Jim Gauer

Jim Gauer's Novel Explosives (Zerogram Press, 2016) seems at first to be an almost paradigmatic example of a "meganovel,” exemplifying in its approach LeClair’s description of the "art of excess." It is a 700-page behemoth (its length made even more daunting by its generally very long paragraphs) that tells what initially presents itself as a quite complex story requiring multiple points of view, a fractured narrative--although the story takes place over the course of a week, we begin at the end of the week, go back to the beginning, and are subsequently presented alternating episodes from beginning, middle, and end--and a style that is uninhibited, to say the least, in both its syntactical overabundance and its often arcane vocabulary. Quite clearly as well, it intends to take on the heftiest and most far-reaching of themes: the nature of human identity, insatiable greed, the corruption of social and cultural norms of decency.

Yet finally the novel seems not so much a complex response to what has become a complex reality, but a sustained embellishment of a relatively simple--if at times disturbing--story of the intersection of financial chicanery and the drug trade and a relentless enhancement of the details and circumstances of that story with endlessly proliferating information, often deliberately esoteric. The outrageousness of this strategy, whereby, for example a few minutes of a character's time is extended for pages while we are told about the physics underlying the situation or the technological developments contributing to the plot turn underway, can be rather entertaining in itself, but, while Pynchon and DeLillo preceded Gauer in creating information-saturated narratives, their novels seemed to be attempting to reveal how perceptible reality was increasingly conditioned by the sometimes imperceptible forces (political, technological, historical) flowing together in the formation of modernity. Novel Explosives seems content simply to add mathematical and scientific explanations to its ongoing narrative actions, slowing those actions down at the same time they act as a kind of reinforcement of the novel's realism rather than an interrogation of it.

And, indeed, ultimately this is an intensely realistic novel, deeply immersing us in the milieu of each of its settings: a town in Mexico where the novel begins with a man who has forgotten who he is (but not what he knows) and how he came to be in the town; the world of megacapitalism inhabited by an unnamed "venture capitalist" (later he is referred to as "Douchebag" by those who are pursing him), who turns out to be the amnesiac to whom we are first introduced; and the world (underworld, perhaps more accurately) in which move a pair of criminal enforcers employed by an American drug overlord, whose activities bring together predatory capitalism and the drug trade, the latter obviously being portrayed as an extreme but logical extension of the former. One of the enforcers, Raymond, arguably becomes the novel's protagonist when he begins to rebel against the orders given to him by his employer, exhibiting a moral conscience the other characters lack. We are able to appreciate Raymond's change of heart, however, mostly because we have been so relentlessly exposed to the pervasive moral rot polluting the environment in which he finds himself, which by extension reflects the corruption of the larger socioeconomic system that makes it possible.

Novel Explosives comes closer to being a species of satire than the kind of postmodern pastiche we might associated with Pynchon or DeLillo. Certainly the novel makes its share of metafictional gestures—starting with its title, which refers literally to a kind of advanced explosive but which also clearly enough alludes to the novel we are reading, with its attempt to “explode” the narrative and stylistic expectations some readers might bring to it--and while this contributes to its predominantly comic tone, in effect adding its own representational objectives to the array of potential satirical targets, it doesn't finally negate those objectives. Surely few people could read Novel Explosives without concluding that the author intends it to draw attention to the corruption and criminality it highlights so that we can be aware, at least, of the scope of the problem we face if we hope to combat it. Indeed, it might be said that the novel goes beyond satire to become more straightforwardly a critique of capitalism in its 21st century variety, a critique given more immediate force through its realization in the form of a postmodern novel.

But then this appropriation of the postmodern novel of excess for its rhetorical convenience--adding it as a kind of elaborate supplement to an otherwise polemical narrative--makes it something less (or other) than an postmodern novel, since Pynchon and DeLillo are not satirists, except to the extent that satire might be a indirect and secondary effect of their more radically incongruous and unsettling portrayals of an enigmatic and often impenetrable reality. Thus it would be both unfair and ultimately inaccurate to say that Novel Explosives is derivative of the work of these earlier writers. While to a degree a novel like this would not be possible without the prior example of Pynchon and De Lillo (as well as Gaddis and McElroy), we could say that those writers have enabled Gauer in his endeavor to write a complex, large-scale novel whose complexity is mostly a surface complexity that supports the novel's ultimate representational ambition: to amplify the characters and their circumstances as much as possible, but in order to enhance the verisimilitude of the depictions. Postmodern fiction questions the capacity of language to fully achieve verisimilitude; Novel Explosives does not manifest such skepticism, even if it must extend the resources of language almost to the bursting point to achieve its goal.

Still, it is in its invocation of language that this novel is most impressive. If its style could be called excessive, it is excessive in the most audacious and frequently entertaining way. If the sentences and paragraphs are elongated and labyrinthine, it is not because of the author's lack of control but because he maintains such measured control that they can be trusted to do their work. The Venture Capitalist celebrates his success in that vocation:

We should, at this point, probably take our seats; the salads have arrived, and the wine is being poured, and with our market cap now hovering above $10 billion, and plenty of oxygen trapped in the ever-expanding market bubble, death by live burial would seem to be out of order. We're starting with an ethereal Corton-Charlemagne, a $500 white from the Burgundy region, which is about as far from Bahr al Gazal as you can possibly get, a wine that in my understated Elicit Networks tasting notes is "all but inevitable" and "brilliantly executed" and "seemingly so accidental but so richly deserved," though to be perfectly honest, let's not kid ourselves, no one in Silicon Valley, much less North Dallas, really gives a shit about ethereal Burgundies, since they're more about earthy poetry, and epiphanic moments, than power and elegance, measured in fruit-pounds of torque, and Parker, rather famously, no longer bothers to even taste them.

The tone of this passage, a kind of mock sincerity, typifies the style of the novel as a whole, but especially the sections narrated by the Venture Capitalist. Although ultimately the style flags in the last third of the novel, this is as at least as much because the narrative itself has been stretched beyond its capacity to sustain interest in its resolution, not because the prose itself wears out its welcome.

Novel Explosives is certainly by far more interesting than most of what gets published by prominent publishers, even prominent independent publishers, as "literary fiction." However, the novel too nearly seems to treat the "postmodern novel" as itself a genre to be adopted for me to fully embrace it. Most readers would find it a less intimidating work than its size might suggest, but in a way that is also the source of my disappointment with it.


Joshua Cohen

Readers who shied away from Joshua Cohen’s 2010 novel, Witz, because of its daunting length (over 800 pages) and presumed difficulty would probably find his follow-up novel, Book of Numbers, rather less intimidating and more accessible, if not exactly an airport book. At a mere 600 pages it is still bulky enough, and while its prose is not quite as dense and its narrative not quite as opaque as in Witz, it hardly represents an embrace of conventional formal strategies. Few readers are likely to regard it as a work of mainstream “literary fiction.”

It is really only as compared with Witz, and to a lesser extent Cohen’s first novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, that Book of Numbers seems more restrained, more reader-friendly. Witz may or may not be an entirely successful novel, but it is surely a novel like no other before it. It could be described as a kind of postapocalyptic narrative, although it is closer to satire or absurdist farce than to dystopian fable. The premise is certainly outrageous enough: A plague whose origins and method of transmission are never explained wipes out all Jews on earth except, at least temporarily, first-born sons. This leaves Benjamin Israelien, the firstborn son (with twelve sisters) of an upper-middle-class family from New Jersey, alive to face the realities of the new world, which not long after the plague has done its work becomes entirely Jewless except for Ben, who somehow survives the additional extinction of remaining Jews.

Benjamin, born just shortly before the plague hits, but born fully grown (complete with beard and glasses), comes to be exploited as the Last Jew on Earth, and he flees from those who would turn him into a marketing device in a country that, now without real Jews, becomes obsessed with them, experiencing mass conversions to the ways of the “Affiliated” (the word used throughout the novel in place of “Jew”). Benjamin sets out on a picaresque journey during which he encounters many strange people and traverses a surrealistic landscape that, while ostensibly more Jewish in its customs and culture, increasingly alienates Benjamin Israelien, the actually living Jew. The journey ends with Benjamin in Polandland, where those who refuse to be affiliated are sent and “leisured to death,” the Holocaust transformed into a theme park death camp.

The wholesale rejection of the assimilationist narrative that dominates American Jewish fiction is palpable in the novel’s narrative excess and burlesque atmosphere, the latter of which is accomplished through Cohen’s signature prose style, which combines qualities of the stand-up comedian, vernacular Jewish-American speech, and Talmudic commentaries. It is at times (perhaps most of the time) just as excessive as the novel’s extravagant plot developments:

We have been taught thusly that a knock, a rap, an application of the hand, of the knuckles, the palm, is variable with intent, that a knock must spend itself in only one of two ways, depending; and so we have two interpretations, one to each fist, united in purpose; whereas some scholars say, a knock ends when the hand breaks contact with the struck surface, other scholars hold that it’s when the sound of its striking is rendered imperceptible, when it’s said to die — physics and the acoustics aside, this is philosophy, what’s meant is the appreciation of senses. But this knock is strange; it’s as if the fist or all the world’s fists at once are metamorphosing into the door, and without any breaking, any cracking, or splinter, in a knock that’s forever a knock, a massed hand of hands exploring the surface, the lifespan of entry, though others hold that the hand of God outstretched and strongarmed only strikes quickly, then removes itself, retracts into its own power and infinite mercy, and that the sound then lives, not reverberates, that the knock sounds in a single wave throughout the structure of the house, the solo stroke transmitting itself in full to the foundations on up to the roof and quaking with light, undiminished — the entire house knocked upon, this house of total door. . . .

Beyond the novel’s mammoth scale and outlandish narrative, ultimately this profuse prose is the novel’s most essential feature, creating a fictional world shaped and misshaped by its loopy eloquence and careening rhythms. Witz is a thoroughly unconventional, audacious novel, most emphatically so in its style, which shows Joshua Cohen to be a writer who rejects the notion that less is more, instead affirming the proposition that more is more.

This principle is at work in Book of Numbers as well, although as with the novel’s plot and premise, its style is also more muted than that of Witz. Initially presented as a memoir — or notes toward a memoir — written by “Joshua Cohen,” a failed novelist whose first and only novel was doomed to eternal disregard when it was published on September 10, 2001, eventually it becomes the story of his ill-fated collaboration with a second Joshua Cohen, “the Joshua Cohen I’m always mistaken for . . . The man whose business has ruined my business, whose pleasure has ruined my pleasure, whose name has obliviated my own.” This JC is the billionaire founder of “Tetration,” a high-tech company clearly modeled on Google, and the largest part of the novel relates the history of this company — and by association the history of the Internet — through the transcripts of the interviews for a ghost-written memoir that Joshua Cohen conducts with Joshua Cohen (the latter referred to by the former as the “Principal”). The project ultimately runs afoul of a Wikileaks-like organization that wants to disclose the contents of the interviews because of Principal’s revelations about his company’s cooperation with the U.S. government in its surveillance activities.

In the expository passages of the novel’s first pages, the narrator Joshua Cohen provides a relatively straightforward account of his circumstances (not altogether happy), although his language is far from rhetorically plain, as when he describes the writing of the novel whose failure has left him scrambling for a career:

I’d worried for months, fretted for years, checked thesauri and dictionaries for other verbs I could do, I’d paced. I couldn’t sleep or wake, fantasized best, worst, and average case scenarios. Working on a book had been like being pregnant, or like planning an invasion of Poland. To write it I’d taken a parttime job in a bookstore I’d taken off from my parttime job in the bookstore, I’d lived cheaply in Ridgewood and avoided my friends. I’d been avoided by friends, procrastinated by spending noons at the Battery squatting alone on a boulder across from a beautiful young paleskinned blackhaired mother rocking a stroller back and forth with a fetish boot while she read a book I pretended was mine, hoping that her baby stayed sleeping forever or at least until I’d finish the thing its mother was reading — I’d been finishing it forever — I’d just finished it, I’d just finished and handed it in.

But it is when the narrator gives the story over to his namesake and the chronicle of the rise of Tetration from shoestring tech start-up to worldwide digital dominance that Joshua Cohen (the author) again affirms the centrality of language, of the role of uninhibited language in defining the aesthetic character of his fiction. In a typical passage relating his experiences, Principal explains: “We flamed the PARCy with emails, as like other avatars, as like the same avatars but registered with other services, batchelor but now @prodigy, cuddlemaven but now @Genie. We even went trolling for him among the dossy BBSes and subscribed to leetish listservs and wrote posts or comments or whatever they were called then to autogenerate and hex all the sysops down.” Much of Principal’s story is told in this way, not only revealing how thoroughly Cohen has acquainted himself with the jargon of computer systems but also allowing him to evoke the world this character inhabits, which has increasingly become the world the rest of us have been compelled to inhabit. This language thus becomes the novel’s method of achieving a kind of verisimilitude — it is faithful to present reality — but as well works to estrange us from that reality, although it might be the case that such estrangement is actually inherent in the rapidly attained global hegemony of cyber media.

The reader in effect is put in the same position toward the novel’s depicted world — to the extent that it is portrayed as essentially incomprehensible, anti-human — as the protagonist is toward his own life, alienated as he is from his marriage and his career. In some ways, the protagonist of Book of Numbers is a recognizable schlemiel-type character, his story that of his own bad luck and ineptitude, the reader left to decide which is the more accurate characterization. The contrast with the successful Joshua Cohen is, of course, stark, and although we eventually learn that Principal is dying of cancer, we are never really provided a proper death scene and at the end of the novel he has become a kind of mythical figure, his dead body purportedly discovered all over the world, while our protagonist Joshua Cohen returns to New Jersey and moves in with his mother.

If Book of Numbers, while far from a conventional narrative, turns out to meet ordinary expectations of what a novel should look like more readily than Witz, both of these novels defy the moderate norms of “literary fiction.” Most immediately, they might be seen as extensions of what the critic Thomas LeClair has called “the art of excess,” the most recent in the line of largescale, overdetermined novels written during the past 40 years by American writers that include such works as Gravity’s RainbowJR, several books by Don DeLillo, and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But while they each certainly well enough fit LeClair’s general description of the “massive novel” (or “meganovel”) that is “profoundly informed, inventively crafted, and cunningly rhetorical,” neither Witz nor Book of Numbers is quite “excessive” in the way LeClair has in mind when further identifying these earlier works as “systems” novels, novels that “represent and intellectually master the power systems they exist within and are about” (The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction, 1989). They don’t so much attempt to incorporate elements of the “power systems they exist within” as part of their representational strategies (as, for example, Pynchon does with ecological systems in Gravity’s Rainbow) as remain content to be “about” the systems they examine.

Witz, despite its gargantuan scale, could be identified as an allegorical satire, a form of social criticism the excesses of which increase the amplitude of the critique but don’t really transform the traditional purpose of this sort of literary discourse or subvert assumptions about the nature of representation in fiction. Indeed, ultimately the narrative depends upon the assumption that it concerns a unitary “subject” worthy of such critique and reinforces the belief that a fictional narrative can be discreet and linear, even as it meanders through a grotesque, irreal landscape. Book of Numbers is more static, fragmented, and metafictional, but its more conspicuous postmodern devices are still employed to accomplish a unitary purpose in advancing a cautionary tale about the hazards of the Internet Age (a purpose that is further underscored by the allegorical parallels suggested by the novel’s title, with Principal’s group of bohemian tech geeks — led by a troubled genius named “Moe” — taking on the symbolic status of the Israelites wandering in the desert, seeking the Promised Land). Of course, Book of Numbers concerns itself with a “system” — probably the most influential and all-encompassing system whose effects we now encounter — but again the novel is squarely “about” this system, an account of its depredations of a kind that doesn’t really ask us to reconceive the novel as a literary form.

This does not lessen Joshua Cohen’s achievement in either of these novels, indicating merely that he uses “excess” as a literary strategy to serve his own ends. Although clearly enough Cohen has been influenced by Pynchon and DeLillo, Coover and Barth (as well as Stanley Elkin and, in his more stylistically baroque phases, Philip Roth), this influence is expressed as a more generalized preference for an augmented scope and an inclination to transgress presumed limits. Certainly Cohen’s novels are formally unorthodox, but his most transgressive practice is stylistic. Reading both Witz and Book of Numbers, but especially the former, one either becomes ensnared by Cohen’s immoderate prose (and his abundant sense of humor) or literally just finds it all too much. Book of Numbers arguably subsumes some of the verbal energy to the greater clarity of plot and theme the novel provides, but while this might make it somewhat less formidable, for me at least (paradoxically, perhaps) it also to that degree makes it that much less satisfying.

 


Joshua Ferris

For all of the ambivalence it seems to provoke in many readers and critics, the American fiction of the 1960s and 1970s (with scattered precursors in the 1950s and and a few lingering appearances in the 1980s) that probably will  now permanently be called "postmodern" continues to make its influence felt. Whether one should speak of this influence as a shadow cast over current writers or as an enduring light that still inspires through its brilliant illumination is perhaps a point of dispute, depending on one's view both of the legacy of postmodernism and the state of current fiction, but even writers who resolutely hew to the conventional can only do so because they consciously reject the legacy of experiment in fiction initiated by the modernists and quite self-consciously extended by the postmodernists. I would maintain that very little serious fiction published in the last thirty years could be said to be free of the effects of this legacy, either through the concerted attempt to evade it or through the direct inspiration many writers find in the work of numerous postmodernists.

The first and most notable group of writers to directly respond to the perceived excesses of postmodernism--although the term itself was not yet then in use--were the minimalists, in particular Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, whose early work in its pared-down style and lack of affect was extensively discussed as the antithesis of the stylistic overflow and formal profusion (maximalism rather than minimalism) of postmodern fiction. If these writers and those they influenced returned to realism of a sort, their stories offered a portrayal of ordinary reality every bit as mundane and colorless as the avoidance of it by the posmodernists seemed to imply it was. Later, more regressive realists such as Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, and Richard Russo adopted a more fully conventional kind of realism, but it is very hard to imagine these writers would initially have been taken very seriously had not the minimalist neorealism of Beattie and Carver first established itself as a credible practice by which to "move on" from postmodernism. By now the work of such writers has become so conventional in approach that it represents a full-scale retreat to the assumptions of 19th century realism, but finally the very fact that this sort of backwards-looking fiction persists in spite of the modernist/postmodernist legacy gives it its ultimate significance as a steadfast refusal to "experiment" with alternatives to traditional narrative.

"Experimental" as a term for categorizing works of fiction that embrace this legacy may have become contentious (mostly because of its association with the laboratory), but certainly words such as "unconventional" and "innovative" are still privileged in the literary discourse surrounding new fiction, especially the discourse used by the editors of literary magazines, whose calls for submissions routinely use the words to describe the sort of fiction they'd like to publish, even when a perusal of the fiction they actually publish reveals it to be entirely orthodox in both form and style. Clearly the postmodern attempt to make fiction more aesthetically audacious has had a lasting effect in giving terms like these an increased honorific value, but it is certainly questionable whether those now using them really understand them in quite the same way as such truly innovative writers as Donald Barthelme or Gilbert Sorrentino might have understood them.

There are of course writers whose work directly shows the influence of the first-wave postmodernists, writers such as Jonathan Lethem or George Saunders, although the influence results more in echoes and resemblances between their fiction and that of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon than in the inspiration to create something comparably new. The same is true of Joshua Ferris, whose first novel, Then We Came to the End, elicited many comparisons to Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller. This novel is especially reminiscent of Heller's Something Happened, but finally it seems more an updating of the previous novel, transferring its vision of American corporate life to the current, hipper milieu of an advertising office, than an attempt to extend the possibilities of the kind of "black humor" fiction Heller's novels most cogently exemplified. It uses the model provided by a once-audacious approach and adapts it to much less adventurous purposes.

The "humor" in Something Happened is itself of a different sort than in Catch-22, less vaudevillian if no less disquieting, produced by the half-terrorized tone of its narration by protagonist Bob Slocum. Of course, its mode of narration is the most remarked-on feature of discussions of Then We Came to the End as well, its own mode of humor created through the use of a 1st-person collective narrator who certainly also expresses a great deal of anxiety that is uneasily humorous. But while both of these books could be called comic novels, the comedy of Something Happened could be called existential, the comedy of a successful, if ordinary, man struggling with his realization that he doesn't understand his life, that life itself frightens him more than anything else. Bob Slocum's way of relating this struggle, combining hysteria with brutal honesty, both makes us laugh aloud and cringe in recognition of our shared fate.

Then We Came to the End, however, is closer to social satire, its collective narration a way of observing the internet age office workplace, a version of Mike Judge's Office Space focusing on corporate "creatives" rather than directly on high tech drudges. The narrator provides the story just enough subjective flavoring, a way of registering the characters' own perspective on their circumstances, to give the novel a source of interest beyond the implicit commentary on economic arrangements under "late capitalism," but ultimately the anxiety caused by internal competition, negotiating a hierarchical structure that pretends not to be such, and coping with the dislocations caused by an economy in seemingly perpetual recession is all on the surface, felt by the narrator and all the employees he/she represents as an obstacle to happiness as job satisfaction, not as a fundamental affliction of the soul. Heller's novel uses the workplace setting to stage one man's struggle to find the meaning of existence. Ferris uses it to dramatize the perils of the postindustrial economy.

Ferris's second novel, The Unnamed, at first appears to move away from the social observation of Then We Came to the End and to indeed focus on the existential crisis experienced by its main character, although finally we can't be entirely sure exactly what has caused protagonist Tim Farnsworth's affliction, an uncontrollable impulse to walk, often for hours and days at a time. Is it a physical (i.e., neurological) impairment? A psychological disorder? An imperfectly repressed desire to escape his prototypical middle-class existence? Whatever the diagnosis, Farnsworth's condition results in a great deal of suffering indeed, both for himself and his family, suffering not redeemed by the novel's decidedly unhappy ending.

That the novel does not answer these questions for us is one of its strengths, but surely the last one is a question the novel tempts, and to the extent The Unnamed emphasizes Farnsworth's implicit revolt against a settled life and adult responsibilities, it, like Ferris's first novel, does seem at least partly intended as social commentary, although in this case there is really very little laughter in the protagonist's dilemma, except in the sense that it is certainly a very strange one. The novel's title suggests the influence of Beckett, but where Beckett, in both his fiction and his plays, employs a seemingly allegorical structure ultimately to empty allegory of its purported meaning, in The Unnamed Ferris leaves the possible allegorical meaning of Farnsworth's grim fate as the novel's primary source of interest, since formally it is the sort of extended picaresque narrative the subject almost necessarily entails (in fact extended well past its usefulness in illustrating Farnsworth's plight), and since neither Farnsworth nor any of the other characters really have much intrinsic interest beyond their role as the victims of these inexplicable circumstances.

In his most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris again changes tack, almost as if seeking to engage aesthetic elements neglected in the first two books. Thus it employs a first-person narration that at times appeals through strength of voice in a way comparable to Then We Came to the End but also works to evoke character and emotion more directly than the quasi-objective narration of the previous novel is able to do. The narrator protagonist of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the most distinctly drawn character in Ferris's fiction so far, even while most readers are likely at best to have an ambivalent response to him (at worst to actively dislike him). The immediacy created by his first-person account inevitably pulls us toward greater sympathy, but the narrator himself does little to ingratiate himself and is in fact quite honest in communicating his frequent petulance and describing his poor treatment of other people, especially those who work for him. (The protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist.)  

This tension between O'Rourke's generally quite frank and colorful narration and what that narration reveals about him for a while works fairly well to maintain the reader's interest in his further development, in the outcome of whatever actions he comes to take. O'Rourke is not so self-obsessed that he can't give us equally lively portrayals of the secondary characters as well, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour over perhaps the first half of the novel is compelling enough using relatively conventional appeals to character (vivid, if not exactly "well-rounded") and narrative voice. (It has some novelty appeal as well, since there aren't very many works of fiction narrated by a dentist.) When the novel's plot starts to become more apparent, however, these virtues quickly get buried by a virtually inert story about an online stalker who has somehow hacked into O'Rourke's online accounts and assumed his identity, his subsequent attempts to track down the stalker, and a semi-mythical religious sect devoted to the denial of God's existence, a living descendant of which O'Rourke is purported to be.

Much of the novel's second half is thus structured as a mystery plot--first about the identity of the stalker, subsequently about the existence of the religious sect--but the mystery is so closely tied to O'Rourke's own inveterate atheism, endless talk about which eventually preoccupies his narrative, that by the time the purpose of the stalker's attention becomes clear one hardly cares. The intrigue surrounding the "Ulm," supposedly a lost tribe traceable to the Amalekites of the Bible, seems indebted to DeLillo (particularly The Names), but it retains none of the enigmatic resonance of DeLillo's invocation of ancient mystery; instead, Ferris uses the Ulm and their beliefs to straightforwardly "say something" about faith and doubt, flattening out O'Rourke as a character and reducing the novel to a symposium on religious belief in the process.

What begins as a comic novel of the sort in which comedy arises from our response to an abrasive, antiheroic character (exemplified by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint or Sabbath's Theater) becomes instead a story of that character's metamorphosis or redemption. Perhaps we are to find additional humor in the fact that Paul O'Rourke's apparent conversion at the end of the novel is to a "faith" that affirms a faith in nonbelief, but by then O'Rourke has lost the very peevishness that gives him life as a character, so that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour in effect winds up taking away with its right narrative hand what it had previously given us with its left.  If at first O'Rourke presents himself as a contrarian with heterodox views and a prickly personality, at the novel's conclusion he has become duly chastened, finding solidarity with a reconstituted Ulm community in Israel, where he "never had to be lonely again."

If in the end Paul O'Rourke has tempered his own excesses, smoothed over the rough edges in both his personality and worldview, arguably Joshua Ferris in all three of his novels to date has done the same thing in their relationship to first-wave postmodern fiction. He has taken the narrative strategies, the character types, and the black humor we can find in the work of the earlier writers and employed them to much less provocative effect. These books are reminiscent enough of the work of Heller or DeLillo that we want to associate them with this earlier period in American fiction as its possible continuation, except that the three novels ultimately provide a blanched-out version of the iconoclastic spirit shared by those writers, a version made safe for social satire and"quirky" narratives that represents a limited view of the usable legacy of postmodern practices considered collectively. While The Unnamed lingers in the reading memory because of the extremity of the character's circumstances, and both Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour can be called, at least in part, entertaining enough to read, ultimately they together demonstrate that the postmodern legacy has to be one whose claimants attempt to exceed it, to make it seem conservative by comparison, not to do it homage through an admittedly skilled kind of impersonation.


Eimear McBride

Contemporary fiction has so thoroughly returned to observing convention in prose style and storytelling that a novel imitating less conventional strategies used by writers a hundred years ago is hailed as “radical.” This is the only explanation I can understand for the rapturous reception accorded Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing when it was published in Ireland and the U.K. In many ways this is a perfectly good novel that to a degree does challenge complacent reading habits, but it hardly seems necessary in order to acknowledge its achievement to declare it a daring experiment (“experimental” was a word used frequently by reviewers), nor to assert it is “a book that is not like any other,” as one reviewer put it. Such hyperbole does the book a disservice, setting up exalted expectations it can’t meet and ultimately obscuring the very influences the reader should be familiar with to genuinely appreciate what McBride has attempted.

To judge by the kind of fiction that receives serious attention in the most prominent review spaces, it would seem that the era in contemporary fiction in which formally and stylistically adventurous writers genuinely challenged the preeminence of social and psychological realism not only has passed, but that it was some kind of aberration with little lasting influence, as writers get back to “normal” fiction. Although a few surviving writers associated with this era such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo still receive considerable attention, this comes at a time when arguably their work has itself become more conventional, even repetitive, and thus easier to accommodate to a change in critical taste that otherwise can regard their earlier work as “classic” postmodernism belonging safely to the past. Younger writers who might be considered experimental or innovative — that is, truly experimental, not simply retooling previous innovative strategies to make them more reader-friendly — are routinely ignored in mainstream book reviews except when their books might have cautionary value as freakish exercises of a kind real writers would do best to avoid.

Certainly upon beginning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, readers will not find the usual sort of expository prose recent literary fiction has conditioned us to expect. However, only readers unfamiliar with the work of Joyce, Woolf, or Proust could conclude that these initial pages introduce an unprecedented, revelatory technique:

    Walking up corridors up the stairs. Are you alright? Will you sit, he says. No. I want, she says. I want to see my son. Smell of dettol through her skin. Mops diamond floor tiles all as strong. All the burn your eyes out if you had some. Her heart going pat. Going dum dum dum.

This is, of course, a variant of the “stream-of-consciousness” strategy as practiced by such writers as Joyce and Dorothy Richardson, itself the most radical development of the modernist pursuit of psychological realism. The move toward probing interior states found in the fiction of Woolf or Henry James is what initially makes modernist fiction seem “difficult,” although later versions of modernism did go beyond what is now called “free indirect discourse” in exploring alternatives to conventional storytelling.

Storytelling in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is done entirely through the use of the stream-of consciousness method,, as we are plunged “deep” into the mind of its protagonist, who is depicted from her childhood to college, a period bracketed by the trauma of her brother’s early brain cancer and the trauma of its return and his subsequent death. In between, the protagonist undergoes other traumas, most horribly sexual abuse by her uncle. While the protagonist’s experiences are not related to us in a typically dramatic way through conventional prose, nevertheless the novel’s unorthodox narrative strategy gets the story told rather efficiently, as the reader becomes accustomed soon enough to the psychological shorthand that is the essence of stream-of-consciousness style.

That McBride skillfully uses this style to relate her disturbing but ultimately somewhat familiar story of the maturation and sexual experiences of a young girl, albeit in this case inflected by the depiction of familial abuse, is the best measure of the novel’s success, but this hardly makes McBride’s use of the style in the first place an act of originality or daring. Perhaps we can say she uses it skillfully enough that it produces effects that would not have been possible with a more conventional style of narration, including a more conventional mode of free indirect discourse. Perhaps we can say that the use of stream-of-consciousness in this novel does create a kind of intimacy with the young protagonist, whose reactions to her often harrowing experiences are recorded with a particularly affecting immediacy. In this way, it is a novel whose “content” can be realized only through this particular narrative strategy, and the kind of language the strategy requires. But does it really diminish the novel’s actual accomplishment to characterize it as an adroit adaptation of an already existing technique to create an aesthetically satisfying work of fiction rather than exaggerate or mislead by describing it as an innovation?

If the prose style we encounter in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is initially resistant to our usual expectations, it acquires its own kind of clarity in advancing the narrative:

    The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you. Wave and wave of it hormone over. Like hot flush cold splash down my neck. Spilt with new thoughts, troublesome that is and things that always must be said. Spill it out. Spill it down.

    Where’s that father? Mine? Who belonged to was part of me? I think of. Where is he? Imagination of fathers sitting by me on the bed. Stroking my hair you’re my girl, belong to me pet. I have heard of seen those things somewhere on the telly. And I say will you ever tell me what he said about daughters before I was born?

The purpose of these paragraphs in marking the passage of time is fully clear, as is the description of the travails of adolescence. If “hot flush cold splash” seems motivated more for the effect of verbal modulation (hot/cold, flush/splash) than for its accurate rendering of a young girl’s consciousness, nonetheless the effect of this passage is to create an alternative cadence that carries the reader along as effectively as ordinary expository prose, and works to build an empathy with the character that goes beyond either straightforward 3rd- or 1st-person narration in its evocation of her longing for her absent father. Only a reader who refuses to consider alternatives at all to the usual expectations could continue to find McBride’s approach difficult or confusing.

The “you” addressed by the girl throughout the novel is her brother, which on the one hand brings additional unity to the narrative mode McBride has chosen, but also introduces a complicating factor in considering the conceptual integrity of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The suggestion that she is in some sense talking to her dead brother raises the possibility that what often seems like an extemporaneous, fragmentary account of the girl’s immediate experience is actually her own retrospective narration of her past, an act of memory. But if she is indeed recalling her past, then the stream-of-consciousness effect is muted, if not negated altogether. What we have instead is a transmogrified 1st-person narrative that seems to mimic the stream-of-consciousness technique, but whose rationale remains unclear. It is implausible that she would be in the process of remembering her entire life story, and even if she were, would she really be doing so in this kind of broken discourse, which is ultimately just as artificial, just as “literary,” as any other stylistic device? From this perspective, the narrative is not related through stream-of-consciousness at all but directly by the protagonist, in a fashion that finally could seem improbably contrived.

No doubt most readers will simply accept McBride’s narrative strategy as giving us access to the narrator/protagonist’s way of internally processing events, even if that strategy is logically incoherent. Indeed, if A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing ultimately provides a compelling reading experience and the impression of authenticity in its portrayal of its main character’s difficult young life, do the technical features of its storytelling really even matter? Perhaps not, but neither should a novel that simply recasts what was at one time a truly radical departure from the literary norm as a variation on a familiar practice be regarded as an artistic breakthrough. This is an adept enough novel on its own terms that it shouldn’t be represented in other, unsuitable terms that distort both the novel and the literary history to which it properly belongs.


Rikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet’s novels published in the 21st century (so far Gazelle (2003, Netsuke (2011), and Brightfellow (2016) have discernibly evolved away from the more purely fabular kind of fiction—often veering into the surreal or fantastic—that characterized her previous work, toward more naturalistic settings and more recognizably “lifelike” characters. Although these later novels are by no means conventionally crafted “literary fiction,” they draw less noticeably on the structures and iconography of fairy tales and fables than the novels for which Ducornet initially became known, especially the “elements” tetralogy, The Stain (1984), Entering Fire (1986), The Fountains of Neptune (1989), and The Jade Cabinet (1993). The recognizable motifs introduced in the earlier books recur in these later ones, but they are now not tied directly to the more imaginatively colorful contexts in which they initially appeared.

These three novels seem as well more directly autobiographical in choice of character and setting, as if only after invoking the “monstrous and the marvelous,” as the title of her 1999 collection of essays has it, through emphatically invented worlds could Ducornet then turn to the monstrous and the marvelous in the actual world of experience. The early novels were, of course, ultimately grounded in experience, both personal to the author—the settings were greatly influenced by Ducornet’s residence in a small French village, for example—and the very real human experience of wonder, cruelty, loss, and desire. In them, however, Durcornet chose to render human experience through undisguised fabulation, creating vivid characters who are nevertheless “flat” according to the prevailing assumptions of “depth” in characterization that inform most contemporary fiction. Ducornet’s fiction is intensely concerned with the effects of psychological impulses and states of mind, but these manifest themselves in the tropes, images, and external action of her stories, which perform acts of imagination rather than laboriously simulate consciousness.

Ducornet’s characteristic exercise of imagination has perhaps most frequently been described as a form of surrealism, and indeed her pervasive invocation of dreams and dreamlike situations certainly associated Durcornet’s work with surrealism in its original incarnation (not simply as the general purpose term for literary works that don’t strictly adhere to the protocols of realism it has largely become). But Ducornet’s surrealist narratives do more than incorporate hallucinatory imagery or uncanny events, although both are often featured. Instead they seamlessly integrate these elements within the formal conventions of folk and fairy tales, revealing not least the extent to which such stories themselves are inherently surreal in the way they draw on elemental fears and desires, and depict human experience in stark contrasts and distorted perspectives. Ducornet’s fictions offer distinct oppositions (good/evil, innocence/experience) that allow for occasionally extravagant plot devices, and if novels like The Stain and The Jade Cabinet draw extensively on the allegorical resources of the fairy tale (as do the stories collected in The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1980/1994) and 1997’s The Word “Desire”), the aura of dream they induce also works to modify their allegorical content, suggesting a larger encompassing meaning but in its altered reality also partially concealing it.

The dreamlike element has been muted in GazelleNetsuke, and Brightfellow, although the reality depicted in each is far from ordinary, the characters engaged in extreme behaviors that are not so far removed from those depicted in the earlier novels. The stories take place in mid-20th century Cairo, a current-day psychiatrist’s office and a college campus during the 1950s rather than “Dreamland” (as Phosphor in Dreamland (1995) explicitly identifies what in effect is the setting of all of Ducornet’s previous fiction), but both the often destructive latent impulses and the potentially liberating possibilities made visible in dream worlds continue to be manifest in the characters, situations, and formal assumptions of Ducornet’s most recent novels. Characters persist in being confused about the nature of their own desires, acting on them in heedless and hurtful ways, seeking to control and exploit others as a means of coping with a flawed sense of themselves and their place in the world. At the same time, wonder and beauty also exist, available to those willing to accept it, free of self-interest and the urge to possess.

Netsuke was a further departure from Ducornet’s usual practice in that its protagonist is an adult (a middle-aged verging on elderly adult at that), although the psychoanalyst whose account of his own sexual exploitation of his patients (and concurrent mistreatment of his wife) is the focus of the novel certainly well represents the Ducornet character type who, through an apparent inability to become properly attuned to the influences of desire behaves at best in a manner indifferent to the needs and well-being of others (and in the case of the psychoanalyst, that is ultimately self-destructive as well). More often the protagonist is young, if not a child (as in Gazelle) then a youth on the cusp of maturity. Brightfellow is more in keeping with Ducornet’s characteristic depiction of a youthful perspective on the world the character inhabits, featuring a young man of 19 whose “world” is mostly restricted to a college campus, where he is a ghostlike presence after he leaves his troubled home and takes residence there, successfully occupying its nooks and crannies and avoiding discovery.

Given access to the college library, the young man, who is identified simply as “Stub,” begins to read the works of an obscure anthropologist (and former professor at the college), an endeavor that pays off handsomely when one day Stub encounters an elderly man he presumes to be a retired professor and to avoid exposure claims he is an Australian student on a Fullbright scholarship studying the papers of this anthropologist, Verner Vanderloon. The professor, who insists that Stub call him “Billy,” invites Stub to live with him for what Billy assumes will be the duration of his visit as an exchange student. Stub, adopting the pseudonym “Charter Chase,” accepts, and for a while he flourishes in his new environment, cultivating with Billy what is obviously the most substantive human relationship Stub has ever experienced. In the meantime, however, Charter also develops a fascination with a young girl named Asthma, a fascination that quickly enough moves from heartfelt to creepy.

As a character, Stub/Charter seems most reminiscent of Nicholas, protagonist of The Fountains of Neptune, even though in that novel Nicholas is portrayed first as a nine year-old boy and then as a much older man who has awakened from the coma into which he fell after a near-drowning, a sleep lasting 50 years. Essentially each of these novels is a coming of age story (a favored narrative mode for Ducornet). Nicholas must cope with the emotional and psychological impulses of a pre-adolescent boy as he tries to catch up to his 60 year-old body; he has missed the maturation period that Stub is going through and must struggle to compensate. But where Nicholas finally succeeds in reconciling his mind/body split, Stub’s passage to maturity is blocked by his own emotional impairment. Eventually Stub begins to fear his masquerade is about to be revealed, but even more devastating is his disillusionment withAsthma when he finds her engaging in activity inconsistent with his romanticized vision of her. One day he sees her playing with her friend, Pea Pod:

. . .He sees Asthma slap Pea Pod across the face with such force Pea Pod stumbles and falls, vanishing as if swallowed by the floor—only to rise and fly at Asthma and, like a wild thing released from its cage, bite her arm.

Charter turns away. Repulsed and despairing, he falls to his knees, his hands held to his ringing ears. . .He has seen something primal, grotesque. He has seen two little girls transformed into harpies before his eyes.

Not long afterward, Stub sees Asthma and Pea Pod again, but to him it is as if “he has seen the end of time. . . severed from what he has come to count on, what he has come to know.” Feeling “solitary now in new and expected ways,” Stub takes his leave of Billy and proceeds to set Asthma’s house on fire, pausing only long enough to watch Asthma leap from her bedroom window and become caught in a tree before he walks away from the campus and makes his way through the woods to an isolated house that turns out to be the house of Verner Vanderloon. The novel ends on Stub’s acceptance of Vanderloon’s invitation to spend the night. “And in the morning you will be telling me just what it is you’re wanting,” Vanderloon says.

The novel’s conclusion is sudden and disconcerting. It doesn’t work only if you believe it isn’t consistent with Stub’s character as presented in the rest of the novel, but his actions force us to reflect on our response to Stub until these moments. Initially we are no doubt inclined to sympathize with him, considering the circumstances of his childhood related in the first chapters: abusive and neglectful mother, bitterly resentful father, Stub constrained to act on his own resources at an early age. When Stub takes up residence on campus (the descriptions of which seem to directly reflect Ducornet’s own experience growing up as the daughter of a professor at Bard College) and shows his skill in surviving despite his utter isolation, many readers are likely to admire him, to be rooting for him to overcome the obstacles that life has so arbitrarily put in his way. Even when he assumes his false identity and begins to take advantage of Billy’s goodwill, we might feel that, however much Stub is engaging in deception, his attempts to better himself through self-education have been real and Billy is benefitting from Stub’s companionship as much as Stub benefits from the momentary stability Billy has provided. Moreover, that Stub comes to feel a genuine attachment to Billy seems undeniable.

Perhaps it is even possible to regard Stubb’s infatuation with Asthma, at least at first, as a sincere appreciation of her childhood innocence (leavened by her cheekier qualities, as she is not always entirely respectful, especially toward Stub, to whom she has given the nickname, “Brightfellow”). But long before Stub releases his barely suppressed yearning in a literal conflagration (which must also be called an act of attempted murder), it is apparent something has gone awry in his psychic development, that his emotional wiring has become seriously crossed. If we are not quite prepared for him to lash out in such a deadly way, it finally should not really be a surprise that Stub’s idyll would come to be spoiled, most likely by his own actions. Still, the novel’s resolution is disturbing (a quality that should not be unfamiliar to long-time Ducornet readers), not least because Stub’s story is presumably still unresolved, or at least resolved only to continue, slightly revised in a different setting.

But this conclusion might provoke us not just to consider what lies ahead for Stub but also return to our initial view of him as an infant, left alone and playing on a linoleum floor: “He doesn’t know how beautiful he is,” the narrator tells us. “He doesn’t know he’s lonely and that his fear is not of his own making, that it will haunt him for the rest of his life. It will impede him years from now—twist and turn him just as an incessant wind twists and turns a tree—just as it will in unexpected ways nourish him. Yes: it will both nourish and impede him. And this is a terrible thing. How can he undo such a tangle?”

Since we have not yet been given illustration of the source of Stub’s fear, or just what makes such fear “a terrible thing,” it might be easy to take this lament as just part of an expository invocation, a lyrical flourish designed to suggest a kind of generic innocence, but Ducornet has actually provided the solution to the final mystery of Stub’s behavior at the beginning. The fear is not simply the fear of being abandoned or mistreated (both of which he suffers nonetheless), but a fear, bred from the inherent hostility he absorbs from his surroundings, of fully asserting the sort of allegiance to imagination we find him expressing as a child, as “the linoleum swells with stories” he is inventing. Consequently, his orientation to the world, to his own experience of the world, is warped, along with his relationships to other people. “At home his isolation deepens,” we are told just before Stub leaves it for his new existence lurking in the shadows of the campus. “But instead of dying, his affections are displaced.”

Those displaced affections find their ultimate displacement when Stub meets Asthma. In the solitude he has been unable to escape, his conception of beauty and wonder has not advanced beyond the childish versions he acquired while entertaining himself on the linoleum. Finally Stub’s interest in Asthma is not really sexual (although no doubt his post-pubescent libido has a role in coloring his interest), but instead he has idealized her from an infantilized perspective (probably reflecting Stub’s forced separation from Jenny, his live-in babysitter) that demands reality conform to Stub’s imagined perfection. One could say that Stub’s assumption of an invented identity is also a manifestation of his impaired sense of the role of imagination, an attempt to bring his spectral reality into actual existence through an act of make-believe.

But the primordial fear has indeed nourished Stub as well. If his presence in the world is askew, he is also undeniably resourceful, curious, and self-reliant. He skulks behind the façade of the college and its campus because he could never really participate in the routine, if often hypocritical and tawdry, life he observes on and around it. For better or worse, he is different, more alert and alive than those around him who are otherwise privileged to lead a “normal” life. Finally Stub is a character whose spirit has accommodated both the monstrous and the marvelous, so much so that they threaten to become indistinguishable. This makes him one of Rikki Ducornet’s most compelling characters, and the reason why Brightfellow leaves such a lingering impression.


Joanna Ruocco

In 1979, Robert Scholes published Fabulation and Metafiction, in retrospect perhaps the work of literary criticism most influential in shaping our perspective on “postmodern” or “experimental” fiction from the 1960s and ’70s. The fiction of this period, according to Scholes, systematically swerves away from realism toward the more elemental mode of fabulation, inspired literally by the fable rather than by modern realism and intent on “telling such truths as fiction may legitimately tell in ways which are appropriately fictional,” unafraid of imaginative distortion or outright fantasy. Although Scholes saw fabulation and metafiction as linked, twin sides of the same experimental coin (indeed, he defines “metafiction” as “experimental fabulation”), the experimental impulse in American fiction has subsequently found expression separately in these two modes.

“Metafiction” as practiced by such writers as John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino highlights the artificiality of traditional narrative, implicitly appealing to the “ingenuity of the fabulation” (as Scholes puts it) in substituting its own artifice for the traditional artifice of “story” (in Barth’s case attempting to renew narrative by exploiting its “exhaustion”). While this sort of self-reflexivity has continued to be common and appears even in more mainstream fiction, in the past fifteen to twenty years there has been among many avowedly experimental writers a conspicuous turn instead to a purer kind of fabulation. Whether the surrealistic fairy tales of Aimee Bender, the satirical parables of George Saunders, or the science fiction–tinged magical realism of Kelly Link, to name just three of the more prominent such writers, this sort of narrative, non-realist but still leaning on plot, has most consistently claimed the legacy of the kind of experimental fiction Scholes identified.

Among those writers devoting themselves to the fabulative mode clearly would have to be included Joanna Ruocco. Her most recent novel, Dan, is set in the fictional village named in the title, which itself seems to exist somewhere aslant reality as we know it, occupying a place on the border between the almost plausible and the mostly dreamlike. The characters in the novel likewise are at once both recognizably human and figures from the simplified world of the fable, including the protagonist, Melba Zuzzo, who on the one hand resembles the innocent maiden of a fairy tale, but on the other reacts to the dangers she encounters with a kind of incomprehension not so much expressing fear as a kind of confusion, as if she thinks her own inability to understand is to blame: her apprehensions arise not from the perception that her world is menacing, but from the possibility that it might be meaningless.

The novel follows Melba over the course of a day in Dan. While this day certainly proves to be an eventful one for Melba, those events are framed less as Melba’s story than as its dissolution, the ultimate denial of further development in her “character arc.” Melba’s experience bitterly answers the question posed at the novel’s beginning:

            Melba Zuzzo stood in the yard chewing tiredly on several pieces of gum. The day had barely started, and, as soon as it was over, another day was bound to begin. When would it end?

The novel’s conclusion suggests that it ends, both literally and figuratively, with Dan’s final words, and not just for the reader. As the narrative of Melba’s day proceeds, it quickly comes to seem that Melba has a fragile sense of herself and her place in Dan, indeed a very shaky grasp on the concept of existence itself—as reflected in a recalled conversation with her teacher Mr. Sack, to whom she declares, “I have a problem. . . I just can’t figure out what time is made of.”

            If it feels to Melba that time “must be like a kind of jelly,” as she further suggests, that is because Dan is in part the sort of provincial, backwater town in which life does indeed move slowly and in established patterns. But those patterns, while routinized, are off-kilter, seemingly normal to Melba and the inhabitants of Dan but odd and arbitrary from the reader’s perspective. Details of this skewed world emerge with deadpan regularity:

     Melba had looked around her mother’s kitchen. For years, snails had been wearing runnels in the floorboards, and in these runnels, Melba could see several dozen snails in transit. . . .

     Mr. Sack, the history and phrenology teacher, did not believe in text books. Instead, he distributed modeling clay, which the students used to shape the noses of 19th century naval heroes. . . .

     “You’re not like the other children, Melba,” said Gigi Zuzzo. “You react poorly to elastics. Whenever you are given a piece of elastic your nose begins to bleed. I blame factors from your birth. Namely, your abnormally long umbilical cord.”

            Melba herself simply accepts the weirdness of her world, but she is nevertheless dissatisfied with what she perceives as the underlying uniformity of her existence. “You’re right,” she says in a conversation with one of the inhabitants of Dan:

"I’m always waiting. It’s because I’m confused about what’s happening. Life can’t possibly be just what’s happening right now. Then you’d be right, it would be just the two of us in the cold street, talking. This would be the whole thing. It’s only waiting that makes it more than that. I’d say remembering too, but you can’t trust memories."

Despite Melba’s reservations about the reliability of memory, the story of her day is structured precisely as a narrative of “waiting,” her experience of Dan’s all-too-familiar presence alternating with moments in which she is seized by an episode of “remembering,” usually prompted by something she observes. Like Melba, we readers wait to see what she will encounter next, what we will come to understand about this peculiar place in which she lives, although never does it really seem that we are in the midst of a conventionally developing “plot.”

            Melba’s plaint that “Life can’t possibly be just what’s happening right now” certainly puts her in conflict with the prevailing attitude in Dan, however, whose people do indeed seem wholly oriented to the present, so much so that the past seems swathed in the sort of cloudiness that hovers over the mountains surrounding the town, most disturbingly illustrated in the case of those people Melba recalls simply vanishing, a phenomenon the citizens of Dan have apparently taken in stride, provoking little curiosity or concern among them. Indeed, Melba’s references to these events and her clear resistance to the general complacency otherwise characteristic of Dan make her an object of suspicion. This suspicion and impatience is filtered mostly through the men she meets in the course of her activities (although she is castigated for her shortcomings most vociferously by her own mother), introducing the possibility that Melba’s status in Dan is especially precarious because she’s a woman.

            Certainly it is tempting to regard Dan as a novel employing  the allegorical or symbolic mode that can perhaps be taken as partly a feminist fable. Not only does the narrative conjure the atmosphere and attributes of a clearly make-believe world, a large part of this effect is achieved by Ruocco’s deliberately artless prose, its simple, straightforward diction and emphasis on declarative sentences without much figurative ornamentation. It is language that mimics the manner of a fairy tale, as if the primary effect of Melba’s experience of Dan has been to infantilize her, as evoked by the ingenuousness with which the third-person narrator conveys Melba’s awareness. Yet Dan has infantilized everyone who lives there, or at least lulled them into accepting existing conditions, however puzzling or arbitrary, as essentially inescapable. (Indeed, “the only way to leave is to go nowhere,” Melba is told.) At the novel’s end, we find Melba laid out on an examining table, exposed perhaps to some final degradation at the behest of Dan’s male authority. Yet the details of this final scene are typically enigmatic, and the scene might just as easily be interpreted as a kind of metafictional apotheosis: “The paper on this table is just like the paper I used for my drawing,” Melba declares. In the last view we have of her, “She felt the paper moving beneath her, and she lay very still on top of it, not saying anything, not moving at all,” as if Melba is being imprinted on the paper, returning her to the domain of artistic creation from which she came.

            It is difficult to say that by the novel’s conclusion Melba has found the “meaning” she desires. As well, the meaning of Joanna Ruocco’s fabulist novel is elusive, dispersed and deflected through its surreal imagery and motifs. A story with all the markings of an allegorical fable, it is closer to the kind of fabulation Scholes identifies in the work of Donald Barthelme, in which an apparent symbol really “symbolizes symbolism, reducing it to absurdity.” If Ruocco’s fiction doesn’t quite exhibit the formal or stylistic audacity of Barthelme’s, it does similarly compel us to register its motifs and images in their immediate and literal manifestation (in, as it were, their denotative state), without subordinating them to an external representational or symbolic order where they find their true significance. Ultimately Dan fails to deliver the kind of clear-cut moral traditionally associated with a fable, but this failure is actually a measure of its success.


Melanie Rae Thon

If Melanie Rae Thon is a writer less widely read than might be expected, given her skill in creating vivid characters and evoking an equally vivid sense of place, among the reasons for this would surely be the sheer intensity of her work, which can at times seem unremitting, even claustrophobic. Not only does she typically focus on distressed characters often facing the direst circumstances, but her compressed yet urgent prose so insistently attempts to encompass these characters and their situations, to describe, summarize, and account for their states of mind and being, that the reader either becomes captivated by the lyrical pulse of Thon’s language, or it can start to seem oppressive. This effect is especially pronounced in Thon’s most recent fiction, including her new book, Silence and Song, in which lilting language takes on much of the role assumed by plot in more ordinary fiction.

Thon’s 2000 novel, Sweet Hearts features the character Flint Zimmer, a troubled boy just released from a juvenile correctional facility. “He’s smashed enough windows and been in enough houses,” we are told

to know the strange places people hide what’s precious. In unlit rooms, he’s smart as a blindman: he finds one loose brick with his fingers, hears the single board that wheezes beneath him. People on vacation stash jewelry in the freezer. An emerald ring with tiny diamonds, there wrapped in plastic behind the corn and carrots. He feels it. Long guns lie quiet between towels under folded linen. Do you think he won’t smell them?

If Thon’s style can be called “lyrical” or “poetic,” it is not because it casually spins off decorative phrases or floats on a cloud of figurative language. Its effects are more subtle, including parallel phrasing (“finds one loose brick . . . hears the single board”), deftly timed assonance (“strange places,” “wheezes . . . freezing,” “tiny diamonds”), and unobtrusive alliteration (“brick . . . board . . . beneath,” “corn and carrots”). Thon’s prose is pervasively rhythmic, achieved through tonal modulation of both sentence length and sentence types, modulations that give the prose its kinetic quality.

This kinetic quality is mirrored in the narrative structure both of Sweet Hearts and Thon’s next novel, The Voice in the River (2011). In each novel a story is told — in the former, the story of Flint Zimmer’s ultimate, desperate descent into murder, in the latter of the search for a missing boy, feared drowned trying to rescue his dog — but in both it is as if the story eventually just happens, emerging not from “storytelling” per se but as a consequence of shifting perspectives and circumstances, supporting and tangential characters providing a kind of narrative counterpoint that echoes on a formal level the tonal patterns of Thon’s prose style. Her fiction is attuned to “the voice in the river,” but it is the reverberations of that voice as it resounds among those who hear it that Thon’s writing attends to, not the river’s current as it rushes forward.

If this de-centering of plot is characteristic of all of Thon’s fiction, even the earliest, which is the most conventional in its use of character, point of view, and narrative sequence, Silence and Song is Thon’s most radical experiment in form and lyrical expression. Composed of two novellas, “Vanishings” and “Requiem: home: and the rain, after,” and a brief interlude between (titled “Translation”), the book is as full of lost souls as her previous work — immigrants wandering the desert, a runaway boy, a drug-addled killer and his suffering sister. But the purpose of telling their stories, however obliquely and discontinuously, seems less to simply give attention to otherwise marginal characters, or even to create sympathy for such characters, than to view them all as part of a living continuum, a continuum on which pain and suffering occupy their place in the enduring order of existence (as does redemption from that pain and suffering occupy its place). Orlando, one of the undocumented immigrants, nears death from thirst and exposure:

Stars pulsed: amber, orange, turquoise, violet. White flares and red implosions. Now, tonight, while the dead watched, whole galaxies popped in and out of existence. Never had Orlando known the names of stars, but he knew them now as he knew their colors. This sphere of broken light was the mind of God, and they were small and dark inside it.

A kind of spiritual animism or pantheism informs much of Thon’s work, but this effort to reveal the connectedness of all Being becomes especially central in Silence and Song. It comes off least effectively in “Vanishings,” which in its portrayal of the reality behind the impersonal headlines — “Illegal Immigrant Deaths Spiral to New High in Arizona” — threatens to sentimentalize the migrants and their plight, making it difficult for the reader to discern the broader theme separate from the pathos of the situation. Some readers no doubt assume that invoking such pathos is the author’s goal, an impression reinforced by the novella’s narration by a teacher of children with special needs, who can especially identify with the “disappeared” in the desert because her own infant sister “vanished” in a desert car accident (consumed by the ensuing fire”), an accident that also claimed the life of her older brother. The story of the narrator’s family, including her brother as a “ghost” roaming the desert, alternates with the scenes of suffering among the border crossers, such as the misfortune of a man who voluntarily leaves supplies of water for the immigrants who is shot and killed by a 14 year-old boy while attempting to help the boy after he has crashed a stolen car, as well as briefer scenes evoking nature — bears, honeybees, the saguaro cactus.

This is all done quite seamlessly, and the echoes and parallels among all the episodes bring coherence to the novella’s interlacing form. Yet finally “Vanishings” sacrifices aesthetic pleasure to an overindulgence in too-facile emotional effects, which also obscures its own enabling vision. “Requiem: home: and the rain, after,” is a much more effective realization of this vision, as its formal design, if anything even more adventurous than “Vanishings,” more successfully balances an intrinsic aesthetic interest with the underlying theme it is intended to communicate. Narrated by the sister of a young man who commits a convenience store murder that is captured on videotape, the novella relates the story of the murder and its aftermath, its roots in the man’s troubled past, interspersed with scenes from the after-effects of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, an event that took place on the heels of the murder and, for reasons the narrator makes evident, became linked with the family’s attempt to assimilate the brother’s action and its causes.

The most immediately conspicuous feature of “Requiem” is its use of what seems a poem to begin the narrative exposition. The device is continued on subsequent pages as well, apparent poems juxtaposed with prose passages providing us, for example, our first glimpse of the crime scene: “The video stops and starts and plays again. Doesn’t show the girl’s face, the girl too stunned to move, the speed of a bullet leaving the gun . . . .” But when the sister recalls a visit from the police, we get a verse rendition:

Please, the policeman says, as if

he loves you. Dark hands flutter

open and close, exposing

pale skin of the palm, soft

pink skin of the fingers, everything

strange, hands too big, fingers flexing.

It is as if the lyrical impulse animating all of Thon’s fiction has here finally literally expressed itself as lyric. While the writing in these lyrics and the writing in the ostensible prose passages are not notably dissimilar in expression or cadence, the effect is to keep the reader suspended above the presumed narrative “flow” of a story that might otherwise seem well-suited to a dramatic — even melodramatic — treatment. Instead, the reader is made constantly aware that language, not story, is the irreducible medium of fiction, that “what happened” is only the beginning of the explorations a work of fiction might make. Thon is interested in the long reach of events, the mental afterimages they leave, the attempt to reckon with their consequences. If for the narrator of “Requiem” these events and their indelible influence return as poetically heightened fragments, such would only seem in its way an accurate representation of the character they assume in retrospect and reflection.

This free interplay of prose and verse also itself puts into question the very distinction between the two, between “poetry” and “fiction.” I do not believe that Thon wants to turn fiction into poetry, nor simply to write “poetic” fiction. Instead, she works to erase the boundaries altogether, leaving only the act of writing, which through its aesthetic ordering (whatever name we want to give it) can make us briefly aware of the potential consonance of existence. It is an illusion, of course, although in the process of “making poems of the words” within our reach, as the final lines of “Requiem” have it, we might momentarily imagine that at the end “we will need no more words ever.”


Elisabeth Sheffield

To an extent, it's a little surprising that Elisabeth Sheffield's Fort Da (FC2) has not received more attention. It is, after all, in part a fairly sensational story about what we now call a "sexual predator," in this case a reversal of Lolita in which the "offender" is a female scientist who becomes obsessed with an adolescent boy. Although to be sure the story is told (by the woman) in an unorthodox way, the narrative is explicit enough, and the representation of motive and psychology seems true enough, it would seem the novel might have caused a little bit of controversy, although the very fact the narrative is related through unorthodox means that to some extent distance us from the events portrayed and mute the potentially scandalous elements suggests that Sheffield certainly did not seek to court controversy.

What Sheffield seems to be after is a truthful account of the narrator's affliction (if that's what it is) and of her manner of coping with it. The narrator straightforwardly acknowledges her desire for Aslan, the adolescent boy, and painstakingly chronicles the events of their meeting, their eventually consummated relationship, and her final efforts to track him down when she is separated from him. But she is not quite able to tell us this story from a conventional first-person point of view, as if she can't finally bring herself to associate these events and her part in them with the "normal" self she still wants to preserve, as if she just can't acknowledge her own agency. Thus she adopts a cumbersomely "scientific" style emphasizing passive voice constructions. Addressing her "report" to her high school English teacher, Mrs, Wall, the narrator affirms

A true story that will faithfully present yours truly, without distortion or bias. To this end, a detached style has been adopted, one that will hopefully facilitate accurate reportage. The intent of this style is to step outside Rosemarie Ramee in order to more accurately observe her (and not, Strunk and White forbid, to annoy you with passive verb forms, which it is well remembered were a source of contention in high school). Yes, and maybe if the observations are presented with great care, with the greatest possible degree of honesty and precision, in the end empathy will be received.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to send RR (as she frequently hereafter identifies herself) "empathy," but her tortured attempts to remain objective, attempts she maintains throughout the narrative with gradually diminishing success, are really both the aesthetic and the emotional focus of the novel.

Aesthetically the style seems an apt analogue of the narrator's state of mind--she can tell the story, but only if she is in a sense able to withdraw her own participation and attempt to view the events with a kind of clinical detachment. Paradoxically, this forced detachment only makes the reader more aware of RR's obsession in the effort to cloak it, and her emotional turmoil becomes only more visible. This does have a discomfiting effect on the reader: there is a fascination to witnessing the machinations to which RR is driven in order to tell the tale, while we also recognize her strategy is in effect an attempt to minimize her offense. At the same time, it is not at all clear that Aslan resists RRs advances, or that he has been harmed by them, although of course the long-term harm cannot be predicted and we cannot finally trust that RR's account is anything but self-serving. She indicates that she is addressing her "confession" to Mrs. Wall because of the latter's reputation for leading an unconventional lifestyle, suggesting she does hope her audience might extend her some sympathy.

If Fort Da could be said to be "experimental" (FC2 is one of the most prominent publishers of experimental fiction), it would have to be in this tonal discontinuity--how far can the reader extend his/her sympathy to such a character presenting herself in such a narrative voice relating a story about what today approaches being as taboo a subject as we have? While the "report" form is interesting enough, it is finally just another variation on the epistolary or diary forms first explored in novels like Pamela or Robinson Crusoe as the immediate context and justification for first-person narrative. The narrative itself is essentially linear, and though the narrator's language occasionally makes it necessary for the reader to check his/her bearings, it unfolds interrupted only by the by now rather familiar use of footnotes (although given the text's formal status as scientific "report," the footnotes don't seem out of place).

If RR, like Humbert Humbert, believes her desire for Aslan, like Humbert's for his "nymphet," is a genuine expression of love, she seems less comfortable than HH with this form of love. Although both Fort Da and Lolita could both be said to be comic novels, the comedy of Lolita is darker,arising from the audacity of HH's behavior. The humor of Fort Da arises from RR's own confusions and limited self-knowledge. This makes Fort Da a consistently compelling read--to call it entertaining would seem impertinent--but whether it has something to "say" about, for example, the nature of female desire vs male desire, or about the origins of sexual behavior in psychological trauma (RR herself appears to believe she may be reacting to the early death of her brother) is perhaps for the reader to determine, depending on whether one considers it important that a novel treading on sensitive ground should redeem itself by making a "serious" point about the subject. In my opinion, the greatness of Lolita consists, in part, in its refusal to countenance communicating such a point. By raising "issues" related to pedophilia, Fort Da suggests it wants to address those issues and thus doesn't really show quite the aesthetic courage we find in Nabokov's novel.

 

Elisabeth Sheffield's novels feature women who are "difficult" "unruly," at times resolutely unpleasant--at least to readers who expect a fictional protagonist (especially if it is a woman) to be at heart "likable." They are otherwise dynamic characters who just don't observe the rules of propriety or decorum. Stella, one of the protagonists of Sheffield's first novel, Gone (2003), is a disaffected and dissolute adjunct community college English instructor who goes on a fruitless quest, accompanied by her ex-student lover, to track down what she believes is her inheritance, a valuable Winslow Homer painting. Along the way we read from letters written by Stella's deceased aunt, Juju, who in her own, different way, is as incorrigible as Stella. The protagonist of Fort Da (2009), a 38 year-old neurologist, relates (in a dissociated and displaced way) an account of her reverse-Lolita obsession with an 11 year-old boy. One of the dual protagonists of 2014's Helen Keller Really Lived (the other protagonist is a ghost) is a quasi-grifter (she dispenses "healing") who ultimately becomes involved in a theft of embryos from a fertility clinic.

It is likely that these portrayals against the grain of conventional assumptions about appropriately feminine behavior help account for the dearth of critical attention given to Sheffield's work in the mainstream literary press (or even what was once called the blogosphere), although the adventurous formal structures of the novels also no doubt bother less adventurous readers and critics as well: it would seem that difficult women require more unorthodox, more ostensibly difficult methods of aesthetic representation to adequately render their experiences. If in Fort Da the main character offers her version of events through a misleading, pseudo-scientific "report" and much of Helen Keller Really Lived comes to us as a ghost's communications to the protagonist (his ex-wife) through her computer, in Sheffield's 2021 novel, Ire Land (a Faery Tale), the narrative consists of a sequence of emails written by the protagonist, Sandra Dorn--although they actually come packaged as an edited and annotated manuscript sent to the now deceased Sandra's daughter.

The status of the text has--or should have--an immediate effect on our perception of the narrative it relates, making it, of course, an inherently unreliable source of truth or accuracy, especially since the story that emerges from Sandra Dorn's email chronicles (sent as responses to the unknown recipient "madmaeve17") involves the intercession of Gaelic faeries and Sandra's transformation into a hare. That story is essentially a picaresque recital of Sandra's fortunes after losing her home in Denver, where she is a professor of gender studies whose disorderly behavior has left her an older woman without friends or defenders among her colleagues, a wretched outcast. She first finds refuge with a younger sister, and when that ends up badly, she lives for a time with a brother and his girlfriend, but that too comes a cropper. Finally she is granted a reprieve of sorts with an offer of a temporary teaching position in Belfast (where she had lived previously in a relationship that ended badly), and the novel concludes--after a bizarre interlude in the classroom--with the intimation that Sandra has been taken away by the faeries ("[we can] fix ye up and kit you out" the mysterious editor--or some other shadowy figure usurping his role--declares in one of the editorial insertions).

While it is somewhat hard to know how seriously to take all of the particulars of Sandra Dorn's account (or at least the version we are presented), finally the plot details are less pivotal for an appreciation of the novel than our response to Sandra Dorn and her recital of her life experiences. It would be very easy to recoil from her, given some of the bad behavior to which she confesses (abandoning her first-born son) or we witness her perform (hurling invective at a child), but it's also hard to not admire the unapologetic candor of her admissions, her acceptance (not without an implicit sneer) of her dismal circumstances after a lifetime spent insisting on personal autonomy and disregarding convention. If Sandra Dorn were the male protagonist (Sandy Dorn, say) of a male-authored novel, he would surely be considered a "rogue," defiant of norms but to a degree laudable for that. Perhaps such a roguish personality is still regarded as objectionable in a female character, but at this stage in her life, while it might be salubrious for Sandra to be with the faeries in their mounds, that Sheffield affirms as her protagonist such a morally unkempt character as Sandra Dorn in the first place is arguably the novel's most praiseworthy achievement.

Sheffield would be high on my list of unjustly overlooked writers in current American fiction, but fortunately she is still able to attract publishers to her work. Ire Land would certainly be a good place to start with that work for the uninitiated, but really all of her books are equally worthwhile.


Helen DeWitt

In a review of the novel in Review 31, Helen McClory makes a curious criticism of Helen DeWitt's 2011 novel, Lightning Rods:

What it lacks is interiority. The narration, because it is so slick and over-worked, has the feel of a voice-over; it's all surface, even when we are ostensibly presented with access to the minds of the characters. This creates a sensation of hollowness. . .

The total misperception of DeWitt's purpose in Lightning Rods is extraordinary. As almost all other reviewers of this novel observed, it is most certainly a novel of "interiority," although it is a special kind of interiority that deliberately uses the contents of consciousness--more importantly, the forms of expression those contents assume--to create a pervasively "surface" effect. If it seems "slick and overworked," that's because the modes of thinking the novel travesties are themselves so formulaic and riven with cliche. "A sensation of hollowness" is precisely the effect Lightning Rods is designed to create.

The plot of Lightning Rods is no doubt by now well-known, as the novel received numerous reviews that prominently emphasized its outrageous premise. A failed vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, is inspired by his own sexual fantasies to begin marketing a new service designed to help alleviate sexual harassment in the workplace: a contraption installed in an office bathroom that allows testosterone-addled men to have anonymous sex with women (the lightning rods) whose bottom halves are exposed rearward and then withdrawn back through the bathroom wall. The service proves to be quite successful, for the companies whose workplaces become less litigious, for the men whose needs are fulfilled and thus become more efficient and cooperative workers, and for the women. who are handsomely rewarded financially and in some cases use the job to work themselves up the "corporate ladder." (One of the lightning rods eventually becomes a Supreme Court lawyer.)

Joe's diligence and sincerity are reflected in the manner of the book's narration, nominally in the form of "free indirect" discourse, the stylistic/narrative mode developed precisely to plumb a character's "interiority." But while the language with which the story is told surely does capture the way Joe both perceives the world and explains it to himself, it is indeed shallow and hackneyed, permeated by the external languages of self-help and commerce:

Now if you're selling encyclopedias it's obvious you're selling people the idea that they can be what they want to be. But even if you're selling vacuum cleaners you're selling people the way they could be--they could be people who will clean their stairs and the furniture and curtains using appropriate attachments, instead of borrowing a vacuum cleaner for Thanksgiving and Christmas from their next-door neighbors. You're selling the chance to fix something that's wrong. What you're selling, basically, is the idea that there's nothing wrong with the customer; maybe they don't know as much as they should, or maybe they happen to live in a dirty house, but that's because they don't have the one thing lacking to put it right.

The reader could turn to practically any page in Lightning Rods and find a passage like this. Clearly DeWitt wants not just to emphasize Joe's subjectivity, but to suggest that this very subjectivity has been thoroughly determined by the all-pervasive discourses, and the underlying assumptions, of American-style capitalism and its accompanying modes of therapeutic encouragement. No matter how "deep" we plumb into Joe's "interiority," we're only going to find more such platitudinous language and bromidic concepts, since in effect they have replaced any genuine interiority, substituted for any genuine thinking, beyond the need to apply the concepts most effectively. As Edmond Caldwell observes in his review of the novel, "It is less like Joe 'uses' this language. . .and more like this language thinks him"--although it might be even more accurate to say there is no thinking at all going on, only the pre-formulated thinking represented by the recycling of familiar expressions.

Caldwell also maintains that the novel is a satire of its own ostensible genre, the novel of "psychological realism," which "stands revealed as a patchwork of readymade materials--cliches and slogans, the hoariest sententia and newly-minted banalities." If all such novels are "no less a howling absurdity than Lightning Rods, the difference is that one of them knows itself as such." While I would not deny the accuracy of this reading, I don't think the self-satirical impulse fully accounts for the effects DeWitt manages to achieve in nevertheless exploiting the assumptions of psychological realism. She employs its "cliches and slogans" in a way that, at the same they are revealed to be such, transcends the "banalities" of this mode of narration to tell a story that is far from banal, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of John Barth's notion of a "literature of exhaustion" that takes the very "used-upness" of a literary practice and creates something new. As much as it shows psychological realism to be "a patchwork of readymade materials," the novel also shows that human consciousness itself (at least of the "ordinary" variety) might be a hodgepodge of such materials. There's no going "deep," only going sideways into more culturally determined fragments of predigested language.

"Surface" and "interiority" are interchangeable, versions of each other. The characters' motives are not hidden (to themselves or to us) but quite transparent, although those motives are encapsulated in the shallowest, most insipid kind of interior discourse. The most powerful human motive, sex, is, of course, thoroughly externalized, subjected to the same trivialization and commodification by which American culture reduces all human activity to commerce. (It isn't prostitution if it makes good business sense.) Much of the humor in Lightning Rods comes from the way in which the characters readily adapt to circumstances that might otherwise provoke feelings of shame and degradation, how easily the sexual drive comes to be regarded as something that merely requires the right kind of management.

What makes this novel more than simply satirical (whether of the American commercial imperative or the novel of psychological realism) is that the ostensible target, our protagonist Joe, in whose "interiority" we have been placed and whose idea it is to channel the sexual drive in his commercialized service, is finally not a character deserving only of our laughter. Above all, Joe is utterly sincere in his belief that his service will have beneficial effects, that in offering it he is doing good. He shows concern for his employees, and as a sideline to the main business of providing lightning rods, he also devises an adjustable toilet to make public restrooms easier on short and/or obese people. His sincerity and good intentions make it difficult to regard Joe as a purely risible figure; he winds up being a rather sympathetic character who at worst has succumbed to the irresistible influence of cultural forces outside his control.

Readers of DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, might at first find Lightning Rods a radically different kind of work, almost to the point it doesn't seem by the same writer. Samurai is a sprawling novel that at times courts formlessness, while Lightning Rods is a compact, sharply focused work exhibiting a unified narrative perspective that contrasts with the bifurcated perspective of The Last Samurai. Ultimately The Last Samurai could be called a novel about a search for identity, while the characters in Lightning Rods seem quite confident in their identities, even if those identities are ultimately culturally constructed. To a degree, however, both books are about the use and abuse of language.The Last Samurai highlights the possibilities of language in its story of the budding genius Ludo and his facility in many languages and ability to relate them to each other, something that DeWitt also does in the novel as a whole. Lightning Rods illustrates our more common relationship with language, whereby we allow our thinking to be determined by language in its most ossified, restrictive forms. If The Last Samurai implies the yet untapped potential of language when viewed cross-culturally, Lightning Rods reveals how any language can become so burdened with the conceptual debris scattered by one's culture as to become hazardous to all thought.


Rosalyn Drexler

Perhaps it is because her most lasting accomplishment may turn out to be her paintings that Rosalyn Drexler is now so very little known as a writer of fiction. Although she did attract attention with her novels in the 1970s, and her plays gained notice for their association with the "theater of the ridiculous," a kind of variation on theater of the absurd, it seems safe to say that for most current readers and critics Rosalyn Drexler has almost no name recognition. Perhaps the novels to an extent seem dated, their cultural references and lingo too stuck in the 60s and 70s (although ultimately they are not at all trying to "capture" their era in any direct way). Or perhaps Drexler has simply been overshadowed by the already established experimental writers of her time, most of whom are male, even at a time when efforts are regularly made, by academics and publishers, to maintain attention on neglected women writers.

Still, that little effort has been made to refocus our attention on the fiction of Rosalyn Drexler remains rather surprising, for her novels are indeed singular achievements, adventurous works that are entirely worthy of comparison with the other heterodox writing of the period that has persisted in the cultural memory. Moreover, while Drexler's work is not feminist in a directly political way, it most assuredly does provide a representation of women and their circumstances that feminist critics ought to find deeply resonant (something that could be said about Drexler's paintings as well). And if many of the novels do indeed reflect the social and cultural tendencies of their time, they also use those tendencies to render more broadly and enduringly relevant accounts of women freely expressing their own versions of their lived experience and in the process freeing themselves of the versions imposed by others.

Certainly those expressions are unconventional and often extreme. Drexler's narratives have been described as "grotesque," but they might simply be called "weird," which more appropriately evokes their antic, less terror-fraught character. Her first novel, I Am the Beautiful Stranger (1966), is perhaps the least strange but also most disturbing, at once both extreme and recognizable in the means by which it provokes an uneasy response. Upon the novel's publication, comparisons were made to Catcher in the Rye, but while it is not preposterous to regard the narrator of I Am the Beautiful Stranger, Selma, as analogous to Holden Caulfield, at least insofar as each of them is an impulsive adolescent encountering the corruptions of the adult world, it is misleading to the extent it suggests that Selma is mostly disgusted by this world, that her primary objective is to escape such corruption. What makes this novel disquieting--which its contemporaneous readers surely found it--is that its protagonist often seems as eager to cultivate the wickedness she recounts as evade it.

In this way I Am the Beautiful Stranger seems less an episodic coming-of-age story in the manner of Catcher in the Rye than a purposeful reconfiguration of the form into one that can accommodate an adolescent girls' emotional confusion, which, at least as depicted in this novel, is no less strong than the adolescent boy's (and vice versa) but also more capacious, more subject to conflicting impulses. If Selma is less quick than Holden Caulfield to pronounce adults to be "phony," perhaps this is because she is more ambivalent about her own relation to the adult world, not as unwilling as Holden to sully herself in its imperfections. At the same time she is fully aware of the debased behavior to which she is frequently subjected, she also affirms the authentic sexual and emotional needs that are awakened in her as well. Sharing a room with cousins on their wedding night, she hears them having sex: "Becoming another white nun of solitude. I crossed myself in mock Catholic, fingered my beads of sweat, confessed confusion, and tried to sleep by practicing a sin that is not a sin in my religion. It isn't even mentioned except about men, and they're not supposed to spill their seed upon the ground. I'm safe, I don't spill, and if I did I wouldn't cry."

Selma's progress toward self-awareness is not without its psychological toll, however:

Wow, was I sad and bad and mad! I slashed the outside of my hands with a razor. I made deep criss-crosses in the flesh. A rehearsal of self-destruction? There wasn't much blood because the lines were so fine. I scarred my hands. It was easy to do because it didn't hurt. Even my brain was numb. Afterwards I bought pancake makeup to cover the cuts.

Although many of Selma's relationships with other people--specifically men—are purely exploitive--with Uncle Mort, for example, who, while dancing with her at the cousin's wedding, inserts his tongue in Selma's mouth and "slid it around"—and clearly enough might send her on a course of self-destruction, she does manage to achieve healthier connections with some. At the novel's conclusion, Selma has a boyfriend, Paul, and they are contemplating living together (even at Selma's young age). It seems to be a "normal" relationship, yet it is finally difficult to tell whether Selma's final words signal she is emerging into self-possessed maturity or is still captive to the damaging influences precipitating neediness her narrative reveals: "What if I have to stay appealing every day? When my panic is over I know just what I'll do: go south and make myself a beauty. I'll return wrapped in tan like a carmallow. Then, when Paul peels my wrapper off, the sweet taste of fresh Selma should make him crave me forever."

Selma has an abundant fantasy life, to the point that the reader must be cautious in assuming that events she appears to be recounting are indeed drawn from her actual experiences rather than the product of Selma's imagining. Finally, however, it as "true" to Selma's circumstances as an adolescent American girl growing up in the environment she evokes to say her fantasies reflect the generally abusive examples set by the adults around her as that she in fact encountered a specific instance of such abuse. Something similar is true of Drexler's second novel, One or Another (1970), although here the circumstances of the protagonist have been reversed: Melissa, a 39-year-old woman who has become disillusioned with her marriage is having an affair (or imagines having an affair) with a 17-year-old high school student (her husband's student), himself a troubled boy having difficulty facing the prospect of encroaching adulthood.

If Selma is groping for her place in the adult world, at least as that place is defined for young women of her time, Melissa has her place but, to say the least, finds it wanting. One or Another was published as the women's movement was just beginning to assert its own place in the American cultural consciousness, so perhaps it is not surprising that in Drexler's novel her protagonist rebels against her circumstances by envisioning her independence as betrayal—taking his student as lover and later forming a relationship with a black student her husband has racially harassed—rather than literally leaving the marriage to pursue her own course. Indeed, Melissa lives even more resolutely inside her own head, condition she seems to affirm in the novel's final lines, than did Selma, and the novel for which she serves as narrator is even more firmly than Selma's a possibly imagined construction, not an account of her literal actions.

It would not be entirely accurate to call novels like I Am the Beautiful Stranger and One or Another metafictional, since their effect depends on the possibility we might take their actions as literal after all, that they are fictions soliciting our suspension of disbelief, a disbelief that is stretched but not ultimately broken. Even if we start asking ourselves whether these two main characters might be unreliable narrators freely engaging in fantasy and invention, that they are doing so itself provides insight about them as autonomous characters whose stories still have coherence, however discontinuous or fragmentary. Certainly Drexler's novels are formally adventurous, incorporating not just diary-like sections of direct exposition and narration (most of the novels are primarily first-person narratives), but also letters and notes, brief play-like passages of dialogue, graphic illustrations, purported newspaper articles, and, in the later novels, emails. (Art Does (Not) Exist (1996) also presents transcripts of its protagonist's experimental videos.) Still, their unorthodox methods seem intended as the appropriate artistic strategies for conveying Drexler's eccentric, if unsettling, comic vision of American life.

"Eccentric" is an admittedly vague term to use in describing the prevailingly comic tone and manner of Drexler's fiction, but its humor is not exactly easy to classify. As a playwright, Drexler was sometimes vaguely grouped with the "theater of the ridiculous" movement of the 1960s associated with the director John Vaccaro, and while her fiction may also have some affinities with the anarchic qualities of this style of theatrical comedy, it is again more singularly weird than recognizably campy. This weirdness does have a lighter touch to it that also makes Drexler's work accord uneasily with absurdism, as well as the Freudian underpinnings of surrealism, and while this apparent lightness often enough partly conceals a darker view of human behavior, Drexler's novels don't really depend on the kind of jokiness or exploded logic characteristic of black humor fiction. In her weaker books (Starburn, for example) the humor can seem too calculated, overly mannered, but as a whole her novels feature a kind of comedy that on the surface may seem blithely tongue-in-cheek but upon further contemplation begins to take on a more consequential gravity.

The same thing might be said about Drexler's visual art, arguably about pop art in general, to which Drexler's painting is most often referred. At first glance, her paintings are colorful and cartoonish, created by using pre-existing photographs—often from ads and graphic illustrations—on and around which she applied paint. And indeed any one of these paintings has an immediate sensory impact, the best ones almost mesmerizing in their ostensible simplicity. But put it among other of Drexler's canvases and the tacit, unobtrusive critique of American predispositions and attitudes (especially toward women) becomes, through implicit though indirect mockery, quite evident. Neither Drexler's paintings nor her fiction could properly be called satirical, since the impulse behind them is much more equivocal—at the same time her images and narratives highlight the tackiness of American culture, they also manage to give that tackiness an aesthetically pleasing form—than directly critical and prescriptive. The fiction, however, is more direct in presenting a broadly comic perspective that at times is deliberately outrageous.

Certainly in her fiction Drexler is just as likely to seize on images and motifs from popular culture as subjects. The best illustration of this perhaps is her third novel, To Smithereens (1972), which features a lady wrestler as protagonist and is perhaps her best known work of fiction, largely it draws on Drexler's own experience as a wrestler before she became established as an artist. As in many of the paintings, here Drexler uses the iconography associated with this figure from popular culture to evoke attitudes and beliefs about the pervasive violence of American culture and the confused state of relations between men and women. The latter is signaled in the novel's first scene, narrated by Rosa (later to be proclaimed "Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire"), who in a movie theater encounters a "creep" in the next seat rubbing his hand on her thigh. Rosa is duly annoyed, expressing her annoyance by lashing out at him, yet after the movie agrees to have coffee with him and then goes to his apartment, where soon she waits for him in the bedroom: "I took off my clothes and lay on top of the blanket, still as death, one arm dangling off the side of the mattress; I knew I looked beautiful that way; soft, receptive, passively offering my body. . . ."

The creep is (once again) named Paul, in this case an art critic, and he and Rosa are soon a couple. But while in this scene Rosa chooses to be sexually passive, throughout the novel she continues to exhibit both the aggressiveness she displayed in the movie theater (and which presumably she channels in her short career as a wrestler) and a more conventional acceptance of gendered sexual roles. (When she decides to try wrestling Rosa discovers a lesbian subculture among the women wrestlers, but she does not take part.) Still, while Paul in a sense is trying to exploit Rosa for his own enjoyment when he encourages her to try wrestling, his efforts to control her cannot succeed, as he himself acknowledges:

    Rosa did not conform to any idea I had conceived of her in advance. She related to me with the same sense of immediacy and beauty that the artist experiences in relation to her material. She was molding me on behalf of the vast world of being she existed in; while I had foolishly believed it was I who was shaping her.

The point of view in To Smithereens alternates between Paul and Rosa (with the usual additional interpolated documents), and this provides overall a somewhat more detached perspective from which the reader can contemplate the comic verbal collage Drexler has assembled, although undoubtedly Rosa emerges from the novel a character as forceful as Paul himself finds her. The novel does not really dwell much on Rosa's actual time in the wrestling ring (only one match is recounted at any length), preferring just to introduce us to the colorful characters with whom Rosa interacts and to create a female character who embodies in her life the "sense of immediacy and beauty that the artist experiences in relation to her material" but has perhaps not yet quite found the best "material" in which to express it.

 The Cosmopolitan Girl (1974) is the last of the original series of novels that made Drexler known as a writer as well as an artist. (It is available. along with I Am The Beautiful Stranger and One or Another, in a volume simply called Three Novels, published by Verbivoracious Press, the only fiction by Drexler officially in print.) This might be called Drexler's weirdest novel (an accomplishment in itself). Certainly it is the most openly surreal, featuring a protagonist with a talking dog, a dog she winds up marrying to boot. While this blending of Kafka and Helen Gurley Brown is alternately kooky and spooky, perhaps it also represents Drexler's most faithful translation of the Pop sensibility characteristic of her paintings to fiction, provoking equal parts disquiet, amusement, and something like annoyance. It can be difficult to decide whether we should find Helen Jones a sympathetic character just attempting to find happiness in the big wide world, or an appalling freak. Perhaps she is both. The media image of the Cosmo Girl becomes not exactly the object of satire, nor is it celebrated as a fabulous icon of popular culture, although certainly Drexler does occasionally have fun with it:

    At home I walk around with no clothes on at all (depending on whether the steam is up). I do not bother to pull down the shade. If someone in the building opposite wants to look, he's welcome. If someone doesn't like it, that's his problem. I do what makes me feel good. . .but not always. It's a hard rule to follow because sometimes I'm not sure what does please me.

The Cosmopolitan Girl can be regarded as the completion of an initial quartet of singular but aesthetically consistent novels that introduce both a thematically and formally complex literary practice Drexler continues to pursue in her later fiction but that probably is carried out most successfully in these four novels. Unquestionably it would be warranted to claim Drexler's project as part of post-60s feminism, but the women characters in these novels are neither unequivocal champions of equality nor emblematic figures exemplifying the inherent virtues of their gender. Ultimately each of these characters is emblematic only of herself, although together they do have enough similarities that they collectively comprise a kind of Drexlerian prototype: autonomous, but not without a lingering dependency, self-aware but also at times willfully capricious.

These qualities can certainly be seen in the protagonists of Starburn (1979), Drexler's next novel written under her own name (following on a series of "novelizations" of screenplays—most notably, Rocky—using the pen name "Julia Sorel"), as well as Art Does (Not) Exist. The first concerns the travails of Jenni Love, punk rock singer, who stands accused of murdering a music critic (she is innocent of the charge), while the second focuses on Julia Maraini, a video artist trying to revive her career. Both characters are assertive, self-directed artists who nevertheless make poor decisions and find themselves in predicaments they must scramble to overcome. Both novels as well follow The Cosmopolitan Girl in assimilating the surreal, in the case of Starburn through a sci-fi subplot involving alien abduction, and in Art Does (Not) Exist through scenes featuring talking skeletons. Of these two novels, Art Does (Not) Exist is the most successful, the closest to equaling the early novels, perhaps because the subject more strongly engages Drexler's own experiences, while Starburn seems somewhat awkwardly sensationalized.

Bad Guy (1982) and Vulgar Lives (2007) may be Drexler's least characteristic novels, although ultimately they are not necessarily less revealing of her intentions or her lasting achievements as a writer of fiction. Both novels seem more austere in subject (although not without their moments of absurdity), less formally frenetic (although by no means straightforwardly conventional). While the ostensible protagonist of each is its female narrator, the real protagonist in both might be the male figure on which the narrator's account focuses, although perhaps it is most accurate to describe both books as explorations of these women's capacity to sustain themselves in a male-centered world without losing either their dignity or literally their sanity. Bad Guy especially seems an almost sobering account of its main character—an experimental therapist—and her ultimately failed effort both to help a delinquent boy and to have her professional reputation affirmed, while Vulgar Lives addresses a more charged subject—incest—but in applying Drexler's signature fragmented collage method to its protagonist's dissociating mental state the novel actually produces a formal structure that more nearly functions as a recognizably unified objective correlative.

Nevertheless, all of Rosalyn Drexler's fiction is readily identifiable as the work of a distinctive sensibility, one that in her early fiction revealed itself as unabashed in its iconoclasm and that Drexler has maintained throughout her work as a novelist with a truly remarkable constancy, despite the fact that most of her books have been indefensibly ignored by critics (among whom I am myself until now obviously included). This neglect can't be rectified until more of her work is again in print, of course, and this would be a worthy project for any independent press willing to perform such a service for American fiction. Then the effort to properly assess Rosalyn Drexler's place in the efflorescence of innovative fiction in post-WWII American literature could begin.