Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
Out of Pessoa, the practice of heteronyms: “Call me an aspect,” one character here says, more than a
character, less than an author. Another, explaining the process at play, says, “Go back to the Pessoa.
I’m an aspect of the hysteria within you, but this aspect could turn out to be a perfectly well-adjusted
character.” Fair enough. Aspects split off in a conscious decision, then navigate their own paths. Aspects
of hysteria stand alone, start their own lives, eating salad for dinner, lonely, watching the Braves play via
pirated cable. The text here is focused on and the product of such heteronym action, written in sections, each
character speaking of the others, of themselves. “Making up your heteronyms and setting them loose,”
is the game at the base of this concept-driven novel. Instead of Doug Nufer, author, we have Cal Nipper,
Henderson Will, and Kelly Lane, set loose, free to write their own tangled destinies.
But the system is by Kelman, or from Kelman, a system for gambling taken from the short story “A Wide Runner” and used here as both plot and experimental writing template. As it’s formulated here, the system or Course is “make up your mob and set them free, free to bet on the stop-at-a-winner progression, on the 2-4-6-8 increases, and when your man wins, he stops. If he loses the first at $20, he plays the next at $40, and so on, up to four tries, so the worst he can do is burn two bills.” Stop-at-a-winner, through a mob of aspects, hysterias set free. These are the rules, and what follows is play, with language, with identity, with plot, with money at a race track (the book was written over the course of one season, emerging first in the form of betting logs).
These are rules, but not a constraint; this isn’t Oulipo-style creativity-within-restriction so much as a free-ranging (and unpredictable—or at least it’s presented, explicitly, as so) frolic of an idea, ideas, aspects, personalities. Of the heteronyms we’re told, “These figments of your imagination were always playing tricks on you, engaging you in dialogues you might have only thought they said as they plied their schemes you had in mind for them,” and elsewhere “These aspects of hysteria, these characters or heteronyms or whatever: they aren’t people you fuck with; they’re more like friends, imaginary friends.” Indeed, friends, with all the quirks and range of intimacies, their addiction to Spoonerisms (“Systematic minds missed thematic signs, whereas air ways haze weighs”), their stumbling love subplot (“This thing between them, this live workout of a handicapping theory, this reverie of a life”), their dreams and desires and that stale racetrack smell, which is never from winning. “Who was that lady I saw you with?” someone asks. “An aspect of the hysteria within me, someone I figured out as a woman I once thought I saw and then later got to know, he thought as they rode to watch the land speed by, imagining a conversation that would take place in the future in the bar he was going to now, where once and for all it would be established what he did and who he was. That was no lady; that was my life.”
Indeed, as an aspects of hysteria, Kelly Lane is also a focus for desire, nostalgic longing; in the eyes of another aspect, she has hair that happens to be that “particular orange strawberry tinge last seen on the barfly leering from a 1972 Schlitz clock... Here a shag, there a flip, everywhere a permanent: fashions from the proms of yesteryear just came to her out of the rain.” And that language, that racing language—not in the sense of track jargon, patois, though, yes, thankfully there’s that, in spades, to relish (“Gritty, steady, hanging in there against a moderate pace, this was not only a line that stood out in the ranks of bit-spitting quitters and lazy plodders, but a line Nipper could identify with: never on the lead or out of it, always a few lengths back, gaining a little, losing a little, never giving up, from first call to the second to the finish. In a field of maiden claimers, with none sporting much of a record, any entry showing that kind of gumption was a bargain at 6-1.”)—but in the sense of galloping forward, made giddy by its own speed and finesse (“Come on, it’s not like she was an even-money multiple loser of cheap maiden claiming heats out of a Frisco past, crooning at a San Mateo nightclub under the name of Gypsy Chick,” for instance, which does far more than signify by syntax) makes this book, makes it a stange joy and, often like worrying a loose tooth, weirdly addictive. There’s a sense, at the end, when you close this racing-form-shaped book, that you’ve known some people, been places with them, been inside their minds. Which is pretty traditional novelistic fare, I guess, except that here the form is so far from it.
Official Les Figues Press Web Site