Ghost at the Loom by T. Zachary Cotler
T. Zachary Cotler's new novel Ghost at the Loom is very good -- almost. But I qualify the "almost" because Ghost at the Loom makes me want to read everything else Cotler has written and everything he will write.
The book begins with an introduction to John Minus, something of a young, healthy Abe Ravelstein, unapologetically rich and witty, voracious, domineering, playful. He is narrator-poet Rider Sonnenreich’s literary patron and, Cotler later reveals, the editor of his book; that is, this very book. This double authority puts Minus in the unique position of being both subject and uber-narrator. It is difficult to say exactly what liberties he takes with the privilege beyond giving himself the pseudonym “John Minus” and transposing the entire work from verse to prose. But he has an appetite for control. Late in the novel he pilots a yacht into the Pacific “without a tiller, with a laptop wirelessly connected to the helm controls.” Minus reads storms and commodities markets alike on the internet. He describes himself as a “weather cowboy” with an earnest flippancy that gives one the sense it is not the jibless yacht but he, the perfect 21st-century man, who is unsinkable. I am prepared to see his corrections all over the text.
The rest is a mission to Europe, then to California, then to sea aboard the aforementioned yacht -- with episodic asides throughout from the life and death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. I have trouble with Cotler’s portrayal of the Sonnenreichs, whose reunion is the object of Rider’s travels. I know families similarly bound by spiteful co-dependencies, but none of them include a cosmopolitan poet who should know better. The supposition that art resists the snares of those it ridicules leads me to reject Rider’s attachment to his mother, as well as the unchecked tenderness he feels for his epileptic sister, Leya. However this deficiency may be my own lack of imagination. It is possible that nasty families are in some cases irresistible, even for visionaries.
I am less sympathetic to Rider’s inner quest to reclaim the spirit of his rural California childhood, a time when every moment was an act of creation in which he overlaid the quenchless earth with his fantasies. On several occasions Cotler reproduces dreamy scenes out of his protagonist’s nostalgia. They are well put, interesting, and faithful to the nimble minds of children -- but always attainable, so that one cannot reconcile them with Rider’s professed impotence to see once again through his younger eyes. He searches for keys to give him access to this state. He foregoes his prescribed suppressants. He hallucinates at a museum in Amsterdam (culminating ironically in the one truly adult act: sex). He coaxes some of the old language from the mouth of his muddled younger sister. In these belabored attempts he forgets, or Cotler does, that all of his sacred memory is the eventual pliant pulp of his verse. For the self-possessed artist, all is profane.
Among the many pleasures of Ghost at the Loom is an evocation of Americans in Europe that actually holds a candle to the work of Henry James -- unlike, for instance, Caleb Crain’s insipid 2013 debut Necessary Errors, little more than an almanac of Prague, that reviewers so misleadingly compared to The Ambassadors. Rider’s detached sojourn at an Italian villa among obsequious, affected “courtiers” to an obscurely influential socialite is as hilarious as any perplexing salon in James. Cotler portrays Rider abroad as someone whose deliberate ignorance leads, baptismally, to a regained innocence. A church in rural Slovenia and the celebration of violence in Pamplona and the density of languages he does not speak transform Rider into a truly alien being whose perceptions only just conform to his relating them. The effect is blissful confusion.
Here is Rider Sonnenreich, philosopher: “I would like to propose a metaphysical organ… called an ‘image drum,’ inside and on the surface of which words are truly things, and ‘truly’ is a word with uncontested meaning.” The image drum attracts me, even though I think it is only a kaleidoscope with a fancier name. In my mind, it is a drum with a crank -- like a backyard composter -- that transforms its contents as it tumbles them. Rider turns it time and again as he skims material from the pretty surfaces of Europe and California. It results in the formally layered output of the text: a journal, recast as a letter, assembled in verse, with embedded correspondence, broken back down to prose.
Cotler took on both roles, Rider and John Minus, in composing the novel. There would not be so much poetry in the paragraphs if he had not originally written it that way -- but he did originally write it that way: “Your Brother in the Trees” from Cotler’s 2011 collection House with a Dark Sky Roof is the novel’s epigraph, a sort of statement of purpose for the long letter that follows. “Instead, / I sent you this,” it concludes, lending the book an air of accident -- or shortcoming. And another of Cotler’s poems, “Karuk Nation,” rendered into prose for Ghost at the Loom, introduces Bronner, the Karuk Indian who mentors Rider and sleeps with his mother. Plenty more where those came from, I expect:
Wine makes me want. Roman night alleys are runways -- cuffs and sleeves, curves, cracked terracotta white leather language. Maybe each woman sees me, one-eyed bottle-handed lurker. Each looks once and walks on. Each, I imagine, is gentle to someone.
I see line breaks after “want,” “runways,” “cracked,” “language,” “me,” “lurker,” “walks,” and “imagine.” I see the ghosts of line breaks all over Ghost at the Loom. Its language often dazzles the way poems might if I did not take their poetry for granted.
I will not draw conclusions about the task of being both the poet and his tampering editor, the wayward protégé and his benefactor. How good it is to read a strange and ambitious new book! Never mind my dim doubts, Mr. Cotler, and please give me more.
Ghost at the Loom by T. Zachary Cotler