By Robert Olen Butler
240 pages, $23
THE TESTAMENT OF YVES GUNDRON
By Emily Barton
Farrar Straus Giroux
303 pages, $25
Robert Olen Butler's space alien circles earth in his flying saucer, learns our languages, studies our behavior. He is to come down to earth at midnight, 2000. Emily Barton's Harvard anthropologist, Ruth Blum, produces a "Mandragoran" text, "The Testament of Yves Gundron, Yeoman Farmer of Mandragora Village."
Both go native. The space alien wants to be human. The anthropologist wants to be Mandragoran.
Butler's spaceman has sixteen fingers, but how alien is he? He has learned human language, much of it from radio stations. He likes Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas for their interesting country and cowboy types. He is AM, not FM, in his phrasing and his musical reference.
"My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke."
In fact, there isn't a lot of radical space alien otherness to Desi.
The specter of Kurt Vonnegut haunts these pages. Desi's home planet can't be too far from Tralfamadore. He is in this category of space alien: friendly, curious, funny, admiring of humans. Desi could be Mork. He has a kind of Mindy too, an Alabama waitress who is quite content to have a powerful space alien for a husband.
Desi could be any of the four space aliens at play on "Third Rock From the Sun," always too literal in their definition, never getting context and tone. These extraterrestrial ethnographers are of the interventionist school of earth science. They live with humans, instruct humans, and correct humans. Usually they are space guys and one of the first things they do is get a human girlfriend. She is often the privileged informant, their interpreter. There are funny moments in "Mr. Spaceman:" Desi anxiously defending himself from his amorous human wife, Desi making a bumbling sortie into a drugstore (getting mind-blown by the product display in the dental section), Desi thinking and speaking in song titles. "Mr. Spaceman" is an entertainment. Butler makes some semi-serious moves toward a deeper dimension -- raising the theological issue of the Second Coming and posing Desi as the returning Christ -- but they are just moves. Emily Barton asks her readers to do a great deal of complex supposing in her ambitious first novel, "The Testament of Yves Gundron." They have to suppose a pristine medieval culture extant in modern Europe, one that jets fly over and Harvard anthropologists visit. They have to suppose this earnest Yves Gundron, who has just invented the harness and can write a richly layered book-length narrative. They have to suppose the sweetness of anthropologist and editor Ruth Blum, easily choosing to abandon Cambridge for a medieval village.
The kindness of the alien trespasser, the gentleness of Harvard anthropology -- we're carrying the innocence of these myths into the new century.