By AT Grant
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015
264 pages, $13.95
Reviewed by George Salis
In his essay, “Blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote that James Joyce mastered the near-infinite language of English, that “he knew all the languages, and he wrote in a language invented by himself, difficult to understand but marked by a strange music.” In the last bit he was, of course, referring to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Written over a period of seventeen years, it is a linguistic experiment combining archaic language and portmanteaus, stream of consciousness and free association. Its Freudian nature could be one reason why Vladimir Nabokov was so averse to the novel, calling it “a cold pudding of a book.” Experimentation is naturally contrarian, destined to rub many people the wrong way, regardless of talent or merit.
Structurally, AT Grant’s Wake is more of a novel-length visual and prose poem, with unconventional spacing and punctuation. Throughout, there are stage directions, referring to the spotlight, the dialogue of characters, the dark audience of three figures, and the like. One expects that literary taxonomy will break down under such pressures.
The book is broken into three parts, three tiers of abstraction. The first begins when three figures (eventually identified as Dead Sister, Blurface Girl, and “our mother”) drag a body, referred to as Dead Brother, to the bank of a river. Before they “exit through a curtain” they leave the body with a variety of items: a fishhook, a knife, a spool of fishing line, an old wooden chair, and a box of matches. Dead Brother rises as a ghostly Lazarus and begins to disembowel and skin his physical body, leaving the epidermis out to dry over a makeshift fire, before putting it on: “He makes himself a skinsuit. A body he drapes over himself. He gets in the boat and sets himself and his body adrift down the river.” So begins his journey on the Styx, as it were. Eventually his sister, Dead Sister, manifests and accompanies him.
They continually demonstrate a perverse intimacy. During one of many brief chapters, she turns into a fish, something Faulkner’s Vardaman would appreciate. Dead Brother accidentally hooks her on a fishing line and, unable to unhook and save her, “He dips his hand in the water and lets it drift beside her.” Another chapter explains how Dead Sister breaks a few teeth from her own mouth and pushes one into Dead Brother’s mouth until “one of [Dead Brother’s teeth] pops out of socket,” allowing her to pick up his tooth and place it “into her mouth. Sounds squirm through her mouth.” The intimacy continues when, almost like normal children, they pretend to be pirates. Dead Brother sings a song of his creation, which begins ordinarily enough: “We fly the skull and crossbones!/ On a branch we found floating!” and “We shout pirate things!/ Like, we shall bare our teeth!” Not much farther into the song the reader is reminded of the morbid nature of this world: “We shall set fish on fire!/ And sling them into the air!/ and the fish will explode!” and “We shall scoop out of the river all bodies!/ Alive or dead!/ And poke them with a stick!/ Until bugs crawl out!”
It doesn’t take long to realize this is a fever dream of someone deeply disturbed, of someone’s suffering conscience. “I never wanted to, but I could only ever hurt them,” Dead Brother later admits.
Marking the beginning of the second part, Dead Brother enters a tunnel, which might as well be a kind of ghostly “tunnel throat” or sentient tesseract, considering the way it behaves. Along the way the reader is given abstract glimpses into the ‘real’ world, where tragedy has undoubtedly occurred. An otherworld memory tells how a dog, presumably a pet of the siblings, was “under a car wheel rotting,” and how they “tug at the dog’s leg. They tug harder and harder but it is stuck,” and eventually it snaps off. With more surreal glimpses into memory we are left to surmise that Dead Brother’s physical form might have died after hitchhiking with a drunk driver and crashing into a river, where he drowned. Underwater, he sees the legs of a girl, which turned out to be Blurface Girl. Her identity is unknown. It could be his sister, or it could be the composite of multiple beings whose forgiveness he yearns for. Dead Brother claims that in the river “everyone looked for you for me for you for us.” Are the holes in Dead Brother’s body due to fisherman unknowingly hooking him as he sits at the bottom of the river? This seems to be confirmed, in a way, when Dead Brother later explains that, “If you pick me up and hold me to your ear you will hear river./ If you hold me up to your eyes you will see nothing but dead fish.” We are left to wonder at the details.
In the final part Dead Brother enters a “seam” of the tunnel. The nature of the seam is even less sure of itself than the tunnel. Inside we are given further jigsaw puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit: “Our mother cries. Our mother wants to hold a whole baby. Instead she holds a Dead Sister baby. Dead Sister born into death.” So, was she stillborn, had she not lived at all outside of the watery womb?
Aside from some memories surfacing, Dead Brother begins to grow intellectually, through a series of epiphanies: “I did not know my only life was in death./ The landscape of my deaths.” By the end of his macabre journey into the rabbit hole, Dead Brother has aspired to become a “live Dead Brother,” where the multi-faceted deaths of Dead Brother converge into something less fragmented and much more whole: “My deaths extend from the wound into the love of God and I am crushed by love and mystery.” One of the few hints that the setting is a version of the mythological purgatory of Catholicism.
But in this dream, this alter-universe of shale-like happenings, there are no rules; or, at least from the point of view of terrestrial, mammal readers, there can be found consistent inconsistencies, odd laws of physics and other quotidian marvels: deaths and reincarnations are one and the same, body parts are expendable, wounds and gashes appear and disappear, things grow and re-grow, transformations (usually involving fish) occur back to back and without apparent reason, river water and blood flow from orifices in various leaks, streams, and rushes in a kind of Freudian fixation, time and space is malleable or nonexistent. In this world strawberries are a form of currency, the lifeblood, the ichor, and they protrude from bruises and are spontaneously expelled from mouths and grow from “bloodflowers.” The strawberries and its blood-jam are the fibrous fuel of the dreamer’s dream, omnipresent as dark matter. During a moment when a strawberry speaks, it ominously claims to be “the substance of pain.” Mosquitoes, then, are the enemy, for they are capable of stealing the blood from the phantasmal organs of Dead Brother and Dead Sister, and so they are feared and their presence is foreboding.
Although nowhere near as complex as Joyce’s work, Grant’s Wake still finds itself within the ranks of the ‘anti-novel.’ Anti-novels pay no mind to the expectations of the reader, or even that the reader’s comprehension has human limits; rather, these works of art are experiments in writing in the primitive and primordial language of the subconscious, the Reptilian Complex of the brain. But there is an evolution in the language, too, a divergence from the future human, or an avenue to the all too human, where the content extends beyond sex, violence, and death—which are the chief obsessions of that innermost brain layer—rising into a layer of its own, a singularity of words. Dead Brother concedes something like this when he says, “My skin full of shard and prelanguage.” Or, just as correct, post-language. We can only step into the dark and hope to follow.