Thoughts On The Conjure Man, by
Peter Damian Bellis and Fiction (or The Unreliable
Narrator) by Ara 13
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/8/12
I recently read two novels, unpublished by major houses, from two writers
who share commonalities, in that neither one’s skills nor work are as good as
they effusively claim, and that neither writer is actually primarily practicing
the very sort of fiction they claim. I was thrust into the twenty odd year quest
of Peter Damian Bellis to get his so-called Magical Realism novel, The
Conjure Man, published when, as
I got a series of increasingly bizarre, self-laudatory, and philosophically
impoverished, emails from the man declaiming that the book, written in the early
1990s, which he has spent the better part of two decades trying to get published
at a big house, and which did get published, in 2010, by a de
facto subsidy/self publishing press called River Boat Books- a press which,
despite claiming to be in business since 1996, has only four titles to its
credit, with two being from Bellis, as the Great American Novel.
Now, as an actually great writer who has found no big houses for my own great poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and assorted criticism, as well as no takers for my wife Jessica’s equally great work, being rejected by the forces that have tossed American literature into its current deliterate state is no black mark nor scarlet letter, as any writer should do all they can to get great works out to as wide an audience as possible. The problem is that the vast majority of rejected artists are not Dan Schneiders, Walt Whitmans, Vincent Van Goghs, nor Franz Kafkas. They are bad to mediocre writers whose work is rejected for reasons wholly unrelated to their qualitative state, pro or con. This is so with Bellis. The problem is that Bellis’s claims, as Robert Browning might intone, are like reaches that far exceed their grasps of the art of writing. Yet, this also links him with a writer he has not likely ever read and who, like Bellis, resorted to publishing and promoting his own books under a press whose lone author is himself: Ara 13. To be fair, and as a disclaimer, my wife met 13 (whose real surname is the non-numeric Hirsch- the name to which I will refer to him for the remainder of this essay) some years ago, at a book convention, and they corresponded for a while, with Hirsch showing some interest in her fiction being published under the same imprint, until he backed off and out of her life. She wrote a review of Hirsch’s book which mostly praises it and quotes perhaps the lone good sentence within, while willfully ignoring all the rest that goes seriously awry- a habit she has when she knows an artist (see this review for similar biases). I shall deal with her bad (but ‘positive’) review, more thoroughly, later in this essay. Like Bellis, Hirsch proudly pushes his several books, having won some award called the Ippy for his first book, and here is one of the links between the two writers that came to mind: while Bellis’s book was on my mind, due to his bizarre emails, Hirsch’s book, published in 2009 as Fiction (we have the galley copy under that name), and subsequently renamed The Unreliable Narrator, came into my mind due to a bizarre Amazon review that Jess came upon, on Hirsch’s first book, Drawers & Booths, wherein Hirsch defends his self-publishing from an idiot going by the moniker Caraculiambro.
The thrust of the Amazon idiot’s plaint is that Hirsch is somehow defrauding readers by publishing his titles under a press that is just himself, rather than simply self-publishing without a press name, as well as having a website that lauds his work. He states that Hirsh is hustling, but this is nonsense. Hirsch simply took this approach because of idiots like Caraculiambro, who knee-jerkedly rip all self-published works, regardless of their quality. Yes, it’s a bad book- and I will detail such, but the reader would have no idea why Fiction is bad, by reading that Amazon ‘review,’ which fails to cogently even summarize a reason. The Amazon idiot then rips into Hirsch’s metafiction approach to the book by stating others did metafiction before him, including bad writers the idiot apparently likes. Well, this sort of ill-informed, snarky, and meritless review is typical of Amazon trolls, and, unfortunately many more literate sources, and utterly misses the real point: whether or not the book is actually good. It is not. It is, in fact, a fairly bad book. Yes, it’s better than the typical MFA dreck churned out by David Foster Wallace, James Frey, or Joyce Carol Oates- whose inane blurbery and mentoring figure prominently for Bellis, but Fiction is a bad book, and rather obviously so, as I will show. Bellis’s book, while nowhere near the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL his own website declaims, is quite a bit better, although it crests, arguably, only into the good range, in some spots, and, overall, is merely a passable work.
I shall examine both books by breaking them down into their constituent elements and dealing with the pros and cons of each element in each work.
Both writers make serious hay of the techniques they explore in their fiction, yet neither seems to fully grasp what it is they are actually doing, hence, their works don’t even come to seriously embody their aims, much less claims of merit. This is not unique to either writer, for this is true of most writers. After all, look at Stream Of Consciousness writing, which is 100% artifice, as the human mind thinks punctually, yet there are still writers who persist in this folly- indeed, portions of Bellis’s book attempt this, and they are among the book’s weakest portions.
For The Conjure Man, as example, Bellis, on multiple websites hawking his work, as well as in the deluded emails to me, goes on and on of Magical Realism, even claiming, absurdly, that the only way to achieve realism is via the dream state. Or, to quote Bellis, from his own words: ‘The absolute reality of existence is accessible only thru the dream-state; it is of a spiritual nature. It has nothing to do with the "objective" reality you seem to prefer, the kind of vision you find in Richard Ford. But then I suppose that is your critque (sic) of Garcia Marquez and the rest of the magical realists from South America. Both your position and mine, however, are at bottom, merely statements of belief.’ It’s worth noting that Bellis even ends his logically absurd claim with the caveat that it’s just a belief, and this very lack of conviction in his own set of beliefs follows through in the prose that makes up the bulk of his novel since, unlike the South American Magical Realists, his prose is nothing like that.
In fact, while his novel has many moments of dream states, these are all- whether explicitly labeled as such, or implicitly understood as such, by a savvy reader, easily discerned. Unlike the Magical Realists of yore, literarily, Bellis’s idea of Magical Realism is merely anything that is dreamy. Of course, given that a dream is what it is, it thus negates the Realism portion of the label, as dreams are irreal, by nature; as long as we are defining dreams as REM states of sleep, and not desiderata nor chimeras. Hence, Bellis wants to boast a label he does not even bother mining. In what might be termed a brief manifesto of Bellis’s, he writes:
His definition of magical realism is consciously loose and open to geography: "Magical realism is fiction which makes the magical or extraordinary seem normal by viewing the same through a prism of the everyday, the familiar," he says. "Another way of looking at magical realism is to say that it is fiction that explores our very human search (even need) for the miraculous, the ecstatic."
By his definition, there are many more authors who have written works of magical realism than the official category seems to acknowledge. Bellis says that his greatest literary influences include Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and García Márquez as well as two classic North American authors, Hawthorne and Melville, who he contends were "really our first magical realists."
However, he cites a broader range of authors and works which he considers influential: "anything by" Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes (The Campaign), Ben Okri (Stars of the New Curfew, The Famished Road), Derek Walcott (Dream on Monkey Mountain), Alvaro Mutis (Maqroll), Bernardo Atxaga (Obabakoak), R. K. Narayan (A Tiger for Malgudi), Toni Morrison (Beloved, Song of Solomon), Mario Vargas Llosa (The Storyteller), Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses), Isabelle Allende (The House of The Spirits).
Most of the authors in this list herald from points far and away from Bellis's North American stomping grounds, but this doesn't stop Bellis from asserting that North American authors -- and British authors, to a certain extent -- have contributed far more to the landscape of magical realism than is widely perceived, even as he acknowledges that most of the world's magical realism does not seem to come by way of North American authors.
"The world of the magical realist seems at once more primitive and more passionate, and in truth, most magical realist fiction comes from cultures thought of as primitive or grounded in superstition when compared with the progressive, technological marvel that is the American urban landscape," he points out.
Bellis adds that "the American magical realists focus for the most part on ethnic or rural cultures or the cultures of other countries. Robert Olen Butler writes about Vietnam. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker write about African-Americans. Lawrence Thornton goes to South America."
It should be noted that a whole host of bad artists use terms like ecstatic to describe their usually pedestrian work, often larded with banalities, because it’s actually easier to add labels to things, then challenge the percipient of the art to ‘disprove’ their claim, than to actually explore the terrain staked out, and do so well.
But, let’s stick to the basics, and deal with the six writers that Bellis posits as early Magical Realists: Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Marquez, Hawthorne and Melville. Now, note the phraseology, in a weasel wording. Bellis (or his interviewer) prefaces these six writers this way: ‘By his definition, there are many more authors who have written works of magical realism than the official category seems to acknowledge. Bellis says that his greatest literary influences include….’. Then he lists the six. This gives plausible deniability for Bellis to claim that anyone claiming that he claimed Twain as a Magical Realist is ‘misinterpreting.’ Balderdash. That’s semantic hogwash, and an old dialectic trick, for and the interjection of his ‘influences’ right after his claim does not deny the strong implication of terming the six as Magical Realists.
Yes, while one can accept that Magical Realism may be a bit broader than generally given, this does not mean that anthropomorphism, metaphor, or any other techniques that deviates from strict journalistic practices, places something in the Magical Realist camp. Mark Twain, as example, is no Magical Realist. A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, to use an obvious example, is not Magical Realism, but a dream story after its protagonist is knocked out. To use the other 19th Century American titan of fiction, Herman Melville, is to further show the folly of such a claim. What work of Melville’s could qualify? Omoo, Typee, Mardi? These were early adventures, and highlight Melville’s poetic realism. Later works like Bartleby The Scrivener, Billy Budd, The Encantadas, Benito Cereno? No, none of these has even hints of such. That leaves, likely Moby-Dick, the masterpiece. But, like the others, it fails the definition. Yes, there are dreamy sequences, but nothing magical occurs. Moby-Dick is not evil, nor possessed. Captain Ahab is psychotic, possibly psychopathic, but that’s all.
For Magical Realism to be claimed, a reader must be sucked in by the realistic elements, then have the magic intrude in interesting or unexpected ways. Perhaps the best writer of Magical Realism in American history was actually Rod Serling, best known for his Golden Age teleplays and The Twilight Zone, which was a Magical Realist’s paradise, even as it also had episodes that were strictly science fiction or pure fantasy. A good example of this sort of Magical Realism, from Serling, is his TZ teleplay, Walking Distance (Season 1, Episode 5), wherein a harried businessman longs to return to his simpler childhood, then inexplicably does. He meets his younger self and father, and, accidentally, causes his younger self to be injured, breaking a leg, then ending the episode with the older version having a limp the viewer knows he lacked at episode’s start, but which now makes sense if he really did time travel and alter the past. This magical element works only because the realism is so real- from the writing to the directing to the acting.
But there is a second strain of Magical Realism, and this is the sort most preferred by the Latin American writers who made the term famous, and that is where a fantastic premise opens up the work, yet all that proceeds thereafter plays out normally, fully accepting the magical element as ‘normal’ within the fictive cosmos described, with all subsequent outcomes deemed ‘normal’ from the initial fantastic claim. A good example of this sort of Magical Realism comes from the very next episode of The Twilight Zone, after Walking Distance, and that is the 6th episode from Season 1: Escape Clause, wherein a hypochondriac sells his soul to the Devil for immortality, then gets so corrupted with his newfound power that he accidentally kills his wife, and, for kicks, pleads guilty to murder, hoping to get and survive the electric chair. Instead, he gets a life sentence, and then opts out of his bargain with the titular escape clause.
Both sorts of Magical Realism are valid, and both have some excellent examples across art forms. But, as with all things human, most Magical Realism is not Magical, Realistic, nor, most importantly, any good. And that final quality is, by far, the most important consideration in any art, or human endeavor. And, in those three qualities, Bellis’s novel comes up short in each.
Yet, whereas Magical Realism is an often misunderstood and abused term, and technique, the term and technique that Hirsch suckles to his bosom- metafiction, is even more abused, and ill wrought. Like Bellis, Hirsch tramps his ideas of metafiction around across the Internet, as well as in his books’ author pages. Here is his definition of metafiction, from his Amazon pages: ‘About Metafiction: Metafiction is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously draws attention to its status as an artifact by challenging the relationship between fiction and reality. Metafiction reminds the reader that he or she is reading a fictional work. Often, when the boundary between reader and book is blurred, a metafictional device is employed. This can be mild, as with a first-person narrator acknowledging the reader; or it can be extreme and challenge the boundaries of reader and author, as with Drawers & Booths. This reading experience, though not spatially congruent is chronologically linear, which avoids reader disorientation. In short, the metafictional elements are meant to entertain, not confuse.’ Unlike Bellis, whose work really is not in the Magical Realist vein, Hirsch’s book is firmly metafictional, in that it opens with its protagonist declaiming his adventures to the reader, from years on, and often commenting on it, a sit goes. But, it’s not good metafiction, aside and apart from the tale’s limp narrative, for it is simplistic and conveys no deeper sense of the characters within it. There is no ‘organic,’ for lack of a more recognizable term, reason for the metafiction, save for Hirsch to say he writes metafiction. I.e.- there is no reason his tale could not be told straight, and told better- the metafictive device is merely a gimmick, a distraction, to turn the attention of the reader away from the flat and uninteresting prose. In fact, had Hirsch focused on things like character development and plot, the novel might not be so transparently gimmicky, and remind one of a Peabody’s Improbable History segment from the old Rocky And Bullwinkle cartoon show. When a fourth wall is broken, in a work of art, there should be a reason for the wall to fall. It could be for character development, to gain a wider historical of philosophic perspective, for the character and or reader. It could showcase the unease a character has at knowing he or she or it is not real. And there are other legitimate reasons, but none of this occurs in Hirsch’s prose. Ostensibly, one might argue his novel is a satire on religion or the super-seriousness of literary critics, but that is giving this oh so slight narrative too much credit, and foisting the burden of meaning and intent onto the percipient of the art, and relieving the artist of that duty. Yes, this is where metafiction (usually bad, as are most techniques used in art) belies its Postmodernist and nonsensical roots, but the use of it actually goes back centuries, to Tristram Shandy, and even to the seminal Don Quixote, whose second part even comments on the reactions of characters within to the adventures describes in the first part, and this earlier form is usually the better wrought- for its more integrated, subtle, and less showoffy usage, even to modern readers.
Even more interesting than the fact that Hirsch uses metafiction, in his Fiction, is the fact that he actually employs quite a bit more Magical Realism in the novel than Bellis does in his own claimed Magical Realism novel, for, within the interior diegesis of his tale, and before characters other than the protagonist get metafictive, they indulge in scads of Magical Realism. In fact, given the very obviousness and poor and banal usage of metafiction in his novel, it is ironic that Hirsch beats Bellis at his own Magical Realist game. Not that I’m stating Hirsch’s prose is better than Bellis’s- on a sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph basis, Bellis is a bit better writer; but in terms of deployment of actual Magical Realist elements, Hirsch’s novel has a greater incidence and percentage of Magical Realism than Bellis’s book. This leaves one with the odd linkage of these two writers as utterly clueless about their own literary techniques and obsessions, with Bellis constructing a ‘Magical Realist’ novel that really is a loosely connected narrative of myths and stereotypes pasted together by clear dream sequences that remove it from the realm of Magical Realism, and Hirsch declaiming his utterly simplistic ‘metafiction’ novel that has far more cogent elements of Magical Realism in it than metafiction, as well as more Magical Realism in it than Bellis’s book, which suckles the term. In short, there is no shortage of irony in the fact that neither writer firmly grasps their claimed oeuvres, in works that ultimately achieve less than satisfactory ends.
2) The Tales
I have laid out what both writers claim to have written, or at least attempted. Now, I will take on what each of them accomplished.
Bellis’s The Conjure Man has several online capsules of its plot, likely written by Bellis. Here is one:
After Thaddeus Jacobs, the adopted son of a traveling preacher, is found
naked with a young woman, he is expelled from the only family he has ever known.
Guided by visions and a mysterious voice, he makes his way to a coastal South
Carolina island, where he struggles to make his peace with God and himself in
spite of his own strange cravings and the superstitious hatred of the islanders,
who think he is the devil. The price of his inner peace, however, is absolute
isolation, and it is only when he meets Kilby, a thirteen-year-old boy, that he
rediscovers what it means to be human.
Part myth, part fable, part satire, and part coming-of-age story, The Conjure Man plumbs the emotional depths of the human psyche in prose both dreamlike in the images it conjures and intensely vivid in the psychology it reveals. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Kilby and Thaddeus, it depicts a world where magic does exist, and miracles are possible.
For a capsule, that does a pretty good job of summing things up, but I will explore the pros and cons of the work a bit more deeply.
I received Bellis’s book as a link in his email quest to, first, impress me, then, secondly, rebuke me for pointing out some obvious flaws in his prose and, mainly, in his whole theory of art and writing. This link led to a PDF copy of the book that I downloaded. Some notes on the PDF format of Bellis’s book: 1) the artwork and cover are not that professional looking, and, if used on the real world version, I’d highly suggest a more palatable and inviting, as well as professional, cover and artwork. 2) the alternating even and odd numbered pages shift the text right and leftwards so that one cannot read the text in a straight column down the pages. Yes, the even and odd pages all align with each other, and presumably this is so one can print the pages and bind them oneself, but it is still a bit of a distraction and, if and when Bellis issues a Kindle version of the book, one hopes this issue is addressed.
The novel is divided into 5 Parts, alternating sections narrated by young Kilby (1,3, and 5), set in the book’s present of the 1950s- a decade or so after World War Two, and an omniscient narrator for Thaddeus’s sections (2 and 4), which flashback to that character’s youth, some decades earlier, likely pre-First World War. In short, the Thaddeus sections are, on the whole, more engaging, for there is no use of accents and dialect speech, save for when the characters are actually quoted. This draws a reader to the omniscient’s cause, and the reader identifies more with him, and can objectively sense what is occurring, and even things the narrator leaves out. The Kilby sections are the weaker sections, for several reasons. First is that the Gullah dialect that Bellis claims to use is really only a semi-Gullah. Real, or hard, Gullah contains far more negatives, and not just in mere double negative action descriptions, such as ‘He ain’t gone nowhere,’ which is a sentence that could easily be transposed into a Brooklynese or Los Angeles Latino dialect, but in the specific use of negative modifiers. As example, if a female character is beautiful, a Gullah would describe her something like this: ‘Betty Jean sure is ugly not.’ Similarly, a smart character would be termed ‘stupid no(t),’ or some other variant. None of this actually occurs in Bellis’s dialogue which, as someone who knew a few Gullah speakers in my youth, sticks out as discernibly inauthentic.
Another aspect of dialect writing that most writers fail at, and to which Bellis is no exception, is his sticking with 100% fidelity to the dialectic phonemes of his chosen dialogue. To understand this, let me state that I am a native New Yorker, and if one ever watched Martin Scorsese gangster films, or even Bugs Bunny cartoons, there is a stereotypical New York, or Brooklynese, accent. In reality, there are subtle differences between accents, such as a New Jersey accent, a Bronx accent, a Long Island accent, a Queens accent, and a Brooklyn accent- the major accents, with dozens of interstitial variants. But, most people would recognize that someone talking about ‘third base,’ in baseball terms, in a New York accent, would likely say ‘thoid or ‘toid’ instead of ‘third.’ Similarly, there would be the transposition of phonemes- usually substituting phonemes of one sort with another. As example, in the sentence, ‘There were lots of birds covered with oil after the BP spill in 2010,’ would likely be uttered, in a Scorsese film, as ‘There were lots of boids covered with erl after the BP spill in 2010.’ One can see, though, that the correct number of -oi and -er sounds were retained, because in common speech this is a function of most dialects. Similarly, one can ask anyone who has ever transcribed dictation (from a professional transcriptionist to a court clerk to an investigative reporter) and they will tell you that no one ever speaks in pure 100% dialect all the time. I.e.- given a few sentences or paragraphs to speak, even a Brooklynite with an accent will utter third for ‘third base,’ correctly, now and then. Yet, Bellis’s characters never fail to speak their ‘perfect’ inauthentic semi-Gullah all the time. This fidelity is yet another flaw of dialect writing, and that is it’s so easy to slip up, and fall into the habit of making all one’s characters hew to a line that, in real life, does not exist. The best example from Bellis is his constant lack of apostrophes and hyphens, even when, phonetically, they would not detract from the accent, and his overuse of the word wunt for weren’t and wasn’t, with no natural slippages back into the two grammatically correct forms of the word. Thus, the writer manifests the very artifice of his tale encoded in the failure of his dialogue to achieve a realistic sound; again, aside and apart from whether or not the things stated are ‘in character,’ or stereotypical of the character’s person, race, religion, profession, etc. This inevitably pulls a good, close, and careful reader out of the diegetic reality the writer is attempting to construct.
A third reason why most writers would be wise to avoid strict dialect writing is that too much dialect inherently turns off readers who want translations for the stuff they are hearing, but do not want to read de facto subtitles for what they are reading. One can get away with this if one has an omniscient narrator who can contextualize the seeming gibberish (think most of James Joyce’s works, save for the disastrous Finnegans Wake), but, sans that, dialect writing is usually as offputting and artificial as Stream Of Consciousness writing. This is the chief reason why the Thaddeus portions of The Conjure Man are superior to the Kilby portions.
But, there is yet another reason why much of Bellis’s book fails, and this is the most noxious of all: its rampant racial stereotyping. It’s not so much in the old fashioned racist way of dumb niggers, shuffling coons, happy mammies, and servile Stepin Fetchits, but of the sort modern PC suckles- the deployment of atavistic aboriginals, better known in America as Magical (or Mystical) Negroes Syndrome. Reading The Conjure Man it’s as if Bellis has never really known, nor even had a ‘real’ conversation with, a real live black person. Think of all the books written by black writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and the like, and compare those characters to the deeper, more suffused, characters that inhabit the works of Charles Johnson, and the difference is stark. Of course, there are even more noxious Magical Negroes that occupy Oprah level books, such as The Secret Lives Of Bees and The Help, but, as these were written by white writers (both women), they are often condemned as such.
Bellis, in both his emails to me, and online, has bemoaned the fact that, according to him, his book was denied a major publishing house contract because he was a white man. If this is so, it’s unfortunate, because the reason for the book’s not being published should have been its lack of excellent literary merit alone, not its author’s ethnicity. But, as this book was proffered years before the two mentioned Oprah books, it’s interesting to posit that, despite its literary drawbacks, the book actually got publishers interested, and did so, likely BECAUSE it is filled with stereotypes, mainly of the Magical Negro variety, that the ‘liberal’ New York publisher types still favor. Now, this does not mean there are not atavistic black folks, nor tree-hugging Native Americans, nor sexually and emotionally repressed WASPs, nor hot-blooded Italians and Latinos, drunken Russians and Irish, fascistic Germans, stoic Scandinavians, wily Chinese, etc., only that, to write an engaging novel means, you have to have ‘normal’ folks of all persuasions; meaning average, dull folks who make up the overwhelming majority of people on this planet, regardless of race, ethnicity, political, religious, philosophic or sexual affiliation. Bellis’s book simply lacks this. His novel is a neverending stream of stereotypes, from hooga-booga haint-fearers to penis stroking perverts to dumb as sin young girls to tall tale telling Uncle Remus types to evil preachers to superstitious lynch mobs, and on and on. It’s a cheap way of trying to ‘hook’ a reader because, inevitably, the stereotypes will get worse and crowd out the better elements of the narrative. This is Bellis’s book to the proverbial T.
Having pointed out the main negatives, onto the narrative. Between sections we get dream scenes, usually involving alligators. While there is some nice prose in these sections, the metaphors are often forced and stale, and Bellis would have been better off not using them, or, ala Moby-Dick, perhaps using realistic quotes about the life described, from assorted sources. Part One is The Island, and here we get into the background of things, and introduced to the two main characters, as well as some other secondary characters, such as Kilby’s pal, Jonas Lee Porter, and Ty and Tramsee, the local outcasts.
But, we often get overdescriptions of things, as well- a plague from modern MFA writing mills. Here’s an example:
The old man cabin it aint like people say, it like every other clapboard
cabin I ever been. Is a threelegged table and a couple of chair push up against
the wall, and this yellowglass lantern resting easy top of the table, only it
aint lit up so the room pretty dark, and there some kind a barrel in one corner
and a couple bag of beans on top of that, and in the other corner there a fat
old blackbelly stove, and a bucket of charcoal and a can of kerosene to one
side, and a big black pot on top with a mess of beans inside been cooked and
hardly ate and left cold, and with that it have the feeling like Im go be the
next thing go into that pot, cause them beans is why the old man done went
crabbing in the first place. I just standing there looking at that pot, and all
the while Im is wishing some more I was with them crabs, so hard it feel like
praying, only the wishing it dont do no good this time neither. Then the old man
he slap open the door and step inside. I can see the last line of red in the sky
go black with that, and the old mans face look like it going black the same, and
then he slap that door shut and turn around give a look around the room. Seem
like he waiting on me make a move, only I dont. Then he step over to the lantern
and he fire it up and hang it on a hook. Then he turn to stare me down, he
holding that switch in one hand, and the light from that lantern washing yellow
over his face and his eyes and his teeth, seem like he starting to burn and
smoke, and he looking more and more like the devil in that yellow light than the
devil ever been.
Now, taken alone, as a paragraph, there’s nothing immanently wrong with this bit of writing. But the cumulative effect of a book’s worth of paragraphs like this mean that Bellis’s book, which checks in at almost 250 pages and over 86,000 words in length, could have easily shed 20-25,000 words and significantly gained in power and pacing from the loss. Look at all the modifiers that add nothing to the descriptions: clapboard, yellowglass, fat old, red, black, yellow, and this is not even the worst offending paragraph in this section. But it is an instructive one, for Bellis unwittingly even has his character utter, ‘it like every other clapboard cabin I ever been.’ Really, what more is needed than that? None of the details described differs from that statement nor is ever put to any significant purpose again. Yes, the cabin is seen in a flashback as the place of death of a minor character called Long Jim, and is the destination for Willie’s superstitious mob at book’s end, but other than those things, none of the described details matter, and more power is gained by allowing the reader to imbue and participate in a co-creation. Bellis simply does not understand the power of concision
To put this on a simpler level, suppose I am writing an erotic sex scene between a character based on me, and a female character physically based upon your typical current Hollywood starlet- say, Jessica Biel or Scarlett Johansson. Now, in my mind, as the writer, let’s say I am imagining Biel, and wanting to describe her nude body that I have just made love to. I can describe her wasp waist, her tight ass, her perfect breasts, flawless cheekbones, beautiful eyes, full lips, and so on. In my mind, these clearly add up to my fictive female lover’s being a Biel doppelganger. However, sans mentioning that this gorgeous woman in my character’s bed looks like Jessica Biel, what is to prevent another reader from imagining a gorgeous young brunet who looks closer to, say, Megan Fox, or Mila Kunis, or Natalie Portman, or some other hot young female celebrity of the moment, than Biel? Without my using the words Jessica Biel, how can I transpose my image of a naked Biel to another mind, without it becoming some other starlet, or even some sexy brunet from another reader’s past- perhaps the girl in 10th Grade that he took to a dance, or lost his virginity to? I really can’t, and, given just a few decades’ time, the likelihood that any references to the above named starlets will have any relevance to future readers will quickly approach nil. Hence, it is likely better for me, as a writer, to simply state that my character was having sex with a gorgeous brunet, for every reader will imagine a different gorgeous brunet than the next reader, no matter how detailed my wording. Now, if there is a particular aspect of the gorgeous brunet’s body- say, a tattoo or birth mark, her height or weight, or something about the way she twitches her right eye, that has import in the later narrative, or defines her apart from other gorgeous brunets, even if just to the narrator, then it is a detail worth noting, but, failing that, gorgeous brunet will likely suffice as a term for my character’s lover.
Getting back to Bellis’s paragraph, and, since we know that Thaddeus’s cabin is just like other clapboard cabins, an image forms, exterior and interior. Yes, I imagined a table and chairs. That the table is threelegged is different from the fourlegged variety I internally spied, but so what? Is that slight difference worth the digression? Does it have any significance in the tale? No. And, while this might not be such an issue in a book that is a masterpiece, in a meager work of fiction as The Conjure Man these little flaws get magnified (and actually become flaws since they cannot even complement greater elements of the writing technique nor narrative) since there are no greater elements to stand in contrast to nor be overshadowed by. I imagined a lamp- likely kerosene, and a stove, as I have been in quite a few cabins myself, but, again, nothing of the specifics really adds anything significant to Kilby’s claim that it’s ‘like every other clapboard cabin I ever been.’ And, again, not that this is so egregiously overwritten a paragraph, in and of itself, but as it comes within the first few pages of the book, and is example number one of many such, I use it as a symptom of what later helps to bog the book down, especially in many dream sequences, Stream Of Consciousness sections, and swaths of Thaddeus sections, too.
Later in Part One, we come to the first of the digressive myths in the book, and this one details a sexual liaison between the loose moraled Tramsee and a fellow named Icebox Pete- an unscrupulous sort who cons the knickers off Tramsee, says he’ll meet her, then stands her up for a full week at their trysting place, as another fellow, who turns out to be her current beau, Ty, tells her tales of why Pete stands her up. Here is how that tale ends:
Tramsee she wait on Icebox Pete past three o’clock and
moving on to four, but didnt nobody show up except a fellow what come with Pete
the first time she seen him. This fellow he didnt bother none about his name,
and he didnt smile neither except to say evening, and then he was saying say how
Pete he sure was sorry, he been down working the docks most of the day, and he
was still there too, even he barely move his arms, but he said he go be a
drowning man soon as he seen her and wouldnt she wait on him and Florida till
three o‟clock the next day. Tramsee she was frown and sore-hip from
sitting on them steps, but she like the part about drowning, even it didnt make
no sense, and time that fellow he say Florida she was saying say fine that’d
be fine, and moving like she a suitcase to pack, and that fellow he just tip his
hat and off he went. The next day was the same thing, only Pete he hadnt been to
the docks, he been hoofing it through the Battery. Tramsee she want to ask just
what it was Pete been doing he couldnt do with her, but before she could say a
word that fellow he just tip his hat like so, and off he went again.
Well, by and by it come on seven day of Tramsee waiting on
Icebox Pete, and she done give him up already, but she know she want the truth,
so time that fellow come strolling up the street, and he was singing to hisself
about some girl wearing one red shoe, Tramsee she almost tackle him before he
reach the steps. Seem like she too skinny, but time she jump she grab a hold of
him with both her arm and both her leg like she some kind of crab, and with that
he felt hisself falling, and then he land a heavy thwack on the sun-burn brick,
and he was hoping he aint broke his back.
“What you mean by coming here every day this week with that
same beat-up story coming from out you mouth? How long you think I a fool?"
Tramsee she was sitting square on that fellow chest and
looking like she go beat on his face but good if only she could find a loose
brick to hit him with, and that fellow he was looking up to her and blinking and
he didnt know just what to do cause his back it was pretty sore even it wunt
broke, so he allow a what-ever-you-say-I-do smile come creep across his face and
he hope for the best.
“You be telling me now.”
“Yessum, I is.”
“And none of you lies, you hear, aint nothing but the truth
come from out you mouth today.”
“Yessum, I hear you.”
“What it is
you want to know?”
Mama she say that there how Tramsee done met up with Ty, and he wunt but
a bigknuckle tarbaby look like he lost his hat, but Tramsee she done took to him
all the same.
Now, even in just this brief excerpt it should be obvious that there are a number of problems- from the dialect adherence to its stereotypical nature, from the actions of the female character, Tramsee, as easy, stupid, and violent, to the dumb coon portrayal of Ty. That stated, the actual anecdote of how Ty and Tramsee hooked up is humorous, and more engaging than typical MFA tripe- in that it’s not lathered in the naked clichés that litter MFA writing, especially at the ends of paragraphs and chapters, but it’s also cringeworthy in its portrayal of Southern rural blacks, and utterly banal in its well worn and predictable anecdoture, caricaturization, and speech patterns; which makes one wonder why the big publishing houses were interested in the novel in the first place. Now, if Bellis had any interior point of view character who was aware of this cringeworthiness, this would be a different story, but there’s not any, so the reader is forced to accept this Jim Crow version of events unextrapolated upon.
After this, we get to hear of Jonas’s accidental breaking of a leg, and Thaddeus’s cabin, again, plus the revelation of him as a possible pedophile, with underaged girls; the most interesting of which is known as Kiri Girl, who goes to his cabin, gets pregnant, miscarries, stays five or six years, then bolts, and is never seen again. This is the first of two renditions of this tale, and coming in the Kilby section it means this is the gossipy side. A few other tales come at the end of Part One, then we get to Ghosts, which is Part Two, on page 71.
In Part Two we get the omniscient narrator, and a clearing up of some of the things that went on in Part One. We get a flashback to a sexual indiscretion that led to a conflagration which led to the banishment of Thaddeus, as a young man, to wander the islands of South Carolina, and gain his legendary status as a tool of the Devil. Interestingly, it is in this section that the reader first realizes how little, if anything, of the dominant white culture has seeped into the lives of these characters. It’s as if these characters have never even seen white folks. Yes, this is the Jim Crow era, but, despite latterday protestations, blacks and whites routinely intermingled- mainly in business and internally, in private domestic relations, as servants and served, as well as poor whites and blacks mingling more freely (youths playing together, etc.) but this book makes it seem as if blacks were on a planet all their own, not a subculture of a multiracial society, filled not only with blacks and whites, but differing strata within both groups. But, the sex scene, and its aftermath, as memory and not, is a fairly overwrought and overwritten mess that really needed the help of a good editor. And this brings up a point that both Bellis’s and Hirsch’s books suffer from: a lack of editing- not only in the proofreading sense (especially in Hirsch’s book- which was a galley copy), but in the sense of how to structure story and narrative. In Bellis’s case, as I’ve shown, there are problems with overdescription and stereotyping, but add in a spew of description and foment, and much of the story really grinds and makes reading a chore for substantial sections of the book. And by chore I don’t mean in the highfalutin’ ‘Joyce is a difficult writer’ sense of willful obfuscation, but just in the original poorly wrought sentence and paragraph sense.
Nearing page 100 we get more digressive tales- of bigamy and a chain gang, but these are not nearly as well written as some of the earlier anecdotes- even those with stereotypes. Instead of real characters, we get half-drawn Fellinian grotesques (again suckling a Southern writing stereotype: the Gothic grotesque)- see William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Many times the characters (or caricatures) devolve into mere props for the scene rather than the scene being revelatory of the characters. When given a choice, Bellis always seems to favor attempting to set a mood (with mixed results) rather than positing things of depth. This is most effective when the characters ease in and out of time, dream, and reality, to seemingly narrate their own actions and least effective when trying to mine trite tropes from the past. The best (or worst) example of this is the ineffective digression on the horn player Gabriel Dupree (need I state the connection to Archangel Gabriel and his trumpet?), who gets his just desserts. That stated, in general, Bellis is usually most effective in the interludes where a character is having an explicit dream, and rather forgettable in the vague, dull, and trite realities in between. There simply are no moments where the characters are learning anything, much less the reader. The characters stumble and bumble and this might have been effective had Bellis, like Hirsch, made his book metafictive, for then their very ineffectuality might be comic, and satiric. As is, it just bogs down.
Part 3 of the book is called The Festival, and we return to Kilby and his dialect. Assorted tales include the return of Icebox Pete, more Jonas Lee Porter, and yet another fire, this time at Willie’s warehouse- an act which seems to turn Willie from the town nutjob into a dangerous fearmonger and brimstone spewer. The best interlude is the death of Long Jim by a monstrous alligator. It’s also the interlude that evinces the titular character of the book, the conjure man, who remains nameless, but whose voodoo cannot undo Long Jim’s gator inflicted wounds. This failure sees the end of the conjure man, and the dumping of Long Jim’s body to the ravenous gators in the swamp, although, by book’s end it’s debatable as to whether or not the book’s title refers to this character or Thaddeus himself. This section of the book has the most potential, since it takes place early in Thaddeus’s life, at the cabin he will one day take refuge in, but little comes of it. Bellis’s stories are oddly hermetic, despite not being discreet short stories. They have little effect on other aspects of his overall tale. It’s as if there’s a bubbling brew, and once the bubble ripens and pops, its remains do not go back into the mix.
Part 4 is titled Songs, and the omniscient narrator of Thaddeus’s existence is back, and we get more stereotypes: gators, ghosts, wrestling with the Devil, preachers, corruption, sex, but never is ay of this behavior deepened, looked at with an objective eye. It’s a truism of great fiction that one of the keys to its propagation is getting to look from behind a character’s eye, rather than looking from the outside in. In other words, the color of the character’s eye is not as important as what it notices, and Bellis and his characters notice precious little. This section also revisits the Kiri Girl story, and we do get a bit of a parallax, as that is told from a different perspective- mainly Thaddeus’s grief, wrought in a visit to his stillborn child’s grave- one of the better wrought moments in the book.
Part 5 is called The Storm, and returns us to Kilbyspeak, and finally brings what is likely a hurricane that has seemingly really and metaphorically hung over much of the book, which takes place in an indefinite but compressed ‘real time,’ to the area. Homes and towns are destroyed, and the locals all huddle in the church, and there is confusion over who is alive and who is dead- Jonas Lee, Kilby, Thaddeus? There are hints, toward the end of the novel, that, indeed, the whole book may be a flashback from either Kilby or Thaddeus from beyond, but then that option seems dashed, even as Thaddeus is found dead by Kilby, just as wild eyed Willie (in black Grand Dragon fashion), the would be prophet, leads a mob of idiots out to the cabin to kill Thaddeus. Seeing that he is dead, the mob meekly dissipates, and Willie wanders off in impotence.
The book ends like this:
Is like death itself when I get there. Aint even the sound of
the wind. There a yellow ballglass lantern hang from a porch hook up by the
door, and the old man he sitting in the soft shadows on the far side of the
porch, only he aint sitting, he laying back in a cane-back chair like he done
fall asleep, his feet prop up on a crate, and then Im is up by the door, and the
hot of that yellow lantern light it burn against the back of my head. Willie he
always been after the old man, and now he coming with a pack of black bible
revengement, but maybe the old man know what to do, and then we go see. But its
then I see Thaddeus he aint been sleeping, he been dead, and except for the
lantern been lit just a little while, look like he been dead a couple three day
cause aint nothing been clean up after the storm. The next thing I do I is
reaching over turn the old man chair around face the light, only somehow he
still in the shadow, and Im is thinking say what that mean and staring into two
black eye look like holes the way they sunk in, and then all of sudden I hears
the old man voice, sound like it coming from everywhere, and the old man he
saying say it about time you done got here what been keeping you boy it sure
as hell been getting cold sitting up in this here chair I wunt gonna last much
longer and then it seem like the old man he blink them black, black eyes of
his and then he sitting up and then he saying say this is yours now you keep
it maybe you see me again maybe you dont you go on now go on they almost here then
he hanging a chain around my neck, it the one with that alligator tooth he been
talk about, and then it like he aint move at all, and the last words he saying
say he sure go miss the devils daughter, and he laughing some, and then the old
mans voice it gone and I is thinking about that alligator tooth around my neck
and how the old man done said when it was his time he want to go up just like
old Elijah, and before I know what what Im is lifting the old man from out that
chair and bring him inside the cabin lay him down on his bed, it almost look
like he smiling, and then Im is down under the sink lay hold of a kerosene can
and empty it out on the floor and some on the bed and then all over, and then Im
is grabbing hold of that yellowglass lantern off the porch, aint much light left
but it enough, and it almost like the old man he laughing again,
and then I done
throw that lantern through the door watch it bust up under the old mans bed, and
with that there fire everywhere, it roll through the cabin like a stormwater
flood, and Im is standing by the door watch the tide of that fire roll up and
over the shadow of the old man, and all the while Im is thinking say what
everybody go do now the old man dead, well theres one thing for sure, aint
nobody go blame they troubles on the devil and look the old mans way, and then
Im is thinking on why the old man he give me his alligator tooth, and I is sure
I dont know, but all the same it have the feeling like maybe I suppose to take
over where he leave off, only what exactly that go mean, well I aint know that
neither, and then from out the fire the old man he laughing some more, and then
the laughing it gone, and the shadow it gone the same, aint nothing left but the
smoke of burning wood, and then Im is turning from the cabin I go leave it burn,
only there is Willie and the rest of them book burning people, they faces rising
up slow from the black of the hill and the grass, they eyes glowing bright with
the red of the cabin fire, and what happen next Im is saying say the old man he
dead already you all just be putting up them books aint nothing more to do you
all just head on home, but aint nobody move, at least not at first, and some of
them wild-eye people they looking up to the fire maybe wish they had a part in
it, and some they looking to they black bible books, only them books they aint
nothing but charred black paper now, and most everybody they looking to Willie
they aint know what to do, only Willie he aint know what to do neither, and then
a second time Im is saying say the old man he already dead aint nothing more for
them to do, and with that the people they shaking they heads they saying say if
that dont beat all, and then they turning one by one from Willie and the fire
and they walking to the black of the hill and the grass and the sky, and some
they tossing they black bible books to the ground, they aint hardly worth
reading no more, and then they all gone except for Willie, and Willie his eyes
they still burning bright with the red of the old mans fire, and he looking at
me like he has to burn something even it me, but that Willie-look it dont bother
me none at all, and then one more time Im is saying say the old man he dead he
already dead, and with that the fire from Willie eyes it gone, and then Willie
he turn away a slow slow turning, and then he walking into the black shadows of
the hill and the sky, and he holding a charred black book in his hand…
. . . and with that the third man he was walking from the swamp and the log and the animals up in them trees, he was walking into the bluegreen haze of the wood, and the animals they was all laughing to theyself, and some was saying say it wunt the alligator world no more that for sure, and then they was all climbing down from they trees and going about they business.
Now, as I have stated, there are worse books than this one. The Hirsch book, Fiction, I will tackle next, is one of them. But there is no way one can even argue this is a good book. Is it bad? Terrible? No. In fact, it actually has potential, and one wonders what Bellis might have done with this work had he had the advice and guidance of a good critical eye or two. But the end result is a messy, racially stereotypical book written by a white guy with little grasp of character development and effective dialect dialogue. There are moments that make a reader go, ‘Ah, now keep it up,’ and ‘If only he’d go here, not there,’ but overall, on a scale of 1-100, this book would grade out at a passable 70 or so. Although they did it for the wrong reasons, the big houses were right not to publish this book. Yes, they’ve published MUCH worse, but that does not mean mediocrity gets a pass just because the idiots at presses publish even worse garbage.
In many of the blurbs Bellis uses for his book, and on his website, the ecstatic reviews extol the claims that the book tackles big ideas like religion, memory, creation, but never does a reviewer actually state how and why Bellis does this, nor do they give examples of this. This is akin to bad bumper sticker books that decry a big theme, like nuclear holocaust, and claiming the work, however simplistic and poorly written, is major because it states something so baldly. Great literature is subtle, and works on many layers, in many avenues. The Conjure Man does not. Does it have potential? Yes, and this is something lacking in Hirsch’s novel, which I will tackle next, but potential is ultimate meaningless when unfulfilled, and this is what Bellis’s novel is, a vessel waiting to be filled, and not filled. Instead of depth, we get superficial motives. Instead of character development, we get racial and sexual stereotypes. Instead of compelling narrative that grows out of the characters’ natures in some organic measure, we get predictably trite narratives that do nothing more than what is easily seen at their start. That Bellis, if one is to believe his hype and claims, believes that this work is great and/or original says much about how a) little read he is, or b) how poor his reading comprehension is. The hype is what Bellis hoped to accomplish with The Conjure Man. What he actually did achieve is something significantly less.
Turning from Bellis’s book to Ara Hirsch’s Fiction, I was hoping to follow up a mediocre book with something better. After all, as noted earlier, my own wife had given the book a positive review, so I held out hopes. It took only a dozen or so pages of my reading the 227 page Fiction to realize that my earlier reading of The Conjure Man would seem like ‘the good old days’ by comparison. Where Bellis’s work is potential vastly unfulfilled, Hirsch’s work is simply not much. There is not a new idea nor interesting character in the whole novel. The situations are not funny, they rely too much on better, earlier works as divergent as Flatland, Gulliver’s Travels, Conversations On The Plurality Of Worlds, Around The World In Eighty Days, and a host of other lesser known and wrought works. Whereas Bellis’s book will occasionally have a poetic moment, or a moment of beauty or insight, Hirsch’s work is barren. If The Conjure Man is an ugly, overgrown, weed-filled garden, Fiction is a dead, isolate corner of the Sahara.
But, before I directly tackle his tale, let me deal with the ill conceived review my wife wrote of this book, a few years ago, and debunk some of her claims and weasel worded nostra. Here is her review:
In reading the sophomore novel by Ara 13, my reaction was (while reading it) that I’d not ever read anything quite like it before. Fiction is actually a work of metafiction, and while I have read other metafictional books in the past, Fiction is unusual in its narrative approach and style - and I mean that as a good thing. Although it is difficult to pinpoint any particular writer 13’s novel reminds me of, I would have to say the closest thing might be Nathanael West, albeit 13 tends to veer off into more philosophical elements than West does, though both writers share a certain element of humor.
Other than a story or two, read almost thirty years ago, I have not read West, so cannot comment on that comparison, but Hirsch is not philosophic in the least. Yes, his lead character, a missionary named Father Daniel postures, in the framed tale, on this or that idea, but the book never enacts those ideas. The unnamed narrator, without the frame, similarly states nothing of depth, and states it over and over. He is also wholly disconnected from the book’s main character, literally in another world and time. We have no idea how the narrator can know of the lead character, and this non-conjoinment is, at the least, annoying, and, at the worst, a serious flaw in the novel’s narrative thrust. As I mentioned of the blurbs for Bellis’s book, simply stating that an artwork deals with a theme, with no regard as to how and how successfully or not, is a worthless point, but one that eats up a word count for a critic looking to puff a piece of criticism of a work of little or no merit.
Another trope, in this very vein, is asking a rhetorical question, then answering it with a stock answer from the work; one that is obvious and whose obviousness requires absolutely no skill in rendering. Oh, did I say….? Well, my wife shows us a perfect example of this:
Readers may wonder why he chose to title his book Fiction. I wondered the same. As many might already know, metafiction is the art of bringing to the reader’s attention that one is in fact dealing with artifice. In his Encore, he addresses it:
"Scoff not at fictions merely on account of their fabrications. Nonfiction too is manufactured, therefore subject to the same human imperfections upon production, relieving no reader of the onus of deciding that which is sound judgment. So, digest not only fact; read fiction."
And, no, I was not wondering what Jess asks. I got that rather easily. Another way to waste time and eat up word count in a puffed up review is to ask and re-ask the same obvious questions and claim this some sort of virtue in the work. This is a derivation from the trite, and wrong, idea that great art doesn’t answer questions, it asks them. Well, great art asks and answers questions. Many art percipients are simply not bright enough to understand that the questions are answered, but they are, and, really, when you cogitate with any depth, what would really be the point of wasting one’s time to ask a question (or many questions) only, and NOT, at the very least, attempt to answer them? It would mean you’d want to glom your reader’s attention and not reward them in the least for it. So, yes, Moby-Dick, The Iceman Cometh, Dr. Strangelove, and Archaic Torso Of Apollo all ask and answer questions of depth and cogence that any rational and sentient being could plumb. But, my wife was looking to pad her word count, again:
One of the many questions the book asks is the idea of real versus artifice, and if something is man made, does that make it any less real? Is reality merely that which is found in nature, or can it be invented? All these questions hold a greater heft against the idea of religion and the existence of God, and if God is in fact all made up, does that make it any less real? The questions spawning from such debates are endless.
Ah, endless….so many questions. I’m overwhelmed! Finally, she gets to the tale at hand:
The story involves a priest named Father Daniel who encounters a group of savages in the forest. His intention is to help convert what he believes to be a cannibalistic tribe to Christianity, but his inability to communicate and their inability to understand cause some friction between them (much of which is terribly funny). For example, in one scene where Daniel is trying to write words in the dirt, the natives mistake it for a map, commenting on its “complication.”
Unmentioned is the book’s over-reliance on Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, for the tribe Father Daniel encounters believes they are members of a playing card suit. Most of the complications that ensue from this are not funny, and once the metafictive elements take over most of the humor drains away as Hirsch’s narrative becomes a game of clever oneupsmanship with himself. This is not to say that there are no funny moments, but these usually last four or five sentences, when a word or idea is mangled or taken too literally. She continues:
In another scene, Daniel is forced to pick out a “ceremonial penis sheath.” When Daniel asks if he can pick two (one to cover the penis and testicles) the king permits this, with the rational: “After all, he had two sheaths himself. One with sprigs coming out of the end for when his mother-in-law was in town.” Then readers are given the following scene, which could have been something out of a Mel Brooks’ film:
"Daniel picked two random sheaths ... He had tied two sheaths at once; one over his penis pointing up and one over his testicles pointing down. The natives gasped. The pointy toothed maiden fainted. A man fell through the partially thatched roof."
I can state that this scene is not funny, and is less Mel Brooks (even at his height) and more Cheech And Chong. Despite this, Jess claims:
13’s sense of humor makes this book a fun and enjoyable read, but these humorous scenes also serve a greater purpose in helping to lighten the narrative when later on more heavily digestible issues are discussed. In other words, the humor helps to offset some of the heavier moments, much in the way the humor in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories contrasts against the fact that the film involves an artist who is in search of “deeper meaning.”
Note her weasel wording- ‘when later on more heavily digestible issues are discussed.’ What does this really mean? Heavily digestible? Is indigestion or potential vomit inducement a literary standard? No, the comparison to a great work of art, like the Woody Allen film, is a feint, and Jess should be ashamed to try to link this book with something so much better, as if mentioning it in a review will rub some of that great film’s magic off on Hirsch’s bad book. But, let’s return to ‘when later on more heavily digestible issues are discussed.’ I read the book- there are no heavier themes. The mere act of metafiction does no impart depth to a work. It is just a tool, and one that can be wielded well or not. In Hirsch’s case it is not, because no one is left, at book’s end, with a sense of awe and wonder, akin to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Father Daniel is neither complex nor interesting, and his adventures curry no favor nor warmth with a reader. Billy Pilgrim (the hero of perhaps the greatest published metafictive work of the last half century- Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five), he’s not!
Meanwhile, as readers are given the tale about Father Daniel, a first person narrator who acknowledges that he is the one telling you this tale, even self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “bore” at one point. Fiction goes back and forth in between first and third person, past and present, and the interweaving of the narrative helps to make it more like a memory, rather than a linear, plot-driven tale. There are some insightful exchanges among characters when the discussion of God comes up later on, notably when Father Daniel is trying to explain the Commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill.” The natives then ask, “Well how do we eat?” Daniel clarifies that the rule only applies to people. And then they bring up the tale of David and Goliath, asking if it “violated the lesson” while another native admits to finding the tale “offensive.” Daniel, of course, has no real answers for the natives, save for repeating what he’s been told to believe.
While there are humorous exchanges, insight is barely present. Yes, if one were to read this book to a Flat Earth loving, Creationist, Biblical literalist, the points raised might seem deep, but to the majority of intelligent would be readers of this book, they are likely as not to get a similar level of ‘depth’ while watching a typical Sunday afternoon pro football game, and listening to the banter, during a timeout, between the play-by-play announcer and his color commentator.
The themes present in Fiction are so interestingly presented that considering the book’s humor coupled with its unique narrative, even if the prose were ordinary, the tale likely could have sustained itself on the ideas and humor alone. But I am pleased to note that there is a muscularity in 13’s writing that in moments veers towards poetic:
"Despite the shield of canopied growth, the water found land, in its relentless, cyclic quest - downward, a reluctant rise toward heaven, and subsequent eviction back to Earth, where it pooled and rutted, and forced all to pay heed - from rock to ant to man."
Does any of what has been told of the narrative thus far seem interesting in its presentation? And the prose is ordinary, at best. No, it’s not larded with clichés, like MFA writing, but neither was Bellis’s, and we saw how hit and miss his prose was. Now, we get to a definitive weasel word in criticism- calling prose ‘muscular.’ What does that really mean? It’s like calling something a ‘life affirming’ narrative. What? And the selected sentence is not muscular. It’s a good sentence, and, ironically, one that I noted to quote for my own review, but it’s a single poetic moment in a 227 page book. Recall the ten thousand monkeys?
Then Jess disgraces her critical pedigree and reveals that she only wrote this puff piece because she knew the writer and didn’t want to hurt his feelings:
The novel succeeds in questioning God and authority, without becoming preachy. Though there were only a few instances where 13 used some clichéd phrases that, while not larded in mawkishness, are weak against the stronger descriptive sections like the one quoted above. Yet they are so few in number that this weakness does not impede the strength of the overall narrative.
Really, Jess? The book succeeds in questioning God without becoming
preachy. That’s its coup de grace? This is about as empty a bit of praise as
one can damn a piece of writing with. She continues:
Fiction is not like the novels being published today, notably because it happens to be a good read that does not dumb itself down for the audience. The book takes risks both in theme and narrative, which makes it difficult to pinpoint 13’s writing within some trite, little box. It’s also very difficult to reduce his book into the measly marketing bumper sticker “pitch” that literary agents drool over. (As it is for any artistic work of quality).
Yes, Fiction is not bad in the way most MFA novels are bad, with trite soap operatic narratives and PC clichés uttered on every page, with every chapter ending in a paragraph laden with at least five naked clichés, but it’s bad in its own flatly written, superficially conceived and executed, humorless, vampiric feasting on better works. It’s better, in a sense, than the MFA mills’ pulp, but not that much better that it really matters, for, if this was what was being held up as good fiction in MFA mills, there’d be no sudden change in the artistic zeitgeist. Oh, yes, there’s a final shameful paragraph in my wife’s- ahum!- ‘review’:
I’ve only touched upon just a few of the narrative elements present in this 227 pager. Another good sign is that despite its brevity, I found myself slowing down in parts and rereading them just for enjoyment sake, but also because the ideas alone interested me. With crappy writing, one does not need do this. I am pleased after having read Ara 13’s novel, and new novels rarely please me. I tend to avoid them, because they’re usually dull, stagnant and safe. Thankfully, not this time.
If the ideas, alone, are what interest a reader then, by logical deduction, their execution must not have inspired interest. This sort of deduction is essential for reading between the lines when reading bad works of art, and when one sees the sorts of phraseology Jess employs in her review it’s a safe bet to assume the work under critique is not of the highest quality.
Now, on to a summary of Hirsch’s novel, and, up front, let me state that there is not nearly as much to quote- pro nor con- from Hirsch’s book, vis-à-vis Bellis’s, since it simply is not very quotable. If Bellis can rightly be accused of a good deal of overwriting of his fiction, Hirsch is equally guilty of underwriting his. Literally, the best sentence in the book was already captured in my wife’s review.
On his own website, Hirsch describes his novel in this manner:
Father Daniel journeys deep into the harsh forest, with romantic notions of converting the fierce Oquanato cannibals to Christianity, but his heroic sense of mission clashes with the farcical antics of sophisticated savages, whose beliefs originate from a peculiar source-a source that rattles Daniel into an introspective, yet dubious narrative.
To call Fiction a dubious narrative is to do it a favor. Whereas Bellis’s book, in the hands of a good editor, could have been a good novel, if not great, there’s really no saving Hirsch’s novel. Yes, there are a few humorous scenes and dialogue bits, but nothing of depth- the language is just inert. At best, Hirsch might be a comic script doctor for screenplays, but he just lacks all sense of how to build a character. Whereas Bellis’s characters were all stereotypes, Hirsch’s are stereotypes, as well, but even more so they are barely sketched or thought out ciphers, dull caricatures more than characters; yet both writers’ characters act as all poorly written characters do- they act like characters in a tale, not like real people. Also, the copy of the book I read was a bound galley and contains many proofreading errors plus an ugly as sin cover that makes the cover to Bellis’s The Conjure Man seem professional, by comparison.
Fiction opens with an unnamed narrator, from some point in the novel’s diegetic future, looking back on his life and crowing over his adventures. One can easily picture a man in a velour smoker and puffing on a pipe beneath the trophy head of a rhino on his wall. But, that’s about it. After some Hemingwayvian extrapolations (or Hemingway Lite- say 5th to 6th rate?), and some conversations with some oddly named characters, both the narrator and his cohorts disappear from the tale, save for a few brief interjections, and have no substantive links with the character who soon emerges as the narrative’s lead. That lead character would be named Father Daniel, a missionary in search of a cannibalistic tribe somewhere in the wilds of….well, we’re never told. In some instances it would seem to be Africa, India, of Central or South America for the names of the natives suggest Polynesia, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Like Bellis’s book, Hirsch’s is broken into 5 parts- Four ‘Parts’ and an ‘Encore.’ Part One details Father Daniel’s meeting with the Oquanato tribe, and their silly customs. Part Two’s first chapter is a return to the nameless narrator of the tale, who spends the whole chapter patting himself on the back and trying to make himself comfy. This could have been conveyed in two, three sentences, tops, not a chapter. I will quote only a few brief segments to show how Hirsch beats this extinct equine, and takes his humor into the dirt:
Goodness. I’m becoming quite the bore. I promised you one story and have veered into another. My tale is a stalled boat in threat of caroming into the rocks ashore. Oh, I suppose it is not all that dramatic….
Excuse me while I pour another glass to cut my visceral vinegar….
Where was I? That’s right: I resigned myself to learning the natives’ language and was doing well. As I have said previously….
Excuse me while I situate this pillow more advantageously toward proper speaking posture. There. Now, as the natives’ natural marvel….
No. No. It is quite alright. Just a sip or two of this amber life force
to revitalize, and I should be back on track. Ah. Much better….
Yes, it’s that bad. I mean, this is only an excerption, yet this is
supposed to be humorous? Even granting the narrator’s awareness of his
artifice, this is simply atrocious writing, unfunny, and, even the first two
sentences cannot rescue it. Yet, so much of the novel displays this sort of
attempted humor which crashes embarrassingly. Hirsch is like a declassé Henny
Youngman, without the wife to take. While Hirsch is conscious that he is serving
up stereotypes in his book (unlike Bellis), he never transcends this and
ratchets the action nor drama up to the next level(s). His 4th
chapter is a single sentence:
At the binding, raging maggots feast on the glue.
Parts 3 and 4 likewise have 4th chapters almost as short, but,
other than thinking he’s showing off some prosaic bravado, there is nothing
gained by this self-conscious ploy. So the narrator interrupts the plot- but for
no reason. Not humor, nor insight, just to do so. And this summarizes Hirsch’s
book. It’s metafiction just so he can state he wrote metafiction. But, if
it’s BAD metafiction, so what? One cannot even state that good metafiction
beats good fiction, but one can safely say bad metafiction is worse than merely
Earlier, I mentioned that the lone plus in my wife’s far too generous
review of this novel was in quoting the best written sentence in the book. To be
fair, I will quote the most humorous and enjoyable moment of the book: Part Two,
Chapter 7’s end, on page 105:
“I was simply accustomed to my pants.” Daniel felt his bare rear.
“I don’t see how you put up with no coverage in the back.”
“Previously, I couldn’t understand how you scratched your ass through
all that material you wore.”
Daniel considered this. At least there was one advantage to the
ceremonial attire. And if he stopped biting his nails to the core, he could
capitalize on the freedom more auspiciously.
Unlike the prior excerpt, which gives you a sense of Hirsch’s need to drone his humor into one’s existence, this rather pithy observation is the book’s funniest. And that’s about it…literally. It’s all downhill from page 105 through page 227. There’s no need for me to rehash the prior damnations I’ve rendered. Father Daniel eventually alienates the tribe and their king, massacres occur, wanders for forty days and nights, has a dream that is not in the least dreamy, and upon his being found, in a magical realist twist, ends up in a banana republic run by a General, has some further adventures (really experiences, as adventures suggests interesting occurrences), including meeting up with two of the tribesmen who have beaten him to the new country and evangelized, in his name, the locals to believing Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is their Scripture and Daniel its prophet. Clearly, Hirsch was looking to go the Gulliver’s Travels route here, but he does not commit to the new locale for any real contrast, and, eventually Father Daniel escapes. We then return to the almost wholly unrelated narrator of the book for its end, but in such a way that it feels as if Hirsch was so desperate for an ending that he’d settle for anything that killed the novel off; and it shows.
Here is that end, from Curtain Call, in the Encore [with my bolded comments within]:
Surely I dotter [no????- and it’s dodder, not dotter- possibly a proofreading error], but that isn’t my greatest transgression. [clearly not] I will have to atone for the outcome of sober judgment. [surely] Heed my tale, pass along my honest lessons. Remember, the value lies beyond the truth of the narrative, snuggled in the integrity of its moral. [aside from being didactic, this is wrong, but more pertinent is that this is simply not funny] Such lessons need to be confined to first-person encounters. Rather, maturity and well-being demand deriving the knowledge acquired by experience from surrogate sources. While reaching for a hot pan, a hand can burn only so many times before permanent damage is done. Given my trials, I was lucky for no acute disability. A split ear scars over- death does not heal; hence, wisdom offers greater returns for those with further life ahead. Really, what good is a lesson for the deceased? Though I have avoided my flame- dancing upon the candle of existence- from being prematurely snuffed between fortune’s thumb and index finger, my fire has reduced the separation of wick’s ends to a hyphen, and my knowledge threatens to run out its benefit. Certainly, in the hereafter, when all is revealed, my wisdom will add nothing to the grander scheme. So, it is here, now, that I must relinquish the lessons of my life. [how did I know there was no relent coming?]
Despite being weary of platitudes, which compile in quantity while mitigating in value, I’ve decided to set aside my fear of sounding trite [no, no, please pick it up!] and leave you with a kernel of wisdom, one simple verb: Read. Dear God, read. And look beyond the culturally ascribed worth of the artifact. Often, the value may be a lesson contrary to what is apparent or universally believed. Additionally, be kind to these relics, tolerant of their errors, yet mindful of their shortcomings, to circumvent their malignancies. Scoff not at fictions merely on account of their fabrications. Nonfiction too is manufactured, therefore subject to the same human imperfections upon production, relieving no reader of the onus of deciding that which is sound judgment. So, digest not only fact; read fiction. Certainly, there is much to gain from the made-up as well as the real. [‘twould be nice to enumerate a few things to be gained, rather than heap platitudes- no?] The lessons learned and the consequential defenses taken to avoid life’s miseries do not diminish in value because of their source. Safety and sanity demands [sic- should be singular] we take up the best tools forged in scholarship’s blazing kiln, an oven fueled by books, by reading, providing us the opportunity for walking another’s path, following another’s journey without the immediate threat of exposure to that traveler’s environment. I see no reason why you too need your ear split to become wiser…or to chance worse.
Nietzsche was wrong, you know. Sometimes that which doesn’t kill you leaves a limp, scars the soul. Sometimes that which doesn’t kill you festers, sours its confines, and never heals. Beware his omission. Digest my story- harvest the moral sustenance from this artifact. Some lessons are best learnt secondhand.
Of course, save for Hirsch’s dancing ego there is absolutely nothing of a higher value to be learnt. Yes, Bellis’s book may sometimes be a slog and slop of silly stereotypes, but he’s, at least, attempting to sketch a situation and characters that live, lose, learn. Hirsch does nothing of the sort. If one might deem Bellis’s novel a failure (I don’t, just a mediocrity) it is, to its credit, an honest one. Hirsch’s work lacks even that grace, and it is unequivocally a failure.
And, these last three paragraphs serve as a sorry summation of the whole
book’s flaws: so dead is the writing, so inert, so stuffed with bullshit
didacticism (and especially lacking in actual humor), that even if taken as
deliberately humor intending, even if the narrator had real wisdom, it would be
subsumed by the gray mastication of nostra and the utter nihility of real
content. Too much of Fiction is all technique-
or, more properly, attempted technique (all posture, no substance) for,
lacking any real skills of character and narrative development, the typical
reader simply isn’t drawn deeply enough into the narrative to care whether or
not the metafictions are ham-handed or not. They are hamhanded, of course, but
that’s not the core problem with Hirsch’s book- a lack of anything of any
depth to posit, and a lack of any real skill with which to posit it are the
problems. Even successful technique is no substitute for having real ideas of
depoth to communicate to an audience. Simply put, metafiction to serve merely
its own state, and not some higher goal nor cause, is pointless. It is just a
tool, and not an end in itself. Not realizing this, and a general lack of any
wordsmithing abilities, damn’s Hirsch’s novel. As example, to convey his
nameless narrator’s sciolism, all Hirsch does is mention the accoutrements of
wealth and academia and engage in bigwordthrowingarounding. This may make for an
interesting sketch with Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, but literature, and
literary style, it is not.
Peter Damian Bellis’s The Conjure Man fails greatness, but not
mere acceptable readability, because he (and it) lacks a fundamental
understanding of human nature and the ways humans interact; hence the lapses
into chalkboard scratch shiver inducing stereotypes, but Bellis does have
competent, even occasionally good and lyrical, prose abilities. In a sense, and
in retrospect, The Conjure Man reminds me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved,
which many would take as a compliment I waft toward Bellis, and he is- of
course- free to take this comparison out of context as a blurb, but it is not
intended in that vein, for despite its Pulitzer Prize and spur to Morrison’s
Nobel Prize, Beloved is a mediocre book which eschews possible
psychological depth, and its best character- a survivor of the Andersonville
prison camp, for a weepy and trite ghost story. The Conjure Man is much
like that in that it never follows up on its best arcs and plots, and just
fizzles, in the end. Ara Hirsch’s Fiction is
simply a badly written book, by a non-lyrical writer who is a didact-addict; one
whose vain attempts at self-mockery don’t even work. If Bellis’s
stereotyping is embarrassing, then Hirsch’s whole book is even more, and
I did not seek out either of the novels I have reviewed herein. The Conjure Man was foisted upon me, by its author- Peter Damian Bellis, and, even though I thought its author a bit off the beam, personally, I do have to say he deserves some plaudits for all the efforts he has put into his two decade chimera. More well spent would have been two decades of refining and improving this interesting, deeply flawed, somewhat engaging, but mostly offputting, novel into something with more than self-professed and off-based claims on greatness.
Ara Hirsch’s Fiction was urged upon me by my wife and it really deserves no plaudits. No, it does not deserve the paranoid damnation of an anonymous Amazon troll, whose criticisms are all based upon his own biases against non-‘approved’ works, but it does deserve the critical damnation I have heaped. After the expected disappointment of Bellis’s book, for I had read some of Bellis’s work during our email exchange, I was hoping my wife’s opinion was correct. It was not. On a scale of 1-100, I would grade out Bellis’s novel at a passable 70 or so, whereas Hirsch’s work fails, and one can argue it fails from the low 60s to the mid 40s, but, in a sense, does it matter? Neither work deserved publication by the big New York publishers, and that neither has received such, well, this is a good thing. But it is also wholly random. Yes, many books are published every week that are qualitatively well below even Hirsch’s book, and make Bellis’s look like a A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but that would not justify publishing either of these insufficient stabs at literature. Proverbially speaking (and cliché begging), two wrongs do not make a right. Both fail what should be a standard minimum of being consistently good writing and reading material. And neither writer, as mentioned earlier, even really understands the very techniques they so proudly and brazenly declaim: Bellis’s Magical Realism is really tall tale telling (ala Paul Bunyan) and artificial dream fugues and Hirsch’s metafiction, while metafictional, is so disjointed and pointless (unlike that of Kurt Vonnegut) that his accidental slips into Magical Realism are actually more deserving of that tag than Bellis’s. Both books suckle character artifice (or reek of it) and Bellis’s claims also reek of bad art and psychology with his superfluous and pointless ideas on dream states and reality.
But, worst of all, it is writers like Bellis and Hirsch, and their books, that make it much harder for actually great writers, like my wife and me, to not only get published, but taken seriously when we actually proffer and declaim our own works. Even putting aside the idiocy of agents and their teen readers in even being able to discern quality, as I do in this essay, the very abundance of such works clogs up the time and minds of people in publishing, and so dulls what little intellect they possess into a gray sludge (or slush pile). And, in just the realm of the everyday, even average folks know when they are being bullshat, and when they read claims and works like the two in this essay it just reinforces their opinion that all claims of excellence or better are mere puffery, and this inflicts a bias in the minds of such people against the very claims made for works that actually justify the statements. Eyes roll, sighs are emitted, and writers of great talent, skill, and accomplishment get lumped in with the Bellises and Hirsches in tossed off damnations.
Thus, not only suffering are the readers of such books, but the better works in those readers’ futures that will be read jaded or unread, and the biases incurred thereafter. Thus, my telling readers, of all levels, to pass on both of these works. The Conjure Man and Fiction are not worth your time nor effort to read, nor the time and effort to right your appreciation of the arts afterward.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Salon website.]
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