R. Sebastian Bennett takes a close look at Holly Tavel’s collection, The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park (Equus, 2015).
Holly Tavel’s collection, The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park, is an imaginative and fulfilling exploration of the mysteries and idiosyncrasies of “knowledge,” power structures, social constructs, intellectual identities, thought processes, and artistic embrace. Simultaneously manifesting 19th-century and post-modern sensibilities, the fictions in the collection bridge surrealism, irony, magic realism, and historicity. The texts maintain a coherence via ongoing investigations of storytelling, mentation, classification, and epistemological modalities—in both linear narratives and stream-of-consciousness inquiries—punctuated by photographs and visual imagery.
The exploration of storytelling veers among situational pastiches, stream-of-consciousness dream states, and mythology/mythmaking—moving from more traditional narratives to modalities as macroscopic as consideration of evolutionary theory itself. On the level of singularized psychological narrative, “The Superhero Dreams (In Yellow)” describes the life of an institutionalized teenage boy, a social outcast who inflicted severe violence on another teen outcast. The superhero negotiates variegated dream-states of consciousness and unconsciousness, convinced of his ability to hear others’ thoughts and even seamlessly shift geographic dimensions.
By contrast, “Last Words” shifts to a multiplicity of narrative strands, in a magic realism bird tale of history which intermingles voices of authority—animal and human—transitioning to theories of social organization and evolutionary survival; finally merging into historical “reality” and legends—dimensions also manifest in “A Brief History of The Viking Conquest of America,” which reforms/re-informs “history,” calling attention to the insecure locus of knowledge, and positing it as perhaps situational.
NATURAL / SUPERNATURAL ADDRESS
Also contained within many texts in the book are explorations of nature and natural/supernatural origins. In the titular fiction, “The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park,” neurological and geo-physical interactions are blended to enable a secret control of terrestrial weather, a phenomenon whispered about in rumors, but never fully articulated—as if perhaps constituting a parable for one of the great mysteries of life itself. In “Three Pieces for Solo Contrabassoon,” a mapping algorithm purports to offer its own mysterious epistemology, while simultaneously satirizing the arbitrariness of conclusions and assessments in various standardized intelligence/aptitude tests (e.g., If A has a red hat, and B has a blue hat, what color are C’s shoes?).
Such a quasi-academic mockumentary format is even more apparent in the text, “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S. in Other People’s Photographs,” wherein a Q&A sequence specifically refers to a series of seemingly over-exposed photographs (included within the text as visuals), asserting their evidence of presumed or asserted natural/supernatural presences—articulated in ironic and arcane definitions, reminiscent of certain highly contorted attempts at “religious” explanations of contradictory premises concerning divine intention and manifestations. At its heart, “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S…” perhaps functions primarily as proof of human inability to fully grasp the less-than-obvious.
MERGING TOWARDS THE ENERGETIC CORE
Despite representations of such a human tendency towards inability to grasp abstractions, Tavel’s narratives do not shy away from investigation of “non-reality,” or non-sensory data: “A Revolution, in Five Parts” involves a poetic anthropomorphism of houses and individuals at odds with the external attributes of society—including the houses themselves. The individuals, characters in the text, literally deconstruct their houses, and later disassemble their individual identities as well, layer by layer, to the point that they (the individual characters) experience a “one-ness” with the the energetic core dynamics of the universe—which involves a simultaneous interconnectedness and disconnection from self, and an embedding in the abstract and patterned particulate energy of universe—that transcends concretisation.
This representation is quite penetrating; however, curiously the characters involved in the embedding in “one-ness” are unable or unwilling to maintain this abstracted state, and they return to their former house-dwelling, individually identified selves. The reason for this return is left for the reader to ponder—perhaps it is an unavoidable allure of the status quo, or an innate, unavoidable involvement with individualized ego. The answer, if there is one, is not clear—and perhaps that is the point: Perhaps, we are merely to accept such transitioning and repositioning as an aspect of human experimentation and, in this case, an exploration of new dimensions. As such, the transitioning enters the realm of human mystery.
Another more corporeal manifestation of universal energy is seen tangentially in the text “Fearless Leader,” in passing, when a group of children “[laugh] and [clap] their hands, sending sparks flying.” The implication is that perhaps children are closer to the core energy of the universe than acculturated adults. However, in the book, even adults who did not disassemble their self-identities, seem to glean hints of universal interconnectedness, at times in dream states, and at other times in the the merging of formally partitioned senses into a gestalt aesthetic: colors can have tangible, concrete manifestations; and other details transcend traditional sensory differentiations. In “The Superhero Dreams (In Yellow),” “the air smelled greenish.” In “Expedition,” ships “[bleed] layers of paper-thin blue.” And in “Ars Poetica,” an anthropomorphized poem speaks in a “dark brown voice.” This last example is especially relevant in that, throughout the book, it is often the artistic and creative power which enables a degree of entrance into universal interconnectedness of energetic one-ness. Such a power of artistic creation, a power of art, will later in this review be evaluated as a possible methodology for escape from societal oppression.
CONSIDERATION OF INDIVIDUAL STATE OF BEING
In the book, individual state of being/thinking is explored in ontologically distinct investigations, and sometimes within the complex of plot structures relating to energetic oneness (ibid)and/or dream state. In “The Superhero Dreams (In Yellow),” the origin of thoughts are formally considered, and the self- appointed superhero ponders the notion that “thoughts were not his, did not come to him at all, did not belong to him… and it had always been this way.” As such, thoughts are articulated as part of the universal interconnectedness of all things. However, the superhero’s connection with thought-energy is posited with a degree of rigid formality, in a one-to-one correspondence: The superhero perceives thoughts of other singular humans (not archetypal concepts or dynamics of “hivemind”)—or more jarringly, the superhero engages in one-to-one mind/terrain shifts, as when he “gets up and looks out the window for a while… [H]e is not surprised to find himself in a different room, a posh hotel room.” In the superhero’s mind, the abruptness of this shift is simply taken for granted as a fait accompli, part of the pulsating and intermingling universal dimensions.
FASCINATION WITH MULTI-DIMENSIONALITY
Floating among the array of themes and investigations in the book is a somewhat independent text, “All About the Swiss,” which is in large part disconnected from those with other, more prominent themes that are interwoven throughout the book. “All About the Swiss” seems to celebrate multiplicity itself, perhaps akin to a thematic manifestation of a huge multi-tooled “Swiss Army Knife.” It is, in part, an assertion of always-available multifarious avenues of investigation—no matter what subject matter or topic is at hand, and thus an assertion of fruitful engagements of an active mind—at least for those who wish to pursue such activity. However, “All About the Swiss” does proffer and celebrate one theme which is a common thread in a number of texts in the book—a consideration of mysteries. For “the Swiss are not what they seem…” They are “light as air” and “relentlessly efficient” individuals whose “real language … is a kind of birdsong… [which] has so far remained impenetrable to linguists.” Like many other texts in the book, “All About the Swiss” has an olde-world sensibility and a picturesque descriptive narrative form, replete with vivid details, that engenders a great sense of curiosity.
LIMITATIONS ON HUMAN THOUGHT CAPACITY AND COGNITION
Despite a celebration of multiplicity and assertion of possible engagement with the one-ness and interconnected energy of the universe, the human mind-state delineated in The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park is by no means unlimited. Human memory and recollection are at times seen to be faulty, as in “Fearless Leader,” where the stated number of floors in a building, as described by the narrative persona, keep changing (or perhaps they are actually changing—which would again imply cognitive limitations within the surrealism of the organic “story” format—and again imply much more complex terrestrial realms than commonly understood.)
Moreover, the human mind seems to be limited in its ability to fully ponder established, non-novel situations—even if they are intensely negative. In “Fearless Leader,” when a horrid “stench” of “raw meat and fish” worsens, “everybody got used to it and stopped noticing it and they didn’t talk about it anymore.” As such, the human mind presented in the text seems prone to a lack of focus on previously experienced phenomena—or perhaps the average human mind is seen often to be totally focused only on the now—which is said to be a primary definition of animal cognition. Or perhaps the implication is that the human mind has a cognitive tendency to focus on immediate self-gratification… Of note is that focus on the now, the present, is also a mechanism through which the human brain protects itself from ongoing recollections of trauma…
In the book, limitations on human thought are also posited as a function of possible self-deception, as in “Last Words,” a mixture of surrealism, magic realism, and mythology, about a seemingly “lying” bird, a Macaw, which tells panoramic tales of far-fetched events and existences in far-flung geographic and historical regions. But the bird’s tales themselves are so engrossing—a tangential comment on the power of storytelling addressed in the book—that the character who listens to the bird engages in subconscious, then conscious suspension of disbelief—and finally has to check himself/herself, at one point commenting: “It is all very entertaining, this talk of piracy on the high seas. But that simply cannot be, Macaw. … [E]nough is enough.”
But even after this self-reprimand, the narrative persona seems to maintain a degree of self-doubt, which flowers into a full doubt about successful criticism of the bird’s tall tales: “[I]t occurs to me that I am beginning to believe the Hyacinth Macaw’s lies.” Ironically, solace comes to the character in the form of textual embedding in a “How-To” manual: “I occupy myself reading a book I have recently purchased, The Care and Training of Your New Parrot,”a title which presents a false promise of a degree of control over the bird—whose storytelling powers of persuasion are far beyond control—and if the stories are false, it is the bird’s imagination which is beyond control…
SATIRIC POSITING OF ACADEMIC SYSTEMS OF INQUIRY
Significant passages in the book are addressed at an investigation and satire of academic knowledge—including supposedly objective evaluation or speculation, and (Western Aristotelian) academia’s often incessant desire for rigid categorization or bifurcation—fueled by an endless array of new definitions (a valid critique of many social sciences curricula), sometimes self-contradictory. The text, “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S. in Other People’s Photographs,” formally asserts self-contradiction as a innate component of full definition, perhaps echoing Derridian notions of self-difference. In the text, along with an elaborate series of arcane definitions asserted concerning the supposed energetic manifestations in photos, simultaneously presented is a series of concomitant specifications of what the energetic manifestations are not:
We could use words like invasion, encroachment, gradient, escalation; we may (not now, but at, perhaps, some future date) find that words like cranny and crepitation fit, as does slurry. Words we would not use to describe the manifestations of Philo S: lurk, lurking, loom, looming, crackerjack, bollix.
The preposterousness of these word definitions is underscored by the distinct tone of narrative condescension embedded within the Q&A: “If you have been paying close enough attention, you will have begun to identify certain patterns,” a tonality which also mocks the presumed (and often self-appointed) “authority” of many academic texts, and/or mocks the presumed (and often self-asserted) “authority” of human academic types themselves.
In several texts in the book, related to the often-sarcastic commentary on academic language is a representation of the general failure of algorithms, scientific and other. In “Three Pieces for Solo Contrabassoon,” a world mapping algorithm purports to indicate a relationship between tossing a red ball, the position of the sun, a particular meadow (and a sexual activity within it), a mother’s reaction, blindness, and the transitive development of future relationships. The spuriousness of the algorithm itself is rather clear—however, in a profound way, the assertedinterconnections underscore, again, a mysterious possibility of deeper connections in the fabric and multidimensionality of the universe—perhaps on an energetic, or even on a sophisticated formulaic and geometric mathematical level, as part of the “space-time” continuum (Such a phenomenon is documented in the case of Jason Padget, who became a mathematical genius with geometric visions of the structures of concrete reality—after being hit on the head during a mugging. His visions of the world, which he discussed and illustrated through compelling diagrams, became geodesic, mathematical sequences of motion and perception1).
This level of universalized energy is also addressed in “A Revolution, in Five Parts,” where individuals deconstruct their identities to merge with the core dynamics of the universe itself (ibid). A further, more concrete example of algorithmic failure lies in the final text in the book, “Expedition,” wherein a 19th-century exploratory foray, replete with steampunk sensibilities and commentaries on the laws of physics, leads to a dismal end, culminating with this final passage:
“Crystallography! Plate tectonics!” he cried, and promptly drowned.
Many of the textual investigations in the book exist in a form of mannerism, either in narrative tone and diction, or in metafictional obliteration of the line between writer and reader, as in “Three Pieces for Solo Contrabassoon,” wherein the persona of the narrative voice interjects, “But reader! We cannot make out the last word…” Or in another case, where the narrative persona very consciously limits the type and amount of information related, as in discussions of “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S….” : “On the subject of destiny, we are prepared to say this,” and then the narrative persona/content-provider engages in another arcane sequence of classifications and definitions, hinting of a supposedly algorithmic relationship between seer and object perceived.
HUMAN DESIRE FOR CONTROL
The quest for human control, using any and all available means—mechanistic, fictional, legalistic, scientific, historical, etc.—emerges as an ongoing theme in various texts within the book. This quest is perhaps most clearly seen in the titular narrative, “The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park,” wherein it is rumored that a neuro-scientific machine has been developed (ibid) to control climate and even create a “miniature tornado,” with which the children play—themselves attempting to assert control and containment over the tiny whirlwind form…
In the book, another dimension of control, reminiscent of the power of news/media with varied assertions of purported “historical truth,” lies in the creation and maintenance of legends, as in the text, “A Brief History of the Viking Conquest of America,” which recounts a series of historical interactions among celebrated historical figures, who are concretized in lore, but somehow in no way proven. They seem to gather validity simply in association with various geographical cities, and in no other manner—all of which fosters the question: Wherein lies the locus of historical truth? And its related queries: Who creates historical significance? How is it instantiated/maintained? These questions are not answered, and thus the human quest for power, by any available means, emerges as a singularized end in itself.
FAILURE OF OUR SOCIETAL WORLD
Perhaps the above questions about instantiation and maintenance of historical power are not resolved because, in many passages, the book presents the quest for true power as ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in both symbolic and actual failure. The symbolic failure is seen in the text, “Angels,” a Garcia-Marquez-like parable about dead angels which fall from the sky. Rather than engaging in spiritual or philosophic contemplation about the reason for the angels’ deaths, human society’s materialistic orientation immediately seeks a financial reward from the dead angels—a process instantiated by the government: Upon finding a dead angel, a character comments,
We couldn’t believe our luck. Angel wings were going for five hundred dollars a pair now, maybe more. The price had been going steadily up ever since the government had proposed The Law… They pretended it was out of concern for public safety, but no one was fooled by that.
Perhaps fortunately, it is human inability and ineptitude which prevents “the government” from truly manifesting control over the divine: “The government had been trying for months to create a live angel…. Nothing worked, though. The angels were as dead as ever.” The mysterious nature of the angels is beyond human comprehension, including their physical weight which for unknown reasons far exceeds terrestrial expectations, given the angels’ relatively small size. (“It was almost impossible to lift the angels because they were so heavy.”) But this doesn’t prevent the citizens from engaging in ghoulish, post-mortem removals of the “slick and damp” angel wings (a process involving the “sharp twist” of a knife such that the wings produce a “short suck” of a sound as they are detached) in order to sell them the marketplace. Sadly, the humans are unaware of their intellectual/philosophical absences as well as the rotten, rutted quality of their materialism. In the finale, the narrative persona comments, “Everyone was blind…, whether they could see or not.”
However, a complete rendition of that comment may yield a degree of optimism: “Everyone was blind in those days [emphasis added], whether they could see or not,” a syntax which implies the slim possibility that now, in these days, perhaps things might/can be different, on the level of spiritual orientation and other…
Texts in the book manifest the results of failed societal control in the form of various kinds of societal oppression. In “A Revolution, in Five Parts,” the oppression of houses themselves (houses which seem to represent the confines of supposedly “civilized” society) is so profound as to have geometrical resonances:
[W]e decided we’d had enough of living in houses… [W]e could not understand why for so many years we’d been content to exist inside these conglomerations of rectangles. Corners of rooms, particularly empty ones, became menacing… Everywhere we looked we saw hard edges… We saw the angry march of rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids through our lives, with their sharp points and sharp little eyes and mocking angles. The geometry of oppression! we said to each other and immediately set about making preparations to burn all the houses to the ground.
The societal oppression of the houses is not rendered as merely circumstantial and superficial, as the houses themselves are anthropomorphized (ibid). And the characters in the text, in full-fledged war against these societal constructs, further rebel—discarding their individual socially-sanctioned identities, disconnecting from the formal attributes of society to the greatest extent possible—which becomes quite a great extent indeed, and provides the socially rebellious individuals with the temporary experience of merging into interconnected one-ness of the universe (ibid).
It is perhaps a sad commentary on the entrenched nature of human affairs that these humans’ involvement with profound interconnectedness is only temporary—and the individuals in the text eventually resume their self-identities, rebuild their houses, and return to their pre-revolutionary state, without much afterthought.
Time passed, and with it the memory of … being air began to fade, ineluctably, until it—the memory—was no more than an exhalation of breath on our morning mirrors.
I know that you will want to know if we were happy.
To tell you the truth, I can’t say.
The humans in the text return to their previous state of numbness and acquiescence (a state which might be extrapolated post facto towards a commentary on much of the world’s self-imposed ignorance about climate change—especially among the financial and corporate entities, which face financial losses if/when formal climate change ameliorations are mandated.)
MOCKING OF BANALITY AND TUNNEL VISION OF CORPORATE AND FINANCIAL ENTITIES
In the book, societal oppression is demonstrated especially in the most stalwart institutions of our “civilization”—corporate and financial entities. “Fearless Leader” presents the mindlessness and superficial regulations of corporate structures, which offer false, “sweet” promises—but can’t disguise the stink of their own lies and unkept agreements. In this text, the narrative persona works for a company in a building that is literally made of candy. The persona is employed in the well-paying but mindless job of photocopy clerk, which entails primarily moving stacks of paper from floor to floor, and desk to desk—utilizing a “little red wagon,” similar to those used by many other employees of the company as they engage in their seemingly similarly pointless work. The managers are expectedly superficial and dictatorial, yet one of them is unexpectedly translucent, and when a key manager opens his mouth, the narrative persona could look into it, could
look right down and see all his cute internal organs performing their sweet little functions. They chugged away with a mechanical whirring sound, the sound of a million billion tiny little gears and cogs happily performing their assigned duties. It was so goddamn adorable and precious I almost couldn’t bear it.
What is most relevant here is the biological non-reality of the view/vantage point—which may reflect a consumer’s often-experienced disconnection between corporate messaging and actuality.
In the midst of this open-mouthed observation, curiously “a bee flew out of [the manager’s] mouth.” The bee symbolism and the bees themselves multiply in the text, until the narrative persona conspires with an entire bee swarm in a quasi-communistic/socialistic revolt against the corporation. The bees plot their strategies:
“We want to fuck some shit up,” said Worker Bee #46889-3B.
“We’re radicals,” said Drone #0345500-1
“We’re the vanguard of the Killer Bee movement,” said another Drone…
“The time is now. The old world is dead. The new world is in sight. A new world of liberation from the suffocating tyranny … We’re fighters in the war for freedom. Freedom for all living things. But especially bees.”
The bee-centered focus in the rebellion paradigm here has a special importance—given that the plight of bees is in fact a key manifestation of the impacts of mass corporate use of GMO organisms in farming: The embedded herbicide in GMO organism is said to be especially deleterious to the bee population (and individual bee farmers—who protest this corporate decimation of the bee population/food chain, and document the harm to bees caused by the embedded herbicide glyphosphate, common in Monsanto Corporation various products—have purportedly been subject to raids2).
In the initial stages of affiliation with the bee uprising/socialist-communist revolt, the narrative persona has difficulty giving up the comforts which his/her corporate paid life has enabled: “I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the idea of leaving my apartment …with hardwood floors…in an up-and-coming neighborhood,” a type of thought which perhaps is experienced by anyone who truly considers a full, self-sacrificing rebellion against the status quo—but in the text, the narrative persona does decide to fully participate in the rebellion nonetheless, and in fact becomes the bee-swarm revolt leader. Eventually, the bees overwhelm the corporate building and sting “200 security guards… to death.”
But the net result of this bee swarm/ social revolt activity is not fully articulated. Following the bee attack, “a great yawning chasm of silence… [opened] up around the building, and extended for every direction in miles.” The narrative persona simply walks away from the site of the former, candied corporate edifice, and the finalized significance may be that a successful communist/socialist revolt is the stuff of mere fantasy.
MOCKING OF “ARTISTIC” CORPORATE MEDIA
The rigidity and superficiality of corporate structures is also manifest in the text, “New Adventures of the Danger Twins,” which addresses corporate artistic restriction and mundanity in the world of film media. The text mocks the narrow-mindedness and one-dimensionality of commercial filmic media, especially in child programming—with its primary considerations of target audience, time-slots, and lowest-common-denominator appeal. The mockery is aimed both at the contents of mainstream film media, and its formal structure. Film scripts typically have the writer’s intentions noted in suggested camera angles/foci, but the mock script in “New Adventures of the Danger Twins” satirizes this practice with excessive use of such terms as “wipeleft,” “crossfade,” “checkerboard fade,” “strangely remote,” as well as excessively enforced color schemes: “Yellow Title Over Black Background”—a color choice that recalls the insane teenage outcast in the text, “Superhero Dreams (In Yellow),” and thus underscores the possibilities that the so-often doltish children’s programming may in fact lead to psychological damage in children.
The excessive superficiality of character portrayals in the mocked film script discussed in “New Adventures” is articulated, as well as the stupidity of corporate media attempts at social messaging. In a self-description, one of the film’s character muses,
I’m running a jumbo comb through my feathered locks and donning the Golden headband of Osiris, over….
I’m standing with my legs shoulder-width apart and my hands on my hips, over.
I’m unzipping my lavender polyblend jumpsuit to four inches below my clavicle and assuming a classical contrapposto.
And while the “artistic” film media executives seek to harness, employ, and monetize the energy of social unrest and collective social energy, their attempts to do so are ham-fisted and ineffective, as seen in the dialog concerning programming content: “[W]hat we just said in the opening sentence… The ACL [AutonomusChaosLeague] is a revolutionary organization that seeks to overthrow the semiotic totalitarianism, et cetera,” to which one of the filmmaking team members responds, “I do not want … to get shoved on at 7am Sundays between The Bees’ Knees and AlphabetLand or whatever the fuck educational shit they’re spoonfeeding the kiddies these days…”
OPTIONS FOR ESCAPE FROM SOCIETAL OPPRESSION
The book seems to assert four possible forms of escape from societal oppression: I) Isolation, II) Social Revolt, III) Artistic Embrace, and IV) Death (which is largely posited as an undefined vacuum). In the text, perhaps only Artistic Embrace is seen to hold any real promise.
I) ESCAPE VIA ISOLATION
In “The Truth About Wayne,” a successful middle-aged businessman becomes marooned on an ice floe, with only a few books, some M&M’s, and huge sea lion—which comes and goes and investigates Wayne’s tent as it sees fit. This marooning is most likely cognitive, in that we learn that as a boy, Wayne was especially fond of a TV show entitled My Friend Woody, about a boy who lives in the wilderness and befriends an excessively cute sea lion.
In the course of the text, “Wayne,” the narrative persona, reflects on his enjoyment of the old TV show, and on his (and many other Americans’) mental predicaments, as they cope with the after-effects of the cold war and living under constant threat of nuclear attack; they seek, as a form of escape, a superficial televised media-driven artificiality: “How this fear of nuclear catastrophe was compensated for, in the collective American psyche, [was] by a return to childhood fantasy, to a world colored by fanciful notions of flying cars and beach parties and wild animals mugging for the camera.”
However, “The Truth About Wayne” emphasizes the fleeting nature of such an attempted escape via mental isolation (Wayne only has a certain number of M&M’s, which presumably will only provide a short duration for his survival), and despite his narrative hopes for actual sea rescue, that possibility of that seems miniscule. On occasion, Wayne fantasizes about possible events after the hypothetical (and almost certain to be non-realized) rescue, in which he would bring the sea lion home to live in his pool—and ponders the fact that such an arrangement would not be amenable to his family.
The text seems to imply that Wayne is marooned in his buffeted middle-class life, a situation which as a whole is numbing, but bearable. The one aspect of this life which is never fully explored in the story is Wayne’s relationship with his younger daughter: a “pale, bookish, apparently miserable daughter, who seems to hate [Wayne] for reasons [he] can’t fathom.” This younger daughter exists in counterpoint to Wayne’s older daughter, his “good… class president daughter,” and the final analysis seems to be that the generic America/Americana is often unsuitable for introspective intellectual types; and moreover that those individuals who submerge their imaginations in order to seek formally accepted paths to success (job, house, money), pay a price for that creative submergence—and are destined to exist in unavoidable antagonism with individuals who have turned away from the accoutrements of materialistic success; individuals who seek intellectual excitement along covert interior mental paths, and veer from the expected interpersonal/behavioral norms of the traditional middle-class life.
II) ESCAPE VIA SOCIAL REVOLT
While “The Truth About Wayne” explores the cognitive interior life of individuals who reject corporatized norms of American success, other texts in the book address formal, organized revolts against these imposed values and enforced norms of society. In “The Child Grenadiers of the Fourth International,” groups of children are engaged in a violent attack upon 19th-century Victorian norms—and seemingly, by association, their (the children’s) societally mandated expectations of superficial conformance. The child grenadiers creep through the grass and lob grenades at the encampment of the oblivious, “starched-trouser[ed],” “aperatif”-sipping, “pith helmet” wearing, “so white” patriarchs of the opposing 19th-century normatized forces.
These forces are so self-absorbed that they fail to recognize the existential threats posed by the assemblage of child grenadiers. This failure of awareness is in fact the thrust of the concluding sentence of the text, where in response to the “appalling noises” of exploding grenades, the upper-class pillars of 19th-century tradition—content with their objectively doubtful development of an undefined “spray…storage device…time-machine” which will make the child grenadiers and their plans for revolt simply disappear—merely wonder about the arrival time of their breakfast.
Ironically, perhaps the oblivion of the 19th-century patriarchs to risks posed by the child grenadiers offers a ray of hope for success against the restriction and narrow-mindedness of the status quo—as obliviousness and self-enforced non-awareness has historically been a path to demise—as seen most symbolically in the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic itself was of course a looming symbol of turn-of-the-century excess, but one of its most heart-wrenching aspects is that the majority of passengers drowned because the ship-building engineers were so self-absorbed in their engineering hubris that they never fully considered the possibility that their huge boat could indeed sink—and thus did not allocate sufficient lifeboats, especially since such an allocation would have obscured the sleek lines of the Titanic’s appearance and “clutter”4 the decks.
A later 20th-century example of institutional (and psychological) failure due to obliviousness lies in the Big Three American automakers non-response to Japanese take-over of the American Automotive market from the 1970-2000 (“The 1970’s exposed the widespread mismanagement within the U.S. automobile industry as the Big Three continued to produce large, fuel-guzzling behemoths despite the huge increases in the price of gasoline as a consequence of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the drastic production cuts by Saudi Arabia and Iran.”3)
Revolt against capitalized society and its accompanying norms is clearly seen in “Fearless Leader” (ibid), which as noted leads to an undefined non-resolution (the narrator/persona simply walks away from the “chasm” of the ex-corporate edifice); however, “Fearless Leader” also addresses a “bifurcation” of conceptions of a social revolt—which range from a simplified, romanticized notion—to an indoctrinated/recited, non-reflective intellectual immersion. The bee swarm, which is in fact a form of organized societal revolt is conceptualized in two distinct ways:
On the one hand, there’s the idealization of honeybees as cute little happy insects flitting around happily from flower to flower, making sweet honey, batting their eyelashes, and dispersing pretty ribbons. On the other, there’s the idea of the mindless entity of Swarm, the incomprehensible and existentially repulsive manifestation of nature’s underlying hostility.
This dichotomy is reminiscent of the romanticization of field work, communal life, and agrarian satisfaction—manifest in certain communist public relations/propaganda efforts—in contrast with the immense bureaucratic inefficiency, long-lines, lack of personal resources, and semi-starvation which has characterized certain communist regimes.
As mentioned, in the final analysis of the “Fearless Leader” text, there is no definitive resolution of these poles, but nonetheless, the omnipresence of the spirit of revolt continues to the end: “I could no longer hear anything except the buzzing of the bees, who were all around me.”
As discussed in “A Revolution, in Five Parts,” the physical accoutrements (houses) of rigidified society are temporarily disassembled (ibid), but for an undisclosed reason, the individuals who revolted are suddenly compelled to re-engage with all of their previous social structures, as well as forget about their motivations for the revolt in the first place. As such, mindlessness and lack of cognition seems to characterize both the dominant social structures—and the many individuals who, at least temporarily, seek to revolt against those enforced structures. Thus, sadly, mindlessness and lack of cognition might be seem to characterize much of the human species at large, despite its assertions of modernity and “enlightenment”…
III) ESCAPE VIA ARTISTIC EMBRACE
Throughout the book, art is implied to exist in an intellectual province of its own—a conception which promises the possibility of artistic transportation outside of quotidian expectations, and in that regard, promises escape from societal norms. In “Ars Poetica” a lost poem is rendered quite literally as a tangible being, “a dove gray mass lightly furred and blurred” which “keens, sighs… [and] attempts a little dance.” Later it grows “quite large…humping up the walk,” as physically engaging as a warm-blooded animal.
The poem has a life of its own—both in developmental stages, and in a represented everlasting life—the continued existence of art (which traditionally is always discussed in the present tense—as its life is always NOW, and thus never-ending…). In the “Ars Poetica” text, the poem’s life takes on a variety of tangible manifestations, although clearly it is differentiated from a limited, terrestrial existence.
Curiously, the life of the artistic product is investigated via its absence/escape—and in some ways, even its status as forgotten. Thus, the text answers the question : What happens to a passing thought/artistic creation after attention to the particular project has waned or passed? The answer seems to be that the Art, so engaging and mentally compelling in the act of its creation, develops a profound, everlasting life of its own, even when it is no longer focused on in an act of conscious contemplation.
Violet, the narrative persona in the text, begins to understand this in a dream-state, pondering the status of the lost poem while in the midst of an imagined regression sequence, from her point of view as a “cavewoman”—who ironically is more in touch with intellection than many future, modern generations. From this self-directed dream-state inside the narrative, the “cavewoman” fully understands the poem’s power via a “primitive, preverbal, presensical state.” This power is potent and not diffuse, and as the poem gains greater and greater freedom—as it presumably moves further and further away from its creator—the “lost” poem gathers ever-increasing energy from its very freedom until, in the final passage: “From its tree branch, the poem swings to and fro… It waves the frayed end of its silver thread at the poet, taunting him. It unfurls itself and weaves itself among the branches. It shakes the tree violently…”
The narrator’s attraction to the poem’s essence is here further extrapolated into a hypothetical romantic involvement with the poet who wrote the text, implying that artistic satisfaction can go beyond creative messaging and everlasting aesthetic life, and may also be linked to terrestrial satisfaction, even in the form of earthly human relationships. Violet daydreams about the poet: “[S]he would fall in love with him…and together the two of them would tend the poem, tuck it into a warm bed at night, nourish it in whatever way one accomplishes such a thing.” Of course, all of this only occurs in the text only within the context of extended daydreams, but these daydreams are not curtailed—and hence their implied possibilities remain intact.
All told, in “Ars Poetica,” Art is seen to not only offer an escape from societal oppression, but also, at least tangentially, to offer a hope of interpersonal, even romantic satisfaction. Can that mean that a true Artist might only have the fullest romantic match with another Artist, or one of similar sensibilities? Perhaps. For throughout the book, in many texts, those who have or prioritize artistic and aesthetic sensitivities are at odds with those who don’t…
IV) ESCAPE VIA DEATH
Outside of the post-facto angel deaths in the “Angels” text, there is little direct violence per se in the book, but as the volume progresses, the level of violence manifest in the texts seems to increase, a dynamic which may be an implied sardonic commentary on the human state (As human affairs progress, things get worse…). The net result of ultimate violence—death, and its doorways to possible afterlife—is largely posited as an unknown, a vacuum (or a new dimension of mystery), and in that regard, the book emerges as primarily a terrestrial commentary, albeit a deeply multidimensional commentary. However, the book does offer considerations of human death in two forms: “Death in Progress” and “Death in Aftermath.” The most direct representation of death in progress lies in the text “I am Holding a Bazooka”; and death in its presumed aftermath is rendered in “Man, 30 Struck by Lightning.”
“I am Holding a Bazooka” begins in freeze-frame / still-life modalities, almost as if the narrative persona, a soldier, is confronting earthly existence as a set of post-card-like images of participation in battle. The pointlessness of that battle, its spuriousness on an existential level, is portrayed in the reduction of sensory detail available to soldier: “I have never seen the face of the enemy” Nor can the soldier see anything through the sights of his/her weapon: “I am holding a bazooka… I am peering with my eye through the sight of the bazooka… I cannot see anything…”
The soldier is similarly disconnected from other soldiers, his/her comrades at arms, who appear as faceless, still-life images: “[A]nother man [is] holding a grenade…holding it as if he is just about to throw it but I have never seen him throw the grenade… I have never seen his face and so I cannot be certain that he has one.” This lack of facial view is especially poignant given the narrator-soldier’s revelation about the grenade-thrower: “I have been looking at him forever.” The overwhelming stasis of all of the soldiers is abundantly rendered: “I have never seen the man closest to me actually stab [his] bayonet into anything; “I have never seen [the submachine gunner] fire the submachine gun.” In the text, war and death are initially portrayed as a distanced pastiche of frozen images.
But this distanced pictorial stasis does not continue throughout the text. Moreover, it is not present in the text at what appears to be the most likely moment of death itself; thus the initial stasis is perhaps most appropriately viewed as a presentation of cognitive disconnection from the abhorrent act of war. When, in the text, the moment of death arrives, the cognitive disconnection diminishes, and the narrator-soldier becomes more of a full participant, even though the death is orchestrated by “the hand belonging to a terrible angel…” whose face is similarly unseen, but who has “a gashed and terrible pink knee… [a] bruised calf… [and a] crushing foot.”
The “terrible angel” inserts himself/herself/itself into the soldier’s life at the moment just before the deadly blast of a tank gun:
[T]he terrible angel lifts me into the air and sets me down… I can see directly in front of me, a tank… Its gun is pointed directly at me…. I am only waiting. The blow is not like a blow at all but lie swallowing a tidal wave. I am… sent flying through the air. I do not know if I am dead because I have never been dead before.
At this juncture, given the corporeality of the angel’s “gashed… knee… [,] bruised calf… [and] foot,” one might take a facile side-step to decide that the soldiers referenced in the text are all toys5, and the knee belongs to a human who is playing with them. But this easy “literal” explanation leads only to an interpretive “u-turn,” back to an earlier point of thematic analysis: If the soldiers are all toys, why does at least one of them have such a hyper-aware cognitive state? And why is the human, perceived by this hyper-aware toy as an “angel,” so terrible? There is no explanation for this other than the human’s fascination with the abhorrent acts of war and death themselves, and thus the reader—in a time/space shift somewhat akin to those experienced by certain characters in the book itself—is thrust back through intellectual space to the gestalt thematic analysis of the singular horror of war, emphasized by the everlasting experiences of its pictorial representations earlier in the text (ibid). Moreover, the final coda in the text comes in the form of a transcendent sensory merging of the type which has been seen in various passages in the book as a manifestation of the universal merging of consciousness and transcendence of traditional, established boundaries of individual perception: “I do not know if blue is the color of death.” If death, in all of its manifestations is somehow unified by “color,” then indeed there are universal dynamics which far transcend literal evaluation.
After the tank blast, the narrator-soldier’s body posture changes: “I am lying on one side with my right leg bent at the knee and my left leg bent at the knee.” Yet his/her self-awareness continues: “I look up into the dark and at the dark and through it… I cannot move. I cannot blink. I do not know if I am wounded or dead because I have never seen anyone die, and I have never been dead before.”
In this near-death moment, the soldier begins to write a letter. “I am writing a letter in my head,” Notably, the soldier has a much clearer image of what the letter is not, and to whom the letter is not addressed, than the letter’s nature or its actual intended recipient/s:
I am not writing it to the man holding the bayonet, or to the man holding the grenade, or to the submachine gunner… I am not writing it to the many wounded or perhaps dead men underneath me … or… on top of me. I am not writing it to the terrible angel…. It is not a prayer…
Overall, the significance of death is not clear. What is clear is that the death-letter emerges as a final cry for communication and a penultimate act of Art—moreover textual Art—and the primacy of Art/Literature as human endeavors and aspirations is once again asserted.
Death as an aftermath is seen in the poetic text, “Man, 30 Struck by Lightning,” wherein the full force of nature—unleashed geo-physical nature—has an unequivocal impact which seems to end narrative thought processes. The prose commentaries in this text are notably not in the character’s point of view, but in an omniscient third-person narrative/poetic voice, describing what happens to the man after the lighting strikes:
He is lying in a field.
He no longer has a head.
His head has disappeared.
How did that happen?
The “How” query is rhetorically insinuative. Clearly, lightning has the power to decimate and decapitate; thus the How becomes a Why, an existential Why: Why do some humans meet their demise through seemingly random geo-terrestrial events? And a related macroscopic extension of the question follows: What is the nature of destiny to allow such random deaths? Yet the seeming fullness of that inquiry is somewhat undercut, given that the titular text of the book in fact posits the development and use of a climate machine, capable of producing tornadoes, so one wonders if the lighting might not also have been manufactured, and whether destinyis really only a random sequence of events, or if it is somehow orchestrated or pre-determined (which of course have been fundamental “religious” and philosophical queries from time immemorial) …
Like so many aspects of the book, the final presentation of death and its forms is one of mystery—but the detail, ingeniousness, and multidimensionality of the book as a whole leads the reader to an acceptance of that mystery as a fulcrum for contemplation; and does not leave the reader to fret about any absence of necessitated content… Thus the final impacts posed by the presentation of various mysteries in the book seem to be those posed by many of the fundaments of human existence itself, for which we typically accept that there cannot be specifically delineated answers—and certainly not answers in a formal “academic” sense, as mocked in “On the Mysterious Disappearance of Philo S…”; nor answers as definitive as the one-to-one correspondences ironically asserted in the mapping constructions of “Three Pieces for Contrabassoon”; nor algorithmic solutions such as those promised—but not delivered—in the failed algorithms elaborated in the text, “Expeditions.” And thus on a thematic level, as well as a syntactical level, the book presents quasi-Derridean portrayals of self-difference, i.e. what is not there, as parameters for for embracing—or at least conceptualization of— life’s greatest mysteries.
All told, in a series of surreal and ironic texts, with hints of Donald Barthelme and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, in fluid postmodern and 19th-century steampunk modalities, Holly Tavel’s The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park investigates epistemology, the nature and arbitrariness of human knowledge, and the multidimensionality of human terrestrial experience. At times incorporating a stream-of-consciousness approach, the eighteen texts in the book range from focused narratives to poetry to parables to pastiche, all punctuated by vivid and captivating details and keen delineation of linguistic modes—especially as they relate to knowledge matrices.
In its embrace of multifarious dimensions and possibilities, the book as a whole is a testimony to the resourcefulness and flexibility of the human mind. Illustrations and photographs embedded within and among the texts inform and punctuate the prose, and further expand its content, encouraging imaginative engagement.
The human condition as depicted in The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park is not overwhelmingly positive, but the book seems to offer opportunities for enlightenment and transcendence via artistic embrace and through reliance on the human intellect, especially creative intellect, to reveal pathways towards amelioration. Some of these pathways lead only to mystery, but nonetheless, the depth, detail, and articulation of the texts leave the reader with a deep sense of fulfillment with regard to investigations of terrestrial matters.
Of course, a single book cannot hope to articulate all universal mysteries, and the reader is compelled to ponder—on his/her own, with minimal hints—the mysteries of events after terrestrial existence. In the book, these mysteries are only implied, in the form of angels (both dead and active) that the textual characters experience. However, the dexterity, fullness, and multidimensionality of Holly Tavel’s presentation of earthly matters—both in their normative and satirized forms—leads to the reader’s great hope that she will write additional volumes, and shed additional light on universal truths and mysteries.
1 Tedx Talks. “Alternate Realities from Relativity | Jason Padgett | TEDxTacoma,” YouTube Video, May 12, 2016.
2 Mercola, Joseph. “Stopping Research on Monsanto’s Roundup: Killing Bees,” Mercola.com, July 5, 2012.
3 Katzner, Donald. “Exercises in Futility: Post-War Automobile Trade Negotiations between Japan and the United States,” ScholarWorks, 2005.
4 Whiting, Jim. “Titanic—Not Enough LifeBoats,” NonFictionMinute.com, May 2, 2020.
5 RM. “The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park [;] Reviewed in the United Kingdom,” Amazon.com, April 21, 2016.
R. Sebastian Bennett taught Fiction Writing at the University of California-Los Angeles and Muskingum University, where he directed the Creative Writing Program. From 1994-2000, he was Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal, The Southern Anthology. His writing has been widely published in venues including Alécart (Romania), The Bombay Review and Modern Literature (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), The Nippon View (Japan), Paris Transcontinental – Sorbonne (France); and in the United States, in American Book Review, Brooklyn Review, Columbia Journal, Connecticut Review, Fiction International, Indiana Review, Los Angeles Review, Mississippi Review, New Orleans Review, NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH, New World Writing, Texas Review, Tulane Review, and Wisconsin Review. His historical novel, THE FINAL YEN, is upcoming from Milford House/Sunbury Press.