Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nemonymous Night: A Real-Time Review

I'm now reading the first novel by D.F. Lewis, writer, editor, and weirdmonger.  He's also the author of many real-time reviews, in which thoughts on a book are offered up at intervals during the reading process.  And, always eager for something that will disguise the dullness of my reviews, I thought, why not approach his book the same way?  I'm a bit nervous-- I can barely judge a book after reading, let alone during-- but also looking forward to it.

There are no spoilers in the most obvious sense-- it would be hard to spoil this book without transcribing the whole thing-- but I will allude to aspects of the plot that only appear or become clear late in the game.

"These words are not a pretentious authorial introduction to the book."

So far I have read only the Prelude, which is about 1/3 of a page long.  It seems to suggest what I had been more or less expecting based on my (very limited) reading of DFL's other work: a strange, erudite and highly thoughtful piece of writing, not plotless but not plotted in any obvious way.  Apparently it'll also have something to do with carpets.  And there's a Lope de Vega epigraph about the falseness of our notions of identity, which is nice. (9th June 2011: 3:50 PM US Eastern Time)

"Still, then, the horrors hadn't yet started.  Various strange words start to build up-- as if against the dam of sanity: connections and misconnections which fracture and fragment dream and mix it with real life: an impending doom that gradually increases in sickly strength.  In fact, little did they know, but the impending part of the doom was worse than the eventual doom itself."

This is a very odd book.  Given the author's reputation and the publisher's previous releases I shouldn't find this surprising, but I must admit that I do.  Perhaps it's because this type of oddness is one I haven't dealt with before.  If forced to make comparisons, I might suggest minute stylistic similarity to John Elliott (a digressive playfulness with words and phrases) and structural similarity to Michael Cisco (layers of reality that are difficult to disentangle), but I imagine those comparisons are only occurring to me because of the Chomu connection.

So far the plot seems to involve different characters with the same name, or characters who exist in both dream and real life, or characters on distinct planes of reality.  The guiding principle, if any, has yet to emerge, and so I'm taking the book as a sequence of interconnected dreamlike vignettes that build on each other in unexpected ways.  The characters grapple with loss and disappearance, both of real people and of the sense of personal identity, creating a pensive, unsettling, occasionally offset by flashes of absurdism and humor.  Will that be enough to sustain my interest?  Will a distinct narrative emerge?  Only time will tell.  I find myself enjoying this real-time review approach.

[One question I'm facing, though, is how often to update.  There are no chapters in Nemonymous Night, only three lengthy parts.  Last night the question was taken out of my hands by an Internet outage that made it impossible to update the review, but now I'm wondering.  When the impulse hits, I suppose.  Right now I'm at the break in the text on page 44.] (10th June 2011: 8:40 AM US Eastern Time)

"How extraordinary the times had become only hindsight could know.  The identities of Amy and Arthur-- it was believed-- had been stolen by lostlings or foundlings or changelings who had escaped with much of their victims' past cloying to them.  These were apparent children masquerading as the children Amy and Arthur had once been in earlier perhaps less extraordinary times.  This belief in such stolen identities opportunely gave an indication of how truly extraordinary the times actually now were, making it difficult to describe these events with any degree of seriousness.  However, if they're not treated seriously at face value, then times have a tendency of coming back with a vengeance and biting the people who disowned them.

The quirks of a real-time review: within mere pages of my last stopping point there came something that could be used as a guiding principle.  I'm not going to say what it is, because the deeper revelation, obtained on reading further into the book, is that it doesn't matter, is only the illusion of something solid, much as any person's belief in her own identity is merely the illusion of same.  Despite their shifting backstories and situations, the characters of Nemonymous Night retain my interest, and the book has a striking overall coherence.  This has something to do with the book's recurring imagery and language: carpets, as mentioned above, but other things too, from dilapidated top-story flats to the word hawler.  These connections, and the book's continuing rumination on the thinness of identity, make for compelling reading, a kind of prose-poetry, despite the slipperiness of the plot.

There is also a tendency that I might call postmodern, were that not an overused and sterile academic term.  The book's prelude, from which I quoted above, I had not at first taken seriously enough.  One of the things Nemonymous Night is about is its own evolution: the rise and fall of certain narrative strands, the sudden appearance of a character or a detail of setting, toward which the voice of the text slyly alludes without breaking apart entirely.  There is a character who might stand in for the author, or might simply be parallel to the author as other characters are parallel to yet other characters.  From the erratic motion of the narrative to occasional awkwardnesses of language, the novel almost feels like it was written straight from front to back to with minimal planning and/or revision, uncertain itself as to how, or whether, things will come out.  (The manner in which the book was actually written is, of course, beside the point.)

[One of the problems with real-time reviews for me is that they multiply the number of times I have to sit down and start writing, which I hate.  This is why I let reviews pile up and then do several at a time.  Today, apart from further updates to this review, I have three more to write, and if I wait until tomorrow a fourth will have been added to the queue.  At any rate, I am now at the text break on page 101 of Nemonymous Night.]  (10th June 2011: 10:40 AM US Eastern Time)

"It is difficult to imagine the world being better or worse than it actually is.  However, without humanity to stain its pages, who knows what will then become imaginable or even real?  There is a theory-- to which I subscribe-- that humanity 'strobes' in and out of existence , selective collective-memory then forcing the 'alight' stage to forget the previous 'switched-off' one... time and time again.  Mass consciousness flickering in and out of existence like a faulty lighthouse... or, indeed, a fully-working lighthouse."

The sense of plot grows greater with every passing page, even as new elements are introduced and the playfulness continues (characters themselves crying out to be more fully-realized, the writer's unrealized notes on things to add popping up at certain intervals).  Mutation, evolution, degeneration lead to disturbingly vivid hybrid-visions.  A subterranean journey leads to revelations, one of which has all the force of a plot twist in a thriller.  Also, someone is revealed as a cross-dresser.

I often think that fiction is, more than a narrative or thematic experience, an encounter with a writer's sensibility.  Anything can be forgiven as long as the author's voice comes through, sure and strong and unique.  Nemonymous Night positively flaunts its constructed nature, is almost arrogant in its indifference to coherence and structure, and yet, somehow, Lewis ties it all together.

[Have reached the end of the first large section, "Nemonymous Navigation."] (10th June 2011: 3:30 PM US Eastern Time)

"Fiction was always easier than truth, a generalisation with which I would need to come to terms... eventually."

As the second part of Nemonymous Night, which shares its title with the novel as a (w)hole, begins, something happens... well, makes the book more itself.  That is, it extends and intensifies what has gone before.  Hostile readers who have been sticking with the book despite frustration will likely choose this moment to toss it across the room.  Nonetheless, the author manages to maintain, and even to increase, the narrative tension that readers able to handle abstract, intuitive fiction will have already discovered.

The dreams described in the novel are almost miniature stories in themselves, like those mosaics that are made up of a thousand smaller pictures.  Details-- images, lines of dialogue, evocations of emotion-- stick out from the surface, distracting one's attention from the larger creation, at least for a time.  In trying to describe Nemonymous Night, you may have noticed, I fall into an odd prose style, inspired at some remove by the novel itself, as if I have become another of the shifting, seeking characters within its pages.

[at the break in the text on page 213] (10th June 2011: 4:55 PM US Eastern Time)

"...viewing windows close to the leading edge of the bit-tip-- allowing vistas when the storms of the Drill's off-detritus didn't obscure them with the moving rubble of confusions or lies.  A bit like this book where I've invited you to stand at its own viewing-windows in its select, very select, Corporate Lounge of plot and counterplot."

Did I mention that this novel is also a bit Lovecraftian?  Not traditionally so, of course, but with the unspeakable inhuman presence at the core of the earth and the images of possibly-doomed humanity supplicant before it, not to mention a pessimistic philosophical edge, there's a hint of that good old cosmicist materialism.  Also a recurring reference to a particular horror story by Maupassant, which I loved as a child but haven't reread in too long.

I keep circling round the question of how to capture the peculiar appeal of Nemonymous Night.  I think readers will understand that a bizarre, associative novel of the weird whose plot wanders and recirculates like Moses in the desert can nonetheless be rendered fascinating, but I don't think that general understanding does justice to this particular instance.  Part of it, perhaps, is that the recurring images are somehow resonant: angevin harvesting is utter nonsense, but something about it strikes a chord (or maybe a cord) deep within the brain.  And then, underneath the strangeness there is the eternal frailty and fragility of human identity.  The author (of the book, or of one of the books with the book, if the distinction is important) alludes to a recurring dream/nightmare about university that is, in its outline, identical to one I have rather often, though it has plagued me for less time than it apparently has him.  A mundane thing, except that it isn't, at all.  These flashes of the real, or at least the everyday, are another ingredient in the bubbling, neon-colored concoction that is Nemonymous Night.

[At the end of part two.] (11th June 2011: 1:05 PM US Eastern Time)

"Even Man needed a retort." 

Well into part three of the novel, intriguingly headed "Apocryphal Coda."  Events have spun out again, and so far I'm not sure it's been a success.  The material is involving enough on its own, but the sense of continuity with parts one and two has dissipated, making the digressive, self-contradictory language more troublesome to read.  However, there's plenty of time/space for things to pick up again, and in any case I'm enjoying the wanderings of the Weirdmonger, who gives nostalgia an unusual edge.

[At the text break on page 322.] (11th June 2011: 2:32 PM US Eastern Time)

"Even fiction has its own version of pitiful senility amid the other realities to which it ever tries to cling."

I have now finished Nemonymous Night.  And, on another level, have come to terms with the fact that I have scarcely read it at all.  This is not a book where even surface meanings can be grasped after a single reading.  The thinness of its characters, the daffiness of its plot, can inspire one to read quickly, along the images, the aphorisms, to slip through the mind without sticking there, like a television show watched in the background when something else is going on.  The substance of the novel is retained, but the grace of individual passages must wait for slower, contemplative rereading, once the mind has been able to prepare itself for such a thing.

In lieu of a conclusion, have a list of elements from the novel I haven't yet found room to mention: Proust. Big Brother.  Bird flu.  Birthday shoes.  Quarter-p coins. A giant misshapen tree.  Klaxon City.  Blasphemy Fitzworth.  And alter-nemos.

[The end.] (11th June 2011: 3:45 PM US Eastern Time)

1 comment:

  1. I think you are being too hard on yourself, Brendan. You are a very fine writer---one of the best, actually, and your reviews are always a joy to read.