Ever feel like you can't pay attention while reading because the world keeps leaking in? Or like things from the world meld into the book, creating a fictional narrative somehow infused with elements from reality? Lately I've been finding it hard to trust what I read unless it not only acknowledges that feeling somehow, but takes it even further, caving in the borders between the page and the world beyond.
Here are three recent books that each take a completely different approach in trying to figure out how to connect the present with the past, reality with an unnamable state.
The Old Man and the Bench by Urs Allemann, translated by Patrick Greaney (Dalkey Archive)
The first work by Urs Allemann to be translated into English from the German was a little 134-page ditty titled Babyfucker. Ever try reading a book called Babyfucker, with its title squarely centered on a bright neon yellow field, in public? I did, while on a stationary bike at the gym. If you don't like fit strangers in spandex looking at you in disgust, I wouldn't recommend it.
Anyway, this one here, The Old Man and the Bench, originally released in 1993, is the follow up to that pursuit, and while not as defiant as the prior, it comes in on a wild horse of its own. The protagonist, we are told up front, is being paid a government agency's stipend to write, and so he feels compelled to go on, despite not having a clue what to write about. He thinks he should probably write about his childhood, yeah? That's what people want; to be told a story with sentiment and meaning above all else.
And yet Allemann's protagonist knows nothing like that, or at least can't stay focused half a second long enough on any particular memory or rumination to develop a coherent narrative. Instead, the text continues to swim and bang around between all sorts of ideas, from abstract descriptions of the sexuality of inanimate objects to why his friends think he's a piece of shit, to how fast worms grow, to a ten-page paragraph describing himself eating his own fingers, to thinking out loud about what he should be writing instead of what he actually is. The deeper you go, the deeper you are drowned in an unhinged imagination forced to sprawl itself apart on paper before your eyes, for no other reason than because it doesn't know what else to do.
Insane as the sprawl is, there is a magical energy to the whole thing. The language shifts from surrealist to bored with itself to perverted to mystical to sentimental to Dada-like babble, all on a dime. The very fact that from any one word to the next we could end up anywhere, regarding anything, allows the reader to abandon all would-be framework of the reading experience, making the whole thing more like a drug experience than a novel, a hyper-hallucinating cloud of countless shades of hope and hell.
Reconsolidation: Or, it's the ghosts who will answer you by Janice Lee (Penny Ante Editions)
"I never dreamed about my mother before her death," begins Jancie Lee's latest book, Reconsolidation. "Since her death four months ago, I haven't been able to escape her in my dreams."
What we are entered into thereafter is the author's intense mourning, grief, in the midst of which she pieces together a collage-like inquisition of her parent's death by aneurysm. The fragmentary range of facts and feelings are splayed across a shifting sand of approaches and inquisitions, confessions, interpolations.
The effect is somehow both sobering and otherworldly at the same time, a heavy, breathing kind of light. Lee's voice is clear and clinical in presenting and confronting what has been brought before it. Each page is spare and thoughtfully considered, open, trying to find a center to its loss. It moves between sharp rational facts to questions without answers to quotes from Derrida and Sebald to the author's confrontation with her own OCD and forms of regret to an ongoing analysis of why we remember what we remember and what remains in phantom ways of what has passed.
As much as the reality itself, Lee takes considerable time prying into the spiritual fugue state from which the words of the book are derived. She writes, "new information is often incorporated into the old memory. The emotional or psychological state you are in when you recall that memory will inevitably influence the reconsolidated memory. Recalling a memory during these stages of inadequacy, repentance, sought-after impossibilities, recalling a memory under these conditions may be dangerous. The memory, a symbol for a strange form of affliction and permanence of love, may be changed forever."
The book begins to feel alive. It is thinking within its own Wittgenstein-like thinking. It has its own brain and its own heart, one as replenishing in spirit as it is haunted. I can't remember reading a book that so precisely and empathetically allows the reader to consider death and existence so directly. Its openness and willingness to search for meaning in the midst of pain is refreshing in its calmness.
Last Mass by Jamie Iredell (Civil Coping Mechanisms)
Perhaps part of figuring out who you are—at least if you don't want to turn out a total asshole—is figuring out where you are in history, what happened to allow you to have what you have and know what you think you know. Of course, sometimes the borders between the present and the past are blurry, particularly when you're surrounded on all sides by information, and you like drinking.
We all know there's a lot of messed up stuff that's gone on in the history of Catholicism, for instance, but rarely do you get a chance to look at it through the eyes of Jamie Iredell, who was born and raised a Catholic in California. His most recent book, Last Mass, takes on the complicated history of the religion in a genre- and space-time-bending collage of various accounts, along the way entwining the author's life with that of the Catholic Saint Miquel Josep Serra, a mysterious and kinda shitty dude who founded missions throughout California in the 18th century.
Pretty much nothing is off limits in Iredell's projections. From paragraph to paragraph we move around through fact and memory alike, jumping back and forth through centuries and locations as fluidly as moving from one website to another, or laying different filters over film. Within the span of a single page we find a description of the violent kids Iredell went to middle school with, then into an anecdote about a psychiatrist who testified at Albert Fish's murder trial, into an image of missionaries burning the homes and grounds of Native Americans who refused to convert, then into a description of how it feels to be crucified, into a meditation about witchcraft.
From fact to fact, the flood feeds on, creating in its wake a portrait of both the author and the world around him, interspersed like cremains among dirt.
And overlaying it all is a kind of mania, by turns hilarious and poignant, matter-of-fact and completely obscure, a range of styles I don't think I've ever seen fit together in one voice so seamlessly. The author even has a panic attack while writing the book—like, right in the middle of it—which he then decides to let you know about. "My fucking computer crashed," one short paragraph begins, only to continue on in very next breath, "Mission San Luis Obispo was the first to erect kilns for firing tiles that roofed the buildings."
Like a single volume encyclopedia edited by a loveable weirdo who writes himself into the march of human time, Last Mass does something you haven't seen before, and makes you wiser for it.
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