Discover more from Unbeaten Paths
I am hoping to publish very soon—well, sort of soon— a new issue of Unbeaten Paths featuring reviews of newish books. I have been shamefully neglecting my duties to this project lately, and sincerely wish to do better. In the meantime, I am gathering here a few of the reviews of adventurous fiction I have published elsewhere relatively recently, assuming that perhaps many of the subscribers to this substack have not seen or read them.
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1) Mauro Javier Cardenas, Aphasia
2) Thalia Field, Personhood
3) Alta Ifland, The Wife Who Wasn’t
4) Gil Orlovitz, Milkbottle H
5) David Ohle, The Death of a Character
(This review appeared in American Book Review.)
Whether through “stream-of-consciousness” or the less strict adherence to continuous thought of psychological realism, it has become an almost reflexive assumption among many writers and readers that the job of serious fiction is to penetrate the veil of speech and action and reveal the human mind at work. It is often said, in fact (think James Wood), that what separates the art of fiction from all other modern narrative practices is precisely that it is able to “go deep” beneath the surface of ordinary reality and to capture the role of consciousness in processing and shaping that reality, thus enhancing the ostensible story a work of fiction relates with, in effect, an additional story (even the “real” story): an account of the mind attempting to make sense of the world it confronts. But is it really the case that this is therefore the presumed goal that writers of fiction should pursue if they want to fulfill fiction’s artistic mission? Is stream-of-consciousness literary fiction’s consummate achievement?
Reviewers of Mauro Javier Cardenas’s first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again (2016), as well as his most recent, Aphasia, have referred to his narrative strategy in both as stream-of-consciousness, and it seems an accurate enough characterization. While the term is often used very loosely in describing almost any attempt to suggest “what’s happening” inside the mind of a fictional character, in Cardenas’s case the effort is not just a routine exercise in “free indirect discourse” or the creation of an especially introspective first-person narrator. Each of the novels, most emphatically Aphasia, with its focus on the consciousness of a single character, offers propulsive but meticulous renditions of subjective states of rumination and perception, not always reflecting a habit of strictly linear thinking—indeed, Aphasia really does seem to evoke the “flow” of mental awareness.
The notion that narrative discourse in fiction might be shaped to mimic the human thought process is of course most familiar from the work of the early modernists (perhaps also encompassing Henry James’s emphasis on a “central consciousness”). In its historical context, this strategy can be regarded as part of the broader modernist search for alternatives to the reigning assumptions of realist fiction: Stream-of-consciousness implicitly proposes that reality is to be discovered in its most essential manifestation in the phenomenon of perception, while at the same time in enacts a radical experiment in point of view, effectually inverting the synoptic vision of the third-person omniscient perspective employed by many 19th century novelists, in favor of the subjective outlook of the created character’s understanding. This paradigmatic version of the stream-of-consciousness technique, if not the technique itself, has been profoundly influential in the widespread appeal to what is more broadly called “psychological realism” in the years following on high modernism.
Missing from most criticism considering the devices that produce psychological depth is the acknowledgement that the impression of such depth is indeed an illusion created by the writer successfully exploiting artificial devices. It seems highly unlikely that most—if any—emulations of Mind in fiction actually resemble the phenomena of consciousness as understood by psychologists and neuroscientists. What the best psychological realism brings to the treatment of human thinking in fiction is art, the verbal artistry we should expect from novelists and poets, not some special insight into the way the brain works. Unfortunately, the moves required to invoke the illusion of a perceiving mind have become sufficiently routine through repetition that they have come to function more as shorthand than as expressions of literary art, although for this very reason writers who do manifestly bring literary art to the portrayal of a character’s internal state are perhaps all the more noteworthy. Happily, this is precisely what Mauro Javier Cardenas brings to his account of the experience of Aphasia’s harried protagonist, Antonio.
Antonio is a Colombian-American immigrant writer and database manager attempting to manage several ongoing and overlapping dilemmas in his own life. He is a divorced father of two daughters attempting to preserve a relationship with them by living in an apartment in the same building in which they and Antonio’s former wife live. Although he is trying to maintain a civil relationship with the former wife, he is also seeing a number of (mostly younger) women through a “dating service” called Your Sugar Arrangements but hoping to keep this hidden from the wife. Most stressfully, he is doing his best to avoid thinking about his mentally ill sister, who has fled the institution to which Antonio and his mother have confined her and is currently subject to arrest.
These strands, as well as others related to them—scenes of Antonio speaking to other characters, passages in which he considers other literary works he is reading—braid through and around Antonio’s consciousness, combining seamlessly together in continuous passages of unbroken paragraphs consisting of multiple phrases and clauses fused into a single sentence.
God will punish you, my mother would say, the lord said that what you inflict on your mother and father will return to you fivefold, so now you know what awaits you in life, my god what’s going to happen to me, I would say, what will I have to endure later in life, everything magnified through a child’s imagination, of course, if I’d said to my mother, for instance, I am running away from this house because I can’t stand it here anymore because my parents are unjust, and my mother would reply your words will be punished by god because a son or a daughter can’t say this to her parents, and later the night mares I would have my god what’s going to happen to happen to me, what will I have to endure. . . .
The audacity of this strategy is admirable, but more so is the way in which Cardenas is able to achieve a kind of dramatic momentum while also maintaining clarity and recognition for the reader through syntactical linkages and variations. Readers must slow down while negotiating Cardenas’s prose in Aphasia, but this serves the illusionist goal of mimicking the “flow” of Antonio’s active awareness.
Although the effect the story gains could be called realist, the effort to simulate this awareness seems almost as much a kind of convenient camouflage for an exhibition of the prose style in and for itself. The meandering sentences, approaching a conventional end point but refusing it in favor of the next turn of thought or expository element, might seem reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard, or the Garcia Marquez of The Autumn of the Patriarch, or Mathias Enard’s Zone, although Aphasia is more concentrated in its scope, less rhetorical than a Bernhardian “rant” and less dependent on narrative than Garcia Marquez and Enard (even the nested, retrospective narrative of Zone). Discursive as they are, Cardenas’s long sentences in a sense seem more crafted, more deliberately composed to signify the presence of consciousness. If writers such as Marquez and Bernhard are among the writers who first challenged not just conventional narrative form or the protocols of realism but the structural and syntactical expectations of fictional discourse itself, Cardenas is able to adapt their practice to a self-sufficient verbal strategy that uses this disrupted discourse as an available aesthetic resource.
What is most admirable about Aphasia is the way in which he does in fact execute this strategy not just for the purpose of depicting his protagonist’s stream of consciousness but to realize what turns out to be a fully developed and conventionally recognizable crisis narrative in which the protagonist faces the various causes of his crisis and in the end manages, if not a solution to all of his problems, at least a reprieve. Along the way, much is revealed about Antonio and his past, contributing to the creation of a “well-rounded” character, as at the same time we are provided an account of his present actions (principally his interactions with his former wife and daughters, but also his “arrangements” with the women from the dating app) and his ultimate reunion with his sister, who is again being treated for her mental illness. In addition to these channels of Antonio’s direct experience, the separate chapters focused on Antonio’s reading of various works of fiction (presumably as a substitute for his own current inability to write much himself) are integrated into the novel’s narrative structure, incorporated into Antonio’s ongoing reckoning with his circumstances.
Cardenas’s endeavor to create the appearance of stream-of-consciousness, then, is not simply carrying out the imperative to provide psychological depth (to “get inside” for its own sake) but is another means of accommodating the breadth of Antonio’s experience, through something other than usual formal and stylistic conventions. In short, Cardenas uses stream-of-consciousness as an aesthetic device, not as a revelation of the human mind at work. The former, I would argue, is what makes Aphasia most worth the reader’s attention, what signals to us an author taking his medium seriously as literary art, not the novelist's putative authority to probe the human mind. Indeed, to the extent that the impression of Antonio’s mind at work is largely created by the writer’s loosely joined, onrushing sentences, Aphasia could be called an exercise in style, albeit one absent the standard sort of decorative lyricism that often passes for style in American fiction.
It is through style that we come to know Antonio, even though the novel is not a first-person narrative. Being a writer, not his routinized job as a data analyst, clearly seems an essential ingredient in his sense of identity, and it is more likely that the novel’s prose is a reflection of Antonio’s own writing than a facsimile of his thought process. Such a presumption is only reinforced by those parts of the book that are not in fact representations of thought but include Antonio’s transcriptions of tapes of his mother speaking, his conversations with former girlfriends, and his reunion with his sister. These sections employ the same elongated sentences as those depicting Antonio’s solitary deliberations, indicating that Aphasia’s focus on the protagonist’s internal state provides a suitable context for Cardenas to effect the sort of prose style he favors, not the subject in service of which a prose style has been fashioned.
Rendering the internal perspective is not finally the most serious task that a work of fiction might undertake. At best it can fool us into believing we have access to a character’s inner self (and by analogy to human inwardness in general). This is not an inconsequential feat, if not the form’s raison d’etre. Even if you think that pulling off such a feat is the preeminent achievement of fiction, however, Aphasia would surely be judged a success in satisfying this goal. But in this case it would hardly suffice in acknowledging either the novel’s ambition or its value to say it is a successful work of psychological realism. Yes, we might say we are provided with a vivid portrayal of Antonio’s state of mind, but that is not really the point. What Cardenas has really done is in a sense to merge style and form so that style actually produces form, a move that is seriously impressive.
On Thalia Field
Among all writers whose work might be cited as experiments in “hybrid” writing, Thalia Field is arguably the most deserving. Her first book, Point and Line (2000), is a more or less indeterminate synthesis of fiction, essay, poetry, and drama, a fusion of genre that becomes only more pronounced in subsequent books, which also add photos and graphic illustration. Her work still seems classifiable as fiction, but to call individual pieces in her collections “stories” or her full-length work Experimental Animals (subtitled “A Reality Fiction”) a “novel” also seems inexact, if not misleading.
Without question Field’s work can also justifiably be described as “experimental,” if we understand “experiment” in fiction to be the testing of limits: How far can the effort to find alternatives to conventional practice while still retaining a place within a form’s ostensible boundaries be taken? Not only does Field challenge conceptions of conventional literary elements such as plot, character, or setting, but as well the linguistic and notational presumptions of writing itself and the customary logic of reading. In Point and Line we find arrangements of words in almost every possible configuration except sentences organized into traditional paragraphs (including one piece presented horizontally across its pages rather than vertically). Incarnate is perhaps the book that most fully crosses over into poetry (many of the reviews discussed it as “prose poetry”), while Ululu (Clown Shrapnel) most explicitly invokes theater — a performance piece that can’t really be performed.
If in these early works the author seems primarily engaged with the exploration of forms, beginning with Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010), Field’s formal variations are more directly put into the service of a single subject, treated with a fairly obvious polemical purpose. However, while all of the pieces in Bird Lover, Backyard evoke the human relationship with animals (especially birds) and often destructive interactions with the natural world, the focus on animal welfare in this book is more restrained and unobtrusive than it would become later, in some cases secondary to other, more portentous concerns, such as the legacy of American nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands in “Crossroads” or the inflated reputation of the naturalist Konrad Lorenz in “A Weedy Sonata,” which focuses on the implications in his scientific work of his documented Nazi sympathies, which have largely been ignored.
Experimental Animals (2016), an examination of the controversies surrounding vivisection in nineteenth century France, of course makes animal welfare the explicit subject, but the ingenuity with which this work is constructed allows it to avoid becoming too heavy-handed, although its sympathies with the anti-vivisectionists are clear enough. Moreover, the novel does not treat its ostensible antagonist, the celebrated French anatomist Claude Bernard, as a cartoon villain. While he is certainly haughty and self-absorbed and seems callous in his treatment of his wife (although we must keep in mind that this impression is created from his wife’s point of view, as her narration is the one completely fictionalized element of the novel’s discourse, the rest being an arranged collocation of historical documents), Bernard is not a wanton torturer of animals but a committed scientist who sincerely believes in the scientific importance of his work. His defense of experimentation on live animals is not the rationalization of a singularly cruel man but represents the collective ethical mindset of scientists (at least 19th century scientists), which Field subjects to an exacting critique without sentimentality or rhetorical manipulation.
Field’s latest book, Personhood, like Bird Lovers, Backyard a collection of shorter pieces (but like Experimental Animals with some graphical embellishment), is her most accessible, but also most transparently didactic, the two qualities undoubtedly related. The first four stories in the book especially make the thematic emphasis on animal rights unmistakable. Perhaps if we could say that in this book Field has adjusted her hybrid approach more to the formal procedures of the essay, then the polemical weight of these pieces might seem less heavy. But this is not really the case. While three of the selections (“Unseen,” “Liberty/Trees.” and “Glancing Backward”) might be described as poems, the rest, although as anchored in “reality” as Experimental Animals (one piece is an arrangement of transcripts in a legal proceeding), in their artifice and deployment of point of view are best regarded as fiction. The formal dexterity displayed does provide some welcome variation in a book with an otherwise monochrome thematic character, but it is less formally adventurous than either Point and Line or Bird Lover, Backyard.
The didactic tone of the book is set in the first story, “Hi Adam,” a second-person narrative that follows a visitor to an exotic bird sanctuary around the menagerie. Individual birds (such as Adam, who turns out to be female) become the characters in the story, as we are provided with the parrots’ direct speech and much of their backstories (how they came to be in the sanctuary). The appeals to sentiment are quite strong in this piece: we learn of parrots’ complex emotional lives and the damage done to them by living in captivity as a companion to humans — even when they are ostensibly “well-treated.” The second story, “Happy/That You Have the Body (The Mirror Test)” restages the court case concerning Happy the Elephant, whom an animal rights organization has tried to free from captivity in the Bronx Zoo by having her legally declared a person because she is self-aware, having passed the titular mirror test, and is entitled to release via a writ of habeas corpus. The narrator directly declares outright, abstracting from the legal briefs:
Yet doesn’t the very will to autonomous life grant a right not to be deprived of it? Or suffering at the hand of another confer a right to be relieved of it? Don’t inflicted damages give standing, and once standing, doesn’t a form of law evolve along with every animal who stands in the shadow of those laws?
“Turns Before the Curtain” and “True Crime/Nature Fakirs” shift the focus somewhat from animal rights to the insidious influence of human activity on the equilibrium of the natural environment more generally. The former is a kind of meditation on the phenomenon of “invasive species” cast in the form of a theatrical entertainment, although gradually this conceit recedes in favor of a serial recitation of the history of such invasions: tumbleweed, fungi, feral pigs, rabbits. In all of these cases human intervention is the ultimate source of disharmony, making humans the truly “invasive” species. “True Crime/Nature Fakirs” is a variation of sorts on this same theme, in this case taking the form of an absurdist crime story — complete with invitations to the reader to fill in some of the details — about home invasions by wild animals. “Is it possible they still thought they lived here” asks the narrator at one point, highlighting the artificial conception of “home” employed by the human species, one imposed on all other animals to constrict their own natural rights.
Both of these stories surely employ lively and innovative forms, which again gives them an aesthetic interest that could stand apart from the appeal of the subject, but if anything the uniformity of theme we continue to find in Personhood almost makes the aesthetic invention Fields genuinely displays start to pall, as it seems to be employed as a kind of ornamental contrivance meant to serve the theme but otherwise superfluous. The remaining pieces in the book to a degree modify the prevailing subject — although environmental degradation and its malign effect on animals is still the abiding concern — and ultimately Personhood really does little to detract from Thalia Field’s achievements as an innovative writer. But in this book the unorthodox formal devices seem less adventurous, made more “readable” by subordinating them more obviously to the communication of “message.” Certainly writers can find their way to innovative forms because a subject has in effect compelled unconventional treatment. However, here Field’s already well-established formal virtuosity at times seems imposed on a favored topic.
Which is not to deny that some of the pieces in the book work considerably, even powerfully, well within the more limited play of form and content Field has allowed in Personhood. “Liberty/Trees” is a hybrid Whitmanesque poem/reality fiction organized around the image of the famous Boston “liberty tree,” but it also ranges more widely to relate the story of liberty trees more generally (several other revolutionary-era communities planted trees in commemoration of the Boston tree), and riff on the fate of trees over the course of American history. Most notably, we are given the details behind the spread of the Dutch Elm Disease, which wiped out so many elm trees across the world, as well as the longer-term effects on the environment this blight helped to produce. Neither is the association of trees with liberty dropped from the story, and it concludes in bitter irony with a consideration of a lynching tree:
Men surround, again, a tree, to lose their wits
to drink their brains, to lean against the trunk
to drag a boy over, and beat a man [two names, to cross
out, to map]
a mob enjoys a picnic on the designated day
yelling, lemme see! at others
laughing. . . .
Perhaps “The Health of My Stream or The Most Pathetic Fallacy” best represents both the strengths and weaknesses of Personhood — strengths if you think that works of literature can bring descriptive and narrative specificity to a cause in a way that advances that cause beyond sloganeering, weaknesses if you note that in this piece Field’s formal idiosyncrasies have been smoothed out almost entirely, leaving only a fairly ordinary mode of fragmented narrative. The narrator of the story owns a property through which a stream flows. The narrator uses the stream for irrigation during the dry season, creating a luxurious, plant-strewn riverbank. Soon enough the narrator begins to observe the fish in the stream, deciding to intervene in the water current to create a more flourishing environment for them. This does not work out well, and the narrator learns about the well-being of streams and the dangers of human meddling with nature. The depiction of the ecology of river environments is vivid and engrossing, but, especially in a collection that takes up the same theme more or less repetitively, “The Health of My Stream” is also entirely predictable.
Experimental fiction (or poetry) ought to be predictable only in being unpredictable. Most of Thalia Field’s books have indeed been characterized by their aesthetic ingenuity and variety. She is, in fact a writer about whom it is justified to say that her work so blurs the distinction between forms and genres that it could be regarded simply as an integrated practice of “writing.” But Personhood suggests that her audacious verbal imagination has started to become merely the available instrument for promulgating an increasingly familiar message.
(This review appeared as a standalone review at The Reading Experience.)
Although we are perhaps invited to regard as the novel's protagonist the first character introduced to us in Alta Ifland's The Wife Who Wasn't--Sammy, a Santa Barbara widower whose decision to import a mail-order bride from Moldova does indirectly set off the chain of events the novel chronicles--the character soon enough blends into a much larger cast of characters who in effect vie for our attention in a series of short chapters focusing on one or, in many cases, a group of them. Indeed, Sammy turns out to be one of the less significant characters in the novel, beyond his initial decision to obtain a foreign wife, although the wife herself certainly does assume a central part in the narrative burlesque that ensues when she attempts to adjust to her new surroundings among her upscale California-style bohemian neighbors--and they unsuccessfully try to accommodate to her unexpected presence.
Yet it would not be accurate, either, to say that the wife, Tania, instead takes on the role of protagonist, the novel's title notwithstanding. Not only does she essentially disappear in the novel's final section--her ultimate fate revealed rather anticlimactically--but she really acts more as a catalyst of the increasingly absurd events that transpire than a a lead character in her own right. The introduction of both Sammy and Tania, however, does work to establish the novel's twinned satirical focus: on the pretensions of the prosperous Santa Barbara set and on the still essentially peasant ways of the Moldovans (represented by additional members of Tania's family), during the time depicted in the novel (early 1990s) only recently released from their country's postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. The first section of the novel takes place in Santa Barbara after Tania's arrival, while the second moves to Moldova for a fuller portrait of Tania's family--her mother, brother, and daughter Irina (about whose existence Sammy is initially unaware). Eventually both Irina and the brother, Serioja, manage to obtain visas and travel to America as well, causing even more turmoil in Sammy's neighborhood than did Tania by herself (although she causes quite enough on her own).
The absence of a stable center of reader identification ultimately reflects the fluidity of Ifland's treatment of the two groups and their social and cultural assumptions. Because much of the first part of the novel consists of letters Tania writes home to her mother, we are probably inclined at first to think the force of the novel's satire is directed primarily at Sammy and his cohort, with Tania's more clear-eyed perspective revealing their affectations and artificially induced attitudes. ("I've been asking around about where and how to meet other women here, and everybody advised me to go to "yoga." If you want to meet women in California, they say you have to go to yoga.") But while these characters are certainly insufferable enough, Tania and her plebeian family come to seem mercenary and acquisitive in their own boorish way, when they are not, in the case of Serioja, entirely dissolute. If the Americans are made to seem a self-important, joyless lot when set against the earthier ways of the Moldovans, their sojourn in America suggests that the latter have essentially been stripped of their dignity by the existence they were forced to endure under the Soviet occupation.
Thus, while the escalating sense of calamity this clash of cultures produces makes the story consistently compelling, we are left with a cast of characters who are also consistently unlikable, providing the reader not even the sort of fixed perspective from which to appraise the narrative situation afforded by a more conventional approach. In this decentered narrative space, we are left to drift among its various characters, all of whom can seem equally obnoxious. In its way, however, such an effect is invigorating: We are not presented with the usual of sort of corrective satire with its implicit moral instruction critiquing bad behavior; instead, The Wife Who Wasn't highlights a covetous human nature in general, depending for the sustaining of the reader's engagement not an attachment (however tenuous) to a protagonist character through whom we might get our bearings, but the maintenance of the reader's curiosity about how this culture clash will ultimately sort itself out.
Here Ifland's narrative disappoints somewhat. At the novel's conclusion some time has passed, and the Santa Barbara neighborhood is consumed in a conflagration, leaving only Sammy's house standing. Meanwhile, we have lost track of Tania and her daughter, whose reckless behavior finally goes too far and they are in effect forced to flee. We discover, but only through photos now carried around by Serioja, that the two women are in Reno, Irina a stripper and Tania a hostess in a casino. (Serioja himself has returned to Moldova and moved back in with his mother, splitting his time between drinking and mopping the floors in their apartment building.) Although it is perhaps appropriate that most of these characters are treated to something less than a flourishing future, their fates seem rather arbitrarily determined, the story simply halted and the ramifications of the encounter between the unsophisticated and the "advanced," the poor and the prosperous, muted if not obscured.
One of the novel's characters, however, does seem at the narrative's end to be thriving. Maria is a Moldovan icon artist who is first introduced to us as Irina's teacher. (Irina has artistic talent and hopes to profit from it when she reaches America.) After Irina has left to join her mother, Maria takes up with Serioja, ultimately marrying him so she can accompany him when he too embarks for America. Maria, of course, has no intention of returning home with Serioja when he quickly enough wears out his welcome with Sammy and his neighbors, and so she remains in America, almost immediately finding success both in her personal relations with other men and in her art ("her paintings sold so well that, reluctantly, she had to make some changes to her wardrobe in order to appear somewhat presentable at the numerous receptions held in her honor.") Maria resolutely pursues her own interests, but those are dedicated above all to the practice of her art. To the extent this makes her selfish, heedless of others' feelings, it is a selfishness cultivated on behalf of artistic integrity, not personal gain or social standing. Maria prizes her independence, but this is ultimately to ensure the independence of her art.
Perhaps we are to identify with Maria. It seems likely that Alta Ifland does (although no doubt there is also some satirical commentary on the American commercial art world and its eagerness to embrace "exotic" art without really understanding it). Like Maria, Ifland is an eastern European immigrant (from Romania) attempting to take advantage of the wider exposure America seems to offer the artist. In Ifland's case this also involves writing in what is essentially a third language--after Romanian and French--a challenge she meets quite impressively. Her efforts presumably resist both the temptation to unbridled opportunism exhibited by the likes of Tania and Irina and the self-satisfied, etherealized hedonism in which the faux Bohemians of Santa Barbara indulge themselves. We might regard Maria as someone capable of redeeming the offer of freedom America is supposed to extend without succumbing to the "sacred commerce" (the official philosophy of a cafe at which Tania tries to find a job) such freedom has too commonly become.
In her previous volumes of short fiction, Elegy for a Fabulous World (2009) and Death-in-a-Box (2011), seems to be a writer of lyrical tales or fables (again set both in Europe and in America). The Wife Who Wasn't certainly seems like departure from the earlier mode, not just in its satirical approach but in its greater emphasis on creating realistic characters and stronger reliance on narrative. This does not exactly make it a conventional novel, however. If the characters are realistic, it is in the sense that the their attitudes and behavior, even though they mostly provoke an unfavorable impression of them as social beings, are believable, not that they are the product of an effort to create characters that are "well-rounded" as an end in itself. The narrative is greatly refracted through the episodic alternation of perspective, putting at least as much stress on the actions related in the individual episodes as on the larger narrative progression of which they are a part. Ifland is not telling a story but several stories that also form a narrative whole.
Most of all, Ifland manages to write a satirical novel that is able to elude the usual limitations of satire. It doesn't reduce the conduct it surveys to an exercise in moral theater, and it offers a depiction of its characters' inveterate egocentrism that does not seem exaggerated but is a constitutive part of their orientation toward the world. These characters aren't so much violating social norms as demonstrating in their own way that their lack of empathy and self-restraint is all too normal.
No Apology or Cuteness: On Gil Orlovitz
(Originally appeared in Review of Uncontemporary Fiction)
To even the most well-informed readers of fiction and poetry who reached their age of literary maturity after, say, 1970, Gil Orlovitz is no doubt a mostly obscure, if not totally unknown figure. Orlovitz died in 1973—although he had achieved sufficient obscurity even by then that his body was not actually identified until several months following his passing—after a nearly 30-year career as poet, playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, and while some effort was made in the years just after his death to appreciate and preserve his achievement, in particular through a 1978 special issue of American Poetry Review, in the years since then his books disappeared from sight and his name dropped out from most discussions of postwar American literature.
In addition to pathos there is some irony in Orlovitz’s fading from view, since he became something of a ubiquitous presence in American literary magazines in the 1950s and 60s, although he never really found a place in the most prominent publications, his work generally regarded as overly “difficult” for mainstream tastes. His novels Milkbottle H (1967) and Ice Never F (1970) certainly did little to connect him more firmly to those tastes, as both were conspicuous failures, both commercially and critically, although the critical response was decidedly more positive in the U.K. and Europe, where Orlovitz established a favorable reputation as an innovative successor to the great modernists. Whether these failures significantly contributed to what appears to be a subsequent downward spiral (he had especially invested some hope in the mammoth and ambitious Milkbottle) is somewhat uncertain 50 years later, but by 1973 he was more or less down and out, when he died in what remain rather murky circumstances.
As I look at the whole of Orlovitz’s available work (Tough Poets Press has commendably republished most of the fiction, including the novels, as well as some of the poetry, although much of the latter is still essentially inaccessible after a half century of neglect), it seems to me that the contemporary writer he most closely resembles is Gilbert Sorrentino. Both writers fundamentally were poets, both loosely associated with the poetry of Pound and Williams through the Beats, and both went on to write radically iconoclastic and disruptive fiction, Sorrentino on a more sustained basis and successful enough to maintain a relatively long and productive career. Sorrentino’s fiction is more uninhibitedly comic, ultimately more unruly, than Orlovitz’s, but both Milkbottle H and Ice Never F, like Sorrentino’s novels, are full-on aesthetic deconstructions of novel form, although where Sorrentino reconfigures the form with his own skewed versions, Orlovitz comes in these two works as close to formlessness in fiction as may be possible while still maintaining a connection to the genre.
Both Sorrentino and Orlovitz in their different ways expose “form” in fiction as at best a transitory convenience, a provisional invention always subject to modification and metamorphosis, insisting that the only constant in literary art is the imaginative play of language. Thus it is indeed that fiction has its origin in the poetic impulse, although in Orlovitz’s case this means that his two novels are as idiosyncratic in their verbal manner as his poetry. A newcomer to Orlovitz’s poetry is no doubt likely to identify it as hermetic, or perhaps surreal, but further reading reveals it to be less surreal than radically informal and heterogeneous in its imagery, less self-enclosed than veiled in its personal references, invoking characters and scenes at times parallel with or abstracted from the poet’s direct experience, at others more fully displaced, closer to Orlovitz’s practices as a writer of fiction. While some of Orlovitz’s poetry could appropriately be called “lyrical,” it is a lyricism of strange juxtapositions, colloquial diction, and punning wordplay, not the usual sort of figurative expression.
The most illuminating analysis of Orlovitz’s poetic practice is an essay by Gerald Stern, part of the special section on Orlovitz in the 1978 issue of American Poetry Review. (“Miss Pink at Last: An Appreciation of Gil Orlovitz.”) Stern groups Orlovitz’s poems into three categories—lyrics, sonnets, and satires. To the extent Orlovitz is still remembered as a poet, it is probably first of all for the sonnets, although his most striking use of language is arguably in the satires. (Sterne’s use of this term may be a little too capacious to really encompass all of Orlovitz’s poems outside the lyrics and the sonnets, two categories that themselves have a good deal of overlap.) As Stern himself says, the matter of Orlovitz’s satirical poems arises not from a motivating “idea” but grows “inevitably out of the language”:
As such, there was no satirical “mask”; there was instead the haunted satire-riddled face, or voice, of Gil Orlovitz himself, nothing now standing between him and his subject. I mean myths, yes, “poetic” masks, metaphors, echoes, ditties—because he was a poet—between him and his reader, or among him and his readers, but nothing between him and his subject, no apology or cuteness.
This seems an apt characterization of Orlovitz’s writing (poetry and fiction) in general, not just the explicitly satirical poetry. The poems are indeed strongly engaged with their subjects—often framed as seemingly direct personal experiences, but even those poems employing a persona seem like pretty thinly displaced vehicles for the poet’s experience as well. However, the treatment of those subjects depends not on their inherent lyrical connections but on the verbal connections (or disconnections) the poem leaves in its unpredictable turns of language. The poem “Hymn” begins, “fivethirty a.m./the electricgenerator/started off like an immortal scream,” presenting us with a coherent if clamorous aural image, only to abruptly mix it with a discordant and somewhat grotesque visual one: “whelped in low key and smothered in thin snot/and exploded into a sickbelly throwup of fiery/eels. . . .” After a pause (the first of several caesuras in the poem), as if preparing the reader for the change in orientation and focus about to occur, the poet’s own perspective is suddenly altered: “and there was my woman/my love/outside my window. . . .” But before we can adjust to this strange development, mid-line our attention is again disrupted as the speaker avows that “god in the alleyway/went infinitely upstairs in a striped prisonsuit/of irondrunken firescapesteps. . . .”
Although we return to “my woman/my love” (who beseeches the speaker, “don’t let me die”), by the time we reach the end of this relatively short poem our contemplation of its imagery has become so thoroughly unsettled that it is indeed tempting to declare it a piece of surrealism that deliberately resists our full assimilation—or even to consider it simply incomprehensible. Perhaps we could interpret it as a species of dream—although the poem’s title seems oddly inappropriate for this sort of exercise—or, somewhat more fruitfully, that it represents the movements of the poet’s consciousness at a particularly fraught moment. But while either of these perspectives might afford a kind of cursory coherence to a poem like “Hymn,” since many of Orlovitz’s poems unfold according to similar sort of discontinuous logic (or nonlogic), it seems more applicable to say simply that his poetry consists more in self-contained flares of veiled expression than in the subordination of such expression to the broader development of a poetic “thought,” a more visible unified aesthetic construct.
Probably the most conspicuously indulged display of verbal excess in Orlovitz’s poetry is the frequent use of puns, most often in the satires, as in the very first stanza of “The Rooster”:
the rooster crows in my belly
an old hangout for the billiard cues of the morning
and table-hopping hail hail the ganglias all here
after sunset like a mouthwash last yesterlight
and the white tails of the gorillas on television
and that liberal politician stumping for twilight supremacy
down by that old
As I buttonholed the Ancient Auctioneer
how goes America going
But Orlovitz just seems to ignore any strictures against punning as a disruptive or self-indulgent gesture. His poems cultivate the disruption as another turn of language, the introduction of disparate elements to form another brief image—the politician both creating and standing beside the “shill stream”—that reinforces the poem’s reliance on adjacent figurative and imagistic verbal devices rather than continuous elaboration of thought.
The insistent punning in Orloviz’s poetry seems most reminiscent of Finnegans Wake (it and Ulysses continue to be a dominant influence on Orlovitz’s fiction as well), and perhaps the dream language of a work like this could itself be taken as a further analogue to Orlovitz’s practice as both poet and writer of fiction. Certainly the perpetual juxtaposition of disconnected images in the poems creates a background of distortion comparable to dreams, but it seems to me that Orlovitz is less interested in mimicking the unconscious mind that in reorienting the conscious mind—the reader’s. The poems ask us to not presume that the poet’s language is a representation of a recognizable reality, nor even an attempt to cloak that reality in a misrepresentation that might still be reclaimed for interpretation, but is instead a transformation of the poem into a source of reality itself, which the reader experiences through the multiplicity and incongruity of its images.
The discontinuities of Orlovitz’s writing not only undermine whatever expectation we might have that it will resolve itself into a completed thought (a thought about something outside the poem, not a concrete experience of the poem) but makes interpreting a poem’s images as potential symbols mostly fruitless and beside the point as well. Indeed, Orlovitz himself, in an essay entitled “The Ubiquitous Symbol” (What are They All Waiting For?. Tough Poets Press) tells us that “my intent is quite simple: to transmit through images the paradoxes of experienced phenomena.” However, the image “will contain the paradox of the experienced phenomenon, but it will go further: it will try to convert the experienced phenomenon into an experience itself. For me, symbols in poetry do not simply connote reality: my intent is to make the symbols pieces of reality themselves.” Orlovitz may seem to be conflating “symbol” and “image,” but what he is really doing is attempting to explicate the way in which his poems are enclosed in the poet’s digressive language, which seeks to realize the “paradox” that only the verbal turns themselves can signify.
Few writers are as radical in their determination to make language itself both the form and content of the literary work as Gil Orlovitz, in his poetry and his fiction alike. For this reason alone it is perplexing that both the poems—or at least the best of them—and a novel like Milkbottle H have so thoroughly fallen out of the collective literary memory. The latter especially remains a prodigious achievement, as notable a product of the late modern/postmodern sensibility as any written by an American novelist, even Sorrentino, Gaddis, or Pynchon. Perhaps, however, what those writers provide in addition to their formal audacity is something that Orlovitz’s work may be lacking: Each of them substitutes for the more conventional pleasures of traditional narrative fiction—familiar plot devices, recognizable types of characters—alternative formal and stylistic strategies that work to offer not “entertainment” in the most reductive sense of the term, but certainly an experience of aesthetic delight that ultimately redeems whatever “difficulty” the work at first seems to present the reader. Both Orlovitz’s poetry and his fiction may seem to some readers to cultivate difficulty for its own sake.
This impression is no doubt especially strong for the reader who takes up Milkbottle H. It was certainly the impression left with contemporaneous American reviewers, one of whom declared that “it is written in a pseudo-Joycean manner that is relentlessly monotonous, persistently garbled, unendingly devious, a manner that lacks the humor of Joyce’s that unlike Joyce’s obfuscates rather than reveals” (Carleton Miscellany, Spring 1968). This reviewer likely means by the Joyce comparison no more than that Milkbottle H is an unconventional work that lacks the usual markers of a proper novel, markers of plot and character that allow the critic to assess the work according to the usual formulas, without needing to more closely examine the actual strategies the writer might be using, or consider the effect those strategies may be designed to produce. If the critic were in fact interested in pursuing the connection to Joyce, he might have noted that the “manner” of Milkbottle H only superficially resembles the conceit structuring Finnegans Wake: Milkbottle H may indeed depart freely from the constraints of time, space, and consistency of character, but not because Orlovitz is casting his narrative as a dream. Instead, Milkbottle H treats reality as if it already possesses the mutability of dreams.\
Thus the reader is given a few ostensibly stable features consistent with most novels’ narrative trajectory—a protagonist, named Lee Emanuel, a setting, in the city of Philadelphia, certain recurring images such as the street sign that gives the novel its title—but those features do not reinforce expectations of conventional development. The novel does loosely follow the life experiences of Lee Emanuel (who is a not very heavily disguised version of Gil Orlovitz), especially focusing on his love affairs and marriages, yet the chronological displacement in the novel’s rendering of his experiences is so thoroughgoing and extreme (in a novel of over 500 pages) that even his identity at times wavers, while the other characters so frequently transmogrify into each other that ultimately it is questionable whether we should finally even identify them as specific characters at all. Given the novel’s disarticulated structure, with its seemingly random fluctuations of scene, we might regard Milkbottle H as a synoptic view of Lee Emanuel’s life all at once, blurring the distinctions of story and character that normally a work of fictions seeks to clarify.
Although the novel can seem largely formless, ultimately we could say that this formlessness contributes to a more encyclopedic kind of form. This promise of an ultimate unity of sorts, however, doesn’t quite provide a plot. Indeed, the novel’s amorphous formal quality serves it best if it deflects the reader’s interest away from the prospect of formal or narrative resolution and draws it to the execution of the discrete episodes in their acts of metamorphosis and displacement. Many of these episodes are in fact very funny, although it is true that Orlovitz is not necessarily trying to be a comic writer. (Sometimes anger seems a primary motivation.) He is instead attempting to be all-encompassing in his accounting of Lee Emanuel’s life (an effort which is supplemented by Orlovitz’s other published novel, Ice Never F, also featuring Lee as protagonist), and this necessarily involves the more embarrassing moments in Lee’s life—such as his cuckoldry, brought about by his unfaithful first wife, or an extended scene (extended in fact throughout the novel) in which Lee attempts to take a bath without letting any of the dirt that he washes off touch him again.
Lee Emanuel is not really portrayed as a foolish or hapless figure, but it would also be difficult to describe him as a “sympathetic” character, either. So fragmented and so subject to shifts in time and perspective is Lee Emanuel as presented in the novel that we can’t finally get close enough to him to really judge him at all. He is not a coherent character of the traditional sort (“flat” and “round” seem beside the point) but is mostly an artifact of the author’s insistently discontinuous method of composition. He is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic but acts as the novel’s discursive point of attraction around which its narrative transfigurations swirl. To an extent, these transfigurations do serve in their very distortions to illuminate Lee Emanuel’s experience and evoke his personality, although they are not designed first and foremost as an alternate means of creating character. Something like the opposite seems predominantly the case: Lee Emanuel, his perceptions and experiences, is the vehicle for the work’s formal and verbal variations.
Certainly Lee’s experiences include the sort that most readers would expect to find in a more conventional chronicle of the ordinary circumstances of its characters’ lives—which is essentially the focus of concern in Milkbottle H, however much that focus is prolonged beyond the scenic confines of most realistic fiction. Perhaps the most prominent of these would be Lee’s interactions with his family, especially with his parents, as well as his efforts specifically to reckon with the relatively recent death of his father. The glimpses of the parents at various stages of Lee’s life do actually provide a kind of summative account of family influence, although as with all of the other episodes depicted in the novel, it is an elliptical account that asks the reader to hold immediate meaning in abeyance, to allow that a literary work can accrue meaning through juxtaposition and contiguity rather than asserting it through linear progression. Perhaps it is here where Orlovitz’s fiction shows the greatest affinity with his poetry: It is not so much that the language of the novels is conspicuously “poetic” (although neither is the poetry itself poetic in any conventional way), but that image in the poetry and narrative time and space in the fiction are set loose from the imperative to unfold according to a sequential logic that essentially renders literary language invisible. In Orlovitz’s work, language is indeed “real.”
This attribute is also on display in Ice Never F, published after but actually written before Milkbottle H, although its structural dislocations are somewhat less radical, and thus at its briefer length Ice Never F is arguably more accessible. It also involves Lee Emanuel, as well as most of the cast of Milkbottle H. (The two extant novels seem to have been at Orlovitz’s death part of at least a trilogy set in Philadelphia and centered on the life of Lee Emanuel, but the existence of third unpublished novel in the series, while the object of rumors in the years since, currently seems uncertain.) While no conventional work of narrative fiction, Ice Never F nonetheless ventures less into the mixing of identity, and its scenes are often more fully sustained, although still sharing with Milkbottle H a paradoxical kind of narrative scheme, offering a constant flow of narration subject to incessant and unannounced time shifts covering all phases of Lee’s life (including a good deal about his childhood). Also as with Milkbottle H, the actions and events depicted in individual episodes work less as pieces of an ongoing narrative than as the parts of a larger verbal and discursive mosaic registering Lee’s presence in the world that has made him.
Perhaps Ice Never F might serve as a less intimidating introduction to Orlovitz’s fiction (in something like the way Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 has been a more compact alternative to the meganovels), but it is Milkbottle H that will be the center of attention in any widespread reconsideration of Gil Orlovitz’s achievement as a writer (if such a thing could plausibly happen). The poems certainly reward the effort to understand the aesthetic principles motivating their discordant imagery and seemingly capricious wordplay, but it seems unlikely that Orlovitz’s variety of “difficult” poetry sufficiently stands out against, say, the work of John Ashbery or the Language poets to find a place among their company. Milkbottle H, although surely an experimental novel by any definition of the term, is not exactly “postmodern”; it does not interrogate the authority of fiction as a mode of representation but seems more like an extension of the modernist aspiration to represent reality at a more fundamental level than surface realism. In this case, Orlovitz’s novel seeks to eliminate all constraints of narrative and place in the name of a more comprehensive rendition of experience. There really is nothing else in American fiction, that I can think of, at all like it.
Moldenke and His World
(Originally appeared in Big Other.)
Readers encountering David Ohle’s work for the first time through his most recent novel, The Death of a Character (2021), will indeed find the depiction promised in its title, but those familiar with Ohle’s previous books, especially his first and eventual cult favorite, Motorman (1972), will know that the character whose dying the narrative chronicles is the protagonist of that novel as well. Called simply Moldenke, he makes additional appearances in the long-delayed follow-up to Motorman, The Age of Sinatra (2004), as well as its successors, The Pisstown Chaos (2008) and The Old Reactor (2013). (In The Pisstown Chaos, Moldenke turns up as a minor character in a story focusing on others, but The Death of a Character marks the fourth time his picaresque existence has been the focus of an Ohle novel.) Moldenke has been the principal conduit to the singularly bizarre and often grotesque world Ohle invokes in his fiction, and thus his demise seems more a consummation of that world’s creation, its full achievement perhaps, than merely the portrayal of a fictional character’s death.
To some extent, however, Moldenke in this novel is not exactly the same Moldenke featured in Motorman (or each of the sequels, for that matter), which makes The Death of a Character comprehensible enough to the uninitiated reader, but also potentially conveys an incomplete impression not just of Moldenke as a character (or characters), but of the nature of what became a multi-book project expressing a vision of an alternative reality that incorporates enough fractured and rearranged pieces of our already wrecked world that it seems intelligible, if freakishly distorted. Like Moldenke himself, this reality is never quite the same from book to book, although its oddities are generally of a similar sort and the discontinuities seem part of the process of decay and instability its inhabitants experience: At some point in the future (how far or near is never quite specified), America has degenerated—perhaps with the help of an external catastrophe—into a conglomeration of what people remain, concentrated in a few scattered places in what might be the Midwest (the names of these places vary) and reduced to a fairly primitive state of existence, although some vestiges of the old technology linger (a decrepit nuclear reactor, a barely functioning mechanical “pedway”). The novels centering on Moldenke generally portray him attempting simply to survive the circumstances in which he finds himself, to evade or elude the capricious forces arrayed against him. The Pisstown Chaos is a departure from this pattern only in that these same conditions afflict the Ball family rather than Moldenke.
These forces include, in addition to the entropy besetting the remnants of a degraded culture, the explicit dictates of what passes for authority in this ramshackle civilization. This authority is at times invested in a government of sorts (mostly dominated by a single autocratic figure), but essentially it is claimed by whoever can seize it and maintained through nonsensical and arbitrary edicts and directives that ensure obedience by keeping the people as confused and unsettled as possible. (Literally unsettled: often the population is compelled to relocate or individuals are consigned to detention facilities on the flimsiest, often quite absurd, pretenses—at one point in the The Old Reactor, Moldenke is shuffled off to a prison camp for defecating in a graveyard.) Control is further reinforced in The Age of Sinatra and The Pisstown Chaos (and now in The Death of a Character as well) by the imposition of a “great forgetting,” whereby history is erased, keeping everyone in a perpetual present haunted by vestiges of the past, which are vaguely known but about which most people ultimately know nothing. In The Blast (2014), a non-Moldenke novella, nevertheless quite clearly in the same fictional milieu, the protagonist, a boy named Wencel, a student at “the only school still open,” is taught the version of history that remains available, a scrambled-up construction anchored in figures from popular culture (“the age of Sinatra,” “the age of Nerds”) and fourth-hand distortions of events surrounding the Kennedy administration. (In another class, Wencel studies “Emoticonics,” an emoticon script underlying Emo, “the language of our ancestors.”)
The Blast also comes as close to an explanation of the source of the prevailing conditions in Ohle’s fictional world as we find in his published work, or at least the conditions specifically depicted in this short novel. As its title betokens, at some point in the recent past, a terrible explosion, referred to simply as “the blast,” occurred—recently enough that some people, including Wencel’s father, have some recollection of it. It is of course tempting to conclude that this was a nuclear blast, but Ohle merely leaves this as an implication. Neither The Blast nor any of the other books could really be adequately described as post-Apocalyptic narratives. They don’t seem to depict a future world to which our own present is possibly heading so much as create a facsimile of a future that figures elements of present reality into an absurdly sorry excuse for a social order. If they are science fiction, it is a reverse-image rendition of science fiction that inverts the standard association of SF with futuristic advanced knowledge and technologies into an entropic civilization reduced to crank radios and pedal cars. One of Wencel’s teachers presents the class with a drawing representing what she believes a motor may have looked like, prompting Wencel to inquire about “flying motors”: “Like the one you drew, except in the sky?”
Although it introduces us to Moldenke, as well as other characters who will appear in subsequent books, and establishes the signature impassive tone with which Ohle’s narratives are related, Motorman offers a different, while still profoundly aberrant, sort of invented world. Here the future has become more synthetic than dilapidated, although Moldenke still encounters plenty of ruination. This world has telephones, motorcars, and electricity—Moldenke throughout the first part of the novel is menaced over the phone by a man named Bunce, whose identity and authority remain nebulous but whom Moldenke fears, nonetheless—but when Moldenke decides to leave the apartment in which he has concealed himself and to meet up with Dr. Burnheart (a beneficent counterpart to Bunce, although just as shadowy), he and we have a more sustained encounter with the deformed environment he inhabits, as a picaresque journey ensues.
Soon after he begins his journey, Moldenke contemplates his surroundings:
He sat on the seawall, chewing stonepicks, and watched the first artificial sun break apart and burn out. A slow, dry rain of white ash persisted through summerfall. By winter, a second was up, blinding to look at and almost warm enough.
It turns out that in Moldenke’s world there are a number of additional suns and moons (perhaps up to seven of the latter), which appear at irregular intervals (a steady stream of weather reports attempts to keep track, although apparently Bunce is able to manufacture the weather he wants, instructing the “weatherman” to send out the appropriate forecast.) This augmentation of climate conditions is attributed to government scientists, although its purpose—for either the government or the scientists—is never made exactly clear, but then the purpose of the government itself is not at all evident, either. As in all of the subsequent novels as well, government is something effected through whim. In Motorman, it would seem, technology has not regressed to a derelict state, but it does seem to be deployed in an indiscriminate, uncontrolled way that seems as senseless as it does sinister.
The essential absurdity of Moldenke’s reality is further manifested in his own personal circumstances. Apparently the victim of heart disease (in other of the novels he is afflicted with various digestive problems), Moldenke is the recipient of a transplant, but he has been given not one heart but four, and they are animal hearts, not human, the operations performed by the same Dr. Burnheart. Again the motivation behind this procedure remains murky—Moldenke may just be the victim of human experimentation, although he is grateful enough to Dr. Burnheart for the service. Moldenke is also a veteran of a “Mock War,” a war in name only in which one might play one’s part by “volunteering for injury,” as Moldenke does,
writing his name down on a piece of paper and dropping it into a metal box outside the semi-Colonel’s office. At morning meal the day’s injury list was read. . .When they read his name he reported to Building D, stood in line at the door. Every minute or so the line shortened by one. The mock soldier in front of Moldenke turned and said, “I’m proud that I gave for my country. He opened the fly of his trench pants and showed Moldenke a headless crank.
Fortunately for Moldenke, he is able to do his part for the cause by enduring only a fractured kneecap.
Such madness is native to Ohle’s fictive world, conveyed through the sort of deadpan expository prose characterizing a passage such as this. Ohle’s fiction accentuates narrative—description is evocative and acute, but generally concise, without forced lyricism—although formally Motorman, as well as the subsequent novels, can also be fragmented and discursive. Motorman, for example, incorporates numerous letters, both from and to Moldenke (his interlocutors tend to refer to him as “Dink” or “Dinky”), but they work either to fill in gaps in the ongoing narrative of Moldenke’s adventures or to provide suitable context. What happens (or what has happened) remains the focus of attention, even if what happens is goofy or preposterous. Ohle’s narrative manner seems most influenced by Kafka, except that where Kafka’s impassive narrator leaves an impression of foreboding and inscrutability, Ohle’s produces something closer to farce. Moldenke seems finally a type of antihero: an almost hapless figure whose senseless circumstances make us want to sympathize with his plight, while those very circumstances make it virtually impossible to conceive he might be able to overcome them.
While in the following novels featuring him as protagonist Moldenke is still a comic character (made comic by the lunacy of his surroundings), he is less purely the victim of a system uniquely subjecting him to its insanity. In The Age of Sinatra, Moldenke must again negotiate the lunacies, but their source is somewhat more identifiable in the reigning political system, headed up by one Michael Ratt, the President of what remains of the U. S. Moldenke, in fact, rather involuntarily becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Ratt, for which Moldenke is assigned complete blame by the powers that be when the plan actually succeeds. (Moldenke almost avoids punishment but comes up one “waiver” short—waivers are granted arbitrarily by the government and exempt perpetrators of crime from responsibility for their actions—when he goes before the judge, who sentences him to a prison camp, after all.) This wider focus on the visible social and political structure in which Moldenke abides perhaps removes from the follow-ups to Motorman the mixture of hilarity and disquiet that emerges in the tone of the novel as an effect of the opacity of motive and causality, but it also makes the follow-ups more than simply sequels to the first novel, attempts to re-create a “cult classic” thirty years later.
The Age of Sinatra leaves Moldenke in essentially the same position in which he found himself in Motorman, however—that is, in ambiguous circumstances and still in a state of radical uncertainty about his future well-being. The same is true of The Old Reactor, which has Moldenke sent to a prison camp that inverts our customary conception of a prison. The facility is actually an entire town, Altobello, and the prisoners are sentenced to be “free”: There is no confinement, no oversight by prison authorities, no institutional structure at all. Prisoners are literally condemned to be free—a telling comment, perhaps, on the highly regulated society outside the prison, one that would conceive of life inside such a prison as its opposite and therefore punishment. Most of the inhabitants of Altobello seem better off then they would have back in Bunkerville, the locus of the social order outside, but they have been conditioned thoroughly enough by the irrationality of that order that they can’t quite appreciate it. (The slop they have for food seems delicious to them.) Moldenke, in fact, seems to appreciate it, more than the others, but even he is concerned to get back to the house in Bunkerville he has inherited from his aunt, where he finds, after Bunkerville itself has been “liberated,” that the situation is very far from liberating.
The Death of a Character literally brings Moldenke to the end of his journey, and, to the extent we are to perceive continuity in Moldenke’s portrayal across the Moldenke saga, clearly he has found neither reward nor enlightenment. The very first paragraph succinctly evokes Moldenke’s predicament as he approaches what will be the terminal phase of his life, as well as the sort of world he now faces:
On a scorching winter afternoon, Moldenke stopped at the Dew Drop Inn for a Chinese whiskey. He’d been limping along China Way, a newly named street, wondering what to do with the remainder of his life. The sound of distant riots rattled his half-deaf ears and the air smelled of sulfur. He’d been homeless now for months, sleeping in the park with other jobless, hungry souls, spending his days in the library reading and using the toilet when it was working.
The details here give us a vivid impression of the scene and situation Moldenke confronts, but they also reiterate for readers not as familiar with either the Moldenke novels or Davie Ohle’s work as a whole some of the more predominant motifs and conceits to be found in Ohle’s fiction. We are immediately made aware of the fundamentally absurd conditions that prevail in Moldenke’s world—“a scorching winter afternoon,” one of many manifestations of arbitrary weather phenomena that plague Ohle’s characters—and the sound of the distant riots further signals the ubiquitous threat of instability that seems always present and serves for the characters as a constant source of reference (the “Pisstown Chaos”). Food and drink (usually of some very bizarre and/or repulsive variety) are a special focus of attention in Ohles’s fiction—a dissertation could be written about Ohle’s use of food in these novels as an objective correlative of cultural devolution—and some such establishment as the “Dew Drop Inn” is a focal point of communal experience. The source of authority is usually undefined and precarious, so that now when Moldenke finds himself drinking “Chinese whiskey” and traveling on “China Way,” it would seem that a more determinate sort of regime has come to be in charge.
This is indeed the case, as we discover when Moldenke enters the Dew Drop, encountering a “Chinese official lost in her own thoughts, jotting notes in a daybook.” Moldenke’s zone in dystopic quasi-America has been occupied by the Chinese—who claim it has been ceded to them voluntarily—although very little that is culturally or politically “Chinese” (not even the food) is attributed to the representatives of the Chinese administration, mostly soldiers, who interact with Moldenke and his companions. They are mostly the latest representatives of preemptory and indiscriminate power that operates in Ohle’s fiction, ultimately working to inflict gratuitous hardship. Perhaps the domination by China in this latest rendering of Ohle’s fictional landscape is inevitably a commentary on the dynamics of current geopolitical arrangements, but as with Ohle’s larger fictional project as a whole, neither forecasting the future nor critiquing the present seem the likely motivation for the details of setting or the cast of characters. The Chinese play the same role as Bunce or President Ratt or the mad religious leader, and their presence contributes to the effort to defamiliarize the iconography of an America that has mutated into a funhouse world of the writer’s own invention.
The Death of a Character also resembles Ohle’s other books in that it is a variation on the road novel. Moldenke determines to avoid the local turmoil and travel “south,” to a cabin he believes he has inherited. The bartender in the Dew Drop suggests that Moldenke take with him a “neutrodyne” named Wheaton. Neutrodynes are humanoid beings (perhaps alien, although again Ohle retains a degree of ambiguity by leaving their origins murky) that alternate in their roles in Ohle’s fiction with other similarly quasi human creatures: jellyheads, Stinkers, and necronauts. All of these groups live among the human characters, generally looked on by humans as “other” and treated accordingly (although the necronauts are also considered somewhat spooky—dead people still alive). It, too, is tempting to take such creatures as the product of human manipulation (or at least as a way of representing human tampering), the exact disaster or technology gone awry long erased through a “forgetting,” but Ohle maintains a consistent weirdness in his work by withholding explanation, here leaving the neutrodynes and jellyheads to be just weird.
Wheaton is probably the most individuated neutrodyne in Ohle’s fiction, although paradoxically he becomes a persuasive character by devoting himself to Moldenke’s service: Wheaton is “programmed” to serve human beings (the source of the programming again mysterious), and he does indeed vigilantly attend to Moldenke’s needs, from providing food to assisting with Moldenke’s less than efficient toilet habits. Wheaton appears to be without emotions, although after he and Moldenke arrive at the family cabin Wheaton meets a female neutrodyne, Darleen, who shortly after moves in with them and, in the parlance most often used in Ohle’s world, they “mate.” However, their mating also has a utilitarian purpose: it seems that neut women give birth almost immediately after becoming pregnant, and she and Wheaton begin to make babies continually, Darleen selling them to the Chinese. They do this in part to raise the money they need to keep the household functioning, but they are able to carry out this rather mercenary task because they are less subject to emotional attachment than humans.
Nevertheless, Darleen and Wheaton do manage to keep the household functioning, although, being neutrodynes, they don’t require the gratitude of either Moldenke or Bertie (a woman Wheaton and Moldenke encounter on their trip south and invite to live with them), who, being human, don’t offer it. While it certainly could not be said that neutrodynes such as Wheaton or Darleen are exemplary moral beings (as defined by human standards to be sure, and perhaps Ohle’s depiction of neutrodynes and the other non-human beings in his fiction alongside human beings and the wreckage they have made of their world has the ultimate effect of travestying those standards), they surely do emerge from The Death of a Character as more resolute and self-possessed than the human characters. As the Chinese gradually become less and less tolerant of the household’s presence on the property—they do not acknowledge Moldenke’s claim on it, but for a while allow Moldenke and company to remain in the cabin—Wheaton and Darleen, with the help of a local hunter, Ernie, who has long sustained the property in the absence of other residents, continue to provide themselves, Moldenke, and Bertie with the means of subsistence.
Bertie is a character first introduced in Motorman, where she is known as “Cock Roberta” and is nominally Moldenke’s girlfriend, even though they are rarely in each other’s company. While in The Death of a Character she does help to maintain Moldenke’s spirits enough for him to persevere for a while, Bertie doesn’t really play a memorable role in the novel, although her abrupt and entirely coincidental encounter with Moldenke as he and Wheaton are on their pedal bus trip south is one of the more absurdly amusing moments in the story:
“It’s me. You haven’t forgotten, have you? We were sweethearts? So odd to run into you after all this time.”
Moldenke turned further despite the pain in his neck. “Roberta. I remember.”
“I go by Bertie now. You don’t look well, Moldenke.”
There are strong women characters in Ohle’s fiction (Moldenke’s mother, Agnes, Ophelia Balls), but Bertie/Roberta mostly just declines along with Moldenke.
That decline structures the novel’s episodic plot. Eventually, the Chinese decide that the four occupants must leave, the cabin itself to be demolished. What’s left of Moldenke’s health begins to ebb. (“I don’t feel good,” Moldenke tells Bertie. “You’ve never felt good,” she replies. “I feel bad, then.”) In accordance with Moldenke’s wishes, before he finally succumbs the others take him to a tree and leave him in its branches. There is little dignity in Moldenke’s death—on the way to the cart for the trip to the tree, Wheaton drops Moldenke into the mud—but being placed in the tree while alive does allow him to avoid the final indignity of Wheaton’s posthumous hatred: neuts despise the dead, and are known to assault dead bodies. “Goodbye, all,” Moldenke calls out weakly, as his own funeral procession walks back to the cabin.
If Moldenke’s death seems to be in some measure an ignominious one, we must remind ourselves that what is depicted in this novel is the death of a character, a character whose fictional life has indeed been extended now over multiple installments over a wide expanse of time, thus perhaps indeed bestowing on him (for both readers and the author) more “life” than a typical protagonist. Readers of all four of the Moldenke books likely would find his death especially meaningful—although that it verges on the farcical will likely not come as a shock or surprise. In this way, at least, The Death of a Character leaves an impression of Moldenke and his world entirely consistent with and representative of their importance in Ohle’s fiction as a whole. Still, the Moldenke books play their part in the formation of that larger work, and thus it would be worth readers’ time to read not only Motorman as well as its direct spin-offs featuring Moldenke, but all of Ohle’s published work—including City Moon (2018), ostensibly a compilation of the issues of a satirical newspaper published for a number of years in Lawrence, Kansas that Ohle co-edited, but that in its remodeled, collage-like form still integrates well with the more conventionally composed novels and novellas to help evoke his surpassingly strange fictional world. Fifty years after the appearance of Motorman, the strangeness only seems all the more believable.
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