Everyone’s a monster: Gnome by Robert Lunday

We’re accountable for our boundaries, and for an indeterminate space just beyond—though we share that space with others, also accountable. Society’s a jostling. (“Medusa’s Head”)

In high school I worked, for a while, as a cashier at a sporting goods shop. One evening, in the middle of a busy end-of-season sale, I looked up at the mother and son standing at my till, and saw, where the boy’s face should have been, what I remember as a gaping black hole. Horrified, I completed the transaction without lifting my eyes again. As soon as it was possible I feigned illness and went home. To this day, I have no idea what manner of abnormality might have distorted his visage. I’d always been exceptionally squeamish, with a limited tolerance for the grotesque and gruesome, so there was no question that I would have chanced a second look to, as I imagine was a common reaction, stare at this oddity, even re-evaluate my initial response. Unexpected encounters with damaged or deformed faces still tend to trigger in me an aftershock, a need to find a reassurance in the ordinary:

The only thing more warped than freakishness, however, is the revulsion it engenders in the rest of us. We’re all chance images: faces in crowds, doors, wood grain or fabric bunching, the duck-rabbit or left-old/right-young lady; what if you were nothing but an optical illusion, and not a very amusing one at that? There’s a time-gravity, a pull this way or the other, such that we see only through desire or regret. Everyone’s a monster, made from looming disaster less than the real flaws that spun us into moving objects, searchers for the missing piece: the shadow-line, the peculiar mark, the curving strangeness. A lost knowledge: but beauty, specifically the remembered beauty of the Medusa, lets one inside. (“Cloverleaf”)

The face is the gateway, the focal point, and the fertile plain of Gnome by American poet Robert Lunday. But what, exactly is Gnome? Drawing on and incorporating literary, philosophical, and biological sources, it is a personal exploration—at once introspective and heuristic—of “face” in its multitude of meanings and implications. An existential physiognomy. Prose poetry pushing into meditative essay and back again.

The first, and to date only, book published by the inimitable Black Sun Lit, Gnome is a collection of intertextual ruminations that incorporate the words and ideas of writers and thinkers as diverse as Max Picard, Laurence Hutton, Elaine Scarry, Rilke, Yeats, Witold Gombrowicz, Kōbō Abe, and many more. Precise and considered, but never forced, the result is a series of reflections that wander from classical Greek history to psychology, from art theory to embryology. The prose shimmers with lyrical immediacy and aphoristic wisdom.

The magic of a work like this, fusing essay and poetry as it does, is the capacity to appeal to readers who might not expect to like either. But we all have faces, exist behind them, and interact with a sea of faces, real and perceived in the world around us. As such it is the ideal fundamentally human substratum through which to consider what it means to be human, to be alive in the world, and remembered in time.

The face is written by glancing phrases into a paragraph, an essay. The phrases are numerous, but much the same, after all. The face doesn’t have much to say except “I am,” “you are,” “it is” when reduced to a stare. And yet, as the world breathes around it, refracts it, ravages it, loves it, a face figures countless versions of itself into the life framed out of the mirror. I gather these figurations, save them, dissect them, arrange them in a grand monument to the fleeting visage they mark. Study the face from every angle, it becomes a cheering crowd, a thousand faces, all inklings of one face: it’s not me but my charioteer, steering one horse upwards, one down. (“The Corinthian Maid”)

Lunday’s project is essentially an open-ended phenomenological exercise, albeit with a strong Platonic edge. His task is to question—to test the instability of the lines we draw between memory and identity, internal and external reality, the embodied and the imagined. He draws on his own personal experience and observation, and builds on and around the thoughts of others, to offer reflections that we intuitively recognize ourselves.

“The atmosphere is of itself adapted to gather up instantaneously and to leave behind it every image and likeness of whatever body it sees.” (Leonardo da Vinci) The face is most often a retrospect: someone new reminds us of someone we knew before, a former friend, a type we’ve discovered in our various travels and meetings. Familiarity gradually unfolds, and the new and old faces form intersections of doubt and trust. (“Gyges’ Ring”)

Endlessly thought provoking, Gnome explores the myriad ways that “face” can be understood, but it is not prescriptive. It invites engagement. As I read it, I not only remembered that long-ago encounter with the “faceless boy;” I also thought about the way my own face—and more critically its role as mediator between myself and society—has changed over the past few decades. And I’m not referring to the inevitable effects of gravity and time. My once-feminine past is only vestigial now in the bald, bearded, unequivocally male face I see in the mirror. But which version is the mask? It depends on how you look at it.

Masks carry the bodies toward and away from one another. Spaces of association border one another; gaze and gawk interpenetrate, and meaning forms from our spontaneous, physical responsiveness to each other. The limit-experiences: insomnia, fatigue, erotic life, birth and death, wisdom.

In my face, my life as a theatre of one.

Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.

Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

Haunting fables for a modern world: Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

She was a writer on my radar, Joy Williams, somehow unknown to me until recently, but then, the world of literature is large and sometimes voices pass us by until fate or chance draws them to our attention. Or, if the rather ambivalent and perplexed Lord who appears in so many of the stories in her latest collection has His way, a little divine intervention is exercised. And so it happened that I found myself in the ER earlier this week, an advance reader’s copy of Ninety-Nine Stories of God on my phone. Between the tests and assessments to rule out any heart problems (my own private post cardiac arrest paranoia I’m afraid), I devoured a healthy measure of these bite-sized fictional treats. The true cause of my symptoms laid me under for a good 36 hours, but I emerged today to finish the collection, slowly only for the sake of savouring these deliciously dark, reflective, engagingly original tales.

99storiesA healthy dose of the unique joy of Joy Williams proved the perfect medicine.

The ninety-nine vignettes and mini stories that comprise this precious volume run the range from the brief and aphoristic to “longer” tales that run for a page or two. A cast of literary, philosophical and other assorted personalities make appearances, as characters or subjects. Williams delights in building fables that feature Kafka, Karl Jung, Simone Weil, or Philip K. Dick among others. At times she reduces her musing to the very simplest of terms, as in this one sentence micro-story which receives its context, as most of the stories do, by the title which is always placed at the end:

You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.

SARTRE TO CAMUS

The Lord Himself is a regular presence, as one might expect. He tends to appear in the most innocuous situations—He waits in a pharmacy line for His shingles shot, dreams of participating in a demolition derby, and expresses horror at the suggestion that He go to Home Depot to purchase supplies for a tortoise He wishes to adopt. Williams’ God is as curious and confused by His creations, especially those of the human form and He seems to have little control over the fate of His charges.

The Lord was asked if He believed in reincarnation.

I do, He said. It explains so much.

What does it explain, Sir? someone asked.

On your last Fourth of July festivities, I was invited to observe an annual hot-dog-eating contest, the Lord said, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

NEGLECT

Bemused and caring, lovingly benign, this is a God one can’t help liking. Good thing too, because the world of the ordinary people (and animals, for that matter) who feature in the majority of these stories is often marked by loss, despair and an odd isolation from others.

In his Numéro Cinq review of The Visiting Privilege, a recent compilation of her first three collections of short stories, Jason DeYoung describes her work as:

Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny.

This description holds fast here too, even in abbreviated form. The humour is black, and a disturbing energy courses just below the surface. Nothing is spelled out beyond the most spare, necessary, imagery. So many stories pivot, or pack their punch, not in the ostensible actions recounted but in the reactions of the characters which are often counterintuitive. There is a suggestion that we cling to our dysfunction, our delusions, possibly as a stand in for faith, leaving the poor Lord Himself an awkward outsider in a world He designed.

The style and format of this collection is most strongly reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator. Of course, it would be remiss if the great writer did not make an appearance as he does in a story about a woman reading book reviews:

She was reading a broadside that reviewed a number of books. The reviews were extremely intelligent and gracefully presented. She read about a cluster of works by Thomas Bernhard, the cranky genius of Austrian literature, works that had been translated into English. She doubted that she would buy these books. She learned that he always referred to his lifelong companion, Hedwig Stavianicek, as his “aunt”. She was thirty-seven years older than Bernhard. She couldn’t imagine she had been his lifelong companion for long.

Given the condition I’ve been in over the last few days that, through a wicked case of the flu, I reveled in these ninety-nine gems. This story goes on in a way that most wonderfully spoke to my state and made me smile:

She had had a fever for several days and she was loafing around, drinking fluids and reading. With her fever, the act of reading became ever stranger to her. First the words were solid, sternly limiting her perception of them to what she already knew. Then they became more frighteningly expansive, tapping into twisting arteries of memory. Then they became transparent, rendering them invisible.

I can assure you this will not be my last encounter with Joy Williams. I would encourage anyone whose interest has been sparked to check the review I’ve linked above which contains a video of Williams reading an essay entitled “Why I Write.” Ninety-Nine Stories of God will be released in July by Tin House.

Leaving the Atocha Station – The neurotic American poet in Spain

I recently read Ben Lerner’s acclaimed first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. I bought the book in 2012 but had put it aside, uncertain I wanted to spend time with a narrator I expected to be a misanthropic American slacker poet slouching his way through the streets of Madrid. When I happened to catch the replay of a CBC radio interview with the author my interest was rekindled, especially in light of my recent breakdown and the therapeutic comfort I have been finding in poetry.

indexSure enough our narrator Adam Gordon is an ambivalent and emotionally insecure young poet who has chosen to spend a fellowship year in Madrid. Ostensibly his aim is to explore, in verse, the impact of the Civil War on Spanish society although he seems to have precious little direction or inclination of how to begin his project beyond attempting to improve his comfort with the Spanish language. He seems to have a cultured skepticism in the value of art and the validity of the artistic experience which in turn causes him a healthy dose of self loathing. He passes his days smoking hash and cigarettes, while relying on the security of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. He reads Tolstoy, Cervantes, and John Ashbery. Beyond that he parties and awkwardly attempts to conduct love affairs with two Spanish women.

The resulting novel is a surprisingly humourous and engaging exploration of the struggling artist who refuses to struggle. Adam spends much time trying to make sense of what his new Spanish friends are saying and attempting to compose the facial expressions that he assumes will be appropriate for the circumstances. If in doubt he hides behind the prop of a cigarette. Yet it is not only the dislocation of being in a foreign country that accounts for Adam’s feeling of always being one step out of sync. He also believes himself to have bipolar disorder although it is never entirely clear that this is a confirmed diagnosis or a justification for the little yellow and white pills that he relies on. I’m not certain if Lerner, himself an established poet, is playing with the idea that neurosis is an essential element of the artistic process. Nonetheless Adam embraces it fully, manipulating his medication to ramp up the production of poems for a Spanish translation without any real sense if he is producing anything of worth.

Ultimately he crowns this phase of intense creative production with a grand manic splurge, thanks to his parents’ credit card, to impress one of the women he imagines himself in love with. An insanely expensive dinner and a night at the Ritz Carlton coincides with a tragic early morning blast at the busy Atocha Train Station, the 2004 attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 commuters. The street protests and the involvement of Adam’s wealthy young Spanish friends in the demonstrations and elections that follow this terrorist attack serve to force him to ground himself, even just a little.

The most engaging aspect of this book for me was the continual sense of self consciousness that pervadesAdam’s thoughts, plays with his confidence and keeps him from ever feeling that he is at home in any setting. His anxiety causes him to sabotage his potential relationships (or at least believe he is sabotaging them). He is alternately cocky and absolutely certain everyone else is humouring him. He spends time composing his face, adopting poses and pulling himself together in public settings. If you have never lived with a mood or anxiety disorder such obsessing might seem like poetic license. I found it uncomfortably familiar.

And those little pills Adam keeps reaching for… I have had to rely a lot on those myself lately.