There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
I was first alerted to Wells Tower’s existence in 2004 when a reader emailed asking what I knew about him. The answer was “nothing,” but I did a little digging and found some impressive long-form journalism, primarily in Washington Post Magazine and a growing reputation as a short fiction writer centering mainly on his Pushcart prizewinning story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” We actually had a nice collection of Wells Tower links in the comments of that old post, but they were lost in the great Millions comment purge of 2006.In any case, in the ensuing five years, Tower has penned some of the decade’s most memorable pieces of immersion journalism, most notably “Bird-dogging the Bush vote: Undercover with Florida’s Republican shock troops” (sub. required) in Harpers, and his first collection of fiction has come out, anchored by the story that first got him noticed.About that title story: “EREB” is a workplace drama in the guise of a viking adventure tale.You could say that those people on Lindsfarne were fools, living out there on a tiny island without high cliffs or decent natural defenses, and so close to us and also the Swedes and the Norwegians, how we saw it, we couldn’t afford not to come by and sack every now and again.Though it wasn’t my favorite story in the collection, it’s not hard to see why people started wondering who Wells Tower was. Also impressively ambitious is “Leopard.” As I noted in my New Yorker fiction round up, “This one is told in the second person about (by?) an unpopular eleven-year-old boy. Tower gets into the boy’s head incredibly well – the perpetually wounded pride, the outlandish fantasies that punish those who have wronged him.”The other seven stories are somewhat more conventional – lots of wayward men, cheated on, cheating, put upon, falling apart – though no less entertaining. Their hangovers are “calamitous.” They spy on the hooker that lives across the street. Opening the collection, “The Brown Coast” begins “Bob Monroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.”But these fallen creatures aren’t meant to disgust or inspire pity. The prose is too raucous and the set pieces too inventive. And when they’re not about vikings or imaginary leopards, Tower’s stories may be the short fiction we’re used to, but delivered with the volume turned up.Bonus Link: Wells Tower’s Year in Reading
In the summer of 2006, on a small stage in downtown Toronto, the Emperor Napoleon was facing off in a game of chess against the “Mechanical Turk.” It was 1809, continental Europe, and Malzel, who recently purchased the legendary chess-playing automaton, was transporting this curious contraption from town to town to square off against the dubious and the delighted.The automaton was an historical oddity – a contraption consisting of a carefully-constructed cabinet, out of which emerged the fabricated, human-like, upper-half of an exotically decked-out Ottoman chess master. It was a hoax, of course, the cabinet being designed in such a manner as to conceal an actual human – small in stature, but large in chess-playing talent. Magnets, a pantograph, and an elaborate, clockwork-like mechanism enabled the Turk’s hands and arms to grip and move chess pieces, eyes to roll, head to nod.The play, “Napoleon vs The Turk,” written by Tom Robertson and staged by Luke Davies as part of the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, was my introduction to this famous hoax.Robert Lohr’s engrossing debut novel, The Chess Machine, goes back a bit further, to 1770 and the workshop of the Turk’s actual inventor: Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Baron with connections in the court of Vienna. A work of historical fiction, The Chess Machine also introduces us to Jakob, a fictional character who Lohr imagines as Kempelen’s valuable assistant and cabinet-maker.Above all, though, The Chess Machine tells the fictional tale of Tibor, an Italian chess-playing dwarf, recruited by Kempelen to be part of the grand deception, to spend countless stifling hours inside the automaton, monitoring the opponents’ moves, and responding accordingly.In one wonderfully gripping episode, the dwarf, concealed in the automaton for an outdoor match and deprived of the candle that normally helps him see what he’s doing, is forced to move his chessmen simply by anticipating his opponent’s moves, by the sound and feel of the game being played above his head.Tibor is the heart and soul of the automaton, and also the story. Rescued from a Venetian prison by Kempelen, who knew of his talents and was searching for the missing piece to his scheme, Tibor reluctantly agrees to go with Kempelen back to his workshop is Pressburg (now Bratislava). He must remain hidden from public view, on occasion venturing out incognito with Jakob for a late-night prowl around town. The tale is a captivating one, full of dreams, schemes and spies, deception and murder, lusty, clandestine encounters with women of various levels of repute, a jealous inventor, an affronted nobleman, and at least one seriously insane sculptor.A glance, too, at audiences of the day, and their willingness to suspend disbelief. As Tibor inquires of his master: “Are they going to believe in this?” To which Kempelen responds “The world wants to be deceived. They’ll believe in it because they’ll want to believe in it.”
Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.”
This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist — there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture. Brightfellow refuses to conform to a narrative logic in which events have meaning. While Ducornet is, here and everywhere in her work, expansively erudite, her use of citation and reference does not take the form of clues, or gestures toward meaning. Her Borgesian meta- and intertexts aren’t to be interpreted; they are to be experienced. Ducornet even makes a joke of the kind of embodiment her prose evokes, when the eight-year-olds debate the logistics of body dismemberment, “They suppose the thighs look like hams and that there would have only been room for two in the suitcase. They wonder if the knees would have been attached to the thighs.”
This image: grotesque and gustatory, also silly and beautiful, distills all of Brightfellow. It also evokes Ducornet’s earlier novels Phosphor in Dreamland and The Fountains of Neptune more than her last, Netsuke, which Michael Cunningham described in The New York Times as a malignant and malicious story of “soul-murder.” Brightfellow flirts with childish eroticism and terrible violence, yet, despite the Alfred Hitchcock, in it Ducornet follows Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, more than her sometime-precursors Vladimir Nabokov or the Marquis de Sade.
This novel, Ducornet’s ninth, follows its bright fellow, who we meet as a boy called “Stub,” and rejoin later as a young man calling himself Charter Chase. Stub/Charter, abandoned by his mother and then abandoning his father, winds up a feral young man on the campus of an unnamed university. His first entry into the world of the college is through the library, where he obsessively reads the works of the reclusive anthropologist Werner Vanderloon. Eventually, Stub becomes a secret resident, sleeping in a specimen cabinet in the biology lab and pilfering the left-behind contents of gym lockers and dorm rooms for an appropriately preppy wardrobe that enables him to pass as a student.
The inevitable Giles Goat-Boy comparisons are already made by Ducornet’s blurbers, and while, in some sense, this book may resemble John Barth’s feral-boy-on-campus novel, Stub/Charter’s self-invention is a red herring. This is a coming-of-age story in a looking-glass universe, in which familiar categories are meaningless. Charter presents himself as a scholar studying Vanderloon’s papers, and so gains entry into Faculty Circle, where he eventually takes a room in the home of a lonely emeritus professor. While there, Charter conceives an obsession with a child, Asthma, who lives next door (and who, in a bit of heady referentiality, he observed through the window, and who he will take to see Rear Window). Observing Asthma, Charter muses on Vanderloon’s anthropological system:
Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic — sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming a human, just as it is about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon.
This anthropological treatise recapitulates Charter’s own experience, when, as Stub, he imagined a linoleum floor as”
an archipelago that begins under his bed and goes all the way to his door. It shines with beauty and danger. There are flowers that have voices and sing to children. There is a poisonous toad that speaks in riddles, and the wrong sort of snake, thick as a chimney, concealed in the dappled light.
For Ducornet, the point of this description is its sensation. She wants you to feel “tugboat” and “galloping stallion” in your mouth when you read. Rear Window makes the act of viewing a film dangerously close to voyeurism.
Brightfellow suggests that the artifice of the words on the page and the voyeurism of a girl playing in a window, or an anthropologist observing some hitherto unknown society, are all there is. Ducornet’s is a world of surfaces so rich and textured that notions of meaning and interpretation are subsumed under a lush and seductive prose that eventually inhabits readers minds. Her writing inevitably gets described in a vocabulary of her creation: “decadent,” “anarchic,” and “fragrant.”
In Brightfellow, Ducornet forces readers to experience the physicality of reading, to feel and taste the act of storytelling. Every character perpetually self-invents. When Charter creates a fictive Vanderloon book about an obscure and isolated island culture, it is indistinguishable from the “real” Vanderloon texts. Vanderloon’s account of play both is and is not apt in the novel’s reading of Rear Window, which forces the viewer to share Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism. As the film’s audience sees the film through the eyes — and the lens — of its protagonists, readers of Brightfellow feel Ducornet’s prose as Charter invents the cultures of Vanderloonian anthropology.
Ducornet has said that everything she writes is “informed by experience, experience not limited to the street, bathroom, kitchen.” This is a novel to be experienced, not simply read. Yet to say this novel refuses meaning is not to say that it lacks event. Its celebration of the texture and contours of storytelling, of the unruly expansiveness of language, and of the relative ease with which the borders of the world are permeated by fabulation offers a rebuke to a kind of fiction in which the imagination is increasingly constricted. As ever, Ducornet wants you to feel and taste her story more than to say what it is about. Like Vanderloon’s notion of play, it is about becoming human, or a tugboat.