Second Glance: Another City
Avec Books, 2004
The Quarry and the Lot
Mark Wallace has published twenty books and chapbooks in the last twenty years, yet it’s fair to say his fiction is little known. Those who read him mostly read his poetry, and as the readers of new poetry and the readers of new fiction live in different worlds, writers brave enough to stretch into multiple genres often find themselves caught midair. Good writers are peripatetic but their readers often fuss and roll their eyes (or, worse, ignore books completely) when those writers try new approaches, new genres, new voices—this is true for sophisticated readers as well, including readers of new poetry.
As a poet, Wallace has written procedural experiments (Complications from Standing in a Circle), aphoristic pensées (Nothing Happened and Besides I Wasn’t There) and Whitmanesque catalogues (The End of America). But if his modes are capricious, his themes are consistent (linguistic treachery, institutional horrors, weltschmerz). This also holds true for the novels he’s published, Dead Carnival and The Quarry and the Lot. They’re stylistically as unalike as any two books you’ll find but they both, in their different ways, identify a trap that contemporary Americans have fallen into, or were born into, and can’t escape. Though the books speak in antithetical tongues, they deliver a uniform judgment; it’s the judgment C. P. Cavafy pronounces on a character in his poem “The City,” the one who says “’I will go to another place, to another shore. / Another city can be found that’s better than this.’” To which Cavafy replies:
Always you’ll return to this city. Don’t even hope for another.
There’s no boat for you, there’s no other way out.
In the way you’ve destroyed your life here,
in this little corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere else.
Dead Carnival, which appeared in 2004 from the late Avec Books, is a bricolage in which a half dozen strains of narrative alternate with short essays, satirical poems, and “routines” reminiscent of the paranoid recitations of William Burroughs. In fact the experience of reading Dead Carnival is very much like reading late Burroughs, from the Cities of the Red Night period, though without the drugs or misogyny (Wallace is, refreshingly, a philogynist). There are conscious nods to the old man (Burroughs’ “old jerky far off film” becomes Wallce’s “The scene flickers with the roughness of an old, damaged black and white movie print…”). There is also, as in Burroughs, the switching of body parts and anal penetration of the unwelcome variety. Much of this can be quite funny—both the specific horrors of the moment and the philosophical generalizations thereby occasioned—and it can be murky too, and dry and then, when you least expect it, compelling. Like Cities of the Red Night, Dead Carnival is a horror novel in the sense that it’s about horror, what attracts and repels us about the weird, disgusting, and uncanny, and what that says about who we are.
In the first pages the reader is dropped into a mesh of pictures, ideas, characters who come and go without introduction. The carnivalesque and perverse spirits of Mikhail Bakhtin and Georges Bataille seem to preside over a series of genuinely frightening dreams: the bodies of the characters are cheap, and they’re run through alarming B-movie encounters as a way of suggesting the real horror is what defines itself as reality. As one character puts it:
Is it possible to imagine a monster doing anything nearly as horrific as that which humans already do to each other? A vampire in Nazi Germany would be such an inferior blot of evil as to be comically absurd. Is it not true, then, that people often imagine monsters because they cannot imagine what humans already do to each other?
After a few chapters different narrative threads begin to emerge. The dead are walking again, but they’re not dangerous, just a nuisance. The banality of this horror (or the horror of this banality) sends a young woman, Beatrice, on a quest to get away, outside, through. There are other problems too: “Loneliness was so often the crunching sense of being surrounded by people with whom she had nothing in common, the deeply demoralizing recognition of their hostility and indifference and lostness.” She gets into the car and drives away from everything, into the desert. She’s visited by apparitions who try to frighten her off from the next town, warning, “They’re going to fuck you to death with your nightmares.” But she presses on, and what she finds in the desert is a grotesque mystery out of a bad comic book, and the reader is provided with a choose-your-own adventure series of solutions to how she escapes (or doesn’t escape) (or thinks she’s escaped, but no escape is really possible).
There are other stories: parodies of westerns, police procedurals. In one plotline, a man who has been subjected to experiments by a deluded scientist and transformed into a monstrosity (as in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” we are only given hints at the nature of his horrid appearance) approaches his old friend Dan on Dan’s back porch, while keeping hidden so as not to startle him. “I’m glad you recognize my voice,” he says, but “don’t look at me yet; I’d rather stay out of sight.” Then he explains what’s happened, voice choked with disgust. His own body parts have been replaced with fish parts (a hammerhead shark’s, we later discover). “You think I’m joking? I’m trying to tell you I’m not a human being anymore, but some nameless, putrid … thing. I’m a creature, Dan, some kind of hideous creature.” But Dan keeps laughing it off, and then the real horror: Dan steps into the light himself to explain that all of this is old news, that everyone in town has been experimented on; Dan’s own body now displays “hideous organs of unspeakable loathsomeness”—his head rests on a wavy stalk, and he’s been fitted with revolting gills. “Come and join the party,” Dan taunts him, “… look at my gills. Look how they open out.” This is of a piece with Wallace’s diagnosis: we flee from horror and so encounter it. There is no escape.
Wallace includes a rather heavy satire of a generic midlist literary novel toward the end of Dead Carnival, and he does so precisely to make the point that such novels are part of the problem, the horror that deludes itself into thinking horror is what it is not. This satire is the story of David, whose wife has left him, and who is now also estranged from his son Steve. We are in John Updike or Anne Tyler country here, and epiphanies are at hand. In one scene he looks out at the sailboats in his local harbor:
Despite his feelings of regret, the sailboats suggest he can move forward into a new way of being. And after all, the details about the boats are comforting (especially with this much metaphorical richness) as a conclusion to a story where images resonate with compassion and complexity. It’s like we can feel the wind in our faces, like our faces are the sails …
Coming, as it does, so late in a novel of the kind that grants few concessions to midcentury realist ideas about fiction, this bit of the book makes clear that Wallace would never write a “mainstream” novel, and that he holds such a form in a kind of abhorrence.
Wallace’s next novel, The Quarry and the Lot, published in 2011 by BlaxeVox, is a mainstream novel of realist, midcentury-style fiction. Four entirely plausible and sympathetic narrators gently lower the reader into a medias res relation of high school confusion, midlife delusion, and the death of an old friend. It is moving, immediately relevant, and heartfelt.
Luke, who narrates the longest and most engaging passages, is an English teacher at a community college not far from where he grew up on the outskirts of Bethesda, Maryland. He loved great books and studied under the illusion that the profession of teaching might have involved exploring their lessons; instead, he spends his days correcting the papers of “students who might make it if they could become standard enough and who I could respect only if they didn’t.” He refuses to leave the suburb and is deadened by its routine. There are moments where the fog clears enough to permit Luke to write a poem or make an intellectual connection but those moments are rare:
It’s like for weeks on end, my brain doesn’t have space for anything other than the mundane details of getting through the day—people’s neuroses, administrative lies, the price of gas, whatever little problem is going to come out of nowhere and take all my time. Then if I have a few days off, I begin to step back and think and that makes it worse, because I remember all the things I haven’t had a chance to think about, and I panic.
In order to navigate the bad faith and officialese with which he is contractually required to deport himself at work, he loses touch with his actual emotions—it comes as a surprise to him when he doesn’t have to lie to friends: “like many people, I had my fakeness and seriousness so confused I couldn’t tell them apart.”
Though his rebelliousness is repressed, it did once have a champion. In high school, Luke and a number of other friends were drawn to a bright and charismatic boy named Joseph. All of Wallace’s readers will have known a boy or a girl like Joseph and many of us will have been both attracted to and afraid of this person. Joseph said what he felt, was not above risking his neck, and saw through all the bullshit. Then, as often happens with such kids, he failed to adapt to a world that, as we age, encourages individualism less and conformity more. Wallace makes the same point in Dead Carnival, under a section describing “legal forms of torture”:
At an early age, people are encouraged to develop creative talents whenever possible; the ability to paint, sing, play a musical instrument. Many, of course, do not accept encouragement and give up right away. Others develop quite a bit of ability, some even an impressive originality. There are many supports for this development to continue—the people in the community are loud in their call for money, time, whatever special attention is necessary.
Then, at a certain age, with startling suddenness this support disappears. These same talents much admired in children are despised in adults. People who continue to paint, or to play an instrument, are denied any possibility of a position where they can use their talents.
In The Quarry and the Lot, Joseph’s case is complex. He becomes obsessed with the Holocaust (which his family avoided by escaping Germany early), accusing everyone around him of dormant complicity, not that they’re Nazis per se, but that they could be, given the right circumstances. He sees through the veneer of suburban life, sees the horror. If Luke remains in town, Joseph warns him: “You’ll have to think like these people think and do like they do, or else they’ll be on you all the time. That’s the way everything works. Do what they say and you can be like them. Do anything else and watch out.” (Later he worries there’s nowhere to escape to after all. “What if it’s all the same as here?”) But Joseph becomes what he beholds, bullies his friends, picks fights with strangers (“jocks” who deserve it mostly, but others too) and ends up heavily medicated, lost, fumbling apologies, fading out.
It’s Joseph’s funeral that provides the catalyst for the novel’s action. Three of his old friends travel home for the awkward ceremony and reconnect with their memories of Joseph and of one another, and confront how large a part those memories still play in their conception of themselves. They can’t escape. Neither could Joseph.
As one of the characters in Dead Carnival remarks of another, “you’d think, if what had happened to him here made him so deathly afraid, he would have left and never come back. Instead, though, he seemed drawn here, and came back as frequently as possible.”
Yes, Joseph is a symbol for talent and creative energy (and the ability to clearly see what’s going on beneath the surface) in American-style capitalism, and subject to American suburbs, but, to the reader, he is also a real person, a character who is evoked so poignantly and thoroughly we feel as though we know him. Wallace imagines his characters completely, and complicates them so believably that they transcend their roles as easily-summarized metaphors and emerge as multi-dimensional beings. Was Joseph’s accidental death by fire in fact a suicide? To what extent was Amelia’s failed relationship with Luke a hangover from her failed relationship with Joseph? Why has Luke hung around his hometown? Why has Amelia walked away from her marriage and what is she walking toward? Does Nick, another old friend of Joseph’s, really see apparitions of his old friend’s ghost, or is this a different kind of haunting? The characters talk with one another and they talk with themselves, they agonize, make decisions, and then reverse them.
If the characters in The Quarry and the Lot are satisfyingly complex, so is the thematic material. Wallace explores not only the tedium and hypocrisy of the late-capitalist workplace but also the continuing marginalization of women, the neither-here-nor-there quality of the suburbs and exurbs (is there a difference between them anymore?), the way big life-changing revelations wash over us all the time, and then roll away, leaving us no wiser and our lives unchanged, the way the world we see in high school is so achingly real while we live it, and the way that it haunts us later. As Joseph’s (and later Luke’s) ex-girlfriend Amelia puts it to herself: “Making a decision doesn’t change anything. Even when you’ve made it, you can still take it back. Decisions would be easy if you had to make them only once. What’s difficult about decisions is you have to act on them again and again.”
Buried in the memories of those who knew him, Joseph is transformed. He is Amelia’s restlessness, Luke’s depression, and Nick’s mysticism. He is merely a puzzle, however, to Luke’s father, a first-generation resident of those suburbs who simply can’t understand how prosperity, safety, and order have created such wild dissatisfaction. As he explains to his wife, “for most people, for most of history, it’s not true that religion, work and love have led to successful, happy lives. Instability, fear, disease, and war are so much more common that our lives are tremendous exceptions. Isn’t that miraculous?”
No one quite understands why they come home for Joseph’s funeral or how it changes their lives when they depart. As Luke’s father laments to his wife, “The stories we think of as anchoring us to our lives can show themselves, if we look closely, to be riddled with the same emptiness they were intended to displace.”
Like Dead Carnival, The Quarry and the Lot is full of ambiguities, but they’re ambiguities of character rather than form. It is also a novel of horror, but in this case the horror is more domestic, and so more frightening. There is no escape from the world we’ve made, no other city. How could there be?
Mark Wallace blogs at Thinking Again and this is the best way to follow his work and to watch for new fiction. You should find and read The Quarry and the Lot and you should read whatever he publishes next. I have no idea what it will be like.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Brooklyn Rail, and Bookforum. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short story “The Arcadia Project” about the painter Thomas Eakins appears in the current issue of Puerto Del Sol.
Note I: Many thanks to Maureen Thorson for the long-distance bookshopping & to Bridge Street Books in Washington DC.
Note II: The Constantine Cavafy translation quoted above is by Stratis Haviaras.