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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An axe for the frozen sea, Kafka said, famously enough that the quote is probably in a million undergraduate papers, assorted tchotchkes—the pocket notebook, the coffee mug, likely some kind of novelty pen. It can come across as cliché, like the phrase “dream logic” or the idea that art lets us see the world in a new way. So familiar, these words: what they need is to be split open.
A character in Armand’s novel—slithering through shadows of noir in post-Nazi and post-Communist and post-plenty-of-things Prague—declares “When it comes down to it, there’s only this—what we’re permitted to see, and what we refuse to see. And it happens that from time to time we need someone, or something, to open our eyes for us.” This character, Blake, is interesting in pushing past the cliché. He’s a photographer, a pornographer. “As a rule, Blake only photographs the women he fucked. What he said: ‘I want to be inside them, to understand them, their fears and desires.’” In Blake’s opinion, “There’s no such thing as too deep. However far you go, there’s always some place deeper.”
Deep enough, and someone turns up dead. A girl, in the water: “Post-mortem injuries. No visible lacerations to the vagina, rectum or perineum. Test for residues or foreign fluids inside the body; inconclusive. Circumstances of death: indeterminate.” So Blake goes from being something like a father figure to our narrator to something more like a nemesis. And from retrofitted ex-synagogues clogged with whores and shadowy strangers in butcher’s aprons to delirious drifting aboard a boat in South America, from amateur occult works below deck—“Candles set out on a tin tray with crows’ feet, bones of rat” and a collage of images from magazines—to a feverish downward spiral, tasting of bile and vertigo, culminating in violence, a gun, consequences sharp and quick.
Breakfast at Midnight does not deliver an ax blow. Kafka’s measure is high; Armand’s text, at best, traces some of the lace-like fractures on the thick surface of the ice. The plot is dull, droning, a shuttling progression of too-familiar scenes. Yet, at times, the book gives off “A sweet, fetid perfume”: flashbacks scissoring into sex scenes, intimate and wide-angled simultaneously. At times, too, Breakfast at Midnight philosophizes on photography: “A camera only sees effects, not causes.... It’s the photographer’s demon who gives the image its psychology. The god in the machine who seduces the way you see.” Frequently, as with photography, it offers an enticing or arresting image, in fragment, shot as if on the sly: tram windows flashing by like film frames or time pushes forward like a locked train or a carousel in the rain, the backs of imaginary animals glistening, mournful. Indeed, this book is strongest in its passing fragments: “a meat cleaver wedged deep into a chopping block crusted with eel skin,” cited as part of a litany on the temptations of suicide; a bound girl, her wrists “beginning to swell where the rope had chaffed them, tied together to the rope around her neck. Her hands clasped against her right cheek, like a picture of a child asleep.” Who cares about the rest. Take what slivers of dream you can, catalog them in some pocket notebook, possibly with a Kafka quote on the cover. A curiosity cabinet, an arsenal. A sketch for a future ax.
Official Louis Armand Web Site
Official Equus Press Web Site
The Pentagon, the nerve center of America’s military might, has suffered a debilitating blow. A fourth plane, meanwhile, has crashed in a field in Pennsylvania in circumstances that are not yet clear.... And yes, the world suddenly seems to be staring face-to-face at a new future, Jack, a new future that no one could have possibly imagined....
These words occur, italicized, as spoken by an anonymous “CLOWN”—the word used here for everyone involved in or appearing as part of news products, from newspaper writers and editors to newsreaders and administration officials, critics, talking heads, even the president. The tactic seems designed to mirror a sense that today’s media is disorienting in its multitude of constant and somehow interchangeable voices, but advertisements for erection pills and coverage of a bombing don’t come off, here, as quite the same. Nor does the shocked comment at the end of the above quote quite code as platitude, as the news-entertainment complex refusing to offer analysis; rather, it reads like the immediate bafflement of a profoundly real moment. This is not the news industry selling sensationalism, this is an anchor attempting—fallibly, to be sure, with traces of pain—to summarize the moment.
So what, precisely, is Garcia saying here, by lumping all manner of reality and cartoonish fantasy together as the words of “CLOWN”s? This is the inevitable question which readers will likely ask on every page of this long and rambling book, a book that nods toward the idea of satire as social critique, but seems intentionally to subvert the very idea of such critique, refusing the notion that writing can make any difference. The influence of Bret Easton Ellis is strong here—corpses become banal, lack of affect in the face of violence couples with minute to long lists of commodities becomes the normal mode of drunkenly stumbling through the world—as is that of Hunter S. Thompson—the drunken stumbling, some of the grotesquery and burlesque, worms on the ceiling and babies drowning in vomit—but The News Clown lacks the sharpness of either writer, eschewing the idea of stitching these moves back to a real world such that they become viscerally disturbing—the horror of Less Than Zero or the stomach-turning violence of Glamorama—or, in their clowning, offer an intellectually acute parody of the world as it is—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”
Satire needs to be sharp. We get that in the scene where the president, in a Stetson hat, announces a new war by shooting a target in a public spectacle. “A flag fluttered behind the president. A red and gold backdrop had been erected, the words PEACE SECURITY N’ FREEDOM stamped out over and over.” That the Bush years are the target here is without doubt, though I don’t think the edge would be any sharper if the book had come out at that time.
In part this is because Garcia pulls away from reality, fictionalizing to the point of cartoon. Instead of the sort of Bush stand-in that Thompson would give us, we have U.S. President Wolfgang G. Mnung, pushing for war with a country suspected of amassing PlayStation units. Yet this is coupled with real violence unfolding in the background, both close at home (the narrator covers horrific crimes for a local newspaper) and around the globe. Here is a sample of a CLOWN’s reading of a press release: “Terrorist-terrorist. Dirty-bomb-dirty. Hijack. Jelly bombs fragmentation. Terrorist-attack-bomb,” which presumably is intended as a parody of the ubiquity of...well, what, exactly? Bombings? “Bomb-bomb. Attack-attack. Hijack-attack. Freedom. Anthrax. Assassination. Martyr-bomb. Columbine massacre. Central dope intelligence Hussein Nazi news electronic good American condition shark attack young white girl homosexual marriage male homosexual. Terrorist-terrorist.” This is different from (but on the same rambling page as) such direct parodies as “And you’re up to date on the War on Terror and Defense of Freedom. Any-hoo... Coming up next in the program: Cosmetic genital reconstruction. Some say it’s not for everyone. Our experts weigh in. And later: Is your teenage daughter secretly working for an escort service? Some surprising results from a new survey.” Like I said, the impulse here seems to be to subvert the very idea of parody-as-critique. We get samples of it (the farcical spectacle of a president shooting targets, or a rally where high school cheerleaders hold signs saying things like “PROSPERITY” and “TERRORISM”), but Garcia’s tendency is to push past the point of comparison, exploding the potential for critique by making his subject ultimately unrecognizable. Consider this:
EAT TILL YOU DROP, AMERICA! Get the new butterscotch egg breakfast bacon egg burrito at Taco Station! Sink your teeth into gooey caramel, creamy-crunch peanut butter bacon and healthy double-scoop hot egg patty bacon on a freshly baked tortilla bacon croissant! Add a slice of ham, cornbread, bacon, cinnamon oatmeal bun or spicy sausage for 59 cents! Double-size your healthy egg or bacon order for just 79 cents! Bottomless free bacon with every order of two.
The last bit defuses rather than caps the attempt at satire. We’re in a recognizable, if distorted capitalist world, then we’re just in a world of excess bacon. There is a critique of the American culture of more-for-less and super-sizing, then there is some extreme fantasy of wallowing in wild, free bacon.
The other element at play here—in this turn to wallowing in extremes rather than offering a critique—is the narrator, who, indeed, wallows in an apartment covered in worms and divides his time between filing rote stories about horrible human tragedies unfolding around him in Bay City and pursuing sex with different women and drunkenness with different drinks. He vomits, sometimes publically. This narrator—named, like its author, Thor—begins the book by explaining his reasons for pursuing a career in journalism: “The plan was simple, basic, a no-brainer,” the book begins, and continues with,
I figured, first, to explode “journalism” at its core, pocketing at least one Pulitzer by the age of 30. I’d rock the city at dawn, I’d crack the dirty, filthy, louse-ridden bitch wide open.... I would move quickly into books, mainly novels and short stories, as well as plays and poetry. I would storm the arena of the writers, drinking and taking drugs extensively. My material would be big and raw and new—ahead of its time, yet also timeless, cleaving to the classic eternal themes, but leaving out the bullshit.
Yet these dreams of fortune and glory are merely dreams, distractions, as are the narrator’s other adventures—with women, with alcohol. He goes to a yoga convention and eats some exotic foods. With, of course, yet another woman, though like all the women here she seems less a character than the sum of her sexual parts: “Chrissy was the definition of juicy—for a time, a long time, I nearly believed I would never need another pussy.” Cue the Pulitzer committee. In short, this Thor character is a cad, unmoved to even clean the worms off his ceiling, let alone respond to the human tragedies he “reports” on—mutilations, gang wars, police brutality, shootings, beatings, murder—in any way other than to seek out more anesthesia. This might not sound so different from a character in an Ellis novel, but here the narrator sets the tone of the book; there is no sense of an astute authorial presence shifting the text around so as to put “Thor” in contrast to some larger agenda. This is just Thor’s book, and proceeds as he does, drunkenly recounting a collage of voices from the news, pasting in short news releases about Bay City, bragging about sexual conquests, and generally rambling on and vomiting out verbiage, notably several very long lists, which themselves pose interpretive problems. What, precisely, do Bob Woodward and Hannah Montana have in common? Oliver North, Bill Gates, Tom Brokaw? Or, to rephrase the question, what possible meaning is such a string of celebrities supposed to convey? These are not all forces of placation, nor all threats to democratic society, etc.
But in The News Clown, “democracy” is presented as another empty word. We are in Thor’s head, and while bombs explode around him, he simply does not care. He hears only static, background noise. He writes up horrors, gets drunk, gets laid, and listens as wars are pitched and carried out. But the only blood that matters in this book is the blood pumping through the head of its anti-hero narrator, whose stance is synonymous with the tone of the text, leaving readers with a second question, which is, why care about this obvious, broken jerk?
Trapped as we are in the head of this character, much of what could be informed parody is merely warped regurgitation. Thor hears something, without knowing much about context and nuance, and puts it down on the page. Yes, conservative Christians blamed 9/11 on feminists and homosexuals, but the actual quotes were so much more shocking than anything that gets said by the anonymous CLOWNs here, all of whom operate only up to the limit of our narrator’s restricted view of the world. Thus a whole motley array of topics touched on, from anti-Muslim sentiment to police abuses to anti-homosexual rhetoric to the market for erection drugs to get presented as cheap caricature. To avoid another list, I’ll offer samples. Here’s a preacher: “Whereeth he goeth, he carrieth a messageth ofeth hopeth” (I’ll spare you the rest of the page, all in that style). We are given selections from an imagined “U.S. Military Field Manual: Proper Use of Dogs and Feces on Muslims,” and a statement released at a rally in Pakistan, stating that “Americans and Zionists face severe consequences such as those suffered by the infidel Theo van Gogh and Danish cartoonists for making insulting remarks against the Prophet and Allah.” In both of these latter cases, Garcia’s lack of nuance in relation to Islam hamstrings his attempt at critique: the use, by American operatives, of fake menstrual discharge to torture Muslim prisoners via ritual pollution becomes, in Garcia’s hands, just another grotesquery, with “used underwear” from a “European-based homosexual male” also serving the purpose. As for the statement from Pakistan, framed here in response to horrific statements from a kind of clownish cartoon of a Pope, it is sufficient, I guess, to observe that this is a statement without an author, a voice coming from no head. We know the rally was in Pakistan and that Muslim clerics played some role, but our narrator’s interest isn’t in the logic of hate-mongering preachers or state-sponsored torturers, just with the sound of their voices and the cartoonish aspects of their actions pushed into random hyperbole, grotesque background noise. But what of the real world and, as mentioned here, the actual dead, like Theo van Gogh? He is certainly not served by his shout-out here. He has become just another set of syllables in the white noise of the media, a sort of celebrity, somehow related to the marketing of terror and the real bombs that go off, far away, for reasons either absurdist (the president’s self interest? A real fear of weapons of mass destruction?) or unknown. A news item about sterilizations in America—“Oregon was one of the 33 states that employed eugenic sterilization, a practice that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1927. Oregon’s law was on the books until 1983.”—is presented here as just another blip, getting less air time than 9/11 conspiracy theories or a tangent on New Age therapies. The world according to Thor is just so much information, which we remain incapable of digesting, scrolling fast across the bottom of a screen flashing something violent or sexy and/or for sale. “All I wanted was another five beers,” moans our narrator. Yet in his desire for intoxication, he at least seems less desensitized than one would expect—less desensitized by the dislocated buzz of violence and horror than, likely, readers slogging their way through this long, long book will feel. Thus, the novel achieves the opposite result of satire: rather than waking readers up to a problem, it reiterates and thus dulls awareness of the senseless babel than Thor takes the media feed to be. Here is a statement about God’s plan for tax cuts, here is a school shooting, here is the narrator, wiping vomit on the side of his recliner: but it is all reduced here to so much clowning, so much verbal static from the newspaper or the television or the other end of the bar, decontextualized voices, their mission or message undifferentiated—maybe it’s Bob Woodward, maybe it’s Hannah Montana—rambling on and on.
Official Thor Garcia Web Site
Official Equus Press Web Site
The title story is pretty much what it sounds like. “Laboriously, we disentangled vines, pulling weeds, yanking out the stubborn, green and silver haired brain pods,” the narrator recounts. The garden of another story sprouts an entire orchestra of instruments. There is a story about a painter longing to capture the image of a wall, a story about Stockholm Syndrome, and a story about a woman whose husband is a “Princeton GP-800, Fabio edition, with souped-up Tickler and Black Mambo components.” All to the good, of course, unless there’s a malfunction, in which case “he might lay idle for weeks on end waiting for a shipment of replacement parts.” The fantastical and the bizarre becomes banal, as commonplace as the set-ups or the subject matter: mattress, for instance, or kids playing with mud on the playground, or the case of the Washtenaw Creative Writing Program, where
the instructors kept insisting we write about what we knew. We were nearly all in our early twenties. The dewiness of youth was still slick upon us and hadn’t yet fully dissipated into the hot dry air of adult lives. We basically knew nothing and tended to write in a hollow, drowsy prose about drinking sprees, backseat car sex, and the untimely death of family pets.
Enter the time machine.
There is, thus, a formulaic feel to the book, like a collection of exercises stitched together, and while these are certainly stylish exercises, the take-away is not the language used but some thumbnail reduction of the set-up. For instance: Chickens are trained to perform Chekov.
The best pieces take aspects of the everyday and magnify them: A man tells a woman he loves her and opens emotionally to her. Agonizingly detailed, hyperbolic high jinx ensue, of a sort we all know well—the fantastic as irresistibly relatable. A piece narrated by a smugly self-satisfied literati, against Book Groups, fits here, as does a short piece on the ubiquity of fame that nods at blogs and social media: “One day everyone became famous.... It was a mad frenzy of fame that swept the entire globe.” But sometimes pieces here lack mirrors, are merely a fun house:
That summer, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after making a daring prison escape, fled to Cuba to help Fidel Castro gain Soviet support for his revolution; Senator Joe McCarthy led a Senate inquiry regarding the possible abduction of American citizens by Russian spacecrafts; Albert Einstein had irrefutably proven the possibility of time travel; and Edward Hopper was placing the finishing touches on his painting Sexy Robot Slaying Dragon in Outer Space.
Despite moments that smack of true experience, too much of this book feels like a gimmick, a field full of brains, a mechanical husband, a time machine in a creative writing class. Indeed, there’s a sense of writing in response to a prompt here, imaginative calisthenics, a way to warm up. Which isn’t always worth reading an entire book of, especially if the conceits of so many of the stories come to seem, in their fantastic reach, interchangeable.
Official Ken Nash Web Site
Official Equus Press Web Site