Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook 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.
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Elgin Marble, our protagonist, has, as those in power put it, “certain personality traits, notably a pronounced internal tilt, latent horizontality, and a stubborn intransigence,” a summary reflective of the dominant concerns of the status quo in Wortsman’s warped world—verticality rules, the horizontal is off-limits, as are archaeology sites in which scavengers encounter remnants of a past shot through with tunnels, with platforms and floors. Our world, crusted over in grime, half-buried—in one scene, the word “Lincoln” is uncovered, and the name signifies “backtime lessons, the man who’d freed the slaves and landed a bullet in his brain by way of thanks,” has been superseded by a status quo so bizarre as to simultaneously beg an allegorical interpretation and defy any attempt to box it in or decode its weirdness. Games get played in elevator shafts. Mere diagonals represent threat, a tilting toward the wrong. The sinisterly bureaucratic Institute for Vertical Thinking polices orientation. Civilians observe “Babel, the first skyscraper . . . is where things started to go wrong.” And then, of course, there’s the plot, the promise of hope, the boy—Mr. Marble—who goes off-grid (“Crab abduction was the common euphemism for attempted escape, the consequence of which” is gruesome). On his heels there’s the mad doctor popping sensory enhancers and assaulting the mother of our hero as she begs for leniency for her child. In this lunatic’s scientific arsenal are endless acronyms and various modes of virtual reality, even virtual re-engagement, phantom-style, with past catastrophes (“Next stop, Auschwitz!”) like a sort of dubious therapy. But just as a given artifact, here, can stand like a fresh revelation among the traces of the old world covered over in vertical levels of historical debris—a compass! Letters indicating four directions, the implication of an ever-spreading plane into which travelers can trek off, toward the horizon!—so too, here, the newness and detail of Wortsman’s conceit outshines any familiarity of the dystopian set-up.
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