The Sugar Book
By Johannes Göransson
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015
200 pages, $15
Reviewed by Laura Carter
This book is mammoth, and by that I mean it sings of the horrors of mediated existence, an existence of entrapment and pain. Johannes Göransson’s latest media exercise includes text from sources as diverse as Wikipedia and books by Daniel Defoe and Emily Dickinson. The narrator of this haunted book of hybrid text—some poems, some prose–spills his guts on topics as various as abortion, a son who is locked up, and a daughter with a moth-eye named Arson. The best part about this idiosyncratic book is how it serves as a mirror of the underground: one imagines a surgical scalpel taking apart the ordinary pleasures of the daily until their true Real is exposed. But then, who is the true protagonist of this story, and how can we even distinguish one person from another? In terms of what this book accomplishes, I think that its lack of a distinct plot is what makes it the striking mirror it is, of sugar and spice and (well, if I have to come right out and say it) the mediated world that people, especially poets, sometimes find themselves in. This book rings true, much as other books of his do, and we get the sense that the book is trying to wake us up to something, much as someone like Andy Warhol or even a more conceptually-minded poet would.
We get a sense of the Law being ever present in the background of this book, as the setting of the story. There was a starlet who is now dead, we are in L.A., and we are in the presence of the Law, perhaps known as the sublime Father or the one who wears the crown. Göransson weaves a web of intrigue for us, as we not only have the dead starlet, L.A., and the Law, but we also have Art and Poetry: “Poetry is playing with corpses. / This is the spit scene.” Göransson writes of the tempestuous underworld of whores and criminals, not so much as condemnation but rather slipping from narrative to narrative, making his speaker part of the musculature of the rabid scene. The scene ends badly, of course, but the book leaves us a way out, and that is simply to close its pages and move on with our lives at its end.
One of the most compelling scenes from this sublime no-place is in the latter part of the book, in the form of a news clip. Göransson writes of “Katrina-Sade (2009):”
News is spreading about nurses giving patients radical new forms of treatment for the Plague. One apparently put a wet cloth upon the face of a dying patient who she attended, and so put an End to his Life, who was just expiring before. And another that smothered a young woman she was looking to, when she was in a fainting fit and would have come to herself. Some killed patients by giving them one Thing, some Another, and some starved them by giving them nothing at all.
What is this book about, though? Well, that is part of its charm, and part of its technique as an antiseptic or anodyne. One gets the sense that Göransson has spent his time learning how to critique that which he mirrors, and this picture of a sugar land isn’t meant to be comforting, and in fact, it’s anything but comfortable for us as readers. This sugary land iswhere life is frail, anorexic, and hardly moving, where the buzzing of flames and water (and perhaps a bit of ?) is ever present. A true horror play, a comedy of failures that can’t seem to find a livable world, which may be closer than the characters imagine.
With quips and lines that pepper the book with his knowing, Göransson writes of “posters [that] advertise medicine that may cause damage to your cornea” and “cheese [that drips] down my chin.” The book as a whole plays out the truly awe-inspiring grotesquerie of such an imaginary existence, and Göransson is an able guide. The next question his readers may ask is, Where do we go from here? Perhaps, in keeping with the moral of the story, the best answer is: Go somewhere. Do something. Be good to yourself. Leave the horror alone, and don’t return there for as long as you possibly can. If you’ve been taken over by the medium, or if you find yourself worrying about mediated existence, then you’ve found the right cure, a book that shows you exactly what you are doing wrong.
And, like you, I too hope the prisoners escape.