AT BOOKSTORES I sniff the stacks, my nose keen as the schnoz of a drug dog, seeking that distinct scent: a Pynchon blurb. The aroma wafts from books by Steve Erickson, Magnus Mills, and George Saunders -- writers who, like Pynchon, explore the convergence of technology (the rational) with the human spirit (the irrational). So when I recently caught wind of another dust jacket blessed by the archbishop of modern letters, I didn't hesitate to pick it up.

Emily Barton's debut novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, is a lush tale set in the primitive village of Mandragora, where one-wheeled carts and dirt roads are the norm. But make no mistake, Luddites, this is no Garden of Eden. Life is fraught with grief and hard labor. Yves, tinker and dreamer of the village, is tired of having to buy new horses every time the rope binding them to the plow and cart strangles them, so he invents the harness. This new apparatus provides such longevity to his horse, he is able to name her -- the first horse in the village to bear a name: Hammandi. If this invention alone isn't enough to cause irrevocable change in Mandragora, American anthropologist Ruth Bloom appears, piquing the primitive people's curiosity and anxiety, as well as adding unneeded footnotes to Yves' narrative.

The first half of this novel is a delicate, haunting testament to technology and the indelible imprint it leaves on the passions. The second half strangles itself just as the story picks up speed, and ends abruptly. It's too bad Barton, while succeeding in inventing brakes for her novel (as Yves does for his cart), didn't look into seat belts to prevent readers from flying through the windshield as they crash into her acknowledgments page. That said, The Testament of Yves Gundron is still a lavishly jarring ride, and bears its Pynchon blurb with the pride of a hard-earned permit.

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