This review originally appeared in the Kenyon Review Online.
The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is subtitled “The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft,” and is offered to us as a letter putatively written by Lovecraft a few days before his death, along with an introduction by the man who claims to have found it (“Gabriel Blackwell”), a series of annotations, and a few extended endnotes. Although readers could certainly find this “novel” successful and satisfying on its own, reading it in tandem with Blackwell’s previous novel, Shadow Man (2012) may help clarify the aesthetic assumptions behind both. Considering the two books together confirms that what otherwise seems in each a kind of clever mimicry of genre conventions or of a particular writer’s prose style is really just the most visible manifestation of a more deliberate and comprehensive literary strategy. This strategy could loosely be described as one of “appropriation,” but in Blackwell’s fiction the simple act of appropriating other writers and their work is not finally the ultimate aim. Instead, these writers provide the material with which Blackwell creates new work using recognizable elements of fiction, even if what results still begins with what others have already written.
The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men’s most impressive achievement is its persuasive impersonation of Lovecraft’s style, complete with Lovecraft’s signature stylistic effects: the breathless cadences, melodramatic descriptions, and often stilted diction. Here “Lovecraft” describes a man he encounters in a hospital waiting room:
My neighbor turned to me as I sat, looking at me full in the face, though rather more at my forehead than at my eyes. I would have ventured some conversation were it not at that moment his mouth dropped open, and, expecting something to come out, I stayed silent. When nothing did and I had realized that nothing was likely to, enough of an interval had passed that it seemed wrong somehow to speak, and so I did not, trying to turn away but feeling his glare. Shortly, a kind of low, whining ululation began to emanate from the man’s throat, neither building nor lessening in volume. Nervous, I scrabbled about in my pockets, to no purpose at all. The second nurse suddenly appeared on my right side and gently pulled my arm, signaling that I ought to go with her. I was only too glad to do so . . .
Likewise, in Shadow Man, Blackwell channels the hard-bitten, wised-up prose style of classic detective fiction in authoring a “biography” of Lewis Miles Archer, purportedly the real-life detective on which Dashiell Hammett’s “Miles Archer” was based (himself a character to whom Ross McDonald’s “Lew Archer” was subsequently a clear homage). Both Hammett and Raymond Chandler make appearances in this account, and much of the plot concerns people and events that readers of Chandler’s The Big Sleep will immediately recognize. (Ultimately we are to believe that Archer is the prototype of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.)
If a common complaint about “experimental fiction” is that it too readily turns its back on the traditional readerly pleasures provided by narrative, voice, and character, both of these novels parry this objection by providing plenty of each. Shadow Man features the same sort of labyrinthine plot found in Chandler’s fiction, which appeals through its very complications and sudden twists, while Natural Dissolution adds to the horror narrative embedded in the Lovecraft letter another narrative strand relating the circumstances by which the letter came into Gabriel Blackwell’s possession. This narrative emerges through the annotations to the letter, and eventually the two stories almost merge, each of them a story of “dissolution”—Lovecraft’s into the hallucinations preceding his death (induced no doubt by the undiagnosed cancer that killed him), Blackwell’s into ennui and debilitation after his girlfriend leaves him. Thus not only does The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men highlight story, but reinforces its centrality by drawing the reader’s attention to the parallels between its twin narratives.
Clearly, however, Blackwell’s storytelling is still not an ordinary kind of storytelling, concerned as it seems to be with reiterating existing styles, narrative practices, and even characters. This approach involves an inherent risk: Although Blackwell’s simulations of a Chandler novel and a Lovecraft tale are very skillfully realized, and part of the enjoyment of reading is in appreciating his rendering of Lovecraft’s prose style and his reproduction of the typical features of a Lovecraft story, readers who have not read much, if any, of Lovecraft’s fiction will necessarily be less able to experience the full effect of Blackwell’s performance. The fictional narrative taking up most of the Lovecraft letter has enough of the menacing, metaphysical horror and quasi-psychedelic imagery characteristic of Lovecraft’s better stories that even these uninitiated readers can still find the story of H.P. Lovecraft’s disintegration compelling, especially in its increasing resonance with Gabriel Blackwell’s descent into his own hellish circumstances, both of them becoming the story of “fleeting-improvised-men.” Nevertheless, the risk that readers who are familiar with Lovecraft’s work will inevitably be more aware both of Blackwell’s strategy and his accomplishment in creatively appropriating that work is one Blackwell is venturesome enough to take.
Both Shadow Man and Natural Dissolution are appropriations of genre fiction, and one might say that Blackwell has taken the tendency among some contemporary writers to incorporate elements of genre to a literal and logical extreme, exhibiting a relationship to genre conventions that goes beyond homage or assimilation and might even be called parasitical. While surely Blackwell is an admirer of the genres (and authors) from which his novels borrow, neither work is really very far from parody or satire. This tongue-in-cheek tone is part of what makes these novels appealing, and the distance it creates between the invented narrative and its underlying source prevents them from becoming versions of “fan fiction.” Ultimately, neither book toys with the elements of genre per se, or with the specific conventions of detective and horror fiction, so much as they use these particular genres to create a fictional world, second-hand, out of fiction, to fashion alternative forms of storytelling from the shards of conventional storytelling.
In this way, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men could certainly be called a work of “metafiction”; if anything, it is more radically “fiction about fiction” than the work of those first identified as writers of metafiction—Barth, Sorrentino, et al. Self-reflexivity as practiced by these writers was meant to disrupt the reader’s suspension of disbelief, reminding us we are reading fiction, with all of its artificial devices. Blackwell’s novel doesn’t ask us to be mindful of the distinction between fiction and reality. Instead it invites us into a fictional creation we already know to be blatantly artificial. However much “the last letter of H.P. Lovecraft” is framed through circumstances meant to vouch for its authenticity, and despite the quasi-scholarly tone of the introduction, no readers are likely to assume the letter is real and thus to accept the accompanying account of the hardships faced by “Gabriel Blackwell” as anything other than an invention. One could say that The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men asks the reader to suspend the inclination to believe—that what we are reading could at some fundamental level “really happen,” or that the experiences related must in some way reflect the author’s own.
In explaining his own turn to metafiction, John Barth invoked what he called “the literature of exhaustion,” a kind of fiction that proceeded on the assumption that the received conventions of fiction had been “used up” and that the task facing the adventurous writer was to find a way to create something new out of the very “exhaustion” of fiction’s traditional resources. Barth himself did this by always reminding the reader that the imperatives of storytelling are not the imperatives of life, that the former should not be constrained by the latter. Gabriel Blackwell accepts this task as well, perhaps even taking its potential a step farther, a step toward his own version of what John Barth also called the “literature of replenishment.” Shadow Man and The Natural Dissolution of Fleeing-Improvised-Men pretend to give up on the possibility of telling new stories in fiction and instead recycle elements of “old” fiction—but in the process, paradoxically they produce something new, after all.