The OF Blog: Michael Cisco, The Narrator

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Michael Cisco, The Narrator

Michael Cisco's 2010 novel, The Narrator, is the third book to be reviewed by a weird troika of lit critics (and authors and translators).  This time, we have secretly replaced Jeff VanderMeer's review space with that of J.M. McDermott'sPaul Smith now has his review up as well.

An army is a horror.  It's a horrible thing.  They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.

It's through rags of fast-moving smoke that I first catch sight of Tref.  I'm standing in the pass, to one side of the pumice road, looking down from my perch on the massed roots of some dusty old cork oaks.  The city below me is like a shining, smoking lake, thrusting its troubled glints into my eyes and make them smart.  Overhead, the sun is lost in a white sky without circumference, above the flashing waters of the city. (p. 5)

For the past ten years or so, Michael Cisco has been one of "those" authors, writers whose talents are recognized by those in the know, but who have never enjoyed a mass readership.  His most recent novel, The Narrator, is perhaps simultaneously his most "accessible" (if such an execrable adjective might be employed here) and his most accomplished and sophisticated work to date.  Cisco is a master stylist, who creates dark, twisted, imaginative vistas from the juxtaposition of adjectives.  Take for instance the opening paragraphs quoted above.  We learn that the narrator, whose name incidentally is Low, is narrating a war.  However, we quickly move away from the clichéd "war is hell/horror" motif and into a setting that is strange, full of "fast-moving smoke," with a city being akin to a "shining, smoking lake" while the sky is white.  Wherever this setting might be, we're no longer in Kansas, Toto.

Cisco's stories tend to be quite atmospheric, going beyond lush, descriptive landscapes.  People too make up an environment and in one early scene, he foreshadows certain thematic (and plot) elements by his portrayal of two segregated and yet complementary religious orders:

A carefully ramified division of labor regulates the operation of the life and death priests.  Life priests, urbane, serene, dressed in satiny white and cream gowns, preside at weddings, tend the sick and perform healings when they can; death priests, subdolous and mordant, dressed in shabby subfusc, officiate at funerals, conduct autopsies and embalm bodies, attend to the dying and insane, and cast our even imbibe possessing demons.  Life priests are permitted and encouraged to marry; death priests, while not enjoined to celibacy, are forbidden to marry or to bear children... There is no enmity between these two groups of priests, although they are compelled to avoid each other as a rule in order to maintain a pure distinction.  When they do meet, a complicated protocol governs the exchange of formalities.  In fact, since no one is ever born in the death precincts, all death priests are delivered into this life by life priests of the previous generation.  Naturally, all life priests are ushered into whatever dream comes after by the generation of death priests who will bury them in the death district.  (pp. 13-14)
In his previous works, Cisco tended to rely more on elements such as this to create the "weirdness" that served as a thematic staple in his stories.  Here in The Narrator, at 307 pages his longest work to date, he goes further.  Through the character of the Narrator Low, he explores not just the weirdness of the locale and the strangeness (and hell) of war, but the very semantics that underlie our conceptualizations of the world and the medium of language used to express it.  Several authors utilize the "unreliable narrator" trope to underscore the hidden undercurrents of the narrative, but Cisco is one of the few authors I have encountered who have attempted to undermine the very narrative structure itself through the creation of a character whose purpose is to tell and retell events until the events are forgotten and what is left becomes Story.

As someone whose original field of study was cultural history, I quickly became intrigued by Cisco's plumbing of the semantic depths that bind together the two main strands of historia, History and Story alike.  At first, the war Story took some getting used to; frequently, events felt disjointed and out of sequence.  Then a little over halfway into the novel, things become crystallized in an encounter between Low and another narrator:

Makemin is a good narrator.  He has his own story, a revenge story, and its power has revived in the men the will to fight.  He will get his way.  They will fight.  They believe him.  I failed.  I failed as a narrator, because I didn't tell them that I had had to get my pack from where it fell and was tangled in the bracken by the path, and that Makemin was wrong to believe himself alone in the moments after he struck me. (p. 195)
From this point, The Narrator begins to come into its own as a narrative about narratives and the weird interstices that underlie memory, communication, and the symbols embedded in the actions of which we partake and the words we speak.  What becomes apparent by the novel's end is not the paramount value of "Truth," but that "truths" can emerge that have little in common with the events that engendered them.  I hesitate to say this is the "point" of the story, as I believe Cisco is exploring (and deconstructing) several other points in addition to this one, but certainly this is a key element that I took from The Narrator

The Narrator is Cisco's most engaging work, as the reader has the trappings of a war/army narrative to grasp as an entry portal.  Prior knowledge of his earlier writings is not necessary, although there are a few glimpses here and there that hint at some deeper connection with his earlier tales, although these never intrude upon the narrative core.  As stated above, Cisco's descriptive, evocative prose signals the alienation felt by the characters and it is this sense of estrangement that makes this novel a captivating read even for those readers who are not fain to read such narratives.  Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A great review, but I can't refrain from pointing out that Makemin is not actually a Narrator in the sense that Low is, so it isn't accurate to refer to Low's encounter with "another narrator." Calling him one is Low's way of acknowledging the power of Makemin's story, and his own failure to oppose it effectively.

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