Re-reviews of Ander Monson's Other Electricities & Daniel Borzutzky's Arbitrary Tales
[Someone on Goodreads asked to see a review of Ander Monsoon's Other Electricities that I wrote a while back for NY Press (before the right-wing takeover) & searching now the review seems to have disappeared from their site or they've moved it & took my name off it. So i am reposting it here since it's a great book that you should read if you haven't already. I also wrote a lost review for NY Press of another keeper from that year (2005), Daniel Borzutzky's Arbitrary Tales, reposted below.]
Other Electricities is more than stories or poems. It is an accumulation of mounting evidence compiled obsessively by Monson, whose role is akin to a forensic scientist, switchboard dispatcher and hack short-wave radio operator all wrapped in one. “Everything has a source if you can find it,” says Monson, “some point of emanation.” The setting or source for the book is the raw and desolate Keweenaw peninsula of Upper Michigan, “former home of massive copper & iron mines,” and “now in some ways a place only for ghosts & tourists”—a place that Monson constructs (by deconstructing) as a circuit or an electric city where everything—the people, the snow and ice, the economy, teenage antics, the stars, our dated technologies, the lakes and canals—are all interconnected by unseen forces. Unseen by many perhaps, but not by Monson, who is in tune to the bandwidth of these forces, and whose acute sense of observation picks up the subtle signals and silent pleas and is able to channel and unscramble this analog static—a static analogous to the meaningless gossip that grips many remote northern communities bounded and bonded by isolation and the elements—and is able to retransmit this chatter with clear and quiet intensity, giving new meanings and truths in nostalgic retrospect.
There are stories here, and Other Electricities is a novel in much the same way as Magnolia is a movie or Twin Peaks a TV drama—there are those who drown, fall through the ice or get trapped in snowdrifts; there are vandals, shoplifters and arsonists, those that throw eggs at boats or drop bowling balls off overpasses; there is grief and the burden of loss, and although death abounds, it is seen through the detached lens of cause and effect, a consequence of entropy, a mere slowing down of motion, a transferal of energy from one form to another. There is also advice on “reducing your murderability index,” and there is even an index at the end with the term “indexing” within the index, spiraling into self-referential and healing decay. There are adolescent romantic obsessions and perversions and there is the human response to natural phenomena of the kind that make Unsolved Mysteries. And there is Monson, the radio amateur with a “license to use the language,” who causes us to take a step back and consider these human behaviors in a refreshing new light, who allows these invisible signals to penetrate his bones like x-rays and precipitate this nothingness into something tangible, sublimating and transmitting this data as audible and accessible and beautifully eerie anomalies, shedding sparks of electric light and snow and invisible warmth into what otherwise might be a cold dark void.
In "How We Celebrate the Arrival of Spring," Borzutzky proclaims that “Our instincts get us nowhere, and the only way we can reach our destination is by failing and failing over and over again until finally we come upon the right spot.” Borzutzky may fumble in fits in starts, sputtering under warped self-imposed constraints, or in necessary bouts of realism so as not to disenfranchise the reader, but as a whole his collagic textual expressions become a snowballing juggernaut that appropriates recursive elements of morphology, mythology, etymology, entomology, regeneration, numerology, copulation, field sports, taxonomy and other illogical methodologies into one fantastic hybrid beast steaming from the nostrils in song.
Although Borzutzky’s brute voice is mindfully and skillfully detached from his narratives, his South American pedigree (his parents are Chilean Jews that emigrated to New York City) inevitably shows through in veiled magical realism and nods to the likes of Manuel Puig. But like his contemporary George Saunders, Borzutzky’s stories are timeless and at times reminiscent of elders like Jonathon Swift or Edwin Abbott or even the Brother’s Grimm.
Borzutzky’s narrative role in Arbitrary Tales is as rogue arbitrator. Many of the fictions consist of ingeniously contrived and convoluted protocols, or involved rituals or re-enactments. In "War," the engagement rules for a battle ceremony are laid out where the “battle is not one of fighting but of mathematics” and the precise rules are enforced by snake charmers who are not really snake charmers since all the snakes in the village had long since been wiped out. Besides lending an authoritative air of conviction, his procedural dialect often rings like sacraments or devotional chants. In "The Rider of the White Horse," Borzutzky humbly concedes, “My trademark is His trademark for he controls me and I am but a hitchhiker on a road to an eternal nowhere.” And in "Eight Unfinished Narratives," a letter addressed to the absurdist Daniil Kharms, he states, “For to live, they believe, is to endlessly pass by other passersby who endlessly pass by other passersby.” Within the book as a whole, within each tale, and within each sentence, Borzutzky’s beautiful language hemorrhages holistically and evolves recursively to further its own process of its compounded intent to communicate the laws hidden behind primordial truths.