This experimental novel’s torrent of language creates a dark and unsettling apocalyptic world.
An epigraph from Djuna Barnes’ verse play, The Antiphon, sets the stage for this unusual and subversive third novel from Judge (Lyrics of the Crossing, 2014, etc.): “Say I was of home so utterly bereft, / I dug me one, and pushed my terror in.” The novel bears some resemblance to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central with its j’accuse intensity but without the historical grounding, and stylistically, it’s something else altogether. We are confronted with decadent, lavishly descriptive prose and poetry hurled at us, portraying something out of a Brothers Quay film. This inferno of a book is set between World War I and II—its three sections are called Before Europe, During America, and After Europe. It’s a road trip of cities and states (London, Florida, Hammondsport, Fargo, St. Louis, etc.) as seen by the “scenarists,” three expatriate Americans, Djuna, Tom, and Ezra, and an “I” called “Patient.” A devastating conflagration has taken place. Functioning as journalist watchers confronting a damaged humanity, they record an unending tableau of grotesque images reminiscent of Joel-Peter Witkin photographs: “piles of worn vultures” are mountains; a dwarf’s leg is a “twist of rotted wood”; and Beckett-ian “figures” that hide, lay “folded or at length in canisters under the street like tanks of obsolete poison.” The trip seems to owe something to the psychogeography school of fiction inhabited by Will Self and Iain Sinclair, where the abstract is conveyed via accumulated, concrete images. Imagine Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities—with its cities dead, hidden, continuous—on steroids, where “words weld to words along a seam of amputated meaning.” Describing the book is problematic and ultimately probably useless. Judicious editing would have helped and yet it seemingly revels in its excess, steadfastly refusing to bow down to any conventional fictional tropes.
It’s not for everyone, but for those willing to take the hyperbolic, meditative trip, it will stimulate, confuse, and exhaust.