We All Sleep in the Same Room by Paul Rome

by Michael J. Abolafia


41iu9z7a9gL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_AA300_We All Sleep in the Same Room
by Paul Rome
Rare Bird Books, November 2013
192 pages / $14  Buy from Amazon






In his debut novel, We All Sleep in the Same Room, Paul Rome achieves what even seasoned novelists often fail at: generating characters that feel real-to-life, situations that seem organic and natural, rather than the second-rate simulacra of bad fictions, and a cultivated style that is beautiful in its understated elegance — sculptural, even.

Much has been written lately on the ever-quickening Brooklyn lit scene, although there has probably never been a dearth of “Brooklyn novels” or “Brooklyn writers.” Rome’s first novel positions him as a new voice with an old soul, a writer more akin to Paul Auster both stylistically and thematically than to his peers, like Tao Lin and Adele Waldman, whose Taipei and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., respectively, chronicle the lives of young, writerly Brooklyners as they negotiate the perilous hinterlands of relationships — both to others and to the self. Rome echoes Auster in his clean, well-lighted prose, and Rome’s conjuries of the city, with its infinite chance happenings and endless sense of mystery, is likewise definitely Austerian. But whereas Lin and Waldman direct their foci towards the realm of listless twenty-somethings, Rome explores the vagaries and varieties of middle-age. Despite its being set in the Fall of 2005, Rome’s New York is the New York of old, and his subjects are similarly different than those of his contemporaries.

With surprisingly intimate psychological acumen, he dissects, scrutinizes, and mournfully portrays Tom’s and Raina’s failing (and ultimately failed) relationship. Tom is a union lawyer, a hard-working professional dedicated deeply to, and personally invested in, the ideals of justice and equality that his firm ostensibly seeks to uphold. Within the novel’s overall context of loss, the presence of an idealistic politics on the part of Tom makes the withering of it all feel especially concussive.

The novel is characterized by a powerful sense of the teleological: every absence-haunted sentence — each of them exercises in the potency of minimalism done right — seems to foreshadow intensely and evoke powerfully the fact that the novel will have a devastating and inevitable end-point. It seems so frequently to be raining or snowing in Rome’s New York. We All Sleep in the Same Room is a very melancholy work. We are drawn inexorably towards the emotional black hole at the novel’s core; we are sucked beyond its event horizon with every painfully wrong move on the part of Tom. Jessie, a young and incredible eager young woman and a recent hire at the firm, is at the heart of Tom’s and Raina’s marital divide — sort of. Rather than coming across as a “manic pixie dream girl,” a young woman who is, like the young women in some of Philip Roth’s novels, a tabula rasa upon which a disaffected and disenchanted older man can project his erotic obsessions onto, Jessie is truly “three-dimensional” and deeply human. Rome’s characters operate on a number of different registers, all of them faithfully drawn and vividly realized. Continue reading


25 Pieces Of Writing Advice To End All Writing Advice

by Shane Jones

Most writing advice comes off as watered down and lacking both bark and bite. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with the writer being hesitant to have his or her name attached to something potentially offensive. Very few seem to crave the public attention of being a curmudgeon spitting on the idealistic novice.

I’ve spent the last month contacting authors (both major house and indie; critically acclaimed and up-and-coming; big names and small; cock wavers and VIDA junkies) and a few influential editors, asking each to submit their most heartfelt, brutal, and honest writing advice they could think of. I promised to publish what they wrote anonymously. The following are the results.

1) Imagine an interesting and real fucking person reading what you write, not history or Shakespeare or your mom or your dick or your D&D club. Together with that, imagine everything you write on a piece of paper held in a stranger’s hand hovering over a trashcan.

2) Your pain is not valuable to anyone else.

3) Take your own life before writing your sad regrettable paltry novel, not after. People you know will think more fondly of you.

4) Write what you want to read. Write what your 12-year-old self wants to read.

5) You have to be stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life with only one other person. Each of you gets to bring one book on to the island for the other person to read. Write that book.

6) Distrust advice. Figure it out for yourself through reading, writing, life.

7) Take it as a goddamn miracle if anyone cares what you have to say. All your hard work means nothing because you mean nothing. Don’t believe for a second you have a right to someone’s attention.

8) My writing advice is: keep writing! Write a lot. Read a lot. Never believe what you write is very good. Always know it can be better. Feel pain in that. Always remember: your shit DOES stink. Let multiple rejections fuel you, not destroy you¬—there will ALWAYS be rejections. Listen and learn from better writers. Don’t be afraid. If you ARE afraid, do it anyway. Whatever you do, don’t write boring. Boring will never take you where you want to go. Remember that language is color, so PAINT.

9) Spend a month or two using all your writing time for direct correspondence with loved ones. Write unique, long, careful, descriptive, analytic letters to dear and old friends and close family members, and print them on paper, and mail them, only one per person. See what this does to your “need to write” feeling. If you still feel like you need to write poems, and fiction, and whatever else you write, for the public sphere, then go ahead and write it.

10) If you start thinking you’re good, that’s the first sign that you’re fucked. Believe it. Also: drink less, floss more.

11) The world is not waiting for your book. Nobody but you and maybe your mom or spouse cares if you finish it. Do it anyway.

12) Don’t talk to anyone ever again.

13) Most people have not needed art to live happy lives; recognize that art is a new myth and that most contemporary art is advertising and/or entertainment. You would have lived just fine without MOBY DICK, so why do you believe that the world needs your book?

14) Don’t write. If you can stop writing, stop. Take real risks for the sake of others that require you to leave your bedroom or office; tangibly help people. Only write if you are unable to stop.

15) Don’t forget that writing is a way to both escape and to stare down the nightmare of death.

16) Develop a close group of friends/classmates/lovers with whom you are intimately honest with. Educate each other through setting goals, readings, writing practices that keep you in an intense discourse. Let these people be your support, and guides.

17) Don’t get an MFA and title everything with some bougie title like Billy Pilgrim’s Long Halftime Walk or The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards or A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Don’t move to New Disney York. Work harder than you’ve ever worked and don’t expect to be rewarded. Don’t listen to anyone who gives you writing advice. Do it for yourself.

18) Stop using flashbacks. You aren’t using them well. Right now you think a flashback is a way to make a character interesting or relatable, but your characters should be interesting, vivid, lively, memorable in the present reality of the story or you’re screwed. Whoever wanted to hear the history a person they don’t find interesting?

19) Work for very little pay in a corporate office for 40 hours a week and never ever go back to the classroom to teach poetry or anything else unless it’s gym class or to supervise a cafeteria. Stay at your corporate office job for the rest of your life and allow men to treat you like a garbage bin with tits. Smile and say, ‘sure’ when they ask you to clean the breakroom sink because ‘that’s what our wives do at home.’ Then, when you’re 50 years old, go to a reading in New York City, slap a 21 year old twink with your sagging tits, and then write something.

20) Laconically lose your virginity, partially peruse Nietzsche, go and graduate from college, and move into a cheap apartment at the cheap side of town; now start a Tumblr, using one of their free minimalist themes, and begin liking the posts of whom you perceive to be your ideal peers, the ostensible “in crowd” to which you wish to gain entry; begin liking, favoriting, reblogging, and retweeting the respective content of these people, all of these people, all of the time, consistently for 2-3 months until you garner reactionary clicks to your own Tumblr, whose most recent post (at this point) should be a 0:46 second clip of you eating a mango alone in your room, with contemporary rap in the background. Click on the avatar of the first person to like your video, who may be on the masthead of a new literary journal. Do not open Microsoft Word, or Google docs; simply compose a new Gmail and begin writing down any erratic thoughts or feelings you may be having, using a line break every time a particular thought or feeling has ended. If you are on any drugs, please list them. If you have just binged on calorically dense food, or if you are starving yourself, please include those details. At the end of 16-18 of these thoughts or feelings, title the poem—call these sets of thoughts or feelings “poetry” from now on—by the most evocative or oblique line therein, and email the poem to the editor who liked the clip of you eating a mango; when, five days later, your poem is published, take a screenshot of the poem and post it to your Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, whose subsequent journey of likes, favorites, reblogs, and retweets will legitimize, perhaps even historicize, the publishing of the poem as some kind of formidable event. You will shortly be invited to read at a reading in New York City, reasonably located within a three hour radius of your current residence. Take a train to the reading, live-tweeting sardonic remarks about your fellow riders, and optimally arrive some four hours earlier so that you can indiscreetly have upwards to seven Pabst Blue Ribbons at the host’s apartment, gleeful footage eventually captured into a 6:13 min Vimeo whose main conceit is the pre- and post-reading fun times that everyone had, shot, edited, and posted by the host, who wanted you there because you are beautiful.

21) Write slower, publish less.

22) Maybe stop writing dumb fucking articles like this and just work on novels for the rest of your meaningless life and you’ll produce one meaningful one.

23) Make the connection early on that a life dedicated to writing and believing in the imaginary coming off the page as something real is the same as worshipping religion and a God.

24) Study poetry. All these books being published are by people who have no grasp of image and language and it’s so obvious. Study poetry and you will have an advantage. Start now.

25) Kill your outside self so all you have is your inside world to put on the page.


The Circle

by Idris Kenain

i.1.dave-eggers-the-circle-bookThe Circle
by Dave Eggers
Knopf, 2013
504 pages / $27.95 buy from Powell’s or Amazon








Nothing about The Circle is very surprising or new. Big Brother is a clichéd, outdated reality show. The privacy vs. transparency debate is as ubiquitous as the scope it describes. It’s obvious from page one which side the novel will end up on.

I don’t care about any of this. The transparency-obsessed company of The Circle (a proxy for Google) is not an unappealing environment to me. Most of the time, it’s ridiculously attractive.

The relentless lists of online activities that the protagonist, Mae, conducts daily are not the downward spirals of doom they should be. Instead, the repetitive passages feel hypnotic and pleasurable and I live vicariously through Mae’s Internet high. I should read her decline into web addiction and over-sharing critically, but instead I feel the same breathless, click-through-again compulsiveness that I do staying up too late online, browsing websites and managing my own social media accounts.

I can’t figure out if I’m the exact target audience for The Circle, or the exact opposite of it. Are its warnings meant for those younger than me who’ve never known a world without Google? Or those older, who take a certain pride in refusing to get an Internet connection or email account?

The novel circles around the same few themes, visits the same few locations, and its protagonist, Mae, repeats the same tasks over and over again. This repetition gives me an intense, almost physical pleasure: a caffeine-like tightness in my brain, behind my ears; a lifting in my chest; the impulse to read as quickly as possible.

It’s more engaging to read about what Mae does on her computer than about her interactions with human characters, who are consistently flat—placeholders for perspectives. Continue reading

Dept. of Speculation

by Anonymous

deptBSSC-Offill_coverDept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Knopf, 2014
192 pages / $22.95 buy from Amazon
Rating: 3.5







When I read Michael J. Seidlinger’s list of indie lit for the year I was so excited that I stayed up until three AM all atwitter thinking about it, but for as excited as I am about the alt lit scene, the recent National Book Critics Awards finalists make it clear that the lit world at large lacks the same scope and enthusiasm.

The new Knopf book Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is especially indicative of this endemic lack of innovation and the narrow definition of literary taste that seems to grip the big five publishers.

I wish to pause to qualify my claim. Alt lit has had its moments in the sun within the big five. Amelia Gray’s Threats and Shane Jones’ stint with Penguin spring to mind, and Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun promises to be a crossover success, but, in general, these books continue to be nothing more than niche market books lost in a larger see of “literary bigwigs,” as Chriss Higgs’ post linked above stresses.

So the major problem with Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is the simple fact that it’s boring. The novel depicts the trials and tribulations of a marriage from the perspective of Offill’s unnamed “The Wife” by focusing in on the banal frustrations of marriage. And herein is the problem with the novel—it ruminates on the stagnation of marriage, the frustrations of a female novelist delayed from advancing in her career because of baby and doltish spouse, the isolation of the modern condition, but the novel falters by focusing in on the minutiae. This is well-traveled literary territory and frankly, reveling in her characters’ boredom and alluding to Keats is not the way to make a significant narrative arc.

The novel does attempt some formalistic tricks with its stream of conscious layout and there are some moments of crystalline observation, but the majority of the novel falls flat. I wanted this novel to be interesting, but ultimately it lacks the innovation that I look for in a novel which holds my attention.

In the novel the wife tries to combat static existence with yoga. “None of this is banal, if only you would attend to it,” her instructors tell her, but in the case of reading Jenny Offill’s novel and other big five books of its ilk, I don’t want to.


I Read Scarecrone in the Bath

by Amy McDaniel

photo (3)

I read Scarecrone by Melissa Broder in the bath. Originally, I bought every copy ofScarecrone from Adam Robinson but then I sold them all back to him for the same price, except one, which I kept. That is the copy of Scarecrone I read in the bath.

I had a notebook and pen by the bath because I knew it would be an experience that I would want to express something about, even though I’m uneasy with experiences and expression.

Earlier, I’d read an interview of Melissa Broder by Shane Jones in The Believer about food and food rituals. The interview answers are very honest and detailed. I became upset as I read it because it put me in touch with a kind of radical normalcy in my thoughts and behaviors around food and my body. I began to wonder, as I’ve wondered before, if that normalcy has to do with how many hours & hours I spent in the bathtub as a child and teen, around my own naked body but not confronted with it. As a child and teen, in the bathtub, I usually either read, in which case I saw my headless naked body in the lower periphery, or I did things to make my body feel or do things, in which case I guess I closed my eyes or saw my body through unusual filters.

(I don’t know how to describe any of this in non-dualist ways, especially from the bath point of view since–unlike in the mirror where you see everything or mostly your face– in the bath you see your body but not your head where your brain is, so that the body really seems like something apart.) Continue reading

The Whole of Life by Jürg Laederach

by Joseph Houlihan

wholeoflife-193x300The Whole of Life
by Jürg Laederach
Dalkey Archive Press, Jan 2014
300 pages / $15  Buy from Amazon or Dalkey Archive







Waiting for the publication of Jürg Laederach’s The Whole of Life, out now from Dalkey Archive Press, I revisited his very funny and hip 1990 Semitext(e) collection,69 Ways to Play the Blues. Laederach is a one-time enfant terrible of Swiss literature (he writes “I’ll be called a young writer until I’m eighty,”) and his work epitomizes boomer cool. A devotee of Jazz and Downtown Music, Laederach made several trips to NYC during the 1980s. 69 Ways was written on the third trip.

Laederach is an avowed devotee of improvisational music:

69 Ways crackles with wry observations. On Bleecker Street: I am Bleecker Street, “that intersects and eschews any rude display of house numbers.”

On the view from Swiss cemeteries: “To a majority of the inhabitants of Switzerland, death, not Lake Geneva, brings about a marked improvement in their standard of living. Great pains are taken to see to it that graveyards have a “view” they are thus conceived with a strong sense of landscape and perspective.”

When authors get hungry: “All he could do was point a shaky finger at a sandwich and growl.”

The Whole of Life shares this offbeat cool. Framed as a sort of messy first-person, the plot follows a Swiss everyman, Bob Hecht, (endearingly called “My boy Bob Hecht” a la Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog) as he navigates mid-century industrial Europe.

The book is very funny and sprawling. The ethos of improvisation is most noticeable in Laederach’s pastichework. Different styles and references are co-opted and incorporated as a sort of self-analysis. In one section, a year of unhappy cohabitation is narrated as a boxing match. In another, he parses out the existential implications of deleting a Jewish character from the text. He has persistent dopplegangers, including a pair supposedly co-writing his memoir. The text falls into stage directions. And technical directions: “PAN F Perceptol min 68 F 10 ASA 25 DIN 15 Microphen min 20 C 4 ASA 64 DIN 19 or 68 F 5 650 ASA DIN 29 with reduction to 125 … The kind of prose we can expect in the future.” But through all this, he maintains a detached cool.

Attempting to integrate into the workforce, Hecht drives truck: “I drive straight ahead until evening…I stubbornly keep going, and then the motor starts chugging. I stop, get out of the car, walk toward a building, turn back to the car, turn on the headlights so that the battery will unperform on me, and walk toward the barracks, a hamburger bar with a sign advertising ketchup in tomato color, how original, almost a gag… It appears as though I’ve missed work today and spent the whole day searching straight ahead and mindnumbed… “But man,” says the guy serving me, “that driving straight ahead was your work, that’s what they hired you for!”

The novel seeps deadpan. And translator Geoffrey Howes does a great job catching its talky aspect, this very reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark. “Hardly had the tea party gathered up the biscuits, when the scrawny woman came up to the table and cried out: “You are my sweetie pie!””

First published in 1978, The Whole of Life, is one of those big messy books that feel rarer and rarer in 2014. Rather than a single plot or narrative piece, the novel works through different anxieties, chiefly concerning intimacy today. The novel has three sections (Job, Wife, Totems and Taboos), meant to reflect “The Whole of Life,” but these themes blend throughout the work. The pitfalls eventually describe Hecht’s difficulties with work and lovemaking. Hecht’s failures are instantly familiar and his dysfunction seems to reflect a dysfunctional society.

From the introduction: “The whole of “civilized” (twentieth-century, Western) life seems to based on those things that we well-developed primitives must worship (totems) or not mention (taboos) because they are too sacred for mere mortals like Bob and us. The totems include sex and work and their symbols (bed, bedsheets, typewriters, a house and its rooms), and the taboos include parts of the past, notably Bob’s “depth psychology” and the Shoah, and parts of the present, notably a bordello for women and the economic secret that the best-quality flesh is produced by cannibalism.”

The humor may camouflage some of the tenderness, but this is a singular work. Laederach lays his psychoanalysis bare. And some of the most compelling sections evoke a subliminal gray zone

“In the laundry room Ann had set up ten little men, in ten little cages all in a row. The cages stood on a table, and the table stood on a stone floor, which disappeared in the middle, at its lowest point into a drain. The arrangement of the little men was such that Ann could stand in front of it and put all ten fingers into the cages at the same time. Ann did this, and ten deep but tiny cries echoed through the laundry room, and ten jaws closed on her fingertips.”

Along with these works, Laederach notably co edited a Robet Walser anthology with William Gass, and was awarded both the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Italo Svevo Award for his many novels and articles. The Whole of Life is an arresting and important work from that oeuvre.


Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN


Tommy Pico’s Absent Mindr

by Adam Robinson


Poetry and eBooks have never played well together because, for instance, fixed line lengths don’t jive with the reader’s ability to adjust type size (poetry is too rigid). There are, of course, some clunky workarounds, like including a note for users to match their settings so that the longest line in the book is unbroken. Certainly this doesn’t have to be an issue; it’s something an HTML5 developer could solve quickly, I think—but why should they?

Limitations drive ingenuity. I’ve often wondered if, say, no one figured out how to make cars, would something else have been invented? Antimatter transportation!

Tommy Pico, who does Birdsong, released what he calls the first poetry App (for iOS and tablets) yesterday. Called Absent Mindr, it’s a “ch-app” he says—of course it is!—with 24 poems in four sections, situated alongside audio playback of him reading the poems, and bright collages by Cat Glennon.

The poetry is cool. That’s first. I really appreciate that the literature isn’t secondary to techcrunches, and the press release for this app is all about the poetry. Certainly it’s good stuff (read “Inheritance” at Best American Poetry), and Tommy “Teebs” Pico’s voice is pitch perfect on the audio (which can be listened to when you’re not connected, like on the subway, because all the content is a download), but what I’m really impressed by and excited about is the presentation, which is slick and gorgeous. It’s antimatter transportation to cars. The app considers the poetry, the art matches the tone. Books rarely match content with UX this well.

I think apps are expensive to create, whereas eBooks are free—but Absent Mindr suggests there’s a good future for presenting poetry this way. As startups like Atavist, Byliner, Oyster, Zola, Wattpad, Readmill (RIP) and Medium etc explore how to monetize this new frontier, it will be interesting to see what DIY pioneers like Tommy Pico create in the margins.

Anecdotally, I got my hands on the app just a day before I went to NYC for the Chapbook Festival. He did a good job spreading the word, because the room was abuzz about it (ie. three or four people mentioned the app to me while I was there). Chapbooks are a space traditionally reserved for handmade, crafty, papery books that fold, but they are open to sweet new fields like—may I suggest—chappbooks.


The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley

by Patrick James Dunagan

indexThe Selected Letters of Robert Creeley
Edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, & Kaplan Harris
University of California Press 2014
512 pages / $65  Buy from Amazon or University of California Press





The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley is an engaging, thoroughly worthwhile selection of the poet’s correspondence spanning his complete life. The editorial work done here is quite impressive. The only areas to be possibly improved upon would be further notes in the back of the book and more illustrations. The letters span some sixty odd years, so although Creeley is perhaps one of the greatest over-photographed poets of our time it seems appropriate to have at least one photograph per decade. As it is there’s about three, including the photo on the cover. It is admittedly difficult to locate yet-unseen images of him, but several pages of reproduced letter manuscripts or perhaps images of this or that difficult to obtain publication would have sufficed instead. And it proves difficult not to wish for some further elaboration upon the minimal notes included. Not every reader has the book open next to the computer to take advantage of Wikipedia and Google. Yet as stated the overall skilled arrangement of the whole book is such that these are minor quibbles.

Creeley himself well understood the massive assembling project that any selection of his letters represented. Writing to editor Rod Smith, Creeley describes his sense of how “some general ‘map’ or sense of focus or parameter would be the first need.” He then immediately suggests the then-recent “selection of [Charles] Olson letters–or Gregory’s, just out from ND” as some examples of what he has in mind as successes.  The latter volume, An accidental autobiography: the selected letters of Gregory Corso (New Directions “ND” 2003), I fondly recall a poet-pal curling up with in bed while down LA’s Chinatown for a reading, a small group of us having driven down for the event.

Creeley’s Selected, however, easily outshines my experience of reading Corso’s correspondence. This is no small feat given that so little is readily available concerning Corso, while material on Creeley is quite plentiful. I say this having an equal interest in both poets and having read ALL available material on each of them. Corso’s letters, for all his charm, are just too repetitive. They round out the experience of his poems but are ultimately as inhibited by his vices as the poems too often sadly prove to be. On the other hand, Creeley’s letters truly offer all that any of his readers might imagine and more. Not that Creeley didn’t indulge his share of vices: mention of numerous illicit substances make repeated revolving door appearance in the letters as do his (nearly) overlapping romances and marriages. Continue reading

Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones

by Benjamin Rybeck

18220681Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, June 2014
202 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Two Dollar Radio







The first, most obvious observation to make about Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is that it begins with a countdown. Its first page is numbered 183, and it descends from there, 182, 181, 180, on and on, a timer that makes this novel feel like an unusually rigid experience, temporally speaking. After all, most books are objects that readers pick up and interact with on their own terms, at their own individual paces. Crystal Eaters’ countdown, however, makes the book feel fleeting. While in the midst of reading it, I imagined it still counting down even when sitting on my coffee table, closed—like I would eventually open it again only to find all its pages blank, its time expired.

Crystal Eaters focuses on a village that “survives on myth,” and Jones’ paginated countdown helps immerse the reader in the village’s central belief: that human beings are filled with crystals—100 at the time of birth—which crystals are then lost over the course of a life (bled out, vomited up, etc. etc.), until a person’s number reaches zero, and that person dies. The crystals are multi-colored, and Jones writes of village kids witnessing “their parents vomiting blue and yellow slush into kitchen sinks, toilets, couch cushions, their laps.” Illness in this book is surprising in its glowing, cotton-candy brightness. Almost psychedelic.

Jones’ cornerstone character—named Mom—is an example of psychedelic sickness. Shriveled by illness, Mom spews red everywhere at dinnertime. She’s down to her last few crystals, and she will die soon, a reality with which her family struggles. Her husband—named Dad—is aloof, trying to make the impending tragedy easy for everyone, but ultimately helpless against his wife’s disease. Their daughter—named Remy—believes that there must be a way to increase a person’s crystal count, thus staving off death. “The universe is a system where children watch their parents die,” perhaps, but not Remy: “She’ll save Mom from experiencing the number zero.” Continue reading

Elmer Crowley: a katabasic nekyia by Tom Bradley

by Barry Katz

1525549_689531887734505_1284360628_nElmer Crowley: a katabasic nekyia
by Tom Bradley
Illustrations by David Aronson and Nick Patterson
Mandrake of Oxford Press, 2014
134 pages / $14.99 Buy from Amazon or Mandrake of Oxford







Aleister Crowley is thinking about Germany’s late chancellor:

…my magickal child… who queefed out of my psychic vagina at an unguarded moment…[who] flopped from my left auditory meatus like a menstrual clot with incipient toothbrush mustache…

His mind wanders, logically enough, to Esoteric Hitlerism, the foetal religion presently aborning in Chile. He would like to drop by Santiago and have a chat, perhaps to “glean some intelligence from the gauchos.”

But it’s too late. No more time for the transoceanic jaunts that have varied his long life and kept boredom at bay. The Great Beast 666 happens to be on his death bed. Chapter One is over, and he dies.

Chapter Two begins as follows:

So, let’s sort this out, shall we?

In those seven words you have the essence of this particular historical figure: unkillable inquisitiveness, unshakable aplomb in the sort of psychic circumstances that drove so many of his apprentices and fellow magi insane. Of Crowley’s many fictionalizations, this novel gets best into his head. Erudite, prideful, lascivious, funniest man of his time, and the mightiest spiritual spelunker–he speaks and shouts from these pages as clearly as he did in his Autohagiography, which is paradoxical, given the irreal setting of Elmer Crowley: a katabasic nekyia.

Now that his mortal coil has been shuffled off, Crowley doesn’t know quite what to expect. He has mastered the world’s ancient funerary texts as thoroughly as anyone who ever lived, but fundamental questions remain. Will he be privileged to climb the sevenfold heavens promised by the Gnostics? Will his eyes be offered a luminous series of Tibetan liminalities, clear and smoke-colored?

Apparently not.

Something else materializes and looms up, rather more architectural. It appears the Egyptians came closer than anyone to getting it right.

Crowley’s ghost has been deposited in the Hall of the Divine Kings, as described in the Nilotic Book of the Dead. Of course, our hubristic Baphomet assumes that he’s about to be greeted as a peer by the immortal gods, “the soles of whose sandals are higher than ten thousand obelisks stacked end-to-end.”

But, no, they brush him off like a midge. He’s expected to supplicate like any run-of-the-mill dead person, to have his demerit counterpoised in the balance against a feather. Godhood denied, our high adept has been doomed to reenter the tedious cycle of rebirth. Injured pride, disappointed expectations, the prospect of boredom–these have never sat well with Thelema’s Prophet-Seer-Revelator. He’s about to start behaving badly. (A signal for us to stand well back and shield our eyes and ears.)

If he must return to the rigmarole of existence, it will be on his own terms. Exercising his prerogative as a magus of the highest accomplishment, Aleister Crowley will pick and choose his next carcass. He cold-shoulders the Divine Kings and calls forth Baubo, the headless Greek comedienne-demoness. Her job is to whisper filthy jokes to the peregrinating monad, to get it into a “meaty mood” before it gets stuffed, yet again, among female intestines.

His fans and devotees will recall that Aleister Crowley’s speech was famously impedimented. Like a certain other bald, pudgy celebrity who will remain semi-nameless, he made his “R” sound like “W.” (A tied tongue is one of the natal indices of a buddha, as he proudly points out more than once.) Is it any wonder that a key phoneme of the magickal evocation should go mispronounced?

He accidentally summons a being who, in David Aronson’s accompanying illustration, looks familiar enough–but evidently not to Crowley. Considering himself to be laying eyes on the genuine Baubo for the first time, he enlists her embryogenetic assistance. Happy to cooperate, this pseudo-Baubo zips him into his new carcass (by no means the one he would have chosen) and sucks him into the inferno where he is doomed to wander for the rest of the pagination. At no point does Crowley realize the true identity of the Virgil he has conjured.

How is such misrecognition possible? In the life that just ended, didn’t our protagonist ever stumble, perhaps in a heroin stupor, through the door of a cinema in Soho, or Bombay, or Cairo, or New Orleans, and be subjected to an animated short subject featuring this baby-talking canary? How can we, the mere uninitiate, see what the great Seer can’t?

Think of all the things Aleister Crowley has ogled that would have scorched our exoteric orbits. In the Algerian Sahara he braved the Abyss and achieved full conversance with his Guardian Angel. In Egypt he personally received the evangel of the New Harpocratic Aeon in which we presently live and die. And yet, plopped like a newborn into Tom Bradley’s latest novel, the poor soul can only stare in unfocused puzzlement at his new self. He squints at the “series of obese white slugs writhing jointlessly on the ends of [his] arms.” Nick Patterson’s illustration, on the opposite page, plainly shows no slugs, but just funny fingers fitted out with the sort of white gloves that come standard issue in Looney Tunes Land.

1521560_689716101049417_1206095506_nIt’s 1947, before the onset of television and Saturday morning kiddy-narcotizing hour. Cartoons are still made to be shown between feature movies in theaters, to audiences that include grownups. The art is done by hand, and full orchestral music is composed for each moment. In other words, the Mega Therion is sent into Merry Melodies Hell when it’s still worthy of receiving the magnificent likes of him.

As befits a neonate, Crowley’s senses don’t work well. For some chapters he must “proceed from a skewed seat of sensation” and “grope along with a tactility hardly worthy of the name.” But, thanks to the graphic perspicuity of Bradley’s illustrators, we the readers suffer no such handicap. As our ears listen to the protagonist narrating his myopic descent into the underworld, our eyes are privileged to enjoy a gnosis beyond his ken. We’re given a wordless wisdom unavailable to “the most gargantuan magus of post-Renaissance times.”

Here is revealed the fascinating and unprecedented relation of word to image in this book. Tom Bradley has long been known for repeatedly performing, at will, almost offhandedly, a task one would have thought impossible, perhaps magickal, in these latter jaded days: the invention of new genres. Andrei Codrescu hailed his quasi-nonfiction opus Fission Among the Fanatics as “the first appearance of a genre so strange we are turning away from naming it…” In the field of meta-scholarship, the late Carol Novack described his Epigonesia as “that rarity of rarities: a new genre, something like a superficially nonfictional Pale Fire, taking place in real time as the primary text alternately rides roughshod over, and is sapped and subverted by, the critical apparatus.” More recently, in his books Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom, Bradley has yanked new kinks into the synaesthetic art of ekphrasis. He “accepted the challenge posed by stacks of preexisting art” and wrote a novel and an epic poem, respectively, around them.

Now he’s bulldozed into another new neighborhood. In Elmer Crowley, a katabasic nekyia, the artwork is given epistemological precedence over the text, which is deeply strange. Yet, even as that unique protocol is laid down for the first time in the history of book production, it breaches its own decorum. Ever deeper generic layers are exposed, like the grotesque frescoes of some Neronic bathhouse leering under a Vatican street crew’s jackhammer.

The Great Beast might not be able to puzzle out the exoteric designation of Looney Tunes Land, but he has no problem engaging the horrific anima that informs it. In his dysesthesia, forced to apprehend essences behind epiphenomena, Crowley shrewdly interprets everything in terms of the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Greek Eleusinian mysteries, the Theravada school, Iamblichus’ brand of Neoplatonism, John Dee’s Enochian ceremonial, and all the other occultural traditions of which he is a past master. (Significantly, to his irritation, and eventual undoing, Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy also keeps rearing its disapproving head.)

Accustomed to dealing with protean elementary wraiths and their camouflages, Crowley’s magickal mind sets about penetrating this world’s celluloid shell, intuiting the true demonic source of illumination behind it. And that intuition soaks straight into Nick Patterson and David Aronson’s pens, pigments and papers, to surprise our expectations when the next familiar character makes an entrance. Crowley describes a gray and white blur, with a—

…lascivious tuft of cottony fibers attached to what would, in the subphylum Vertebrata, be its sacroiliac… It seems to be mouthing a roughly penis-shaped item, some kind of vegetable, probably identifiable by its color. The visible spectrum’s mutilated in an indefinable way, so that I can’t commit myself as to it being a turnip or cucumber or eggplant…. A pair of roughly penile protuberances rise from the apex of what I assume, from its paramount position, to be the skull. I hesitate to call them horns, as neither seems particularly rigid.

But, steel yourself, turn the page and be enlightened. The scwewy wabbit who turned our childhoods’ Saturday mornings into orgies of giant sucking mouth-kisses and dynamite sticks down the trousers, has bat wings on his shoulders. Squid-tentacle suction cups encrust the inner surfaces of his ears. His eye sockets gape with the blackness of the bottomless pit. Crowley’s spiritual acuity has identified the chaotic grotesquery that, we only now realize, has always simmered under the technicolor surface of Leon Schlesinger’s cosmos. It turns out that Bugs is, and always has been, since his first appearance in 1940, none other than Choronzon. He’s the horrendous Keeper of the Abyss that comprises, of course, his “wabbit hole.”

1497775_689528627734831_1358915077_nAnd down into that hole the Great Beast 666 plunges. We follow him to the sub-basement of Hades, where “beasties and mutants of every unknown species are rehearsing a pageant, a loony Eleusinian anti-mystery.” Their formulary comprises the scatological doggerel he once dedicated to one of his more coprophagically inclined Scarlet Women. The Wickedest Man in the World turns out to be something of a prophet in these parts—

All the miniature therianthropes and gryphons, the mutant beasties and mooncalves and woodland nematodes look up from their pious devotionals. They do a synchronized double take in the broadest Hollywood style, and throng me as if I were Christ running his skiff aground at Galilee’s water treatment facility. Asperging in all directions what passes for sex sauce, they wail in woe, they hymn in high ecstasy, they puff me up and empurple me like Pentheus in the Bacchantes.

“I tot I taw Aleister! I di-i-id, I did taw Aleister! Oooh, looky-looky everybody! Look who’s he-e-e-ere!”

Anyone who has found himself suddenly plunged into unknown surroundings (and who with any gumption hasn’t?) will instinctively try to make sense by recourse to past experience. Grasping for orientation, Crowley solicits the aid of a gallery of historical personages. Like Dante before him, he will see his contemporaries in Hell.

It’s only logical that Leon Schlesinger, creator of Looney Tunes, should be spending eternity in this abyss. In life, he, too, suffered from a speech impediment: the kind that sprays saliva with S-sounds. So, of course, he greets Crowley morphed into the person of Daffy Duck. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal Doktor Gutes Gefühl, who died at the same time as Crowley, is seen administering gigantic syringes of methamphetamine to all the little monsters. Due to a clerical error in the Divine Hall of Judgment, his soul has been stuffed into a hippo’s carcass.

As for Dr. Morell’s master, a.k.a. Crowley’s “magickal child—

Der Fuhrer and Emperor Hirohito are attempting to perform the expected soixante-neuf. But, though their salivary glands are cooperating, there is some difficulty. Symbolic retribution has burdened them with duck bills (though they could be platypuses as easily as mallards). Their matching toothbrush mustachios being extended far into space by these cartilaginous mouth parts, the former Axis leaders are hard pressed to achieve intimacy with what, upon scrutiny, proves to be this universe’s most horrifying and widespread characteristic: featureless crotches.

1513216_689705124383848_1682272316_nPorky Pig turns the generic tables, crosses the blood-brain-reality barrier, and makes a cameo appearance as the devil who, in real life, made steak tartare of Crowley’s pectorals at a Theosophical soiree in 1910. It’s an orgy scene full of unspeakable depravity and monstrosity, taken from Crowley’s own horror fiction.

Meanwhile, a colossal nude Madame Blavatsky turns out to be the mountain upon which all this hellaciousness has been taking place–

946731_689559311065096_1431515761_nAnd, speaking of Blavatsky, I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the prophet of Crowleyanity comes to learn that the cosmos runs according to a Theosophical rather than Thelemic dispensation. The news is not good for practical occultists, because their spirits are doomed by Blavatskianity to be ground to sub-atoms on Kama-Loka’s adamantine floor. Under the astral grindstone, a sequel is rendered impossible, even in a genre that permits reincarnation–the ultimate sequel bait.

The book ends affectingly with the man’s actual last words:

I’m perplexed.

Sometimes I hate myself.


Barry Katz is a wandering Jew from Jaffa, where, as a kid on a kibbutz, he picked green grapefruits.