Yuriy Tarnawsky – A nightmare dissolves in time like blood in water: Rilke is murdered by a rose bush, but after donating his left arm to a fetus stew

Yuriy Tarnawsky, Like Blood in Water (Fiction Collective 2, 2007)
«A surrealist account of the creative and descriptive arts.
In these five surrealist collages, waking life continually gives way before the onslaught of dreams. Yuriy Tarnawsky has condensed the vastness of scope typical of novels into shorter fragments—mininovels—that require the reader’s active participation. The tone is a balance of dead-pan comedy and solemn gothic, sometimes a near-parody of wide-eyed candor, sometimes recounting utterly mad or barely conceivable states of affairs.
A candidate for major surgery struggles unsuccessfully to avoid it. Two strangers meet, and eventually marry, after participating in scream therapy. A pianist stops playing because he believes his hand is not there when he sits at the keyboard. A character sees the giant blue and white flowers he has craved his whole life only at the instance of his electrocution. Tyler Pavarotti, a tailor, voluntarily takes a role in a production in which he will be killed.
Tarnawsky’s language is elegant and careful, and his studied concentration of rhythm allows his work to transcend prose, nestling somewhere within the realm of musical composition. Both tragic and beautiful, in these stories life dissolves in time like blood in water.»

"When I get rich I'll get a pied-a-terre on Yuriy Tarnawsky's planet. It’s very wild on the surface and cool and calm in the interior. The palm fronds don’t decay."— Andrei Codrescu

"Tarnawsky’s are the second opinions we seek, almost recognize, then do, for they are made of the sounds, power sources, bizarre jobs, people coming our way, fitted together both by us and a culture by turns demanding and uncaring if we sleepwalkers notice or not: alarming, intelligent, caught again and again in the grasp of the author's surprise and yearning."— Joseph McElroy

«In this, his first work of fiction since 1993’s fantastically peculiar Three Blondes and Death, Yuriy Tarnawsky presents five “mini-novels” which he describes as prose works of short story length that engender the scope and complexity of novels. Each piece indeed achieves an expansive effect, largely due to extreme ellipses that fragment the stories. Tarnawsky leaves the reader with the task of filling in the missing episodes, imagining exposition and causalities as well as the significance of numerous bizarre scenes. The reader is firmly guided by Tarnawsky’s startling prose and exhilarating sense of play. As in Sorrentino or Barthelme, the text brims with the excitement that anything can happen.
The unifying thread is that of nightmare. Rilke is murdered by a rose bush, but not before donating his left arm to a fetus stew. A tailor named Pavarotti is hired to play Agamemnon in an Italian film, then ends up awaiting a presumably real death onstage, in the role of Marat. A doctor chases his patient across a skating rink, mowing down rows of giant flowers before plunging his ice skate’s blade into the man’s chest. Another man’s electrocution causes massive flowers to erupt out of the earth.
Tarnawsky’s stories recall the monumental terror of childhood, beautiful nightmares that resonate poetically and honestly. The fragments of these mini-novels swirl, daring meanings and tantalizing the reader with dreamlike connections—like blood in water, indeed, but like nothing so much as life itself.» - A. D. Jameson

Nelson Fitipaldo stands at the window of his kitchen-apartment and looks outside. An unhealthy reddish color tinges the world like blood dissolved in water. - From “Former Pianist Fitipaldo”
Yuriy Tarnawsky, who, according to the back cover of Like Blood in Water, has authored “19 collections of poetry, seven plays, nine books of fiction, a biography, and numerous articles and translations,” came as a revelation to this writer, who had never heard of his work before. Tarnawsky’s collection of “five mininovels,” which he dedicates to his parents and terms “memories of my childhood,” is an oneiric, fragmentary journey through one man’s subconscious, and makes him a good candidate for inclusion as a modern-day surrealist; in fact, according to the biography at his website, he is a founding member of the New York Group, “a Ukrainian émigré avant-garde group of literary writers.” His background in electrical engineering, theoretical linguistics (his Ph.D. dissertation dealt with Noam Chomsky’s Extended Standard Theory/semantics), Artificial Intelligence, and Ukrainian literature seems to have left its indelible imprint on his work, as has the fact that he is a poet and playwright whose original language is not English. A rude awakening awaits the reader who comes to this collection with the expectation that s/he is going to encounter linear “stories” with all of the elements of conventional fiction intact (plot, arc, characterization, etc.). Those who are a bit more daring in their literary tastes, however, are likely to find the challenge of deconstructing Tarnawsky’s enigmatic work a welcome one.
From the get-go, one senses that this is not to be a regular collection of tales (as if the cover art, depicting a glass of blood-laden water against a gray and white background, wasn’t already a strong enough indicator.…). The first “mininovel,” which is also the shortest, entitled “Screaming,” is divided into six parts. This peculiar fiction focuses on a character named Rilke Roark (named for the poet, while the surname recalls the protagonist of The Fountainhead), and a one-armed woman, Alba (named for “the duchess of Alba that Goya painted”). The two meet at a sort of cult gathering, replete with yoga mats, where participants scream their brains out in ritualized fashion. Their uncanny dialogue in the second section, as with all of the uncanny dialogues in all of the uncanny fictions, is told in a format suggestive of reading the script of a play; indeed, it appears as though many of these pieces are meant to be read as quasi-plays, as sub-headings such as “the final scene,” “prologue” / “epilogue,” and “a dress rehearsal” (the latter consisting of a bizarre conversation between two parents concerning the colors of their daughter’s costume) would seem to indicate. In the third section of “Screaming,” Roark and Alba’s bizarre dreams are limned, while in the fourth we are presented a matter-of-fact description of their apartment (they have, in the space between sections, gotten married). For example:
'It is one very large room in a former factory building with windows along the entire outside wall. In the middle of it stands a toilet bowl without a seat. An old black quilt lies in a heap next to it. You can cover yourself with it when you use the toilet if you so desire. A large, old-fashioned sink with two basins is attached in the center of the wall opposite to the one with the windows. It is used for washing up as well as for doing dishes'.
The nouveau roman-like description continues in this fashion, to include details of a lithograph of Munch’s “The Scream,” a large, rusty-edged cube inside of which screaming sessions are held, and seven glass jars with fetuses inside of them. In the fifth section, one such screaming session is described in absurdist fashion—Munch’s lithograph literally screams along with the couple, turning back the hands of the grandfather clock in the room and making the fetuses dance and twirl like Olympic athletes—and appears to correspond with section nine of the fourth mininovel, “Pavarotti-Agamemnon,” in which the protagonist sings so loudly and forcefully that he breaks the window, the mirror, and his wife’s collection of glasswear. (Many themes are echoed and reechoed throughout the five mininovels, such as the “primal scream,” the appearance of clocks, rust/decay, the death of loved ones, etc.) Finally, in section six, images of a rushing river containing various large objects (e.g. houses, furniture, vehicles, etc.) coalesce with the final, resonant über-image of a person putting “quarters of light” into the rift between the horizon and the earth, as though it were a “slot in a pinball machine.”
As this all-too-brief overview of the shortest of the five fictions will perhaps indicate, despite the volume’s modest length there is a lot of “stuff” packed into each mininovel to merit, as well as reward, multiple readings. A few of the many highlights from the remainder of the collection include when, in the second mininovel, the protagonist Nelson Fitipaldo, who has enjoyed a humble career as a pianist for some years, loses the cooperation of his right hand during a live performance, as if in a classic Freudian anxiety dream, and gives up the instrument—and his career—with somewhat less regret than one might normally expect. In the fourth mininovel, “Pavarotti-Agamemnon,” mentioned above, a most hilarious dialogue about regional, home-cooked foods between the tailor/actor Pavarotti—who is to play a hirsute Agamemnon—and the producer/director of the film ensues at the former’s apartment; the bizarre conversation reflects a communication breakdown whilst the men try, apparently, to translate between Italian and English. (This sequence literally had me laughing out loud on the light rail—you’ll just have to read it for yourself to confirm its bone-tickling efficacy; see pp. 103-7.) In the third mininovel, “The Joys and Sorrows of R. York,” there is a wonderful scene wherein the dream R. York narrates to his psychiatrist appears to describe the painting to which the segment is apparently an homage. And in the fifth, and perhaps most accomplished, mininovel, “Surgery,” the paraplegic Dr. Kax’s dream of mowing down plants with his skates is one which is sure to remain in memory long after closing the book.
If the reader chooses to give these five mininovels, which should be read and considered as a whole, a fair chance to ferment in the subconscious, focusing on the imagery and language first and leaving logic and forced interpretation behind (are the mininovels autobiographical, as the author suggests in the dedication? are they derived from his own dreams? or are they simply nonsensical pieces, penned to frustrate the Cartesians among us?), there is much to be savored—and indeed learned from—this wonderfully opaque, yet at times surprisingly lucid and tender, collection of lapidary absurdities from Planet Tarnawsky.» - Marc Lowe

«Though Like Blood in Water, Yuriy Tarnawsky’s collection of five “mini novels,” is a somewhat slim 192 pages, the stories themselves often seem as though they are folded, accordion-style, so that they expand and contract with the act of reading. It is this kind of shifting nature that leads me to believe that I could read the collection 10 times and it would mean something different each time. Some elements that seemed of the utmost importance upon my first reading might not even receive a second glance later. And so, after closing Like Blood in Water for the first time, I was struck by the idea that the book in my hands, the actual printed words, was much less important than my experience reading it.
Like Blood in Water is an incredibly complex, beautiful, and frustrating work. It is less about story than craft, a fact that I found alternately exciting and confounding. While Tarnawsky chooses to call his stories mini novels, I think a better term might be collages, or jazz improvisations, or splatter paintings.
The collection starts off relatively easy with the work “Screaming,” the most straightforward of Tarnawsky’s tales. Straightforward is a relative term, though. Like each of the mini novels, “Screaming” is broken into a series of interrelated sections, sometimes using poetry or even scripted dialogue. Piecing the sections together, choosing what to show and what to keep hidden, is what Tarnawsky does so well; by writing only the minimum, we as readers are forced to help him create the story, weaving it together and filling in the blanks.
“Screaming” concerns itself with a man named Rilke Roark and a one-armed woman he meets named Alba, whom we are told get married and, really, are exceptional only in that they scream for transcendental purposes. One need only read a small section of “Screaming,” though, to recognize Tarnawsky’s enormous talent as a writer, and to understand that no basic plot synopsis could do his writing justice: “The sky above is also brown, tinged by the light reflecting from below. It is very low -- so low Roark has to stand with his head bent down. It stretches flat all the way to the horizon where there is only a thin opening left between it and the earth like the slot in a pinball machine. Someone on the other side is feeding shiny new quarters of light into it one by one, over and over again.”
With each successive mini novel, the collection becomes more complex, more enigmatic. Certain themes are constantly popping up: dreaming, identity, loss, doppelgangers, the apocalypse. There are moments of brilliance and moments of frustration and opaque meaning. Towards the end of reading Like Blood in Water, as I thumbed forward through the last story and realized my journey would be over in a few pages, I felt a little like I was finally seeing the end of a long, bloody battle. This was not because the book was not enjoyable, but because it is rare that I have to do so much intellectual work while reading a collection of stories just to get to the end of it.
I feel as though I’ve yet to form any solid opinion on Like Blood in Water. Even after a few close readings, it seems I have barely scratched the surface, barely identified all of the complexities and ambiguities and interconnections that Tarnawsky worked into his collection. And so perhaps all there really is to say about Like Blood in Water is that, if you choose to pick it up, prepare for it to seem heavier than it looks - there is nothing diminutive about these mini novels.» - Andrea Chmielewski

Yuriy Tarnawsky, Three Blondes and Death (Fiction Collective 2, 1993)

«Based on a complex mathematical scheme that the author, a computer scientist and linguist, developed as a substitute for the traditional architecture of a novel, and written in a deliberately sparse and structured syntax that ruthlessly compartmentalizes reality, Three Blondes and Death is an hermetic and hypnotic treatment of the classic themes of love and death. Its strange protagonist, with the literally unspeakable name Hwbrgdtse, searches for meaning in life through the three women with whom he successively falls in love. He finds, however, only life's absurdity, ending in death—a death to which his quest eventually reconciles him.
Three Blondes and Death takes place in an ambiguous time and geography that turn out to be present-day America. The relations between the protagonist and the objects of his love are totally perverse and destructive; the texture of their lives is deceptively simple but implies a dark and undecipherable complexity; and the angst of mortality hangs over every gesture. A lunatic simplicity governs the behavior of Hwbrgdtse, which enables him to face issues of love and death more directly than is usually the case with romantic heroes.
Tarnawsky's third work of fiction is unusually readable, even magnetic, once we are drawn in by its hypnotic repetitions. The logical clarity of its style contrasts with the irrational, often dreamlike content. The action is stark and at the same time mysterious. Whether the strange sensibility that suffuses this story can be traced to the mathematically rigorous mind of its author, or to his Ukrainian roots, or to his multilingual background, Three Blondes and Death is an intriguing and unique work.»

Yuriy Tarnawsky, Meningitis (Fiction Collective 2, 1993)

"The most unusual--and, often, infuriating--novel of this trio, has to be Yuriy Tarnawsky's Meningitis [....] It's [...] almost as if Hemingway had been a methamphetamine addict instead of a boozer. Oddly, though, the prose style is what holds [Meningitis] together and allows it to work as well as it does." - Stephen Phelps

I get Yuriy Tarnawsky's classic Meningitis off the shelf and marvel over it. It's like mathrock on eight-track tape. I love how it says "All of the characters in this book are fictitious" on the copyright page and then the first sentence in the first story says,
Jim Morrison woke up.
Every time the protagonist in the story is cited as subject, it's always Jim Morrison--not Jim, not Morrison, but Jim Morrison. Every time.
And no paragraphs. No quotation marks. It was Raymond Federman, I believe, who said get rid of the fucking quotations marks around the dialogue - they interfere with the reading - they are useless - and besides characters in a novel don't speak quotations - and even if they speak quotations they don't admit that they plagiarized them.
The descriptions of actual doors are also kind of eerie. They read as if they may have been unintentional. The book was printed in 1978 (in English at least) and Morrison passed away in 1971.
Is Yuriy, or was he, a Doors fan? I wonder.
[I have a bootleg of the Seattle '70 show where Jim is playing with feedback for 20 minutes.
I'm an archivalist. That's what it's called.
That's what I call it. Archivalism.]
The Jim Morrison character comes up again in the middle of Meningitis, in "Sister of Snakes." The story "The End" also features Jim Morrison. The Jim Morrison character. It is neatly placed near the end of the book. The protagonist in the other stories is named George.
What inspired Yuriy to make Meningitis? I wonder...

How gratifying to read about how someone perceives your work and gets something out of it. Thanks.
I did like the Doors, but above all wanted to tap into the image of Jim Morrison that had permeated the society and to play it off against my imagination. It was the contrast I created that was to be the effect on the reader. I do similar things in the mininovels in Like Blood in Water (Rilke, Pavarotti).
In Meningitis I tried to contrast again my personal experiences resulting from the divorce I had just gone through against purely fictitious, imagined events (present tense vs. past tense; one story in the future tense anticipates what actually happened - my cat).
Developing the syntactic style took years. It was really hard to learn to write (=see the world) like that. It taught me a lot about how not to be verbose and repetitive. With short sentences this stands out like a sore thumb. I created essentially an artificial language with a simple grammar and the reader will pick up the grammar after a few pages and will anticipate the development of the prose the way one anticipates lines in traditional poetry. In Three Blondes and Death I eased off a little on the rigid grammar, not to repeat myself. Each of my books is different although, I think, they all are mine.» - Mick O'Grady

The Future of Giraffes: Five Mininovels (The Placebo Effect Tril... Cover Art

Yuriy Tarnawsky, The Placebo Effect Trilogy: Like Blood in Water; The Future of Giraffes: View of Delft. Jeff Books, 2013. 

The themes of alienation, abandonment, and fear of death, developed in LIKE BLOOD IN WATER, the first book of The Placebo Effect Trilogy, are picked up in the second book, THE FUTURE OF GIRAFFES, which is devoted to the topic of childhood. A boy takes a nap during a family picnic and finds himself all alone on waking up. A cognitively impaired savant boy decides he has had enough of living and trudges off to his grave. A boy leaves his hometown called Blood City in search of one like Menton after his mother's funeral. Another boy is kept imprisoned in a quarry in a barbarous experiment of survival. Still another one dreams of turning into a rat to hide in a wall so as not to be hurt by people when his parents are gone.
The five mininovels that make up THE FUTURE OF GIRAFFES, as is the case with its two companions, all employ negative text—gaps of vital information which the reader is obliged to supply himself. By bringing personal experience into the story, the reader makes it more vivid and real, becoming in the process its co-author together with the author of the text.

 View of Delft: Five Mininovels (The Placebo Effect Trilogy #3) (... Cover Art
The five mininovels that make up VIEW OF DELFT, as is the case with its two companions, all employ negative text—gaps of vital information which the reader is obliged to supply himself. By bringing personal experience into the story, the reader makes it more vivid and real, becoming in the process its co-author together with the author of the text

Yuriy Tarnawsky's The Placebo Effect Trilogy embraces the strange minutia that inhabits our lives and turns them into points of pride and solidarity. He turns our rituals, the traditions we've learned to trust, into the surreal. When we can no longer believe in the systems we've set in place, where else do we look? Tarnawsky lays bare the human need for faith, not necessarily in religion, but in some ready comfort. Perhaps it's not faith exactly, but a notion that dilemmas can always be resolved. This notion, Tarnawsky says in the foreword, is an ingrained placebo effect we willingly submit to.
The trilogy explores how we rationalize our actions, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously. Often, Tarnawsky's characters are reacting to death or some other loss: a limb or a lover. Their acts of reconciliation appear odd, but we feel a similar anxious relief with them. The strange becomes real and, tonally, it effects the underlying tension of the trilogy.
Form plays an integral part in Tarnawsky's work as well. Each novel in his trilogy consists of five mini-novels, which are further divided into sections. These could be scenes, vignettes, or even poems, and are not to be mistaken for chapters. The novels sometimes read as a collection of short stories or novellas because none of the mini-novels are connected by characters or events; they are unified by thematic elements like imagery and tone. The same can be said of the entire trilogy, which does not have a continuous or chronological narrative arc and, thus, no recurring characters.
Furthermore, Tarnawsky implements what he calls negative text: text omitted that the reader is obliged to fill in, finishing the work with her own imagination. Tarnawsky provides allusions and metaphors and directs the tone of his mini-novels to suggest certain scenes and conflict. Much of the trilogy relies on implication. The advantage of this methodology is that the novels' scopes are widened to the limits of the readers' imagination. Where some novels or short stories are open-ended, Tarnawsky's work feels simply open. The reader observes and creates. Although seemingly arduous, the reader is rewarded by contributing and taking part ownership of the suggested narrative.
The first book of the trilogy, Like Blood in Water, initiates readers to Tarnawsky's tone, style, and his integration of different forms. Tarnawsky develops a pattern among the mini-novels by creating subtext through repeated images—the colors blue and white, gladioli that appear in clouds, and explosions—and with allusions to famous visual artists, writers, singers, and composers. The repeated images work to make Like Blood in Water seem cohesive, to make it appear as though a flower or a color's later appearance suggests a connection to its initial introduction. The allusions suffuse the mini-novels with possibility. For instance, in the mini-novel "Pavarotti-Agamemnon," someone familiar with Homer or Aeschylus could expect Agamemnon's character to be murdered. This particular mini-novel is the most moving because of its fated, thought still unpredictable, ending. Also, it contains one of the most rapturous love scenes in prose I've read since Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.
Tarnawsky's overall style, on the other hand, reminds me of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Both are masterful in their economic use of language. They describe the minutia of daily life—the precise layout of a room or the correct way to prepare blood soup—in such a way that it feels imperative to the story. The level of detail affects the novel's tone. Sometimes it feels monotonous; if Tarnawsky's trilogy were a painting, there would be many swaths of grey.
Tarnawsky frequently uses simile and metaphor to further contribute to the tone he creates in each piece. His trilogy not only lacks an overreaching narrative arc, but its scenes rely on contemplation and tone rather than action. There is an inherent tension, an anxiety he creates with tone that carries readers to the end. For instance, in the first two mini-novels, "Screaming" and "Former Pianist Fitipaldo," the story is dominated by a palpable silence; in the former, the silence is broken by primal screamers, and, in the latter, the growing quiet intensifies the pianist's diminished ability to play. Through clever suspense, the stories are able to crescendo without using derivative or contrived action.
The Future of Giraffes is perhaps my favorite book in the trilogy. All of its protagonists are children. They're still forming their notions of the world and discovering what their stakes are in it. More and more they are characters just learning what it is they have to lose; tragically or ironically, it isn't much.
In the first mini-novel, "A Day in the Life," a boy is abandoned by his family, then, he discovers, by the entire town. In his desperation, he runs and yells as loud as he can for anyone or anything. Not even an echo returns. This type of aloneness sets a precedent for the other mini-novels. The children are largely autonomous, making the impact of their situations more tragic, though thankfully not maudlin. The second mini-novel reintroduces Tarnawsky's themes of existentialism and death, which also feature prominently throughout the trilogy. This mini-novel is unlike several of the others, because it follows a character over many years of his life and its formal elements surrender to more traditional storytelling methods.
"Your Childhood" best exemplifies what a mini-novel is—a series of negative texts with the scope of an entire novel. Most of the other mini-novels don't contain such an explicit conflict of desires: an economy of sex, an inherent brutality that informs the decisions of boys and men, and the guise of innocence that's corrupted or exposed by desperation and want. Tarnawsky captures the awkwardness of adolescent lust and sexual discovery, complete with dirty German limericks. In a particularly well-written scene, Franz and his friends are performing the crucifixion of Christ for an audience of other friends. They capture a rat, who serves as Christ, and two mice, who are the thieves that flank him. In horrific detail, Tarnawsky explains how each one of them is nailed to makeshift crosses in the alley. As the rodents die, the children sing church hymns. When they don't remember the words, they fumble through Christmas songs. Failing to make sense of brutality, yet believing it necessary, Tarnawsky offers a poignant commentary on a human lack of empathy or the consequences of misguided faith.
In another scene, Franz throws a stone at an albino boy playing the violin in front of his house. Tarnawsky portrays albinism in the trilogy as a physical manifestation of death, and his characters react differently to it. Mostly, they're impotent in the face of death and fear it otherwise. But, Tarnawsky also cleverly uses albinism as an element of otherness, echoing the chapter in Moby-Dick about the albatross and whiteness as unusual in its pureness. In the mini-novel's context, Franz throwing a stone at the albino boy could be a rejection of faith. It could also be the volatile nature of ignorance, how we react violently to the things we don't understand. This is Tarnawsky's plan for negative text: making connections that may not exist, but that still enhance the experience of reading his work.
The last two mini-novels read more like philosophical exercises. They are observations on the nature of the mind with and without faith, and what it will construct within the limits of imagination. "The Quarry" is about a boy who has known nothing outside the quarry where he resides, placed there and observed by outsiders. He knows no one and has never seen another person. He hunts rats and eats what others consider garbage. While playing, he creates soldiers out of sticks and they fight, suggesting that war or conflict is the expression of our inner struggle to reconcile the world around us. Violence appears to be inherent to our ability to survive and thrive, but two soldiers observe, "It's a silly child's game." The final mini-novel is a touching conversation about faith, death, and relationships between a boy and his father.
The final book of the trilogy, View of Delft, is more concerned with the nature of death than the others. In fact, one could argue each of the five mini-novels is similar to the five stages of grief and loss. Examination and reactions to death appear frequently throughout the trilogy—the tailor in "Pavarotti-Agamemnon," the albino boy in "Your Childhood," Nora in "Sunday Morning"—but it is typically through abstraction.
In the last mini-novel of View of Delft, the reader enters a school where students are essentially preparing themselves to die. There are classes on remaining still, on remaining quiet, on growing pale. Tarnawsky does a remarkable job conveying the concentrated efforts of the students. They're encouraged by teachers to chant and inspire the others: "Turn white, white, white." Some students complete the impossible task. Others become embarrassed and blush. The last story is the ultimate existential expression, and, if the students don't quite succeed in their practice, they learn to accept death. By learning what it means to die, they no longer fear it.
The different reactions to death and loss may be the central theme to The Placebo Effect Trilogy. In the foreword, Tarnawsky says the ingrained belief that tomorrow is guaranteed is itself a placebo. Despite the pervading gloom of Tarnawsky's statement, the trilogy isn't vapid introspection. His inclusion of the mundane and the odd details in the everyday lives of his characters is a subtle way of telling us not to forsake the small things that inhabit our periphery. The weird will surprise us. The unusual will sober us. Our days are long and the strange may yet save us. - J. Andrew Goodman