It’s 2007, and tucked away in the back room of a Manhattan auction house, a long-dead mammoth is telling a dinosaur his life story.
He talks about the ice age, and the first time he killed a Clovis – a prehistoric ancestor of the human race.
He talks about after he died, when his body was discovered and dug up in 1801, reassembled and sent on a world tour. How he travelled from a small museum in America to France, then to Ireland.
Back in Manhattan, the dinosaur – who is soon to be the subject of a bidding war between Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio – is unimpressed. He doesn’t hesitate to tell the mammoth how boring he is.
“Once it all came together, I realised that I had a pretty weird-sounding book,” author Chris Flynn tells me with a laugh, from his home in Phillip Island, Victoria.
He’s not wrong. Mammoth, which retells part of Earth’s history from the perspective of the fossil, is a wild ride. But despite the fantastical framing, it’s a really easy book to get into, and some of the strangest details aren’t even fictional. Underneath the imaginative surface are hard-hitting issues and deeper truths.
The choice to blend humour and sincerity was a very conscious one. “I think we have a bit of a tendency in contemporary life to just look at the miserable side of things and forget that we’re also comedic creatures,” Flynn says. “Without comedy, tragedy is just the grimmest story ever. And without tragedy, comedy is frivolous.”
From the outset, the battle between humans and the natural world is established. In the titular mammoth’s lifetime, Clovis began changing things for the worse. Claiming land. Messing with the natural order of things. At one point he finds himself in the care of portrait painter and amateur naturalist Charles Willson Peale – or, more specifically, Moses, the son of Peale’s former slaves.
We’re shown the racism Moses experiences on a daily basis, and the injustices he is forced to endure. We watch with a raised eyebrow as characters try to dispute the idea of evolution or the idea that humans can and have had a negative impact on the world around them. These themes are explored delicately.
But while there are many moments that pack a strong emotional punch – after The Lion King, I didn’t think I had any tears left for a stampede scene – Mammoth is, ultimately, hilarious. How can it not be? It’s told from the perspective of a not-quite-ghost who speaks formal English while copping abuse from a dinosaur, a mummified hand and an angry ancient penguin.
So why did Flynn choose a mammoth to tell this story? In part, it’s because mammoths pop up in strange parts of history. Peale really did have a mammoth on display at his museum, and in 2007 the annual Natural History Auction really did have a mammoth (or at least a piece of one) for sale. The mammoth is perhaps best placed to tell a story that spans the ice age and the present day.
“Real world events kind of dictated where the novel went,” says Flynn. “It just seemed to be this perfect period of history that the mammoth bones were involved in. And I could use the mammoth as a means of telling some very human stories.”
He also relished teasing out the surprisingly modern echoes that appear throughout the book. Cage and DiCaprio really did have a bidding war over dinosaur parts.
“The fact that you had men of power and position trying to find mammoth bones to show how tough they were back in 1800, and then you’ve got macho Hollywood actors doing exactly the same thing today, I thought that was a nice little parallel,” Flynn says.
The biggest theme that comes through in the book, however, is the impact of climate change. The global conversation around the climate has understandably taken a bit of a backseat to the pandemic right now. In a sense, Mammoth, comes at the perfect time, looking at the climate emergency from a new, gentle – and actually quite positive – perspective.
“Climate change is one of the most important conversations we can have as a species, because if our climate goes south, we go with it,” says Flynn. But he’s also very aware of topic fatigue. “Part of this book for me was trying to think about that in slightly different terms and say, ‘Well, can we have a conversation about climate change that’s fun?’”
Mammoth is fun but not frivolous – it’s a clear-eyed look at the past, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the present, and a hopeful glimpse at the future.
“We as a human race haven’t changed very much in 10,000 years. We’re still making the same mistakes that we did when we first came up with the idea of wielding tools. And our tools have just gotten more complex, but we haven’t really,” says Flynn with a laugh. “But it’s not too late to become aware of that – it’s never really too late.”
Mammoth by Chris Flynn is in bookshops and available online now for $29.99.