26 January 2007

In the Shape of a Disappointed Publishing House

Read Lawrence Norfolk’s In the Shape of a Boar. It’s one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a while, one that emphasizes grammatical tense over plot, myth and the insensate experience of myth over verified reality. A strange book, that’s my best description, and a very difficult one.

The reason I’m writing this piece on Norfolk is not to give a review of the novel, though I will discuss it mostly, but to point to Norfolk as a writer who adroitly pulled the wool over the eyes of publishing/marketing/reviewing world. His first novel, Lempriere’s Dictionary, was an international success. I can only guess that he signed a doozy of a book deal off that success. Since then, he has used that deal to publish books which, had they been submitted by an unknown author, would have been rendered absolutely unpublishable by a major American house, or most of our smaller independent outlets. Granted, Grove Press (the publisher) has done good work in the past, but Norfolk is considered one of England’s best right now, and the fact that his novel In the Shape of a Boar received so much advance hype is, frankly, kind of astonishing.

This was a book that I understood. I didn’t understand it logically, or analytically, and I can hardly explain to you what it’s about or purports to be about. In other words, I didn’t understand it in my brain, but at some further remove, maybe behind my eyes, or inside my skull but outside the brain. The opening section which recounts the myth of the boar of Caladonia reads as though it were being told in an unfamiliar but classical heroic style. The tense is all wrong. The events described are written as though in stone. There are most definitely a series of active descriptions, of actions, of killing and fighting. Of hunting. But the actions belong to such a distant past, and the grammatical tense is so arch and, well, marmoreally diagrammatic, that even the thrust of a spear seems as though it were dabbed by painter on an ancient vase. In other words, Norfolk makes you feel the expanse of time between the narrator’s now (the 1960s) and some mythological classical past. Regardless, the hard slog through the opening section ends in a cave where the boar hides out, and at any moment, an immensley violent act threatens. I made my way through this section as a somnambulist reader.

Let me give you a sample of the action, which is perfectly intelligible, easy to understand, but in its accumulation of detail without context, soon becomes epic in scope, but fragmented in form: “They are here to hunt the boar. Atalanta plucks at the folds of cloth about her waist. Her chiton has dried. She covers her breasts and ties the garment in place. The men pay her no attention, gathered together on the twilit shore and meddled by the shadows and Meleager’s challenge. The dusk settles on them all like a rain of dusk or ash, the rain they have fled. Their pasts are carcasses, toted shoulder-high as trophies, as is her own. Her father left her wailing on a mountainside. She sucked bear’s milk in place of her mother’s. She was the bear-girl. Now she is the huntress, the bitter-virgin, the centaur-killer: her own monsters, of which the most insistent and insubstantial is her own circling shadow. A bronze arm points her forward at dawn. Midday, and the arm of iron warns her back. She has looked up through the breaks in the forest canopy expecting vast slow-beating wings but there was nothing and nobody save herself.”

The first section flows in a similar style. On each and every page, there are footnotes to Ancient Greek texts which reference the boar myth. This section, then, is the modern fictionalization of a myth. Reading it was somewhat akin to reading Nathalie Sarraute’s Portrait of a Man Unknown or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. But not quite. I only mention them because they were the first two books I can remember reading in a hazy daze. No, a better metaphor might be Lamont Young’s, um, music. Young was born and raised in the American mountain west. Living so close to the highway, the sound that accompanied his childhood was the incessant buzz of the powerline. He attuned himself to its various frequencies and tones, and he made a virtue of the singularly reductive note which contains within it a great many other notes. To use a writing metaphor, imagine the writer who can’t change speeds, all his characters sound alike, and yet he’s able to create a polyphony of meaning/noise just the same. He's not a ventriloquist at all, but a master of the sentence. Young’s home in New York City, as very infrequent visitors have reported, is filled with diametrically opposed speakers which constantly leech out a barely audible hum. Visitors train themselves to listen to the hum’s many tonalities, and soon enough they can hear changes as bodies move through each room. I saw a Young performance a few years ago in a church. We sat down, watched as the performers warmed up, tuned their instruments, etc. Thirty minutes later it became clear: this was the performance. Singular searing notes, a bow whose trip across the violin strings lasted ten minutes, a three hour performance with three instruments, cello, violin, flute, and only 8 or so sweeps of the bow. After an hour of this, I was hallucinating. Not quite asleep, but in some sort of hypnogogic state, “music” bypassing my ears and being rendered inside as a maddening, but strangely riveting, obsessive hum. I didn’t leave. And when it was over, I felt exactly as I felt reading the opening section of Norfolk’s book.

Yes, I know my description of reading this book is a bit dramatic, but what can I say? It was literally an enthralling experience. It might’ve been my mood, who knows, but I blame it solely on Norfolk and the novel.

The rest of In the Shape of a Boar is about a Paul Celan-figure, a Jewish poet who treks out of Romania, escapes the deportations to death camps, as suffered by his family and friends, and lands in the mountains of Greece. Specifically, he finds himself in Agrafa (literally, “the unwritten”) which takes its name from the fact that the Ottomans never bothered to collect taxes or administer the region because of its remoteness in the central mountains. For this reason, the region has a reputation as a home to all sorts of ungovernables, mainly brigands and the like. There, the Celan character (who goes by the name of Solomon Memel) is resuscitated by the Communist resistance, whom he joins in the fight. Years later, he recounts these events while living in Paris as the internationally renowned writer famous for writing a poem that compares one particular female resistance fighter to the Atalanta of the myth. The poem becomes compulsory reciting for German schoolchildren, much as Celan’s Todesfuge became compulsory, and as you might expect, Memel thinks of it mainly as a yoke around his neck. The memory of his time in those Greek mountains (which coincidentally is also the site of ancient Caladonia) hides a secret, one which the protagonist, the narrator, and the writer refuse to uncover. That secret is hidden in a cave. Inside the cave a horrifically violent boar awaits confrontation.

At no point in my reading did I even consider that the opening section would serve as a primer or palimpsest for the ending. The very idea seems odd, because of the insanely difficult references. The book precedes from mythic voice, to memoir, to a dark secret with echoes of myth, a secret never revealed. I was astounded that a book would be so hazily constructed. I don’t know of many other books like it. Reviewers seemed similarly flummoxed, but they liked the book generally and the reason is obvious. After all, Norfolk wrote it. So, I guess I’m making the case that sometimes a book can literally put us in a trance. We may not know what we read. The author function certainly validates some of these books, and in a way, you have to earn the rep that allows such a thing to be published. But, it makes me think, if there’s a space for a book of hallucinations and secrets, refusals to reveal the core of the story, then the publishing industry will just about publishing anything. But only if there’s money involved.