Monday, September 08, 2008

necrophilia for all

Although in recent years I've turned into a voracious reader, it only happens once or twice a year that I find a work of literary fiction that grabs me by the lapels and pulls me to the end in a breathless flurry of page-turning. This year’s most recent recipient of this honor: Waste by Eugene Marten.

Marten seems to be one of those underground lit writers who have little attention paid to them yet develop a small but excitable and loyal cult following. Think Gary Lutz or Dawn Raffel. Like both Lutz and Raffel, Marten is a "disciple" of Gordon Lish (he who launched Raymond Carver’s career, and he who can be tied by one degree of separation to (ballpark) 75% of the best contemporary literary fiction writers out there).... although I don’t believe that Marten was taught or schooled by Lish. To hear Lish’s raves in the blurbs he’s given to Marten for both Waste and his previously published novel In the Blind, it sounds as though Marten is more of a Lish discovery than a Lish student. Not much is publicly known about the guy (google searches don’t turn up much).... what little digging I’ve managed to do makes it sound like Waste was self-published first, followed by Lish’s championing to get In the Blind sold to an actual publishing house. Waste finally got its professional publishing treatment just last month. With this guy’s first two (and only two) novels, I'm a rabid fan.

Both novels provide a very close-up perspective on two lonely, disaffected men. Both novels give the reader an inside view of these two men’s occupations (the former of a locksmith, the latter of a skyscraper janitor) and beautifully illuminates the minutiae of these jobs into something almost symphonic.... and once we're able to see past the details and fixations on these jobs, the greater character study comes into play.

Where In the Blind provides more historical context to allow us to see how the protagonist evolves into the person he is, Waste plays all its cards at once. I'd hate to get categorical, but Waste seems to follow directly in the footsteps of the Southern Gothic tradition (language-wise, certainly.... think William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy). I don't have a truckload of literary criticism to back this up, but let's just say that our protagonist loner also has an affinity for necrophilia.

What is it about having sex with dead people that is so fascinating to writers of this oeuvre? Hell, it's fascinating to readers like me, so clearly there's a market. And this isn't a rare occurrence: think McCarthy's Child of God (you get a whole cavern full of dead girls there), think William Gay's recent novel Twilight (undertaker takes advantage of his clientèle, so to speak), think Faulkner's short story classic "A Rose for Emily" (with gender roles reversed, this woman keeps her lover in her bed years long after he's expired). Even outside of the Southern Gothic box you can point to examples of classic British literature: In Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, you've got one of the main characters digging up his beloved and having his way with the exhumed body. Of course, with a more Victorian sensibility the prose is subtle as hell to describe his actions.... but oh yes, he's having sex with a corpse.

Marten takes a cue from McCarthy's book of tricks and just goes for the gusto. I'm certainly the kind of reader who goes crazy for imagery (minimalism be damned!), and despite how graphic and unsettling it is, the quality of the writing is so elevated and beautiful that you can only help but tag along. Why bother shrouding necrophilia in innuendo when you can just come out and tell it like it is? Both protagonists of Waste and Child of God first happen to stumble upon their deceased sex objects by accident: one in a dumpster, the other in an abandoned car. Perhaps it's this idea that the characters are so helpless to their hidden urges that the fact they accidentally come across the bodies makes them more identifiable? Identity with the protagonists, at least in terms of what turns them on, isn't what concerns us readers: I'm sure we're in it in part for the lurid show of it all, but I think there's a bit of acknowledgment of the curiosity that desperation can engender as well.

It's interesting, though, how literary fiction as "art" with regards to something this heinous can get away with this.... but the "art" applied to film may not be so forgiving. I can't imagine fare such as Child of God or Twilight or Waste translating to film without seriously compromising the integrity of the story. I mean, how exactly could you film something like that? [side note: I have similar concerns about the forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winner The Road. Although no dead people are sexually exploited, the subject matter of the novel is pitch black and awfully bleak (cannibalism among one of the more sensational topics), and I'll be interested to see how audiences respond to something like that.... also interested to see if the filmmakers dare to inject some levity in there somewhere.]

Necrophilia aside, Eugene Marten is a fantastic literary talent who deserves a broader audience so that he can stand aside heavyweights like McCarthy. I'm just hoping he's got another finished novel out there he's ready to kick into distribution.....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He does. TYRANT BOOKS will publish Eugene Marten's now novel next year.