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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The five “sequences” of pieces collected here chronicle different modes of futility, beginning with a dead man who dies over and over, a couple trapped in their coupledom, unnamed interlocutors debating with each other, and a man named Clarence pondering imponderables and talking around the inexpressible. Clarence’s case is characteristic of the whole, highlighting the absurdity of language itself, the ways in which we are constrained by it. For instance, Clarence ponders “an object without a name. The object, whatever it was, could not be described, as all of its properties and qualities were utterly inexpressible in terms of any known language.” Coupled with this falling-short of language, however, is language’s overabundance, its effervescence. Words might not work for precisely what we want, but they are always working, regardless. Thus, “Clarence was trying to find the right word, the mot juste, to complete the thought he was thinking. He tried all sorts of words, but none of them was any good. ‘Goose’ didn’t do the trick, nor did ‘walking’ nor ‘handkerchief.’ For one thing, the word he needed was more along the lines of a concept. Like ‘freedom,’ but not quite. And not ‘envy’ and not ‘cowardice’ and not ‘time.’”
Words get twisted, punned on, inverted. A motel advertising erotic movies offers only a documentary called “Strep Throat.” Being “enslaved,” by the end of one conversation, “in a fair and equitable manner” is “no worse than being free”—and presumably no better. A dead man carries doornails into a nail salon, and is pleased to be taken for “a dead ringer.” This “Mr. Deadman,” for whom the world has ended and ended again—“the greatest death of them all” may be the meticulously prepared death by barbecue—is the cheeriest character in this book. The others are more constrained by the threat of annihilation—recurring tripe has to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the idea that they “Tell you the world’s going to end in a soothing, maternal voice”—or merely constrained by the annihilating conditions of their own existence, a claustrophobia of words. The members of a couple “each placed an ad in the personals for a third party to join them. They were disappointed when they showed up to answer each other’s ad.” The standard clichés of love, pushed along their own logical trajectory, become sterile, repressive, cold: “She was a constant. I used her to gauge reality. The world existed for me in relation to her. For instance, I used her as a standard for temperature. For the sake of convenience, I called her body temperature zero. For us to be comfortable, room temperature had to be considerably below zero. And when she had a fever it had to be even colder.” Such coldness predominates here, a quiet terror just beyond the babble of words. “My ruminations have become predicable,” one voice laments, but, worse, the narrator here has become nothing more than these ruminations. The limits of language are the limits of the world in this volume, the puns merely looping back to language, the undermining of differences in signification collapsing us back to language, raw language, and, finally, the overwhelming sense of language’s futility leaving us with, literally, no-thing, no sense of self or consciousness outside the self-devouring or Sisyphusian or otherwise hellishly entrapping “ruminations” offered here.
It is not an uninteresting exercise, these sequences, nor is it without wit—though most of the puns will elicit groans—but in the end the book is as unsatisfying as what it describes. It’s like a conversation, featured herein, about clam chowders, the differences elided, such that “Manhattan” or “New England” no longer matters, only “our areas of agreement” the bland “clams and potatoes.” No spice, no cream, just words signifying themselves. To cite a story from the page following the chowder debate, much of this book is devoted to showing how when a person says “Never a dull moment” they don’t necessarily mean anything other than, “I don’t know, really. I suppose I was bored.” While boredom has become something of a fashionable subject for self-reflexive writers, an arena for exploring our relation to language and language’s relation to our world, I doubt anyone will want to reread this collection. That would, I imagine, feel futile, cold, a means merely of annihilating time, lost in babble.
Official Peter Cherches Web Site
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