Book Reviews by Marc Lowe

 

Book Reviews
by Marc Lowe

click on covers to read reviews
CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS by Michael Hafftka
Electric Flesh by Claro
 

CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS
by Michael Hafftka
Six Gallery Press (2007)

 

“I’m on the advent of a dream. I can feel it like acid in my blood,” says the I-narrator of one of the 56 vignettes—accompanied by 27 original drawings—that make up Michael Hafftka’s surreal collection CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS, published this year by the innovative Six Gallery Press. Indeed, one might say that the entire work reads like an extended, über-Freudian dream sequence. Each of the “stories,” which frequently feature situations and characters presumably from the author’s real life, past and present, pulls us into a dreamlike parallel universe that is at once both personal and universal.

While the pieces in this volume unabashedly employ elements of autobiographical confession/memoir, they read more like droll, nightmarish fairytales penned exclusively for adults, the sort of thing Edward Gorey (with a dab or two of Woody Allen) might have written whilst sipping absinthe and expunging his innermost doubts and fears upon the purulent-white page (had Gorey in fact been interested in women and sex, that is). The drawings, which look as though they were sketched by some deeply-disturbed—albeit extremely gifted—future artist/lunatic child, draw us deeper into the tenebrous world the author has created both for himself and for us, his readers. What is so intriguing about the collection is that it was written by someone who has chosen to narrate his stories through the medium of paint-on-canvas for many years, rather than by way of the pen (though he apparently wrote poetry for a time before abandoning it in favor of the [paint]brush, as alluded to in his bio and, briefly, in one of the vignettes in the collection). For this reason, perhaps, the prose is anything but pretentious. Sentences are short, simple, to-the-point. There are no haughty literary allusions here, no semi-obscure references to the work of important literary theorists or trends, no linguistic acrobatics that would serve to place the author among the “avant prose-poets” of either yesterday or today.

Yet, neither is CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS a work likely to make the bestseller list (given that a book published by an independent press could ever end up as such in today’s corporate market), for its content is much too honest, its implied imagery and ideas much too disturbing for the Da Vinci Code-devouring mainstream in America. Tropes such as scatology/urination; the desire to kill people or animals (as in “There Was No Need to Shoot,” “The Ass and the Porcupine,” and “Part of Me,” to cite just three examples); a constant fear of terrorists (Hafftka lived on a Kibbutz in the Jordan Valley long before 9/11); lust and apprehension—seemingly in equal measure—toward the female body/sexuality; penises and cannibalism (in one case the protagonist distastefully imbibes the former); phallic guns; etc., are revisited again and again in different combinations, at turns playful and terrifying, and always—if I may: Hafftakaesque.

From the opening vignette, “Changes,” the reader is confronted with the appearance of a mustachioed monster with fake wings and a laurel made of leaves, a creature whose “nondescript” appearance suggests that it could be a stand-in for someone/anyone other than itself: the narrator-author, his father, you or me, etc. There is also a fairy-tale-like cottage that recalls the Hansel and Gretel myth (more so because the narrator is accompanied by his sister, though we all know from Laurie Anderson that Hansel was really in love with the witch!), and a series of Borgesian corridors that lead the I-narrator to a “deformed” portrait of himself which has literally changed over time in Dorian Gray fashion. The theme of change and transformation is again revisited in “So Different,” in which the narrator meets his wife on the street but hardly recognizes her (“She looked so different.”); at the end of the brief fiction we learn that her name was not actually “Roes”—as it has been spelled in earlier vignettes—but “Rose.” (Has the dream mirror inverted the two letters, or is something else going on here? A slip of the purloined pen, perhaps?) In the accomplished, hilarious allegory “My New Freedom,” the narrator finds himself unjustly accused of smashing four placards in his school, an offense resulting in “expulsion from the administration and/or death,” much as Josef K. was accused of a nameless crime in The Trial. In the second half of this fable-in-miniature, which reads like Dante’s Inferno or a description of a Japanese Hell Screen, the optimistic-turned narrator finds himself in a dark corridor running beneath the school with a group of disgruntled friends, trudging through excrement and spattered with urine-rain, only to emerge onto the streets of New York feeling disappointed with his newfound freedom. In other vignettes women have three eyes (or multiple breasts; or penises that turn into animal horns); smoke emerges from the ears of a friend as he describes the latest “Dirty Harry” film, killing everyone in the room save the narrator and the woman he is trying to bed; and alien creatures are employed to do the work of their bosses after students are rendered “zombies.”

CONSCIOUS/UNCONSCIOUS, dreamed into our world by a visual artist whose paintings have been compared to those of Francis Bacon and to the “black paintings” of Francisco Goya, will appeal to fans of bizarre flash/micro-fiction and of the surreal/irreal, but it probably won’t be a favorite of readers looking for slice-of-life snapshots which give lip service to the Cartesian worldview, or to the 19th century Victorian novel in its modern-day incarnation. While the pieces are loosely tied together by the reappearance of certain key characters—the wife Roes/Rose, the lover Katina, the friends Ray and Rod, etc.—and by the consistent voice of the narrator, it cannot be said that they form any sort of coherent narrative in the traditional sense of the word; rather, the collection may be thought of as a pastiche dream diary of sorts, one that describes not the life and times of Michael Hafftka, writer/painter/poet, but the life and times of Michael Hafftka’s alter-ego “I.” The warning “All hope abandon ye who enter here” from Dante’s Divine Comedy would serve the uninitiated reader well, for, despite the self-deprecating humor that infuses these mostly-playful pieces, Hafftka’s world is nonetheless one that is dark, depraved, and decidedly disjointed; it’s bound to give some readers Freudian nightmares of their own.

Related Links:
Michael Hafftka
Six Gallery Press

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Electric Flesh
by Claro
Translated from the French by Brian Evenson
Soft Skull Press (2006)

 

Sometimes life truly is stranger than fiction. As I sat down to draft a review of French author Claro’s eccentric, over-the-top prose poem-like novella Electric Flesh—a fiction that cleverly incorporates the histories of Thomas Alva Edison (otherwise referred to as “Godhison” in the text), inventor of—and none-too-reluctant champion of—the electric chair, and that of escape artist Harry Houdini—I came across an article entitled “Will Houdini Be There? Remains To Be Seen” in The Guardian Online. A sense of Freudian unheimlich gripping my excitable guts as I read that the remains of the magician-cum-escape artist are to be exhumed, with the approval of his great nephew George Hardeen (also a magician) and family, in order to be autopsied for any traces of poisoning, which, if found, would effectively debunk the accepted version of Houdini’s death contending that he died of a burst appendix after being punched backstage by two over-zealous “fans.” In fact, if he was poisoned, the article implicitly suggests, it would strongly indicate a conspiracy planned by a group referred to as “the spiritualists,” of which Arthur Conan Doyle, known primarily for his Conan The Barbarian series, was a member, and who, further, had made some incriminating remarks two years prior to Houdini’s untimely death, not-so-subtly suggesting that Houdini would not be very long for this world. In any case, while Claro’s clever conceit does not delve into Houdini’s involvement with the spiritualists, or with the “spirit world,” it does, in one heated scene, reenact Harry Houdini’s final moments as seen/told through the warped lens of its protagonist Harry Hordinary’s electrif[r]ied mind.

Claro’s peculiar protagonist Harry Hordinary (“HH”) is an out-of-work executioner who prefers electrocuting criminals until crisp to seeing them hang or be granted a healthy dose of lethal injection, for his home state of Pennsylvania has—unfortunately for him—ruled the latter to be more humane than electrocution. “Harry” has borrowed his name, and quite literally his sense of identity/identification, from the great Houdini, who himself changed his given name (and his place of birth) from Erich Weisz/Weiss many times over the course of his young life to various variants thereof, until finally hitting upon his [in]famous moniker: “Harry Houdini.” Hordinary has crazily convinced himself that he is the illegitimate grandchild of the contortionist-magician Houdini and Jack London’s wife, with whom the former had apparently “fooled around,” and he (Hordinary) decidedly views the world through the eyes of this chosen idol, combined with those of a pleasure-seeking sadomasochist worthy of a William Burroughs character addicted to alternating electrical current (AC) instead of “junk.” Add to HH’s vastly-distorted inner dialogue Houdini’s supposed search for the enigmatic *SZUSZU*, the “electric girl,” with whom Houdini supposedly worked at some early point in his career (as “evidenced” by an obviously spurious autographed photo featuring the rigged up dame and a baboon-masked figure in the background that Hordinary believes to be Houdini), and you have a very strange story indeed.

The slim book, which can be read in a single, concentrated sitting (though you’ll probably want to read it twice for the deliciously dense details), opens with a terrifying, and literally shocking, scene in 1881—nine years before ax-murderer William Kemmler will be the first to fry on Edison’s nascent electric chair, which decidedly incorporates his rival Westinghouse’s “Alternating Current” technology—wherein a man named George Smith “couples” with an electric generator and is incinerated, igniting a series of reports and recommendations to a committee spearheaded by the sadistic dentist Alfred Porter Southwick and including Elbridge T. Gerry (ironically one of the founding members of the “American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Children”) to employ electrical current for human executions in lieu of hanging. These recommendations lead to the eventual development by Edison of the “Godhison” electric chair, which is first vigorously tested on various animals (“dogs, cats, horses, elephants…”) to positively sickening results. (The interested reader may wish to consult Jill Jonnes’s fascinating study Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (published by Random House), Chapters 7 and 8, for a more thorough and objective, yet equally gruesome, account.) Man and monkey are given equal status by the author/narrator of this smoldering yarn—equal lowly status, that is—for, is it not true that either will sizzle the same way when roasted on the chair? and is it not also true that, when it comes right down to it, the former has evolved (if we subscribe to Darwin’s theories) from the latter? But, the question sine qua non that is implied here is: How far has man really evolved? What separates us from other animals? The book’s grim conclusion would appear to be nada, aside from our perverse propensity to create horrid technological beasts such as the electric chair for our own ends; i.e. as instruments of control (political, economic, and so on) and torture.

Besides the artful blending of fact/fiction, the quirky dark humor, the visceral imagery, and the entertaining—albeit intentionally-skewed—storyline, one of the most striking and enjoyable aspects for some imbibers will be the verbal and visual-layout pyrotechnics, courtesy of translator Brian Evenson’s (The Open Curtain, The Wavering Knife, Altmann’s Tongue, et. al.) stunning translation/interpretation of the French. Salman Rushdie has compared Claro’s prosaic universe to that of Pynchon and Joyce, and it is not difficult to see why. Words leap off the page in delightful swooning, rushing, flowing blocks of eloquently-electrified text, sentences run to the point of almost-bursting before coming to a full stop, reveling in their clause-cluttered-complexity, never afraid to shout Hey, are you listening? from time to time, or to incorporate innovative visual techniques (read it and see what I mean) in order to call attention to themselves and/or their subject matter. While some initiates to Claro’s warped world will find this playful wordsmithing eminently satisfying (not to mention downright fun), others will inevitably find it to be somewhat cumbersome, teeth-grittingly opaque, if not totally impenetrable (though this text is a cakewalk next to Finnegan’s Wake!). Regardless of the challenge posed to some, I contend that once one enters the dizzying stream of Claro and Evenson’s words, hooks up and in to the sizzling-hot current upon which the text propels itself and its found audience to horrific heights of ectoplasmic ecstasy, as with the great Houdini himself (“three seconds, two seconds…”) there’s simply no turning back.

Related Links:
Brian Evenson
Soft Skull Press
Booknotes: Claro & Brian Evenson

 
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