Discover more from Unbeaten Paths
At long last here is the first issue of Long Story Short: 500 Word Reviews. I am still hoping to post issues on a monthly basis, but I did discover this time that, well, first of all you have to read the books before you can review them.
The books included here are:
Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede (11:11 Press), by Mike Corrao
Unidentified Man at Left of Photo (corona\samizdat), by Jeff Bursey
Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (Tartarus Press), by Andrew Komarnyckyj
Babel (Splice), by Gabriel Blackwell
If I plan my reading schedule more sensibly henceforth, I hope to include 5-7 books per issue.
From Is to Are Not
Although Mike Corrao's Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede, as well as his previous Gut Text, a prequel of sorts, audaciously reject just about all of the recognized conventions of prose fiction--down to the placement of words on the page, and even the expectation we will find words on the page--unfortunately the idea motivating both of these books is more interesting in conception than in execution. The effort it makes to render text-as-object, to reconfigure our notions of "text" in the first place, is certainly a worthy one (albeit not a wholly original one), but as a reading experience it does not really engage the reader, either in its language or its interpolated graphical elements, in a way that persuades us that regarding a literary text as something to be perceived as much as read can be compelling in its own way.
Gut Text features four text-fastened "characters" aware of their status as merely textual beings and attempting to reckon with their fate. Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede focuses on one such character, except that this character is the text itself, grappling with its own instability, its own lack of corporeal being. Thus:
Waiting here there is little to do. I am alone. I am empty. My contents have shifted from is to are not.
Swarms of air and heat. The oxygen discolors my skin and weakens my frame.
Let sinews sew me together again and return my eyes to open and my appendages to the ground or sky.
Most of the book is devoted to chronicling this character's attempts to, in effect, get his sinews sewn together again, which, of course are doomed to failure. The reader is also drawn into this drama: at times the text-character directly addresses us, while at others the character and the reader ("you") seem to merge. Other characters are introduced by name ("Nathan Carpenter," "Thelma Gibbs"), but there is no character development as such aside from the protagonist's continuous metamorphosis. None of this is related in a conventional linear narrative, or even through standard paragraphing, but arranged into something closer to stanzas, some longer, some shorter (sometimes a single line). "Arranged" is arguably a better description than "written" of the method used for the book as a whole, as the written text itself is frequently enhanced by situating it in various places on the page, sometimes put into boxes or different kinds of typeface. Purely graphical elements--various geographical shapes--are also often included, seemingly at random.
Indeed, both Rituals and Gut Text are really assembled rather than composed as conventional prose fiction. This is not in itself a criticism. The notion that the printed page, which is, after all, traditionally the medium fiction writers work in, can be treated as malleable, subject to manipulations that challenge the protocols of writing as embedded in the customs of printing, is perfectly valid, although the gestures made in these books are certainly not new. The sort of experiment Corrao ventures seems to me to be prefigured in Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, in such pieces as "Frame-Tale," "Autobiography," and "Glossolalia," and is especially indebted to Raymond Federman's novels Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It, probably the first extended experiments in the cartography of the page in American fiction. Finally, neither Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede nor Gut Text seem to significantly advance the efforts to reshape our expectations of "text" begun by these writers.
However, the most serious impediment to a full appreciation of Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede, at least for me, is not a lack of originality but the book's relentless expository prose (despite the typographical maneuvers), which essentially turns it into a series of mini-narratives relating, in generally bland language, the progressive changes the protagonist/text undergoes:
The water evaporates from your blood. Leaving behind a metallic syrup. Oozing from the cuts under your knees and ribs.
This vessel quickly loses its usefulness. You perform and incantation and create a new one. Gathering mounds of geological debris. But the bindings that you have dressed yourself in do not act reliably.
The actions described in this work are inherently disturbing, as the character's transformations often involve images of bodily rupture and dismemberment, but the language used to describe them remain detached and purely denotative. Perhaps the concept of fiction-as-assemblage requires that words and sentences themselves be treated as "materials" to be fitted into place, but this doesn't make the repetitious and often colorless prose any more fun to read. It isn't enough merely to subvert formal conventions; an innovative work needs to offer the reader some additional source of pleasure or interest--in this case a more adventurous style could have helped.
The idea of fiction as verbal architecture is a potentially fruitful one, and surely future writers will produce imaginative and compelling works in redeeming it. Mike Corrao may be one of those writers, but I don't believe he's there yet.
Writing This Yourself
If a book like Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede might be described as a kind of apotheosis of metafiction (not only are we aware of the text as text, we are witnessing the text's coming-into-being), then Jeff Bursey's Unidentified Man at Left of Photo adopts the more "classic" metafictional conceit: a writer writing a novel about writing a novel. The narrator forthrightly acknowledges he is making things up as he goes along, at times providing the moves a novel is expected to make but more often warning the reader such moves have been rejected:
Writing is hard work, often unrewarding, so there's not going to be much effort here to convince you that you're in a version of the so-called real world. Things are told, not shown. Everything's so open-ended you'll soon believe you're writing this yourself. . . .
As it turns out, however, the effort the novel does make proves quite consistent with evoking a semblance of the "real world," precisely because its portrayal of both characters and setting remain "open-ended." As we accompany the narrator through the process of creation, we indeed watch the novel's "world" come into view, but since this is not purely an invented world but the author's recreation of Prince Edward Island (which, indeed, might seem largely uncharted to everyone except Canadians--and perhaps even to many of them), based on his many years as a resident of PEI, the effect is of gaining a slowly developing, ultimately synoptic view of the place (although the novel is more specifically set in Charlottetown).
The characters as well seem both tentatively presented, as if the narrator is not entirely sure what he is going to do with them once they are introduced (with some of the minor characters there are even slippages in identification, the character's name changing even as he/she is invoked), and ultimately part of a broader cross-section of Charlottetown (somewhat more emphasis on the arty/bohemian side of town) that seems all the more convincing because they seem to have been created for no reason other than to be themselves--no "arcs," no moral fables attached to their fates. By the end of the novel, it can't be said the characters have undergone any dramatic transformation, any inner "growth," but this refusal to engage in any of the usual tactics of literary fiction turns out to be the novel's greatest strength.
In addition to the novel's self-reflexive premise, Bursey also incorporates various formal and stylistic stratagems that mark Unidentified Man at Left of Photo as unconventional. One chapter consists of a series of suggestions the narrator has received about what to put in his book, but, he says, "I don't have the ingenuity or energy to work them up," so he presents them as notes. Two chapters, with the same title, are blank. Another chapter is narrated entirely through questions, and photos are inserted at numerous points in the text. None of these gestures are especially radical, but Bursey's ambition seems clearly enough not to break previously untouched formal ground but to enlist an array of unorthodox formal devices in realizing his novel's subject without falling back on the usual novelistic clichés, an ambition the novel does fulfill, although such a strategy arguably threatens to reduce these devices to just more "tools" a writer might use to raise the same old sort of structure.
Bursey resorts to a more traditional type of device--personification--at the novel's conclusion, although the result is decidedly not a typical kind of ending for a novel. (Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming might be a recent analogue, however.) Bursey brings to life a hurricane, Bruce, who exults in the havoc he wreaks throughout the Atlantic basin before he finally makes his way to Prince Edward Island. Bruce is an especially savage hurricane--RAGE! RAGE! RAGE! KILL!KILL!KILL! is his refrain--as he ignores the advice given by the ghosts of hurricanes past to "stay away from Nova Scotia," but retains enough strength to reach Prince Edward Island, anyway. Thus Bursey essentially destroys the fictional PEI he has endeavored to create, perhaps a final reminder that the setting has been a composed illusion all along. Some readers might regard this inverted deus ex machina as trivializing the achievement of that illusion, but the author might retort: this is a novel, and the end is the end.
The Postmodern Aura
Andrew Komarnyckyj's Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature is an academic satire, but it's finally not much about the academy, and the satire seems broad enough (more like farce) that ultimately it has only the bluntest of edges. This is not necessarily in itself a criticism of the book: Although it has some of the features of academic satire, its target is not the academic literary study but the practice of "postmodernism" in literature, and the comedy does not really aspire to outright mockery but is more like an amiable spoof of various affectations of postmodern fiction. The real question is how worthwhile such an endeavor turns out to be.
The novel at first seems to be an exercise similar to Nabokov's Pale Fire or Coetzee's Summertime, narratives masquerading as critical or biographical commentary, but relatively quickly the pretense of writing a biography of the "great" writer Ezra Slef is dropped, and the putative biographer's own story takes over. "We must therefore of necessity turn to my own experience," he tells us after determining he can't relate Slef's experience as a doctoral candidate, and effectively this is the last we hear of Slef's life aside from the way it impinges on the narrator's own. The narrator is Humbert Botekin, a professor of postmodern literature and specialist on Slef at Oxford. The narrative of his own experiences that he provides is a series of absurdities and outrages that shows Slef the writer to be mostly a conman and Botekin himself a narcissist and thief. Very little in Botekin's story actually has much to do with academe. Although the city of Oxford is portrayed in some detail, both the college and Botekin's job at the college are invoked mostly for their value as names--"Oxford," "Professor"--that enhance our perception that he is a pretentious twit.
Much of the story hinges on a Slef manuscript entitled--you guessed it, Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature--that Botekin steals when Slef is a guest lecturer at Oxford. While he claims he intended to return the manuscript after poring over it to his satisfaction--in fact he treats it with a creepy, fetishizing cupidity--eventually he contrives to pass it off as his own work. It becomes a runaway success, although as with every other positive development in Botekin's life, it is soon enough followed by its disastrous reversal. I kept waiting for Komarnyckyj do more with the metafictional mirroring of Ezra Slef/Humbert Botekin's book and the book we are reading, but the intricacies of such a conceit are never really pursued. The book-within-a-book device is really just used to allow Botekin to render a first-person account of his own eminently preposterous adventures.
These adventures have their entertaining moments, but gradually Humbert Botekin really does wear out his welcome. And as his name suggests, the novel heavily leans on references to--at times outright appropriation of--other reputedly postmodern writers. However, it is a stretch to view some of these writers--Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Will Self (even arguably Nabokov and Borges)--as plausibly "postmodern," which betokens the novel's most serious limitation. Its comic energy is dispersed so widely and at times indiscriminately that ultimately its purpose is somewhat obscure. Are we just having a little fun with avant-garde writers and writing (or at least with the idea of the avant-garde)? Is the lampoonery to be taken seriously as a critique of postmodernism? Is it all just a ruse to tell a "rollicking" story? I don't really require an answer to these questions, but posing them does highlight a disappointing obstacle to understanding the book's intended effect.
Gabriel Blackwell's novels could be regarded as exercises in creative collaboration--collaboration with known works and writers, the latter generally dead. Shadow Man evokes the the tropes and the manner of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men appropriates both the work and the life of H.P. Lovecraft, while Madeleine E attempts a kind of synthesis of the criticism relating to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The stories included in Babel (Splice, 2020) are less exclusively devoted to this particular method of metafictional rewriting--although one of them does center around a nonexistent book by Borges that nevertheless shows up on Google Preview--more surreal or absurdist than metafictional, more focused on character and incident (however askew).
Perhaps this difference in tactics is itself a function of the book's thematic focus on family conflict and especially on the relationship between fathers and sons. Particularly in the first half of the book, the stories depict this relationship as fragile and a source of anguish for both fathers and sons. In the story called "Fathers and Sons," as well as the one immediately preceding it, "The Invention of an Island," the situations are especially fraught, as the narrators' young sons appear to suffer from developmental afflictions with which the fathers clearly have trouble coping even if their distress is displaced, expressed through curious plot devices: In the latter, the narrator's wife has taken the son and gone, but not before installing mirrors everywhere, leaving the narrator essentially immobilized. The narrator of the former investigates the disappearance of his grandfather, Rudolph Fentz, as related in a curious letter his own father has sent him. "How was I like Rudolph Fentz," the narrator asks at the story's conclusion, waiting outside his son's school. "Was there time to change? Was there really the will to?"
The incongruities in these two stories are only amplified in some of the other stories that are less focused on a father's anxieties, although images and tropes related to family still predominate. One of the more disturbing stories is "A Field in Winter," in which a young narrator worries about the status of his "brother," who appears to be some amalgam of vegetable, alcohol, and "pickled" human. His father is depicted growing (making? siring?) other brothers whom the narrator (otherwise an only child) once found buried in the field of the title. Additionally, the narrator may be a ghost, or his father may be, although at the story's conclusion they both may be, as they wait in "Mr. Strick's pavilion," where the narrator anticipates that "soon something dark will rise up out of Mr. Strick's pond." The temptation is to try and make this story make some kind of conventional sense, to interpret the grotesque images and strange goings-on as perhaps allegorical, but it is a surreal sort of symbolism that subverts its own figuration, implying meaning that remains just beyond our grasp.
This impression is left as well in stories such as "Leson" and "The Before Unapprehended," In the former, the title character, an ex-soldier now living in a "colony," is feeling "stuck," stagnant. When doctors are unable to help him (aside from being told that "what is wrong must be inside") he begins to take a regimen of pills and other "medicaments" that soon start to work: he literally begins to grow from the inside out, his bodily fluids breaking through the skin, depositing "bits that had once been Leson, leavings, outpourings of his slow flood." Eventually he empties out completely, reduced to the flow of his bodily substances. The story teases us with unexplained details--what is this colony? what are these "passage wo/rms" the characters keep seeing?--but again seem to promise more meaning than they deliver. The same is true of the latter story, narrated by a man marching and reciting verses with a procession of other men (their destination and purpose unexplained), who has noticed that one of their "brothers" has disappeared (although he doesn't actually know which brother it might be). Thus an element of mystery is set up at the very beginning of the story, but the narrator doesn't so much solve it as dissolve it in quasi-metaphysical speculation, surmising that the missing brother escaped through a hole in language:
There must be a reality that does not obtain, but does exist, and it seems to me that brother must have found it. What if he found a way to follow the steps given by these subverses instead of the steps the rest of us were taking, the steps given by the verses being recited? Where would such a path lead? Wouldn't it take him into regions that exist in the same way undreamt daydreams exist?
Blackwell's stories are elusive enough that perhaps it is unwise to extrapolate from any specific passage to a broader generalization about his assumptions, but perhaps this narrator's speculation concerning the whereabouts of his missing companion does provide a perspective that can help orient us to the particular (but satisfying) kind of strangeness we find in Babel. Reading these stories, the world they invoke does start to seem like "a reality that does not obtain, but does exist"--at least here, in this reading experience of them. And it is as if the stories as a whole have indeed exited, if not language itself, then through a hole in the conventional representation of "reality" in literary language, emerging into "undreamt daydreams" (or nightmares) that Blackwell has obligingly gone ahead and dreamt for us.