Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stephen Burt on Nylund

[from the Poetry Foundation website:]

One of my favorite pieces of mail last week was a giant package from Action Books, a new small press out of Notre Dame with a focus on translations, involving some of the same people I read three to six years ago in Fence. The package came from poet, translator and blogger Johannes Goransson, but the inclusion that caught my ear so far has been Joyelle McSweeney's bizarre and entertaining novella or plotted prose poem or parody-detective novel Nylund the Sarcographer.

"Sarco-" means flesh (a "sarcophagus" is literally a flesh-eater, since it contains and hides dead flesh) and McSweeney's eponymous guy is a bumbling detective who is always writing and thinking through his own flesh. He's an antenna for his own past, attracting memories of his own childhood-- a childhood consumed, almost like Humbert Humbert's, by a lost love his own age, named Daisy; he's also a guy who works in a furniture store whose over-the-top fey manager wants to sell durable goods by staging fake rooms in which household murders took place; finally, he's an unlikely detective who has to collar another guy, called the Grandson, in order to solve a murder... if he dares. He exists somewhere between Maldoror and Guy Noir, and he's part entertaining cartoon, and part excuse for McSweeney's flights of campy-cum-lyrical post-Ashberyan prose:

"The ride down is always faster than the ride up, though Nylund, lurching hellwards on rickety wooden escalators, catching glimpses of shoes and suits and luggage and his own reflection stretched taffy thin in the smoked disconcerting mirrors... The cold moved up through his shoes and in through his jaw. Looney medical advice assembled itself before his mind's eye. One lump or two? For toothache, tie a dinner napkin under the gullet. For a fistfight, don a beefsteak mask. The former to ward off enemies. The latter, shiny, dull, to invite another slug."

The Daisy parts are actually sexy, the murder-mystery parts and the furniture-store bits are genuinely funny, the language dissolves into stream-of-consanguinity post-surrealism and then resolves into a plot again. I finished it today; it's recommended.


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