by Matthew Revert
Lazy Fascist Press, Oct 2013
120 pages / $9.95 Buy from Amazon
On the evening of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and gave the audience at the Newport Folk Festival an electric rendition of “Maggie’s Farm.” The switch was received with a cacophonous chorus of boos and hisses. Dylan had gone electric, but the audience wasn’t ready. Almost fifty years later, author Matthew Revert is doing something akin to that with his latest novel, Basal Ganglia. One of the best absurdists in contemporary fiction, Revert has built a cult following based on his previous works, all of which have used humor as the cohesive element that keeps his mixture of bizarro, surrealism, and literary fiction together. In Basal Ganglia, the hilarity has been replaced with it’s exact opposite, but the sheer beauty and elegance of the final product is much more gratifying than any of the author’s previous efforts.
Rollo and Ingrid met when they were teenagers and escaped the cruel, abusive world they’d known by moving into an underground fort made from pillows and blankets that mirrors the structure of the human brain. The lovers spent 25 years building the fort and subsequently became slaves to it. The narrative begins years after the fort is finished and Rollo and Ingrid live only to maintain it. They lead an isolated existence in which words have almost disappeared, communication is practically nonexistent, their past has been forgotten, and their love has morphed into silent tolerance. To bring them out of this situation, Ingrid decides they should have a baby. However, afraid of what another person would do to their dynamic and way of life, she opts to build one from the same materials they use to maintain the fort instead of having one the traditional way. When the baby’s done, instead of bringing them together, it makes them paranoid and each believes the other will hurt the child. What follows is a strange and heartbreaking psychological war in which Ingrid and Rollo will be forced to realize how their seclusion has changed them and how important the past is when trying to regain their individual and communal identities.
Basal Ganglia is not an easy read. Revert has a way of stuffing his prose with meaning, but the nature of that meaning changes constantly. He loves language, but expresses it by deconstructing it and putting it back together in ways that change the original meaning and create new ones:
On the surface, this novel deals with universal themes like lost love, faulty communication skills, identity, parenthood, fear, distrust, and isolation. However, there are a plethora of underlying elements that make it unique and give it depth. For example, Rollo and Ingrid’s relationship is exceptional because it’s hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. When they feel lonely or scared, the emotion is augmented by their self-imposed confinement. The outside world was mean to them, but hiding in the fort eventually made them victims of their reclusiveness. Also, Ingrid and Rollo are trapped in a perennial state of agitated stasis, and it only gets worse whenever they try to figure a way out of it. Their stagnation is never a calm one, but their growing awareness of the situation and perceived powerlessness turns it into a maelstrom that affects their sanity.
Revert has a knack for storytelling, but what makes this one an outstanding novel is the stylish, smart prose. The microcosm Ingrid and Rollo in habit is exclusive, but the author takes their circumstances as a way of exploring collective truths:
The truth is often sad, and that’s exactly what it is in Basal Ganglia. Neglect, worry, and solitude all lead to a razor-sharp sadness that cuts to the reader’s core throughout the narrative and keeps cutting after the story’s over. Sure, Ingrid and Rollo survive an imaginary loss, a confusing revelation, and find a way to move forward even with the understanding that the cyclic nature of most things is inevitable, but those silver linings arrive after Revert has fully exposed the bleakest corners of the human condition. The characters are forced to find a reason to reconnect with themselves and with each other, and the reader is there for every step of that psychological/emotional journey.
Basal Ganglia offers an immersive and very satisfying reading experience. The novel’s merits lie as much in the secluded universe Rollo and Ingrid inhabit as in the author’s beautiful use/celebration of language. By abandoning non-stop weirdness and hilarity, Revert has taken a giant step in a different direction, and the outcome is cause for celebration. I really hope he keeps walking that way.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, The Rumpus, and a other print and online venues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.