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Of Snow and Corpses: Facets of Douglas Glover’s Fiction

By Bruce Stone.

Douglas Glover, The Erotics of Restraint (Biblioasis, 2019)

Douglas Glover’s fiction deserves rapturous praise, even if the work itself equivocates, disavows its own artistry, bites the hand that reads it, then lapses into silence. His narratives are tortured and tender, incorrigibly funny, laced with pungent details (like smelling salts, they arouse consciousness) and moist with vital fluids. The textual architecture, his special genius, he frets carefully and flays, baring armatures of nested patterns, rigged to ensure his forms are felt. And however wild things get, his prose remains sleek and spare, crystalline even, or maybe just curt—when it’s not frothing, or expatiating, or lexically slumming, or off somewhere clowning around. But touting Glover’s gifts can feel a little like cheerleading for Beckett. He is schooled in the scariest branches of philosophy, rigorously and unrepentantly postmodern, about which bent he doesn’t mince words or pull punches. His fictions seem to pose the grim question, “How bad could it be?”, then proceed, with a nod and a grin, to show us. The nearest art-historical analogue for Glover’s aesthetic might be Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights: surreal and freakish cavorting with apocalyptic overtones (one cadaver-hued nude plucks long-stemmed flowers from another’s rectum), all limned with an eerie clarity of form and line.

Modeling the Problem:
When he’s not devising his sharply faceted, “flickering” fictions, Glover also writes essays, and his nonfiction prose (equally deserving of rapturous praise) sheds copious light on his artistic practice. For one irresistible example, consider this dispatch, “The Future is Red in Tooth and Claw,” which Glover wrote for the Canadian magazine Global Brief (he was an occasional contributor, for a section titled “Epigram,” from 2010 to 2013). This micro-essay concerns the balance of Competition and Cooperation in the new world order—really a meditation on life, tragedy or comedy?—and in a few deft paragraphs, it reveals a deep philosophical vein that courses through much of Glover’s work. Rather than an equilibrium between these antithetical drives, Glover finds instead a choice between two views of Competition (Cooperation never stood a chance): the Schopenhauerian view of ceaseless murderous striving, with the only out being self-extinction; or the “Nietzschean alternative,” “to renounce the fantasy of cessation and safety in order to embrace the seething flux of life—to do battle, to ride the whirlwind.” Glover clarifies the distinction: “What Schopenhauer marked as universal slaughter, Nietzsche preferred to see as a dance.”

Glover’s initial sympathies appear to lie with Nietzsche, whom he envisions as a “romantic, Byronic hero with his nose to the wind and a look of joy on his face as he joins the fray.” But his conclusion tilts toward Schopenhauer as he veers into eschatology, invoking the end times with brazen lucidity. “Nothing avails,” he writes, “for the scale of Competition waxes, and the trajectory of history is toward the unimaginable and the inhuman. It is exhilarating. It takes your breath away. It drives invention and efficiency. And it exhausts the heart. Nietzsche or Schopenhauer—it is difficult to decide. Sometimes you envy stones, they are so calm.”

Much of Glover’s best work fits in one of these grooves, or rather dramatizes the collapse of this dread binary. His characters channel Schopenhauer (riffing on “the inhuman endlessness of desire,” plumbing its metonym, love), even as his plots bend toward Nietzsche. See The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993), with its telltale whirlwind motif, tactical assault on history’s linearity, and promise of tenuous redemption (figured as a skull fracture that never heals). A funnier, sweeter version of this brutal vision pervades Glover’s most recent novel, the prize-winning Elle (2003), and further variants abound in the astonishing short fiction. His characters pass through excruciating ordeals and often reemerge, transformed and redeemed, permeated by difference, on the other side (on the side of otherness). This arc, from inert being toward fluid Nietzschean becoming, is what gives Glover’s fiction its allegorical edge, an air of instruction or revelation. Knowing that truth is perpetually elusive, didactic art an oxymoron, he nevertheless writes ruminative, aphoristic narratives, laden with maximal meaning, which is then wired to self-destruct.

One story that captures this epistemic brinkmanship in Glover’s fiction, its roaring ambiguity, is “The Indonesian Client,” from 16 Categories of Desire—remarkable too for the way it reverses the polarity of these dominant philosophical currents.

In a 2004 interview (with me), Glover describes the story’s premise succinctly: “the main characters are two Canadians who have lost themselves in the post-capitalist Hell of created desire working for a global dot.com that sells a product no-one has seen but everyone wants. At the end of the story, they have abandoned all that and are heading north, on foot, for ‘Baffing Island.’ It’s a joke, sure, but the distinguishing characteristics of the place of redemption are its distance and strangeness.” Glover points up the salvific potential in the characters’ journey, and if we think of their pilgrimage as the prologue to, say, Mary Hunsacker’s transformative abduction by Native Americans (in Captain N.), or Elle’s departure for New France (which likewise entails a redemptive collision with indigenous otherness), then the dot.com employees may well find something painful but salutary in the Canadian arctic. Clearly they have ample incentive to strike out for fresh pastures. Working for eTrans.com, headquartered in a North Carolina industrial park, the characters appear to be shedding their very humanity. The narrator is tellingly hairless, denuded and denatured by an unnamed medical (cultural?) condition, and he fears that Bove, the company’s Luciferian CEO, is manipulating even his desire for his assistant, Janet Louth, the other impacted Canadian—also an obese nymphomaniac who engages in anorgasmic sex play with Bove, both of them wrapped in latex bodysuits for prophylactic “doctoring” (Bove weeps when he discovers via stethoscope Janet’s human heartbeat).

And their destination, Canada’s far north, is figured as the polar opposite of their digitized home-office environment, all surveillance cameras, computer monitors, tv screens and bomb detectors (plus an ethereal stock ticker coursing along the interior walls). On Baffin Island, the narrator hopes to find a snowbound zone of “love and work and friendship,” where the air might feel “like air.” Yet, as the story makes clear, this quest for the natural, the human, the real, is motivated by a bald regressive nostalgia. The narrator reflects apostrophically on Canadian snowfall, spoofing Joyce’s “The Dead” (in which snow is a paradoxical emblem of Irish heritage and/or paralysis or death), and confesses: “I will not gainsay the fact that Canada had become a symbol of everything about myself that I wished to leave behind, that my constant dream of snow, glaciers and, occasionally, amnesia, was a childish dream of grace and redemption.” That “childish dream” is exactly what he acts upon and marches toward at the story’s close. Likewise, Janet Louth’s sex addiction stems from “a combination of nostalgia for the glutinous blood-and-excrement-drenched mud of that distant river farm [of her childhood] and her equally violent revulsion for a past she could not disown.” Both characters seek to counter the “existential vertigo” and inhumanity of eTrans.com with a self-accepting retreat into the past, which, despite its visceral correlatives, is synonymous with self-delusion.

If the characters’ flight is doubtful and double-edged, so is that from which they’re fleeing: the fires of this “post-capitalist Hell” flicker oddly. Bove, the corporate CEO and virtual hollow man, seems like an ambassador for postmodernity itself, someone who has seen through to the bottom of things, glimpsed the “fictional nature of reality,” and elected to dance on as a profiteer and market guru (a propheteer). Bove directs his employees to contrive the mysterious product: “something [they] could build that would be niche-less and yet fill every niche,” something that, “defined open-endedly, as it were, could mould itself to the desires of a client more absolutely than any single-use gadget of the more mundane variety.” This nowhere–and-everywhere imperative is closer to Derrida’s differance (the absent-presence that powers all cognition and being) than Yahweh’s abiding love-essence, and Bove himself is conspicuous for his absence (he’s skipping a client meeting, supposedly, though he appears on television, fittingly mediated, there and not). All the mystic innuendo gives way to an open declaration of Bove’s deconstructionist prerogative when he delivers, in a flashback of sorts, a morale-boosting speech: “When Nietzsche unlinked God from the Word, he began a process of divergence: ideas which had once seemed connected began to drift apart. Signs separated from meaning, and money, which always had a syntax of its own, separated from value. And it became easier and easier to sense the inscrutable forces which drive existence, the backdrop of our illusions.” Bove might be the ultimate cynic, a capitalist supervillain with a flair for “philosophical badinage,” but he sounds a lot like a postmodern sage. Which is to say, Bove’s maddening business model at eTrans.com seems like a monetized outgrowth of the very philosophical systems in which Glover is intellectually at home. (See “Gertrude, or the Postmodern Novel,” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, to confirm Glover’s po-mo disposition.)

The story’s narrator senses the dire implications of Bove’s vision: “I shudder now to think what he meant: the infinite, endless, oceanic desire of which each of us was but an expression, a minute incarnation—yes, the self as an ephemeral concretization of the World Greed, which Bove had understood so well.” However brutal or repellent it may be, the narrator never exactly disputes the sentiment. Instead, when he resolves finally to head north, he says something apropos of Bove’s philosophy and business model (philosophy as business model) that ripples through the wider field of Glover’s fiction: “I no longer wished to be redeemed into that nothingness of pure motion and greed.” If we trace greed back to its root, insatiable desire, this annihilating redemption is more or less what the principals in Captain N. and Elle, among others, achieve. The characters in “The Indonesian Client” refuse the proposition and retreat, knowingly, into a wholesome fantasy of uncorrupted nature and cooperative society. It’s a weirdly specious happy ending: against the horror of the void, we have, for our sustenance and defense, only the flimsy fabric of our illusions. This glimmer of insight controverts, cheerfully, the philosophical dominant in Glover’s fiction (the flux imperative, “Love difference,” as Hendrick Nellis says), but in doing so, it takes its place as one note on the tonal scale. For all its allegorical feel and satirical bite, the story affirms nothing. Instead, meaning “flickers” (Glover’s word), evaporates, self-destructs. The narrative erases its own footprint.

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If Glover sports with the Nietzschean mandate in the “The Indonesian Client,” he gives us undiluted Schopenhauer in the 2015 “Money.” This slight story reads like a narrative resume—heavy on exposition, a filigree of scenes—chronicling the swift, despicable rise of Drebel, a malignant serial capitalist who leeches revenue from already floundering lives. The paragraphs hew to a rigid timeline, marking Drebel’s steady progress, more like fungal creep, up the class ladder. The story begins with a 14-year-old Drebel skimming from his vision-impaired elderly customers in a grocery-delivery arrangement, but he quickly graduates from petty larceny to bolder thefts and more ruinous schemes. At 18 (new paragraph), he cons a resident out of the deed to his trailer, then has him packed off, wrongly, to an assisted-living facility, under suspicion of drug abuse and probable dementia. Shortly after, he takes possession of the entire trailer park, then another, eyes a third, always ousting residents and preying on a vulnerable new clientele, particularly the blind, the mentally disabled, and convicted sex offenders. The story works like that: starkly, relentlessly linear, confining Drebel’s malfeasance within narrow material horizons.

Along the way, Drebel strong-arms a poor tenant’s daughter, Nancy Ryland, into becoming his nominal girlfriend (the old slang term squeeze comes to mind), and the relationship exposes Drebel’s more intimate nastiness: his sexual cruelty (compulsory blow jobs and anal fingering), his gerbil smell, the “pellets of smegma under his foreskin.” He eventually gets Nancy hooked on heroin as a relationship exit strategy, then simply murders her in a moment of rage. There seems to be zero ambiguity in the portrait of Drebel as a predatory sociopath. Three gusts of irony do stir the atmosphere, but the first only amplifies the story’s caustic verdict: as Drebel’s behavior grows increasingly heinous, he is simultaneously lauded, in the same escalating increments, by the local church as an upstanding citizen and philanthropist. This endorsement indicts the community rather than signaling any kind of exculpatory moral parallax; in practical terms, it also facilitates Drebel’s rise and gives him a platform from which to launch his political career, on a libertarian ticket. But his ultimate aspirations climb even higher (or sink rather lower), as stated in the story’s last line: “He imagined himself rising like a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain.”

When I first read this story, I had a mind to forward it to the Ayn Rand Institute as a literary middle finger, a compact word-grenade for use upon the house of the muse of all conscience-less capitalists of North America. Now, I find it bitterly hilarious that the story should predict, with eerie exactitude, the phenomenon of the Trump presidency. In his first bid for public office, as “town selectman,” Drebel runs “on a tax cutting, small government platform,” only to lose “to a Christian woman who ran on a no government platform.” The defeat teaches Drebel “never to be undersold again,” so in his next (winning) campaign, he pitches an “anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-muslim, anti-education platform. He was for home-schooling and posse comitatus. He made headlines talking about what he called ‘zero footprint government.’ Most everyone ignored what he said and voted for him because God had clearly blessed him with superior business acumen.” Glover published this story in July of 2015, when Trump was a mere cyst on the engorged prostate of the GOP.

There’s more. When Drebel plans his run for state legislature, we see the first belated signs of vulnerability in his low-rent empire: he has been dodging creditors and evading taxes, embezzling social security income and otherwise cozening his tenants, all behind the text’s rudimentary scenes. The trouble only serves as a prod. In his revamped stump speech, Drebel “condemn[s] drugs, banks, premarital sex, evolution, homosexuality, global warming, government handouts, immigrants, unions, university professors, and regulation of all kinds.” He stakes his future on his candidacy: “After the primary, he would be a legitimate candidate, a beacon of freedom in a decadent land. If the IRS didn’t get him first…. He who dealt the thousand cuts was dying the death of a thousand cuts, bleeding out. But if he could get through the primary, break out into the cleansing air of public acclaim, he might just be able to weather the storm.” If the story had been written today, Glover might stand accused of copying from contemporary scripted reality. Even so, the satire—Glover writes, of Drebel, DJT’s alter-ego and white-trash essence, “The making of money was a fantasy of power, destruction, and abasement”—lands. Or it would, if satire were the story’s engine and aim. It’s not (or not entirely): watch how shadows stretch and crawl across the page.

With his grubby rapacity, his autonomic greed, Drebel seems like the Walmart version of the implacable human will incarnate. Neither antihero nor villain, in Schopenhauer’s sense he simply is. (Track down the mackintosh man in Glover’s catalog, a migrant character named Buddy, and look for a family resemblance.) Meanwhile, Nancy Ryland plays the antithetical role, succumbing to a terminal desire, for total cessation, the only alternative to the ruinous drive that Drebel embodies. In the story’s most poignant turn, the third-person narration drops into Nancy’s consciousness for some laconic self-reflection: “She felt that, on the whole, she had chosen none of this, that it had a certain barren inevitability in which she had no say. Things just went bad for no reason and then developed perverse elaborations of badness. She had evolved an emotional jujitsu approach to life, fending off greater evils with smaller evils. A blow job here, a swirl into drunken anesthesia there.” She thinks about her mother, “a walking corpse” owing to her crystal meth addiction, and Nancy sympathizes, articulates the drug’s appeal: “The zen of crystal meth, of not caring any longer, the zen of turning yourself into a corpse.” Nancy finds in heroin surcease of sorrow, a ready escape from all will and desire.

Stoned, she appears to Drebel “formed of marble,” “enviably peaceful and inert,” beyond fear. Of her “peaceful expression, the slight look of surprise in the upturned eyebrow,” Drebel remarks, “Some irony there,” so he kicks in her face—thus, extinguishing the second of the story’s ironies but leading directly to the third. Namely, through cannibal capitalism, Drebel chases the same kind of satiety and completion (cessation) that Nancy finds in heroin: “[Drebel] dreamed there would one day be a moment … when he finally had it all, and the all would create a state of unassailable perfection, the suspension of time itself.” Whether this state is coincident with and identical to those visions of smoking apocalypse is hard to say. What is clear is that Drebel’s omnivorous will seeks the bliss of its own extinction, thus bridging Schopenhauer’s poles of desire and cessation. The philosophical backlighting transforms the story from satire (of a them, DJT, the libertarian wattle of the GOP) to withering allegory (of us). Still, in Glover’s fiction, no sentence is permanent, and no word final. When we set “Money” alongside the sportive “Indonesian Client,” all the allegory evaporates, turns ludic, is revealed to be a variation on Glover’s favored philosophical themes. In fact, the same act that defines Drebel’s sexual ineptitude and sterility (the anal business) proves redemptive and liberating for another Glover character (the narrator in the magnificent “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night”). Across Glover’s work, the same sign can have different valences and contrary significations. If there is any conclusive philosophical wisdom to be extracted from Glover’s fiction, it might be: all truths are local. Flouting solutions, each narrative presents a way to model the problem.

Truing Forms:
Glover has a knack for converting colossal ideas into lean, lucid fictions. It’s as if he finds, in that silence of which the universe is reportedly made, material for origami. Still, for me, this gloss of the thematic dimensions of Glover’s work is mere due diligence or maybe foreplay: essential to his achievement, but hardly the all of it. Instead, consider the self-portrait of the artist that emerges in another of Glover’s essays, a 2014 study of Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz.

Like most of his critical writings, this one swerves into literary genealogy as Glover exhumes from the work of his predecessor(s) many of his own favored artistic devices: rhyming plotlines and character gradation, patterns of images and thematic passages, memory prods, the meaningful permutations of syntax (see the book on Don Quixote, called The Enamoured Knight, or the essay on Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, “A Scrupulous Fidelity,” in Attack of the Copula Spiders). Glover is a generous and meticulous critic; he has a mind that notices everything, approaching total consciousness of the text, and his prose suffers very little atrophy or desiccation as he shifts genres. But the Gombrowicz essay is a special case, saturated with déjà vu; entire passages carom from Gombrowicz to Glover. Glover himself hints at this self-referential phenomenon when he writes, of Gombrowicz, he “was the rare writer who made a literary subject of himself, creating, aside from his fiction…, a parallel opus of self-commentary.”

The opening paragraph suggests that the Canadian Glover has found a kindred spirit and near doppelganger in the Polish writer:

Witold Gombrowicz leans toward Surrealism, but then he is also steeped in the history of philosophy. His brain is marinated in modernity, the 20th century critiques of the Enlightenment, Husserl’s crisis in Philosophy, the loss of Being, and the turn toward Phenomenology and Existentialism. So there is a loony side to what he is doing that, at the same time, is very serious and sophisticated, profoundly conversant with tradition while attempting to stand outside tradition.

Substitute “postmodernity” for the “modernity” above, and what results is a passable sketch of Glover’s own aesthetic. Call it a meta-textual instance of character gradation.

The title of the essay too affords a glimpse of Glover’s brash artistic sensibility: “Consciousness and Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos.” A provocation, maybe, but typical of Glover’s vision, which, as we’ve seen, conjoins the cerebral and the, well, seedy. In the case of Cosmos, however, the plot does in fact hinge on a literal act of masturbation. What’s more, Glover deploys the term as a figure (or metonym) for the secret self, the one that people manufacture in private to thwart contamination by the desires of their relationship partners. A twist on the “mediated desire” of Jacques Lacan and Rene Girard, this clinical portrait of a deconstructed self, defined from the outside in, is relevant to the action in Cosmos—and much of Glover’s work (see, again, Bove’s malign influence in “The Indonesian Client”). But for all his interest in postmodern disintegration, Glover is equally preoccupied by problems of another order, aesthetic rather than philosophical. This is the flip side of the Janus act, Glover’s fascination with literary form.

Glover parses the method of Cosmos with typical dash, at once menacing and debonair: “Cosmos is, in part, a horror story in which the monstrous evil is a form (in this case, a literary device) that haunts the narrator and eventually takes over his life. Instead of Godzilla or the mad slasher moving ineluctably toward its victim, the villain of Cosmos is an image pattern.” As Glover explains, the novel’s narrator (named Witold) makes a random and jarring discovery while walking through the woods: he spots, in the bramble, a dead sparrow dangling by its neck from a piece of wire, as if hanged by human hands. The image snags in Witold’s mind and propels the novel’s plot, sparking (by an associative logic) a series of additional hangings in escalating order (a piece of wood, a woman’s cat, a fiancé, and finally a threat of murder). In Glover’s words, “the image pattern hijacks the plot.” This method might sound like pure farce, but Glover sees profound implications in the novel’s design. Gombrowicz, among other things, “is describing the phenomenology of cognition” in which “all knowledge partakes of the idea of constellation. It is artificial, our projection of form onto the random.” That is, Glover here finds the place where form mirrors philosophy.

How this squares with Glover’s own ambitions becomes clear later, when he pans out to take the broad measure of the innovation in Cosmos. He describes how Gombrowicz reverses the figure-ground relationship that prevails in conventional novels: image patterns, thematic passages, cross-references, once relegated to the subtext, now upstage the representational stalwarts of plot and character. As a byproduct of the inversion (or simply adding insult to injury), plot becomes “nonsensical… truncated, frustrated, and parodic.” Glover has mapped this phenomenon, in which textual patterns subvert verisimilitude, before; he calls it “stressed form,” and it’s the essence of his own artistry. In fact, the difference between the conventional model and the “hypertrophied excess” of Cosmos is identical to the distance between Glover’s first novel (Precious) and the wilder, more artful later works (The Life and Times of Captain N. and Elle). Pick up Elle, and track how the first shipboard scene—a mid-coital cataclysm of churning seas, rotten teeth, erectile dysfunction, rodent voyeurism, vomit, and casual heresy—spawns images that proliferate, threading through the episodic narrative. Glover adopts these structural techniques in his short stories, as well: both “Shameless” and “Crown of Thorns,” in Savage Love, begin with an epistemic moment—like the hanged sparrow in Cosmos—a scene or tableau, as Glover puts it, from which the plot emanates. Glover’s best works, fevered or chill, exhibit concatenated motifs, finely calibrated repetitions, fugal structures so harmonically rich they might as well be written on staves.

This recursive chainmail patterning glints wanly even from the parched, miserly linearity of “Money.” Thematic passages about money-making itself, Drebel’s vile metaphysics, recur in a subtle roundelay, and syntactic patterns also repeat with a curious insistence. The prevailing style is one of artless brevity and simplicity, all business, nothing-but-the-facts, but at intervals, passages of rough-hewn anaphora will arrive to itemize Drebel’s (or Nancy’s) defining properties: “He had a gerbil named Casimir. He read science fiction books…. He had a huge Adam’s apple. He smelled of gerbil and old people.” At one point, to recount Drebel’s first conquest, swindling a trailer from Raylon Weems, the interlude is framed with precise syntactic repetition, a passage from “Raylon was reluctant. He wanted to talk to his daughter” to “Raylon was confused. He tried to reverse the deal.” Amid the stylistic banality—symptom of Drebel’s meanness and myopia—the text still glimmers with muted patterns.

Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012)  /  Savage Love (Goose Lane, 2013)

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If the Cosmos essay illuminates the artistry in Glover’s own fiction, it ends by drenching the entire project in deep shade. Citing from Gombrowicz’s Diaries, Glover shows how Cosmos reflects the writer’s love-hate relationship with form. For Gombrowicz, pattern recognition, the quintessence of human intelligence and the basis for narrative design, also constitutes an inhuman compulsion, something outside of and exceeding the will. As Glover sees it, “This antinomy, this paradox [being both for and against form]…. explains why it is impossible for him to write a more or less traditional, naturalistic novel and why he cleaves to irony with its peculiar strobe-like, flickering quality. In composing this novel called Cosmos, he escapes the novel.” This passage, like the rest, is rich with self-disclosure. In his conclusion, Glover projects this ambivalence into the wider field of literature, his own work not just included but specifically implicated. He quotes a sentence in which Witold articulates the horror inherent in repetition (pattern, form), which prompts Glover to observe, “In this sense, all beautiful texts, insofar as they practice this kind of elaborated structure of repetition, are uncanny, horrifying; rhyme is mechanical and inhuman, structure destroys reason.”

The word I prefer, to Glover’s uncanny, is sublime, but potato, potahto.

Glover hasn’t always been so dour on the subject of literary form. In his 1999 essay collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, he extols the self-extinguishing, sledgehammer aesthetic of Hubert Aquin, but he could also write, echoing the young Viktor Shklovsky, “Art doesn’t produce a message, it embraces the polyphonic play of messages as its form. Form is its message.” And he borrows a phrase from Nabokov, “combinatorial delight,” to describe the wondrous pattern-richness in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. He even tries to puzzle out, in “The Novel as Poem,” why such artistry is pleasurable, “aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing,” hazarding two reasons: “the first is essentially conservative—repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude. The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love.” With the essay on Cosmos, Glover’s former enthusiasm curdles, melds with something like rancor, as if to disabuse us of the pleasures of reading his work. But this new saturninity merely clarifies something his fiction has been murmuring all along.

As with Gombrowicz, Glover’s ambivalence for form leads him to aggravate or hyperextend his techniques to the point of abrasiveness and absurdity. In Glover’s case, the ambivalence carries different inflections from work to work: always intrinsically paradoxical, but alternately benevolent and enervating. At the end of “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night,” for example, the narrator’s neighbor hosts an inexplicable dinner party (what’s the occasion?) with an impossible guest list: he invites the story’s entire cast of characters, including the Somali cab driver who earlier observed the narrator’s backseat intercourse (and supplied the appreciative running commentary, “Oh, boy”). How could the neighbor—a scruffy freeloading biker named Frag—have known about, much less located this guy? Or induced the scholarly narrator’s former boss and students to show up? The guests materialize for the sole reason that they appeared earlier in the story; they embody a kind of narrative necessity, a mandatory recurrence, heeding laws that transcend reason or causality. The scene exposes the arbitrariness of formal density (which used to be called unity), its suprahuman logic, while obeying and even relishing that logic. Strangely, despite, or maybe because of, the incoherence, the scene radiates joy, human warmth, a bountiful artistic beauty. Without the distortion, the rebarbative absurdity, the scene might fall flat, ring hollow, seem (ironically) artificial, contrived, trite. Maybe the stratagem grants Glover (and us) access to authentic human feeling in a world that militates against the genuine.

“The Lost Language of Ng,” also from Savage Love, shows Glover adopting a different, and ultimately more damning, strategy to sabotage literariness. The story poses as a non-literary artifact, an anthropological paper, complete with jokey parenthetical citations, about Trqba, the last speaker of “high Ng,” a pre-Mayan language whose vocalization would bring about the immediate end of the world. In lieu of a plot, the text recounts Trqba’s gonzo biography and scientists’ efforts to reconstruct the Ng’s culture (phallocentric, omnisexual) and high-language (“every word is poetry,” figured as the source of all Being). The prose apes earnest academic seemliness and thus deadpans the ludicrous exploits of Trqba and his ancestors, but here, too, in this gorgeously loony expository mode, the text is striped with patterning devices. One—the parenthetical references—hides in plain sight (and I would encourage readers to track down the allusive names in these parentheses: an easy one refers to a blog post by V. Shklovsky). Another of these recurrent motifs is gooier, ramifying more liberally in the story: it involves the problem of translating Ng (either high Ng or the demotic, a common tongue that won’t destroy the universe) into English, and it carries extra-textual consequences, signaling not just an antipathy for the well-made narrative but an aversion to the very technology of writing.

The motif surfaces conspicuously in the comparison of better and worse scholarly translations of the Ng creation myth (Helwig’s “he raddled them with his rapier Snake” trouncing LeRoi’s “he hit them with a worm causing multiple puncture wounds and contusions”). In the motif’s next installment, we learn, “The Ng had 433 words for the English word “thought,” which can only be translated in clumsy, agglutinated phrases, e.g., the thought that goes in and out of my head like a fly in a jar….” These translation issues clarify a fundamental difference between the Ng world and the researchers’ (ours): “According to Trqba, it would be impossible to translate the English sentence ‘I need to take the car to the garage for an oil change and pick up the dry cleaning’ into Ngian, even the demotic vernacular.” The Ng language is inimical to the mundane routines of modernity—those habits that Shklovsky said reduce us to zombies, deaden our sensations, until art arrives to estrange us back to ourselves. All of this makes for wonderful reading, a hilarious profile of a nonexistent language, steeped in aesthetic theory. But it’s the last installment of the motif that cracks open a fault line and spiderwebs through the bedrock of Glover’s entire catalog.

Trqba explains to scholars the futility of their efforts, the incommunicability of high Ng, its resistance to capture in writing: he says, reportedly, “Written down… Ngian words lost their capacity to generate Being and became nothing but utilitarian devices of crude communication.” We also learn, in a parenthesis, that the English equivalent for what the Ng mean by “writing” would be “made to lie down in the snow like corpses.” A funny and beautiful image, graphically modeling the appearance of dead letters on white pages, but maybe not entirely a joke. The story ends with an account of Trqba’s final hours; he begins speaking in an indecipherable language that is probably high Ng, and with his death, plus the extinction of his mythical tongue, those prophesies of apocalypse are literally fulfilled, corroborating Trqba’s outlandish claims. And in the aftermath, it’s hard not to feel the gathering silence, the discursive walls closing in: here at the end, readers recognize finally the bland emptiness, the lack of sensory immediacy and existential gravitas, in the narrator’s pseudo-scientific idiom. The typography itself turns treacherous, as if it were the engine of a disaster now accomplished and total, if only in a figurative sense. Life ostensibly goes on. YouTube survives intact (preserving Trqba’s last words as “49 minutes of digitized static”). Yet, for the narrator and readers alike, what remains is an epiphenomenal afterworld, a place of reason and literacy and deadpan anthropology, but alien to poetry or Being.

*

“The Lost Language of Ng” portrays writing itself as a kind of lost cause, or maybe a death knell, analogous to the patient excavation of one’s own grave. On one level, this is more of Glover’s toying with ontology (channeling Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the shift from orality to literacy as an irreparable severance—and confirming, inadvertently, the written word’s vitality). But it resonates with Glover’s pronouncements and general mood in the 2016 essay “The Literature of Extinction,” a mortuary survey of the novel’s history. Glover fast-forwards through the genre’s birth, representational heyday, and the cynical disillusionment of modernism so that he can focus on the latest turn of the wheel, what he calls the “new experimentalism,” a movement characterized by an annihilating, “posthuman” aesthetic, driven by recent signs of the Anthropocene’s end (global warming, artificial intelligence). At root, the movement entails a repudiation of not just “traditional form[s],” but form as such. Glover cites a smart, turgid, oddly cordial manifesto by Germán Sierra called “Deep Media Fiction,” which lays out the movement’s alt-human premises; its exemplars range from computer-generated fictions to schizophrenic Ccru Writing to Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 (which Sierra calls “a speculative body (ac)count investigating the effect on language of a non-tech, meta-anthropocenic big data singularity.” Yeah, that.). About these dystopian, consciousness-averting developments, Glover is sanguine: “Beauty, after all, is only a comforting Humanist illusion.” And he closes his essay, “The newest experiments . . . seek to vibrate in sympathy with the fundamental indifference of things. The project is paradoxical (even comical), sending a message—THE END IS NEAR—while trying to engage an audience. There is no message and there is no audience—soon(ish).”

When I think of these new experiments, I’m reminded of Bove’s adage, from “The Indonesian Client,” “We are entering the post-technology, post-Internet era, when all the rules that were broken in the last five years will simply be broken again, only more quickly.”

And this: of the relationship between humans and the universe of things, Nabokov divined not indifference, but something closer to disinterested appreciation.

Just sayin’.

If you read Glover carefully, all the way through, you start to get the sense that it might be an insult or a slight to aver that his bruising works are beautiful, the fugal structures scintillating, the prose exquisitely titrated. That the only fit response to Glover’s fiction, like the new experimentalism, is indifference and silence. But at the risk of indulging a retro sentimentality, some Baffin Island of the mind, I’ll hazard the acclaim. Glover himself has touched on what’s special about literary form (beauty) and why abjuring it is, if not impossible, a fool’s errand, tantamount to collapsing clear-eyed ambivalence into a blind determinacy, a failure of artistic nerve (but if that’s your thing, go nuts, pilgrim). In The Enamoured Knight, Glover notes how the novel is a paradigmatic phenomenon: “the prototypical instance of a discourse or language game in which truth is determined by coherence, that is, how a statement fits or coheres within a system of statements rather than by a reference to reality.” “Novel form,” he writes, “…is like a grammar that organizes meaning without meaning anything.” In this sense, the genre is uniquely truthful, embodying truth’s provisionality in the post-truth world. Glover says nothing here about the pleasures of literary form, the weird ecstasy that is “disinterested appreciation” (if you do it right); his immediate concern is to note how Sancho’s girth, for example, is “true” only because the fact is confirmed repeatedly in the novel’s closed system. But there’s another way to view the truth of the matter.

Form gives fiction its truth not in any factual sense, but in the sense that athletes and artisans know, the sense that bends the noun, through its adjective, to a transitive verb: “to make level, square, balanced, or concentric: bring or restore to a desired mechanical accuracy or form.” This is the truth of optimal conjunctions, the contingent, intersectional truth of a homerun swing or plumb-lined drywall, the truth of effortful, well-made things. This kind of truth is synonymous with beauty (trued form), and it resonates as much through the ferocity of, say, Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, or Glover’s own Elle, as it does from Keats’ Grecian Urn.[1] García Márquez pures it in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In Frankenstein it goes Goth. Since Shakespeare and Cervantes worked out the specs (lifted from poetry and music?), it’s never been frivolous or pretty or decent or easy (about as gentle as Drebel’s heel). It requires hard work, serious knowhow, and a centripetal intelligence to uncover, much less create; readers, like writers, have to reconstruct this shimmering, quicksilvery, immanent form to the extent they’re able, amid the whole panoply of sense-impressions the narrative conveys. The trued form of, say, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is, from the vantage point of “objective reality” or “normal people,” maybe less monstrous than simply inconceivable. Against the centuries of literary labor and their incalculable quantities of texts, trued form can seem vanishingly rare (almost cryptozoological). It gutters in—and, in guttering, spoils—William Gass’ The Tunnel. As comforting illusions go, this one is murder.

When Glover writes, hospitably, of the new experimentalism, “a formless book risks failure (unreadability),” he doesn’t mention that it risks something else: falseness, the basic hypocrisy of all untrue(d) things. So let me end by clarifying where I began. Or rather, let me start over. Douglas Glover’s fiction deserves rapturous praise, a praise mindful of the Rapture, and uncowed.

Note:
[1] To clarify the distinction between trued form and Glover’s stressed form: trued form is always “stressed” to some degree, but stressed form is not always trued. Both pursue what John Hawkes called “the meaningful density of writing” (in a quote once dear to Glover); trued form goes farther in elaborating this density. The difference is as much qualitative as quantitative; stressed form tends toward aggravation (blunt or gross repetitions), trued form toward ecstasy (fractal and granular repetitions). Glover produces works of both types: The Life and Times of Captain N., “Bad News of the Heart,” and “Crown of Thorns” feature stressed form; Elle, “Shameless,” “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night,” “Lunar Sensitivities,” “The Sun King and the Royal Child,” and “16 Categories of Desire” exemplify trued form. Many of his works (like “Money”) are intermediary or vestigial examples; some flirt with conventionality, others formlessness, but trued form is, for me, the defining trait of Glover’s fiction.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Stone was the contributing editor of The Art of Desire: The Fiction of Douglas Glover (Oberon, 2004). He teaches in the writing program at UCLA.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 29th, 2019.