about the author

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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Zen Creoles
A Review of Zen Creoles
by Zack O’Neill

Spencer Dew

The scene is set in a restaurant. “Laminated newspaper clippings and renderings” of the locales past—“replete with armadas, denizens, commoners, planky city blocks and giant Victorian homes”—covered the dark walls, some drawn, some painted, some in the form of photographs, all, in aggregate, seeming “to accentuate not only lost eras but the restaurant’s chipped tables, fatigued waitresses, armoired bar, hard unergonomic chairs. They suggested things endured, through physical presence, through remembrance.”

In this scene—and under the sign, perhaps, of that linkage of physicality with memory—one character does some well-rehearsed math. He figures, roughly—his calculations bolstered by assumptions about teenagers, therefore “accounting for logistical impossibility or cultural intimidation”—that 2.9 billion men “are producing 14.5 billion milliliters of semen every day,” a cumulative coming which he further parses into gallons per day, gallons per hours, gallons per minute, and gallons per second. He then describes—presumably based on the average length, again figured cumulatively, like a kind of Frankenstein’s cock—a single penis long enough “to go to the moon and wrap around it five times....” His point is unclear, though one gloss offered here suggests that the same analysis could be performed for all number of discharges, that one could imagine the world as nothing more than “this sea of bodily fluids.”

It is a sticky idea. Indeed, O’Neill’s Zen Creoles presents the world as a mass of such ideas, a sea, undulating, of thoughts and their formulation in words—from staccato stutter to languid meandering, telegraphic straight talk to the slow chawing of consciousness, with relish, savoring each long-sucked bit. See how the physical intrudes even in our contemplation of the act of contemplation? Here food and drink permeate—as words, as ideas, as cultural tokens and expectations for the future. One long, strong story, “All Souls Day,” set in New Orleans, where a gumbo of notions unfolds largely in bars, a sort of soup of talk:

She scooped some gin fizz, wiped the cup with a paper napkin, and had a pull. Standing there, she heard a quilt of low voices: “Cook sweet potatoes like walnuts.” “Moonlight in your face makes you crazy.” “This is America’s tragic lesson that indulgence destroys.” “The same impulse that builds destroys.” “It’s a languor-breeding climate.” “Anisette!” “Send a bouquet to my wife when it’s born.”

O’Neill is interested in the profit of such talk, or, to push the economic analogy, the interest earned just by rolling it over, by pure chattiness, by the flow of discourse in all its wildly divergent forms, from the angry father after the Little League game to the adjunct instructor calculating his next meal. Talk, here, plays out in the mind’s interior as well, thoughts and scenes interrupted by trivia about fungal infections affecting bats, for instance, or the pervasiveness of mood disorders in invasive marine species now too-common along the west coast. Tidbits of historical facts are offered warped or pressed encyclopedia-flat, to be sipped like a Sazerac. That’s the creole as O’Neill engages it, a technique, a process, like how you slow cook possum flanked in sweet potatoes to mask the smell, then serve the roasted flesh pre-stripped from the bones so as not to spook out your guests with that fiercely toothy, too-rat-like grin. The point is good meat, but O’Neill’s invested in the cooking more than the meal; he spreads his stories out like ingredients along a counter, moving his readers through the steps and stages.

One story starts with an “Abstract/Topic Proposal” for a paper on Sam Houston’s love life and devolves from there, as that potential paper’s author finds herself increasingly unattached to academic life, progressively surrounded by food wrappers and the grunting of all-day video game binges. Slavery and capitalism, the difficulties of negotiating a quantum of freedom in a world of responsibilities and lackluster emotions: the themes of the term paper become the themes of life, or vice versa.

The book opens with the phrase “Rapid-fire speech orgies,” and that’s an apt enough description of the subject and style here, too. Shot and counter-shot after shot and counter-shot, the desire to be a lamplighter and the fragment of a story of murder-by-arson at an unnamed gay bar, rhythm punctuated by florid description, a panning back, a survey of the physical scene just to seer it into memory more:

At the far end an azure steamboat billowed slow-spreading periwinkle puffs from sapphire stacks. Around the boat a celeste puddle lapped against morning sky mud. To the left a series of cobalt shotgun homes were arranged in a row, and all over them dead denim Spanish Moss shrouded turquoise eaves, gingerbread trim, cerulean bricks. Above everything a constellation of ultramarine track lights cast a sad glow in all directions.

If there’s a Zen element in this book’s obsession with the stew of thoughts, with verbal consommé, it comes either in the moments of satori where the text crests up to such still plateaus as the colorful vision above or, on the opposite end of action, where the roiling of the thoughts itself becomes a kind of stillness, like a pen-and-ink of a mountain storm, frozen in a slew of competing claims about the exploitation of adjunct labor, the proliferations of religious denominations, the social requirements of the sushi industry, “Broad porches. Social tolerance. Pot dispensaries,” and fishing techniques. A hybridity of speech and thought, a creole of communication, ridden here to some breaking point where babble opens up to wordless revelation, the taste of the Sazerac, perhaps, or the soft rattle of candies poured out on a desk in advance of the evaluation forms, a moment build on elaborate political economies (see: slavery, sugar; see: contingent instruction, capitalism) but nonetheless available, as experience, outside it all. Sitting in a restaurant, calculating semen, dreaming of the moon.

Official Zack O’Neill Web Site
Official Spuyten Duyvil Web Site

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