Josh Coblentz


Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

jacksonMira Corpora
by Jeff Jackson
Two Dollar Radio
182 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Two Dollar Radio






To some, writing is a ritualistic act, the only anchor that steadies the self with processed meaning in an otherwise meaningless life, a life that threatens to carry a person away with it into excessive uselessness. It’s not actually that dramatic, but with writing, getting carried away with emotions finally given freedom—emotions that usually lie beneath layers of all sorts of psychological weights—is common, at least in the earlier stages. There’s been a trend with newer literature to explore a muffled numbness, to keep the storyteller detached from his own emotions and the childhood that generated those vulnerable feelings, which easily fell prey to the machinated contradictions of the world. This numbness is somewhat helpful for readers to connect to a first person narrator fluidly and without judgment—so that the reader can slip into generated feelings, assume them instead of flatly being told about them from the narrator. At the same time, the imagination required for good storytelling can’t function to its fullest without a sense of childlike playfulness to accompany the forced numbness. The balancing act the constructor of a bildungsroman needs to walk has therefore become more burdensome than most other fiction writing, especially in this age when the form’s already been nearly exhausted and left uninteresting.

Mira Corpora, Jeff Jackson’s first novel, is a bildungsroman placed in a familiar alienated age. It’s an emotional pseudo-biographical account of the author’s past, one that keeps the real life experienced roots beneath the surface and allows a lusciously imagined yet just barely realistic sequence of events to flourish instead as the account. Before beginning the novel, you are made aware by an author’s note that this story is inspired by childhood journals. The way Jackson revisits childhood winds up morphing memory into an open and abstractable form, one that when presented to a reader who questions the validity or accuracy of this recounting can nonetheless re-experience the confusion of the original moment. Importance is placed on generating a succession of emotions, so that through the narrator we can understand a fear that isn’t mature enough to recognize itself. The earlier years of the novel bring an awareness to the animalistic nature of humanity, recalling a little bit of Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, and then flows into distinct fragments that take place later in the character’s development.

The story is also one of recognizing ones self as a writer through a few metaphorical devices. In the opening to the first section he describes the sacrifice of his body to be able to write. Later on an oracle gives him a blank sheet of paper, which according to everyone else surrounding him won’t bode well. The message seems to be that he is damned to be a writer. The first artistic energy he’s drawn to is a singer by the name of Kin Mersey, who gets mythologized to no end by his group of friends. They find him later, unrecognizable like Syd Barret in his later years, and for Jackson (the character) it’s too much to handle and he bolts away. His friends, however, are too wound up in their ideals and projections that they can’t help but be overjoyed at seeing this figure they’ve worshipped for so long. Seeing the loss of creative vitality, the reality of something instead of the assumed transcendent nature of it is unbearable for Jackson. This scenario made me question whether it’s worse to realize your state of being washed up or to continue on in ignorance of being sapped of a divine aura after once having it, or if it matters either way.

The following fragment of events deals with Jackson being abducted and drugged by an ill-intentioned German man named Gert-Jan, who comes across like a symbolic Beckett character. The thing about Jeff Jackson’s writing that is most striking, besides the originality that’s received so many high-praising blurbs, is his ability to make characters, events, and forms that intersect at potent avenues of meaning. Readers can use these to fill in numerous metaphors. The description and action is just sparse enough to allow one his or her own input, and just detailed enough to make them feel nearly real. With the Gert-Jan sequence, one can fill in this larger than life character with nearly any conniving and manipulating institution in society. The evil underhanded aspects don’t exist on the surface, but only in intuition. “Gert-Jan’s persuasions are more effective the longer he holds your attention.” The idea of ‘not biting the hand that feeds you’ gets called into question when Jackson plots to escape Gert-Jan’s all encompassing grasp.

Overall the coming of age story doesn’t track any sense of progress. The narrator feels the same in the early years as he does by the end of the book. Nothing leads to anything else, as if all the outside experiences are just one big toxic wash. The approach feels like the inaction of a Tao Lin novel, and is narrated with a similar approach, but instead of minimal realism it’s told with a violent sense of survival imbedded within it; an undercurrent of energy rushes through the restrained prose. Traces of Dennis Cooper, and the aforementioned Beckett and Burroughs, are there too. But even with these elements, a larger portion of it is an original approach to storytelling, one that breathes new and exciting life into the trends of alienated numbness pervading current novels.

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March 7th, 2014 / 11:00 am


Tristano by Nanni Balestrini

by Nanni Balestrini
Verso Books, Feb 2014
128 pages / $25  Buy from Verso Books or Amazon







Bear with me as I use a paragraph to go through what I think is a problem with global leftist thought.

When equality is the ultimate aim of a movement, whether it be economic, social, gender, or any other form, and said equality never historically existed in those areas, the notion of it has to have been constructed in the ideal realm, as opposed to the observable—some might say objective realm (but let’s not go into that)—and could only have come as a reaction against what is actually happening in the real world. So far there is no sign that equality will ever grace us with its presence in the social world in any form, at least not on a large scale, but that’s not to say that the idea doesn’t sell. When movements like the Occupy one fail not as a result of energetic potential, but because of a lack of concise probing into problems with feasible resolutions, this says that a disillusioned segment of the population has the impetus to change economic disparity, but not the means to effectively do so. In other words they’re stuck in ideals, sifting through Verso books, with no reason to believe that these ideals could possibly move into observational reality. But that last part typically gets left out because the most horrifying thought to a progressive movement is the idea that our only real options are stasis or continued decay, that the option of equality is a completely delusional invention used to string us along.

Whether intentional or not (and how, with this book, could I be sure?), reading Tristano, or at least my version of it, numbered 10,672, conjured these thoughts through the annoyed trudge that was the experience of reading this book. The novel is broken up into ten chapters with fifteen paragraphs. The fifteen paragraphs of each chapter are interchangeable and each edition of the book is presented in a different narrative order, making for different possibilities of reading experiences number at 109,027,350,432,000. And like ideas of equality, the expectations are promising and exciting, but the result is disappointing, and precisely for the same reasons. When an idea like equality is stuck in the ideal realm, each individual has a different experience with it, has different notions of how to execute it and different notions what it should be. If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many different strains of Marxism, or ongoing arguments over precise meanings of his texts, or what should be followed and what not, or even if they should be followed at all. Tristano, too, is individualized for your consumption, but I can guarantee that all versions lead the reader nowhere, that each subjective experience with this text would be similar to the one I had, as equal in their failed executions.

Aside from the numerous possibilities of ordered narratives, there are also uncertainties with the number of characters, what their genders actually are, where a comma should go to make sense of a sentence, where quotations should go and who would be speaking, ultimately placing the most amount of importance on the reader as the most essential character in, and creator of the book. Since the initial readthrough was wrought with indecision and uncertainty, it seems that ideally you’d need to read the novel once so that you would know what decisions you’d need to make for the next time. I’d be surprised if I found anyone who would want to do this, though. As he says near the beginning of my version: “It looks like a very complicated story but with a little patience you manage to unravel the problem. The question is not so much the story itself but rather what effects it might produce what developments it might have what dynamics it might set in motion.” Although this makes sense, and effects are produced, nothing could possibly be set in motion afterwards because all the elements in the story are simply too loose and too vague. I think the intention was to make an experience resembling a Rorschach test, where the reader would input his or her own projections to fill in the empty spaces and cover up the discrepancies. What happened though, at least in my experience, was that I wasn’t concerned with the story. I got lost thinking about what other structures of this book would be like, and the only reason my mind wandered this way resulted from a lack of intriguing themes or narrative or characters to string me along. Loosely the book is a love story, vaguely involving infidelity. With the interchangeable set up presented, nothing winds up getting invested in the reading, and the story reads like a mess of pointless interactions between people or ideas I didn’t care about, like brainstorm scribblings of a bad romance novel.

Even Umberto Eco in his introduction spent more time giving a history lesson on the different uses of combinations instead of discussing the merits of the book. While the mathematical feat is awe inspiring, and the idea one of the most original to come to literature in maybe its entire history, interacting with this text just isn’t interesting. The novel embodies the paralysis of the left, and this failure toward action concerned Balestrini when writing the book. As a member of both Italy’s Gruppo 63 avant-garde collective, along with the Autonomia movement, among other leftist cliques, Balestrini knew first hand the power of state forces against subversive elements, and felt distraught with the lack of effective leftist action. Even if the intention were to expose the inherent powerlessness in the left, is reading this short book—one so overwhelming it’s underwhelming—worth such a simple message that could be illustrated by more stimulating means?

The one thing that I will grant this book is that it is very aware of itself, and by the last chapter, I was somewhat glad that I didn’t give up on it all the times I wanted to. My second to last paragraph went like this:

Everything is false from here on. I want to show you the construction technique uses well-polished stones without mortar. On his right he saw a strip of land where the cave opened up. A huge pile of sentences that don’t mean anything. There’s too much stuff. Nothing worth talking about. Everyone has a personal story of their own. A very simple almost banal story that could be summarized in a few lines. They look like flies trapped in a web of some big spider. He wandered amongst the rubble in a daze. He had the feeling of having already been in that place. Look down there. Stretching out in front of them as far as the eye could see expanding without any apparent limit. What’s wrong. C rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled invitingly at him. You don’t need to explain anything. It was a very hot night. You can say whatever you want she said and kissed him.

Even by the end of the book I couldn’t be sure if C was male, female, or if there were multiple Cs, so the romantic aspect, the story at the forefront, just went ignored and the only things left worth concerning myself with were the metafictional aspects and the inactive leftist ideals aware of themselves as inactive that popped up throughout. Tristano, in the end, acts as a fractional artifact of a great idea that just didn’t transfer over into reality well, and it’s sole value lies there. When communism emerged in its initial worldly form as the Soviet Union, it resembled its antithesis—fascism—more than the ideals that spawned it. Perhaps the only message Tristano wanted to get out was this discrepancy between ideals and reality, and that no matter how many combinations we use, none will be the right ones given the tools we’re using. If so, Ballestrini succeeded, but much to my indifference.

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February 3rd, 2014 / 10:00 am


Review of The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry

conductor4The Conductor and Other Tales
by Jean Ferry
Wakefield Press, Nov 2013
176 pages / $13.95  Buy from Wakefield Press or Amazon





The biggest initial draw to this neglected collection of stories by avant-gardist Jean Ferry is his associations with other big names in French cinema and literature. Names like Buñuel, Carné, Malle, and Breton get dropped through the introductory materials to this edition, the first of his works to be fully published in English. Despite all these associations, the ultimate sensation one gets after reading this work, Ferry’s only collection of fiction, is that he’s not so easily lumped in with the surrealist or pataphysic movements that attempted to swallow him into their pigeonholes. Instead, as translator Edward Gauvin states in his introduction, “Ferry is the exception to every movement he’s been in,” a claim that ironically puts him further in line with the ideals of pataphysics .

The easiest way I can understand pataphysics is to say it’s the layer outside of metaphysics. Seeing as metaphysics is already shaky ground for thought systems, how does one breach the pataphysical level? Ferry’s method, in the handful of stories that best align themselves with this short-lived tradition, is to introduce a story very simply and unassumingly. The story then leads the reader subtly into abstract territory where one can infer a number of metaphors throughout the narration, ones that give the text its weight, just like any other well-executed traditional literary text. But what Ferry does is extends the metaphor further, going off into a tangent that speeds like a rocket, flying through incidents and ideologies it has no time to explain, but only enough to introduce in passing, making the end result of each of these bite sized stories, when looking back over them, akin to a godly perspective, where earlier particulars lose their distinctions.

The etymology of the term avant-garde derives from the group of soldiers sent into the battlefield earliest to scope out the situation. The job requires simultaneous sensitivities to caution, intuition, timeliness, and luck. Ferry’s take seems to be to speedily pull the avant-garde as far as he could take it, to sprint into the most vulnerable area of the form and celebrate it unabashedly. Instead of creeping around the bushes and trying to figure out the terrain, Ferry runs full speed through the deathly silent tension of a potential warzone, using luck as his only strategy. In this way Ferry doesn’t have time to go back and worry about if the path his narrative took may have been the wrong one; he doesn’t give himself that luxury. The intention is to go somewhere far beyond the point where normal beyond seekers are already going.

The first story, “Notice,” begins with a meta narrative of the collection, about the uncertainty of its publication, let alone shelf life. Instead of being stuck in worry and using that worry to craft embarrassing or tryhard lines wrought with uncertainty, Ferry storms through, forgetting the topic of his manuscript, and instead turns attention to the adventures of the desk drawer it’s housed in, following it all the way to its destruction only a couple of sentences later, where he returns to the manuscript papers as they are used to stuff a package on its way to Africa, making sure to note along the way that “none of this is implausible.” His manuscript is found, recorded into a Dictaphone, and translated into an esoteric African language. Red ants eat the manuscript, and the African tribe for which the manuscript was translated eventually goes extinct, aside from one member who finds the Dictaphone, and becomes the sole audience for this book. Ferry ends the tale, “I write for that black man.”

Although ‘Notice’ highlights Ferry’s methods, it neglects the themes that frequent this collection, the most prominent of which is fatigue. In what I think to be the best story in the collection, “Traveler with Luggage,” fatigue infects the mind that’s recovering from a mental breakdown to not only weigh it down like an anchor, but to set up sporadic snares for it to get trapped in. It seems that to Ferry, exhaustion and its resulting laziness is the greatest hurdle humanity has to overcome, and our light treatment of it results from our inability to understand its truly horrific nature. The veneer of comfort in leisure seamlessly morphs into insanity, and by the time it’s understood, one has “neither willpower, nor the will to have willpower.” For the creative narrator of this story, when stuck in such a predicament, one where laziness dismisses the need to be creative, only to replace it with nothingness, life itself takes on an unreal and unwelcoming tinge. “It was the most abominable dream I’d ever had, and it was no dream.”

“The Conductor” is the most polished piece of fiction in the entire collection, and best shows off Ferry’s skills in allegorical creation and pataphisical method. The person that the conductor addresses from the beginning, which could have been you, the reader, leaves at one point, but the conductor continues speaking, announcing, “believe me, we sure are making tracks.” What extending metaphors, storylines, and other forms beyond their limits like this does is allows us to illuminate the substance of the metaphor and everything around it, and get far enough away from it so that perhaps we can see the full picture of that substance, perhaps to check if we may have missed something inherent to it.

This small yet potent collection has too much to discuss in one brief review. Stories like “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society,’” “My Aquarium,” “On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes on Sleep)”, and “Childhood Memories” all have a uniqueness that makes this book highly worthwhile. The illustrations by Claude Ballaré that appear before each story are a very welcome complement that add to the dark Romantic feel of the stories. For fans of quirky, bleak, and short French fiction from the post-surrealist era, this book is a new must have.

January 27th, 2014 / 10:00 am


The Compleat Memoirrhoids by Steve Katz

Katz_web_coverThe Compleat Memoirrhoids
by Steve Katz
Starcherone Books, Nov 2013
392 pages / $23  Buy from Starcherone or Amazon








Memoir as a genre markets self-promotion as entertainment. And as market trends and my own personal reading trends are concerned, the tactic seems to seep into success like a junk food binge. I’ve read entire memoirs by people I didn’t and still don’t care about, people I’d never heard about before reading and have since forgotten, and more infrequently, people I actually like. At the beginning of last year I read Lit by Mary Karr just to get the David Foster Wallace gossip, High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips, God knows why. By his own admission, Steve Katz isn’t a popular literary icon. Toward the end of this collection he wonders, “How will my work invoke even a sputter of recognition?” in the face of no one remembering once famous film legend Edward G. Robinson. So why read his memoir?

To be honest this is another one of the many memoirs I’ve read by someone I had no foreknowledge of. What attracted me to it was the writers who he had come into contact with and the label of avant-garde writer attached to his name. Memoirrhoids looks to combine memoir and hemorrhoids into one word so readers of this work can on some level stew over the inherent link between memoir writing and shitting. These clumps of memories are not organized into some chronological cause and effect story, nor do they all have some moral lesson. Instead the collection comes together formally like actual memory exists in our human digestion – in loose subjective, subconscious, and unconscious networks of meaning after the chronological intake of events breaks down inside our heads. As Katz says himself, “Maybe it’s because I want to present my experience as following the incessant sputter of life, and that my recollections present themselves as random, in fits and starts, and hardly ever in chronological order.” To add some form of demand on the project, he aims for creating 137 of them, a number that he explains has many mysterious and powerful significances. As far as memoirs go, this is at least an original approach.

For people who like insights on craft, random warm and fuzzy memories, and literary gossip, this is a pretty fun book. We learn about his unique writing method of getting under the covers and writing a first draft in a lemon juice/ invisible ink method that puts the manuscript in danger of being incinerated by a candle when transferring it over to another draft. We get to hear about him sleeping with an ashamed German prostitute, being unfaithful to his wife, running into a young Geraldo Rivera who dated Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, receiving a compliment on his writing from Pynchon at Cornell, pissing off Nabokov for misusing his name, having John Berryman piss in his bed, watching William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams briefly discuss substance abuse, and on top of it all we are treated to great sentences like, “I doubted they’d let me in to the Vatican with an erection.”

Some of the best pieces are ones like ‘Caffeine’ that describe relatable teenage memories about first discoveries of coffee, written in a 1950s Kerouac style, as well as ones like ‘Publishing Uptown’ that give us glimpses into the world of publishing for up and coming experimental writers of the 60s. The recounted memories span through so many different subjects that, although not all of them will connect with each reader, there is enough in here to entertain almost anyone who appreciates art, loves to travel, has spiritual inclinations and revelations, or has a penchant for reflecting on his or her own character defects.

In one of the few meta pieces about this collection Katz says, “Maybe this writing is a bridge. A bridge from NOW to then. I trust it will be here, the same words, whenever I need them. What a fool’s spree this writing be.” Although memoir is the simple and indulgent medium that any hack or celebrity can write or get someone else to write for them, Steve Katz doesn’t go the trite route, but instead refreshes the form in his own way, collecting bite sized increments into a pointillist picture of himself and his experiences.

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December 13th, 2013 / 12:00 pm


The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell

fata-morgana-coverThe Fata Morgana Books
by Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Two Lines Press, Nov 2013
208 pages / $14.95  Buy from Two Lines Press or Amazon







The four novellas that comprise this collection deal with a wealth of themes, but the ultimate one is of unachieved desire and the isolating mania it spawns. Instead of the narrators (or perhaps they’re all the same person in each story) dealing with crushing let downs internally, the reality surrounding them alters into hellish distortions of traverses through time and space. ‘Surrealistic’ doesn’t fully capture the formal breed of this collection, but each reader still gets pressured into a position of abstract meaning-making. Each first-person protagonist comes across as calm, numb, accepting, and apathetic toward the edge of reality they skate on through these sparse stories. From one novella to another, though, a sense of personal progression exists through the environments the narrators find themselves in. Yet each setting is coated with a muffled insistence on the pointlessness of these progressions.

The first novella, Etudes, is a solitary study of man unafraid of the warzone he’s captured in, yet terrified of acting on his desires toward his woman of interest. These unmet desires move the narrator to more accessible perversions, which morph playful and genuine aspects of interaction into ones of horror. The objects of his affection alternate through the four sections of this story, but his own timidity of intimacy begins to create external barriers that increasingly prevent him from even being in the presence of the woman he wants. “My despondency was so profound that I was only barely aware of the appalling comedy of the situation,” he recounts after a flight delay makes it impossible to share a plane ride with his current obsession. The final section, however, shows the narrator as an emotionally sapped and mechanical being, going through motions that prevent him from fully dealing with his past failures.

Story About Nothing is a free flowing narration of negation. Its dreamlike uncertainty weaves through the inner sensual life of a man who defies his masculinity by wearing women’s clothing beneath his socially accepted guise. Human motion plays a large role in this story, from his description of pornography that paralyzes his eyes and attention in awe (“these images remained what they were, frozen in the eternal repetition of their so violently human perfection”) to the motions of dancing women, and the process of his drunkenness alike as “a form of communion, the step beyond that imperceptibly opens up the road to the world of death, revealing to the one taking it that it already stretches far behind him, and always has.” In the end, it’s a sweet story about bitter life, contradicting itself into nothingness.

The two stories previous to In Quarters had narrators with a sense of character, while the latter two increase the numbness and alienation. In Etudes, characters had letter names (A., B., C., etc.); in this third story, a dismissive identification—as if all children and all adults were some abstract conglomeration of otherness—is all that exists:

As for me, I watched these people around me, I watched them attentively, but they remained out of my reach, like an image seen through a glass pane; even if I pressed my face against it, it was impossible to pass beyond it, to break this invisible surface or, on the contrary, to plunge into it as into an expanse of cold water; and behind it, things, equal themselves, arranged themselves in a great mute tranquility, a harmonious design of colors, light, and movements, which organized into one single peaceful but inaccessible image blonde child, sleeping cat, chatting women, and the young girl with a peach.

Isolation engulfs the narrator here as a permanent fact of life. No joy can be experienced like the playing and laughing children that form the background of a scene, only the annoyance of their interrupting his reading. The images that float before him begin to meld despite their disharmony, going from a soldier chopping off a prisoner’s head to a naked girl brushing her teeth right in front of him completely seamlessly. In abstraction his isolation grows stronger. Through symbolic Adam and Eve interpretations he starts to instinctually distance himself even further from the woman who wants closeness with him, and the comfortable family life he’s surrounded by seems only a loosely guarded microcosm with ready potential for fear to penetrate and crumble it.

The last and longest story, An Old Story, begins with our narrator emerging from the water, like the progression of narrators throughout all of these stories ascending to the numb surface of isolated reality from their past dawdlings beneath, in their own interior full of fearful romanticizings. The deeper into this collection of stories we go, the less frequently paragraphs breaks exist, and by this final story all of life becomes something akin to a no-rest endurance test. Different permutations of fucking and being fucked get explored through these large blocks of text, along with tilting perspectives on dominance, submissiveness, masculinity, and femininity. Any sense of normal life begins to dissolve once we enter into a hallucinatory orgy scene, where, in the grip of complete unreality, terror immediately pervades. By enacting his own perversions into active reality, our narrator leaps from simple indulgence to becoming a prisoner of his own imaginative desires yet again, and jumps back into the water. When he comes back up in the second section, all of life still seems foreign to him, like someone else’s imagination in action. Former memories get mixed up and forgotten as he cuts apart figures in photographs, rearranges them, and tucks them away in the confines of his pocket. A prostitute who he frequented, but couldn’t remember, beats him up and eventually he trips into an underground gay sex club that turns into his own personal army, an army that eventually wanders around raping and pillaging. Any remaining desires of equality and comfort get fully eradicated by our narrator as he continues to move forward and finally accepts that all of life is eternal conflict.

November 22nd, 2013 / 11:00 am


Brando, My Solitude: A Biographical Hypothesis

bertina-cover-prelim1-225x300Brando, My Solitude
by Arno Bertina
Counterpath, Feb 2013
104 pages / $14  Buy from SPD or Amazon








Expectations, whether we like it or not, are typically the prime criteria people use to judge a work. They are the drive that propels us to even entertain the notion of diving into someone’s or some group’s creative endeavors to see if it proves enjoyable for us to consume. Movie trailers reconstruct segments of film under dramatic vein-twisting music to pull people into theaters by building expectations inside them. Agents tell novelists to get on twitter and be witty hoping for similar implanted affects. The trouble with these generated expectations in regards to literature in the modern day is that the market is so inundated with worthwhile and not-so-worthwhile work that the attention grabbing moves to the forefront of concerns, and, I can only speak for myself, but it conditions me to move on to something else if I don’t immediately like what I’m reading, or, in other words, if my expectations aren’t met. But underneath these battles of persuasion between personas and publishing houses lie modest works not meant for the fast-paced tastes of surface culture, works that transcend quick blurbs, ones so unconventional that distilling them into advertisements wouldn’t only prove insulting, but impossible, because their effects struggle to find correct wording.

Brando, My Solitude is just such a work that defies easy marketing, and by that I mean it’s truly a great book that slowly leads one deeper into its text, leaving space open to confound the reader with doubts before subtly working its magic. It’s the kind of book that expectations would kill; I found myself wondering at first if it was worthwhile to finish. Roughly the first twenty pages is a swirl of non-chronological, tangential narrative of a family, focusing on a nameless middle child, written in promising prose that show the signs of a good writer (and/or in this case translators). The narrator, the main character’s great-nephew, reveals himself as an unreliable biographer, one prone to uncertainty and honest vulnerability from a lack of facts or simply being there. A recounting of the events in the story would be boring and, frankly, useless, because it’s not the plot that really makes this story come alive, it’s the narrator’s perception and imagination on the facts given to him about his great-uncle.

The aspects of the main character’s life that are most interesting are the holes of mystery that cannot be filled. As the narrator says, “in this story hints are vehicles widely open to the wind, blowing in the fictions people most want to believe.” What reflects back on us as readers in this story are our assumptions on questionable events, our expectations of the most corrupt of human intentions driving the characters’ actions, for instance, the questionable births of both the main character’s and his wife’s children, each one possibly stemming from their respective supposed infidelities.

The truth of a life, after all, after all is said and done at the point of permanent death, are only the perceptions of others on the one in question, and his or her personal artifacts. The man in focus in this story is mythologized by his great-nephew for his freedom to stand in the face of provincial bigotry, cultural conventions, and familial behind-the-back whisperings on morality. The meaning of the title comes revealed to us through a personal journal, coded in Russian, as if locked away for its revealing nature by the man in question, on how he saw something outside of himself in another’s eyes that ultimately reminded him of his own personal plight through life. As the character ages, his eccentricities abound in the furthering expansion of his own solitude, and what we come to discover is that what truly makes a person who he or she is, are these eccentricities that too frequently get locked away, hidden from public light, the ones only allowed to flourish too late in life.


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November 1st, 2013 / 11:00 am


Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic by Chris Tysh

ourladycoverfullOur Lady of the Flowers, Echoic
by Chris Tysh
Les Figues Press, Oct 2013
144 pages / $15  Buy from Les Figues Press or SPD








As the second installment of her three part project titled Hotel des Archives, Chris Tysh took up the bold task of versifying Jean Genet’s hallucinatory first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. The original novel, as Jean-Paul Sartre implies in his introduction, is already on the brink of being poetry itself: “Are we so far from poetry? Can it be that poetry is only the reverse side of masturbation?” Tysh, whether knowingly or not, explores this very question through the creation of this work.

The structure of the poetic translation restricts itself to two seven lined stanzas per page, a form with traces of the sonnet. And like Wordsworth said in “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” those who “felt the weight of too much liberty/Should find brief solace there,” in the confines of the sonnet. It was, after all, in the ultimate form of confinement—prison—where Genet, left all to himself, found the inspiratory pressure to extricate the original work out of his mind and onto brown prison paper. However, the original, in all its poetic imagination did not have the compressed punch that regulated poetry is able to deliver, at least not throughout the entire work. Rather, the original novel reads as if trudging through the muck of Genet’s subconscious desires in order to find anything worth building metaphysical meaning out of. What Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic succeeds in doing is adding further restraint onto the original text in order to pull out the skeletal story of the original novel, which is the story, metaphorically—through a constant changing and killing off of self—of becoming an artist.

The characters in Genet’s original version are nearly empty figures (with the exception of Divine) who allow the reader to input his or her own projected experience of others into them. As one of the earliest attempts of modern queer debauchery, its form is ephemeral, hazy, experienced in the realm of spirits more so than in convention. In Echoic we get more of a straightforward narrative of events, aiding a reader of the original through this poet’s perspective on the novel. The original is, after all, highly open to interpretation, and like the scene where Genet lies in his prison cell and imagines “the hundred Jean Genets glimpsed in a hundred passers-by,” this poetic translation acts, as suggested in the title, as an echo or reflection of the original work. So naturally, some aspects may be left out, altered, and perhaps even heightened.

One particular triumph of Echoic is the calming pace verse imposes on the novel. The same haunting imagery is present, but now in a format that allows for easier focus and digestion of potently translated scenarios. This sharpening of the original sometimes makes for more accessibility, but, of course, leaves out some of Genet’s personal quirks as narrator. Let’s compare the standard Bernard Frechtman translation to Chris Tysh’s new one.

Let us say now that her carnal pleasures never made her fear the wrath of God, the scorn of Jesus, or the candied disgust of the Holy Virgin, never until Gabriel spoke about them to her, for as soon as she recognized the presence within her of seeds of these fears (divine wrath, scorn, disgust), Divine made of her loves a god above God, Jesus, and the Holy Virgin, to whom they were submissive like everyone else, whereas Gabriel, despite his fiery temperament, which often makes his face turn red, feared Hell, for he did not love Divine.

This paragraph gets condensed and altered into about four lines in Tysh’s version:

Let’s say she never feared God, Jesus
Nor the Holy Virgin, not like their wrath,
Contempt for her brand of loving
Until Gabriel makes the scene. I see him
Walking down a street, almost running
Bumping into D as the doorbell rings twice
Above the little candy store he’s ducked into


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October 21st, 2013 / 11:05 am