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By Kelman Out of Pessoa
Les Figues Press ($15)
by Greg Bem
His mind would work as his work would mind: backwards. Rather than every man for himself, himself for every man. Every man could man every everyman. He took The Course; The Course took him. The story of his life was the life of his story, that side flip of a flip side notion that had he (or, I) done everything exactly the opposite, I (or, he) wouldn’t have lost.
The latest book by Seattle’s Oulipo-derived storyteller Doug Nufer, By Kelman Out of Pessoa, is a short and crisp novel about the soft, unspoken sides of gambling, the necessity of personality fragmentation, and the remarkable passivity of obscure diligence. The novel has its center at the Emerald Downs racetrack of Auburn, Washington, a city just south of, and connected at the hip with, its cultured, drizzly neighbor, Seattle.
At Emerald Downs, Nufer sketches the life of three characters born from one. Nufer uses a creation technique, a mode of characterization, famously propagated by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: the heteronym, in which the characters write each other. First is the dominantly vexing, slightly queer, and dysfunctional father-figure, the inspiring Henderson Will, sufferer of a burden of physical loss and mental handicap:
A stroke of amnesia made him forget what he did. His bosses either didn’t notice or they put up with him until they laid him off anyway. But then he had another mental collapse, where everything got twisted around backwards. Fine. His name is the inverted version of a typical name, with a little play off the will of Will.
The mental collapse has, out of a will for defense or for desire, created the heteronyms Cal Nipper and Kelly Lane, two characters who are immediately identified as additional players in the novel’s game, a strict, rule-bound activity bent and shaped by the season of horse racing.
The premise of the novel—partially derived from Scottish author James Kelman, and otherwise from a maddening enclave of literary predecessors—is ultimately unique. Nufer’s novel is an experiment in constriction, where Nufer as author, as owner of the owner of the heteronym narrators, visits the races once a week, and through him his voices create a narrative that is rich with complexities—insane, confused, and yet loveable.
Henderson, with his desperately fatal creations in tow, finds “The Course,” a social vortex not unlike David Foster Wallace’s tennis academy and Chuck Palahniuk’s self-help groups. The Course, as a scheme that sucks in the souls of our heroes, goes on to teach them a structured, mathematically sound approach to gambling that may or may not be flawed in its success, but is addicting nonetheless. Nufer’s implementation is beautiful in its relationship to the nihilism of the 21st-century brink Americana:
But what is the future? From day one to the end, here we are, doing what we do and saying what we say in response to some rules set down by a spiel in a self-help course on horse race handicapping. (Kelly Lane)
Each piece of the novel builds upon one giant, gently rotating sense of narration. At times the plot is straightforward and at other times there is the “hysteria” of reality in which these characters coexist. The world is expanded through their three different sets of eyes, and yet they all belong to the one. Excitement builds with the bizarre and meta-references to the basis of the novel itself, humorously thrown in to satisfy, stabilize, and provoke those readers who pay attention:
“Go back to the Pessoa. I’m an aspect of the hysteria within you, but this aspect could turn out to be a perfectly well-adjusted character. As you see me, that is. As I develop myself through you as an aspect of the hysteria within me is another story. What I’m wondering is, what is your peculiar hysteria? Exactly what is it that I’m supposed to be an aspect of?” (Kelly Lane by Cal Nipper)
But despite the level of craft and homage to those slick forbearers, Nufer maintains a subtle art in his prose: one moment in the story only means one, singular moment, and thus there is a very realistic distribution in tone. Contextually tonal weight is even in its distribution and vibrant in its diversification. The working of this style to produce elegant juxtaposition and synchronicity reflects the care of Nufer as novelist.
The most wildly imaginable prose is evoked through Henderson himself, the originator of the troupe and yet the most deranged personality of all, the insane ringleader whose slowly developing addiction to gambling is equivalent to his maddening escapades. Where has he lost himself? While his own set of thoughts, his own narration, is conveniently peaceful, his second face reveals the duality between sanity and insanity. As the others speak, there is a disconnection, as if wires had been pulled or crossed or tripped or ripped out of their inputs. The end result is abstraction, poetry, displacement, and it is entirely lovely:
Proud to hose seed, he visited hot spot roadhouses. See his fetid rod hot toad spouses gaining tarnishes straining garnishes while downing the drinks, dial drowning the winks. Still true to his wife, he was more or less oblivious to the trill woo whose strife lore or mess laid siege to him when he made the rounds. While others would raid the mounds, flirting up every skirt, he would be skirting up every flirt, which of course only made him more appealing to those weary of the kitsch of force up wheeling. The tact drove attractive women to follow him with hollow vim, just for the fun of the run. (Henderson Will by Kelly Lane)
Craft and style aside, just what is the book about, really? By Kelman Out of Pessoa doesn’t merely track a disturbed individual and his imaginary friends into a deterministic gambling system; the book presents glimpses into the contemporary Pacific Northwest’s suburban and urban spirals. Through the neighborhoods near downtown Seattle to the river towns soaked in decay and ruin, Nufer’s world is unrelenting. His heroes exist because they need to inhabit this world as much as they need to escape it. These characters, regardless of how they invent themselves, still represent those figures that haunt the sideways, alleys, roads, trails, and all the passages of a very troubled, fatigued landscape.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011