February 2014

Adrian Van Young


The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men by Gabriel Blackwell

While reading The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men, Gabriel Blackwell's third novel out from Civil Coping Mechanisms, I have to admit that I lost track of time. This review, in that case, is perhaps unreliable.

I was stretched on a couch in a low-lighted room, frequently pausing the further I read. Not just because the book is good, which demands that the reader go ever more slowly, but also because it is hugely complex.

With its looping, funhouse architecture and infinite layers of shaky narration, The Natural Dissolution takes the meta-fictional premise that a person who may or may not be the author -- Blackwell himself is listed at the novel's "editor" -- has hopped a bus from Portland, OR to Providence, RI in search of his fiancée, Jessica Blackwell, who has recently left him. After taking a job at an old hospital where he's charged with the shredding of medical records, Blackwell discovers what would seem to be the last letter of H.P. Lovecraft, a notoriously un-cuddly horror writer who lived most of his life in the same city that Blackwell now wanders in search of his darling. As it happens, the letter itself is addressed to yet another third party named Gabriel Blackwell -- the actual Blackwell assumes, his ancestor, in response to a letter he's written. And it doesn't get any less trippy from there.

As Blackwell privileges us with a transcription of the letter, he annotates Lovecraft's last days on this earth, dwindling away from intestinal cancer, with his own de-familiarized rambles through Providence (he soon becomes a sort of bum). By the end of the novel this parallelism, achieved through footnotes that cut forward and back, creates a kind of two-way glass into which Blackwell and Lovecraft both stare, beholding each other's uncanny reflections.

But back to that time that I lost. Now where was I? I was lying, I think, in that low-lighted room. I was reading a part of the Lovecraft transcription where the fictional author begins to perceive what he describes as an "odd, husky, buzzing whisper" at inopportune times (an allusion to the sound that the farmer Ackerly hears in Lovecraft's story, "The Whisperer in the Darkness"). Pausing to wonder what that sounded like -- Blackwell, like Lovecraft himself, is a gorgeous abuser of imprecise language -- I gazed into the middle distance, absently stroking the top of the book. I came back to myself maybe five minutes later, or what I perceived at the time was five minutes. But on checking the clock a full hour had gone past, and I was still sitting there, stroking the book.

To read the book, in any way, is to experience its dread, its bottomless narrative dislocation. Like Brian Evenson or Thomas Bernhard, The Natural Dissolution is phenomenological, inviting the reader inside of its headspace. Its effect on the mind is to bend and unmoor it, to "leave [the reader]...wandering," as Evenson says in his blurb on the back. The sum-game of this -- in accordance with Lovecraft -- provokes a sort of cosmic terror, not from turning to gaze on the reaches of space but rather deep into the self. The fictional Lovecraft himself, too, succumbs to the chiaroscuro of being alive. "Darkness," he writes, "was everywhere... It was the thing that hid inside all of us, the shade that we carried with us to the well-lit space, the shadow we inevitably cast in the presence of brilliance. I could never escape this thing." While we hear from Blackwell, whose own experiences in Providence begin to eerily parallel Lovecraft's: "I was afraid of myself because I could not escape it, and so I blocked it, blacked it out." As in the works of Bernhard and Kafka and Lydia Davis, the book spirals inward, consuming its subjects.

The gist of the confluent plot lines is thus: Gabriel Blackwell, transcribing the letter, in which, he admits, he has "made some mistakes," saves its contents to an online file service. Lucky that he does, because soon he gets mugged and his laptop is stolen, along with the text of the letter itself. Blackwell informs us that the backed-up "version of the completed letter" is all that he has "access to" -- "...the physical letter was gone," Blackwell writes, "and, with it, all of my hope of corroboration." Meanwhile, the letter by Lovecraft describes the author's final days in Providence, living in a garret in the house of his aunt, and increasingly privy to dark entities whose provenance I'll not disclose.

Suffice to say, though, that the horrors that come are not unlike those found in Lovecraft's own fiction, itself obsessed with books and letters, especially found forbidden ones. Lovecraft himself confesses to us in a moment of shrill and Lovecraftian horror, describing the dark entities that he sees, "the plates and planes of the thing gradually became tentacles...a thing from my nightmares, a thing from my fiction."

Neither one of the narrators, Lovecraft or Blackwell, is ever lacking self-awareness. Nor are the two ever the least bit reliable: both of them equivocate, abandon themselves to full-blown paranoia, lose track of time that they never recover, see things that cannot -- that must not -- be real, and the layers of truth and untruth coincide with the narrators' worsening mental conditions. As Gabriel Blackwell lets us know at the beginning, but really the end of the book: "...though I spent a month in Providence mostly on foot, I could not draw you a map or even pick out where I had been. I might as well have been in any city at all." If you're thinking that this must get old, then you're right. But not in quite the way you think.

Granted, the branches of plot propagate through limitless empty and half-destroyed rooms, and the narrators ceaselessly question themselves at nearly every observation, playing gritty flaneurs to the city around them in a way that begins to belabor effect; and sometimes the writing becomes so abstract that we scarcely discern what it means anymore. And yet to indulge any one of these judgments would be to lose sight of the book's chief achievement: humanizing the racist and misanthrope, Lovecraft; elevating the tedious business of dying. The novel's mazes and abstractions, its layers and dissolutions, are reflective at last of the rote ceaselessness of Lovecraft dying in his bed, in whose mind intellect, fantasy, contemplation are all of them, painfully, draining away.

The Natural Dissolution is a puzzle-box, yeah. It's also elegiac and indelibly human. But I can't verify my impressions hereto. It's a masterpiece, sure, but don't take it from me.

This review of the book, after all, has meant nothing.

The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men by Gabriel Blackwell
Civil Coping Mechanisms
ISBN: 978-1937865146
194 pages