Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]


Glass (pray the electrons back to sand)

By James Chapman
Fugue State Press, 1994

.357
By Marcus Gray
1995, and ongoing

Reviewed by Bob Wake


James Chapman and Marcus Gray have written experimental novels which aren't likely to win either author a following of mainstream readers. After all, even professed lovers of serious literary fiction are wont to recoil from books characterized as "experimental." The term invariably conjures images of fat books -- James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is usually the sacrificial exemplar -- impacted with blocks of impenetrable text unencumbered by syntax, punctuation, or indented paragraphs. Or, if not vast and hermetic like Finnegans Wake, then brief and enigmatic like Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. The implication, of course, is always the same: experimental literature is self-indulgent, arbitrary, simultaneously overdetermined and undisciplined. Such charges might conceivably be leveled against James Chapman's 1994 novel Glass (pray the electrons back to sand) and Marcus Gray's ongoing .357, a novel Gray has been issuing in chapbook installments since 1995. But such charges would be misplaced, and would merely go to prove what ought to be self-evident: experimental literature requires experimental readers. Which is to say, literature that is courageous in its vision is best appreciated by readers who are themselves courageous visionaries. Do I thus flatter myself as a critic and reader when I express my admiration for Glass and .357 ? Certainly. But is it really so unusual to ask the very best of ourselves as interpreters of the texts we set before us?

James Chapman's Glass (pray the electrons back to sand) is subtitled "A Television-War Novel," and its ostensive subject is the Gulf War of 1991. Chapman's allegiance to experimental fiction carries him far afield from the traditional "realistic" war novel. Even though Glass pays homage to certain qualities of war fiction that we are familiar with, such as boot camp degradation and the terrors of front line battle, the novel adds layers of surrealism that nearly reinvent the genre. Chapman uses techniques that are startlingly cinematic -- abrupt montage-like shifts in points-of-view and the intercutting of fantasies and delusions, not to mention television broadcasts and commercials -- which at times suggest the political aesthetics of a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard, whose experimental films ironically are often accused of being more akin to polemical literary essays than movies. But there should be no mistaking Chapman's achievement, which is literary in the highest sense of the word: as a war novel with elements of absurdist comedy and violent black humor, Glass is more subversive and disturbing than canonical "classics" like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Yet we come away from a reading of Glass feeling that Chapman has given us a "realistic" cultural critique of how our personalities become media saturated and militarized.

Glass is divided into four distinct sections, the first of which -- "Private" -- relates the meltdown of a 33-year-old civilian named VJ, short for Valentine Janowski: "I was trapped with a woman I didn't love, who periodically hated my ass, in a stupid matchbox house near the airbase, jets all the time screaming over, on a career plan for low-ball treadmill death, waiting out my heart attack, saving up for the mid-line coffin." Janowski's first-person account describes a ferocious two days that encompass the accidental electrocution and death of a co-worker at the television factory where VJ works, and a harrowing late-night marital scuffle that culminates in the bedsheets literally ablaze and Janowski overcome with smoke inhalation. Every aspect of his life is described in terms that suggest a war zone, with the most corrosive imagery used when talking about his marriage:
Love is the enemy within. It's the peace movement, saying negotiate, you have to coexist, hey she's your wife, look at them eyes, remember the moment by the train tracks, remember the kiss against the goddamn coffeeshop wall. Love conquers all it settles for, go ahead be a good guy and apologize if that's what she wants, you get big shot of painkiller in return. Forgive. Eat shit. A hippie leader in my brain was shunting over into a circuit called "Life Could Be Cute." It was time to kill the hippie...

Janowski is never really sober beyond the half-drunk hangovers that bring him to his job, where he usually falls asleep at his workbench. The psychological toll seems to have reached a point where he frequently dissociates via delusional-like episodes that he calls "The VJ Show": "I see myself moving, doing stuff, from outside." His perceptions are borderline psychotic at times. Watching nude female dancers in a strip club, he observes:
I forgot I wasn't watching TV...My body'd forgot it was there...The only way you knew it wasn't TV was you could smell things. The rotted-out smell of old alcohol could've been coming from anyplace, maybe me...I saw VJ: drunk, sick, sickly smile...

Chapman accomplishes several interesting feats in the opening section of the novel. Not only do we fully appreciate the bottoming out that leads VJ to the recruiting office, but we also begin to sense the underlying cultural dysfunction which produces the hostile and somewhat clueless individuals who are ripe for military indoctrination. Not that Janowski is a nitwit by any means. He seems always on the verge of a crucial awareness that might free him from self-destruction -- or military service, for that matter -- and indeed VJ's personality at the novel's end is dramatically transformed into something approaching the ashen solemnity of a Samuel Beckett character. While VJ can certainly be defined as the protagonist of Glass, his presence becomes submerged and no longer center-stage after the novel's opening pages. The character of VJ never completely disappears from the story, but in the subsequent sections of Glass Chapman opens his authorial lens to a wider presentation of the war. We see the Gulf War filtered through other voices and perspectives, cross-cutting between the battlefield and the homefront, casual observers and angry protesters, as well as media monoliths like CNN and network television. We also see the devastation wrought upon Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians and soldiers, whom Chapman portrays vividly in plaintive vignettes. All of this is masterfully rendered in what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called "heteroglossia" -- a multi-voiced style that displays the world for us in all its energetic clashes of cultures and ideologies.

Chapman's evocation of boot camp in the novel's second section, "Clear Channel," is a tour-de-force of grotesque and surreal imagery:
...[T]here's booths with bake sale goodies, manned by nice young women in cotton lawn-party dresses, they're smiling and nodding at the recruits, showing off these baked things in heavy glass boxes. Jesus-on-the-cross cookies, where His face is iced white and brown jimmies for hair; bowls of, looks like, blood whipped in a blender froth borscht-pink, served in dixie cups, skin shreds floating dark as beets; what appears human shit dipped in chocolate and stuck on a stick; plus aluminum trays of white entrails tangled in blue-cheese crumbles; and cubes of some kind of black jello.

Janowksi's military indoctrination involves a series of humiliations designed to turn his already well-defined sexual hostility into an authentic killer's instinct. In one of the novel's most powerfully shocking scenes VJ is taunted and verbally emasculated by a woman "judge" until he explodes in rage and kills her with a broken glass bottle, then literally scalps the corpse. After which, he is roundly congratulated by his military brethren, "VJ, babe, ya made it." Chapman's point is brutally clear: military training zeroes in on the worst of our violent social sicknesses and reinforces them until we are sufficiently prepared to "do battle" with whomever the military designates as our "enemy."

The final two sections of Glass -- "Air War" and "Dead Air" -- represent the novel's finest accomplishment in threading VJ's battle experiences through a panoramic montage of Gulf War perspectives. Chapman's control and breadth of vision are especially remarkable because he has succeeded in expressing an experimental literary impulse without forfeiting the violent naturalism that traditionally propels war fiction. The novel's "story" never loses momentum or direction, every vignette and aside is meaningful within the novel's overall design. The text is increasingly more fragmented, but every fragment adds force to Chapman's portrait of the debilitating collective unconscious that breeds warfare and social injustice:
In West Texas, a guy on a Harley is trying to taunt a farm boy into fighting. The biker's making laughing roar sounds. The farm boy forgets how to talk.

The farm boy's father has a paper from a psychiatrist that says he's unemployable cause he's all the time depressed.

The Harley guy's father's head was shot off in Vietnam. He's got his father's neck.

The style in which Chapman has chosen to write Glass is an acknowledgment that the Gulf War was unlike other wars in our history. Soldiers, civilians, protesters and politicians alike were mystified -- and still are today -- as to what in fact the fighting and killing were really about. Glass exposes a darkness within the American character that suggests we carry warfare within us at all times, ever ready to be encouraged and unleashed. Chapman is equally effective at showing how the Gulf War was kept sanitized for us by an unknowingly complicit news media that were just as dazzled as the military by the new technologies that enhanced the efficiency of both the killing and the reporting. As one of VJ's marine buddies remarks, "We made our country so cool that we can even have a war be like a movie if we want."

Currently comprising 22 chapbook installments, Marcus Gray's .357 shares with Glass a textual fragmentation that augments its themes. .357 chronicles the dissipation and breakdown of a young British bookstore clerk whom we know only as "Skunk." The narrative is fractured to such an extreme degree that flashbacks are not always discernible from foreshadowings and vice versa. The chapbooks are copiously illustrated with color photographs and collages, as well as reproductions of letters, newspaper articles, Post-it notes, and arcane marginalia. Text and images combine in .357 to tell a story, and while it seems clear that the text and images are telling the same story, they aren't always telling the same part of the story at the same time, which adds to the work's jarringly effective sense of dislocation. There are many personal and family pictures -- Gray does little to discourage our assumption that Skunk is modeled on Gray himself -- charting Skunk from nondescript childhood snapshots to more recent and grimly beautiful photos of the author surrounded by heavily symbolic icons that mix religious, pagan, and pop culture references. Chapbook #17 includes a photocopy of what appears to be a blood-stained ER admission form describing a self-inflicted 4-inch scalpel wound on Gray's forearm, a nurse or doctor's scrawl noting of the patient: "Wanted to have blood on a photograph...Multiple old scars present. Denies suicidal attempt." Photographs of the sutured wound in various stages of healing appear throughout .357, as do apparent droplets of blood smeared across a number of the pictures and collages. A childhood memory from chapbook #5 takes on a frightening resonance: when 10-year-old Skunk intentionally injures himself, his mother cries out, "Oh son oh son, you could cut your own throat and you'd never bleed your daddy out from you."

What is the story that .357 seeks to tell us, or perhaps invites us to solve? Skunk surely is a haunted character, haunted by the deaths of loved ones: his father died in an automobile accident when Skunk was five, and there are other deaths that occur during the unfolding of .357, including Skunk's mother (an April 1998 newspaper death-notice for Gray's mother is reprinted on the cover to chapbook #21). But there is something more here, and it is something that finally lifts .357 into the realm of literary art: Skunk is also haunted by the transformative powers of artistic expression, by images of birth, of innocence and whimsy. His lover, who is referred to in the text as ache1 (the word ache with a superscript numeral "1" denoting the first entry in a dictionary listing for "ache," which Gray uses in a photo collage at one point -- "ache1: Suffer continuous or prolonged pain") has had an abortion in Canada before first meeting Skunk in Britain. She eventually becomes pregnant by Skunk. The text of .357 is infused with ache1's troubled childhood memories and the grief over her abortion, just as Skunk's memories of his own fatherless childhood come rushing to the fore when his mother's health begins to deteriorate. The narrative involves us in a myriad of meditations on living, loving, birthing, and dying. Eventually, ache1 will herself die in childbirth along with the child conceived by her and Skunk. Here is how Gray evokes the scene:
The very last thing to cross over into the spiraling panic of ache1's consciousness as she lies bleeding to death in full view of the medics and the very concerned doctor who has been flown in especial from Canada to supervise this delivery, is the memory of a very young black boy whose path she crossed on her first afternoon of absolute liberty in the city, walking down the bright sunshine of suburban indistinction and interrupted by the noise coming from out the speakers of this boy's stereo which he struggles to carry, it being as high as he is wide, blaring out at high volume some political speech of Malcolm X, whose voice she recognizes from the very last class she took at school just over a year ago, now.

Such a casual remembrance conjured in death suggests the intangible beauty of the thousands of such casual moments that fill our days and lives unappreciated and often forgotten. The offhandedly observed boy on the sidewalk becomes an elegy for the universal child, whether lost to memory or to death, just as Skunk's own childhood remembrances in .357 not only honor his mother's life but also present us with the sights and smells of a childhood which shall be denied Skunk's dead lover and stillborn child. The innumerable shards of memory splashed across Gray's novel connect us with a depth of feeling beyond mere self-absorbed nostalgia. While it is tempting to try puzzling out "real-life" from fiction in .357, it is a testament to Gray's talents that his work never exploits self-exposure or sorrow, nor does .357 neurotically pander for attention like an elaborate public suicide note.

Recurring throughout the text is a character whose name is blacked-out wherever it appears on the page, a shadowy man who functions like a spiritual counselor and dark avenger and whose past and present connections to Skunk and ache1 become increasingly sinister. In Chapbook #7, the character with the blacked-out name finally admits outright, "Skunk, I'm the nearest thing to God-on-earth you'll ever meet." And perhaps his identity is as simple as that, but given the death of Skunk's father when Skunk was a youngster, the symbolic import of a negated name on the page takes on a deeper, more personal mythology. In chapbook #16, Skunk admits to wanting to call the mysterious apparition "Dad." Whoever or whatever this unsettling character represents, he seems to embody an ambivalent parental quality of nurturing laced with menace, an almost Blakean combination of god and devil entwined. The nameless character will eventually meet his own baroque demise in .357, but he's intriguing in his own right, given to strange parable-like ruminations:
If you're a cow your only experience of transport is a big truck coming to take you to the slaughterhouse, so I figure that...these cows see a busload of people going by, they, if, remember for this you have to, cows have to be pretty smart, but they must think that all the people on those trains or coaches, they're all going to their death, they're all destined for some huge abattoir somewhere...

It is this balance between Eros and Thanatos, between an extreme life and no life at all, that gives .357 much of its peculiar power and force. Skunk survives by opening his psyche to the full arc of life's excesses and punishments. We're always conscious of the existential choice that Marcus Gray has made as an artist to give due -- without flinching -- to the worst of fates. Always, there is the .357 magnum revolver that hovers over this work, as ominous metaphor (Skunk was born at 3:57 in the morning), as instrument of vengeance (there are intimations that ache1's abortion doctor is shot and killed), and as the omnipresent endgame symbol of suicidal despair.

The back covers of the chapbooks provide another level to Gray's work that pulls .357 into the meta-world of postmodern literature. Some of the covers reproduce what appear to be postcards and letters from friends and family commenting on the autobiographical elements of Gray's work. We're also shown a sad parade of unfailingly polite rejection letters from magazine editors, book publishers, and grant committees to whom Gray has sent installments of .357. The strangest and most hilarious letters are from the manufacturers of Jack Daniel's whiskey and Levi Strauss jeans, both of whom it seems Gray felt inspired to contact -- whether seriously or in jest is never really clear -- because the character Skunk exclusively and excessively drinks Jack Daniel's in .357, as well as owns all manner of Levi Strauss apparel. We aren't shown what Gray's initial query letters looked like, but from the replies one can surmise that Gray was possibly hoping to secure endorsements or stipends from these companies similar to what motion picture companies obtain for so-called "product placement" in their films. Neither Jack Daniel nor Levi Strauss open their corporate coffers to Gray, but as a consolation the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee offers him a tour of the distillery should Gray ever happen to be in Lynchburg. Taken as a whole, these back covers add up to a vivid portrait of the modern author as tireless self-promoter and blind beggar -- not by choice but by attrition and hunger -- in the marketplace of tenuous literary survival.

In the end, both Glass (pray the electrons back to sand) and .357 describe how the personal, singular life endures if not necessarily triumphs over the repressive demands of culture and biology. This is not to say that James Chapman and Marcus Gray are championing romantic notions of sublime individualism that range across the literary landscape from Keats to Kesey. No, my sense is that the seeming slacker nihilism of Skunk and Janowski goes to something quite profound within our contemporary millennial consciousness, something that experimental literature implies by its shattering of perceptual consensus and aesthetic convention: art and the imagination will save us not by providing axioms by which to live, but rather by bringing a measure of blessed insanity to rigid socialization and biological fiat. Thus does experimental literature become radical by asking us to confront where and how we give purpose to our lives. The "experiment" is in forging an unchartered relationship between author and reader, in testing the limits of how literary fiction can interact with our perceptions of the world. Western culture strangles itself by ceaselessly encouraging us to -- in the dying words of Tom Hanks' sanctimonious Captain Miller in the film Saving Private Ryan -- "earn this," to live forthrightly and honestly, to invest every moment with mind-numbing intentionality, to become socially relevant "inspirations" to our families, neighbors, and peers. Glass and .357 renounce mainstream moralities, but they also move beyond merely thumbing noses at the bureaucrats and shaking fists at the heavens. These two novels have broken through to a hard-edged art that asks us to be mindfully deranged, thoughtfully unhinged, to live and communicate on a suicidal edge that refuses suicide. Death in this context becomes just one more meaningless "meaning," one more unnecessary charade. Chapman and Gray share a clarity of purpose that rejects cynicism and irony -- literary options which seem evermore like outmoded artifacts of an exhausted age -- and replaces them with a brutal honesty, imploring us as readers to alter our lives by stripping away every mask and obstacle standing between what we do and what we are capable of.

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Notes

James Chapman's Glass (pray the electrons back to sand) is easily obtained directly from the author's own Fugue State Press imprint, or from Amazon.com. It is also worth noting that Chapman is personally very generous with complimentary copies of his novels (he has four in print) to individuals who express an interest in reading them. A copy of Glass can probably be had for the asking by e-mailing Chapman at: jim@fuguestatepress.com. The address for Fugue State Press is Box 80, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.

Marcus Gray's .357 chapbooks can be purchased. Gray says: "The booklets currently sell for four pounds sterling each, which is about as cheap as I can make it, and that includes postage. Anything less than that and I'd have to take a loss on the thing, which I'm already doing, since the four pounds in no way covers anything other than the actual cost of an issue once it's been made." Best perhaps to e-mail him for more details: mjg_gla@yahoo.co.uk. I was fortunate to be able to spend a few weeks with the full set (to date) of 22 chapbooks, which he mailed to me on loan for the purposes of this review. The chapbooks are objects of art as well as literature.

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Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine & Other Stories.


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