Kenneth Bernard - His speakers are crazy actors; their real lives are elsewhere, in some shadow world of danger and imminent explosion

Kenneth Bernard, The Man In The Stretcher, Starcherone, 2005.

"The Man in the Stretcher brings together 40 previously uncollected stories by this avant-garde playwright, poet, and fictionist, one of the most relentlessly and funnily experimental writers of our time.

"As with his poetry and drama, Kenneth Bernard's fictions present mind as theatrical display. His perverse plots are containers for a voicing that always acknowledges artifice and in this lies the strangeness of his comic vision: his speakers are crazy actors; their real lives are elsewhere, in some shadow world of danger and imminent explosion. And we see through to this world, though tentatively, and in our laughter fear it." - Toby Olson

"Kenneth Bernard is one of the most gloriously antic fiction writers we possess. Think of Salvador Dali or Giorgio de Chirico having written stories instead of painting and you are half way there. His pages have simultaneously awed and delighted me for years." - David Markson
"Watch your back, reader, when you enter the world of Bernard's fiction, where everyone seems odd and unfamiliar, hopelessly trapped in odd and unfamiliar situations that threaten their sense of balance and well-being. The more your interest in them grows, so does the bull's eye between your shoulder blades." - George Economou

"Kenneth Bernard has a bleak and shrewd Voltairean sensibility." - Rochelle Owens

"In terms of scope, this book reminds me of those old, big Donald Barthelme collections, a virtual catalogue of stories and oddities. But in terms of the work itself, there is nothing like a Bernard story, which may begin with an innocuous Andy Rooney-like observation, then end a few pages later with you wondering whether the hardwood floor in your dining room will still support you." - Ted Pelton

"Although Kenneth Bernard has received several awards for his astonishing plays and stories, he has never received the critical attention that he deserves. I am pleased that I can review his previously uncollected stories here. (These have appeared in such periodicals as the New Yorker, Asylum, Confrontation, and Fiction International.) "Chain-Saw" is an amazing creation: prose poem and dream-lecture. It blurs genres. "Let me tell you about my chain-saw." We note the seemingly common, plain style. We don't know who this narrator is; we feel that he has chosen us for his tale. We wonder what his connection is to us. And when he continues to give us the details of his "chain-saw," he terrifies us because we are not accustomed to read about--or listen to--the description of potential instruments of destruction. How to place the speaker? How to cope with his compulsive narration? And as he traces the purchase of the chainsaw and a pair of gloves, he sees the problematics of the sale. He then asks questions (which are numbered): "If I should lose a finger, whose fault would it be?" He philosophizes: "Considering the many unanswerable questions in this matter... can we ask whether or not it is perhaps the nature of things that we are all out of context, one way or another?" (My italics.) The narrator continues to broaden his questions, wondering whether we know "what, exactly, is a chain-saw?" or "What, for that matter, is a finger?" The madness increases: "Nevertheless I frequently fantasize that one of [my fingers] is missing." He has an "entirely different, alternate life" without the finger. In fact, how many lives does he have? The "last" lines: "Another life? How far can such a story or life go? I don't know. I don't want to know." If you follow my explanation of his thoughts, you--yes, you--are probably placing me in the same category as this mad narrator. Thus Bernard and I have seduced you into the cave of knowledge or nonknowledge. I'm sorry that I have brought you "here"--but where are we? Are we words or lives? Please investigate these "ridiculous" paths of thought." - Irving Malin

"...That Kenneth Bernard is able to maintain, over the course of an almost forty-year career... continuity of style and purpose while never ceasing to surprise, puzzle, and excite is simply astonishing. His four-decade mastery over the form of the very short story is exhibited in the previously uncollected works in The Man in the Stretcher.
Like his "flash-fiction" contemporaries Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, Bernard is able to prove beyond any uncertainty that:
the ordinary itself is like a sea, beneath which lives a multiplicity of fabulous life, some of which we occasionally see. One never knows, for example, when a broken button will burst the surface of things and astonish us, absolutely astonish us.
In events as ordinary as trimming a hedge, Bernard notes a complex economy of social obligation and the power of vanity in community building. Or, in the simple collision with a stranger on a crowded street, he reveals the potential for a private megalomania latent in everyone. (280-81)
In the afterword, Harold Jaffe notes that "Bernard's manner of discourse" generally takes the form of "an exposition or treatise, often with learned references and mock-footnotes, endnotes or commentaries." Where this exposition is most successful (indeed quite often) is when he is able to quash the narrators' emotional potential in favor of a spirit of true and complete inquiry. Socially formed inhibitions are suspended; even concerns of self-preservation are subverted in favor of free and complete inquiry. The result is a unique philosophical tone which avoids the easy temptation of didacticism in favor of what feels like genuine disclosure. In the span of a few short pages, Bernard creates a sincere intimacy with his characters, an eerie closeness marked by the simultaneous fascination and revulsion that follows from sharing the province where social morals hold sway.
To say that The Man in the Stretcher is meditative would be misleading: though his revelations reach deeper than the distractions caused by normal social intercourse, the space we reach is far from serene. His contemplations are brooding and chaotic, and as Jaffe points out, rank with the sickly-sweet stench of death, decay and fermentation - yet Bernard has examined the detritus of existence to find its mineral richness and to reminds us that death is merely a part of future propagation. Death is not his greatest fear, it is his omnipresent inspiration for complete disclosure, however impossible the task, however little anyone wants to listen. In "Vines," the scent of his own aging reminds the narrator of his own mortality. He relates:
for reasons totally beyond me, I felt like a heart-to-heart talk with my wife [...]. "Listen," I began auspiciously, "I realize we're both going to die." She stared at me. "And I want you to know it's all right." Her mouth opened, but she didn't speak. "I mean the children, the twenty-five, or thirty, or... years, I mean let me say something ridiculous... I just want you to know that I love you." Having spoken with my usual clarity, I was about to speak again. But she forestalled me. "Will you please shut up!" I did.
Bernard makes fascination of frustration, and finds in the moments of failed articulation the opportunity for startling and sparkling expression.
Like Kathy Acker's best work, The Man in the Stretcher seeks to push past the layering of taboo and repression to the wild within - but unlike Acker's writing, this new work by Bernanrd is private, discrete: secret. The Man in the Stretcher suggests that we need to move away from the years of conditioning that have made experience and accounts thereof too familiar, too conventional to be unique - to be our own. In this way, there is an optimism throughout, a sense that with the right response to quotidian "collision," a new vision might reveal itself. Despite the dark secrecy of stories like "Fish Eye," Bernard's narrators refuse to relent.
My body's accumulated history is large. Indeed, sometimes, just lately, my lips have been formulating what I think are the right words for them, the words that will explain, conclude, perhaps even thrill. I look forward to them. My mouth is juicy for them. But what, just yesterday, I was wondering, will their words be to me [...]. Perhaps their language will have to be interpreted. Perhaps it is a new language, which I shall have to learn, a post-collision language in keeping with my new estate. And then, of course, seeing the light, I shall follow willingly. (146)
Bernard may have found some of these words lying right out in the open - taking up everyday words and, while he may still be waiting for some new vision, finding in them extraordinary revelations... Bernard is... strangely optimistic: more of a linguistic animist, the possibility for the new teeming in the most familiar. His is a prose that senses immanence in the immediate and we would all do well to follow him willingly." - Christopher Leise
Kenneth Bernard, The Maldive Chronicles, PAJ Publications, 1991.

"Sexually obsessive and sometimes bitterly funny, these storiesculled from literary reviews where they first appearedcreep out of dark corners, like nightmares from which the dreamer dares not awake. Even vignettes that are not overtly sexual, like "Questions and Answers," whose writer-narrator rages at a heckler, uneasily suggest a repressed libido. "King Kong: A Meditation" is a long disquisition on nonfulfillment; while in the seemingly innocent "Walking," where the incompatible walking rhythms of a man and his wife cause the man to "die a little," desire is metaphorically sated. The chronicles of the title are vile, often violent exercises in abstract expressionism, featuring two illiterate, incestuous and bisexual women who may, like Picasso's double exposures, be the two sides of a single coin. The beautiful Melinda is battered beyond recognition as pig-fat Mrs. Maldive lies slobbering at the door of the hero, an abused runaway, who assumes a dozen imaginary guises. The wild incredibility and nastiness of the goings-on are curiously compelling, a confrontation with the inexpressible. Though difficult to read and to identify with, this is nonetheless a provocative comment on the restrictiveness and pretension of our lives."

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