Joshua Corey, Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014.
Ruth, a bored and frustrated young mother in the Chicago suburbs, is haunted by the letters she receives from her own mother, who has been dead for several years. Ruth hires Lamb, whose investigation traces the letters to Europe and ultimately to Gustave, who tells the story of his equivocal love affair with a beautiful American girl during the student rebellion in Paris in 1968. But this girl is less carefree than she seems; she is an American haunted by her own half-lit memories of the unnarratable horrors of European history, and she may turn out to be Ruth's mother, if not Ruth's second self.
Read the excerpt first published by The Collagist.
"...an impressive postmodern noir debut, imaginative and beautiful in its prose."
Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy is a darkly glamorous existential noir in the late modernist tradition of José Saramago, W.G. Sebald, Italo Calvino, and Roberto Bolaño. Written in gorgeous and elliptical prose, this electric first novel is a love story, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller about the enigma of American innocence, the fatality of storytelling, and the precarious destiny of reading itself.Published by Spuyten Duyvil Press.
Read the excerpt first published by The Collagist.
“This powerful novel, which pays out its rewards gradually, carefully, but also crisply, dare I say electrically, may be Joshua Corey’s first, but it feels exactly like the highly satisfying product of the fully formed imagination that birthed it. All of Corey’s hard-earned skill as a poet is put here to useful work. The push-pull between stunning language and inventive narrative is pure pleasure.” — Laird Hunt
"...an impressive postmodern noir debut, imaginative and beautiful in its prose."
“Joshua Corey’s Beautiful Soul offers a swirling, shadowy cosmos lit by intelligence, urgency, and heart. Its swirl is cinematic — ‘estranged and operatic’ — but never at the expense of the body, be it the bitten nipple, or the “bloody middle” of history. I especially admire Corey’s conjuring of Ruth: fulcrum of readerly empathy, inheritor of mysterious and difficult histories, navigator of the present’s strata, honorary “new reader.” Go on her journey with her; ‘the book is waiting.’” — Maggie Nelson
“All the beauty of the world is in the flow of each living person’s narrative, from moment to moment, and the way these stories also encompass the ghosts of the past — this is the angle of incidence Joshua Corey is attempting to recreate in a novel as precisely defined as the images in a mirror and as diffuse as the colors and shadings in a prism. Beautiful Soul, with its ever-shifting parameters, from periphery to center and back again, is a testament to the infinite longing for something or someone who isn’t there, the last word on a world where everything matters.” — Lewis Warsh
Because my home office has stacks on stacks of books, because new books are added to the stacks almost daily, because I have not finished half of half of the books I’ve started, I cannot grant attention to more than the opening pages of a book before I decide whether or not to stick with it. In truth, if a book has not convinced me within five or six pages that it deserves my complete attention I put it in the box labeled “To Be Traded At The Bookstore in Jacksonville.” Sadly, many many books end up in that box. Given the limited number of books that escape such a fate, I thought I might spotlight a few of them this summer in a series I’m calling “The Opening Pages.” Could have also called it “Books that didn’t end up in the trade box,” but that sounded less catchy.
Joshua Corey’s Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy did not end up in the trade box. Quite the contrary. I think it’s one of the most interesting and impressive books I’ve read lately. And since it has just been released, I thought it would be a great place to start this series.
In one of the blurbs on the back cover, Laird Hunt calls Beautiful Soul a “powerful novel” that “pays out its rewards gradually.” I agree with the first part, but disagree with the second part. From my perspective, Corey’s powerful novel pays out from the very first page.
BLACK SCREEN. A FLICKER. THE LETTER:
In the heart of the night the new reader lies awake with the lights turned off listening to the rain tapping on the skylight.
Is how it opens. Mysterious. Inviting questions from the very beginning. Am I the “new reader” or is “the new reader” a character? Am I looking at a black screen, a flicker, and the letter? What letter? The words following “THE LETTER” do not sound epistolary. There’s no address, no Dear so-and-so.
The fourth sentence is eight lines long and introduces a woman in bed (presumably “the new reader”), her husband asleep next to her, and describes what she would see if she were to open her eyes. All of a sudden the implication of the phrase “THE LETTER” morphs from an article of mail to a letter of the alphabet, as letters “like hieroglyphics” are “falling on her roof and the roofs of her neighbors.” Sentence seven begins, “Others too are awake reading the weather…”
So by the bottom of the first page I find myself transfixed by the seeming magical realism of what I’m reading. It’s so clearly rendered, yet also it feels so hazy, dreamy, liquidy.
As I turn the page I get eight lines down and stop dead in my tracks. Abruptly, yet somehow not jarringly, the perspective switches and I am met with this sentence:
The book is mine while I read it, for as long as I keep turning the pages, and once I am finished it dies to me but lives in the hands of other readers, and we might meet in a cafe or the supermarket or on a bus or in a hospital waiting room and discover, without title, that we share the same blind insatiable need for print, ants at the picnic, words printed on the insides and outsides of our eyelids, passwords, like canceled checks bearing signatures negated by the loss of value, the transfer of energy from beginning to end, unceasing until the book drops from my hand, I close my eyes, the rain spools, lurches, stops. Let me live here ever.
First of all, shut up. Those two sentence are badass companions. Aside from the aesthetic pleasure of abutting such a long sentence against such a short sentence, the rhythms and movements of the first are so richly complimented by the sharp and powerful brevity of the second. “Let me live here ever” he writes. Not “forever,” just “ever.” It’s a clever and subtle little act of defamiliarization. But that long sentence goes in so many directions it feels like a kite being yanked by a strong gust of wind or like a car that’s lost its ability to steer. That short sentence anchors it. Gives it a frame, a context. Gives it the full force of its desire.
But who is this new speaker? Is this Corey talking directly to me? Or, is it a narrator speaking to the reader or a character? Or…something else entirely?
The book’s second paragraph begins at the bottom of that second page and it, too, changes the narrative direction by altering the verb form. “Sleepwalking she might arise and dress and drive in the dark…” he writes. And by switching to the conditional (she “might” arise and dress, instead of “she arises and dresses”) the reader is spun again in another direction.
Spinning is probably a good visual for how I felt as a reader. Pleasurably spinning, to be sure, but spinning nonetheless.
At the top of page three we are spun yet again, this time with the imperative “Sit down.” Although I just used quotation marks to indicate the quoted text, the text itself is devoid of quotation marks. So at first I am not sure if the author or the narrator or the speaking voice is talking to me as the reader of the book or if a speaker is speaking to another character in the book or what. Soon I deduce that it’s dialogue, but this is not apparent and as the book progresses my ability to clearly identify the dialogue never really crystallizes, which I value positively in the sense that I enjoy being confused.
Little moments of confusion abound in this book. It’s opening pages are peppered with them. Corey switches from third person omniscient to first person singular to second person to first person plural to third person limited and back and forth and back and forth to the point where you simply have to shake your head in wonderment at the accomplishment of such an amazing feat. It’s as though he gave himself a challenge: can I use every available perspective within the first twenty pages of my book without losing the reader. I must say, he achieved it with aplomb.
Since I’m only focusing on the opening pages, I won’t elaborate on the 300-some pages that come after. But I will say, if I’ve piqued your interest but you’d like to have more to chew on before picking up a copy, check out Laura Carter’s insightful review of the book from a few months ago at Fanzine.
For anyone who enjoys the work of Italo Calvino, the narrative twists and metafictional interventions reminded me of If on a winter’s night a traveler. For anyone who enjoys the work of Claude Simon, the kaleidoscopic structure reminded me of Conducting Bodies. For anyone who enjoys Ben Marcus’s stuff, the personification or electrocution of language reminded me of his first three books. Many other comparisons, especially to the magical realists and to other novelists with the keen ears of poets who give enormous attention to the sentence itself, could be made; but honestly, the reason I was drawn into Beautiful Soul, the reason I recommend it to other discerning readers, is because of its irreducible singularity, which I classify as a hallmark of successful art.
As I say, pleasurable confusion awaits those who venture into Corey’s atmospheric debut novel. He’s already made a name for himself as an outstanding poet, and with this book I think he deserves to be equally recognized as an outstanding novelist. - Christopher Higgs,
This story takes place in Chicago. Corey writes immediately, in the first paragraph, about the letters, to make Lacan again part of our story:
The letters are falling on her roof and the roofs of her neighbors: they fall invisibly into Lake Michigan, that vast unplacid text, and coat metal and glass and asphalt from Waukegan down to the Indiana border.The story begins here, with Elsa (Ruth), and we learn that she presents a feminist protagonist, one who is living with a haunting mother-figure, her own mother (we presume), who is dead. Apparently, she receives letters from her mother, these letters that fall into the text of Indiana and Illinois. Corey writes lyrically of these letters and of where they come from, different cities in Europe, where Ruth’s mother presumably lived. Then it is revealed that our main text of letters comes from both mother and father, Papa. And the plot begins to thicken while also unravelling: “Why do we insist on a plot for our lives?” The storyline cuts out of plot, and this is the book’s great strength. We meander through images and scenes of Ruth’s early life, with both of her parents.
Yet this book isn’t essentially about what it is like to be haunted—though, in a sense, it may be. We have filmic encounters here, in the sharpest and yet most soothing of tones, with what Corey describes as “The same woman. Not the same woman.” This mother figure is who the protagonist is always eluding, and yet always returning to. I’ve recently been reading a text that plays into this mother/daughter relation well, called Why Feminism Matters: Feminisms Lost and Found, by a mother-daughter team of academics, Kath Woodward and Sophie Woodward. They write of technology and mothering, of the gendered body, and here is something that jumps out at me as I think about Beautiful Soul and the relation of modern life with what it means to have been birthed, as Corey gives us in his Barthesian epigraph, “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother.”
Motherhood remains in many ways unquestioned and an ‘absent presence.’… Irigaray has stressed the ‘unacknowledged mother’ of western thought and culture in which it has been repressed as ‘the dark continent par excellence [which] remains in the shadow of our culture.’…
Irigaray’s argument is also useful to our project because she demonstrates not only the absence of motherhood and the mother-daughter relationship in western culture, but also the ambivalence and contradictory representations of the maternal where it is present.According to Irigaray, this silence about motherhood is what engenders monstrosity: things “ought” to be made more plain. In a sense, this cryptic yet beautifully written novel is about what happens when that silence fails to open itself into speech. The detective, reminiscent of Lacan’s own detective, who “solves” the tale, Lamb, is a figure who seeks to somehow reveal this secret motherhood, this secret haunting. He wants to know what’s there, but Corey doesn’t let us know so easily: “If the letter were blank? A single sheet of white paper, unmarked save for a pair of creases?” Do we really want to know what’s there, or do we secretly hope for Ruth’s liberation? Ruth, who measures herself by American standards, yet who is un-American and thus presents a European archetype of sorts, a queenly matron figure (who is also daughter). All this punctuated by a simple line from a song: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”
As we move through the novel, Corey takes us on increasingly experimental territory: we have “Letters from M.,” and we have Lamb playing detective. One of the book’s pinnacle moments comes when the text is released: “It’s like thinking about the piece is more interesting than the piece itself.” And then the reply: “Yes of course.” And then Ruth, ever the feminist, addresses Lamb directly: “Your pleasure is information, she persists. Seeking information. Is the pleasure in the seeking or in the having? What happens when you cannot solve the case? When the trail goes cold? What then?”
As the book moves deftly through areas of capture and release, narrative strategies take the forefront in the Euro-American elegy. We get the reminiscences of art school days, we get the 1968 events and Sartre and de Beauvoir, who, according to our protagonist, “knows the truth about women.” As Ruth writes in solitude, we have (well, what else?) mourning. These shifts of time and place point to an empty, somewhat malaise-tinged post-postmodern future, or something like that.
At the story’s end, we have an authorial intervention into the truth of the Lacanian noir that Beautiful Soul comprises:
What is the “I” that intrudes incessantly in this narrative like punctuation? If chapters were commas then readers would ride. Not Gustave, not Ruth, not Ruth’s anonymous Papa. No mother writes, only M, her posthumous correspondence. Least of all poor Lamb, leading the goose chase from city to city in Europe, stoic ingénue, winding deeper and deeper into the I’s conspiracy with itself. That this is my story through a glass darkly.What happens at the story’s end? I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll only leave you with the thought that Corey begins with, that this story is about mothers, and that mothers are what haunt us, mothers and fathers, for the most part. It’s a winding tale through the psyche of such a haunted figure, who manages, through it all, to guide us to a kind of bravery that can be dealt with outside of the images and symbols Corey so deftly maneuvers.— Laura Carter
Joshua Corey is the author of four books of poetry: The Barons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014), Severance Songs (Tupelo Press, 2011), Fourier Series (Spineless Books, 2005), and Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003).
PoemsPoetry: Animals, Mrs. God
Similar Peaks: Jack in the Box, The Forest, Daylight Savings, Standard Time, Alice, or Awkward, from Redrum Natura
SRPR: The Millions
Eleven Eleven: Material/Witness, Two Cities, Mask
Wave Composition: Words Without Acts, The Novel
Poemflow: Cognitive Deficit Market
42opus: A Severance Song
Tarpaulin Sky: Stage Blood on the Mouths of the Eumenides
Melic Review: A Fine Romance
Essays and ProseGreen Mountains Review: From The Recruit
Press Play: Turning Forty with the Help of The Rockford Files
Poets.org: Richard Hugo's Constructivist Moment: On The Triggering Town
Voltage Poetry: Robert Duncan's Polysemous Turn
Action Yes: Notes Toward the Postmodern Baroque
FictionUpRightDown: Letter from M
The Collagist: from Beautiful Soul
Interviews and ConversationWith Stephen Ross
With G.C. Waldrep
With Alison Cuddy (WBEZ radio interview)
Reviews, Etc.On Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station
On Gustaf Sobin's The Places as Preludes
The Old Neighborhood (Cahiers de Corey)