:: Article

Begin the Begin

By Colin Herd.

martinmooney

The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, Christopher Higgs, Sator Press 2010

“If everyone were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted as classic.”
– Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation

It’s difficult to know how to start a review of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs because (disregarding that ironic ‘complete’) the novel itself feels like a succession of starting points, a corridor of departures and disappearances. A novel where it doesn’t feel strange to read the sentence, 50 pages in, “This is the first sentence in this novel.” A novel that ‘ends,’ then has an ‘encore’- for which the reader is instructed to clap – and then a preface. But to start with the beginning of the book in fact takes you further back, outside the book, before the book. Not only because Higgs and his publisher Ken Baumann engaged in an extensive pre-publication publicity campaign in which a mysterious character calling himself ‘Marvin K. Mooney’ started commenting on lit-blogs, but because the title character (author?) of Christopher Higgs’ boldly experimental debut novel takes his name from the children’s book Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! by Dr. Seuss, first published in 1972.

Seuss’ book is basically a silly rhyme in which a fictional character called Marvin K. Mooney is asked to leave in many different ways and by any means possible. So it, too, is a series of proposed departures.

Just go.

Go.

Go!

I don’t care how.

You can go by foot.

You can go by cow.

Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!

You can go on skates.

You can go on skis.

You can go in a hat.

But

Please go.

Please!”

Seuss tells us almost nothing about Mooney’s personality, except perhaps that he stubbornly hangs around where he’s not wanted, but the poem turns up the interesting theme of identity. Seuss’ is an evasive and enigmatic text because it sets up at least one other character (the speaking one who is asking Mooney to leave), about whom we know nothing. And while the poem continually points toward Mooney’s absence by asking him to “please go now,” it simultaneously and repeatedly confirms his relentless presence. The character of Mooney hovers between presence and absence throughout the poem, a vibrating, swaying neither/nor that is mimicked in Seuss’ sometimes perfect, sometimes awkward rhymes. Certainly, Mooney ends up having a much greater presence in the poem than the other speaker. The poem’s engagement with ‘identity’ is further enriched because Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! is aimed at very early-level readers, readers not yet capable of reading The Cat in the Hat. It’s a text, therefore, for readers starting out, for readers getting to grips with language, when the conventions of narrative form are something new and unfamiliar. Given the youthfulness of its target-readership, it’s also a text that overtly confronts the identity-shaping properties of language. ‘Marvin K. Mooney’ is less an ‘everyman’ and more a ‘hollow man,’ an empty vessel without any of the personality traits to make him a realistic figure. This person without a personality becomes interchangeable, most famously, in 1974 when Dr. Seuss sent a copy of the book to his friend the political columnist Art Buchwald in which the name ‘Marvin K Mooney’ was crossed out and replaced by ‘Richard M. Nixon.’ Buchwald reprinted the altered rhyme in his July 30th Washington Post column, just nine days before Nixon resigned. Above all, Seuss’ Mooney is an unabashedly fictional character. But how much more fictional, for that matter, is Mooney than Dr. Seuss himself, the penname of Theodore Seuss Geisel, who also wrote under the names Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone?

Higgs’ novel is soaked and dripping with questions like these, of the nature of authorship, fiction and identity. The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney is arranged as just that, the collected writings (Mooney never completed a novel, we’re told) of a disappeared writer, a figure like Weldon Kees or Bas Jan Ader. Higgs and Mooney are interchangeable and interdependent, concealing themselves one behind the other, whilst simultaneously stepping in front to take centre stage. In a conventional sense, it’s difficult to clearly define Higgs as the author of this novel. Mooney (because of his history) is not Higgs’ creation. The book is filled with quotations recycled from other writers, artists, philosophers and critics. Some portions of the book that are presented as part of Mooney’s complete works have previously been published by Higgs under his own name, with no mention of Mooney. Meanwhile, the book has two title pages, calling itself ‘The Complete Works Of Marvin K. Mooney: A Novel written by Christopher Higgs’ on one and ‘The Complete Works of Christopher Higgs: A Novel written by Marvin K. Mooney’ on the other. On top of all of that that there are fake commentaries from fake scholars about Mooney’s work that hilariously and expertly pastiche literary criticism, criticism that might just as well be written about Higgs’ book, like this one from ‘Dr Phyllis Salzburg, Narratologist’:

“How can this even be considered a novel? That’s the question I struggled to answer after the editor of a small literary magazine sent me the manuscript to review for an upcoming issue.”

Meanwhile there are repeated objections from Higgs that he is not Mooney. Or are they objections from Mooney that he is not Mooney?

“This is nothing like my real life. I did not base this story on myself or anyone I know. I used something children call imagination. Past the age of eleven, most people don’t have one, so I understand if you’re one of them. But unlike you, I still use mine. Instead of recapping tidbits of my boring real life, like most fuckwads who call themselves writers, I sit and imagine stuff and that’s where the ‘story’ comes from. There is never any truth in anything I type. My name is not Marvin K. Mooney.”

And elsewhere: “I am not who I was just a moment ago.”

Higgs provides no neat resolution to these and many other questions and paradoxes. The book is anything but neat. It’s a hodge-podge, an amalgam, a collage. It’s a collection of pieces of writing that feel as though they’re left deliberately incomplete. It’s an elaborate fiction that doesn’t bother to maintain its conceit. It’s a novel with no plot to hold its tummy in. On the second page of the novel, Mooney’s oeuvre is described as a ‘Rhizomatic Assemblage.’ It’s a tempting seed to plant, one that is immediately buried in the soil of a humorous refusal to elaborate and present a ‘univocal argument’ or a ‘specific hypothesis pertaining to its relevance vis-à-vis the work of Marvin K. Mooney.’ That is to say, the strand of thought is momentarily severed. And yet, reading the novel, the writings of Deleuze and Guattari on the ‘rhizome’ were the theoretical lollypops I felt most like sucking. With it’s radically collaged structure, its refusal of closure, its embrace of paradox and its series of fruitful points of departure that are simultaneous points of disappearance, Higgs’ novel, more than any other I’ve read recently, seems to inhabit a tubing, branching, underground network of rhizomes, which are characterized by their all-over fertility, i.e. any part can be broken off and start as a new starting point. All of which takes me rather irritatingly neatly and circularly back (forgive me, Mooney) to where I started this review, worrying about starting points and how to set off. If I had to write a one-word review of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, I’d unhesitatingly choose ‘frustrating’; deliciously, excruciatingly frustrating. I loved it.

colinherd

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 9th, 2010.