Discover more from Unbeaten Paths
Includes reviews of:
The Ancestry of Objects (Deep Vellum), by Tatiana Ryckman
Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books), by George Salis
The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster (Sublunary Editions), by Eric Chevillard
Ire Land (a Faery Tale) (Spuyten Duyvil), by Elisabeth Sheffield
Fucked Up (Expat Press), by Damien Ark
The Experience of Extremity
What makes Tatiana Ryckman's The Ancestry of Objects more than a familiar story of an adulterous love affair are the troubling circumstances of the unnamed narrator who finds herself involved in the affair and the extraordinary language she uses in relating it. Although the narrator isn't exactly expansive in providing us the details about her circumstances, we do gradually learn that she never knew her parents, raised instead by austerely religious grandparents, that those grandparents have died, that she has just lost her job, and that she is currently suicidal. She is in fact quite blunt about that--when she meets at a bar the man who will be her lover, she is contemplating the means of her death: electrocution, asphyxiation, or pills?
We also learn immediately that, although we are reading an ostensibly first-person narrative, the narrator refers to herself in the plural first person.
When he sits at the bar, waiting for his table, and his woman, we see from the corner of our eye that he will speak to us, and when he asks what we are reading we resent him for kicking the crutch of loneliness out from under us like the job, gone, and one day the house, gone, and soon, life, gone. Us, gone.
It would seem we are not to take this eccentricity as a sign of a literal dissociative disorder--indeed, throughout the novel the narrator's identity seems quite consistent--but nevertheless as an expression of her psychological confusion. Whether because of the lingering effects of her quasi-abusive upbringing, the reality of her solitude (living in the same house in which she was raised), or simply a depressive personality (likely a combination of these, although the first surely has conditioned the last), the narrator/protagonist does have a faltering sense of her own self-worth, and her affair with "the man" seems simultaneously to be an invitation to obliterate her self-respect altogether and an opportunity to take the first tentative steps, at least, toward claiming it.
But while the narrator seems to subsist in a state of emotional and psychological drift, her powers of observation and recall are extraordinarily keen, her verbal resources abundant. In the midst of a conversation with the man (who does have a name: David) in which the narrator tells him what she knows about her parents, supposedly dead in a car accident, she begins to feel the presence of the grandparents:
The house takes in these new unnamed faults, filling the cracks between poorly fitted pieces of counter and narrow passageways behind furniture that cannot be pressed flush against the wall, the voices of our grandparents behind closed doors, whispering to each other while we choke our breath in the deep, soft mattress of our mother's old room. We make an island in the sea of tiles and listen for their holy guidance in the emptiness we've always moved through. Nothing is right for a young woman to do/say/think/be.
This language is not especially figurative (except for the personification in the first sentence that triggers the recollection of the grandparents), but it nevertheless provides revelatory insight into the narrator's circumstances, the way her house seems to her alive, still animated by the presence of her grandparents, even if she can now only access that presence through memory and the articulation of that memory in scrupulously articulated but slightly aslant language. Often we get isolated bursts of such verbal acuity: "When he straightens, our hands drop to our sides as if they'd expected to be left empty all along," the narrator tells us after a first embrace with David.
Because of the atmosphere of impending failure the narrator's chronicle of her liaison with David also creates through her relentless self-examination and painstaking descriptions, the reader is perhaps tempted to move swiftly through her account to get a confirmation of that failure. But a full appreciation of the novel's achievement requires that we slow down and parse her sentences, allow their evocative indirection to register fully. The protagonist of The Ancestry of Objects is ultimately a memorable and somewhat enigmatic character, but this impression comes not simply from the extremity of her situation but in the way as narrator she finds the language to express her experience of extremity, managing to illuminate it rather than capitulate to it.
Arguably the novel falters at its conclusion. As the affair with David comes to its (inevitable) end, the narrator makes a fresh connection with her absent mother (through a shoebox full of objects that had belonged to her, found in the grandparents' bedroom) and begins to move all of the household objects associated with the grandparents into the basement, ultimately leaving the house essentially bare. The symbolism of all of this is pretty obvious, and the suggestion that the narrator may be on the verge of beneficial change seems rather pat. But to an extent, this is the expected ending to this sort of narrative, and the plot isn't really the point in The Ancestry of Objects. We don't learn anything new about the geometry of a love affair, but we can come to appreciate the author's way with words.
Echoes and Correlations
It can seem while reading George Salis's Sea Above, Sun Below that the novel is somewhat formless, a series of episodes moving back and forth in time and place rather loosely tied to what seems to be the main narrative, concerning a group of skydivers about to attempt a record-breaking dive. But gradually it becomes more clear that it is a very tightly structured, even explicitly formalist, work. Each of the seemingly disparate characters are subsequently braided into the narrative, so that they all have some association with the novel's protagonist, Adam, whose eccentric father founded the skydiving event for which Adam and other members of his skydiving club are preparing. This strategy allows the novel ultimately to provide a coherently extended narrative but also allows for additional sorts of unifying devices that make the novel more structure than story.
Salis reinforces the novel's formal scheme through recurrent images and motifs, beginning with the protagonist's name and the situation portrayed. The primary motif in the book is the act of falling, but it is Adam's literal fall from an airplane at the novel's beginning (and again at the end) that provides the controlling image, although allusions to Icarus are also prominent. The novel doesn't so much metaphorically portray Adam's fall from grace, or impute a kind of hubris to skydiving, as simply use the idea of falling, as well as associated phenomena, such as being upside-down (signaled first of all in the novel's title), as a conceit that in a sense takes precedence over the story being told, or at least gives to the story to an additional level of connotation. Salis does not, however, insist on the underlying allegorical "meaning" such a move might entail. The novel seems less concerned with symbolic implication--the motif is brandished too overtly for anything to seem cloaked--and more with creating a pattern of allusions that also reinforces the novel's aesthetic order.
Certainly many of these allusions are Biblical, and the novel does explicitly invoke religion, although the emphasis is on the effects of religious beliefs, and the Biblical iconography seems to mostly reflect a concern with the mythopoeic in general. Adam and his wife, Evelyn, might be described as subsisting in a state of innocence of sorts, although it is really a fragile paradise of true love induced by Adam's protectiveness toward "Evy," the daughter of an abusive minister whose severe theology is on display in separate sections devoted to him. Two other characters, a brother and sister, captive to a bizarre religious fanaticism, store their dead father in a bedroom and await his resurrection. (One of Adam's fellow jumpers, Charles, comes to believe his missing wife, Hellen, also has been resurrected when her body is not discovered along with her car's wreckage after an accident, a possibility the novel doesn't exactly discredit.) Later, after Adam publishes an essay recounting a jump (a jump with which the novel begins) during which he has a vision of "an angel with a sun for a head, two pairs of wings composed of blue and gold feathers, and a body adorned with silver scales," the brother begins to regard Adam as a kind of prophet.
So pervasive are all of these echoes and correlations that they not only substitute for plot (successfully) but they also to an extent impede the full development of dynamic characters. Ultimately the characters seem to exist to serve the novel's web of metaphorical figurations, not because they are of great interest in themselves. This is not necessarily a flaw in conception (characters need not be of interest in themselves if making them so is not one of the writer's artistic goals), but the primary mode of characterization in this novel is through dialogue, and too much of it goes on for too long, especially the attempts at waggish banter among the members of the skydiving club. The club, in fact, is less compelling than it needs to be if it is to bear the weight of mythic and at times metaphysical implication it is enlisted to carry. Sea Above, Sun Below thus has its laborious moments, but as an aesthetic whole, it is an admirable creation.
Eric Chevillard has described himself as a writer attuned first of all to the effects of his sentences: "Everything comes together in my sentences, in the moment of their writing, driven by a hopscotch logic, by syntactical deductions. My stories are born out of sheer energy" ("A Conversation with Eric Chevillard.") A first sentence is especially important in opening up "a wholly unexplored space" that the following sentences proceed to occupy.
This focus on the dynamics of the sentence in determining the shape and direction of the story seems somewhat reminiscent of the notion of "consecution" as promulgated by the American writer/teacher Gordon Lish and put into practice by many of his students. Chevillard does not appear to emphasize the purely sonic qualities of the procession of sentences in quite the same way, but unfortunately, the reader of Chevillard's fiction in translation can't really appreciate the full range of possible effects put into play by the writer's method of composition, no matter how diligently the translator tries to reproduce or recreate them. This is the inherent limitation in approaching a writer's work through translation--one that most of us can only accept--but it becomes especially apparent when the writer is as solicitous of literature as a "language act" as Chevillard avows himself to be.
Luckily, Chevillard is also a writer whose manner of filling that "wholly unexplored space" invoked by language still registers distinctly and distinctively, the "sheer energy" scarcely diminished. In particular, the "hopscotch logic" of Chevillard's novels seems their most essential characteristic, making them both manifestly peculiar and frequently hilarious. This logic is especially evident in a work such as The Crab Nebula, which might be said to "hop" randomly from vignette to vignette in the story of "Crab," except that there is no story (or rather there are many stories), Crab is never quite the same person, and sometimes not exactly a person. The tonal effect is really neither surreal nor absurdist, but rather a near-total disregard of "sense" as a goal the novelist should strive to achieve. Yet one does come to have some feeling for poor Crab in his effort to cope with the senselessness we all come to suspect is our inescapable reality. Demolishing Nisard has more continuity and coherence, centered around its narrator protagonist's obsession with obscure 19th century pedagogue Désiré Nisard, although it too threatens to teeter over into nonsense. In this case, the "hopscotch logic" is embodied in the narrator, who allows his neurotic belief that the opinions of the man he reviles epitomize the vacuity of the modern age to in effect turn himself into just another version of Nisard.
Each of these novels at first might seem both aimless and formally chaotic, but ultimately their collage-like structures bring about a congruity of sorts in the evocation of character (even if Crab is only a provisional sort of character in the first place). On the other hand, in The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster, the latest Chevillard novel to now be translated (by Chris Clarke), form is conspicuously present: the novel purports to be a collection of unpublished writings by the recently deceased writer Pilaster, with an editorial apparatus by Pilaster's fellow writer (and supposed friend), "Marc-Antoine Marson." The pieces included do indeed seem like odds and ends--diary entries, a very brief detective story, a collection of haiku, an unperformed one-act play, among others), but Marson does his level best in his introductory and editorial notes to make them seem even more marginal--while also damning Pilaster's published oeuvre with the faintest of praise.
If the editor's impatience with the author's works begs the question of why the book has been assembled in the first place, eventually it becomes clear enough that Marston has come to bury Pilaster, not to praise him, that his enmity against the writer goes back a long way indeed (to their student days together) and has only deepened through jealousy, both professional, due to Pilaster's more exalted reputation, and the more traditional kind: Marson reveals himself to have been in love with Pilaster's wife, Lise, whose own death preceded Pilaster's 15 years earlier. The novel bears an undeniable resemblance to Nabokov's Pale Fire, although the "backstory" the reader must piece together is rather less exotic than Nabokov's. Still, the reader does come to suspect that the undercurrent of jealousy that seems to propel the editor's compilation of Thomas Pilaster's posthumous works might also have risen to murder; the murky circumstances of the deaths of both Lise and Pilaster himself point to Marson as the likely perpetrator.
The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster, like the Chevillard novel translated most immediately before it, the metafictional The Author and Me, is a more recognizably "postmodern" novel than The Crab Nebula and Demolishing Nisard, which to an extent seem like more singular creations. On the whole, however, Chevillard is an audacious and insidiously entertaining writer, and the reader new to his work (as I was) might just as well read these books all together (as I did).
An Unruly Woman
Elisabeth Sheffield's novels feature women who are "difficult" "unruly," at times resolutely unpleasant--at least to readers who expect a fictional protagonist (especially if it is a woman) to be at heart "likable." They are otherwise dynamic characters who just don't observe the rules of propriety or decorum. Stella, one of the protagonists of Sheffield's first novel, Gone (2003), is a disaffected and dissolute adjunct community college English instructor who goes on a fruitless quest, accompanied by her ex-student lover, to track down what she believes is her inheritance, a valuable Winslow Homer painting. Along the way we read from letters written by Stella's deceased aunt, Juju, who in her own, different way, is as incorrigible as Stella. The protagonist of Fort Da (2009), a 38 year-old neurologist, relates (in a dissociated and displaced way) an account of her reverse-Lolita obsession with an 11 year-old boy. One of the dual protagonists of 2014's Helen Keller Really Lived (the other protagonist is a ghost) is a quasi-grifter (she dispenses "healing") who ultimately becomes involved in a theft of embryos from a fertility clinic.
It is likely that these portrayals against the grain of conventional assumptions about appropriately feminine behavior help account for the dearth of critical attention given to Sheffield's work in the mainstream literary press (or even what was once called the blogosphere), although the adventurous formal structures of the novels also no doubt bother less adventurous readers and critics as well: it would seem that difficult women require more unorthodox, more ostensibly difficult methods of aesthetic representation to adequately render their experiences. If in Fort Da the main character offers her version of events through a misleading, pseudo-scientific "report" and much of Helen Keller Really Lived comes to us as a ghost's communications to the protagonist (his ex-wife) through her computer, in Sheffield's 2021 novel, Ire Land (a Faery Tale), the narrative consists of a sequence of emails written by the protagonist, Sandra Dorn--although they actually come packaged as an edited and annotated manuscript sent to the now deceased Sandra's daughter.
The status of the text has--or should have--an immediate effect on our perception of the narrative it relates, making it, of course, an inherently unreliable source of truth or accuracy, especially since the story that emerges from Sandra Dorn's email chronicles (sent as responses to the unknown recipient "madmaeve17") involves the intercession of Gaelic faeries and Sandra's transformation into a hare. That story is essentially a picaresque recital of Sandra's fortunes after losing her home in Denver, where she is a professor of gender studies whose disorderly behavior has left her an older woman without friends or defenders among her colleagues, a wretched outcast. She first finds refuge with a younger sister, and when that ends up badly, she lives for a time with a brother and his girlfriend, but that too comes a cropper. Finally she is granted a reprieve of sorts with an offer of a temporary teaching position in Belfast (where she had lived previously in a relationship that ended badly), and the novel concludes--after a bizarre interlude in the classroom--with the intimation that Sandra has been taken away by the faeries ("[we can] fix ye up and kit you out" the mysterious editor--or some other shadowy figure usurping his role--declares in one of the editorial insertions).
While it is somewhat hard to know how seriously to take all of the particulars of Sandra Dorn's account (or at least the version we are presented), finally the plot details are less pivotal for an appreciation of the novel than our response to Sandra Dorn and her recital of her life experiences. It would be very easy to recoil from her, given some of the bad behavior to which she confesses (abandoning her first-born son) or we witness her perform (hurling invective at a child), but it's also hard to not admire the unapologetic candor of her admissions, her acceptance (not without an implicit sneer) of her dismal circumstances after a lifetime spent insisting on personal autonomy and disregarding convention. If Sandra Dorn were the male protagonist (Sandy Dorn, say) of a male-authored novel, he would surely be considered a "rogue," defiant of norms but to a degree laudable for that. Perhaps such a roguish personality is still regarded as objectionable in a female character, but at this stage in her life, while it might be salubrious for Sandra to be with the faeries in their mounds, that Sheffield affirms as her protagonist such a morally unkempt character as Sandra Dorn in the first place is arguably the novel's most praiseworthy achievement.
Sheffield would be high on my list of unjustly overlooked writers in current American fiction, but fortunately she is still able to attract publishers to her work. Ire Land would certainly be a good place to start with that work for the uninitiated, but really all of her books are equally worthwhile.
Down and Sideways
The publisher of Damien Ark's Fucked Up has called it "as extreme as it gets," and he's probably right. The depictions of abuse, sexual obsession, sadism, and grotesque violence are straightforward and relentless, and pretty clearly the author intends to overwhelm the unsuspecting reader with his novel's ugliness and horror. The author should perhaps be applauded simply for the audacity of the effort to carry out such a task so resolutely (and the publisher as well for taking the risk of publishing it, even if it isn't likely to reach a large enough audience to provoke widespread outrage).
It seems to me that Fucked Up really highlights the difference between "experimental" and "transgressive" fiction. It is a first-person narrative that proceeds more or less linearly, although it is leavened with flashbacks and, because the narrator is schizophrenic, endeavors to incorporate the disembodied voices with which he is plagued and to evoke the hallucinations to which he is inevitably prone. But the narrative otherwise unfolds directly enough, and the prose style is neither elliptically pared-back nor ostentatiously ornate. (We are to believe the narrator is very intelligent, so he is generally quite articulate, perhaps more so than his relative youth and traumatic experiences might suggest.) The novel transgresses in its content, not its form--although that transgression is uninhibited indeed.
If Fucked Up is not formally complex, it certainly could be called excessive, again deliberately so. The novel's scenes of, at some points, detailed sex acts (mostly, but not exclusively, same-sex) and, at others, brutality and chaos recur almost without surcease for 850 pages. The novel essentially takes as its mission to portray both the protagonist and his environment (personal and social) as "fucked up," and thus it does, attempting to add another twist of perversity or cruelty to the already considerable number of such twists previously provided. Suffice it to say that it doesn't always succeed in this mission, and the shock value of such repetition wanes, eventually becoming wearisome. Suffering at the hands of one child-abusing serial killer is horrific enough the first time, but when the narrative makes its way to another such predator, who in effect repeats the depravity of the first one, the effect is closer to numbness than fear or trembling. Of course, this recurrence is intentional, as it reinforces the implacability of the protagonist's fucked upness, but by the novel's end the presumption that he will never escape the legacy of his early abuse has long been verified.
Many--probably most--readers will not make it to the end of this novel, either because some particular episode or action is too much to take, or because trudging through to the end doesn't seem worth it. Some might find the narrator and his extreme self-destructiveness at such great length too oppressive. My problem with the narrator has nothing to do with his behavior or attitudes but rather with his narration's conditions of possibility, so to speak: At no point is it suggested that the narrator is in fact writing down his account, even though it comes to us as a fully articulated, verbally cogent whole (it's a monologue, not a "free indirect" report from an outside narrator). It is as if he is speaking to us directly; we don't get fragmented thoughts or inchoate perceptions. This device, a narration from nowhere, floating in the narrative ether, especially on the scale with which it is used in this novel, eventually becomes too artificial, too convenient, to be credible. An additional layer of artifice is added by setting the story in some near future in which global warming and a heightened authoritarianism has brought the U.S. to the brink of destruction (we're all fucked up). These strategies work to undercut the novel's transgressive force, taking the story too far into the land of make believe. If we're irretrievably fucked up, better to make it real, not the subject of a dystopian fantasy.
Too much artifice renders this sort of transgressive fiction, if not tame, then strangely ineffectual. I'd like my transgression neat, please.