himself postcards and email messages from an imaginary holiday destination, but discovers that his hell is inescapable when he is sent there. The most beautiful girl in the world lives alone on a remote Australian homestead but is tracked down by an obsessed Swedish prince who devotes his sanity and fortune to finding her.
The satire is dark and trenchant in these sparse but passionate stories, but they are juxtaposed by other sketches of pure silliness; the assassin travelling the world on assignment who becomes increasingly upset with losing his luggage at airports and the annoying phone calls from his mother, or the bloodthirsty African dictator who tries to change his behavior to please a small baby that has floated down from the sky and been declared an omen of the gods.
The World Is Round ends with the great philosopher’s struggle. The grand quest for meaning that he has devoted his whole life to is resolved when he admits he does not know the answer, and that in this terrible and imperfect world which is not round any profound meaning of life does not matter. It is only the quality of his relationships and the love that he gives that has any value.