Beyond brown and bubbly
by Jim Chaffee
[ bookreviews ]
Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight flows from the page, a prose poem in fragmented pointillism of sensory input, short strings more the neo-impressionism of pointed images than the hyphenated expressionistic gripes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Blake exits stage left followed by yours truly. We stumble from the Orient Express and weave our way across freight yards. Labyrinths of drunken shipping containers stacked up into canyons. Rivers of slurried rainwater. Backwash. Ziggurats of scrapped steel. The drizzle once again peters out. A flair of grey light briefly in the east. At our backs. Unheeded epiphany. We stoop towards our shadows’ blotted compass-point. Gravity. Footfall. Our echoes precede us.
The darkness comes of the technique of chiaroscuro applied to characters contrasted against events and scenes no more beyond the pale than those of Céline but without the lightening of humor. The mood is pervasive gloom, a tone set by a protagonist whose impressions dab out the fragments against which the story stretches. The story is no darker than a realist ought expect of a human primate, certainly no outlier given the range of behavior of humans as reported by the nightly news and well within one standard deviation of the behavioral characteristics of the typical human. (When I lived in the French Quarter in the 1970s while teaching at Tulane, I used to tell my statistics students that in my neighborhood the standard deviation was fellatio; they duly wrote it down and eventually asked if it would be on the exam.)
This approach to narration applies a barrier of complexity unwelcome to US readers given their cultural imperative of one-dimensional comic book views of everything, especially in fiction. Of course, there are those who think the pseudo-angst of soap-operatic “complexity” like the dark Batman or the Punisher are multidimensional, but they wouldn’t grasp honest portrayal of human behavior in all its ambiguity were it to bite them on the ass. Here the story spins out of the background, bedeviling speed-readers who miss forest for trees except when presented in artless straightforward narrative of the elementary school student. Here looming plot lines form from the surrounding aura, transformed from ambient background and gelling on the bones of sensory input with only requisite observability to output the barest of denouement.
As the protagonist reveals himself and his crime unfolds, he remains sympathetic even while we perceive that perhaps he rationalizes, the wont of the human primate, its most prevalent application of language. It seems maybe he was mistaken in motive for the killing, his attempts to calm by restraint misguided as well. Certainly the character is a villain if judged from an outside recording of facts as for a jury in a court of law. But we are not without, thanks to prose drawing the reader in before allowing the details to settle of their own accord within the story, not told but played out in events. That is the proper way to spin a tale, but as much as literary agents and editors and teachers counsel “show, don’t tell,” they seldom understand what they are saying.
There will be those obtuse enough to compare Armand to Jim Thompson, just as there exist sciolists who would compare Thompson to Dostoevsky, but neither comparison is apt, at least with respect to this work. While Thompson, overrated as he became after his death, provides inside views of the workings of intentional petty criminals, Armand gives us an inner view (note the difference) of someone not following such a path. The tool of his well crafted prose, necessary here to forge the events out of ambient background, is at odds with the ham-fisted telling of Thompson. Armand’s story worms its way out of an infested history beyond the control of the protagonist, wriggling unbidden like an ascaris from an anus. I would suggest that a more apt comparison might be Djuna Barnes.
It is of note that the Australian Armand resides in Prague. If this work is any indication of his other novels, his approach is as revolutionary as was the Czech New Wave Cinema of the Prague Spring that brought to life a plethora of exuberant innovation in open rebellion against the oppression of the Soviet regime. The need at the present for tanks in the West is obviated by corporatist semi-official US mass media indoctrinating and receiving feedback from a miseducated, functionally-illiterate populace marginalizing anything outside the quasi-official box. This leaves little hope that Armand will play here in the US, his shades of gray intellectually inaccessible. Here it is either good or evil, no in-between, incertitude disallowed. Villains must demonstrate their evil clearly. This is, after all, the freedom loving nation that ran Thomas Paine out for telling them the truth that the God they worship is a monster, a gangster of gangsters, a homicidal and genocidal maniac. It is little wonder that the nation itself is insane, that it must continually up the ante of evil in its official villains in order to not see itself in them. Michael Myers of the Hollywood slasher-film franchise Halloween may be the best representative of the national character.
I am haunted by a Czech film directed by J´n Kad´r and Elmar Klos that I saw in the early 1970s, released internationally as Something Is in the Water but which I recall with the title Adrift. Not so famous as The Shop on Main Street, I preferred it. This novel reminds me of it for some reason I do not rationally grasp. I meantime strive to emulate an infinite-state automaton of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds tensored with Serb director Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, though I would settle for his Montengro. His The Coca Cola Kid was set in Australia and was brown and bubbly.