Making love to Jesse was more like drugs than sex, nothing was static or confined to one role. Under my hands he was a girl, a newborn child, a flowering plant, a sculpture that I was carving inch by inch, the perfection of all my desires. He was not conscious of himself other than as something undergoing change and seeking to minimize pain, he was open to all possibilities.
Sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher]
In Exquisite Corpse, Irwin’s novel takes the form of an “anti-memoir,” during the context of a London Surrealist cabal in the interwar period and the later dispersion of its members. The painter Caspar gives an account of his love for Caroline, his loss of her, and his subsequent efforts to find her, including the writing of the story itself. “What you hold in your hands is not literature, but a magical trap. Its sole purpose is to seek out Caroline” (10).
The result is a sort of Hypnerotomachia–not one in which the dreamer sleeps, but one where he adventures in “hypnogogia,” the Surrealist term of art for what a ceremonial magician would call the spirit-vision or “astral.” Nor is the dream one of nostalgia for classical knowledge and beauty. “At the dark heart of Surrealism is ugliness and terror” (49). Irwin captures the inchoate compulsiveness of left-esotericism in the first half of the 20th century.
The tale is littered with famous figures as bit players: Salvador Dali, Aleister Crowley, George Orwell, and others. They, along with the events of the war, help to anchor and orient the “marvellous” derangements of Caspar-Poliphilo, which finally arrive at the ambiguous consummation of his quest.
This volume of Bone is concerned with Phone and Smiley’s effort to return a stray rat creature cub to its kind. Many complications ensue, with opportunities to reveal more about the larger plot around events in the valley. There are no humans in this segment, but there is a lot of action, with multiple chases and a big fight or two. And Smith really lays on the cute, with the possum kids encountering various peers in the eastern mountains. On the whole, this collection is a fine installment in the continuing series.
Banville’s Mefisto is a hell of a novel, brim-full of the evocative and penetrating prose for which the author is justly famed. I read it rapidly; the compulsiveness of the story and lucidity of its style was balanced by my desire to savor the images and ideas it conjured. The tone is quite dark throughout, moving unflinchingly through passages of pain, confusion, and disgust, punctuated by moments of ecstatic reflection and reverie. The unreliable narrator often pauses to question and contradict himself.
I found it strange that some of the conspicuous narrative elements in Mefisto had been presaged in other, longer novels by different authors I had read within the last year. The opening passage, in which an autobiographical account commences in utero and proceeds with failed twinning, was strikingly similar to the beginning of And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. The build of the first part toward a mining accident, the consequences of which would define the remainder of the story, was like Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists. Banville’s anti-hero Gabriel Swan “doesn’t believe in coincidence”; do I?
Swan is a mathematical prodigy who lets his ideas entrance him. In the two parts of the book (“Marionettes” and “Angels”) the mephistophelean Felix is perhaps one of those ideas. (Having previously read Fight Club was in no way injurious to the experience of this book, which further made me observe that Palahniuk’s debut was also a Faust story.) I couldn’t help picturing Felix as an actual charming sociopath of my former acquaintance, even in defiance of some of Banville’s details, like his red hair. There are many internal parallels between the two parts: each involves a sanctuary, a patron, a woman whom Swan desires, and an arc through an enterprise to its unraveling. Perhaps Sophie in the first part is Faust’s Margaret, and Adele in the second is Helen.
The novel takes place in a 20th-century Ireland, with a certain parabolic vagueness of time and place. Could it be a politico-historical allegory? Not to the extent that it would diminish the human story presented at the individual scale. It is definitely a book worth multiple readings, and one that can hold its own in the rarified club of elite Faust literature alongside Goethe, Bulgakov, and Mann.
Although it’s eight years old, this is a book for our moment at the outset of 2021. I just saw the results of a CBS YouGov opinion poll asking “What is the biggest threat to the American way of life?” where a majority of respondents answered, “Other Americans” (in preference to such options as economic forces, natural disasters, foreign actors, etc.). I am not a fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre. This Book Is Full of Spiders might well be classed as a member of that genre, but it interrogates the fear of zombies, rather than taking it for granted. The mostly-explicit conclusion involves a prehistoric dog and Dunbar’s number, and the corollaries extend to dehumanizing social conflict in general.
As a sequel to John Dies at the End, this book stands on its own just fine. It inherits from the previous volume the central characters David, Amy, and John, the weirdness of the small Midwestern city of “[Undisclosed],” and the thaumaturgy of Soy Sauce. But the plot is well contained in this book. In fact it begins with an overture to readers not to read the earlier book: “It’s better if we get a fresh start. … I’m pleased to have the fresh opportunity to try to convince you I’m not a shithead.”
It is on the comic end of the horror spectrum, with plenty of gross-out moments and hapless antics, but it wasn’t until the final sections that I got to some laugh out loud passages. I recommend this book as a sound mix of lowbrow humor, weird horror, and social commentary.