"We begin in Austin, Texas in the second half of the 20th century, before flashing back to a time when all matter in the universe exploded outward in a radiance of creation, forming the earth and all living things, including a confused prehistoric animal, who injures its leg by a river. We move forward again, the earth takes a more familiar shape; we’re in the deserts of the American West, and eventually back to Austin, where our narrator mourns a premature death with mixed empathy and survivor guilt in a profound display of interconnectivity.
Only this isn’t a brief summary of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s 2006 short novel ‘Machine’. An English-language version of ‘Machine’ was published in 2007, around the time my girlfriend was indulging her wanderlust by reading all the translated Scandinavian literature she could get her hands on. I was interested by her description of ‘Machine’: the book is one of those stories that follows a particular object through space and time as it interacts with different objects and people, each opening up into its own distinct, digressive world, and I probably thought it was a neat, familiar metaphor for the web of life.
I had seen The Tree of Life when it came out in 2011, and when I picked up ‘Machine’ two years later I had a vague inkling that the novel and movie had a similar hook: the ancient past and familiar present, together in a chain of causality. But my pulse quickened as I began to read. Like many small-press authors, Peter Adolphsen maintains a very active social media presence, and had friended my girlfriend on Facebook after she reviewed ‘Machine’, though they’d never actually spoken. I sent him a message to ask if he’d ever seen The Tree of Life. He hadn’t.
Over email, Adolphsen describes ‘Machine’ as “in the genre of tingseventyr (fairy tales about objects).” After a brief overture, the novel, which you can read in about an hour, starts at the very beginning: the Big Bang – the expansion of time and space outwards from a single point, and the formation of the elements and everything else, “from amino acids to galaxy clusters.” The same quantity of matter has always existed, writes Adolphsen, in various recombining forms, and it is one particular piece of matter that ‘Machine’ follows.
A prehistoric horse (a mammal from the Eocene period, not a dinosaur), spooks at a watering hole, runs away, falls off a cliff, and dies. Cellular decomposition, putrefaction and the heat of the earth take their course – over several million years and a couple of pages – and the matter that had once composed the animal’s heart becomes a single droplet of oil, which is extracted in the 1970s from the Utah oilfield where an Azerbaijani immigrant named Jimmy Nash works. It is eventually pumped into the gas tank of a Ford Pinto, turns to engine exhaust, and is inhaled by the car’s owner, who, some decades later, shows up on the narrator’s doorstep coughing up blood – dying of cancer spread by that very particle that was once something else’s heart.
“I guess it’s a coincidence, a nice little one,” Adophsen says. “I think that many more than just Mr Malick and myself have done the Big Bang thing in some form or another; we’re not the first, won’t be the last. The birth of the universe is naturally a recurrent theme. It’s the end station for the train of where-do-we-come-from questions.”"