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Theoretical Animals – In Theory

By David F. Hoenigman.

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Theoretical Animals, Gary J. Shipley, BlazeVOX Books

In a 2009 interview, in reference to Theoretical Animals, Gary J. Shipley stated, “I am celebrating enigma as an end in itself, an all-pervasive telos: the tangled spine of metaphysics, morality and aesthetics – enigma as driving force and (hidden) end.” Shipley calls Theoretical Animals a novel but really it’s arranged like a book of poetry, containing about three short poems per page. The titles of each piece are in bold print above the poems (or…ah, novel passages), but the titles (I call them “titles” as they are listed as such in the table of contents) do not hover unobtrusively above the body of each passage. The titles fuse with the bodies as though to say – I’m a paragraph in a novel with every intention of being exclusively pondered over, as if I were a poem. For example:

A putrid joy for angels and child-murderers,

blood boiled shirts, trousers of sweat. For let the world see that first tickling, before, back under, bending time into a soft cast of beauty and blocked questions. Spoons scooping, the putrefied boy’s dark rake spilling like coffee beans: ‘Dry, Joe. Pour me faster!’ Gravity grew such radiant adornments, its morbid simplicity compared to snakes, its secret wars torn from hidden promises, and all the while the only things that float defy nothing.

So, I ask you – given that the author has declared this book a celebration of enigma, that the form will challenge your concept of a novel, and that the passage above may not have made one iota of sense to you – Do you want to read this book?

If you become resentful of the author if you’re asked to attach your own meaning to the work, then you should probably look elsewhere. Shipley is giving us meaning as potential, we are required to do the rest. If you’re quick to suspect the author of being purposely difficult in order to beat you over the head with your own inability to understand, that it all somehow snickeringly pokes fun at your intelligence, then you may be better off to stay within your comfort zone.

Shipley’s writing is not about assessing a reader’s intelligence. It’s about receptive readers reveling in the acceptance of their own powerlessness. It’s about enjoying the feeling of perhaps having missed the point, or celebrating the fact that there isn’t one. Just as we watch horror films to enable ourselves to tap into nostalgic emotions of fear of the dark or fear of things that go bump in the night (emotions we no longer regularly feel in our daily lives), so too can we delight in something we can only partially understand and revisit the long gone wonderment of childhood.

To lose your sense of time and self in the sandbox, to scream with delight as a cascade of bubbles explodes through the end of a plastic wand, to discover the wonderful feeling in your stomach when pushed on the swing. For a child’s enjoyment an understanding of this beauty is not necessary, in fact, understanding would only get in the way. These things lose their magic when they become commonplace, when some killjoy attempts to explain them away. If you wish to delight as a child would in the swirling reflective colors and invigoratingly unpredictable movements of the bubbles that Shipley is blowing, then Theoretical Animals is for you.

Was I able to understand this book? – No.

Did I think it was an enriching reading experience? – Yes, absolutely. It’s beautiful. I want to roll around in it. I want to swing from its branches.

I was intrigued by the choice of epigraph: “You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

And I wonder if that within Theoretical Animals, Shipley isn’t forcing us to relentlessly breathe dead hippo (or theoretical hippo) in the hope that we do lose our precarious grip.

At first glance, due to its poem-like structure, the text appears to be placed in boxes within display cases. Perhaps nudged by the nautical imagery, I felt I was looking at a collection salvaged from a long ago shipwreck. A surreal display of drowning victims’ debris haphazardly yet somehow surgically assembled by mermaid archivists for some underwater cave museum. But soon, driven by the device of merging the titles with the bodies, and I’m no longer reading them like poems, I’m devouring pages, I’m smashing the glass display cases, I’m mangling my hands, I’m flinging the contents of the boxes down the hallway.

Have I been reading aloud? Have I been raising my voice? What have I just read? I seem to have moved beyond the shipwreck imagery, and all that seems to reoccur any more is the name “Joe.” Does this all go back to Conrad? Has Shipley somehow put Heart of Darkness through a psychotomimetic grinder in order to present us with this? Am I breathing dead hippo? Am I even breathing?

And there’s more going on – sections of dialogue and frantic nonsensical manifestoes from unidentified voices that pop their heads out of Beckettian jars. Longer passages begin to appear later in the book, tense walls of sterilized/cannibalistic/factory/gore imagery reminiscent of Shipley’s sometime collaborator Kenji Siratori:

awaiting men of the windowless suicide / the morning vagueness of blood on white flooring / choreographed experiments hidden behind the breeze /order of more shivering in a godless cannibalization of women / of humanus sizzling in brochures / sliding out my brightly lit corridors / tiny corners of sunlight / of consciousness hiding in and of black possibilities / with factories allowing his sheds with blue unwritten perversity / disassembling the blind sightings of slashed dogs / boozy bloodless lies of honest harvesters armed with thought / the way rewritten over their half-sleep / single prayers stiffened roses and anything / cruel gates creaking in mastery / piss steaming off cord / on the wives an empty current / the disorganized pauses / an evidence glass / veal of their thigh / smell of dragging muscles /clumsy social camouflage and coffee faces / scanning with people’s dreams /regulars clean of rope / exploitation reassembly / sorrowful dread and seagulls bleached with the past /

Throughout the novel certain things repeat, float past us two or three or twenty times. Maybe I am supposed to be getting a handle on something. Maybe I’ll read the last few pages again. Or I’ll read the entire book again. Or I’ll read the entire book repeatedly.

Shipley’s writing is important because it’s a fearless attempt to advance the art of literature. To force us to breathe something, to drown in something, to bloody our hands. It’s an unforgettable experience.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
David F. Hoenigman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but has lived in Tokyo, Japan since 1998. He is the author of the novel Burn Your Belongings and the organizer of the bimonthly PAINT YOUR TEETH event held in Tokyo, a celebration of experimental music, literature and dance. He is currently working on his second novel, Squeal For Joy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 11th, 2010.