JR Foley

(In this space will appear capsule comments on recent books, mostly fiction. It's harder to say what you like in a book than what you don't like. On the other hand, think I, why waste breath on books you don't like? There are good reasons, of course, for criticizing the criticizable and attacking the attackable. But these books I like.)

MOSAIC MAN, Ronald Sukenick (FC2, Normal, IL, 1999)

Time Famine, Lance Olsen (Permeable Press, San Francisco, 1996)

Memories of My Father Watching TV, Curtis White
(Dalkey Archive Press, 1998)

Dradin, In Love, Jeff VanderMeer (Buzzcity Press, Tallahassee, 1996)

Your Name Here:_________, Cris Mazza (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1995)

John's Wife, Robert Coover (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996)

MOSAIC MAN, Ronald Sukenick (FC2, Normal, IL, 1999)

     In the beginning, the WORD; and the Word begets STORY. Whose story? His. Who he? That's what he wants to know. "Exiting Brooklyn as a kid Ron too is looking for something, though he doesn't know what it is." For starters, he's a Jew, isn't he? and his book starts at, that is, in the beginning, with the "unspeakable, unreadable, and unintelligible. Beyond human perception. Sublime. Writing not yet language." He says. And the book in which, through which he says it -- one of whose secret names is Wholly Book (that is, a book that is wholly a book, literally true, and not partly an illusion) begins with "GENES" and proceeds through "EX/ODE," "UMBILICUS," "NUMBERS," and "AUTONOMY," to "PROFITS" and the "HAND WRITING ON WALL." The history of one man recapitulating the tale of the tribe, the history of the race. And which race is that? "Personally," says he, "being Jewish is just an advanced case of being human, and being human may be a terminal disease that's run its course. Personally, maybe we're just beings, forget human, beings among other beings, some hairy, some furry, some feathery, some leathery, and some who possibly will soon arrive from other sectors of the universe."

     The one man is also a "tummler: a comic, a crazy." He does prophecy as stand-up, revelation as shtick. He's a prophet (like most prophets) of compelling contradictions. A nonbeliever, he nonetheless identifies with Moses, the Rabbi, the iconoclast. Opposed to Moses is his brother Aaron, maker of the Golden Calf. Mosaic as he likes, Ron is aaRonian, too. Resolutely scorning the sell-out path to literary fame and fortune, Ron still can't take his eyes off the Calf. But the Calf is not only gelt, it is things-as-they-are. Mosaic men, on the other hand, dream that things don't have to be as they are, that things can change -- although sometimes that gets them crucified. Not that the Calf can save anyone from Auschwitz, either.

     But here I am expatiating on themes when Mosaic Man is all story -- stories and stories. Made up? Graven? Well, Sukenick finds the "literally true [to be] fundamentally mysterious." He never makes anything up, he simply disregards any border between "the literally true" and "dream" riffs on the literally true. So the Brooklyn boy Ronnie flies with Captain Midnight, a dead neighborhood hero Sgt. Leibowitz, and a voluptuous blonde shiksa named Happy to bomb Nazi concentration camps. So the older writer Ron haunts the canals of Venice like another writer in a well-known German novella, pursuing a young man whose fascination he cannot shake. So (in the last section of the book, where people from the earlier "autobiographical"section, and indeed characters from earlier novels, come together in a final quest of the Golden Calf) Ron becomes Ram Shade, private eye, recipient of a package the size of two cowboy boots rumored to hold a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealing the ancient Calf's precise whereabouts. Of course bad guys from all over, Sidney Greenstreet-types, Mary Astor-types -- Raiders of the Lost Calf -- threaten or beguile our hero. The quest, never-ending, proliferates through multiplying subplots and personalities, the confusion approaching the density and inconclusion of Real Life.

     I haven't begun to tell what this book is like. In company with Sukenick's other novels it's unlike any novels others write. Even when it's grim -- and in post-WWII Europe everything is grim -- it's funny, because whatever else Sukenick does, he cannot NOT be funny. Witness:

He starts in Warsaw. There his hotel is filled with Arab terrorists. Warsaw's where they come for R & R he's reliably informed. At breakfast a man in a red checkered kefiyah and a heavy black moustache tries to sell him a small golden hand, charm bracelet size, and a tiny archaic calf statuette, also golden. Claims he "got" them from a Jew. Ativistic warnings activate in primal circuit boards. Bloody Canaanite idols? Pre-abramic oedipal butchery? Moloch offal? Human burnt offerings? Allah suicide assassin? Jesus cannibal sacrifice? Ron has the feeling these gilt symbols, symbols of get and got, grasp and greed, are part of an impenetrable ancient code, read in steaming entrails by priests hostaged to death. Gilt for guilt. Fascist death cult nihilism. Bondage and libertinage licensed by potent chthonic gods rising from mud, blood and shit. Maybe it's only his imagination, but he turns his back and walks away, the PLO type still dangling his charms.

     Sukenick's farce is always dead serious. Take the Dead Sea Scrolls. "The real secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls is they're written in genetic code. This was discovered in collaboration with scientists through computer studies at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. ... They say it's a language that far outstrips the subtleties and complexities of any human language, proceeding by puns and triple or quadruple entendres. Something like Finnegans Wake."

     Also like Mosaic Man:

...Intelligence is interested in the Golden Calf. It wants to destroy the Lost Calf because it's an icon. Because intelligence is iconoclastic. Because it doesn't matter what icon I con you with there are always strings attached. That's why Moses was an iconoclast. That's why he destroyed the Calf. Because if there are strings attached you are still a dummy. Easy to control. Born to lose.

     And I've said nothing about the Golem, a major figure in the Wholly Book, Man of Clay and fake messiah, friend and enemy both of Truth and Death. But ... that's another story.

     My personal favorite among Ronald Sukenick's novels is 98.6, a tale indispensable to anyone interested in what the hell happened in America during the so-called "Sixties." But I have to say Mosaic Man rivals it in achievement, and perhaps -- given the new book's Melvillian increase in seriousness, which makes its grim-comic vision only more antic -- perhaps Mosaic Man even surpasses my favorite.

     I don't often read books twice (98.6 one exception to the rule). But glancing back through the pages of Mosaic Man for this review, I found myself helpless to resist reading the whole thing again, and it's even better the second time around. From this reviewer, very high praise indeed.

     FlashPøint was fortunate to interview Ronald Sukenick for its premier print issue. The interview is also in our first on-line issue -- "The Rival Tradition" -- along with "Life/Art: A Static Story for the Small Screen".

Time Famine, Lance Olsen
(Permeable Press, 1996)

     A dazzling book, Time Famine! Rarely have I witnessed a 'nother world evoked with such sensual solidity and expansive invention by the tongue of every sentence. The invention is both comic and harrowing. Listen just to the opening:
The last thirteen minutes of Izzy Slacker's life were really pleasant. Mostly this was because they began when Teresa Ptomaine, drastic tour guide with the crank triple-sixes branded upside her fuzzy cream-green head, led him into the storeroom down the concrete corridor from the reactor in the power station at BelsenLand, Klub Med's latest concentration camp theme park (raised atop the post-Shudder UCLA campus a hubcap's throw from the San Diego Freeway to the west, silver gleam of Beverly Hills guard towers and razor fences to the northeast, and vast HDTV screens broadcasting commercials twenty-four hours a day from each copper face of the new Diacomm Labs pyramid to the south), and sunk her warm fingers down the front of his baggy string-tied polyester pants.

     The vitality and inventiveness of the language are wonderfully sustained; for the next 320 pages the book keeps thrusting, thrusting, making new after new -- never shifting into coast. Izzy, who along with Teresa disappears from the book at the end of those 13 minutes, does so in a reactor blast triggered by or triggering an earthquake that dwarfs the memory of that earlier Shudder, although, of course, what's left of the U.S. Government doesn't want anyone to know about that nasty nuclear stuff. One result of the blast is some sort of time-warping disease (Chrono-Unific Deficiency Syndrome, or CHRUDS ("Major Time Fuckup to us mortals.")), which takes young Ulysses Sysop-of-the-Plains Stray in serial identities back to the notorious Donner Party of 1847; but this is as much story as I'll tell. (Except to say I'm sure I'll never read as vivid an account of the Donner Party.) The plot is as complicated and adroitly paced as a page-turner should be. But what's most amazing about Time Famine is the energy, comic and grim, never flags; yet things never get forced either, in the artificial 21st Century world or in the 19th Century "natural" world of Utah desert and California mountain snow.

     I hesitate to call Time Famine sci-fi, although superficially it is that: future history, dystopian satire, etc. Only the best sci-fi writers I've read -- Heinlein, Bradbury -- are comparable on the superficially sci-fi level. But the style and perspective, and the vitality, skill, and playful creativity of the language make me think of Coover, Beckett, Joyce.

     Time Famine confronts death as the meaning-giver of life -- an ancient theme, resourcefully (and sometimes hilariously) engaged. It definitely left this reader expecting as well as wanting more to come. Time Famine is a sequel to Olsen's earlier Tonguing the Zeitgeist only in the sense that, say, Absalom, Absalom is a sequel to The Sound and the Fury. It opens up a much larger and deeper world than Tonguing the Zeitgeist, exploring and populating it prolifically. Olsen has made this 21st Century his Yoknapatawpha County.

Memories of My Father Watching TV, Curtis White
(Dalkey Archive Press, 1998)

     Can we say "poignant boffo?"

     There are belly laughs in Curtis White's Memories of My Father Watching TV; also the kind of chuckles you enjoy trying to hold in. But at heart they bear that needle of pain, of loss, from repeatedly missed connection between shy, eager son and oblivious Dad. Their story is not told directly. Perhaps because he plumbed the relationship before in The Idea of Home (Sun & Moon Press, 1992), White is not interested in the mere autobiographical here. No. What he (or his alter ego, Chris) does is watch his father watch TV; or more precisely, watch the Favorite TV Programs (Combat, Highway Patrol, Bonanza, Sea Hunt, the quiz show DOTTO, Maverick) the old man might be projecting onto shut eyelids as he abides in a cataleptic trance through yet another evening in the fractious family bosom. This is Late-'50's Land -- the real surreal (flickering blue) twilight of those Happy Days nomade-for-TV Richie Cunningham would recognize.

     And what does Chris see Dad see? He sees Dad as a German pontoon bridge the Allies have to take out; a California Highway Patrol officer killed by the escaped convict Capt. Dan Matthews must track down; the cheesy naked Wild Father who bedevils Ben Cartwright all over the Ponderosa; the quiz show loser (!) who debates Krushchev in Disneyland; the stand-in fingers of Orson Welles grasping helplessly through the manhole cover at the end of The Third Man. The TV screen radiates burlesque after burlesque of mis-encounter, non-encounter, hilariously sad, recapitulating the Cold War and the Sixties and all the pop metaphors launched to explain and so obscure them even more. This is shtick as psychodrama, also meditation; but above all exuberant tale-of-the-tribe, post-nuclear.

Dradin, In Love, Jeff VanderMeer
(Buzzcity Press, Tallahassee, 1996)

     Jeff VanderMeer's novella, Dradin, In Love, is not the sort of story I ordinarily read. For one thing, I get impatient with Victorian innocents like Dradin and hiscousins, David Copperfield and Pip. Luckily for the reader, they do run into very interesting other people, like the dwarf Dvorak and the monk Cadimon, and enticingly repulsive types like the mushroom dwellers. But I get ahead of myself. Young Dradin, an out-of-work missionary come to the dark bustling city of Ambergris in quest of a job, falls in love at first sight with a pale beauty in an upper window, and his quest for useful employment takes a fateful turn. It's a turn inward, as all heroic innocents must take if they will become men; but, as always, the inward is encountered only in adventure outward. That takes place in a gray December light charged with the excitement of a crowded evening street, preternaturally clear and strangely intimate, bristling with possibilities, both delightful and menacing, as the city prepares for ... the Festival of the Freshwater Squid! What Dradin confronts ultimately amid the bestial, bloody revelers of the Festival is the Dradin who is not innocent at all.

     What is most enjoyable in Dradin, In Love is a prose voluptuously black-and-white, and playful.

     Beside Dradin -- and he jumped back as he realized his mistake -- lay a mushroom dweller which he had thought was a mushroom the size of a small child. It mewled and writhed in half-awakened slumber as Dradin looked at it with a mixture of fascination and distaste. ...
     Mushroom dwellers smelled of old, rotted barns and spoiled milk, and vegetables mixed with the moistness of dark crevices and the dryness of day-dead dung beetles. Some folk said they whispered and plotted among themselves in a secret language so old that no one else, even in the far, far Occident, spoke it. Others said they came from the subterranean caves and tunnels below Ambergris, that they were escaped convicts who had gathered in the darkness and made their own singular religion and purpose, that they shunned the light because they were blind from their many years underground. And yet others, the poor and the under-educated, said that newts, golliwogs, slugs, and salamanders followed in their wake by land, while above bats, nighthawks, and whipporwills flew, feasting on the insects that crawled around mushroom and mushroom dweller alike.

     The prose is spectacularly complemented by the graphics of Michael Shores, not so much illustrations as visual metaphors in accompaniment.

Your Name Here:_________, Cris Mazza
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1995)

     Of Cris Mazza's four published novels, Your Name Here:_______ is, in my opinion, far and away her most ambitious and most powerful. (This is not to dis the popular Dog People (Coffee House Press, 1997), best of the rest, but for me there's no contest.) A 34-year old news anchor for a small TV station in rural California returns to San Diego to confront long-buried memories of being gang-raped by a former boss and his wealthy pal. But her primary focus is not the rapists themselves. Retrieving old journals from a safety deposit box, she means to reclaim a part of herself she had once abandoned, having gone so far as to change her name from Corinne Staub to Erin Haley. Erin starts a new journal of this recherche du temps perdu, which soon becomes the record of a new relationship, this time with a married man. The double journal format works beautifully at keeping two planes of action moving ahead simultaneously ten years apart. Within these planes the later journal also clearly projects, at different moments, two more planes of action, of a third relationship some six to eight years before the rape, as well as a fourth a couple of years after it. So four different planes of action at four different times in Corinne/Erin's history, sometimes all four happening almost at once, but ... IT'S ALWAYS CLEAR! No confusion. This alone is some achievement.

     As she relives the collision courses of the three earlier relationships, and develops her liaison with the married man, Erin manages to go beyond mere sexual reawakening into love, albeit love with no future. The no-future is almost a necessary condition of growth. But necessary without question to the whole ordeal of growth to which Erin subjects herself is assessing her own responsibility for the rape and for the even more catastrophic aftermath.

     No victims! Mazza insists. ("No Chick Vics" is the subtitle of an anthology of "postfeminist" fiction (Chick-Lit 2) she has co-editored for FC2 (1996) with Jeffrey DeShell and Elizabeth Sheffield.) It's not a question of whether Corinne "asked for" the rape and what followed. "All my characters are flawed," she has said, "each playing a role in what is ultimately done to them by others." Erin's second journal ends with further new-old business to take care of.

     A last word, about style. Even when it's comic -- as much of it is -- Mazza's earlier work is marked by well-sculptured but distanced prose. Sculpture and distance are shed, in Your Name Here:_______, for straight, unadorned narration and intimate analyse du coeur. And yet the most sensual experiences -- of lovemaking, of lying on the dark beach, of "flying" on a mountain -- come across as beautifully as they do unaffectedly.

John's Wife, Robert Coover (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996)

     The novel I would like to say the most about is one that leaves me utterly tongue-tied with awe: Robert Coover's John's Wife . Realism as fairy tale, it's Spoon River, Winesburg, Gopher Prairie, and Grovers Corners tornadoed through Ovid's Metamorphoses into post-modern America. Hilarious, frightening, richly imagined, passionately driven -- John's Wife should be on anyone's list of essential late 20th Century American novels. Period.

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