How do the two other Equus Press titles of 2012 (apart from Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight, analysed here) answer their publishers’ call for translocal experimentalism? By performing two opposite, yet parallel operations: by haunting one’s home by writing of it from abroad, and by inhabiting the abroad through the most unheimlich of its literary ghosts.
The narrative of Thor Garcia’s monumental novel, The News Clown, which was a finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, has been described in a Publishers’ Weekly review as “fuelled by prodigious amounts of alcohol and tobacco, sex and drugs, [skipping] along from one bizarre episode to the next in the tortuous life of Thor, a young man whose dreams of a literary career have been sidetracked into an undemanding job as a ‘news clown’ for a small wire service in the crime-infested back alleys of Bay City.”
Sidetracking, indeed, can be seen as the principle of narrative organisation itself: Garcia’s is a loose, episodic, picaresque survey of the turn-of-the-millennium America. There are parallel lines of development, narrative tracks played simultaneously, on a number of levels. The lived world of Thor and the legion of his drinking buddies, fellow sots, lovers, and one-night flings is one of celebration. Whether at a wedding or a funeral, or whether to the accompaniment of punk music or violent porno matters not a whit: for the be-all is to consume, amuse oneself, and forget it all in order to start over. However funny the escapades and snappy the wisecracks of Garcia’s entertaining satirical narrative, as the number of women and bottles conquered and downed rises beyond count, so does the number of black eyes received in banal brawls and the equally innumerable scars to the soul, driving the point home that the end of pleasure is callousness now that despair is beyond emotional reach. A symbolic parallel line of development emblematises this: the colony of worms invading and gradually coming to inhabit Thor’s apartment, to his initial disgust, and his alternative horror and protests which finally metamorphose into resignation.
Also, and here lies the gist of News Clown’s achievement: side by side with Garcia’s Punk version of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, his satiric post-apocalyptic Golden Twenties, another textual world invades the pages of the novel: the world reported through Thor’s magazine articles, the world of crime both organized and random, but vile and gruesome either way. Thus, Thor’s binges and shags and hangovers coexist with an endless series of reportage headlines such as “MAN STABBED TO DEATH ON BAY METRO,” “STUDENT SHOT TO DEATH AT BEACH,” “THREE KILLED IN SUSPECTED GANG SHOOTING,” “WOMAN FOUND DEAD NEAR COLOSIO PARK,” “FOUR KILLED IN SHOOTING AT BAY CITY BAR.” And so on and so forth, with a repetitiousness at once benumbing and grisly, the unspeakable horror of violence and suffering of its victims reduced, in the callous journalese of the reporting, to their lowest common denominator of figures and modus operandi.
Mediation is of course the be-all of all reporting, communication and language; and the mediatised world of Garcia’s protagonist appears unmasked by those in service of its fictitiousness. One example of many is the discussion of 9/11 in the “HIDE IN ‘PLANE’ SIGHT” chapter, where Thor is fed evidence by one of his colleagues that the buildings were exploded from the inside and the planes were pasted on to the videos. “Then they showed it to the world, and everybody instantly became convinced that aluminium airplanes can knock down steel and concrete towers!” In a world of general insanity, survival is possible not through reason, but of out-crazing your opponents: “the only way to beat them is to think as crazy they do.” Or, according to one of the many wisecracks and crude metaphors worth a hundred descriptions: “They cut off the tip of our penis, kid. What do you do when they cut off the tip of your penis? You start pissing all over the place.”
Finally, the text of The News Clown itself comes to us, with a fine additional meta-textual touch, already mediated – furnished with explanatory footnotes, presenting “official reports,” “evidence presentation” and “investigation results”; but no additional voice is required for it to be clear that such discourse of official truth can only serve to further deceive and blur fact with fiction… In a recent interview for the Czech Literary Portal, Garcia spoke of his translocal experience as underlying the writing process: “Finishing it – all 160,000 words – was like finally getting my divorce from America. The politics and madness of America, the brutality and cruelty, the violence and hypocrisy, the sophisticated manipulations.” Thus, although a novel steeped in the lived reality of the 1990s & 2000s USA, it is at the same time a result of Garcia’s expatriate experience of living in Prague for the past two decades: “I don’t think it would have been possible to write it in America. I would be a totally different person there. There would have been too much fear. It would have been compromised up its own ass.”
The thirty-odd stories in Ken Nash’s collection The Brain Harvest present a variety of styles, themes and arguments in themselves. Described as “an eclectic, deceptively witty collection of short fiction that represents the crystallization of one of Prague’s most resourceful and imaginative English-language writers” by Prague Post, and commended by Clare Wigfall—in her cover blurb of the collection—for how each of Nash’s short stories is “distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness,” and the characters are “unique and endearing,” Brain Harvest is a richly imaginative if also highly heterogeneous collection. It was no exaggeration when Wigfall compared Nash’s “playful and quick-witted style” to that of the “maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme.”
There are elaborate, developed narratives with detailed characters and plots (as in “The Cello Garden,” the fictional account of the life and fate of a beautiful cellist Anna Leibowitz), and there are sketches in a few rough brushstrokes (“Making Babies” and “My Lobotomy,” two very different, grotesque renderings of amorous failures). They feature real-life characters and narrators trapped in surreal or unreal states and situations (both “The Two Lives of Edward Hopper,” who “having pursued realism to its end,” has nothing to paint, for all’s been painted, and “Maurice Utrillo” who achieves an epiphany of space, surface and depth when observing a commonplace wall); but they also brim with completely fictional or even fantastic characters in equally surreal situations (“Anima Husbandry,” a three-page description of a Moldovan wife’s dismantling and packing her husband into a suitcase for a trip to Paris; or “Three Sisters,” where the narrator stages the famous Chekhov piece featuring three specially trained chickens).
This blending has as its combined effect not only the defamiliarising of the real, but the equally unsettling familiarisation of the unreal, ultimately posing the question of whether one can or indeed should distinguish between these two in a fictional world such as Nash’s. Equally unsettling, if also eerily funny, is the basso continuo that prevails underneath the episodic brevity and constant shifts in narrative perspective performed by these tales: Nash’s preoccupation with language and the bizarre names inhabiting and describing both the natural and the corporate worlds. Take, for instance, the “Cambodian Vine Rattan, Sinai Braided Sea Grass, Singapore Cane, Burmese Celery Hemp, Uyghur Cave Moss” from “Baskets,” or “afternoons watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Cantonese, and evenings watching bootleg videos or playing high-stakes mahjong, while chain smoking Mann Si Fat cigarettes” from “The Hostage.”
Throughout the collection, Nash’s manipulation of the particular and the minute has the attention for the bizarre and the ability of evoking the grotesque. To Wigfall’s identification of Nash’s precursors, one can only add Nash’s avowed influence of the labyrinthine structures of Jorge Luis Borges, and the evident presence, behind the eerie waft of the everyday turned grotesque that hovers over the collection, of the unquiet Prague ghost of Franz Kafka.