Saturday, April 27, 2013

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen is raunchy, yet beguiling; compelling, yet revolting


Reading MEMOIRS OF A GNOSTIC DWARF made me think of “The Uncle Charles Principle.” This is when an author slips out of his omniscient view as he writes, and instead adopts the view of the character itself.

For example, if the author creates a character who is uneducated, the author might use poor grammar when writing about the character, and not just in the character’s dialog, but even while describing what the character is doing.

The Uncle Charles Principle is considered an invention of James Joyce who used the technique for a character named Uncle Charles in his 1916 book, “Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man.”

Other authors, most notably Cormac McCarthy, is said to be a master (and perhaps an over-user) of the Uncle Charles Principle.

But did DAVID MADSEN employ the Uncle Charles Principle in his rendering of this novel? Was he choosing to embody his character Peppe, the gnarled dwarf, while abandoning his own omniscient view as he wrote this fictional memoir?

I say yes because this would explain a lot, especially this book’s naive notion of Gnosticism. The Gnostic creed is presented here as a simplistic dualism – the idea that everything in the physical, material world is created by Satan – with this set against the divine light of spiritual bliss represented by the eternal perfection of God.

If you are a Gnostic, you identify yourself with the eternal light as much as you can despite being entrapped in a stinking physical body; if you are “something else” you are mired within or even accept as natural the filthy delusion of materialism. So this basic black vs. white situation is offered, yet author David Madsen (a pseudonym) identifies himself as a “theologian, philosopher and therapist.”

And that’s why I bring up the whole Uncle Charles Principle thingy – because if Madsen truly is an accomplished theologian and philosopher, then he knows that Gnosticism is deeper or at least far more variegated than as it is portrayed in this book.

In other words, the Gnosticism here should be considered that as comprehended by the character Peppe the dwarf.

Furthermore, by invoking the Uncle Charles Principle we can also indemnify the author from a Freudian-like obsession with feces, urine, sweat, blood, flatus and sexual bodily fluids, as well as persistent representation of the sex act as a kind of primeval debauchery on par with a violent attack of diarrhea.

In these pages readers will confront an onslaught of hetero- and homosexual content. At worst the sex is often shocking and violent; at best it is depicted as a moral failing. Interspersed between these episodes of human-animal copulation are persistent references to defecation, urination, sweat, bodily odors, vomit, sundry oozings, obesity and perversions, such as when Peppe’s the dwarf’s alcoholic-whore mother attempts to have sex with him.

Another example: A remarkable scene depicting a Gnostic initiation rite during which the candidates are expected to drink from a cup containing the freshly ejaculated sperm of their leader. The reader is mercifully spared the denouement of this passage – but only because the substitute is an eruption of blood-spurting violence involving the hacking of heads and arms, guttings, and torture.

This is necessarily not a plot-driven work since it is fashioned as a memoir; although there are significant subplots that help drive the narrative and makes it more than a travelogue through Renaissance Italy. Conflict is provided by the tension between the corrupt Catholic Church of and the budding Protestant reformation. An evil agent of the Inquisition also provides a delicious villain whom our heroes must escape or plot against – and finally, there is a backdrop of the ever-ongoing wars between the dominant principalities of the day.

The final chapter of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf is an inexplicable, almost bizarre departure from the always salacious, nasty, but erudite and baroque style of the rest of the book. The end reads like a smarmy Edwardian novel dripping with high-handed sentimentality and soaring proclamations of idealized commitment, along with a dedication to pursue a trajectory of philosophical purity.

Ken Korczak is the author of: THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rocket Man by William Hazelgrove is a funny, entertaining novel which will appeal to a popular audience but delivers a troubling indictment of our times


One of our greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, gives us a powerful paragraph in her 1969 National Book Award winning novel “Them.” In the book, a confused former college student who flunked out of Prof. Oates’ English composition class is writing her a letter. The student writes:

You said, “Literature gives form to life.” I remember you saying that very clearly. What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens by itself? I hate all that, all those lies, so many words in all those books … But I remember you saying that about form. Form. I don’t know what that word means.

Ah yes -- “Literature gives form to life.”

That line kept drifting into my mind as I was reading ROCKET MAN by Chicago-area writer WILLIAM HAZELGROVE. But also as I read, I was thinking: “I bet this book is barely fiction at all, but rather a more-or-less spun version of real events from the author’s life.” As a matter a fact, he suggests this is somewhat the case in an afterword note to readers.

And so, like that poor student, one might ask Mr. Hazelgrove: “Why? Why is this book of fiction better than the way your life itself actually happened?

Ms. Oates provides the answer: Because fiction brings form to life.

This is what enables William Hazelgrove to hold up a mirror not just to himself, but to all of middle class America. By making this a work of fiction, he brings it home to us all, helping bring form to our lives.

I noticed that other reviewers frequently latched onto the term “middle class angst” to describe what the author is getting at in this tale. But I think another term captures it more accurately: “Postmodern ennui.”

Websters defines ennui this way: “A feeling of weariness and disgust; dullness and languor of spirits, arising from satiety or want of interest.

The viewpoint character of Rocket Man, Dale Hammer, meets this definition well. He is a burned out novelist mooning over the long-past glory of his three published books, now years out of print. Sailing into middle age and a mid-life crisis, he is too exhausted to write another. He also has achieved a kind materialistic satiety – even though it’s a false gratification because he gained it by taking on ruinous debt. He displays languor of spirit. He may still be obsessed with his literary career, but he has inexplicable misplaced it, like a screwdriver lost in a junk drawer.

So how about the postmodern part? Well, his psychic ennui is being brought on by his immersion in the materialistic and grotesquely avaricious nature of modern American society.

Other great writers, such as Norman Mailer, talked about this kind of stuff all the time. In a 1991 Time magazine interview, Mailer said:

We've got an agreeable, comfortable life here as Americans. But under it there's a huge, free-floating anxiety. Our inner lives, our inner landscape is just like that sky out there — it's full of smog. We really don't know what we believe anymore, we're nervous about everything.

Mailer was also getting at this, albeit tangentially, in his “White Negro” essay of the late 1950s. In it he says that what psychologists call “sublimation” has broken down among Americans because “proper sublimation depends on a reasonable tempo of history.” (Note: sublimation is when we transform are worst primitive traits of lust and violence into positive action for the good of society.)

William E. Hazelgrove
Mailer said our modern society is moving, changing and evolving too rapidly for sublimation to work properly. This might be the situation we see inflicted upon the protagonist of Rocket Man. He’s a good guy and innocent at his core, but the fast-madness of modern life and the constant grasping for material comforts and status is eroding his ability to sublimate his inner demons.

To this end, Dale Hammer keeps getting into small and major-sized jams. His bills are going unpaid, he is ignoring his children, he has alienated his wife to the edge of divorce. He also incites petty scrapes with the law; he sips an alcohol-laced cocktail while driving with kids in the back seat, he speeds in school zones, he bristles at even minor figures of authority. He has devolved without guilt into the role of pathetic small-time slum lord. He’s snarky, sarcastic, irresponsible and lazy.

Yet, despite all this, we can all still like him. We even root for him to triumph over the mess he has made of his life. That’s because, more than anything, we clearly see he is dazed and confused in an blameless sort of way. It’s as if he woke up one day, looked around at the train wreck of his existence, and asked himself: How did I get here? This is my life? Some kind of terrible mistake has been made!

We feel sympathy for him because we all see ourselves in Dale Hammer. So many of us have made all the same mistakes, and, like Dale Hammer, we are bewildered about how things got this way. The neo-slavery of debt? Nonstop work and stress? A country bitterly divided Left and Right? The mindless brutality of AM talk radio? This is the American Dream?

Can you believe that what I’m reviewing here is billed as a “comic novel?” Ha,ha! Well, damned if it isn't! I’m confident that 99 out of 100 readers will get big laughs from Rocket Man, even if it’s the whistling in the graveyard variety prompted by gallows humor.

As for me, I kept thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.”

NOTE: See also my review of William Hazelgrove's latest book, THE PITCHER

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS