Another troika review, unfortunately Jeff had to sit out this time, but he has been replaced by guest reviewer J.M. McDermott.
I feel as though I am going towards war, that towers vastly above around and behind its pawns, the enemy soldiers and us. War fashioned the interior. The war story is waiting to be lived again and to make all of us its own characters. We will step into our places while the overture plays a melody of themes that will play out in full and in order later on. It’s magic, because I do what I don’t want to do, and there’s no power that I can feel being brought to bear on me. If a hand had me by the collar, and I were being dragged away, I could struggle. If Makemin or Saskia would only point to me, order the others to catch or kill me, or even only threaten me, I could run. But there is no power here to resist. I simply go along. Hating, and rebelling at heart. Something like the sweeping power of the tides sets everything all too smoothly in motion. I feel war’s unreal presence, like blank mindless insanity shining happily from these rocks, watching us bring ourselves to it, for its delectation. We’re going to kill and die at war’s fiat in this beautiful place, nothing more.
What can I say about Michael Cisco that I have not said before? He remains one of our best and also one of our most underappreciated, and with his newest work, The Narrator, he once again proves how vital his work is. It reads like an ode to the absurdity of war, Low, a studying Narrator at school is drafted into the army despite the relevant excusatory paperwork in a episode of bureaucratic ineptitude worthy of a Kafka novel. Narrators seem to exist to maintain the narratives of people and events, and Low is often referred to as being the one who will tell the story of the war after it is all over. As a result, he has no skill in battle and instead is forced to act as a medic and a translator. He has no intention of serving, but having been “seen” by an Edek, a sort of supernatural blind woman who will know if he deserts, he has no choice but to join up and is unable to flee throughout the novel. He becomes a sort of living casualty of the war, dragged along in its wake while forced to watch his companies become infected by it and die, until he is the only one left.
The war in question seems, at least to this reader, to be completely pointless. The commanding officer, Makemin, seems to flit between an obsessive and overwhelming desire for victory and throwing himself into the proceedings of his divorce that is taking place far away back home. Saskia’s fury is fuelled by desire for revenge, but her recklessness often places her in almost suicidal situations, calling into question her sanity. His only real friend, the mortuary student he meets in the town of Trey, Jil Punkinflake, loses all sense of his mischievous former character, and by the end of the novel has almost become a kind of submissive animal. In fact, due to the low number of people who actually showed up, the group is forced to augment itself with lunatics from an abandoned asylum, making the whole situation only more absurd. All we are told about the war is that it is an attempt to weaken a competing power by destroying one of their allies, but no one seems to know what the war is really about. Those who care about the result like Makemin only seem to want victory for the sake of victory, unaware of what they will actually gain by it. Low, like the reader, seems equally confused by the whole thing and becomes increasingly more important to the war effort despite his best efforts to avoid getting involved. Despite this, he remains powerless and unable to change anything.
The novel evokes the same kind of dreamlike atmosphere of Cisco’s other work, some of the finest scenes seeming almost unreal, such as when the students go grave robbing and find all the corpses have burrowed out of their coffins and joined into a homogeneous mass. His work is so stunningly original, there is nothing else like it out there and this is only reinforced by The Narrator, with ideas like the cannibal queen, the flying anti-gravity bracelet wearing blackbirds, and the final scenes inside the inland’s interior. Branching out from his usual protagonist heavy focus to incorporate more of an ensemble cast also allows Cisco to do more with characterization than in his previous novels, and is very welcome because he creates such interesting characters. The spirit eaters from his previous novel, The Traitor, also make an appearance, alongside his equally unique new concepts. It also goes without saying that his stylization is first rate and his prose is some of best in the business.
The Narrator is a powerful book, but more importantly it is vital. It speaks to the reader about war in the way that the great anti-war novels do, like Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, about both the horror and the absurdity of war. War is the antithesis of all human logic and the ultimate form of nihilism, it creates nothing. In its futility it is so absurd that it is almost comical, something that Celiné understood, and at times Cisco captures perfectly; war is pathetic. From the start Low knows that nothing good will come of the war and he is only proven right. It might be his best novel yet. My favourite novel of the year, if you only buy one book that I recommend for 2010, buy this one.
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