Book Review: “Lake of Urine: A Love Story” — Breaking Established Reality
By Lucas Spiro
It’s hard to critique a novel that flies under such a resplendent banner, a wholesale rejection of the dead and decaying world of trends and war and meaninglessness.
Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch. Sagging Meniscus Press, 214 pages, $21.
Christian TeBordo, author of Ghost Empire and Toughlahoma, claims “Lake of Urine reads like something Flann O’Brien might have written if he’d just allowed himself to go really wild.” Zé Burns, a self-described “avid proponent of bizarro fiction, and a lover of all things weird,” observes that Guillermo Stitch’s language is “layered enough to evoke – and perhaps even rival – James Joyce.” For a couple of obscure indie voices to compare any writer, let alone a relative newcomer (Stitch’s only other longer publication is the 2019 novella Literature™, a neo-noir fever-dream) to a couple of Irish giants is nervy — even in an age of hype.
But let’s take the bait. Who is Guillermo Stitch? And what’s all this about a lake? And why is it filled with excreta? There’s not much in the way of biography to find regarding Stitch. He’s written two volumes, lives in Spain, and possibly has some vague connection to Irish letters. (He uses words like “guard” to refer to a cop, which, among other things, is what people call cops in Ireland.) But I am not even sure if Stitch is his real name. He maintains an online presence, but it doesn’t reveal much personality. It is limited to humble self-promotion.
Lake of Urine is set in a place of pure invention. The two primary locales are Tiny Village and Big City. Ambiguously named (or not named), they may be stand-ins for the centers and peripheries of our late-capitalisc global order. Technology, such as the internet, exists, but alongside various stone-age devises and old-school tech, which are referred to as “recent inventions”: the wheel, for instance, was invented within the lifetime of one of the protagonists by John Wheel, who fulfilled the need for the “rotary transport mechanism.” That particular year “turned out to be a fabulous year for inventions,” resulting, in addition to the wheel, to the arrival of “eggs and the Awkward Silence™.” Stitch’s world obeys a self-contained logic, conveniently summarized by the novel’s first sentence: “If anybody tells you this story isn’t true they are lying. It is a true story; I am lying if it isn’t, and I don’t lie.” Language, the medium of fiction, mediates reality by imposing an alternative structure onto the world, simultaneously creating and interpreting it.
The odd world Stitch creates is enlivened by his vibrant characters and ornate prose, which blends the archaic, grandiloquent, and lyrical along with nuggets of the idiomatic and euphemistic. Stitch tries neither to faithfully recreate our own world nor to fabricate an entirely alien one. The mimetic effect is like something out of a dream, familiar and unsettling, a convincing achievement on par with the recognizable nowhereness of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
The book’s structure correlates to its four main characters. Each receives his or her own section. Seiler, an older man obsessed with measuring the depths of things, gets the first part (thus it is his first sentence). Seiler’s “genius” method of measuring depth uses lengths of string to make a variety of different measurements, i.e., tying pieces of rope together and walking in any direction, stopping wherever the rope ends, or wherever it is convenient. Thus distance is confused with depth. Seiler’s crackpot fixation leads him to attempt to measure “the lake up by Swan Hill,” a liminal space the villagers find mysterious. As the result of a series of failed experiments, escalating in both humor and absurdity, Seiler is forced to recruit Urine, the daughter of Emma Wakeling, with whom Seiler boards and has a somewhat transactional sexual relationship with, as his assistant. Urine’s decision to be submerged is provoked by her need to retrieve Seiler’s previous assistant, her dog, Spot. This opening section is the funniest of the four — despite the animal cruelty — because of the reader’s ironic distance from the action. We know success isn’t an option, but Seiler botches the job amusingly.
Humor is difficult to sustain in a novel. Yes, Lake of Urine will make you laugh. At times it seems like Stitch is trying too hard to put the reader in stitches. There’s a gag on nearly every page. A lack of confidence? A self-indulgence? Jokes of every kind abound, including ones that play with language. These are difficult to pull off and, on more than one occasion, Stitch doesn’t quite do so. In one scene, Stitch describes a silence as “Proloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonged.” Does it work? Sure. Did we need it? Not really, especially when there were earlier opportunities to pull out the same linguistic punchline.
The other protagonists are the aforementioned and titular Urine, whose mishap at the lake leads to transformative and monstrous consequences. Urine is actually presumed dead during the majority of the narrative, but she is constantly lurking underneath the story’s surface. Her sister, Noranbole, receives more attention, both from Stitch and Seiler, who admits to never liking Urine, perhaps because she was courted by many of the young men of Tiny Village. “Basking, in the leering attention of local bucks,” as Seiler puts it. Urine isn’t interested in flirtation. She nearly clawed out the eyes of a boy who asked her for a milkshake, went “to quite a bit of trouble erecting an enormous wicker structure … which spelled out the words ‘Fuck You William Branson,’” and even “garrotted Timothy Spencer’s pony because he had been sitting on it when he had glanced at the hem of her frock.” Seiler also believes that Noranbole lives a life of drudgery, forced by her mother to do all of the household’s chores. Obviously not a household favorite, Noranbole doesn’t hesitate to pick up stakes and run off to Big City with the only young man in Tiny Village who isn’t one of Urine’s unfortunate suitors, Bernard Maypole.
Big City is a postmodern metropolis, and Noranbole and Bernard live in a cartoonified and gentrified neighborhood. In this section, Stitch hilariously sends up the corporate culture that so many of his city-dwelling generation have encountered. Once there, we learn that Bernard is incredibly good at everything he does, especially cooking (and coitus). He finds work at Phineas Dunkhorn’s 24 hour Szechuan Noodle & Burger Emporium — Specializing in Kosher Chicken and Münchner Weißwurst since 2009. (Marketing tagline: “For heaven’s sake eat something. You look awful.”) Maypole learns — the hard way — that he is not working for one of those meritocratic outfits where the cream rises to the top. Instead, Bernard comes up against a self-defeating style of corporate management that has infected many small businesses.
Meanwhile, Noranbole inexplicably becomes the CEO and president of “The Terra Forma Corporation,” which she describes as the world’s most powerful company. Her meteoric rise from neglected scullery maid/ daughter to corporate princess and boardroom success is credited to her ability to navigate “a post-crisis corporate strategy dilemma.” Bernard is hamstrung by the restaurant’s bean-counting strategies, stuck washing dishes when he wants to be on the grill or making the noodles. Noranbole is at a global corporation with a name that means something along the lines of creating new dimensions, or worlds. And she, of all people, has been charged with overhauling its academically influenced corporate ideology. Noranbole’s response is to “create the world’s first Gothic conglomerate.” The three main prongs of “Operation Pitchfork” include “an exorcist on the board, a healthy respect for white witchcraft at all levels, [and] an annual séance.”
All of these characters fall away for most of the rest of the novel, as Emma Wakeling takes center stage. She meditates on her loss of youth and the birth of her daughters by recounting the stories of her eight husbands, each an absurd caricature. Emma’s section is by far the longest, and the novel tends to sag at points in her narrative, despite the fact that it is intended to be the heart of the novel. And that is where Lake of Urine’s weakness lies: on the level of structure. It sometimes feels as though the author intended this to be a much longer book, given the disproportionate time allotted to each character. Even though some of the finer passages and moments of genuine tenderness and hard-earned feeling can be found in the Emma section, it is hard not to expect that the wacky antics of Seiler will resurface. Or was the imaginative investment in his eccentric experiments just a distraction? ( A “Proloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonged” gag.) That being said, Stitch shows off some impressive prose chops as he takes us through the remarkable and harrowing ups and downs of Emma’s life, flickers of dark humor always lurking around the next paragraph.
Lake of Urine is an imaginative pressure cooker, a modern Rabelaisian fairy tale that replaces enchantment with an antic version of the grotesquerie of contemporary life. It may also be an attempt to resolve critic James Woods’s dissing of “hysterical realism.” There is a narrative velocity here that dovetails the cartoonish and the Dickensian without suggesting we are reading a “big ambitious novel.” Stitch diabolically and self-consciously satirizes a number of well-known literary themes as he lampoons late-capitalist society’s contradictions. And the book should be credited with fully embodying the publisher’s manifesto. (How many presses have these anymore?) Sagging Meniscus Press claims to defend “an alternative vision of the twenty-first century, a beautiful one we believe in with our hearts, not the tawdry one that happens to exist and to which we are constantly asked to submit by well-meaning and other blowhards…. We choose to live in this new, living century, and to leave the world’s spent, meaningless one, where trends and wars rage and the planet’s life hangs in the balance, to the Times of our forced choice. Join us between the lines of this remarkable, living book.”
It’s hard to critique a novel that flies under such a resplendent banner, a wholesale rejection of the dead and decaying world of trends and war and meaninglessness. The attitude is agreeably punk-like. I have no doubt that Stitch will find his dedicated, and suitably anarchistic, readers. But his work isn’t for everyone, particularly those who want to be inspired or self-improved by the blowhards on The New York Times best-sellers list. Like any successful satirist, Stitch rejoices in contortion, painful and hilarious, and his shape-shifting is aimed at breaking “the monopoly of established reality (i.e. of those who established it),” as Herbert Marcuse put it, in order “to define what is real.” Lake of Urine suggests that, even if the magic has gone out of this world, fiction might be able to offer a saving charm, or open a portal to a new one.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living in Dublin.