Opening Moves, Countermoves, and Provocations

  • Move: The Combinations continues the literary heritage of erudite doorstoppers.
  • Countermove: Page count doesn’t mean profundity.
  • Move: The Combinations exemplifies the encyclopedic and labyrinthine novel. Notable antecedents include Gargantua and Pantagruel (c. 1532 – c. 1564), Moby Dick (1851), Ulysses (1922), Infinite Jest (1996), and The Royal Family (2000).
  • Countermove: Even the avant-garde is old hat by now. (To paraphrase Cynthia Ozick.)
  • Provocation: The Combinations is the greatest novel of the 21st century.

Under the Influence

The Combinations has …

  • footnotes aplenty like David Foster Wallace.
  • typographic tomfoolery like the works of William T. Vollmann.
  • a city as a thematic and narrative unity (see Ulysses).
  • an overly schematized arrangement (also Ulysses).
  • conspiracies (Robert Anton Wilson) and labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges).
  • paranoia and bureaucratic obfuscation (Franz Kafka).
  • a hapless schlemiel as the ersatz protagonist (Thomas Pynchon’s V.).

The Skeleton Key to The Combinations

“totalitarianism makes art into an obscenity, capitalism makes it idiotic…” –



The Chessboard; or Psychogeography

Prague is currently part of the Czech Republic, but because of its central location on the European continent it has been a part in various empires (economic, political, etc.). Using the Battle of White Mountain as a starting point, this timeline will illustrate the assorted regimes that ruled over Golem City.

8 November 1620: The Battle of White Mountain. Decisive victory for Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and Catholic Allies.

1348 – 1918: Lands of the Bohemian Crown (aka Czech Lands)

1348 – 1806: States of the Holy Roman Empire

1526 – 1804: Crown Lands of the Hapsburg Monarchy

1618 – 1648: The Thirty Years War

1648: Peace of Westphalia: Cessation of hostilities between Catholic and Protestant monarchies in Europe. Unofficial birth of the modern concept of the nation-state.

1803 – 1814: The Napoleonic Wars

1804 – 1867: Crown Lands of the Austrian Empire

September 1814: Congress of Vienna: Post-Napoleonic Europe is redrawn; a status quo ante is attempted with the reconstitution of conservative autocratic-leaning monarchies.

1867 – 1918: Crown Lands of the Cisleithanian part of Austria-Hungary

1914 – 1918: The First World War (aka The Great War; aka The War to End All Wars). Tribal warfare between violence-prone dynastic lunatics and the senseless butchery of soldiers gullible enough to think they’d “be home by Christmas.”

28 June 1919: Versailles Treaty: Austria-Hungary broken up into several nations roughly along ethnic lines. The victors also carved up the Ottoman Empire into easily digestible, easily dominated puppet regimes for more efficient economic plunder.

1918 – 1938: First Czechoslovak Republic

1929 – 1939: The Great Depression

1938 – 1939: Second Czechoslovak Republic

1939 – 1945: The Second World War

1939 – 1945: Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Nazi puppet state)

1945 – 1949: Third Czechoslovak Republic

1945 – 1992: Czechoslovakia

July to August 1945: The Potsdam Agreement

1945 – 1989: The Cold War: Europe, and by extension the world, split into US- and USSR-dominated spheres of domination.

1948 – 1990: Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (Soviet puppet state)

1958 / 1993 / 2009: The formation and expansion of the European Union. Europe gradually moves towards economic and political unity. Nothing bad ever happens again on the European continent. All problems solved and opponents bested. Once more … with feeling!

1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall

1991: Collapse of the Soviet Union

1991 – 2001: The Interregnum. The End of History. Capitalism Triumphant. Pax Americana.

1990 – 1992: Czech and Slovak Federative Republic

The Amicable Divorce:

1 January 1993: The Czech Republic

1 January 1993: Slovakia

2001 – Present: The War on Terror. The Forever War. Like the War on Drugs, a never-ending cash-hemorrhaging spectacle offering a militarized mindset with little positive net results.

2009 – Present: The Great Recession (It may have ended earlier. Depends on who you talk to and their respected tax bracket.)

Some Personal Thoughts

The Combinations took me a very, very long time to read. I’d read it for a while, abandon it to read another book, and then come back. Each time I returned, it would be like I hadn’t left. Every time I’d pick up the book again, I’d be transported to the streets of Prague (aka Golem City) as I followed the misadventures of Němec, a hapless schlemiel harried by spirit of the Prof. This literary duo was equal parts Dante and Virgil and Vladimir and Estragon. I’d be drawn in immediately, the outside world vanishing while I read about Golem City and the forces that shaped it.

The point of all these bullet points and the timeline is to see The Combinations from multiple perspectives. I’m just a lowly book reviewer and blogger. I fancy myself a literary critic, but in actuality I’m nothing more than an amateur enthusiast. That said, this multi-part critique of The Combinations shouldn’t be taken as the final word on the book or some Steve Jobs-esque messianic TEDTalks sales pitch. I’ve always seen the practice of criticism as a means to foment discussions and debate, not end them. My essay on this huge, detail-crammed, and labyrinthine text doesn’t aim to be authoritative, definitive, or all-encompassing. It will simply be the individual view of a passionate non-expert.

Up Next: Mid-game Mitteleuropa Miasma

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