I wear a lot of hats as a middle aged woman: wife, mother, teacher, congregant, school volunteer—ad infinitum. Because of competing demands, I struggle to maintain my identities of voracious reader and life-long learner.
Every once in a while, I grossly neglect all my other roles to read an entire book in one day.
Just as my family was gearing up for the rigors of back-to-school, I received one of the first shipped copies of Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats by Steven L. Peck (Roundfire Books, publication date listed as September 29, 2017 but inexplicably available in mid August).
Having read some of Peck’s other fiction, I expected to jump into the book and devour an absurdist, fantastical, philosophical, theological narrative over a weekend. Impossible. This book’s relationships are exponentially complex, its genre innovative.
Peck did warn me up front that this book is “An Academic Work Disguised as a Novel Disguised as an Academic Work” (p. xv).
The book appears to be a master’s thesis by a graduate student who dedicated himself to researching the life and works of Gilda Trillim— writer, athlete, journalist, animal trainer, prisoner of war, lover, aesthete, and [unnamable].
However, the text is not a thesis; it’s a novel by Peck. Therein he asks a lot of philosophical questions, including—but not limited to—the following:
What is the nature of Being? What is the role of randomness in the eternities? Can we really understand another being—a plant, an animal, a person, a god? How can we communicate the sacred to others?
To preview the novel’s style, note that the surface level “master’s thesis” is not even straightforward. It is not one document written by the graduate student. Instead, it is a collection of texts (letters, journal entries, magazine articles, interview transcripts). The declared purpose of the thesis is to determine if the character Gilda Trillim is insane or inspired (or perhaps she is a third “something else” entirely). But as a philosophical endeavor, Peck is really examining the nature and significance of all of creation and its Creator(s). Trillim, her rats, badminton, and the apple seed she ponders are all shorthand for the entire universe.
Oh, that’s all!
Peck’s novel is broad in scope and wonders if the human mind can really examine itself. Questions of narrator reliability remind me of another book. In ways similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Peck assembles documents from a range of authors, epistemologies, and genres in an attempt to discern the Truth about Being.
Peck’s novel is wider ranging in themes than Dracula. Gilda Trillim also reminds me of philosophical narratives. In ways similar to the protagonist in Melville’s Moby Dick, Trillim is a monomaniacal who encounters the sublime, which alters the “pilgrim’s” mind and body. In a manner that alludes to Whitman’s Song of Myself, Trillim catalogs the world around her, but with a depth that is squared or even cubed. Like the protagonist in Robinson’s Housekeeping, Trillim unravels various aspects of her life in order reveal a higher realm. And echoing Hesse’s titular character Siddartha, Trillim adopts various social roles that reveal an eternal perspective, a divine nature.
It took me a while to find an entry path into this genre-twisted novel, but doing so bore a lot of fruit.
How should I place Gilda Trillim on a spectrum of narrative-to-philosophy in Peck’s catalog of publications? Gilda Trillim has less narrative than Scholar of Moab, but a lot more narrative than Science the Key to Theology, which was out of my reach. (Aside: Read Science the Key to Theology, anyway. In graduate school, I read many texts that were too hard for me, but I gained a lot from doing so. Even my experience of 30% comprehension of a challenging text is an enormous gain over not reading it at all.)
So, yes, I had to put the book down every few pages and meditate about the implications of some of the more essay-like passages. I settled into a routine of reading, rereading, and then musing over the Big Questions of this novel while doing laundry, dishes, yard work, shopping, and carpooling. It took me almost a month of read-pause-think to finish Gilda Trillim. This novel is about the journey, not the characters, plot, or even list-able themes. I thrilled over many of the epiphanies borne from the process. The biggest takeaway? Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats made me fall in love with all of creation.
One set of epiphanies came from reading about badminton. I reread a section about Trillim playing badminton several times in order to meditate about the nature of Being as something tied to context, action, and relationships, something borne out of an inimitable moment in time and space:
Badminton suddenly creates space for all kinds of new objects: some tools, some the decorations of badminton culture, some motions and interactions, within the game itself. (p. 19)
Weird observations, right? But trust me, I have a richer view of the philosophical branch ontology (the nature of Being) than I did prior. This passages and others ask how objects, actions, cultures, and ecologies (in the broadest sense) form and transform each other. This is the work of gods, and Peck gives us a seat on the observation deck.
But all these attempts to explain Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats fall woefully short. It is the experience of standing in relation to this novel that I’m recommending. Or as Trillim’s character warns:
No, I will not tell you. To tell you will be to make it impossible. I know what I experienced. (p. 204)
So don’t rely on my incomplete descriptions. Read—or rather—experience the novel yourself. This absurdist philosophical narrative helps me explore all of my roles, all of my ways of being in the world and how they relate to each other to create Karen. I exist within a specific ecology, grander and more complex than I can articulate or even perceive. However, I do sense now that Karen-with-creation-and-Creators includes the fertile loam of Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats.
Taking my time reading this book helped me feel as though I was back in graduate school. But reading a philosophical novel was more convenient, economical, and invigorating than much of the material bound in course packets. Who knows what I will be thinking, who I will be-ing when I next do yard work?
You can order a copy through Roundfire Books.