This New and Poisonous Air by Adam McOmber

This New and Poisonous Air

by Adam McOmber

BOA Editions, 2011

180 pages / $14  Buy from BOA Editions







Imagine, behind glass or roped off from strangers, a representative sample of your wardrobe, adorning a dummy or hung flat and mummified; perhaps beside it, a selection of your tools—laptop, remote, cell phone; your furniture—the bed you sleep in, the chair you sometimes recline in, the coffee table your ankles once rested on. Your imprint is bound to be very slight on this exhibit: only the “historically significant” have been presented. Truly everyday objects will have been left out (by their very nature, anathema to preservation, longevity). And the tags that explain the place of these things in your life have no connection to how you think of them. Can the weight of habit be calculated in a few lines of type? You must imagine, too, people visiting this exhibit, looking closely before passing on to others, filling in their understanding of you as though you had been an empty vessel, a concept without any clear illustration; not a person at all. Are you there, at the center of the echoes of all those shuffling feet?

The museum, the statuary, the grotto, and the movie theater are the loci of Adam McOmber’s debut collection of stories, This New and Poisonous Air. Traditionally, these are receptacles of the already-departed, shrines to artifacts lost to memory even before they have aged; “What soul motivates these new creatures,” asks a character in “The Automatic Garden” of the automata of the title. “He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.” More indeed, for here the inanimate educates and replicates the animate, even stands in for it.

McOmber’s choice of subjects—curator, creator, collector—tempts the reader into drawing an analogy between the Madame Tussaud of “There Are No Bodies Such As This” and the Thomas Francini of “The Automatic Garden,” between Francini and the Robert Southey of “Egyptomania,” between Southey and McOmber himself. But there is no Wizard here, no Caligari, no curtain or cabinet at all—McOmber’s collection is not, finally, an automatic garden or a wax museum, not a metafiction. When Cornazzano confronts his former partner Francini, the creator of the garden, he “realized something was wrong…this was not Francini. It was not even alive.”  It is an automaton. Cornazzano wonders “if [his] old friend even still existed.” Francini, erstwhile Creator, has gone too far, inserted himself into his manufacture, possibly erased himself in the process. Far from metafiction, this is mise en abyme. Where, then, do we find McOmber?

When we make reference to the “Mona Lisa,” it is only rarely as a stand-in for its namesake, Lisa del Giocondo. It is the artist we want to speak of, the portraitist rather than his subject, for he is what we see in the portrait, not her. And so neither should we expect the curator’s recreation to be faithful to its subject, the writer’s material to represent anything but the writer. Here are materials we recognize, yes, with some of the weight of familiarity impressed upon them, and we cannot help but attempt to fashion fact out of the assemblage. But we are mistaken in doing so:

Amon thought the whole endeavor of analysis absurd, especially his father’s brand—a mythic exploration of man and symbol. “As if the self is a fixed and organized museum,” Amon ranted, tearing the head off a tulip and tossing it down the hill. “I can assure you, Roddy, there are no marble hallways in my skull for old men to walk down. No busts of labeled complexes either. Nothing’s as patterned as that.”

When Amon—the son of a psychiatrist hostile to Amon’s relationship with a colleague’s son, Roddy—rescinds his vehement claims in the story “A Memory of His Rising,” it is to amend rather than refute:

“Our fathers are correct, Roddy, though neither one knows how right they are. There is a pattern. But it isn’t one of myth or science. I caught a glimpse of it in the air. Something beyond our fathers’ imaginings, a glittering and navigable geometry that covers everything and passes through everything. Cords of light, braces of gold. I learned to make use of them last night. I actually flew, Roddy… And the faster I flew, the brighter the pattern appeared to me, until I realized there were animals with me in the sky, making use of the pattern… Beings who’d recognized the great geometry.”

This “great geometry” is the alchemy of physics and consciousness whose philosopher’s stone anchors these stories. They are transmutations, metamorphoses, or translations of inner states into reality: an “invert” (an archaic term for homosexuals) subverts gravity and flies; a lovesick girl steps through a door below a movie screen and disappears—we suspect, but are never told, into the movie playing above her; a man disappointed in love builds a 1:1 model of the world more perfect than the one he inhabits.

Describing the uncanny feeling that such alchemy produces, the narrator of “A Memory of his Rising” says:

I’ve tried to come up with a comparable experience to describe what I witnessed…and the only event that comes close to seeing Amon Garrick levitate is seeing my father in his coffin, his body impossibly stiff and painted among the silken folds. The lack of motion in my father’s normally animated face was so unbelievable that my mind attempted an adjustment. I actually saw his brow lift, his lips purse because I knew they must move. Likewise, seeing Amon step off the ground and stand in midair, my mind attempted a correction…I imagined the shadow of his boots had taken on some unknown weight and become part of his foot, that the shadow was, in fact, pushing him off the ground.

This skeptical use of the fantastic in McOmber’s fiction seems at first a reference to Poe, to Poe’s blend of the fantastic and the real. But Poe’s was often only a science of spite, sugar to make the bitter pill of his satire swallowable. McOmber’s is the science of melancholy. It has the lyric at its heart, loss at its core.

As Madame Tussaud’s tutor in “There Are No Bodies Such As This” tells a visitor who mistakes a dummy for the woman it is meant to represent: “The secret to making fine figures is knowing that the wax must appear more beautiful than the flesh it imitates. There are no bodies such as this in life.” Again and again, McOmber presents the reader with seemingly empty receptacles: automata, wax figures, dead bodies, artifacts, images on a movie screen. These things have an emotional life, but only because we give them one:

When Madame is allowed to return to her museum, which was only partially destroyed by fire, she will make a secret figure in wax that will never be displayed, a copy of herself as she looked in prison, head shaved and without eyeglasses. She deepens the eyeholes until they are caverns, elongates the jaw into a wolflike muzzle. And when she is finished with the monster—while the wax is still warm—she pounds her fist against the thing, weeping and wishing more than anything else that she had taught the queen to make the foolish dolls for her children.

What are these automata, dummies, relics, artifacts, and antiquities, but shells of people we once knew, memories of past selves? We wish them into life, breathe something of our own essence into their brittle hulls wanting to reanimate them, but only find ourselves diminished. Or is it that thus we transfer some bit of ourselves to them?

Let us then imagine that it is not some unknown curator at the helm of the exhibit of us, but that we are in his place, essaying an exhibit of ourselves. Can we do any better than this stranger with the cast-offs we have left behind, the contents of attics and storage units, basements and closets? Are we there in any particle of them? We tell stories about ourselves by telling stories about others, populating our exhibits with wax figures stolen from other museums, clothes and furniture from other eras. The figments of our imaginations are also the real contents of our lives. We make metaphor simply by living, by drawing things that already exist close. This New and Poisonous Air, rather than attempting another askew autobiography, instead opens its cabinet of curiosities to us, and asks us to make them mean. It seems a surprisingly honest book—not a mirror, for that would reverse, but a portrait whose brush-strokes are as close to the flesh-and-blood hand of the artist we are likely to get.



Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi, 2012). His fiction and reviews have appeared in Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, American Book Review, DIAGRAM, and Uncanny Valley. He is the reviews editor of The Collagist.


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