That was the start of it. That moment.
What I mean to say is, and I want to be clear on this point, what I mean is that I knew then—at that exact moment—that all, all of my efforts in that area, that is to say, in the area of attempting to heal the rift between my wife and myself (and why not be blunt? all of my efforts in every area, every single one), had been and would continue to be futile.
Standing in Macy’s watching his wife examine pillows when they are supposed to be shopping for a replacement decorative bowl for a broken bowl that neither had liked or really wanted to replace save for an unruly accumulation of bills and notices that had gathered on the sideboard where the bowl had once sat, when intact, otherwise collecting the mail, the narrator of Gabriel Blackwell’s Doom Town is overcome with an inescapable sensation of, well, doom. What follows is a tightly wound, forever second guessing, forward glancing and backward looking circuitous internalized narrative—shades of Bernhard at his least ranting and most humane (think, Yes), if he was to write a domestic tragicomedy set in suburban America. It takes a while to get the rhythm of the troubled narrator’s cycles of prevarication, denial and doubt as he struggles to articulate, for himself at least, the story of the disintegration of his marriage in the wake of the death of their young son in an accident he feels responsible for, while the rest of his immediate world implodes in the most incredible yet thoroughly contemporary American fashion. But one is soon swept up in his desperate attempt to make sense of it all.
The narrator was, at the time of the accident, a lecturer in the linguistics department of the local university, a tenuous position in a seemingly impenetrable institution. As he feels that his entire world collapsing, it is critical to him that he be able to set the record straight on several levels, explain his side of a multi-faceted story. However, the tool one might imagine he would trust the most for this task has long since betrayed him:
Although my job was the teaching of the study of language and its use, or maybe because my job was the teaching of the study of language and its use, I had, long ago, lost faith in what most language did—what, I guess, I’d realized language was capable of doing, which is to say, nothing much, or else, something both very fleeting and very weak (and so maybe also, I’d once thought, something therefore beautiful, in the way that beauty itself is often fleeting and superfluous… )
His efforts, then, lead him into long, discursive explanations and equivocations, carrying parenthetical asides within parenthetical asides, arriving at often indeterminate and inconclusive results that only seem to necessitate further clarifications. This distracted method of trying to construct a narrative, causes him to regularly allude to events that haven’t yet occurred chronologically in the story he is attempting to move through, which can, at times, be a source of both confusion and suspense. But, of course, although he has an imagined audience, a “you” to whom he is addressing his confession/defense, he is really only speaking to himself. Beyond that, his efforts to communicate with others are, as he well knows, sorely impaired not only by grief but by the variety of habits of inattention that tend to trouble most everyday human interactions.
After a period of intense confusion following his son’s death, he admits he experimented with a few bizarre efforts to express himself, finally settling on the use of stories, not only as a classroom teaching tool but unfortunately, in times of stress, with his wife. The range of stories he calls upon, well known and arcane alike, are typically interrupted or otherwise left unfinished. His stories become a stand-in for what he cannot, and often should not, say so it is generally for the best that his audience is spared the conclusions. Meanwhile, his own personal tragedy aside, he is also at the centre of a vortex of tragic events that, were this simply a black comedy, would add a measure of absurd humour. But given the reality of contemporary American life reflected in this flood horrors, it is difficult to laugh. Rather, it adds to our ill-fated narrator’s multitude of woes.
The core event, the death of his young child, is a known fact throughout Doom Town, one that is steadily, if silently, undoing whatever fragile bonds were holding his marriage together. However, the actual accident itself—an unthinkable horror certain to send spasms of shock through the hearts of anyone who is a parent (or grandparent, aunt, uncle, and so on)—is hardly discussed. It is clearly a wound too deep, one the narrator has, by his own admission, not even begun to process, at least not by any socially acceptable means, and by this he means acceptable to his wife. His own private attempt to heal is a project, a reconstruction (symbolic resurrection?) of his son in the garage, cobbled together out of toys and items from his room. Yet, as strange and idiosyncratic as the protagonist is in his effort to salvage the fractured pieces of his world, his pain and desperation are very real.
Despite its frequent convolutions, this novel manages to capture, with stark precision, the agony of loss and the resulting dissolution of a marriage. The steady erosion, under pressure, of existing fault lines and fissures may well be familiar to those of us who have experienced the slow-motion collapse of a long-term relationship. A tragedy can easily accelerate the process. This story also calls into question the myths of perfect parenthood and highlights the many ways we risk failing our children. But at the end of this brilliant, devastating tale all we really have is the internal soundtrack of one deeply traumatized, heartbroken and totally relatable human being. And that is, at its best, what language is capable of offering.
Doom Town by Gabriel Blackwell is published Zerogram Press.