Derek White, Marsupial (Calamari Press, 2008)
"Marsupial is a fragmented novel about somebody out of place within the cathartic context of the making of a movie overseas."
“Although MARSUPIAL is heavily allusive (quantum mechanics, I Ching, Trojan War, biomorphology, etc.), the allusions are neither the point nor the extratextual reason standing silently behind their literary proxies—as if pulling away the curtain of the story would reveal the true meaning behind each character and event. Rather, the allusions are used sometimes as material springboards and sometimes as the method by which an idea or event is transformed into each other.” —Keith Nathan Brown
"though dubbed elsewhere the first lynchian novel, MARSUPIAL reminded me most often of cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, where an unflappable main character nods straight-faced through a bizarre and constantly morphing scenery. witty and — due to its sense of nostalgia for a just-left dream or a long-left city — oddly melancholic. a relatively simple story line anchors the book: a young man comes to Paris to work as a stand-in for his actor-brother during an arty-ish B-movie shoot. on top of that simple narrative’s foundation is built a complex, shifting and dreamy mis-en-scene perhaps as obsessively art-directed as one by richard foreman. white’s repeating concerns include: crayfish biomorphism of all kinds, lacanian fascination/alienation from our own bodies, mothers, brothers, sibling rivalry, paranoia, and the french. an obsessively rendered dreamworld that leaves a long-lingering aftertaste of heartache, MARSUPIAL is a fascinating read.
should be said too: derek white, the DIY master who runs calamari press, has done himself one better on this book’s design, which is graced with a beautifully gritty cover (and from which, his name is defiantly absent) and which also has his trademark collages interspersed throughout." - Eugene Lim
"Calamari Press has now released Derek White's new novel MARSUPIAL, wherein the term 'new' is both germane and not germane in several ways, as foretold by the note in copyright page at the beginning, stating it was written from 1997-2008. From what I understand of the story and in following Derek's blog, it is based at least in part on a remasked novel, the first version of which he wrote those almost 10 years ago and toyed with after, a novel began during which he was employed as an extra or body double during the filming of a film by bizarre Quentin Tarantino once-collaborator, Roger Avery (for more on that backstory, read Derek's post re: the novel germination here).
This book excited me from the get-go not only because I love Derek's collection POSTE RESTANTE, but also because you can't help not getting excited about a book with as beautiful and provocative a cover as MARSUPIAL's.
In this case, the cover does speak to the book as a whole itself: in that, it is stark, cryptic, and gritty, and yet in all the same ways it is pristine. MARSUPIAL for the most part is a wide collage of disparate but all related elements. There are prose vignettes, there are bits from film scripts, there are the strange collagist images Derek has impressed into most of the Calamari releases, there are news clippings and other official documents, dream sequences, definitions, and on and on, and tying all of these together, there is the first person narration of Stu, a character who over the course of the novel continues to shift identities and meld with other characters to the point of a kind of laden, historical blur.
With all of these elements embedded, it would be easy for a text like this to get derailed to go so off course. In fact, the story itself, even in its most linear sequences has a tendency to skew everything to bits. In the mind of INLAND EMPIRE it follows the production of a film subject to all kinds of strange interruption. The narrator often finds himself out of body, referring to himself in quotes. As early as page 9, his head comes off his shoulders as he holds in a sneeze. As things continue, the narrator, worried he is being surveilled, obsessed with his brother's broken-english speaking girlfriend, acting as his brother's stunt double in a film that continues to become more and more flush and fractalled with the reality in which it is being filmed: all of this could make for easy, lazy 'surrealism' (in fact there is a quote somewhere embedded regarding this effect, the way laziness in art can often be passed off as intentional in the name of the surreal).
I for one have never been at peace with the 'surrealist school.' I've always tended toward bizarre images, and juxtapositions of weird dream logics, etc., but I've often felt coming up dry in the ways of the actual produce of these effects. Breton's NADJA, for instance, bored the shit out of me, and seemed passed off, sold as an idea, in the way that Bolano's THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES seemed to be trying to sell me a new leg of poetics. Surrealism, to me, should not be political, and this is where so much of the genre has gone wrong. Politics? In art? Aren't their politics enough all everywhere else? Can't we have one fucking awake state that feels as good as sleeping? Isn't that the point?
White's MARSUPIAL, though, if anything, bends surrealism into the kind of effects I've always wished to see rendered literarily. I've talked a lot on here about trying to write the David Lynch novel. Derek White, the motherfucker, may have beaten me to it, at least in a way. There are definitely Lynch-isms loaded here, the mother is referred to as 'Mary X. White,' a name fans of ERASERHEAD will immediately recognize. A lot of the meta-work and the way White manages to breed a certain feel of noir schlock and confusion humor (the screenwriter's drug use, the weird sex jokes, the studio's talkie-talkies, which translate the French film crew's directions into mangled English, 'pornography hero,' etc) with another kind of anytime-metamorphing energy, in which you literally could see the roof fly off a building overflowed with circus peanuts with little faces and feel completely okay about, not wonder what the fuck is wrong with the author. And so much of the narrative terrain moves in the way I love so much about the spatial orientations of INLAND EMPIRE and etc. It moves not as a logic earth, but as rooms connected associatively, by cosmic necessity, rather than some map sketched and pored over on the author's desk.
Somewhere near the beginning of the book the narrator's brother John says, "Personally, I think it's more interesting to write about what you don't know." This has always been, in my mind, one of the most important things to grasp in new writers, those getting told 'write what you know,' who will by and large go onto to say nothing that will ever stir anything that could not have been said by 1200 other MFA grads.
Literature for me has always felt crushed a little by realism, by BEST AMERICAN aspirations, with the need of setting place and time, getting cornered by what should or should not happen, how the characters 'feel' about it, how they assess/parse/deal with it, what's going on, even within a certain confine. The tendency to have resolution and the need for repeating images has always bothered me, and yet when there is just empty noodling, I get the same feel. It takes a deft hand to manage the surreal in a way that feels like it is doing what it should, that it has a reason to exist in the same way that Steve Vai sounds like a dickface for being all around and yet nowhere at once.
Which leads me to one of the most impressive things about MARSUPIAL, one of the things that I think I am most awed by in this weird, corrosive, and yet immensely refined book: the way White is able to take his imagery, take the sometimes intentionally obfuscated (but in a playful way) story of a man filming a film that melds with his life, his mind, his mother, his everything at once, and manages to stir it all together, with all of these disparate elements, into a thing that comes together not in a forced way, not in a 'here is why you're reading way,' not in a way that makes me angry for how it took the moody energy and explained it all to bits, but in a way that instead somehow marries these things into a non-resolutional ending, a way to leave the book, that both leaves most questions unanswered, and yet fills my stomach.
To be true, the last 20 pages of it, the climaxed chord of all these threads speaking together for a moment, in their clearly semi-en-route-discovered understandings, and their simultaneously clearly long-boiled (nine years!) effects, in what they leave out and leave for my brain to try to cut through, the embossed energy of association!!!!!!!, it left me reeling a little, somewhat in the same way I felt after having watched MULHOLLAND DRIVE for the first time, like I'd been led among a series of rooms by someone who'd designed them to unravel and reravel for us both at once.
If literature is not about discovery, a method often just as accidental as it is deigned for, then I can't feel like I'm inside it. And yet this pushing for discovery, so often it is what pushes me away. I want to be inside it, and I want it to be inside me, I don't want to feel it soldering me back closed before its over. I want to be ripped open a little. I want to see thing going on, and be awed at its creation. MARSUPIAL manages to do all of this, and yet it does not feel like work. In an age where the book is already so maligned, it is refreshing to see such a new and challenging narrative be delivered so pleasantly, with such focus, and yet with such utter disregard for the implications of straight storytelling.
MARSUPIAL is something new.
MARSUPIAL is a book that will continue to strum the mind long after it is silent, that has so many layers it can't help but seem to explode, that like INLAND EMPIRE and other open texts, will remain basting the brain long after with its cold juices, that even as I type this now with the book still inside my mind and around me I feel the same way I did the years when I was 12 and could not move inside my bed, stuck again in the recurring dream of a boulder rolling in slow motion down out of the ceiling each night to crush my face, and yet I couldn't wait." - Blake Butler
"I get a fair amount of stuff in the mail, mostly books and records, which is nice because when I come home from a discouraging day there is usually a little pile of Christmas presents wrapped in brown cardboard at my door. Most of the time, of course, the thrill of anticipation is more pleasurable than the discovery phase. Not so the other day, when I unwrapped the kind gift of Marsupial: Our Mother for the Time Being, the new book-length fiction by Derek White. I recognized the aesthetic of the cover right away. Besides blogging and publishing Sleepingfish, White runs Calamari Press, and having seen and enjoyed a couple of their books, which White designs as well as edits, I recognized his characteristically playful post-punk scribbly graphics vibe right off the bat. Marsupial was wrapped in a black-and-white collage: a clump of hair, photo fragments, a snail thing, and various smears and scratches overlaid a a movie scene clacker whose fat striations were echoed in a detourned I Ching hexagram I instantly recognized as number 61, Chung Fu, Inner Truth—the same oracular glyph that pops up toward the end of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle.
This is gonna be good, I thought.
And indeed it was. Great, possibly, and even if not Great, then certainly the most delightfully original thing I have read in ages—a twisted and mercurial mind fuck that reaches into your guts and twists them into animal balloons. The meta-novel is more or less told from the perspective of a young Southern boy who shows up in Paris in order to be a stand-in for his brother in a pretentious low-rent Scifi B-movie about junkies addicted to “bug juice.” Slipping in and out of bodies, names, and identities, the narrator is hardly reliable. He may be dreaming; he may be a figment of his brother’s imagination. This instability is mirrored in the episodic structure of the book, as we pass, quick-cut style, back and forth through a number of narrative frames—childhood memoir, dream sequences, dictionary definitions, screenplay, film shoot, forensic documents, erotic fantasies. These are presented in different typefaces and genres of documents, and are interspersed with lots of White's gnarly and evocative dada-punk collages. The typeface and the tales inevitably bleed into one another, as the film goes meta, an already unstable reality goes kaleidescope, and the typography goes viral—as, for example, the dialogue format of the screenplay begins to colonize and represent the conversation in the “real life” threads.
I won’t try to summarize the plot, which holds together the way that David Lynch holds together (and to about the same degree): on a level of enigmatic images that nomadically stray and repeat with an obsessive psychosexual economy marked with a surreal carnality and the unmistakable insistence of what one can only call "the unconscious." These images and lacunae include crawfish (a Southerner's version of Lautremont’s lobster, je suppose), eggs, molting bodies, bellies, mistranslation, missing mothers. White is funnier than Lynch though, and much less of a prude—one of the many things that makes Marsupial way more readable than a lot of experimental fiction is White’s willingness to light-heartedly play with both pervy sex ("Not another Last Tango scene!") and body horror—the latter of the dripping, yucky, Cronenbergian variety, rather than anything slasher.
Marsupial is a heady ride to be sure, linguistically prickly in a manner that is appropriate for writing that wants to puncture mere fiction. One of the many strokes of genius are the "talky talkies" the French crew use to communicate, and that automatically produce babblefish translations for our American hero. But Marsupial's puzzle games and reality shifts are grounded in the body, albeit a disorganized, Deleuzian body of sperm, pouches, phallic appendages, mutant DNA, and crusty, flaking scale-skin. Its high brow if you think about it, but also greatly enjoyable. The work of art I kept thinking about was Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea, with its deeply fleshy psychedelia, but that no doubt says more about me than White.
True, the weird frisson does begin to drag in the second half of the 200-page book, and White cannot resist a few excessively arty and self-conscious moves (the footnotes that mount towards the end particularly irked me for some reason). But, in the face of countless fictions that try and fail, Marsupial does achieve a genuinely dream-like logic. Not only is the imagistic and narrative texture recognizably dreamlike, but the text's perpetual shuttling between words and worlds conjures some of the more elusive qualities of the feverish borderlands between dream and awakening. I was not surprised to read that the snippets in White’s last book, 2006's Poste Retante, were based on White’s own nocturnal peregrinations.
The best thing I can say about Marsupial is that it gave me an amazing dream. I read the first half in one glorious evening, and then I hit the sack. I have been thinking about dreams a lot lately, and I went to bed with the strong intention of staying conscious as I fell to sleep. My weirdest and most memorable dreams generally occur during this hypnogogic passage into the Dreaming rather than the usual morning recall, and tonight, primed by my hours with White, I found myself stumbling through a series of scrambled dream scenarios that were vivid and largely unpleasant. My dreaming self could not think straight, not unlike White’s narrator, and I felt as if I had taken some bad drug.
Finally I found myself behind the wheel of a car, driving along a freeway with my wife. We were chit-chatting I think. As we hurtled towards a tunnel (stop snickering), I discovered that the brakes didn’t work. I told my wife about this, but she responded with some garbled word salad, a reaction that was so uncharacteristic on her part that I realized I was in a dream. I thought to myself, “Great, I can just fly away or something from this shitty situation.” Then I felt—but did not see—a large claw enclose my right foot, a claw that no doubt belonged to one of the copious crawfish in White's text. This was deeply creepy, to say the least—I always find strong physical sensations without visual cues in dreams very powerful. A nightmarish panic began, but instead of using my lucid dream control to abandon ship, I had the most curious thought: “Ah, fuck it, why bother flying away? Where is there to go anyway?” And so I just relaxed into the horror, submitting myself to the monster claw and the certain crash. And then I woke." - Erik Davis
Derek White, Poste Restante (Calamari Press, 2006)
"Poste Restante is a collection of text and image fragments (postcards, if you will, sent from the subconscious) by Derek White. From the forward:
Whenever I dream about "home," it's never where I am residing at the time. For that matter, whenever I dream of a place, say, Maldives or the Plaza de Toros in Seville, it's never the place but an idealized concept of one, perhaps amalgamated with other places, including absurd ones I have never been to or that might not even exist. Yet. The same is true of people. Say, Madonna or Captain Beefheart. Or even elementary particles such as quarks or gauge bosons. Or the relationships in between.
The nocturnal histories contained here were transcribed in the dark, in the wake of sleep when I couldn't always see what, in fact, I was writing. These are merely the residuals, in translated words and images, that clung to my feet as I woke up and walked across the floorboards of where I was living at the time. This is all I can say with any degree of certainty without sacrificing knowledge of place for where I was going with it.
When a letter or parcel is addressed and postmarked, you are assured that it passed through human hands and physical devices to reach its intended destination. It is a validation. A proof of concept. A collapse of its wave function. Poste Restante (literally, 'post remaining' or 'residual mail') is an ad hoc destination for mail sent to recipients who are just passing through a place they do not permanently reside. It's what you say when you don't have a place you call "home."
"White calls the pieces in Poste Resante "residuals," and that may well be the best description. Like memory and it's closest collaborator, imagination, they are built out of that which remains: both dross and deep beauty. The whole feels honest, unsettingly accurate, fresh." - Laird Hunt
"Although there are threads that continue between stories, some of the same characters and places, and more than a heaping spoonful of physics and math (add some paranoia and we're ready for the crying to begin on the auction for White's subconscious) there is no real narrative thread that links them. Like dreams, these stories rise from the ether and then disappear back from whence they came." - Robert Bell
"In his introduction to Poste Restante (translation: “residual mail”), Derek White describes his book as a collection of “nocturnal histories” written “in the wake of sleep.” To put it another way, Poste Restante is a sort of dream journal. Over the course of twenty years, while living in various places around the world (South Dakota, the Cook Islands), White wrote fiction while the dream world still clung to him, in an effort to document his life travels through intuition. There’s rarely any clear connection between story and place—stories written in New York and Arizona take place in India and Panama—but White is less interested in facts than in the unstable, representational nature of locations in dreams, which he calls the “idealized concept” of a place. So, in this sense, the book is actually a dream-travel journal.
Without reading the introduction, Poste Restante seems like a collection of very short stories with signed dates, places, and surreal scenarios. Labeling these “dreams” is just a way of giving White’s imagination free reign. Yet his ability to clearly translate the logic of dream-life is what makes this a specialized, noteworthy work of fiction. His descriptions border on Dada: “A rooster with razor blades strapped to his feet was displayed in a fish tank in the rear of the restaurant.” His actions seem linked by a chain of nonsequiturs: “I continued running lost through the streets. Finding a litter of stray puppies, I kept the runt. My feet kept running but I wasn’t going anywhere.” In one story, he gets so excited about being at a Radiohead concert that he takes off in flight, and then crashes, making “a crater in the ground the exact shape of (his) body—like in the cartoons.”
Also included are charts, drawings, photographs, and pieces of imaginary mail. Sometimes this material makes its way into the story—a stamp with a rattlesnake is next to a story about rattlesnakes—and clarifies the text (he actually labels them Exhibit A, B, etc.). But sometimes the images just add an undecipherable ambiguity, and while this can be frustrating, it’s also what makes this the sort of labyrinthine artifact you want to keep on your shelf to savor for many years.
Published in places like Pindelyboz, elimae, and Snow Monkey, the stories in Poste Restante represent some of the most enigmatic work being published on flash-fiction websites and in journals around the country. White demonstrates the elasticity of the genre and how the compressed format can allow for some of the wildest creative leaps in new fiction. Most notably, though, he shows how seemingly disparate shorts can react when lined up together. With a subject as hermetic as dream-life, the collection could easily crumble apart as episodic nonsense, but White places himself inside the narrative and becomes the connective tissue that keeps everything flowing. From one sentence to another, he remolds himself, from a fictional character to a memoirist, from a Panamanian boy to an albino, ultimately becoming a wraithlike figure looming throughout the pages. He communicates not only his “idealized concepts” of location and dream but also something personal about the dreamer. By never consigning himself to a distinctive personality, he re-creates the amorphous aspects of “the self” in dreams and builds a transcendent voice, as complex as those heard in David Markson’s fiction, and as eerily formless as the narrators of our own indescribable dreams." —Ross Simonini
"In the foreword to his new collection, Derek White reveals how most of the 34 short pieces were composed in the dark while coming in or out of sleep. Poste Restante is the latest in a magnficent line of publications from a small independent press called Calamari Press, presided over by Mr. White. In roughly four years they've managed to forge a reputation not only for linguistic excellence but for writing with unmistakable identity, including titles by aesthetically innovative authors such as Peter Markus and John Olson. Like William Burroughs or Ben Marcus before him, White trolls a terrain known to most only under the influence of via heavy sedation or REM. The stories here are multi-layered and often turn in on themselves. Characters shift identities; they are transformed by their surroundings. As disparate images and unrealities collide into one another, they mesh the mystical with the familial, the folklorish with pop culture.
To White's credit, the stories do not suffer from the brand of symbolic rambling that often accompany fiction hewn from dreamstates. His plots, while often shape-shifting, veering from one end to another, manage to absorb the reader rather than maintaining the impenetrability of hieroglyphics. Each individual unit has its own history, its own assumed background if you will; and together they form a collage, a sort of textbook of hidden minds. As often as it is intense or surreal or nightmarish, the stories use their fanaticism to make you chuckle or squeeze your knee. In "Field Trip to an Emergent Volcano," Johnny Rotten and Jesus Christ take children out on a field trip to active volcano; in "Body of Evidence," a man bowls by throwing himself down the lane. Rather than exploiting their strangeness, though, the stories seem to feed off one another. Like the detached sentimentality often evoked after time spent in one's own dreams, the stories seem hungry to communicate the things humming within them; they want to transfer their energy into a remote location.
Beyond the bedtime logic and bizarre landscape, it is White's often playful and incantatory language that turns the head. The sentences seem to linger a while after they're gone. Like Lydia Davis, White can turn a phrase, and is adept at honing his sentences down to their barest, most effective ends. It is partially because his words are so rhymthmic and even soothing that the stories are able to mimic the dreamstate they channel from so well. They slip in the back door and snake around you. Soon you're neck-high where you hadn't realized you were wading.
The title Poste Restante refers to mail that is held over by the post office, an intermediary destination for things sent to people who have no particular place it can be delivered. Appropriately, embedded within the text are a series of "Exhibits," collaged images often as textured and provocative as the stories themselves. Together they invoke a sort of handbook to the dreamworld, a placebo substitute for sleeping pills. Poste Restante is worthy of sitting on your nightstand to help nurse you in and out of elsewhere." - Blake Butler
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