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Steve Tune

 

Affliction

The short story collection Affliction by Edgar Leary was recently re-released in a blood-spattered paperback edition by Blacklist Books, and has generated the expected lack of buzz for an obscure reissue of a work by an even more obscure artist. Leary’s works, the consensus claims, are of secondary literary value, a series of firecrackers lit on the periphery of the massive explosion that was transgressive fiction in the 1970’s and 80’s. Of course fiction of transgression has itself existed in its modern form since at least the eighteenth century (the Marquis de Sade) and has appeared in great works from Dostoyevsky to James Joyce, but this is beside the point. Affliction’s literary merits are not bound to its place in history but to its unprecedented innovation. In the ten-story collection, Leary flips the relationship between reader and protagonist on its head, a turn of brilliance worthy of Poe or Hopkins, and it is not surprising that such ingenuity has been overlooked in the morass of modern-day literary criticism.

I don’t deny that I harbor some contempt for Leary’s critics. I can’t help but laugh when I imagine the old dinosaurs, hunched over their desks with a dim reading lamp, claws poised tentatively above their typewriter, too enraptured by their own reflection in the river of linguistics to recognize the beauty and depth of the narrative lying beneath them1. When asked in interviews about his feelings towards critics Leary often alluded to Shelley, the indomitable Romantic who had his own contentious relationship with the critics of his time. But what I have gleaned from his more intelligible interviews—some, especially just prior to his death, took strange and demented turns—as well as my own study of his writings, is that Leary’s muse is more closely indebted to Goethe, and of course Lord Byron.

Byron’s anti-hero, cast into exile for his adherence to inner principles, is the perfect prototype for the characters in Affliction, who suffer from wounds that seem to offer them, strange as it may seem, a basis for their identity. As the Byronic hero disallows even the thought of compromise to enter his mind—this characteristic is especially salient in The Giaour and The Corsair—so do Leary’s characters refuse to budge from the metaphysical contention that their injuries are somehow spiritually significant. So we find in this collection individuals with their heads wrapped in bandages, or else gaping wounds on their arms or legs, trailing drops of blood along the pages behind them. Certainly Leary did not introduce physical affliction to the literary world, but it is in this collection that we see a unique attitude taken toward the idea of affliction.

When an injury has become severe enough, anyone with a sound mind attempts to remedy it, seeking outside assistance if necessary. Leary’s characters, however, are averse to any kind of help, keeping their injuries as secretive as possible, even as they begin to endanger their lives. This may seem a bit macabre, and of course Byron was known to dip into the decadent ink well, but Leary’s characters are not exactly decadent, since to begin with their injuries are not self-inflicted2. In fact, how they are injured is purposefully omitted from the narrative, for it is, as I will explain, a symbolic trope.

In the collection’s final story, titled “Reflections,” Jonas Addle goes on a series of evening errands in an urban setting. He remains normal in appearance and behavior until the transformational nature of his injury—a deep laceration on his right thigh—comes to a final, destructive climax. Addle, with all his intelligence and apparent resourcefulness, never speaks of his injury to anyone, although there are people along the way available to help, nor does he betray a sense of urgency in his travels, and as he slumps against a wall in a dirty, gutted studio apartment at the story’s end, where we assume he will die a horrible death, there is a bone-chilling moment where he seems to stare out of the page at the reader him or herself3. At first glance there seems to be no ulterior motive for the protagonist’s behavior, and it is this sense of mystery that initially makes the stories so intriguing.

But when examined more closely, his actions reveal a greater significance. Addle’s unwillingness to help himself comes not from a sense of stubbornness or a desire for self-destruction, but from the realization that he is himself a fictional construct. The malignity of this knowledge, manifesting itself in his physical injury, is not that his essential meaning will deteriorate between author and reader; it is a truth much more simple and profound than that. Namely, that he is nothing more than a collection of thoughts in their reader’s mind, and that these thoughts, along with his essence, are doomed to be forgotten. Consider the following passage from Michael Hulse’s brilliant translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the only passage, which Leary, who took the book with him on his travels, underlined with a red marker:

 

Oh, Man is so transient a being that even where his existence is most secure, even where his presence makes its sole true impression felt, he must fade and disappear from the memories and souls of his loved ones, soon, oh so soon!4

 

Within Addle’s gaze, then, at the end of “Night Wanderings,” is a sort of meta-fictional acknowledgement of that awful truth. Seeking help would only make Leary’s characters appear insane, or, if the listener were to truly believe them, spread the affliction to them, much like a plague.

It is a little eerie that these stories seemed to presage Leary’s own demise at age thirty-four from tuberculosis, in a rural town outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having always been a bit of a recluse, Leary never married, lived alone, and was apparently not in touch with anyone in the last year of his life. Perhaps after being spurned by his critics he finally decided, like the characters in his book, that he too was doomed to be forgotten, and the lines between fiction and reality began to blur. If it weren’t for the publishers at Blacklist Books and the small cult of fans he had collected through the years, I would be inclined to agree with him.

 

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1  It is too easy these days for critics to hack apart any work of fiction, the most readilyavailable tool at their disposal, of course, being Deconstructionism.

2  Rimbaud’s alter-ego bragging in A Season In Hell: “I just swallowed a terrific mouthful of poison,” is goading the reader on, something Leary’s characters would never do.

3  “He slumped, bleary eyes cast outward at some unknown subject, with preternatural understanding.” (pp. 135)

4  pp. 97. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

 

 

 

Steve Tune grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. This is his first published work of fiction. Contact author.

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