An Exalted State: On Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous

November 14, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 6 6 min read

Is Jason Schwartz a genius? Before tackling the question, let’s consider what Jason Schwartz has achieved so far.

In 1998, Knopf published Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, A German Picturesque. It’s a thin volume of 21 stories told through a series of oddly skewed yet intimate voices. The book does away with virtually every literary convention: there are themes instead of plots, atmospheres instead of straightforward stories, thoughts instead of dialog, and objects instead of characters. The objects include minutely observed postage stamps, flowers, birds, coins, insects, fabrics, furniture. The result is a relentless microscopic emphasis on individual words and the way they work together to make sentences. The effect is unsettling and disorienting at first. On a second reading, as you settle into the logic of Schwartz’s illogic, you begin to swim in a new way.

This is not so much a book of unreliable narrators as it is a book of unreliable narratives. Things slide, tilt, move sideways. There is ruin in these atmospheres, the ruin of families, armies, architecture, afternoons, civilizations, and the monuments to them. Here’s a typically slippery snippet of family history: “The nephew died first. All the suitors were poor. The sisters were not intimate.  Well. There was something on a Sunday, as it happens. She had asked for an ash casket. Evidently the husband arrived, this time, in the afternoon, late in the afternoon. Early in the evening, really.”

The bravura opening of the story called “Ox” tells of a boy riding a train with his family, from the West toward Chicago. It is as close as Schwartz comes to writing a conventional narrative, and it is a revelation:

So the train ride down. Slyo, Blokes, Varn, Neel, Sir, Hels, Helding, Harm, Bonelawn, and Starvation Peak. Bolts, flaps, lorns, tanks, steens, bears, knife ties — the slag on the roadbed, a boy in a berth.  Passing: bullrings, the gate route, the buttress, the light. On the platform are pumps, a fellow selling food, a priest next to a post. In history: men would shoot game from the moving windows. Grasshoppers would cover the track. The family had top East and family ancestors. The root in the caboose was the crummy. A cripple was bad. In the berth: the curtain blows, all right. You can see behind me how the house goes. He holds my hand. The berts, spinks, spears — and you bark your shin! Troutville has mountains named for the suffering of the settlers. Nosaje has mines and the largest graveyard in America. All the kinsmen were killed by red Indians. Or all the children had the croup. (Or a train got stuck in the mud under the water.)…

And now, 15 long years after that debut, Schwartz is out with his second book, John the Posthumous, which his new publisher, OR Books, calls “a novella in objects.”  o call this book a novella is a bit like calling a spaceship a motor vehicle: while the label might be factually true, it’s also wildly inaccurate and inadequate.

This book, like its predecessor, is immaculately plotless, a whirlwind of objects, etymologies, histories (including a history of the American bed), Biblical citations, sisters, adultery, insects, murder. Again, there is an air of ruin, and of relentless unreliability. Here’s how the book got its title: “The foregoing ignores — or mistakes — several details. Cuckold’s Point, according to the map I have in hand, is closer to Evelyn than to Deptford. And Brockwell, strictly speaking, does not exist — in London, anyway. Furthermore, the horned figure — now gone — was not a gallows, in fact, but a simple post. It had been exhibited at a fair — the Horn Fair — in celebration of a king’s cuckolding. Which king? King Richard or King Edward. (John the Posthumous — usually rendered in red — was a French king, alive for five days.)”

Rambunctious, nearly ferocious, wordplay abounds, as in: “The word adultery derives from cry — which calls to mind, certainly, the way the blanket folded back — and from alter, rather than altar, via reave. But I flatter myself that this provides a correct measure of evidence.” And: “The word cuckold also refers to certain insects. Take the cuckold fly — which is actually a beetle, which feigns death quite gracefully.” And: “Hoddypoll, which also means fool, I believe, derives from dod — as in snail and small hill — and from koll — which is Norweigian for head or crown, and is the root of kill.”

You will meet words you have never imagined, including “bistoury” (a long, narrow surgical knife), “rood” (a quarter acre) and “rale” (an abnormal respiratory sound characterized by fine crackles). You will meet words that exist, as far as I can tell, only in Schwartz’s imagination, including “catlin” and “bule.” You will emerge from these books shaken and changed, attuned to possibilities you had never imagined before.

So, is Jason Schwartz a genius? To be honest, the question did not occur to me until I read an astonishing gust of praise that appears on the first page of my paperback edition of John the Posthumous. It was written by Gordon Lish, author, teacher, and editor, who is perhaps most famous for carving up — and quite possibly improving — Raymond Carver’s early prose. Lish’s encomium for Schwartz is worth quoting in its entirety:

Do I not, in speaking as I must, exploit, for my own purpose, the uncanny beauty another man has made? They’re spangled feathers — the lives, the achievements, the properties of others. Who among us does not have a nest to keep stewarded with all the glitter gatherable in reach? Let me tell you something: if the act of the profiteer is what we are talking about, then living better, for my part, couldn’t be any better than my having lived long enough for me to enrich myself by dint of realizing the least proximity to the insuperably forged sentences of Jason Schwartz. As for the author, the mandarin heretofore hidden among us, there is positively nothing I can usefully say to you for him or of him or to him. He is complete, as genius agonizingly is. Can there be a more ghastly occupation? It is no guess that it had to have been terrible for Schwartz to have contained John the Posthumous and its equally uncontainable antecedent, the 1998 collection of sinuousities brought out as A German Picturesque. How reckless of Jason Schwartz for him to have recommended himself for the test of turning a totalized form of attention over such a quality of suffering. Yes, the folly of it, declares your opportunistic intercessor. Oh, but how lucky the forerunner is! — how thrillingly, how terrifically, how unimprovably lucky.

So much gas! — those “spangled feathers,” that “glitter gatherable,” the twee enrichment “by dint of realizing,” the “collection of sinuousities,” and Lish’s labeling of himself as “your opportunistic intercessor.” Rather than dwell on the obvious — that Lish is more amazed by his own amazing ability to be amazed than by Schwartz’s ability to amaze — let’s take a closer look at praiser and praised.

After working as fiction editor at Esquire magazine from 1969 to 1977, Lish worked as a senior editor at the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf until 1995. In 1987 he founded the literary magazine The Quarterly, which he edited until its last issue in 1995. Jason Schwartz’s fiction first appeared in The Quarterly, and Lish bought the manuscript of A German Picturesque in 1995, though it didn’t appear until three years later, after Lish had left Knopf. (It is also worth noting that OR Books, publisher of John the Posthumous, brought out an edition of Lish’s collected fiction in 2010 and will publish a collection of his new stories called Goings next year.)

More muted, but still lofty, praise for Schwartz has come from other quarters. Ben Marcus, a former student of Lish’s whose early work also appeared in The Quarterly, has called Schwartz’s writing “haunting, original prose by a writer unlike any other on the planet. Jason Schwartz is a master.”

Another former Lish student, the smart and deadly funny Sam Lipsyte, offered praise of his own: “After reading Jason Schwartz, it’s difficult to talk about any other writer’s originality or unique relation to the language. John the Posthumous is a work of astounding power and distinction, beautifully strange, masterful.”

None of the above is to suggest that there’s a Lishian cabal out there engaged in sinister acts of literary log-rolling. There’s nothing wrong with praising a writer you admire, and I believe Lish, Marcus and Lipsyte’s praise is sincere. But their praise for Schwartz is a reminder that it is always worthwhile to examine praise’s provenance. Subtexts matter. In the end, of course, every reader must make up his or her own mind on the true stature of Jason Schwartz — and every other writer. Blurbs matter, but only so much.

So again, is Jason Schwartz a genius? It’s impossible to answer the question without questioning the meaning of the word “genius.” My dictionary (American Heritage, fifth edition) defines it as “extraordinary intellectual and creative power” or “a person of extraordinary intellect and talent.” I think the word is so over-used today that it has become nearly meaningless. Genuine genius is a rare thing, reserved for such towering figures as Mozart, Proust, Joyce, Einstein, Picasso, Nabokov, Faulkner, and maybe Charlie Parker and Michael Jordan and Elvis. A writer who has produced two thin volumes and a handful of stories simply hasn’t amassed sufficient credentials to gain entry to the pantheon.

That said, I recommend Jason Schwartz to any reader searching for a writer with the chops and the daring to bend language to his own unique purposes. To read these books is to enter a fugue state, in both senses of the word. Schwartz’s writing is, like a musical fugue, a mesmerizing series of themes stated successively in different voices; it is also, in the psychiatric sense, a state marked by wandering and an inability to remember one’s past accurately. It is a state unlike any other, an exalted state. Don’t take my word for it.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.