September 2009

John Domini


New Novellas

You can see at once that both these books are freaks. You won't even find the Caketrain prizewinner, Matt Bell's The Collectors, bound between covers. Its first run sold out fast, and now the chapbook or novella or whatever you'd call it is available as a free download. And Blake Butler's willowy Ever seems even weirder, page for page. The prose is often fitted around gray-black designs, themselves never representational, and the passages without artwork feature outlandish space breaks and punctuation.

As for things like plot or character, forget it. Both works track central figures, but neither develops tension or provides other novelistic amenities. Yet when I say that these two very-small-press books afforded me some of my most cleansing and enjoyable reading, recently -- a terrific experience, no less -- I have to reach for comparison to work half a century old.

In the 1950s, Samuel Beckett brought out his groundbreaking trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. These were stories of renunciation, as in the brilliant central novella, when the bedridden Malone gives up the scrap he's carried this far and lets his consciousness fade into a story. Beyond that, Beckett renounces the culture in which he came up, the High Modernism of his mentor Joyce. He insists on a new field of discourse, primarily by means of doing without. So as I read these two latest challenges to what we expect of fiction, stories stripped of their vestments, I couldn't stop thinking of Beckett's trilogy. Bell's novella does have a setting and a history, mid-town Manhattan during the same period when Beckett was bringing out his trilogy. To establish this much, though, takes digging -- and that's precisely the word. The abode of these "collectors" is a garbage heap. The bachelor brothers Langley and Homer Collyer were packrat-psychos. They occupied (boy did they) an Upper East Side brownstone, and died crushed beneath their own cram: "three baby carriages, rakes and hoes…, several rusted bicycles, kitchen utensils (including at least four sets of china…), a heap of glass chandeliers that had been removed to make room for the piles and the tunnels." And this is just one list, from one of the several short chapters that Bell labels "Inventory."

The Collyers, in his reimagining, don't live in a place so much as a passion. The Collectors, keeping things in-house, burrows deep into the mind. Most of the two or three-page chapters deal out imagined snippets of the brothers' dying days, the point of view shifting between two men beyond help: Langley crippled and Homer blind. The latter's name and disability are another fact of the history, but they suggest of course the famous first storyteller, and so add an intertextual irony. Both war and odyssey stay within the city walls.

Bell visits one or two other perceptions as well, in chapters set after the brothers' demise, but the feel remains claustrophobic. The style tends to lists and compound-complex constructions, such as when we get an inkling of psychology, regarding the father's abandonment: "Every stray hair clinging to a shirt collar, every scrap of handwriting left in the margins of his texts, all of it is him, is who he was. It's all that's left, but if you keep it safe then it's all you'll ever need." Hard feelings have calcified, leaving everyone pretty well paralyzed even before the accident to the (slightly) more mobile brother. That accident's the only event; the rest is inventory, including the death rattle.

Yet such a description violates the story's sprightliness. The brief volume has almost thirty chapter breaks, and these are arranged in an outline of numerals and capitols, pleasantly confounding while it's reliably repetitious. More than that, each "Inventory" embodies, in its archeological slice of the home, some smaller tragedy. The dolls in one room, uncovered at what would be the climax point of an ordinary fiction, amount to "no more a family than anything else." So while the madness of the situation remains beyond our ken, the sorrow's brought down to human scale.

The reader, you could say, becomes both cleanup crew and Author. These are the two other perspectives that turn up, again imaginary; the Author isn't the historical Matt Bell, no more than Homer and Langley are the historical Collyers. But a few of the passages here speak with re-animating force, amid the wreckage. The Collectors suggests, ultimately, that there exists no better form of renewal than the accommodating art of story.

I should add that Bell's book was the runner-up for Caketrain's contest, after All the Day's Sad Stories by Tina May Hall. Both were selected by Brian Evenson, a compatible sensibility -- and Evenson also committed a lengthy blurb for Blake Butler. Yet Ever, for all the correspondences between it and The Collectors, presents a significantly different texture. Butler may confine his alterna-drama to a single indoor space, as Bell does, but it's a space without a setting. There's a suggestion or two of the hurricane alleys of the American South, but the context serves primarily as a platform for surreal metamorphosis and extraordinary style.

This author's sentences at once estrange and seduce. A number of passages read like a 21st-Century resurrection of Middle English, constructed for the ear, dependent on assonance and buried rhyme. From the second page: "In the light my skin was see-through -- my veins an atlas spanned in tissue." Not much later, more pugnaciously: "Streams of night might gleam like glass. The dirt would swim with foam." Appreciation of Butler's small, scary miracle requires appreciation of such beveled prose gems, the majority of which appear between brackets. It's as if everything were a whispered aside, the bits and pieces of former lives picked out of a whirlwind.

A whirlwind would be one way to describe what happens, a whirlwind played Largo, but Ever offers nothing like disaster reporting. Earlier I noted the design elements, which rarely allow for a full page of prose, and in one sequence we read no more than a few lines on each. Yet the decorations hint of Edward Gorey, with their shadowy semi-skeletons, and a few bones of story turn up. Ever follows a soiled Alice through the looking-glass. The girl (unnamed, but she mentions a dress and such) is pulled through the rooms of a phantasmagoric home, right through walls, by a force she can't understand. She realizes she's up against a threat, and there's also a drifting, disturbing neighbor, yet she's fascinated, savoring details. "The next room was made of wobble. Magnetic tape streaming from the rafters, bifurcating blonde split-ends. Cashed." The remainder of that page runs blank, too, as if to invite meditation.

Unworldly as her house-tour is, the girl's ghostly traveling recalls a classic turn of the mind. A psychological phenomenon noted by several researchers, often called "the dream of rooms." Such dreams can occur at any age, but they're most common towards the end of life, when the consciousness seeks to revisit the arenas of experience and somehow extend them to whatever's next. The correlative figures for Ever would be, naturally, the dying vagabonds of Beckett's trilogy. If Butler is headed for the ever-after, the victim of some place and catastrophe she can't comprehend, it's through these same gaps of mind that she slips into heaven. So too we might say that Matt Bell's sociopathic collectors, in becoming dramatis personae, achieve the perverse Assumption. Or perhaps fiction itself is what's rising to a higher sphere, given these two examples of how it won't be reined in.


John Domini's latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. His translation of Tullio Pironti's memoir Books and Rough Business is now in print, and next will come a selection of essays and reviews, The Sea-God's Herb.