Poet Cotler’s (Sonnets to the Humans, 2012, etc.) affecting, lyric novel is a long letter from writer Rider Sonnenreich to his sister Leya, its subject nothing less than the mind of an artist.
Both Rider and his sister repeatedly suffered “glimmers” (seizures) as children, and Leya has come to represent something of Rider’s muse, a complicated, ephemeral figure whom he doesn’t wholly understand, yet he’s drawn to her and makes her the subject of his art. She exists mostly in the folds of his memory, though, and readers learn in the opening pages that she has disappeared to Europe, of which Rider remarks: “It’s beautiful enough.” At the behest of his mother, he bums around different European cities, supposedly looking for her but finding instead a variety of bohemians whom he regards like a poet. When he eventually reconnects with her, his memory blends with her present incarnation, which involves dissociation and a bathtub slicked with vomit. Readers looking for a tidy travel narrative should look elsewhere; one scene here takes place in “Gigot’s annex,” full of slightly stoned Italians and expats, and Rider imagines himself there as a boy who would “squat in the corner and cover [his] ears” if given his way. In the same scene, he reveals that he “wouldn’t mind becoming sharper, crazy I mean, not weak-minded crazy. Subtle disconnections.” It’s the voice of a poet in Europe: romantic and sarcastic to the bone, simultaneously jaded and full of wonder. Featuring this kind of overt meditation that’s often on a writer’s mind can be risky, but Cotler pulls it off, injecting feeling into each image, each response, each gesture. It’s no slight to call this a poet’s novel—its narrative thrust is a lyrical one, its strengths are its precision of thought and image, variety of prose and the depth of its meditations. The novel is addressed to the sister, in second person, casting the reader as a voyeur. Or is it really the reader who is addressed, cast as the sister, to whom the poet addresses his interior missives? Cotler stays one step ahead: “Art, I guess, can unintentionally insult the viewer by presuming to include him.”
A beautiful, disturbing portrait of an artist.