Although Robert Lopez's Kamby Bolongo Mean River (2009) received no reviews from the mainstream print media, the reviews it did receive from online publications and literary journals were unanimously fervent in their praise of the novel. Lauded for its formal daring, its "carefully crafted" prose, and its forthright depiction of mental instability, Kamby Bolongo was welcomed as an innovative work that fulfilled its experimental ambitions.
That a novel perceived as unconventional would be applauded in this way is on the one hand an encouraging sign that a receptive audience (among reviewers and other writers, at least) for such work does exist. On the other hand, that this novel in particular was so highly admired for its putatively innovative qualities suggests to me that the reviewers might have been rewarding good intentions over actual achievement, the promise of an unconventional approach over the real thing. (And indeed it is rare enough that a novel that truly challenges reigning practices gets published.) If not, I have to conclude that these reviewers are simply giving too much credit to a novel that is more derivative than it is original, too easily translated into aesthetically conservative terms.
Most of the reviews cite Beckett as an influence on Lopez's fiction, and, superficially at least, the situation portrayed in Kamby Bolongo Mean River does resemble those in works like Malone Dies or The Unnamable. But this is Beckett-lite, a catatonic version of Beckett's stories of isolation and despair in which the unnamed protagonist lies in what seems to be a hospital bed, sometimes masturbates (as he repeatedly tells us) and sometimes answers the phone (or imagines himself doing so). Beyond the repetitious notations of his surroundings, the narrator also seems to reminisce about his childhood--seems, because we can't be sure that anything we're told is more than a delusion, a strangely patterned fever dream. The son of a single mother with a sibling named Charlie, the narrator almost manages to explain his current circumstances by recalling the past--he was apparently sickly, often lost in make-believe, etc--but doesn't really quite. The dilemma he is in must remain murky and ambiguous, but ultimately it's hard to care whether the narrative situation gets resolved or not, or whether the narrator is actually as damaged as we are led to believe, so insubstantial does it all seem. It's a performance of isolation and injury, not the rendering of these conditions in language that makes them feel credibly present.
The language the narrator does use is mostly without affect, given over to the neutral recording of the narrator's circumscribed activities and perceptions and the equally spare details of his childhood. The repetitions of phrases and images gives the narrative voice an obsessive-compulsive quality that produces stylistic coherence, although finally the voice is anything but dynamic. One reviewer described it as "a deceptively simple voice that beguiles the reader with its awkward usages, and it quickly engenders sympathy with the narrator for having such a limited descriptor set" (The Quarterly Conversation) but it doesn't seem to me that Lopez is trying to elicit reader sympathy, at least not directly. Both the "awkward usages" and the obsessive vocabulary reflect the character's state of mind. As far as I can tell, the novel exists as an attempt to reveal an impaired state of mind, an afflicted consciousness. In other words, it is ultimately a recognizable manifestation of "psychological realism," however unorthodox its surface features might be. In attending to his words, with its "limited descriptor set," we are exploring the protagonist's "mind," since it seems almost as if it is only through these words that he arises to consciousness in the first place.
The narrator himself discounts the role of words, remarking of his phone conversations that "when I listen I don't listen for the words. I listen for what is between the words and behind them. The way you do this is listen to how the voice sounds." The problem with this as a clue to reading the "words" of Kamby Bologno Mean River is that there is no "what is between the words and behind them." Whatever we learn about this character and his condition we learn through the words. Inferring more than what the "voice" says is pointless; we could read into the narrator's account any amount of further speculation, both about his life story and the context of its relation, but this sort of speculation would only result in the reader writing his/her own version of the novel. The narrator's language is our access to his mental life, which is really the only life he has. Capturing the reality of this is the novel's primary effect. To call him an "unreliable narrator" would be equally pointless. Determining what is true or what is false about his account, besides being a fruitless task, presumes there is some truth outside of the narrator's faltering discourse. I can see no reason, and no purpose, in holding on to this presumption.
And it is with the disposition of language that comparisons between Lopez and Beckett seem most inapt. Consider the following passage from Kamby Bolongo:
Someone asks you what you are doing and you say nothing.
I am almost always doing nothing it seems. It hasn't always been like this but it has been for as long as I can remember.
Charlie is always doing nothing whenever I talk to him on the telephone. I will call him up and ask what are you doing Charlie and he will say nothing like that. This is not another reason I feel sorry for Charlie because has always liked doing nothing.
Beckett, using a similar motif (from Malone Dies):
I don't like those gull's eyes. They remind me of an old shipwreck. I forget which. I know it is a small thing. But I am easily frightened now. I know those little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until thay drag you down into its dark. But I am on my guard now.
The first is superficial, reiterative wordplay. (More like it occurs throughout the novel.) There is wordplay in Beckett, but it is never superficial. Malone isn't fooling around with the "nothing" that is "real." It's about to drag him down into its dark. In Kamby Balongo Mean River, language is a passive mirror of the character's misfortune. In Malone Dies, it is the active agent of the character's attempt to validate his existence, to shed some final light, however dim and indirect, on the fact of his life and death. One can't imagine Beckett settling for Lopez's sort of facile mimicry of a diminished consciousness.
To the extent that experimental fiction simply reinforces through means other than conventional storytelling the notion that fiction's ambition should still properly be to achieve a kind of verisimilitude--the verisimilitude of psychological states--it's not accomplishing much. It's true that modern experimentalism began in the efforts of writers like Joyce and Woolf to take fiction inward, but their focus on subjective perception has long since become conventionalized as well. Beckett's fiction represents one of the first notable attempts to advance beyond psychological realism, but Kamby Bolongo Mean River doesn't use Beckett's example as motivation to exceed it. It faintly echoes Beckett's manner while otherwise it defers to the objectives pursued by every other "literary" novelist.