Friday, November 05, 2010

The Narrator -- Michael Cisco

Michael Cisco, whose book The Traitor I reviewed here, has another book out! I'm reading it -- slowly, as the time mid-semester is precious and split between editing and everything else I want to do, but I just have to talk about The Narrator.

Short version: please go and buy it. Cisco is one of those writers (lamentably few) who write genuinely unusual things. It's a shame he's not more widely read (although I suspect that many of the folks who insist they want new and unusual really don't), and something that needs to be fixed. So read the book, you won't regret it.

It's a little less aggressively strange than The Traitor, but it drips with the same vivid and visual malaise -- white skies, sick trees, vividly drawn snatches of the landscape otherwise drowned in radiance or fog. The language is half-delirious, and the beginning of the book evokes both Notes From Underground and Felix Krull. Low, the protagonist and a student in the college that prepares Narrators (people who recite events until only words encountering them remain, replacing the actual memory of the event), is not supposed to be drafted -- but he is, due to bureaucratic indifference and incompetence of the college administrators. His panicked efforts to avoid draft reminded me of the desperation with which my high school classmates applied to colleges -- the student status granted the draft deferral, and those who were not lucky enough to get in often faked a variety of psychiatric ailments. Low's efforts brought forth this visceral memory in me, all those boys who didn't want to go to the army because they knew it will forever change them; possibly into people they wouldn't like.

Another piercing recognition came when Low describes the separation of priesthood into white and black -- an Orthodox Christian tradition, where only black priesthood (monks) are allowed to rise to the top of the hierarchy, while the white priesthood (parish priests) are usually married and childed. Cisco takes this separation to the next logical extreme, and Life and Death churches are born, even though the similarity with Orthodox Christianity are quite clear.

Then there's the war itself -- Low as the narrator is supposed to document the story, but he has as much trouble as anyone else guessing the point of it all. The looming unease and the whispered uncertainty of it again reminded me of fear of my classmates of being sent to Afghanistan -- that hushed and unknown conflict fought for no discernible reason. It is always tempting to load the story with perceived meanings of the moment and attribute them to writerly intent -- and frankly, many writers aren't clever enough to hide their intent. Not so in this case, where the intent becomes irrelevant since instead we can have meaning.

And this is really something I love about Cisco's writing -- in all the strangeness, there are always these moments of acute, almost painful recognition and identification. I don't know if yours will be the same as mine, but I'm sure you'll find a few there -- be those in the dreamlike wanderings across strange cities and battles, in the unusual crew Low joins, in the palpable terror of the mysterious Edeks. Cisco writes like no one else, and this book is unlike any other, although filled with echoes of things one remembers and Cisco somehow knows.

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