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.