October 2007

Chris Higgs


Nylund, the Sarcographer by Joyelle McSweeney

I tried to find a definition of “sarcographer” in a half dozen dictionaries, but came up empty. According to the publisher, the word refers to the method by which the book was written, as well as the method by which the eponymous protagonist experiences the world: “Sarcography is like negative capability on steroids.” How odd, I thought to myself. Odd, but crazy interesting.

Enter Joyelle McSweeney. Part poet (see: The Commandrine and Other Poems and The Red Bird, both from Fence Books), part professor (see: University of Alabama turned University of Notre Dame), part co-founder and co-editor of Action Books, a poetry and translation press, and Action, Yes!, a web-quarterly for international writing and hybrid forms. In the past half decade her name has become synonymous with interesting. And now, luckily for us, she is poised to majorly crossover into the land of prose, with the publication of this novella and the upcoming sci-fi book, Flet, slated to drop in 2008.

Nylund, the Sarcographer is like interesting on steroids. Caution: if you are looking for a typical, straight forward, good old fashioned yarn, you’d do best to look elsewhere; but if you want to experience something fresh, daring, creepy, and significant, this is the one for you. It is the opposite of boring, an ominous conflagration devouring the bland terrain of conventional realism, the kind of work that tickles your inner ear, gives you the shivers, and tricks your left brain into thinking that your right brain has staged a coup d'état. In short, it personifies the “totality of vision” John Hawkes so infamously championed sixty-two years ago when he said: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.” That is not to say this book is plotless, characterless, settingless, or themeless. Those elements (enemies) do drift in and out of focus in modulated intervals, enough that one could gather:

There is a stuttering lug named Nylund whose chin, in moments of stress, “made a motion like a typewriter when someone’s punched return. It jerked right, then jerked left to its angle of incidence.”

Before disappearing, Nylund had a sister named Daisy who “liked to be this or that, just two things.”

Both the theme and setting are hauntingly dark (in a David Lynch sort of way).

There is a murder, a robbery, and a kidnapping.

There is a Grandson.

There are bosses and police and thugs.


There is a woman named Armenian Rose.

But in the overall scheme of things, these enemies (elements) are considerably less significant than McSweeney’s true superpower: her ravishing sentence constructions:

If you breathe too close to the land you get the bird flu, we know that now. Then, no. If you breathe too high up in the air the air thins out and you see through a fog of particulates blindly and if you look at things through a mirror on your birthday then the scales fall from your eyes.

Or what about:

The gravel driveway curved away like a uterus and the Mister and the Missus were born through the threshold and into the house.

Or how about this description:

Nylund arrived at work one morning to find the Superior’s face drawn to a point. It was like a knife turned on you if it was turned right on you you couldn’t see it.

Other than the incomparable Ben Marcus, I’m not sure anyone in contemporary letters can compete with the voracity of ingenuity, complexity, and beauty of McSweeney’s usage. Each sentence is carefully crafted to upend your expectations in such a way as to make you giddy with anticipation. Call me strange, but I seriously felt a rush of adrenaline from the sheer excitement over what might come next. Seriously, I did. I’m not kidding.

I would share more quotes, but that would be the equivalent of a spoiler. You need to get this book and feast on the delicacies for yourself.  

Nylund, the Sarcographer by Joyelle McSweeney
Tarpaulin Sky Press
ISBN: 978-0-9779019-4-4
119 pages