Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it’s actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seems divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.

Precision of Statement

He spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch; they made a whole that had features, shades of expression, a complicated aspect that could be remembered by the eye, and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape. This awful activity of mind made him hesitate at times in his speech…

Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim

The Next Word, and the Next

Continued from the previous post.

Perhaps the strangest element of John Mullan’s essay on the pleasures of plot is the way in which Mullan identifies as ‘plot’ all those aspects of literature from which he derives pleasure, even when the pleasure demonstrably does not come from the sophistication of the plotting. He finds, for example, a “pleasing moment in the very first instalment of Bleak House when Dickens uses a parenthesis to hint at his buried design.” Dickens introduces “Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir,” and, as Mullan writes, the words in parentheses “turn out to be untrue” so that “[w]hat is treated as though it hardly matters is in fact a clue.” That’s a fair enough assessment of the significance of Dickens’ aside, but while Dickens’ sleight-of-hand with regard to Lady Dedlock’s parental status might well be an issue of plot, the effects of his use of parenthetical remarks are arguably an issue of style. And since these sorts of remarks don’t fall within the aesthetic capabilities of artforms other than literature, the real source of Mullan’s pleasure here lies in Dickens’ use of an aesthetic resource that is particular to the artform in which he is working.

All of this is to say that the pleasures of literature owe much more, I think, to things like style and structure than to secrets concealed, motives revealed, sudden betrayals, uneasy alliances, moral epiphanies, and other twists and turns of plotting. Funnily enough, Mullan would seem to agree with that, even though he still credits plot for the resultant pleasures. “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events,” he writes, echoing E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story as a sequence of events and a plot as a sequence of events that obtain meaning by way of their causal connections. “Plot,” he insists,

is… the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’ The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

No disagreement from me. How could that not be the case? A work of literature is essentially a bundle of information. In places, the information it contains is quite simple. It might be, for example, information about a particular event: where it took place, who was involved in it, what caused it to happen, and what its consequences were. In other places, the information can become much more complex. It might involve exploring how somebody responded to something that happened to them, how the emotional aspects of their response conflicted with its psychological aspects, and how their response as a whole evolved and changed over time. It might involve information about things of a scale far larger than that of an individual life or a single moment in time, or it might involve information about a multitude of things that interact and intersect in countless ways that are significant but not necessarily causal in nature. Whatever the case, the totality of the information is there inside the work of literature, contained within its pages, and the work serves to transmit the information to the reader one piece at a time, one word at a time.

But I could say pretty much the same thing of my MacBook Pro setup guide, couldn’t I? What exactly is it, then, that might distinguish a work of literature from the corporate publications of Apple? What is it that makes one of them capable of giving pleasure and the other one virtually incapable of it? Does it really just boil down to a difference in the interest level and the emotional depths of the information that is disclosed in words? Or is it a difference in the means by which, the ends towards which, and the effects with which each written work approaches the task of disclosure in words? If, say, Bleak House were to be rewritten from top to tail, to have every sentence reworded, without altering a single plot point or changing any of its narrative information, would John Mullan derive precisely as much pleasure from it as he does at present? Or is it rather the case that Dickens has chosen to transmit the information to his readers through a selection of stylistic and structural devices that work in concert with the information itself in order to produce the unique pleasures of Bleak House?

Words possess properties beyond those of direct and literal reference for the purpose of disclosing information. They possess prosodic qualities, tonal qualities, connotative meanings, and multiple meanings any one of which may be suppressed or called forth by the surrounding words and by the place of a particular word within a broader context. Stylisation involves, among other things, the purposeful exploitation of these and similar properties of words. Since these properties are precisely the sorts of things that the writers of MacBook Pro setup guides don’t exploit — not least because they’ll leave the readers of those guides confused and irritated — it’s fair to say that the particularities of style are part of what make a written work identifiably literary.

Information, too, is unstable. A work of literature may be essentially a bundle of information, but as readers we can’t and don’t receive the information in a bundle. As above, the work transmits information to its readers one piece at a time, although to phrase the situation in that way is to combine and simplify three important points that warrant a little elaboration. First: that, without exception, every work of literature has been structured so as to keep some information concealed while allowing some to be disclosed. That’s just the nature of the beast. Second: that every work of literature adds to the totality of its disclosures and subtracts from its concealments as the pages turn. Obviously, though, there’s no guarantee that cumulative disclosures entail a clearer or more coherent understanding of the information as a whole. Third: that the process of writing a work of literature involves deciding, on a word-by-word basis, which information to keep concealed, and why, and which information to disclose, and how. In other words, it involves decisions about the perspective from which to make disclosures and the order in which to make them, as well as assessing the effects of every possible variation in the sequence of the disclosures. Structure is a reflection of the sum of those decisions. If you’re writing a MacBook Pro setup guide, you probably want to structure your disclosures in the way that most clearly spells out, in order, the key steps in setting up a MacBook Pro. If you’re writing literature, however, you have an effectively unlimited range of possible effects to produce in your readers, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to structure your disclosures, and each possible structure will of course produce its own unique effects. Structural particularities therefore make a written work identifiably literary just as much as do particularities of style.

“When we know that a story has a plot,” writes John Mullan, “we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’.” I think that’s fundamentally right, but it’s also much too restrictive. Actually, I think it’s more that we ask some version of those two questions in combination: “What has already happened, in the sense that the information is predetermined? And which piece of it will I receive next, and in what words, and how will all of that resonate or clash with what I have received so far?” And when readers begin receiving answers to those questions from a work of literature, whether or not the answers relate to a plot is entirely incidental to their potential for producing pleasure. They might produce pleasure as successfully, and they often produce it better, if they exercise a range of literature’s other, less cinematic aesthetic resources. That way, the disclosure of ‘what happens next’ involves not just using words to record events involving characters, but using the purposeful selection of words as an ongoing event that involves the reader in a particularly literary experience.

Plotted Pleasures

This weekend’s Guardian Review features an essay by John Mullan on the pleasures of a good plot. “How we love plots,” he begins, “and how we look down our noses at them. … [P]lot lovers who are also novel readers might think that [the excitements of a plot] are guilty pleasures.” Mullan encourages his readers not to feel guilty about enjoying novels that place a premium on plotting, and instead to see the orchestration of “a good plot” as “one of the highest arts.”

On one level, at least, this reader needed little persuading. I’m one of the umpteen million people who binge-watched The Wire and Breaking Bad, and like so many others I remain addicted to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. With religious fervour I also bow down at the altar of Marvel Studios, heading to the cinema on opening day to pay the extortionate price of admission to every new superhero brawl, and I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about admitting any of this. On another level, though, I found it hard to follow Mullan very far into his argument. Halfway down the first column, he swerves off in an absurd direction. In pursuit of a tussle with critics who fail to see the brilliance of contemporary novels that invest heavily in plot — novels by the likes of John le Carre, Michael Frayn, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan — Mullan points out that those novels share a kinship with other, more celebrated works that are neither contemporary nor novels at all. Let’s slow down right there. The particularities of both historical context and use of artform are not incidental to the ways in which we might appreciate the contemporary novel, with or without a plot. It’s worth taking a little time to think about the way they shape what we think we want from a novel, and how we respond to what we actually get.

Here’s exactly what Mullan writes in that opening column:

No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time [television] audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella. … TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. …

In the Victorian age, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins treated the compulsive powers of plotting as fiction’s strongest resource. The most literary novelists respected the engrossing powers of plot: even George Eliot’s Middlemarch has at its heart a secret tale of seduction, larceny and hidden identity waiting to be discovered.

How to diplomatically recap the logic underpinning all this? Novelists working in the nineteenth century ago expended great energies on the intricacies of their plots. Popular television series continue to do so today. Contemporary novelists who neglect plot are therefore betraying both the innate desires of their readers and, worse, their artistic heritage. If I managed to get the gist of it right, colour me unconvinced.

Here’s a question to be answered in all seriousness. Why would someone who cherishes reading novels not read a novel for the plot? Far from being ignorant about how the typical novel was read in the nineteenth century, I do it precisely because of what happened to the novel and its capacity for plot in the two hundred years between then and now. Circa the 1850s, literature began to encounter rival artforms. Photography came first, then cinema, broadcast radio, comic books, and television. Each of these artforms brought with it a set of aesthetic capabilities that overlapped with those of the nineteenth century novel. Among the most notable of these capabilities were the representation of the real world and the narrative sequencing of events. Yet each of these artforms also brought with it new aesthetic resources which allowed it, in its own particular way, to realise those same representational and narratorial capabilities much more fully than literature could.

What aesthetic resources were those? I’m thinking especially things like photorealistic mimesis, by which photography was the first to diminish the success of literary attempts at verisimilitude, as well as scene cuts and shot-to-shot cuts, by which cinema and television have diminished literary efforts at managing narrative causality, tempo, and overall pace. I’m also thinking of the simultaneous transmission of verbal and visual narrative information. That’s an aesthetic resource by which cinema, comic books, and television have created complex new narrative structures that aren’t possible in works of literature with their commitment the singular focus of the written word. It’s also one of the aesthetic resources that Mullan praises for its effect on plot, without pointing out that literature can’t replicate it. Writing of Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Mullan points out that its “surprising success stemmed from its devotion to plot and its willingness to deceive the audience quite as comprehensively as its villain was deceiving the detectives. Certainly the means by which it did this was postmodern: the film broke with old cinematic conventions by showing on the screen events that had not happened. What the trickster narrated (though untrue) was turned into images on our screen.” I wouldn’t dream of denying the validity of the observation, but Mullan argues in bad faith when he calls for contemporary novelists to play these sorts of game with plot. As well demand that airplanes be built to sail the seas and paraplegics take the stairs.

To put all this another way, new and emergent artforms have, over the last two hundred years, encroached upon and constrained the supremacy of literature as a vehicle for an immersive plot. You’d be crazy to say that literature can’t do plot at all, but literature in this day and age simply isn’t the best available artform for making plot convincing and compelling. That’s why I find I’m not able to read a novel for its plot without wondering, every step of the way, why the author didn’t decide to let the plot unfold someplace other than on the page. I can’t read a novel for its plot when I know I could see the same plot executed more realistically and at a better pace on television or in the cinema. To use literature as a vehicle for plot is to not make use of the aesthetic resources that are particular to the artform, and a novel that results from this use therefore fails to answer the fundamental question of why it might be something worth reading.

Continued in the following post.

Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river.

Yet Stuart is neither the protagonist nor the narrator of the story. Claire is the one who details all these events and more besides, and that’s what lies at the heart of the objection to ‘So Much Water.’ Carver, an upper middle class man, has adopted the voice of a working class woman and attempted to lay bare her inner turmoil. Moreover, he has taken care to alert his readers to the difference in gender between himself and his narrator from the very first line: “My husband eats with a good appetite.” But what could Carver possibly know, authentically, about the consciousness of a woman like Claire? How true to life can Claire’s voice really be, and how condescending must Carver have been for believing that he could faithfully and respectfully channel it? Especially given that Carver decided to conclude the story with the distraught Claire acting on an impulsive hunger for urgent, aggressive sex with the husband she has come to despise, ‘So Much Water’ would seem to be at serious risk of collapsing into the gender divide between its narrator and its author. Is it really just a work of white male fantasy? Is it a facile, failed attempt at domestic realism that misses its mark because Carver knew nothing of the life he sought to depict? Why did he elect to write this story in this woman’s voice? Why not go for the easy option and allow Stuart to speak for himself? Why did he both risk and flirt with this sort of objection to his engagement in such tangled gender politics?

At the heart of this objection is a simple accusation: that Carver’s background, Carver’s being, inevitably forestalls him from being able to sufficiently sympathise with the character he has created in ‘So Much Water.’ Intriguingly, though, the issue of the limits of sympathy, and of real or perceived deficits in one’s ability to sympathise with another person, is precisely what Carver takes as his theme in ‘So Much Water.’ Stuart is able to dismiss the humanity of the dead girl because he is unable to sufficiently sympathise with her, unable to put himself in her place and seriously consider what must have happened to her in order for her to end up as she has done. He is also unable to sympathise with her parents and to wonder how they might hope for their daughter to be treated in the event of her death. But the anonymous callers who abuse Stuart are also unable to sympathise with him. They fail to see why his time away from home might have been so precious to him that he would behave as he behaved; they don’t consider that he is a blue collar worker for whom downtime is hard to come by, for whom reporting the discovery would have destroyed a rare and precious weekend out of town. Claire appears to sense as much, but then she too comes up against the limits of her sympathy as she is better able to sympathise with the dead girl than with her own husband.

In fact, in the story’s most elliptical passage, Claire places herself in the position of the dead girl, moments before she is murdered, without Carver having even signalled a transition into speculation. In a brief scene, Claire announces to her hairdresser that she is preparing to attend the girl’s funeral “tomorrow,” and then, on the morning of the ceremony, she rises from bed to “put on coffee and fix breakfast while [Stuart] shaves.” Finally she leaves a note for her young son so that he can return home from school and know something of her whereabouts, and what follows is a section break before she describes her journey:

I drive through farm country, through fields of oats and sugar beets and past apple orchards, cattle grazing in pastures. Then everything changes, more like shacks than farmhouses and stands of timber instead of orchards. Then mountains, and on the right, far below, I sometimes see the Naches River.

There is nothing in the remainder of that passage to suggest that the “I” of its narrator is in any way distinct from the “I” of the woman who narrates the story as a whole. The only thing that suggests a distinction is the context, and even then it’s ambiguous. Since Claire indicates, in the previous section, that she will travel to the funeral, it’s no surprise for readers to find her driving her car. Only as the passage unfolds does it become clear that this entire section is one long, unbridled act of sympathy, as the narrator has an unnerving encounter with a threatening man, “a crewcut man in a blue workshirt,” who has the air of a potential rapist and murderer.

It’s not enough to say that Carver’s story is simply shot through with deficits of sympathy. Significantly, Carver’s characters engage in certain courses of action — such as when Stuart wakes in the morning and decides to let Claire sleep in longer than usual, or when Claire gives deep consideration to the tone of the word “Love” in a letter she receives from her husband and in the letter she writes her son — which are carried out as confused attempts to compensate for their deficits of sympathy. This is even the case when Claire and Stuart rush into a sex act at the end of the story. Stuart is, in the heat of the moment, attempting to compensate for having angered Claire without knowing it. Claire, offering her body to Stuart without much willingness but also without protest, is attempting to compensate for sympathising more with the dead girl than with her husband, even if the result of their encounter only extends her sympathy with the girl. On the whole, then, while Carver doesn’t quite dismiss the objection to the gender politics of ‘So Much Water So Close to Home,’ he does cast doubts on the act of sympathy in a way that echoes the doubts that underpin the objection. If his readers ask how Carver, of all people, could possibly sympathise with the woman he takes as his narrator, ‘So Much Water’ supersedes that question by instead asking how it’s possible for anyone to truly sympathise with anyone else at all.

Feet, Teeth, Dust

He walked all night, feeling no fatigue, trembling sometimes with the thrill of being free. When it began to grow light he left the road and moved across open country. He saw no human being, though more than once he was startled by buck leaping from cover and racing away into the hills. The dry white grass waved in the wind; the sky was blue; his body was overflowing with vigour. Walking in great loops, he skirted first one farmhouse, then another. The landscape was so empty that it was not hard to believe at times that his was the first foot ever to tread a particular inch of earth or disturb a particular pebble. But every mile or two there was a fence to remind him that he was a trespasser as well as a runaway. Ducking through the fences, he could feel a craftsman’s pleasure in wire spanned so taut that it hummed when it was plucked. Nonetheless, he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.

J.M. Coetzee
Life & Times of Michael K

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.