Corona/Samizdat is a (more or less) one-man non-profit literary press founded and operated by the American expatriate writer, Rick Harsch. Physically located in Izola, Slovenia, the press publishes both new unconventional, formally adventurous fiction and out-of-print works by neglected writers--in the press's own formulation, "old works dismissed too early" (website here). This issue is dedicated to recent releases from Corona, although the first review is of a novel by Harsch himself, which at one point was going to be available on Corona but was subsequently picked up and published in 2022 by Zerogram Press, another publisher of nonmainstream fiction (and operated by Jim Gauer, author of Novel Explosives).
Although Corona has existed only since 2020, it has already published a significant number of books, so of course the selection here is just that, a selection. I hope to include reviews of other Corona releases in subsequent issues of Unbeaten Paths.
One Tongue, Many Way
Rick Harsch's The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas is a large-scale, digressive novel that is also quite formally meticulous. It could be called a historical saga, and it has some of the more leisurely pace we might expect of such a narrative, although the novel doesn't allow us to settle in for an "immersive" reading, since it doesn't develop through the forward momentum of a linear story. Still, once we grasp that the various characters are part of a unified narrative, being related to us in a disunified manner, the novel still has the appeal of a family saga that reflects the movement of history, although in this case that movement probably can't be called "progress".
But if Eddie Vegas is in part a historical novel, it is of the sort closer to Pynchon's V or Coover's The Public Burning, not a realistic narrative that attempts first of all to invoke "what it was like" at some point in history. to "recreate" history. Instead it defamiliarizes and dislocates the historical, making it sufficiently strange that we might recognize it as essentially alien territory rather than simply reflecting a fixed and already known order. In the work of these writers, history becomes a fictional world that is itself "real," not the attempted facsimile--with a few added flourishes of fancy--of the real world as it was once. Paradoxically, we wind up learning a great deal about history from such fiction--its carefully concealed secrets, not its acknowledged facts--even though achieving accuracy of historical detail is not an essential goal, as it seems to be in much conventional historical fiction,
The novel tells the multigenerational story of the Gravel family--although the original scion of the family is an early 19th century "mountain man" and fur trapper, Hector Robitaille, and the title character is also a Gravel, who has changed his name for reasons the novel eventually gets to. In the novel's initial chapters we meet Eddie Vegas (real name, Tom Gravel) and his son, Donnie. Soon enough, we are returned to the first episode in the family chronicle, Hector's encounter with a bear. It takes a while for the story focused on Donnie, who becomes friendly with a wealthy young man named Drake, to clarify its direction, but the story of Hector being mauled by the bear ("Old Ephraim"), surviving the attack, and crawling his way back to civilization (literally) compels attention on its own, simultaneously a riveting adventure narrative and a hilarious sendup of the American frontier ethos. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which often renders scenes of brutality and horror in a manner that is also caustically funny.
As we move back and forth from the exploits of Donnie and Drake to the development of the family line initiated by Hector and a Native American woman after he has recovered from his traumatic odyssey in the woods, both the structural and the thematic connections become more apparent, although the parallels and echoes that emerge are subtle and suggestive rather than insistent (Hector making his way through the wilds of the western American mountains vs. the story of Drake's father traversing the jungles of Vietnam, the father himself, a corrupt security specialist paired with Fitzpacker, the lawless frontier lawman and gold hunter who menaces both Hector and the first Tom Gravel). Card playing and gambling pervade the novel (Donnie and Drake meet during a game of poker), and it seems likely that the deck of cards plays a role in the the arrangement and development of episodes (the author, who makes appearances throughout the novel, dealing the cards). The author's presence, through the third-person narrator attempting to relate this unwieldy narrative, is also palpable in the novel's unconstrained, idiosyncratic language.
Perhaps what holds together the various episodes of the narrative most firmly is the continuity of its setting in the intermountain region of the western United States, especially Nevada but also including parts of California, Oregon, and Idaho. This is the general area in which we find Hector Robitaille at the commencement of the family saga, and the novel concludes with the last Tom Gravel and Donnie fleeing from Las Vegas through Death Valley. Throughout the novel the region is implacably present, the characters attempting to accommodate themselves to its extremes of topography and climate, when they aren't participating in the depletion of its resources. The latter is most directly evoked in the episodes taking place during the Gold Rush, including one depicting the mining of a canyon in Nevada, in which Fitzpacker and the first Tom Gravel have a showdown of sorts. Fitzpacker is surely the precursor to those interests that will later exploit the West for its minerals and other natural assets, the exploitation of nature having an even more horrific culmination in the development of the atomic bomb (with which a later Gravel is involved). The Gravel story's culminating scenes in Las Vegas show us the final tawdry embodiment of the values and attitudes underlying the "settlement" of the West: the casual corruption, the lurking violence, the aimless sprawl.
There are portions of the novel that break away from the predominant regional setting, episodes that introduce us to and track the activities of Donnie and Drake and Donnie's father. (Donnie knows himself as Donnie Garvin, as his father, who is in fact the last Tom Gravel, had changed his named to Garvin after a term spent in prison as a younger man.) Donnie and Drake are initially presented to us as rather aimless young men, but Drake, whose father we learn is the shady owner of Blackguard, a private security company currently involved in the Iraq War, invites Donnie to accompany him on a trip to Belgium, where the two of them more or less continue their aimless ways, but also meet a barkeeper named Setif. They refer to her by the derogatory name "Picasso Tits," but eventually both young men fall in love with Setif. Their idyll in Belgium ends when Drake learns that both of his parents have been assassinated, and he and Donnie fly to Las Vegas (without Setif, who nevertheless joins them later).
Donnie has become estranged from his father, who has managed to establish himself as, of all things, a creative writing professor, married to a celebrity poet whom Tom Garvin/Gravel/Eddie Vegas has come to despise. This situation allows Harsch to interject into the novel some fairly broad academic satire--Tom gets into some trouble, abetted by the wife, for reputed acts of insensitivity toward his students--before Gravel leaves for Las Vegas in search of his son, who he has learned is there with Drake. While The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas might loosely be called satirical, the episodes devoted to the politics and personalities of academe seem more narrowly targeted (no doubt reflecting Harsch's time at the Iowa Writer's Workshop) than the mordantly dark humor of the rest of the novel. Among other thinks, it makes Gravel's wife (named "Languideia") a more cartoonish figure--we see little of her other than through Gravel's unfavorable ruminations about her--than Setif, who turns out to be one of the novel's most self-possessed characters and wisely frees herself from entanglement in Drake and Donnie's increasingly turbid affairs by story's end.
The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas has appeal as a demythologized comedy of American degradation, but ultimately this is a novel that makes its greatest impression through its verbal virtuosity. Harsch is a stylist, although in Eddie Vegas, it is a style based in verbal invention rather than through shapely sentences or figurative decoration. Sometimes it is as if Harsch's sentences can't be contained:
How horrible to report the return of Hector to the likely mortambulatories of the knuckle walker, a re-descent of a man who, upon determining to descend straight to the river he knew was there and would both nourish hum and lead him to westward succor, stepped north at too brisk a pace, gaining a false sense of strength of mine as well as speed, moving from step to stride to lope to leap to running loping leap from mound to rock to mound to rock to root to stone to mound to depression up root over ditch to mound, all in a a dementium of glee as if the river were but a ghostflight off and not perhaps two dozen miles. . . .
If at times the neologisms and runaway syntax threaten to overwhelm sense, the novel's prose has the effect of carrying the reader along on a dynamic current of language for which literal sense is less important than a certain breathless rhythm (although the story gets told, nevertheless). The reader's immersion in language is further sustained by the frequent use of long lists that conspicuously call attention to the artifice of the novel's narration, also further reinforcing its essentially carnivalesque comic vision (reviews refer to these lists as "Rabelaisian," but Gilbert Sorrentino seems to me a more immediate inspiration).
Perhaps we might find a convergence between Harsch's accentuation of language as medium and the historical material with which he is working in Eddie Vegas in the vernacular argot spoken by the frontier characters--"Drop the char erall drop ya raht thar, ya English fartpig mother of devilswine!"--which includes an Indian character who is able to communicate with a white man like Hector Robitaille in a polyglot Native/English/French/Spanish he has ingeniously put together from various encounters with the white interlopers: "Moi no belle sauvage, pero damn real grande. One tongue, many way. Ass felt. Beaverspelt," Such strategies mark The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas as a novel of farcical fantasy and ironic invention that nevertheless speaks something that seems like the truth about America.
An Illegal Book Writing Program
I feel confident in asserting that no one who ventures to read America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: A Diagnostic will be quite prepared for the wild sort of book it is . Of course, this could just as easily be said of a uniquely bad book as of a uniquely good one, but in fact this book is much closer to the latter than the former. It could stake a fair claim to being the most self-reflexive novel ever written, but arguably it also evades the charge commonly made against metafiction that it is too preoccupied with "playing games" by enlisting the strategies of metafiction to dramatize ideas that could hardly be more weighty.
Perhaps calling the devices used by author Phillip Freedenberg (in collaboration with the illustrator Jeff Walton) simply "strategies" belies how radical they often are: The animating conceit of the novel is that its two protagonists--"Phillip Freedenberg" and "Jeff Walton"--are composing a novel--America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: A Diagnostic--into which they themselves retreat as a way of escaping the tyrannical conditions that have overtaken America, ultimately finding their way to the "unified field" that is a utopia of liberated creativity. This journey is framed as the story of the novel's inspiration, ongoing creation, and ultimate publication with--wait for it--Corona Samizdat Press. "Phillip" writes the novel after he is prompted to order--also wait for it--Rich Harsch's The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas and while he waits for it to arrive. (Slow mail from Slovenia.) Part of the quest for the unified field will find Phillip and Jeff tracking their way through the text--through the sentences, made materially visible--of Eddie Vegas, although first they have to make their way to it after wandering through the words of every other story ever told.
Given this outrageously inverted premise--the novel is literally about itself--it almost seems superfluous to note the other, more recognizable metafictional flourishes, although there are plenty of these. The text of the novel is not merely supplemented by Walton's evocative illustrations, but also comes to us in changing fonts and multifarious arrangements, reminiscent of Raymond Federman or Mark Danielewski. Phillip and Jeff frequently confer about the novel as they are creating it, making us hyperaware of the artifice supporting the book we are reading--indeed, the book is artifice all the way down. The narrator (mostly Phillip, although occasionally other characters are allowed to take over to tell us a story) is not at all circumspect in concealing the artifice of the novel's own language, either: much of it is taken up with faux-philosophical and quasi-scientific jargon strung together in chains that seem to make surface sense yet soon enough reveal themselves to be something close to gibberish (often very funny gibberish, however).
But the formal and stylistic antics are related to the novel's "content" in a way that goes beyond simply its unrelieved self-reflexivity. Phillip and Jeff are engaged in an exercise of unfettered imagination as a way of resisting the increasing tyranny of the American government--the novel seems clearly enough to extrapolate from the depredations of the Trump presidency--which has increased its surveillance of American citizens to the point of actually intruding on their cognitive processes to induce a state of blissful narcoticization. A complete "consciousness replacement" is offered so that the burdens of real life might be removed entirely. This is the next step beyond what is already available through the "NeuroFORM Screen Sync 6 face screen," which diverts attention and occupies everyone's time with trivialities so they remain compliant to the wishes of President RALPH and his administration, a conceit which takes the threat to human awareness posed by digital technology to its logical extreme. Phillip and Jeff have been targeted as enemies of the administration through their unauthorized activities with language, and are actively pursued after they begin writing America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots, accused by a government agent of being "antagonistic, subversive agents, conspiring and colluding to perform an illegal word manufacturing program identified as an illegal book writing program."
The "Cult of the Cactus Boots" itself represents both the vehicle for remaining resistance to President RALPH and, once the twin protagonists have completed their quest and been successfully initiated into the cult (along with Rick Harsch), its fulfillment in an alternative state of being in which human beings seek "the enigmatic, eternal creativity." As might be expected, the final arrival at the threshold of the unified field promised through the precepts of the cult is somewhat anticlimactic, the main point being the "creativity" employed in getting there. But while the imagination on display in America and the Cactus Boots is indeed manifest, the iterations and reiterations of the canons of the cactus boots cult eventually become wearing, especially given the novel's considerable length and discursive structure. That the significance of "cactus boots" and "unified field" is mostly rhetorical. without much actual substance, is not really an obstacle to enjoying the immoderate formal machinations as well as the humor that is derived from them. (We might think of these occluded images as verbal MacGuffins in the novel's narrative strategy.) There are times, however, when the humor is drawn out enough that is starts to seem labored.
America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots could be classified as a work practicing the "art of excess" (as elucidated by the critic and literary scholar Tom LeClair in his book of that name), so that the excessiveness of some of its rhetorical turns might seem to be an intrinsic feature of this work. What should be the limits to the excessiveness of an approach deliberately intended to be excessive? At what point does a literary device or verbal performance wear out its welcome, ceasing to be an effective strategy for eliciting laughter or provoking delight and instead becoming tedious, even an excuse for skipping over and ahead? In Cactus Boots, for example, we are offered an initially very funny travesty of the "extreme sports" contest, in the form of "extreme competitive ironing." The goal of the championship match is to iron a series of designated items ("one Peter Pan Blouse," "one Kevin & Howlin Irish Wool Tweed Blazer," etc.), but interposed between the competitor and the successful completion of ironing is a bizarre and byzantine set of limitations and requirements (increasingly byzantine from match to match) the competitor must overcome to be declared champion. At first the preposterous "rules" directing the participants to sing a pair of pop songs while wearing a contraption that houses "eight free-roaming Rabidosa rabida wolf spiders" or begin a competition "positioned standing on top of the center car of the Japan Railway Company SCMaglev magnetic levitation train" are hilariously ludicrous, but during six consecutive recitations of such rules, the humor becomes more difficult to appreciate.
Does this mean I would prefer that Freedenberg and Walton had exercised more editorial discretion in settling on the final form of their massive opus? Not necessarily. If a writer is going to embrace excess for its own sake as an aesthetic principle, perhaps better just to go for it. But some readers no doubt will balk not just at this sort of excess, but also the novel's surface discontinuities, its repetitions and its accumulated oddities (for a while Phillip and Jeff carry around a "Rick Harsch homunculus," who is ultimately united with the full-sized Rich Harsch), so that the audience for America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: A Diagnostic is likely to be confined to those who (like yours truly—and perhaps most of the readers of this review?) have an ingrained curiosity about emergent varieties of adventurous fiction. I don't know whether Phillip Freedenberg and Jeff Walton would find that prospect disappointing, but certainly their book is not designed for the preferences of most casual readers.
But finally America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots is not just an outrageously unconventional novel concerned with its own coming-into-being, nor a speculative narrative projecting a future society of total surveillance, although it is both of these things. It also seeks to be a story of spiritual renewal, even of utopian transcendence. Whether it plausibly succeeds in the latter goal might, perhaps, be debated (I think not, although I'm not sure how seriously the effort is intended), but we don't have to accept the message that a commitment to "non-dominant text structures" will give us access to "a new world and a new cosmos" to think that the authors' commitment to this particular non-dominant text has provided us a legitimately new kind of reading experience through the sheer force of invention. Taken individually, all of the devices employed by Freedenberg and Walton have a precedent in previous works of innovative fiction, but this novel orchestrates their use in a singular performance of a kind undreamt-of in mainstream literary fiction.
On one level, W.D. Clarke's She Sang to Them, She Sang is a relatively simple story of a failed real estate deal, the circumstances of its genesis and its aftermath. A young married couple, Katie and Jason, are enticed into a proposed deal in which they will sell their current home and buy the home of the woman proposing the deal--Jo, a local realtor. Jo assigns an employee, Manny to assist in making the deal happen, although the likelihood that it will is dubious from the start. The deal falls through (partly through Manny's ineptitude, but not entirely), and shortly afterwards Manny is arrested on a fraud charge (not connected to his work on this deal), while Jo suffers a stroke, which apparently leaves her permanently incapacitated. Katie and Jason wind up buying Jo's house, after all.
The goals and motives influencing the behavior of each of these characters, are, of course, much more complicated. The novel is set in Orangefield, outside of Toronto, around the time of the '08 financial crisis. Jo's business is in trouble, her personal life's discouraging, and she's on the outs with her now-grown daughter. Manny has mother issues, and isn't exactly flourishing as a real estate agent. Katie is all aswoon over Jason, even though he doesn't really have a very dynamic personality and isn't a take-charge kind of guy, and it seems pretty obvious, to us if not to Katie, that something's going on between him and Susan, their tenant (the "downstairs girl"). The story is related to us in chapters alternating the perspectives of Katie, Jo, and Manny--Jason remains more of a background presence, as does Susan.
Even more complicated is the way in which these characters' perspective is conveyed to us. Very generally the novel's narrative point of view is what Henry James called 3rd-person "central consciousness," although these days it is more likely to be identified as the "free indirect" method--the character is not the narrator but the narration is closely inflected with the character's process of thinking and perceiving. We overhear the character's thoughts so that it is what the character makes of events or how events prompt other modes of reflection that are the objects of narrative interest, not the events themselves. In this novel, Clarke doesn't settle merely for one layer of "thought" but digs even deeper into the substrata of consciousness, at times interrupting its "stream" to follow tributary channels:
But yes, and uh-oh, the Kazans out there were now getting into their frickin' Mercedes, they were
(and ever after this incident he vowed to forswear all drivers of that-now- loathsome brand, no matter how dearly it cost him professionally
--that is to say, commercially---
for this was now a vendetta worthy of his forebears
--e.g. his grandmother Mariyam, his mother's tormentor and the grandchildren's champion, who never forgave a shopkeeper for shortchanging her or for selling her anything less than the choicest cuts of meat, the most unblemished produce, the etc., etc., etc.--)
and his feet were not only betraying him, their owner. those feet were also betraying the girl here, the renter, and betraying what she might possibly think him, Manny capable of!. . . .
This strategy ultimately converts what has traditionally been called a stream of consciousness into something closer to an excavation of consciousness. Clarke would seem to reject the metaphor of "stream" as an overly simplistic conception of the way introspection occurs, and in She Sang to Them, She Sang represents it as something more shifting and disjointed. This may indeed be a more plausible rendering of human thought in fiction than conventional indirect discourse, but the ambition still seems to be to present an essentially realistic depiction of characters thinking. Further, the novel's approach both seems fully to proceed from the assumption that the representation of characters thinking has manifest aesthetic value and reinforces the commonly held belief that the advantage fiction has over other narrative arts is its capacity to probe human thought.
Clarke does this with skill in She Sang to Them, She Sang, as well as with a sufficiently light touch that the effect of its narrative method is to produce a kind of humor--the novel is essentially a comedy, although a highly ironic sort of comedy--that more or less substitutes for the drama of plot. The discrepancies between the characters' ambitions and the fragilities and frustrations as revealed in their internal deliberations are the real subjects of interest in the novel's portrayal of the shadiness of modern real estate speculation. In Katie's case, they reveal a woman whose upbeat innocence is in fact quite sincere but also begets a naïve gullibility that potentially makes the reader feel not sympathy for her vulnerability but something closer to condescension or even contempt. In other words, Clarke creates some compelling characters through his use of a form of "psychological realism," even though the psychological account of what goes on in their minds may or may not be altogether plausible.
However much the method in this novel does attempt to register a greater complexity in the processes of human awareness than is usually portrayed in exercises of free indirect discourse, surely the emergence of thought as enacted in passages such as the one quoted above is not actually the way the conscious mind works. Just making an inventory of my own thought process in ordinary circumstances, I cannot recall any instances in which it unfolded like this. (I don't think my thoughts "unfold" at all.) Of course, W.D. Clarke himself may not believe that his digressive but still rhetorically coherent technique for representing mental activity is actually an accurate reproduction, just a useful illusion that signifies thinking but more importantly acts as a unifying device in his multiperspective narrative that otherwise has no strongly linear story.
If She Sang to Them, She Sang doesn't really give us an "authentic" rendering of the human mind in action, no other literary device would be able to, either--perhaps it's best to regard all such efforts at psychological realism to be a search for the serviceable means of suggesting human thought, but not an end in itself. (I don't think Clarke is presenting it as an end in itself.) As such, Clarke's strategy helps give the novel's satire of the casual corruption induced by capitalism as it intersects with middle class aspiration--which no doubt represents its dominant ambition--a greater continuity and cogency, but also works to keep attention on character, so that the satire does not merely disappear into plot or, by the end of the novel, melodrama. What the novel wants to "say" about the decadence of capitalism, while evident enough, does not overshadow an accompanying comedy of psychological confusion that is perhaps even more telling.
Down on the Farm
Although my sampling of the fiction being published by Corona/Samizdat is limited here to the four works I have included, this fourth novel by Lee D. Thompson, Apastoral, would seem to further confirm that Corona is a press interested in publishing work that challenges the formal and stylistic norms dominating most literary fiction (in English, at least), but also engages with cultural and political themes that are very much of current concern (Cactus Boots most insistently, She Sang to Them, She Sang more quietly). None of these novels are straightforwardly, or even primarily, political works (not even Cactus Boots, which is primarily about its own existence), and the political "content" in each is greatly mediated not just by style and unconventional form but by an essentially comic vision, which is explicitly satirical really only in She Sang to Them, She Sang.
The humor in Apastoral might be called satirical, except that it is actually something closer to absurdist, and the novel itself might be identified as a kind of speculative or dystopian fiction, a science fiction novel with laughs. "Kafkaesque" would not be an unwarranted label, if Kafka had as one of his major influences The Three Stooges, and the novel's title suggests it was likely conceived in part as a parody of the pastoral genre. All of these elements are relevant in considering the effect of Thompson's novel, which, far from making it unfocused or incoherent, is in fact what makes the novel compelling: ultimately the impression it leaves is that the writer has taken the basic premise--a method of transferring a human brain to an animal body has been devised and is being used as a form of judicial punishment--and let the premise develop as it will rather than forcing it to act as the vehicle for predetermined meaning.
The novel's first-person narrator, called Bones, is a small-time crook who is the victim of one such surgical procedure, his brain removed and implanted in the body of a sheep. He has been transported to a prison farm whether other criminals have been subject to similar transformations into various animal bodies and shipped out as part of a program called "Constock." (Beginning with one Sylvester Moll, a serial killer of children who was the first person to receive the surgical sentence, his brain placed in a pig.) The novel chronicles Bones's attempts to adjust to his new transmogrified state, alternating with the story of the botched robbery attempt by his hapless gang of criminal cronies that resulted in Bones's trial and conviction. Eventually Bones manages to escape from the farm and makes his way back to the city, where he meets up again with an animal rights activist who had previously tried to help him and who now offers him refuge on a farm she has purchased. There we leave Bones to whatever rustic fate awaits him.
Bones is narrating his story, of course, from his present incarnation as a sheep, which immediately complicates our efforts to interpret the story he tells us. Even before we consider the various visions and dreams he increasingly experiences in his sheep-human state, Bones is inherently an unreliable narrator. His memories of the criminal milieu in which he previously resided, of the events leading up to the robbery-gone-wrong and the subsequent application of "justice" in his case, seem oddly free of the effects of the brain transplant--brains need to be "shrunk" to fit the size of the cranium into which they are being loaded--to which he seems to be subject in the episodes chronicling his new life as a sheep. Putting aside questions about how Bones is able to compose his narrative in the first place, since he is, indeed, a sheep, the very idea of a character like Bones implicitly asking to be taken seriously as the narrator of a credible work of fiction is sufficiently preposterous that we should expect the humor to be more broad farce than purposeful mockery.
Regarding the novel as neither satire nor an absurdist comedy but instead a version of a speculative science fiction narrative might help us in interpreting it as the projection of a future dystopia in which technology has continued to advance but its moral intelligence has continued to decline. But again the novel's comic exaggeration makes it hard to really take its projection into the future seriously as a plausible prediction of what might befall us if present tendencies continue on their course. The depiction of the circumstances attending Bones's apprehension, trial, conviction, and sentencing is a very funny lampoon of the attitudes and procedures already latent in the American justice system, but the fatuity on display among supposedly trained professionals (lawyers, therapists) actually clashes with the notion that technologies might also have advanced to the point that brain transplants are possible. Unless we assume that all of the elements in Thompson's story, from the ditzy lawyer who obtained her law degree after a "six-month intensive" and a one-week apprenticeship, to the animal rights organization, PETABBY, long on ideals and short on competence, to the investment of authority in the penal farm to wolves implanted with the brains of prison guards, have been invoked as devices that further the novel's essential buffoonery.
Which is not to say that Apastoral has nothing to communicate about the practices of incarceration or animal rights, the two "issues" to which it most immediately calls attention. But the carceral state is not a direct target: what seems unjust in Bones's case is not the form of punishment per se, but the process by which that punishment is ultimately declared. Bones is in fact innocent of the crime for which he is convicted, but the incompetence in the system in which he is thrust insures that this can never be discovered and that his fate is foreordained. He is imprisoned in the new body into which he is placed, but his actual physical circumstances are, well, pastoral, however threatening they still are from his new animal perspective. (The novel might be taken as a satire of a certain kind of "humanitarian" prison reform rather than imprisonment itself, a reform that in this case only allows society to mete out punishment without confronting the implications of it at all.) Paradoxically, Bones's "incarceration" might ultimately be a blessing, as it seems likely he will find greater happiness on the farm with his sheep girlfriend, Heather, than he ever would in his former life as a small-time crook. (If the wolves don't come after him.)
Thus Apastoral certainly could lead the reader to reflection on the subjects it treats, even though in my view they are subjects that inspire the novel's humor and invention rather than serve as its center of interest. It shares with the other books under review here this joining of conceptually adventurous, verbally resourceful fiction with politically resonant subjects in a way that inevitably raises the question of what the writer is trying to "say." Gilbert Sorrentino proposed that the appropriate way to think of "content" in a literary work was its realization through "something said"--the literary art itself says what it must, not the artist. Novels like Apastoral are mostly content with the something said, but the focus on politically charged topics does cheat a bit by making it more likely that the "said" is heard.