Ext. Montage. A Ride on the Reading RailRoad to Mt. Real


Scene I: NYC to Montreal (reading Sentence 3 and Eye Against Eye by Forrest Gander)

> Scene II: Around Montreal (reading Motorman by David Ohle)

Scene III: Montreal to NYC (reading The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders)




In the introduction to Motorman by David Ohle, Ben Marcus says that for a long time he was scared to read it--"It's existence bothered me, and I grew leery of being artistically paralyzed by its reported high oddity and invention, its completely unexampled decimation of fiction-as-we-have-come-to-know-it." After reading the introduction I was scared to read it. Could anything live up to the hype, causing you to float into the air or render you "gummy and mute"?  

If living up to the test of time is a testimony to its legendary success, then Motorman has certainly done that. Originally published in 1972 by Knopf, it lived and survived a hushed cult existence, until 3rd Bed recently reissued it (bless their souls) last year to coincide with Soft Skull's publishing of Motorman's long-awaited sequel, The Age of Sinatra. With such a timeless novel, if you miss the boat (like me) you can always catch it next time around and not miss too much. If anything, check it out for the cover alone (to the right, held superimposed over the moving landscape of the Canadian frontier). 

I read most of it in Montreal before finishing it on the train back. Being in a foreign landscape added to the experience (all the accompanying pictures to the right come from "Mt. Real"). Some novels you read to nostalgically revisit places you've traveled or lived. In the case of Motorman, Ohle (rhymes with holy) fabricates a whole new world. I guess you could call it science fiction or speculative or futuristic, but more in a human and believable way reminiscent of Blade Runner or the worlds that George Saunders creates in his novels (of which I will review the Reign of Phil in the next montage sequence). Or think of Radiohead's OK Computer, but in a textual, novel form, written 15 years before. These are the emotional landscapes it invokes.

It's always amusing to read sci-fi novels from 30+ years ago--before the internet, before cell phones, before CDs, before life as we know it now--and see which depictions hold true. But like Saunder's, to Ohle it's not so much about describing geeky future gadgetry as it is the emotional disposition of futuristic societies and the predicted human interactions, a lot of which rings true in today's world. The cold detachment and alienation. The superficiality. The organ transplants (though we limit ourselves to one heart at a time, unlike Mondenke who has 4 sheep hearts to back up his failing human heart). Just today there was an article in the NY Times about the first face transplant. Back when Motorman was written, this probably wouldn't been the stuff of science fiction, and in Ohle's world, such reconstructive surgery abounds, not out of necessity, but as fashion statements, or as units of emotive barter (he gets discharged from a "mock war" by volunteering for a minor fracture (subsequently inflicted to his knee by a nurse) and he throws in a "list of feelings" as a guilt-ridden after-thought, as if he is not giving enough, or as if feelings were detachable commodities that could be sacrificed for a price. 

The "he" is Mondenke, the lonely and hen-pecked (yet ever-resilient) protagonist trying to eke out an existence in a bureaucratic and oppressive government controlled-world (if you have seen any of William Kentridge's movies, think Felix Teitelbaum). Mondenke receives menacing and intrusive phone calls from a Mr. Bunce, who seems to know and monitor everything of Mondenke's whereabouts or even his thoughts. Mondenke spends most of the book trying to escape Bunce and find Dr. Burnheart, his old confidant and physician, and the apparent object of his affections, Cock Roberta, whom he woos by saying her nipples are like erasers. During his escapist travels, he alludes and in at least one instance dismembers, dunce humanoid "jellyheads" who are made of jelly and speak in scrambled sentences before catching and correcting themselves. This is enough of an adventure narrative to keep you grounded and turning pages. Not that its told in a prosaic or straightforward manner--its pieced together brilliantly in the form of questionnaires, odd ephemera, frequent letters and interspersed weather reports:

Roving chuff clouds, floxiness hovering above L.A. unpredictable, nothing verified, minimum forecast, probably extensive sunsout, birdfall index high per hundredcount, earlier reports not reliable, premature, lofty hopes for a sunsy weekout, otherwise rain and sleet. 

Along the way he takes a job as a bug taster, providing scientific reports of his findings such as: 

(1) The cedar bagworm does not seem worth the bother of tearing it out of the bag. It is leathery on chewing and it has a tendency toward bitter excretions. However, if one were to allow them to pupate and emerge, they may then be soaked in potato milk and pan fried.

After a day on the job he tries to quit, but his employer Mr. Featherfighter (a.k.a. Mr. Etcetera), who addresses Mondenke as Mr. Bufona even after Mondenke repeatedly corrects him, does not allow him to resign: "The road to Etcetera was paved with such intentions. I do not accept them as anything, much less resignation."

Anyone can contrive such a silly world with multiple suns and moons--it has been done before. But who else would bother to delve into the psychological implications of how complex a calendar would be in such an environment? Think about it. 

Anyway, I think you get the idea. It was great read not just for the story it tells and the ride it takes you on, but for the richness of the language and its poetic bursts that disguise themselves within the prose. Reading Motorman may not quite induce levitation, but like Mondenke, you will ride sublimely on the ethereal and viscous jelly of Ohle's language, moved along by the river of his words. In his final letter to Roberta:

The jelly is apparently rising behind me. I could sit here and wait for it to cover me or move on, I don't know. Now that I have a few feelings to consider, and attitudes, decisions are more difficult. I suppose I'll step wherever I see a dry spot. Whenever The Jelly nips at my heels, I'll take a forward step. I'll get along.

*** Get Motorman from Powell's or better yet, straight from the source. *** 

Oh yah, Montreal. That's what we were here for. Interesting city, though a bit cold for my tastes. During the day we walked around, either above ground, or in the sterile underground passages or on the subway. At night we ate fondue. These are some of the pictures we took. 

here a Pho, everywhere a faux Pho


a man wrapping statues for the winter in front of some governmental building where they were holding some international global warming conference


A spiral staircase in the Notre Dame 


an alley in old town


a building in old town at night


gratuitous self-portrait



>>> Onward to Scene III: Montreal to NYC (reading The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders)







(c) 2005 Derek White