Book Review: Richard Gessner — Sounding out Shapes with the Logic of Dreams

Richard Gessner’s head is a sort of cavern piled high with such wonders—original images, fresh metaphors, mind-stretching scenarios, and alternate world orders.

The Conduit and Other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner. Rain Mountain Press, 72 pages, $15.

By Vincent Czyz

The Montclair Book Center has been on Glenridge Avenue in Montclair, NJ, for decades; how many exactly I don’t know, but I’ve been foraging among its shelves since the late ’80s. For a number of years the shop supported Page One, an on-premises café, which became the haunt of local artists, writers, and savants. In 1997 I was in Page One when I saw, on the community bulletin board, a posting for a writers’ group recruiting new members. I’d always worked alone, but I liked the idea of a loosely organized collective and found a seat—a metal folding chair—at the next meeting.

The group consisted of eight or nine writers working in poetry and prose, from the fantasy novel to the personal essay. Generally we took pages home with us, but at the second or third meeting I attended, several members read their work aloud. One of the authors was a tall man with thick glasses and a stentorian voice. He read a story about a sleepwalker skating on a single rusty skate across frozen rain puddles, his eyes “blind to an inky tutu fungus of old newspapers encircling his waist, flaking into yellow dust with each thrust and turn.” If I found the subject matter a bit unusual, I also found the language striking. I forgot the name of the story, and I forgot the names of most of the group members, which held together for about a year, but in the twenty or so years since I listened to Richard Gessner read from “The Sleepwalker,” I never forgot that newspaper tutu.

I was to discover that Gessner’s head is a sort of cavern piled high with such wonders—original images, fresh metaphors, mind-stretching scenarios, and alternate world orders. A sampling of the narrative set-ups in The Conduit and Other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy hints at what the reader is in for: A war criminal takes refuge in the hollow of a tree and accretes a helmet of bird droppings; the authors of books housed in a multi-storied library are imprisoned in its basement and cross-bred to produce hybrid literary forms; platypus eggs multiply in the scrotum of a unicyclist: “Shining through the scrotal sac, twinkling in stars far and near, swarms of bluish eggs bulge over the saddle of the nomad’s unicycle, making pedaling most difficult.”

The surreal aspects of Gessner’s stories recall the work of French author Raymond Roussel (1877-1933). In Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, for example, we encounter a scientist who has invented a balloon-powered, road-building machine, which, using human teeth of varying hues of brown, is assembling a mosaic of a Native American warrior. While this is the sort of oddity a reader shouldn’t be surprised to turn up in a Gessner fiction, the language Roussel uses is Victorian in its formality and almost scrupulously objective—at least in translation—as might befit a scientist. Roussel’s novel is carried not so much by his style as by an array of ingenious curiosities. Gessner strikes a more equal balance between the poetry of the prose and the parade of strangeness, between whimsical wordplay and the progression of the tale itself.

He is also relentlessly funny. Virtually every paragraph in “Excerpts from the Diary of a Neanderthal Dilettante”—the title is self-explanatory—presents the reader with material worthy of a stand-up routine:

Just recently we have been learning to draw Picasso running toward us holding a small pad of paper; who or what Picasso is remains to be seen. According to the professor, he doesn’t exist yet. […] Since I, the professor and my fellow students will all be fragments preserved in glass cases in natural history museums by the time Picasso is born, we have no way of knowing whether or not he was somehow involved in the arts. Perhaps I should be more skeptical, for all I know Picasso might be a ne’er-do-well who lives at the Y.M.C.A who is in a constant state of trepidation over the fact that he might be an immense ruffled pair of anthropomorphic bloomers in a world inhabited by omnipotent seamstresses who are vehemently against ruffles.

“The Zoo-brary,” mentioned above, will also produce, if not belly laughs, certainly a few inner chuckles.

Writers of different type, ability and degree of stature are paired up in opposite cells with facing bars so they can view only each other.
Parking-ticket scribblers face classical versifiers—
Subpoena makers face street poets to produce spontaneous legal writs—
Seminal ‘inventives’ face shopworn ‘derivatives’ to make an accessible would-be radical with a pioneering gloss. […]
Scholarly treatise writers face gossip columnists to make high-pulp crops of academic sensation—
A zoo-breeder wanders through the maze of hallways listening to the congress of burgeoning tete-a-tetes caught up in an infectious meld of snowballing ideas.

What Gessner does best, perhaps, is create microcosms—self-contained worlds in which he has made up the rules and established the action. I’m reminded of a drop of water, which, under van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, turned out to be teeming with alien creatures possessed of varied modes of swimming. I am reminded of Blake: Gessner dramatizes the Romantic poet’s belief that there is a world in a grain of sand. “The Conduit,” one of the more visionary pieces, demonstrates Gessner’s ability to expand space and uncover its inhabitants in a seemingly infinite regression. It begins as the tale of a man who has been stabbed in the heart crawls into a sewer pipe to die, but the pipe is an existential anomaly—“Huge, wide, longer than all-seeing memory”—and harbors not only the wounded man, but also a good chunk of the universe. “The ancestors of the victim and assailant line up in rows facing each other, linking pinkies in a twilight square dance.” The spiraling dancers create a kind of vortex, drawing in, among other things, a “millennial scorpion,” transpersonal memories, reborn kamikaze pilots, opportunistic remoras, whole countries, a chorus of birds, “an old mossback snapping turtle of an unknown forbear.” This is not, however, a chaotic collection of imagery summoned up to no visible purpose, but a transcendence of the familiar relationship between subject and object, the seer and the seen, victim and assailant, told in hallucinatory prose. In the end the story invites both reconciliation and redemption.

Many readers shy away from the avant-garde, finding it inaccessible, confusing, absurd, arbitrary to the point of meaningless. I myself have these issues with Andre Breton’s prose experiments, Antonin Artaud’s surrealist poetry, John Ashbery’s later work, many of the stories in Yoko Tawada’s Where Europe Begins, and a dozen other contemporary books that defeat my attempts to engage with them. Gessner’s writing is not of that ilk. While his literary creations don’t always obey the laws of classical physics, they have an affinity for the quirks of quantum mechanics, and though they dispense with the logic of Aristotle, they replace it with the logic of dreams. Moving sometimes in a straight line, sometimes in an arabesque, the stories progress nonetheless, and the writing stirs beauty at unlit depths—like echolocations that sound out shapes in the psyche we didn’t know were there. Endlessly inventive, Gessner is not interested in the arbitrary thrill; rather, he is out to inspire us to rethink our assumptions, to reframe our perspectives, to renew our ways of seeing. His writing is a funhouse mirror, distorting the empirical world in ways that, paradoxically, help us see it better.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.

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