Eugene Marten - Dr. Strangelove meets Nathanael West in a story of capital punishment, Holocaust-denial, and the seductions of darkness
Think of it as a fraction. The person or event is the numerator, and the author is the denominator. By fictionalizing a person or event an author breaks them down into an entirely new number. Call it a quotient. Coming Through Slaughter is the number created by musician Buddy Bolden being divided by novelist Michael Ondaatje. Wolf Hall is the number created by English statesman Thomas Cromwell being divided by novelist Hilary Mantel. The World As I Found It is the number created by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein being divided by novelist Bruce Duffy. What readers should ask is, “How does this book break down what we already know?”
The most recent novel by Eugene Marten proves he can do the math. Layman’s Report concerns Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a manufacturer of execution equipment and author of Holocaust-denial material who, in 1999, was the subject of the Errol Morris documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. It is not surprising Mr. Death inspired Marten to write this novel. Throughout the documentary, Leuchter exhibits qualities similar to those of Marten’s earlier protagonists: the alienation of Sloper in Waste; the issues of punishment and redemption that concern the unnamed narrator of In the Blind; the paranoia of Jelonnek in Firework.
In Layman’s Report, Marten splinters the reality of Fred Leuchter into three sections, all of which combine to provide a deeper, broader view of a complicated man. The first section is the strongest one. Almost a novella, not only in length but also in scope, the section follows a petty criminal who, after going on a spree of theft, murder, and rape, is imprisoned and eventually executed. Although Leuchter does not appear in this section, it is connected to him through its portrayal of an electric-chair execution, the brutality of which Leuchter attempts to mitigate during his career. Consider what happens after the switch is thrown. “Now the blue-white flames flared from both sides of the mask, and blood dripped from behind it onto his white shirt from his mouth and nose, and then from two new holes in his face as his eyeballs burst with the steam pressure in his skull.”
The second section of the novel follows the career of its titular layman. Leuchter sees himself as a humanitarian of capital punishment. “He believed in the body and soul and the occasional necessity of evil. It was not a perfect world, but the next one would be. You helped what you could help. He would be the middleman.” Due to his experience repairing and manufacturing execution equipment, Leuchter is commissioned by a Holocaust denier to travel to Auschwitz, investigate the camps, and determine, in his “expert” opinion, whether mass executions by gassing were feasible. The result is what has become known as the Leuchter Report. Despite his lack of training and qualifications, Leuchter stands by his findings that the gas chambers could not have been used for mass extermination, even after the science behind his methods is shown, by actual experts, to be bogus.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is that Marten chooses to include the making of the film that inspired it. Layman’s Report is therefore as much about Leuchter as it is about the documentary Mr. Death. It is a work of art based on not just an actual person but also another work of art based on that same person. In the theater where Leuchter first sees the documentary, which the New York Times would describe as “a study of hubris, the myth of objectivity, and the fatal attraction of needy people to attention and flattery even if it comes from the wrong quarters,” all of those layers are folded together as Marten enters Leuchter’s point of view: “He saw himself being heard and understood, his thoughts becoming words becoming light shining on smooth blank faces, and those faces ripening in that light.”
The final section of the novel, which switches to the first-person point of view, narrated by Leuchter closer to the present day, is its least successful one. Marten has no trouble chewing what he’s bitten off with Layman’s Report. He just doesn’t manage to swallow it. How the 9/11 Truth movement relates to Holocaust denial, a connection introduced in the third section, is under-developed, and a brief subplot involving potential terrorists, also introduced in the third section, feels as though it belongs in a different book.
Nonetheless Layman’s Report is good enough to draw comparisons to what is arguably Don DeLillo’s best novel. Like Underworld, it opens with a self-contained set piece that is fairly close to perfect. Like Underworld, that set piece is followed by an unwieldy narrative. And like Underworld, that narrative is toppled by its own ambition, which makes it all the more admirable. The most impressive characteristic of Layman’s Report is Marten’s refusal to write in received language. Instead of “They kissed” he uses “Their mouths bumped.” Instead of “line of work” he uses “way to work.” Instead of “He says it” he uses “He makes himself say it.” A novel concerned with silence and sound, Layman’s Report is full of quiet prose interrupted by the emphatic check marks, notes, and exclamation points of an impressed reader.
An exchange of dialogue about patents, from early in the book, could also apply to the writing of novels. “There anything left to invent?” one characters says, to which another responds, “Not until somebody invents it.” Layman’s Report was written by one of the best inventors working today.
Before writing this review of Eugene Marten’s Layman’s Report, I sat down to watch Errol Morris’ documentary that focused on the same subject, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., for the first time in about eight years. Perhaps because I had read Layman’s Report, I was more struck after this viewing by Morris’ signature method of crafting his films, which is to let the subjects reveal themselves. In the documentary, Leuchter comes off as deluded, a man who lets himself be convinced of his own expertise by people who base their lives on denial, specifically Holocaust denial. Mr. Death is a remarkable, eerie, and frustrating documentary, but Morris’ method, which works so well in his other films because it establishes a seemingly objective distance between filmmaker and subject, betrays itself in some ways by the subject that it chooses. In an interview at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999, Morris states:
Loving and admiring Fred are two very different things. When I say I love Fred, I love the idea of Fred; I am fascinated by Fred. He has to be the most ingenuous person I have ever come across. Well, either ingenuous or absolutely insane.
For many, many years I have been in search of what I would call the absolutely clueless narrator, the narrator who has absolutely no perspective about himself, whatsoever.
You’ve all heard about the examined life. Here’s an example of a life, which has not been examined at all. That’s right, the totally unexamined life.
One can almost detect, especially in the last sentence above, an old-timey freakshow proprietor revealing his most treasured exhibit. “Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the Incredible Completely Deluded Man!” In my mind, it’s this attitude from Morris that causes the documentary to falter, not because I disagree with the message (I don’t), but because Morris uncharacteristically seemed to have come to his conclusions before he even asked his first question.
Layman’s Report is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Fred Leuchter, Jr., and in many ways a more uncomfortable, more objective look at this troubled (and troubling) man. Before gaining infamy by his involvement in the Ernst Zundel trial and for writing his Leuchter Report, which stated that the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Birkenau could not possibly have been used for executions, Leuchter found financial success in the state prison circuit in the 1980s by building and selling to state prisons more efficient, and more “humane” (according to Leuchter), machines for executions.
This aspect of Leuchter’s life is briefly covered in Mr. Death, and when Morris lets Leuchter describe his intentions and reasons for entering this sort of work, Leuchter proclaims that he was searching for a more humane way to execute people, a disturbing sentiment because it makes complete sense and at the same time ignores the inherent horror of killing a person.
Layman’s Report digs much deeper into Leuchter’s (known only as “Fred” in the novel) motivations by actually giving these moments scenes, giving them dialogue, fleshing them out as one decision after another. Marten portrays Fred as a man who truly enjoys his work and fully respects, if not the outcomes of his inventions, then at least their intended purposes. When building an electric chair, Marten describes the process with a sensuous awe, in his characteristic muscularly poetic language: “White oak, kiln-dried. Who cared what it looked like? They might. He’d done his homework, taken Polaroids. Ran his hands over boards in the lumberyard, feeling for flaws. The smoothness of it, the muscle. Whorls in the pattern like small galaxies of grain.”
Marten’s main gift as a writer, for me, is that he gives us main characters that repel us and fascinate us, and makes us question and examine why we have these reactions. Fred is the most complicated (and certainly the least pulpy) of Marten’s protagonists, not only because he is based off a real person who has some level of historical notoriety, but also because he has higher aspirations for himself, a sentiment that makes Fred more fully human. We respect Fred as a character much more in the novel than we do as a character in the documentary. We respect the fictionalized Fred more because, while he has the same flaws and delusions as the man in the documentary, there is a level of empathy that Marten achieves that Morris, seemingly from the outset, refused to even consider.
The making of the documentary, too, features in the novel, and the novel’s most heartbreaking scene comes when Fred has to sneak into the rafters of a theater at Sundance to see the premiere of the movie about him. Watching the audience watch the film, Fred “looked himself in the eye, but it was their mirror, not his … Only lies are larger than life.” Marten creates, in Fred’s reaction here, an incredible refutation to Morris’ motivations for Mr. Death, because what good is examining the unexamined life if the purpose is not to help that life grow, but to ridicule and judge? Are we, in many ways, worse than Leuchter, who at least claims to believe in finding a more humane way?
Of course I am not claiming that Marten is sympathizing with a Holocaust denier. But he is digging deeper than Morris did to find out who this man is and why he fell in with the crowd that he did, not just that he openly accepted the invitation that the cult of Holocaust denial extended to him, but why he accepted it.
Fans of Marten’s novels should absolutely read Layman’s Report. It is less overtly graphic than his previous novels, less overtly violent and wallowing in filth, but it maintains and elevates Marten’s hardboiled approach to characters that are lost and complicated and dismantled by their own dark obsessions and their dysfunctional pursuits of love, wherever that may come from. -
The narrative hinges on the discovery of a body in one the enormous dumpsters at the ground level of the skyscraper. It is one of the most chilling scenes in recent fiction -Lynchian and mysterious in a way the ‘pop’ mystery writers of the day wouldn’t dare to write out of fear of offending the audience.
Elsewhere a simple walk up the stairs in his mother’s house is ignited by a poetic eye. The stairs have grown steep and narrow, the passage high and musty with secondhand air, the stillborn warmth of a breath held too long.
Psycho and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God come to mind but the terrain is all Marten. The examination of a life on the margins is welcomed in our age of celebrity and fictions about Jackie Kennedy Onasis, Galileo and Hitler’s extended family. The great characters in literature come from the unconscious and like Lester Ballard in Child of God, Sloper has joined the ranks." - Greg Gerke
"Only Eugene Marten can keep a reader enthralled with the minutiae of a janitorial existence. From the most unlikely of subjects Marten constructs, with great care and taking joy in every sentence, a spellbinding work. Precisely and exquisitely detailed, Waste is a stark little masterpiece." –Brian Evenson
"There is nothing quite like the controlled burn of Eugene Marten’s prose. Waste is an exhilarating and unnerving piece of fiction." – Sam Lipsyte
"When a poet pal had put a copy of Waste into my hands, I right away went nuts until I had gotten myself in touch with its author for to add to my household a supply of enough copies to scare all my writer friends with. Here, said I, in wild proclamation, is one for history and a half." – Gordon Lish
"This is surely one of the darkest and most jarring books I’ve read. It is also pitch-perfect. Waste wastes nothing–not a syllable, a beat, a ragged breath." – Dawn Raffel
«With its granitic sentences, measured, but not sluggish, pacing, and a heavy, but not burdensome, sense of foreboding, where the banality of the day-to-day workaday eccentricities of a troubled janitor's lonely life is recorded with devastating precision, Eugene Marten's novella Waste might easily have been called "Weight" or "Wait." Marten's taut prose—inventorying cleansers, receptacles, bags, containers, etc., as well as cleaning procedures and disposal methods—immediately sucks the reader into a high-rise building's airless offices and cramped cubicles, underneath fluorescent light's unforgiving glare, as the blare of internecine office politics, labor versus management gossip, Dictaphone clicks, the cold static of a television's "three [sometimes four] snowy channels," and "the movement of air from the convectors, an occasional fax, noise from the street," rings in the ears.
One might think that mentioning the novella's startling nods to A Rose for Emily and Psycho, would ruin its surprises, but the details of Waste's strengths lay not beneath a spoiler alert but within its acute attention to language, its profound empathy and understanding for its protagonist, and its underlying critique of the endless cycle of consumption and waste. Marten's book, delivered in a detached voice, is propelled by carefully-crafted, understated sentences, its slippages into second-person narration giving it a kind of eerie intimacy. Marten is concerned with both life's interstices and the crevices between and around words, sentences, and paragraphs. Subtle time shifts fill in some gaps in history, motivation, etc., but the reader is allowed to form his or her own conclusion or confusion.
People working in the service industry are often relegated to invisibility; and in most fiction, they work double-duty as servants and as props to add verisimilitude to settings, circumstances, etc. In Waste, however, Sloper, the aforementioned janitor, takes center-stage. Marten gives us extended point-of-view shots of Sloper at work, his perceptions of things, people, responsibilities, etc., and the various strategies he employs, as well as his unintended humor and critique, in passages like these:
Sloper kept his hard tile mopped, and he was good about glass. He squatted on his haunches in front of the lobby doors, head tilted back, and in this way could see every smudge and handprint. The cleaner was a pale green liquid in a plastic spray bottle that you refilled at the mixing center. Sloper used paper towels only—cloth smeared and left lint. He burned off a case a month. He didn't think it should be so hard to use the door handle, the panic bar, or the handplate, but he didn't take it personally that they didn't. Too, you had to figure how busy they were.
Aside from this commitment to clarity, Sloper left the detailing to the women. The edging, the deep dusting, kicking out. It was understood.
The glass cleaner went into one of numerous pouches on the yellow plastic apron strapped to his cart, along with the other spray bottles and cleaning supplies. If pouches were empty you could use them to hold burgers and sandwiches. If a burger or sandwich no longer had a wrapper you used a paper towel from another pouch on the plastic apron. It was okay if a sandwich or burger was half-eaten. Potato salad from the deli in the lobby came in small plastic tubs that would fit into the pouches, as would donuts, bagels, rice cakes, croissants, muffins.
People never finished their potato salad."
Marten's prose style while certainly stark and bleak isn't arid or emotionless and has a dark humor much like Beckett's. And even in some of its most desperate and grislier moments there's beauty. Sloper, who "wasn't much of a reader" or "talker," who is indeed "a language unto himself," nevertheless notices "the tracery of blue veins that networked [a woman's] body just under the skin. Frozen, electric." Sloper, watching "another building going up across the street," thinks it looks like
just a skeleton with floor slabs. Tonight it was higher than the moon, you could see the moon right in its middle. They kept the working lights on at night after the construction workers left, blue and deep amber. The stairs were in, you could see them zigging and zagging all the way up and down. Someone was walking down the stairs, all the way from the top to the bottom, from the blue to the amber. Sloper stood at the windows on 10 and watched him every step of the way. He took a step to the side and made whoever it was walk down the moon. He wondered if it felt like anything. It would have been better if whoever it was was going up.
Like the worlds that Beckett creates, Marten's high-rise is a wasteland, albeit one where fast-food is ordered to go. One of anomic Sloper's meaningless amusements include playing with a "transparent plastic cube containing three silver balls of various diameter and three loose cups, correspondingly sized." He was "usually unable to cup more than two of the balls without dislodging one or both." Here he resembles Beckett's Molloy who, thinking of ways to vary the sucking stones he carries in his pockets, gazes
at his stones, revolving interminable martingales all equally defective, and crushing handfuls of sand, so that the sand ran through my fingers and fell back on the strand, yes, while thus I lulled my mind and part of my body, one day suddenly it dawned on the former, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim. The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once, and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense, long remained obscure.
Waste's interminable bleakness speaks to a kind of pessimism (perhaps "jadedness" is a better word here), and its pervasive sadness, its sense of irrelevance, and its lack of conventional bonds on the one hand and a disturbed and freakish sense of connection on the other, raises questions about consumption, production, and consumerism. Like Beckett's and Camus's books, Eugene Marten's Waste is endgame fiction, but in this case, one that is as much about erosion, absence, and desolation as it is about one man's insane attempt to find some form of intimacy.» - John Madera
"Reading Eugene Marten’s Waste is like reading the margins of Then We Came to the End, or inspecting the after dark corners of the corporate office building where Waste’s cleaning crew protagonist Sloper works. Everything in his life is waste, from how he makes his living to how he stays alive, retrieving thrown away food once the office workers are gone for the night. His world is dirty and dusty, and “Sloper had heard that dust was nothing but dead skin,” everything made of and coated in waste.
But from his minimal sustenance to the wheelchair-bound paralytic he admires because she “speaks” only with efficient yes or no electronic beeps, Waste is a story of life stripped to its essentials, without artifice or civilizing veneers. Sloper’s world is free of excess and far from the careful layers of image and distraction surrounding him in the office building where he works. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t a romantic story of the underclasses, but Waste is as honest and direct and disturbing a novel as its protagonist is a character, revealing the lie of those romantic stories as clearly as the lie of downtown buildings and daylight jobs.
I was reminded of Hrabel’s Too Loud A Solitude, with its protagonist responsible for trashing a city’s books, but while Hrabel’s Hantá finds some significance in saving as many words as he can, Sloper (we’re told more than once) isn’t much of a reader — too much artifice to fit in his life, which makes simply reading Waste feel like an accusation of sorts in itself. That blankness of Sloper brought Kosinki’s Being There to mind, only instead of watching characters project their desires and deceptions onto Kosinski’s Chance, Waste seemed to catch me out for doing that projection myself, trying to make Sloper into something more noble than he turns out to be." – Steve Himmer
"Eugene Marten is a writer's writer, a writer after whom many other writers would be happy to clean up, his books provoking the sort of breathless admiration usually reserved for the deceased. Bloggers with handles like “Three Guys One Book” and “Closterflock” say things like “one you need to read,” and “more powerful than Hemingway.” Gordon Lish loves him. Chuck Palahniuk pales in many readers' comparisons. Marten writes precisely. He writes to the point. His sentences are crisp and clean as fresh cider. His paragraphs unfold with the grace of small paper swans. He writes of things in their thingness, abject in their sobbing objectivity. If his books were marsupials, they'd be opossums. If furniture, Ottomans. He eschews similes and metaphors like these, preferring the raw truths of things simply said.
In Waste, Marten writes the story of Sloper, a janitor's janitor. Sloper cleans up the anonymous buildings that house lonely men with striped ties and nice-enough women in low heels, and horizon our great Waste Land. Sloper comes after the day's unfinished business is done, and proves that the night's work is more thorough. He empties trash cans, scours toilets, and sanitizes kitchenettes. He rakes smooth the plush carpets of the Board of Directors and jerks off in the castoff stockings of middle management. Sloper is a paragon of efficient consumption, eating what remains to be eaten-mostly leftover burgers and Chinese-and, when the opportunity presents itself, mating with the work pumps of the nice “girl on 24.” Later, luck being temporarily on his side, Sloper gets the girl herself, reclaimed from the dustbin her recently murdered body's been chucked in. He recycles her corpse into his objet d'amor, carefully preserving her, draining the blood, refrigerating the body, spackling up the cuts, and freshening her increasingly foul mouth, trying in short to keep decay at bay, and loving her all the livelong day like no other lover. Sloper occupies the dusty divide between what's wanted and what's no longer desired, reminding us that dust is rumored to be mostly human skin, not needing to remind us that it's also all our befores and hereinafters. Who besides Sloper will eat our spurned potato salad, or still cradle our chilly backsides? When Sloper backflashes to his job at the morgue, the other workers are a blast of crude jokes and dark-humored camaraderie (it is unfortunate that they are actually black); they blow reefer through busted nasal passages and leer about the female bodies they've bothered. But Sloper loves what is no longer wanted, and that is his great composing gesture, and the source of his undoing.
This sense of absolute composition is the fault and grace of Waste. It is most admirable in its construction, and is ultimately all constructed. Marten writes expertly within what is now a tradition of experimental literature, a genre with its own conventions and clichés: the claustrophobically close third person, the transgressive sexual act sans dialogic sentiment, the pithed observations about human nature (rotten and rueful) that are all the more touching because they've been so carefully noticed. And Sloper is an archetypal romantic male of the genre: he suffers the quiet ache of disaffection with (it's true) more crippling sentiment than Ernest Hemingway's über-men, plus with the auld sang-froid of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Bardamu, all couched in the taciturn phrasings of The Dude. And in all this, I felt like I'd felt it all before, down to the same cleaned-up ejaculate in these same insensible shoes. I felt that I was being practically ordered to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the deep, deep feeling of the presumptively unfeeling in a presumptively unfeeling world. To huzzah the antihero as he behaves obligingly antiheroically, and yet, runs no risk of real alienation, for the trope here is to make sure the tell-tale heart's in place, beating strongly and unmistakably human, beating loudly enough to create the proper counterpuntal note to the inhuman corporate/consumptive/cretinous/crazy fancily fetishistic world in which we live so temporarily. As Sloper caresses his castoff love, cleaning fuzzy fungal bits off her inner thighs and plucking her maggots from his mouth, I sensed nothing but a senior slump, watching a very good writer make excellent hash out of what might have been a steak. I learned nothing from Sloper's nightshifts that I'd not been taught by history's Nachschrift, was privy to nothing I'd not encountered in other privies. What's worse is I had hoped for more-Marten is palpably smart and his sentences sturdy and shining as clean chrome. Waste, however, left me with nothing but Jane Austen all over again: “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.” No charm indeed, for Sloper's tenderness is as dully masturbatory as his sexual engagements, and as our ever Green heroine, he is pointedly charmless and pointedly male.
I don't want to drag gender into what seems to be a purposefully penile world, but it does rankle a bit when a whole book, duly populated, slots its female characters into Mother, Caretaker, and Corpse. Though it may be objected that this is indicative of the puny psychological world of Sloper, purposefully and authorially crabbed, I wasn't born yesterday. Vladimir Nabokov managed quite well to animate the women Humbert Humbert nuzzled and snuffed, and Sloper's no slouch when it comes to picking up on the smaller points of humanity extruding from the men around him. Some of the best passages in the book detail a senior partner's slide into madness born of loneliness born of too much family law, not enough family. Still, Sloper's our saver. And this savior will save via the same sorry route as so many saviors: self-sacrifice for the sins of others. And like many previous deities, his failure to see so many others means only those already predisposed to follow him will be saved. Put another way, there's a reason most of those bloggers are guys' guys.
And while I don't begrudge any gender from having its icons, I wonder if there's a better game we can play at this stage of the game than which shell has the pea or which plebian personae will now cuddle our mean secrets and souls, mopping up after us, plunging our shitty toilets and selves, converting what was lost to what was found, playing, in sum, Jesus in a jumpsuit. In my melancholy, I compared Waste to Yedda Morrison's recent Girl Scout Nation (2008), which was admittedly unfair. Morrison's book is a conceptual poem rooted in the anonymous murder of three Girl Scouts in Oklahoma in 1977, an all-American pastiche of lyric notes and Google motes and lists of native birds and industrial chemicals and cuts from The Amazing Race. Murder, in Morrison's hands, is not metaphor, not plot device nor character developer, not something tapped out for the euphonious machinations of existential examination, but meat, a wild keening thing. The thing, perhaps, that reaches us as the scream of death before death itself. The thing that makes our crude extravagances and brutal excesses understandable, even salvageable. The thing that crows, 'What a waste'.” - Vanessa Place
"I am most impressed by Marten's ability to write about overlooked everyday people in a way that makes their lives seem layered like a secret door, like every person is a door into some small compartment where they keep things they value, where they sleep. WASTE is maybe a 2 hour read and will jar your teeth out some, no, really. It has a blurb by Gordon Lish, what do you think about that. It is about a janitor who goes around in this one buildings working with trash. I will read anything Eugene Marten's for the rest of my life, I feel like he is important. His sentences are sentences in the realest application of the word, in that each one kind of condemns itself on the paper or in you in your own mind. I would buy this book (and the also brand new FOG & CAR by Eugene Lim also from Ellipsis, which I am reading next) if I were you.
It seems like whenever I am getting close to the last 10 pages of a book or so, that's when all hell breaks loose, the phone starts ringing, people want to talk to me, there are things looming, that always happens at the end of books, even if I make a point to hide somewhere where no one can interrupt, so now when I get to the last few pages of a book I often start to feel an extreme sense of anxiety.
This same phenomenon also tends to occur when I am taking a shit.
I took two laxative pills the other night to see what would happen. You are supposed to take them when you go to bed and then you'll wake up and expunge. Instead I woke up with awful stomach pains and it constipated me, I was crying a little, I brought my computer into the bathroom so I could look at things while I 'worked,' I am sure you are very interested in hearing about this.
Little things are beginning to become the most severe points of contention in my mind.
I had to stop underlining passages I like in THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE THE MOON SAYS I LOVE YOU literally because I would pretty much just be underlining the whole fucking book, no joke, every line.
'reached up under your dress and got the nation sack' 'pew of deacons' 'dripping through a wound like a virgin's piss'" – Blake Butler
«Eugene Marten's slim novella Waste details the day-to-day existence and experiences of Sloper, a janitor in a big-city office building. With unnerving clarity and precision, Marten starkly executes a chilling portrait of loneliness and anonymity, reminding us, in the process, that that which we might ever so casually discard and dismiss may not necessarily respond so casually in kind. Sample sentence: "Sloper kept his hard tile mopped, and he was good about glass."» - Geoffrey Brown
«Eugene Marten’s Waste is blurbed up by the Lish School (including Lish himself) so I was expecting a quirkily written, intelligent effort more concerned with the structures of its sentences than narrative cohesion; what I got is a brutal, disturbing little novel that works beautifully both for those who read for story and those who read for the artistry—or at least those who read for those things but who can deal with a shocking amount of physical and psychological trauma distilled down into sharp, tight sentences.
The problem with reviewing Waste is it’s hard to talk about what’s so disturbing and brutal about this book without giving anything away, given that it’s a breezy 116 pages of big type and wide margins. Waste is about a janitor named Sloper, a manchild whose “life was an awkward silence.” He seems to be somewhat developmentally disabled, suffering the crippling social inadequacies that come along with that condition. He eats the leftovers from the garbage cans in the office that he cleans on the night shift; fantasizes about the women whose pictures he sees on the desks with their husbands or children (“When she was gone he jerked off in her shoes and cleaned them out with germicidal foam. You could use it on anything but woodwork”); lives in the basement of his mother’s home with wild neighbors renting out the upper floor; spies on the invalid neighbor and her caretaker.
Waste is foremost a study in isolation, not only socially but professionally: “Employees worked late and offered to trade jobs with him, without smiling. Or they said nothing, just sat motionless at their computers while he emptied their trash, looking buried, sealed in. He’d seen a movie once. A U-boat stranded on the ocean floor, sweating out depth charges. The look on the faces of the crew, the same pressurized dread.” Marten creates interesting parallels here: Sloper’s isolation from the workers whom he only sees if they stay late, the office workers’ isolation from the world as they sit in empty cubicles, and then the reversal as Sloper almost feels sorry for them and their jobs while he goes about doing a job that most people would not want to do.
Waste is a book in which there’s almost no language wasted, nothing extraneous. Sloper finds leftover food from a party in a garbage can and eats it in fear of discovery: “Sometimes you couldn’t wait for the microwave in the travel agency. You crossed your legs on the floor next to the trash can, alert to footfalls, the whisper of clothes, the jingling of keys. There were close calls. The rustle of paper in the fax machine was like hearing a ghost.” Even better, this description of the awful social interaction which takes place every day when Sloper arrives at work to get the keys from security bears quoting at length:
When asked for the keys the kid would, with the elaborate discomfiture of the mortally inconvenienced, roll his chair back from the console to the key box behind the desk, groping inside with considerable difficulty and reluctance, looking only with his hand, his eyes always on the monitors, eventually returning with a set of keys, proffering them with renewed disinterest, and on the point of dropping them into your palm, suddenly retract them, saying, “Whups, wrong set. You want number 4,” or “Sign the log first, fireball,” or would withdraw them in increments, making you reach further and further in for them, saying, “How’s that? Wrestling’s fake? Huh, fireball? Get you in one of them holds, see how fake it is then.” All the while never looking away from the screens.
The routine is set in place, and brings with it all the despair that comes with such a regimented, endless cycle (though not just for the janitors, but the office workers as well); it doesn’t seem to bother Sloper, who seemingly excels at his job.
There’s a major plotline of the book—the major plotline—which is written about in visceral and disgusting detail but which you can’t really bring up since there’s a pretty significant spoiler factor that comes along with even mentioning it, and ruins the surprise of discovering it in the book. But I will say that it’s base and brutal and in keeping with the loneliness and isolation and semi-brainlessness of Sloper’s life, in keeping with his significant difficulties with social interactions. Marten’s novel is moving and completely repellent, both of which are intentional reactions provoked by the author.» - Scott Bryan Wilson
Eugene Marten, Firework, New York Tyrant, 2010.
"Jelonnek is a blue collar Midwesterner trapped in a life he is almost sure he wants to escape. Driven by a dim yearning to transcend, he makes the first real choice of his life when a simple errand to a convenience store escalates into a terrifying encounter. He soon finds himself on a cross-country odyssey with a woman he barely knows and her young daughter, in search of escape and new beginnings. They find shelter in an isolated existence at the edge of the country, only to be besieged by threats from outside and, finally, from within. A descent into paranoia, nascent violence and sexuality follows, culminating in a one-man Armageddon and an aftermath as hopeful as it is horrifying.
Firework is the story of a man who, though ill-equipped to help himself, attempts to help someone else, and the beautifully rendered, perhaps necessary catastrophe that results. Unequaled in intensity, it is also an exhilarating expression of the noble, all-too human impulse to become more than what we seem to be."
"The despicable yet utterly sympathetic protagonist in Eugene Marten’s terrifying third novel doesn’t stray far from those of his prior works: Like the janitor in the cult classic Waste and the locksmith from In the Blind, Jelonnek, the state-employee antihero of Firework, is a shiftless man whose routine is shaken by a series of twisted circumstances and terrible decisions. Marten masters a world of blue-collar minutiae with spare, striking prose and meticulous detail, but Firework is, at 370 pages, a breakout achievement that also tackles issues of gender, class, race, identity and family.
At the outset of the novel, Jelonnek has been arrested during a prostitution sting. His passivity in jail seems to be a smart move—rather than fight with other inmates, he keeps to himself and “trie[s] to convey strong silence.” After his release, he returns to his bank-teller girlfriend and his job as a “forms officer,” a position he has taken “not because he desired advancement or even needed the money, but at someone else’s suggestion.” Jelonnek is not in control of his life, and remains paralyzed by the opinions of others—until, that is, he drinks enough to do something stupid. His behavior lands him in increasingly dangerous situations. After an encounter with a pair of prostitutes suddenly turns violent, he leaves everything behind to cross the country with a hooker named Littlebit and her young daughter, Miss D.
The three form an unlikely bond, but it soon becomes apparent that Jelonnek’s primary motivation is fear—of women, Jews, gay men. Marten, meanwhile, approaches his novel’s slow-building disaster with fearlessness. Equal parts road novel and psychological thriller, Firework is a superbly written exercise in impending doom, which makes sense: Marten seems at home in a world where the worst-case scenario is the most likely outcome." - Kimberly King Parsons
2017 was a year to forget. A sordid fatberg of a year filled with lecherous pussy-grabbing perverts, bloviating dotards and madmen with loose nukes. We saw psychotics roaming the streets with bump-stock semi-automatics, Russian bots dumping fake news like sturgeon roe into the social media swamp and fresh-scrubbed, khaki-clad neo-Nazi mobs marching by candlelight. Throw in a few natural disasters of biblical proportions and you will understand the impeccable timing for the Second Edition release of Eugene Marten’s epic Firework from independent publisher Tyrant Books. Originally released in 2010, it’s a story perfectly matched to our recently completed annus horribilis. The book’s bleakness will make you want to slit your wrists—but Marten’s sublime literary prose, its tiny slivers of beauty and a strong belief in redemption just might be enough to save your life.
Set in the 1990s with the L.A. riots interspersed as background noise, Firework is the story of an ambitionless, stoic man named Jelonnek, a Travis Bickle-like character who works alone in a government forms warehouse located in some unnamed rustbelt city (probably Cleveland). He drinks too much and watches football. He idolises Number 19 (probably Bernie Kosar… one of Marten’s strengths is letting the reader fill in the blanks). Jelonnek’s social awkwardness is painful. He lives with a nameless woman in a small apartment. He is a man ill-prepared for the world around him.
The story begins with Jelonnek getting picked up in a prostitution sweep and spending a few days in jail. He’s constantly buffeted by events and seems to revel in the experience, the excitement it brings to his mundane existence. His stint in jail. Community service. Broken down cars in the middle of nowhere. The rejection by unattainable women. His crude Polish immigrant father. A mother who hung herself from the living room chandelier. Jelonnek lets it all wash over him like battering waves he’s grown accustomed to.
You were moving onto something new and next, even if it meant being swallowed.
As Marten reveals Jelonnek, we see that he is both an everyman and a troubled man, emotionally stunted and damaged. We also get brief glimpses of Jelonnek’s humanity, his striving to be more than he is capable of being. We see he is not a monster, but that there is one caged inside of him, trying to find the key to get out.
Jelonnek is an American Meursault and, reminiscent of Camus’s indifferent hero, he is not capable of playing society’s games and suffers the consequences. An innocent trip with a Misfit-like character to buy cigarettes at his brother’s wedding turns into a harrowing series of events and is the fulcrum on which Marten deftly pivots the story. Your life can change in a moment, he’s telling us. It is also where he meets the prostitute Littlebit.
The other one was dressed for the occasion and called him by the color of his eyes. She called herself a name that sounded fake, like a porn star, and except for the bulge that birth imparts to the belly, she almost looked like one. Close enough, anyway, to let you forget certain things, like that bulge, and the people waiting for you somewhere, the music over, the long tables cleared, streamers hanging slack and windless. Close enough to let you put your hand on the door latch and pull, and silence your better judgement, and wasn’t that what you wanted in the first place?
He liked the way she looked at him. She looked at him with her mouth.
Soon, Jelonnek is on the run, heading to the West Coast with Littlebit and her young daughter Miss D, a ten-year old who still sucks her thumb, staying in cheap motels and scrounging for food and cigarettes, Jelonnek their dysfunctional provider. The story becomes an On The Road with Jelonnek playing the role of Sal Paradise (he even works as a night watchman on the docks, overseeing migrant sailors, just as Sal once did). Marten renders descriptions of the changing landscapes of the West in stark contrast to the inert lives of Jelonnek, Littlebit and Miss D.
The grass thinned out and the livestock dwindled but still they blurred past miles of fencing, as though distance and silence were subject to ownership like everything else. Low mountains to the north, the long velvety hills closer in with the shadows of clouds curving up and over and whose private property were they?
They trudge through the desolate landscapes of the American highway, never roaming far from the tawdry interchanges, headed somewhere else.
Marten interjects small moments of tenderness as this thrown-together “family” struggles to avoid the hard fate that America shoves down the throats of her underclass, like when the trio first see the Pacific Ocean.
Your feet sank in mud and the surf rushed back out as hard as it came in, wanting to pull your legs out from under you. Jelonnek threw out his arms. Miss D screamed. The ocean withdrew in layers, hissing white foam subsiding to cloudy brown, and then sheet upon lucid sheet shed one after the other like leaves of a liquid text unveiling its conclusion: the sand, smoothed to a shiny unbroken slickness in which for a moment everything was reflected.
“Jelonny we standin on the sky!” Miss D yelled.
Marten does not spare us the gory details of their lives. He makes us look at them, painting their ugliness with his spare prose. It would have been easy for Marten to make Littlebit and Miss D simple, superficial characters, only sidekicks to Jelonnek’s protagonist story. But they are rendered in full, their dialogue and unique personalities a highlight of the book, two people with lives so desperate they put what little faith and hope they have in a man like Jelonnek.
The entire second half of the novel feels like some great disaster of prophetic violence is always about to occur, either perpetrated against, or committed by, them.
We witness Jelonnek’s attempt to reestablish this make-believe family in another unnamed city, working a series of temporary menial jobs. They rent an idealised suburban house with caring neighbours and a chance for community waiting only to be grasped by three people who are completely incapable of it—the American dream never comes to those who can’t buy it or steal it or beat it into submission, after all. We watch Jelonnek’s slow descent into some kind of madness and wonder if this madness was always in him or whether it is a reaction to his own life. Nature or nurture.
Marten is a master at turning overlooked, everyday things into opportunities for wounding trauma, things as simple as a mailbox.
At first Miss D liked playing with the mailbox. She’d put something in it and say she was mailing it to herself. The she’d raise the flag and take it out. Once she opened it and it was crawling with termites. They were an inch long, with pale segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. She ran to her room and shut the door and never went near the mailbox again.
The book’s ending is like a punch in the face—one that was not unexpected but no less brutal as a result. Jelonnek finally lets the monster come out. Reminiscent of the way Cormac McCarthy uses acute isolation and violence to represent natural human experience, Marten has Jelonnek turn to a cataclysmic act a la Lester Ballard in Child of God, making us question the larger themes of fate and society and the way they can determine our lives despite our best intentions. Fittingly, the legendary literary man Gordon Lish has compared Marten’s writing to McCarthy’s and the comparison is fully warranted. Marten needs to be considered one our finest contemporary American writers.
So, if you’re looking for an inspiring, feel-good story to divert you from the reality of our time, well, you’ll need to look somewhere else. But if you want to read powerful writing that will make you feel like your eyes have been sewed shut your whole life and just got pried open and when they open they open onto a scene of a car crash along some desolate American highway with the parts strewn all over the road and the burning car upside-down in a field of wildflowers and a big moon coming up over the mountains while a shirtless man staggers up out of the ditch and you start to cry because it looks like the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, then read Firework. You won’t forget it.
- Mike Murphy http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/man-time-eugene-martens-firework/
Eugene Marten, In the Blind, Turtle Point Press, 2003.
Eugene Marten's IN THE BLIND takes readers through a keyhole and shows it to be a tunnel, a cave -- a way through to a hard-earned light. The speaker in this astonishing novel has been released from the boiler room dark of prison, but he is not free. He must move on at an angle against all that has been subtracted from the world he returns to, and always against the bleak weight of memory. By accident he finds work in a locksmith's shop, and something in the dark inner spaces of the locks speaks to him of a universe of locks, and to the prospect of a concentration that will open the way to breathable air. With the uncanny precision of observation found in Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, and the eerie mystery of Don Delillo's The Body Artist, marten generates a narrative that enthralls. And when released by the book's amazing close, readers will find themselves in the new light cast by this novel, and with a hunger for more of Eugene Marten's fine work.
It took me a couple years to finally acquire this book. Everything by Marten is stunning. He is one of the few living prose writers I actively admire. His books actually intimidate me. - Robert Kloss
An ex-con arrives by bus in a Rust Belt city, finds a transient's apartment, and stumbles into working at a locksmith shop run by two harried Syrian brothers. There he discovers an affinity for the subtle, precise world of tumblers, keycuts, and strike plates. Encouraged in truncated English by cheerful, compassionate Ibrahim to close his eyes and work "in the blind," the man goes out on midnight and mid-afternoon calls and rescues drunken nightclub owners and victims of purse snatchers. As his world slowly expands beyond his single room and hotplate, what put him in prison and what lingers of his old life come to light. When a tense call to make a key for an almost certainly stolen car results in tragedy and upheaval for his employers, the man, imprisoned by memory and guilt, must find another new way to live. Dispensing with such details as the names of the hero and the city he is in, Marten's powerful novel focuses on a man trying to put the shards of his life together. By the end of the first chapter, Marten has convinced us that complete sentences are an affectation, and thereafter he takes us on a concise, wry journey out of his hero's self-made cell. Fans of Chuck Palahniuk and Jim Thompson, in particular, should take note. - Roberta Johnson