Not exactly at a loss for words: Doom Town by Gabriel Blackwell

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.

Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor

Freedomland prospectus:
“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history live again at Freedomland! . . .”


As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.

mobileSubtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.

As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:

The sea,


razor clams,


littleneck clams,

                    Washington clams

A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.

The sparkling snow.

SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in

SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,


                     already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”

The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.

Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:

 “…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”

Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:

                      “. . . Choose from

– white for Sunday,

                      – The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,

– yellow for Monday,

                     – Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,

– blue for Tuesday,

                      – Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,

– pink for Wednesday,

                     – Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,

– white for Thursday,

                     – Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,

– green for Friday,

                     – Venus and Adonis.”

– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”

This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America.


Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.