Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible.

Consider, for instance, this passage from The Natural Order of Things, which describes an encounter between a high school football coach named Kaliher, recently separated from his wife, and his loathsome landlady Mrs. O’Neill. As the owner and manager of a seedy apartment block populated by “the downtrodden, ruined, addicted, and insane,” O’Neill “actively seeks out male renters” so that she can demand sexual intercourse in the event of a shortfall in rent, and Kaliher, as usual, has not been able to pay up. O’Neill, we are told, leans against the entrance to his apartment with “a long pillar of cigarette ash wobbling between her lizard lips” and “shambles” inside, “heavy and compact as a bison,” to claim what she believes she is owed. Other writers might shy away from pursuing the implications of the grotesque terms applied to Mrs. O’Neill, the investiture of both reptilian and hulkingly mammalian properties that seem at first to be contradictory, but Keating doubles down with an outpouring that extends and embellishes them. “No matter how many times [Kaliher] submits to this monthly ritual,” Keating writes,

he is shocked by the vulgarity of Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom talk and the rough manner in which she shoves his face into the swampy valley between her sloping breasts, down to the impressive rolls of fat that have congealed around her navel, across the rugged terrain of her thorny snatch, ever lower, lower, all the while rasping her sinister commands with pitiless glee. … Taking direction like a trained seal [when she orders him to lick her feet], he sweeps his tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, heel to toe, heel to toe [and then, u]sing the advantage of her weight, she pins him to the mattress, parts her legs and slowly envelopes him in her clammy flesh.

Thirty minutes later, the tentacled creature squirts her ink over his abdomen, and the unspeakable ordeal comes to an end.

O’Neill, then, is reptilian and mammalian as well as amphibian (“swampy”) and somehow vegetative (“thorny”) and even oceanic (“clammy” and “tentacled”) and yet Keating still doesn’t stop there. After Mrs. O’Neill belittles Kaliher for prostituting himself once again,

she stands up, pulls the bathrobe around her thick torso, and plunges into a pool of black shadow, Grendel’s mother, glutted on warrior blood, diving into the heaving depths of her sinister fen somewhere in the misty moorlands. Kaliher, marvelling at the terrible strength of this tusked and taloned tarn-hag, wonders if she ever had children of her own, stillborn things sent straight to Limbo.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. Taking its cue from the likes of Winesburg, Ohio, Keating’s début offers less a conventionally linear narrative than an anthology of interwoven stories that drift amongst the depraved denizens of a decaying Midwestern town dominated by the tall Gothic tower of a morally bankrupt Jesuit school. Flocks of grackles and roaming packs of dogs recur throughout the stories, as do particular Jesuit priests, several filthy prostitutes, and a sinister cab driver whose teeth have rotted away into “unsightly gray stumps.” Events recur as well, and in fact are repeated, as successive stories establish chronologies that parallel or intersect with those of earlier stories by depicting action that has already been depicted elsewhere. Throughout it all, Keating fixes his narratorial gaze on the most corrupt, most deviant, most perverted behaviours of the Jesuit school’s staff and students, but he does so in a way that intensifies the immorality to such a cartoonish extent that, by design, it loses its shocking edge.

In one chapter, a man receives a blowjob from his lover while gazing out the window at a block of apartments in which a neighbour’s mischievous dog, Gonzago, sits at his own window and watches the man in the throes of his pleasure. The woman on her knees “slurps, gags, makes funny quacking sounds,” Keating writes, “but just as [the man’s] eyelids start to flutter, he happens to glance out the window and sees the dog imitating him, prancing around on its hind legs like some bizarre animal act at a roadside carnival. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to make mischief, Gonzago begins to howl with maniacal laughter, a single extended note that starts as a banshee’s moan and ends as a deafening siren that oscillates with horrific madhouse harmonics” — and that howl causes the blowjob to climax in a very particular sort of pain. Another dog in another chapter is hit by a car and presumed dead by the driver, a man named Claude, until the owner picks up his injured pet and confronts the runaway assailant. “The thing is still alive,” Claude realises, “its head crushed like a rotten apple, its snout crusted over with blood, its reeking organs and entrails bubbling and foaming from the angry wound on its enormous, heaving belly. Claude stares, can’t help but stare, and when the thing lifts an accusatory paw toward him, he stumbles backward and begins to cough on the fumes spewing from the tailpipe.” There’s also a paedophilic teacher who sleeps with the school’s star quarterback, and a psychopathic student who tortures a priest on his deathbed, and of course there’s the wretched, decrepit Father Loomis himself — a monster “[c]oncealed under a thin sheet like a circus freak behind the curtain of an arched proscenium,” a “gibbering, drooling, cadaverous creature” whose “desiccated flesh [is] pale blue, vaguely aquatic, almost translucent” and who “squirms in a hospital bed and claws at the air with nails so jagged and yellow that they seem capable of infecting anyone foolish enough to get too close.”

In The Captive Condition, Keating takes as his narrator a prominent character from The Natural Order of Things but displaces him and distances him from the location of the earlier novel. Edmund Campion moves away from the Jesuit school to start afresh on the campus of Wakefield College in the small town of Normandy Falls. The institution noticeably shares a name with the protagonist of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and, at Wakefield, Campion finds himself in a Midwestern dump concealing the sort of ancestral horrors and beset by the sort of dark arts practitioners to be found in Hawthorne’s more gothic stories and in those of his successors. Featuring ghosts, mutants, monsters, rumours of werewolves, live burials, children conceived for ritual purposes, creepy twins, and plenty more surreptitious sexual deviance, debauchery, and depravity, The Captive Condition hybridises Blue Velvet and the Cthulhu mythos and sets it all on the stage of a college campus. That this is a novel about monsters is no mistake and no metaphorical way of speaking of its treatment of more worldly things. In one scene, for instance, Campion stumbles upon a concealed, shadowy cavern in which “a row of storage shelves” rises “from floor to ceiling” and holds “hundreds of glass jars, some the size of growlers, their contents sealed tight with zinc canning lids” like “a squirming horde of mutant djinns desperate to explode from their magic lamps.” These “mutant djinns” are “small, fetal, fish-eyed things,” Keating writes,

bloated masses of flesh incubating outside their mother’s womb, insensate creatures neither terrestrial nor aquatic caught in the collective grip of a curious dream, their eyes twitching, their forked and tufted tails swaying in a cloudy fluid that glowed goblin green. … I understood now that Normandy Falls contained a secret, a colossal creeping sentient madness hibernating beneath the fulgurite-pitted earth. For the better part of a century, the hereditary horrors of the Wakefield clan had been anticipating the arrival of a weary traveller who would set them free so they might lurk among the roadless reaches of swamp and forest and swim once again in the river. Because given enough time something always manages to escape from the laboratory and foul the water.

That’s not the first time readers encounter such creatures. We have already been introduced, memorably, to a woman who creates metallic representations of similarly fishlike beings, “cruelly shaped things that may have washed up in the fecal mire and interstitial wastes along the river, web-footed, membranous monsters of inconceivable ugliness… [that] floated freely and without consequence in the smoky air [and] gonged weirdly and gave off a gangrenous and chlorotic glare.” Nor is it the last time that such precise and vivid language is marshalled in order to evoke a scene of such unremitting horror. Later, for instance, a crowded restaurant consumed by fire becomes “an immense sacrificial pyre, a brazier of people bursting into flames, their faces peeling like curled sheets of bark from beechwood trees after a powerful windstorm,” and as everyone’s hair catches alight, all of them start insensibly running into each other except for one old woman who, we are told, “tore a blazing white wig from her head and hurled it to the floor, where it burned like a hairball coughed up by a hacking dragon.” And the grotesquerie of Keating’s characters extends beyond mere physical description in a way that taints their actions in the descriptive language applied to them. Writing of Xavier D’Avignon, a small-town chef with pretensions of becoming a master of fine dining, Keating notes that “[w]hen it came to the preparation and presentation of haute cuisine… [he] felt an intellectual, spiritual, and even sexual empowerment that far surpassed anything he’d ever experienced, and he often boasted that his perfectly executed recipes were not only manna from heaven but also potent aphrodisiacs raining down from the sky like Cupid’s arrows.” Later, when this same man is looked upon by another who suspects that the chef is cuckolding him, the second man sees him as a “proud and swaggering ‘stunt cock’ who night after night climbed on top of his wife and” — in a turn of phrase equal parts apt and absurd — “emptied himself into her like rancid bouillabaisse from an overturned creamer.”

It’s easy to oversell a writer with a claim that his or her work is “not for the faint of heart.” It’s easy to all but openly dare a reader to pick up the work if for no other reason than to prove that he or she is not ruled by overly delicate sensibilities. In Keating’s case, though, the phrase is apt because a number of readers are likely to find the work off-putting for any number of reasons. One reason is simply that Mrs. O’Neill’s melodramatic grotesquerie is typical of Keating’s world, far from an exception to the rule. More significantly, though, his narratives are unresolved and inconsequential even when they’re not outright recursive and cyclical, and his style is marked by a tendency towards excess in almost every sentence, particularly in his intensifiers and the caricatured quality of the imagery with which he forges similes and metaphors. If his work is not for the faint of heart, then, that is only partly because his world is distinctly unappealing, utterly without any humanist concerns for the people living in it, and more so because readers who are interested only in the ways of his world are unlikely to see an appeal in the words he deploys to construct it. His absurd diction and loopy syntax not only obstruct our sympathy for those who suffer in his world and refuse to redeem those who perpetuate suffering, but they in fact gloss the world in a such way as to take sympathy and redemption entirely out of the question — to place them utterly beside the point. To achieve an effect such as that is both the challenge and the privilege of world-building in prose, and it is a testament to his prose, above all, that Keating is able to pull it off.

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