Book 3 of the Eroica Trilogy
Transformations Press ($9.99)
by Martin Nakell
In The House of Nordquist, Eugene K. Garber writes not about the war or the truce or the potential for harmony between reason and vision, logos and dream, order and chaos, good and evil, primitive passions and civilized societies—he writes from the consciousness of that field. Therein, all the difference. Therefrom, this extraordinary novel, a marker from time of our time.
There is no simple story here. Rather than a novel of storytelling, this is a fiction of consciousness not easy to construct, organize, or keep track of. There is an exploration of the human experience from the primitive mind to our own, our destructive and our creative powers, our restlessness. The main characters are all in search of redemption in a 21st-Century world in which we have lost our connection to the spiritual / consciousness / dream / art. They all seek to reconnect in different ways. Then there is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic governmental agency, “National Division A,” whose agent-detectives interrogate some of the characters.
To ground this Fiction-of-Consciousness in the material, lest it “slip into the fantastical,” there is an actual “House of Nordquist,” a “huge house with much glass, the north wall sharp-edged like the cutwater of a ship.” Eric Nordquist’s “insane father,” Gunner Nordquist, once sailed the ship-house off to the Arctic in search of IT. “Maybe they sailed all the way north until they got to the edge and looked over, and there was the IT. The old man couldn’t stand the voltage and cracked up, but Eric brought IT back.”
Eric, who hates the inadequacy of words, sets out to compose a symphony “to change the world,” because “only music can speak the truth. And only his music. . . . a searing music, an absolute fire out of which would rise the Phoenix of a new creation.” Half-mad, Eric draws several characters—his mother Dierdre; Holocaust survivor, Helene; Eric’s college buddy (from Justin and James College for Men) Paul Albright, and Paul’s wife Alice—into his form of the quest, creating his symphony.
To ground it yet a bit more, there is a crime—someone has set fire to the House of Nordquist. Someone is known to have escaped the fire, and National Division A goes in search of that person to try to find the arsonist. But is the crime the setting fire to the House of Nordquist, or is it the destruction of the human spirit? And who is the criminal?
The book opens with a dialogue between Alice and Peter Albright about Eric Nordquist and the fire. Alice asks, “Where did Eric come from? I don’t mean by birth from Deirdre and his crazy father. I mean after being born, or maybe before being born.” Eric’s powers, his vision-quest made manifest in his symphony is so compelling that Paul “had to speak for Eric. He had to say whatever Eric put in his mind.”
Eric must draw his Phoenix-symphony out of the body of some living person, and he will do it with a Gothic machine, “With the right equipment you could suck music from a body and change the world.” Eric’s mother, Dierdre, provides the body for Eric’s project—she procures Helene, an emaciated Holocaust survivor, the decayed body of history. Helene’s suffering is compounded by Eric’s use and abuse of her. Finally, during the fire, Helene “was in the house drinking flames like wine and singing songs of death with a nail in her throat.” In an orgiastic, madly triumphant feast of her destruction Helene drinks the “flames like wine” as she sings “songs of death.” Would it change the world? No. Paul and Alice in dialogue:
Because to change, things have to be broken up.
Or burnt up.
But the symphony didn’t change the world. It just changed your life.
What about your life?
Sure. If it changed your life, it changed my life.
Thomas Meachem, another college classmate, is as much of a seeker as are Eric and Paul. While Eric re-names Paul “No-Name” (“What did it feel like getting into the role of No-Name?” / “Like being a tabula rasa.”), Meachem unnames himself, sheds all identities, all sense of self, in order to rename himself. At college, Meachem “was . . . the one of clearest purpose.” He used his clarity to become rich, a “star capitalist.” But Professor Tyree “secretly . . . loathed clarity. What he loved was the shadowy aura that hovers around the edges of clarity. It was there, he believed, that the verities were to be found.”
Realizing that the clarity of his wealth (achieved through the system of Econometrics, a first cousin to Eugenics, was just a “scam that pretends you can assign numbers to the behavior of billions of people,” Meachem pays heed to “the arrival of a voice that said you must renounce your identity,” and joins the pursuits of his old classmates and professors: “I wanted to be broken into pieces that I could put back together any way I chose.”
To disentangle himself from the clarity of identity, driven purpose, and money, from the America that “was to have given birth to the new order four centuries ago,” but has only “drowned in blood.” Meachem, traveling to the Amazon, abandons his possessions, his identity, even the clothes he wears, subjecting himself to hunger, humiliations, and degradations, all to look over the edge of his own void. He explains to a detective in one of the interrogations:
I broke down. I babbled in unknown tongues, howled like an animal, crawled along the bank like a furtive saurian. I crammed reeds and mud into my mouth. Success at last. I was broken.
You suffered terribly.
I visited it all upon myself.
How did you manage to come back?
I never came back. That was the whole point.
Those are the two worlds Garber sets against each other: those who, like Gunnar and Eric Nordquist, pursue art in lives redeemed by that art, and those who prize hyper-civilized, money-driven, self-destructive greed—signified by the detectives in their objectivity, their numbers, their econometrics.
Professor of Religion Karl Aptheker plays a different part in these quests. In Meachem’s letters/reports to the detective bureau, he writes: “I said that nothing we know is the center. . . . our Professor of Religion, Aptheker, would say that there is a center, only we cannot experience it.” Aptheker sees the quandary, yet is capable of just living within it, not running to find frantic ways out. Professor Aptheker “believes that no human can change the world utterly.” Where Eric is the anti-Logos, Aptheker believes that “in the end it will be the Word made flesh that transforms the world.”
A book of this complexity is no ordinary tale to be told in any ordinary way. Absent of plot, it unravels not through exposition or logic or linear time, scene or action, but through dialogue, interrogation, and letters. And then, with its target in mind of this contradictory braided miasma of forces, it undercuts its own reality. It is a book whose aspirations go far beyond mere realism:
It’s an old story, sailing off to get some great prize.
Helen of Troy, the Golden Fleece, the New World.
But “Nothing in this story fits in.” The characters come to play parts they cannot help becoming aware of:
Where are we in the story?
It’s not a story. It’s a geometry. It’s what happens when you wrap the earth in lines. You go to the bottom of the sea, like my father. But if you want a story, tell it.
And so, it is not a story like Helen of Troy, et alia. “I may have embellished it, but I was inside of it. How does one get inside a story he has never heard before?”