May 2014

Vanessa Willoughby


Insel by Mina Loy

Much of Mina Loy's Insel is as slippery and effervescent as the novel's downtrodden Bohemian martyr and title star. Loy, a painter, poet, intellect, and a rightful touchstone for definitive artistic movements of the first half of the twentieth century, captures the nuances of cultural zeitgeist through the literary alter-egos of friends and acquaintances. Utilizing the autobiographical as a springboard for the fictional is a literary trope, a familiar tool used by even the most revered of authors. Much like her contemporaries, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, and Gertrude Stein, Loy reimagines the details of her personal history in order to illuminate the perplexities of life and human relationships.

It's believed that Insel was inspired by Loy's friendship with the German painter Richard Oelze. The narrator, Mrs. Jones, is almost taken for a fool by Insel; she soon realizes that he has been passing off portions of Kafka's fiction as his life. This sets Mrs. Jones into a psychological and psychosomatic tailspin. She not only empathized with Insel and his impoverished and pathetic conditions, but she also planned to write Insel's biography, thoroughly believing in the originality and richness of his life. She had been captivated by an illusion, someone much more powerful than an imaginary friend, someone possessing the ability to shape-shift. Mrs. Jones often describes Insel as someone who is not always present. He appears out of thin air, sagging under the weight of bone-weary exhaustion, as though the daily rituals of existence are draining.

Insel seemed unconscious of having waited for me for an hour and a half. After all it was ridiculous stopping to apologize to one who lived in that other time and space. My reflection immediately complicated, "When was he here? When was he there? Was he in a wavering way existing in both dimensions at once?" The distant aristo went about his simple social life with sufficient consecutiveness, save for long delays excused with mysterious illness and misplaced sleep, he visited anyone who would have him on the right day.

Mrs. Jones is an apt stand-in for the readers, as we are never able to get a clean read of Insel's character. He is always flickering between the parameters of his embellished dream world and the real world. Insel carries with him the air of someone half-dead, a boat captain floating on the Styx, operating on an unknown source of magic and manipulation. He is in constant danger of being ripped apart, as though his physical body were a trick of the light. There are numerous references to what defines a state of being, materialization, dematerialization, and the natural state of the physical body itself. Mrs. Jones observes about her friend, "...He moved within an outer circle of partial decease -- a ring of death surrounding him -- that he reminded one of those magically animated corpses described by William Seabrook. Even before he came into one's presence, one received a draughty intimation of his frosty approach. He chilled the air, flattened the hour, faded color."

Would it be too clumsy to refer to Insel as Kafkaesque? The choice of author that Insel imitates is a deliberate device. It draws an automatic parallel to the recurrent themes of Kafka's work: alienation, isolation, dissociation. Establishing intimacy with Insel means that Mrs. Jones must lose herself each time, yielding to the painter's electrical hum. The process wears on Mrs. Jones and Insel likes having an audience. Unlike The Metamorphosis, Loy keeps her subjects somehow tethered to reality at all times, even when it feels like the line is about to snap. Mrs. Jones is the background for Insel's colorful recklessness. 

In the Introduction to Melville House's Neversink Library edition, Sarah Hayden says, "Subtending all of Loy's writing is a furious resistance to the oppressive regulation of female embodied experience and a commitment to unsettling essentialist binarism." The evidence is in Loy's text as she methodically constructs and deconstructs Insel's self-exaggerated persona of masculinity. The first image that we get is a desperate painter scrounging for a new set of false teeth. As Mrs. Jones and Insel's relationship deepens, it twists into a co-dependent nightmare, mimicking the breakdown of a mother-son relationship. Mrs. Jones is ambitious and hungry while Insel only plays the part, indulging in his ego. In order to save herself and protect her sanity, Mrs. Jones must leave him. However Insel proves that his connection cannot be completely severed. In the section marked Visitation, Insel flexes his materialization powers and the end result borders on mystical premonition and hollow hallucination.


There was no mistaking this ecclesiastic 'current.' Here was my drug addict; divested of those shreds of flesh, easily as an aria relayed across the Atlantic, a recognisable 'invisibility' come to visit me.

A lesson in character study punctuated by surrealism, Mina Loy's Insel demands a certain level of patience and dedication. It is a novel that feels free to dip in and out of the heart of defined literary movements or distinguished styles. This is not to say that Loy's writing is sloppy in its execution. The novel challenges the restrictions of literary expectations, infusing prose with poetry, surrealism with modernism. There is no glorious redemption of Insel and it's implied that he will continue on just as he did before bewitching Mrs. Jones. A reader feels as though she's still dazed from being thrown from the eye of the storm.

Who knows if Mrs. Jones will fully rid herself of Insel as he has the ability to haunt his former flames?

Insel by Mina Loy
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612193533
224 pages