June 2005

Olivia Cronk


Arbitrary Tales by Daniel Borzutzky

Daniel Borzutzky’s new book, Arbitrary Tales, is all things I want my fiction to reek of -- a collection of great whimsy, smarty-pants humor, and heartbreaking nonsense talk. The pieces are mostly small and digestible in a charming, Borgesian way. Riddle me this. Listen to this ditty. A wry, yet earnest, tone pervades most of the narrative. “The History of Rights” charts the course of a series of brutal ruffians who beat each other up and vie for power. “The brutal ruffian was then beaten by another brutal ruffian, who sang, ‘My lord is a brutal ruffian. My lord is a big, brutal ruffian and his Godmen are bigger than your Godmen.’” The lonely man in “The Lonely Man” finds a broken-legged cat who becomes his only companion, save for the strange and unkind visit from his eight sons (whom he has instructed to kill Frieda the cat, with lead pipes and bats). Frieda lives, after all, and meows the inspiration for the lonely man’s “opera about a blind circumciser famous for his ability to skillfully remove the foreskin from the penises of Jewish boys in such a way that the boys would not cry or scream.” From “My Lover, My Entomologist": “But now, as you explore the sturdy armor of pupae, and busy yourself with the poison of scorpions, you tell me that life is not so simple, and who I am to argue, for through you I have come to understand the cunning laws of the embryo, the extrageometrical raptures to be found in tentacles, and the similarities between a maggot and a little flower.” From “Bildungsroman:” “Hysterical Defense Process formed an alliance with Narcissistic Self-Gratification to ease the tensions between Id and Superego. And the act of coitus reunited Ego with Psychic Mother-Object. For a brief moment, the body ceased to be nervous about the vagina’s capacity to chew up and swallow the male member. The mind matured, and no longer desired the mother.” I ask this question rhetorically and with the enthusiasm you might express upon seeing a tornado in your yard or a gigantic cardboard puppet (speaking) on your couch: can you believe this shit?

What is exciting and engaging about Bortzutzky’s collection is its sheer expanse -- the andness of his turns and his diction, the deathless trip of his imagination, and the powerful and honest argument he makes. Borzutzky does not seem the sort of writer who works without theory. This is not to say that his work self-consciously advocates a theory; nor does he position himself, in the text, as an authority. No. The idea, I think, is that language is a divinely funny and magical system. It allows its users to romp and travel along the terrain of reality, while struggling with truly vertiginous questions of existence. Borzutzky’s job, then, is to re-reflect the two-pronged brain teaser of being alive and having language to talk about such a thing. And the happy, straining urge to show the reader that gesture is a charm.

A final something of interest: Arbitrary Tales may or may not be arbitrary, and its tales may or may not be mere fiction. Imbedded in the notion of language as a wondrous system is the notion that our chosen code is not, at least on a surface level, an arbitrary one. And one who composes “tales” that so brightly elucidate this premise knows, inherently, that genres do not do language justice. From a January interview on Chicagopostmodernpoetry.com: “I came to making things with words that look like poems after a few years of writing only prose. I have written a lot of prose and at some point I will probably resume writing prose. But when I became more aware of what was possible, when I began to read more, I found myself losing interest in writing prolonged narratives. Slowly, my fictions turned into prose poems and then the prose poems turned into things with words that look like poems.” That’s just the sort of process that leads to this little gem: “Drunk the Lacedaemonians spat gods out of their mouths, took them as slaves and commanded them to forget their preeminent powers, their titles, their ability to change fate with a snap or a wish or a whistle.” With a snap or a wish or a whistle.

Arbitrary Tales by Daniel Borzutzky
Triple Press
ISBN: 097665931X
142 Pages