Bob, or Man on Boat by Peter Markus
A rose is a rose is a rose, just as a fish is a fish is a fish. For those familiar with Peter Markus’s work, his new novel Bob, or Man on Boat returns to familiar territory: the dirty river of a dirty river town. Bob, or Man on Boat is a story of many Bobs: The narrator’s father and main point of interest is Bob; the narrator is Bob; the narrator’s son is Bob; the narrator’s boat -- the dead man’s boat -- is Bob; and the river, too, is Bob, or at least it is at night. But before you start looking for Church of the SubGenius themes, you should consider that all these Bobs are also fish. Because at its heart, this is a story about fishing, a story where the son fishes for the father while simultaneously wishing to be fished up by the father. Are you with me so far?
Whether or not Markus intentionally restrains himself to a limited vocabulary of, say, 200 words like Aaron Kunin does in The Sore Throat, I do not know. However, I do know Bob, or Man on Boat tightly revolves around a small group of common nouns that Markus builds into monoliths through repetition. Words like fish, boat, river, father, brother, and son become magical as they open up to multiple meanings, loop back on themselves, and create a personal etymology ("The river, in the rain, becomes a lake."). Markus gives gravity to these basic words, words likely to be found on first grade spelling tests.
Though much has been made, and should be made, of his spare use of words, there is still a verbosity to Markus's writing. Through using redundancies like "half-part" and favoring re-using nouns instead of substituting them with pronouns, Markus engages in a certain intentional over-writing. In the business of constructing sentences, he seems to delight in making syntactical oddities and near palindromic and riddlelike phrases: "Is there a bigger fish for a man to fish for than the fish that is his father?" (It's no wonder the characters at the center of this story share the most basic sort of palindrome for a name: Bob.) Episodic in nature, the individual sections build logically from one sentence to another:
There was a time when Bob wasn't a fish out of water.
There was a time when Bob was just a boy.
There was a time when to Bob, in Bob's boy eyes, the river was just a river.
But then something happened, to this boy Bob.
Down by the river.
Down in the river.
This boy Bob heard a sound.
This sound, it was coming from the river.
This sound, Bob knew, was coming from a fish.
This river with this fish in it, it was calling out to Bob his name.
Bob, Bob, is what this sound said.
Markus emphasizes this basic unit of composition by giving each sentence it's own paragraph. At times, the choppiness and lyric play lends itself more to poetry than prose:
To fish the fish that is more than a fish.
We are fishing.
We kept on fishing.
We fished until there was nothing left to fish.
With its repetition and focus on musicality of words and phrases, it is hard not to think of Gertrude Stein, especially when Markus alludes to her: "A fish is a fish. Is a fish." It is also hard not to hear echoes of Faulkner's Vardaman any time the narrator states that he is a fish, or his father is a fish, or his son or uncle is a fish. And it is hard, too, not to think of Moby Dick in this epic tale of fishing for that one fish, but Markus playfully reminds the reader, "A whale is not a fish."
In this timeless tale of big fish eating smaller fish and fathers consuming sons, the narrator directly addresses the reader. He instructs, "Look at Bob," explains, "You know this. I've told you this," and later clarifies his use of "we": "When I say we I mean this: me and you and the river and the fish. Us." There is a sense that the reader is part of this story, part of this tale of generations and searching. The reader is Bob. The reader is a fish.
Bob, or Man on Boat by Peter Markus