The Book of Frank by CA Conrad
Reading The Book of Frank is like that first time when you realize the brutality and intimacy of childhood, the way it ends and never ends and if you’re stuck then your imagination is the closest you’ll get to a rescue party. Under the dinner table, you notice everyone is masturbating, even if it’s just hands gliding over knees. When the toast talks to you at breakfast and says, “you sir have no hope!,” then there’s an easy solution: eat it. Goodbye toast! If your mother learns to rock her miscarriages instead of you, and then she turns into a giant squid in the living room -- a squid with a beak, even -- then pray (since childhood is the time for praying): “when I die…I will never return/if I must/it will be as/abortions.”
The imagination can help, but still, “every March Frank/loses his circle of friends.” His sister grows blue feathers and it’s painful, she retreats to a cave and only gets those few beautiful moments of flying back to the house before a hunter takes aim at her back. Meanwhile, there’s a girl living under Frank’s mattress while he’s fucking coke bottles until they crack. The good news is that when Frank smashes the fine china, his mother crumbles to the sidewalk: the end. Of the first section. But there’s more good news: “something inside him/spread its wings//something intending/to stay.”
Somehow we know these wings will hurt as much as Frank’s sister’s, but maybe take him further: “Frank knows a/ butterfly/who wonders/about her old/caterpillar/friends.” And: “‘I want to/move to/another/city’ Frank said/‘so long as/I don’t have/to take/myself/with/me.’” But when Frank does move, all the cats he threw from buildings come back as one angry lion; sunglasses jump off Frank’s face; a hat divulges secrets; a teapot asks for eyes and Frank delivers tears. If the first section explodes with the dreams of a neglected childhood, the second section gives us a somewhat paranoid Frank in a transient space. Frank’s sexual exploits shift from female to male figures, and even to a man literally made of chocolate -- in the park, no less! In an encounter with the chocolate man, Frank devours the genitals and the melting man explodes before a bitter (sweet) end; even if this is an irreverent tale, we can’t help wondering about the violence of racialized desire. But why is it lesbian ventriloquists who Frank fears, even as he learns to yell “BORING” to keep judgment at bay -- is it the contradictions of identity meeting occupation, or the challenges of Frank’s imagination telling him “what a dirty little/hen he was.”
Part three: a wife! A what? A wife. Oh, a wife. And sure, they eat together from the menu of dead authors, but still their choices are gendered. Frank: Emily Dickinson’s breasts. The wife: Jack Kerouac’s genitals. If Frank’s mother was terrified of the fine china cracking, Frank’s fear involves airplane travel -- even if it’s just a photo of Frank, smuggled on board by a stewardess, thousands of feet down below Frank falls to the ground in pain. With the death of his abusive mother, we rejoice, but with this newer trauma we’re not sure what to do. The endearing visions of the first section have given way to scenes of the grotesque: Frank eats off his wife’s tampons when she isn’t looking, chops off his thumbs, rips apart the queen of spades after fucking her. But then Frank asks: “is no one else/SICK of this/paralysis of/gravity!?” And declares: “when I was a boy/I stepped into the sky/and I was a boy/not a surrealist!” Now we can return to a place where the raunchiness and violence become more tender. Back to the adventures of a child: Frank argues with a pig over whose world the fences serve; he learns to communicate with roaches; the roaches teach Frank how to cook pots of garbage. Delicious!
Does The Book of Frank end with Frank’s suicide, or with more dreaming? Both: if everything is literal, then nothing is literal. Perhaps that’s what dreaming is really about.
The Book of Frank by CA Conrad
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the author, most recently, of So Many Ways To Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008).