Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Derek White's MARSUPIAL

Calamari Press has now released Derek White's new novel MARSUPIAL, wherein the term 'new' is both germane and not germane in several ways, as foretold by the note in copyright page at the beginning, stating it was written from 1997-2008. From what I understand of the story and in following Derek's blog, it is based at least in part on a remasked novel, the first version of which he wrote those almost 10 years ago and toyed with after, a novel began during which he was employed as an extra or body double during the filming of a film by bizarre Quentin Tarantino once-collaborator, Roger Avery (for more on that backstory, read Derek's post re: the novel germination here).

This book excited me from the get-go not only because I love Derek's collection POSTE RESTANTE, but also because you can't help not getting excited about a book with as beautiful and provocative a cover as MARSUPIAL's:



In this case, the cover does speak to the book as a whole itself: in that, it is stark, cryptic, and gritty, and yet in all the same ways it is pristine. MARSUPIAL for the most part is a wide collage of disparate but all related elements. There are prose vignettes, there are bits from film scripts, there are the strange collagist images Derek has impressed into most of the Calamari releases, there are news clippings and other official documents, dream sequences, definitions, and on and on, and tying all of these together, there is the first person narration of Stu, a character who over the course of the novel continues to shift identities and meld with other characters to the point of a kind of laden, historical blur.

With all of these elements embedded, it would be easy for a text like this to get derailed to go so off course. In fact, the story itself, even in its most linear sequences has a tendency to skew everything to bits. In the mind of INLAND EMPIRE it follows the production of a film subject to all kinds of strange interruption. The narrator often finds himself out of body, referring to himself in quotes. As early as page 9, his head comes off his shoulders as he holds in a sneeze. As things continue, the narrator, worried he is being surveilled, obsessed with his brother's broken-english speaking girlfriend, acting as his brother's stunt double in a film that continues to become more and more flush and fractalled with the reality in which it is being filmed: all of this could make for easy, lazy 'surrealism' (in fact there is a quote somewhere embedded regarding this effect, the way laziness in art can often be passed off as intentional in the name of the surreal).

I for one have never been at peace with the 'surrealist school.' I've always tended toward bizarre images, and juxtapositions of weird dream logics, etc., but I've often felt coming up dry in the ways of the actual produce of these effects. Breton's NADJA, for instance, bored the shit out of me, and seemed passed off, sold as an idea, in the way that Bolano's THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES seemed to be trying to sell me a new leg of poetics. Surrealism, to me, should not be political, and this is where so much of the genre has gone wrong. Politics? In art? Aren't their politics enough all everywhere else? Can't we have one fucking awake state that feels as good as sleeping? Isn't that the point?

White's MARSUPIAL, though, if anything, bends surrealism into the kind of effects I've always wished to see rendered literarily. I've talked a lot on here about trying to write the David Lynch novel. Derek White, the motherfucker, may have beaten me to it, at least in a way. There are definitely Lynch-isms loaded here, the mother is referred to as 'Mary X. White,' a name fans of ERASERHEAD will immediately recognize. A lot of the meta-work and the way White manages to breed a certain feel of noir schlock and confusion humor (the screenwriter's drug use, the weird sex jokes, the studio's talkie-talkies, which translate the French film crew's directions into mangled English, 'pornography hero,' etc) with another kind of anytime-metamorphing energy, in which you literally could see the roof fly off a building overflowed with circus peanuts with little faces and feel completely okay about, not wonder what the fuck is wrong with the author. And so much of the narrative terrain moves in the way I love so much about the spatial orientations of INLAND EMPIRE and etc. It moves not as a logic earth, but as rooms connected associatively, by cosmic necessity, rather than some map sketched and pored over on the author's desk.

Somewhere near the beginning of the book the narrator's brother John says, "Personally, I think it's more interesting to write about what you don't know." This has always been, in my mind, one of the most important things to grasp in new writers, those getting told 'write what you know,' who will by and large go onto to say nothing that will ever stir anything that could not have been said by 1200 other MFA grads.

Literature for me has always felt crushed a little by realism, by BEST AMERICAN aspirations, with the need of setting place and time, getting cornered by what should or should not happen, how the characters 'feel' about it, how they assess/parse/deal with it, what's going on, even within a certain confine. The tendency to have resolution and the need for repeating images has always bothered me, and yet when there is just empty noodling, I get the same feel. It takes a deft hand to manage the surreal in a way that feels like it is doing what it should, that it has a reason to exist in the same way that Steve Vai sounds like a dickface for being all around and yet nowhere at once.

Which leads me to one of the most impressive things about MARSUPIAL, one of the things that I think I am most awed by in this weird, corrosive, and yet immensely refined book: the way White is able to take his imagery, take the sometimes intentionally obfuscated (but in a playful way) story of a man filming a film that melds with his life, his mind, his mother, his everything at once, and manages to stir it all together, with all of these disparate elements, into a thing that comes together not in a forced way, not in a 'here is why you're reading way,' not in a way that makes me angry for how it took the moody energy and explained it all to bits, but in a way that instead somehow marries these things into a non-resolutional ending, a way to leave the book, that both leaves most questions unanswered, and yet fills my stomach.

To be true, the last 20 pages of it, the climaxed chord of all these threads speaking together for a moment, in their clearly semi-en-route-discovered understandings, and their simultaneously clearly long-boiled (nine years!) effects, in what they leave out and leave for my brain to try to cut through, the embossed energy of association!!!!!!!, it left me reeling a little, somewhat in the same way I felt after having watched MULHOLLAND DRIVE for the first time, like I'd been led among a series of rooms by someone who'd designed them to unravel and reravel for us both at once.

If literature is not about discovery, a method often just as accidental as it is deigned for, then I can't feel like I'm inside it. And yet this pushing for discovery, so often it is what pushes me away. I want to be inside it, and I want it to be inside me, I don't want to feel it soldering me back closed before its over. I want to be ripped open a little. I want to see thing going on, and be awed at its creation. MARSUPIAL manages to do all of this, and yet it does not feel like work. In an age where the book is already so maligned, it is refreshing to see such a new and challenging narrative be delivered so pleasantly, with such focus, and yet with such utter disregard for the implications of straight storytelling.

MARSUPIAL is something new.

MARSUPIAL is a book that will continue to strum the mind long after it is silent, that has so many layers it can't help but seem to explode, that like INLAND EMPIRE and other open texts, will remain basting the brain long after with its cold juices, that even as I type this now with the book still inside my mind and around me I feel the same way I did the years when I was 12 and could not move inside my bed, stuck again in the recurring dream of a boulder rolling in slow motion down out of the ceiling each night to crush my face, and yet I couldn't wait.

You will buy this book.

22 comments:

KEN BAUMANN said...

Blake: YES/exciting review, great.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

thanks ken, i know you in particular would love this book

Josh Maday said...

this is a great review blake. i bought MARSUPIAL before i'd even read 1/3 of the post. i'm very interested in the concept/structure of this novel. can't wait to read it.

Josh Maday said...

because i think i am incapable of writing traditional linear 'serious fiction'. it bores me. MARSUPIAL sounds fascinating and exciting, but, as you said, not in an empty aimless way.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

i feel incapable of that also josh, which is why this book made me happy

you are definitely 'target audience' here, market the unmarket

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

Really thoughtful review, here, Blake.

Re realist vs. experimental, I've always been of a mind that a story you want to tell is a story you want to tell and to get bogged down in narrative strategies is death. If you feel like you are bored by realist fiction, and feel incapable of writing it, it's time to start writing it. Narrative strategies are not an end, they are a means to an end.

This is not said to disrespect any of the fine, fine work you do—or you, either, Josh. And, heck, maybe it's just the contrarian in me.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

matthew, i am really glad you pointed that out. i've never found i've been able to make anything i felt good about when i come to the table feeling like i have an idea of where it should go, or what 'kind' of story it should tell. i think almost anything i've ever written and liked were germinated from a phrase or a sentence or an image only. i've certainly never sat down and thought 'i am going to write surrealisticly' i would be afraid of people who did that.

it's only at the end, when i get back and try to think about actually 'publishing a book' and with my experience with agents and bigger houses, the work i do tends to avoid on its own, by natural inclinations, the 'realist' things bigger houses seem to love.

i also find the more normal a day in real life is, the more the odder nuances tend to slur out, which is why inland empire hit me so hard: its surreal aspects tied into normal landscapes and days seem more and more like the slurs in normal life, the openings that most people miss, etc.

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

At WW, we had a lecturer who talked a bit about Lynch. He had this really elegant way of referring to one of the major Lynchian elements: he called it the anomalous tone.

Even when Lynch does realism, he does so in this way that doesn't seem to suit the story being told. Or suits it, but also freaks it right the fuck out.

He pointed to Fatelessness by Kertesz as another good example: a holocaust book where the narrator seems to be bored by his time in the concentration camp, immune to the horror because he never seems to feel the seriousness of it all.

So that's, what? Irony? A tonal form of surrealism because only in one's dreams would one be able to confront real horror like a concentration camp with real boredom?

BLAKE BUTLER said...

That book sounds awesome, I will look at it.

I think it does have to do with dreaming, the way in a dream things of high illogic can seem natural, the way in dream you can 'just know things' without knowing why you know them. They contain their own logic, their own history, it does not have to be explained to you, the way so many 'realist' books explain every little thing.

In dreams, you often operate as if off a reservoir of everything not only that you've been through, but that your unconscious contains, making everything that much more loaded and yes, suiting and not quite suiting at the same time.

This is where Gardner, I think, or at least those who interpret Gardner, got the idea of 'narrative dream' so wrong: the beautiful thing about dreams is precisely that they only make sense inside themselves. To explain them to death is to murder them, for sure.

Kafka, he works the same way, and I know is a big hero for Lynch, as is the process of dreaming.

I could listen to Lynch talk in his cheeseball manner about the excitement of dreams for hours.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

i like that: 'the anomalous tone'

Sloth said...

Fuckin A

Anonymous said...

how long does it take for redivider to respond to submissions? blake, help me.

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

yes, and unsaid.

sam pink said...

unsaid accepted one of my things like a day after i sent it but it still isn't up and i sent an email about giving them the last revision, but i still haven't heard back (three weeks).

BLAKE BUTLER said...

i have never had redivider respond before i retracted a story accepted somewhere else that i can remember.

they are very slow.

unsaid is variant, i'm not sure

Josh Maday said...

matthew, blake: i'm with you, dudes. narrative strategies are useless as ends in themselves. i learned that the hard way; i had lots of ideas, idea-driven stories, and i made writing miserable for myself by trying to make the story conform to what i wanted it to be. i've written a handful of 'traditional realist' stories, and i'm pretty happy with them; they function, but most of them are still unpublished. they work, but i don't think they have much spark; i think my most successful writing has come out of just sitting down to write and, like blake said, beginning with an image, a sentence, a feeling, and just let the language build its own world, its own logic. beginning with much more than that seems to get me into trouble; the thing i have coming out soon in Action Yes actually began as a blog post that was going to be random blabbering, but the first line, the image of it, the aura, went in its own direction and the blabber became something else. it's strange, though, as weird as my writing has been, i have never set out to write 'something weird' or employ a certain narrative structure. the work seems to organize itself. i guess 'incapable' is not the best word, because i can and have written traditional realist stories, in fact, almost every story i've tried to write, i've aimed for traditional realism, but often fail; maybe: when letting the story go where it goes, i tend toward the strange, the bizarre, the unusual, in both form and content. i really admire the way blake's work explores "surreal aspects tied into normal landscapes". i enjoy reading it a lot; i find myself wanting to copy it. i think i've lost my thread here, but i agree, the story should be told however it is best told rather than trying to shoehorn something into a weird form because it will look different; the weird form should add something. any form at all should add, or at least not hinder. i'm sure i've contradicted myself in here somewhere.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

you said that well

say the bitch, donttouchit

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

yes. well said josh.

two months, not a peep from unsaid. possibly, they hate me.

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

oh, also, sam:

lean left, lean right, lean left, lean right...wait for charge, lean left from charge, body blow.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

i think unsaid is just very sporadic, the first time i wrote to them i never got an answer, the second time it was a one day response, same night, then the last one is still open? i think david running it all himself, it's just he works by whim so i wouldn't worry about it, he'll get around

Josh Maday said...

got my copy of MARSUPIAL today. my eyes are eating through my eyelids to get to the words.

BLAKE BUTLER said...

i am excited for you, it will be fun