Gabriel Blackwell - Dubbed a commonplace book—a collection of quotations to analyse a subject—Blackwell swirls memoir, fiction, film criticism, and quotes from such figures as W.G. Sebald and Rebecca Solnit, to create a kind of melancholic kaleidoscope (much like Vertigo’s title sequence)








Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.,Outpost19, 2016.                                    

www.gabrielblackwell.com
A commonplace book, arranging passages from critics considering Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, along with fragments of memoir and fiction. Presented first as random notes on watching the legendary film, the meticulously arranged fragments soon take up multiple threads and, like a classic Hitchcock movie, present competing realities.

"MADELEINE E. breathes new life into the novel, the monograph, the commonplace book, the memoir. . . This is a book that will be treasured by readers who are eager to glimpse the horizons of contemporary writing as well by those who appreciate a good old-fashioned page-turner. Gabriel Blackwell's writing proves that a genre-defying literature is not only possible, it's necessary." - Evan Lavender-Smith
"MADELEINE E. is a riveting examination of the self (or selves), spun from the yarn skein in Gabriel Blackwell's labyrinthine mind. Using Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo as a springboard for cultural and critical investigation and personal narrative, Blackwell has managed to write an impossibly entertaining book -- indeed, a philosophical page turner."- Amber Sparks


"The first time I saw Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., I watched it again immediately, so mesmerizing was its world. I've done this with a few other films, but never with a book—until now. Once I got to the last page of Gabriel Blackwell's genre-transcending MADELEINE E., I quickly returned to the first. The book is as captivating and addictive as Vertigo, the film Blackwell illuminates and re-imagines. On the level of criticism alone, the book is revelatory: Hitchcock has never appeared so engrossingly strange and alive. But MADELEINE E. is also a profound exploration of identity, doubling, obsession, romantic love, perception, falling, the power of art. Interspersed among the collages of philosophical insight are hypnotic narratives about a man named Gabriel Blackwell, whose many possible lives reveal the dizzying potentials of our own. This is a wondrous book." - Eric G. Wilson
How does one describe a book that masquerades as a work of criticism about Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which becomes a book about writing a book about Vertigo—and is, at first blush, based in fact, reality, or at least memory—which becomes a novel about a man experiencing an ongoing series of waking nightmares eerily similar to those of the characters in the film Vertigo, all the while writing a book about Vertigo, a man who very much resembles and even shares a name with the name printed on the actual spine of the physical book, Madeline E? How to do this? I’m still not sure, and part of what troubles me is that my above description of the book actually oversimplifies the work itself. There is no satisfactory way to summarize Madeline E, no way to describe that won’t reduce the book to sounding like a work of insanity (which it is) or garbled, mangled confusion (which it sometimes is). The best I can come up with: it’s a resounding, powerful addition to the literature of bewilderment. “Everything that is is a record of its process,” writes Blackwell, about halfway through a book simultaneously obsessed with erasing that record.
Perhaps it’s best to simply call Madeline E a novel, even though the book resists that definition at every turn, a novel in the sense of that word’s widest, most all-encompassing and varied form, in the sense of the novel which eats all other prose forms, a Bakhtinian panoply of voices. Yet the book is a work of film criticism; a work of literary theory; a series of seemingly unrelated short stories; a work of philosophy; a philosophical meditation on disguises, doppelgangers, and the self; a David Markson-esque collage; it is all of these things and none of these things, a collection of sharp angles converged in book form, forming the dark, creviced, spike-filled object called Madeline E. Which, if absolutely nothing else, can be more or less accurately described as a book by Gabriel Blackwell, about Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.
Blackwell opens with a quote from Antigone: “We have only a short time to please the living, all eternity to please the dead.” From the start he aims for the dead. It’s a classical move, and one that signals Blackwell’s ambitions for something more. The first sentence in his own hand—and by in his own hand, I mean that which is written by him, for the book is filled with quotations, ranging from sources as widely varied as Slavoj Žižek, Phillip K. Dick, and Rebecca Solnit—is a description of the opening shot of the film: “We open already in pursuit of something ineffable,” he writes, wasting no time in making for that which defies description. “Even after watching Vertigo fifty-plus times, I have no mental picture of [the man Jimmy Stewart is chasing]. Why is Stewart chasing this man? We will never know.” And so Madeline E opens with an unanswerable question.
This proceeding from the unknowable deeper into the unknowable might seem untenable at first, and certainly makes for rough going at times, but it’s the play between the book’s various forms that makes its most engaging through-line. For instance, usually, unless we are reading a rather dry work of academic criticism that assumes expertise amongst its audience, most writers writing about a work of art will trouble themselves to locate the work of art in question in space and time. They will make an effort at orienting the reader to what’s being described. If the work of art in question is a film or book there generally will be some attention paid to the book or film’s plot, its narrative arc. Usually. And if there’s no discernible plot—or a very scanty one—the writer will at least attempt to orient the reader as to the narrative’s main characters, as Geoff Dyer does in Zona, his book-length meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s largely plotless Stalker.
Yet Blackwell doesn’t offer the reader a coherent description of the action of Hitchcock’s Vertigo until page 64. This might’ve been unimportant had I a working knowledge of the film. Or, perhaps if I had seen it, like Blackwell, 50-plus times. However, at the time of my reading I’d seen the film only once. There were times, as the book proceeded from fragmentary observation to fragmentary observation that I felt like I was moving from lostness to a deeper lostness. Blackwell follows his lone summary of the film, when he finally gets to it, with a quotation which amounts to the book’s only, singular, extremely deadpan joke: ‘Above all, do not attempt to be exhaustive.’ He attributes this line to Sam Taylor, who claims that Laurent Binet claims that Roland Barthes originally said it. Thus, when we finally get our summary of the film, and feel somewhat oriented, and we’re greeted with a statement denying the legitimacy of summary, which is in fact a commandment against summation, a statement whose source is three-times removed. Blackwell quotes Hitchcock, a few pages later: “All that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen. It doesn’t matter if the set extends no more than six inches beyond what the camera records—it could as well be six miles for all the effect it would have on the audience.” On the page, the effect is practically the inverse. The book is constantly operates around its own margins, folding in on itself.
Threads are picked up only to be dropped a few pages, fifty pages, a hundred pages later. The book’s plot as regards Blackwell himself—or, as it becomes clearer later in the book, the character described in the book as being Gabriel Blackwell, who is also a writer, also writing a book about Vertigo, titled Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo, which, incidentally, is the name of part two of Gabriel Blackwell’s book Madeline E—has become unemployed and has begun to fear his wife is cheating on him. Later on in the book, the character of his wife (who is never named) is replaced by the character of his girlfriend (also never named), who happens to share most of her characteristics with those of the now-disappeared character of his wife. The girlfriend is, for the most part, indistinguishable from the vanished wife. The discrepancy is never explained, a discrepancy those familiar with the film will recognize. The reader is left to wonder whether the girlfriend will later become the wife (that we have gone back in time), or, if the wife herself has simply turned into the girlfriend, as Judy, in the film, becomes Madeline, after the death of Madeline (before the death of the actual Madeline). Too, it is never entirely clear whether or not the book Madeline E is being narrated by Gabriel Blackwell, the character, or Gabriel Blackwell, the writer, who is writing the book Madeline E. Readerly bewilderment proceeds into readerly bewilderment. Yet this bewilderment is also the book’s greatest strength. The book’s intentional inconsistencies, its continual movement into deeper and blurrier opacity, mirrors the workings of the film, taking on the film’s architecture and themes without ever doing so explicitly.
Madeline E’s disorienting effects aren’t relegated only to its plot. Since the book occasionally functions as straight criticism, with sections of very clear and concise ruminations on the film, when the same “I” who is writing critically becomes an “I” who is seeing his own double walking directly towards him across a busy city square, the book’s tether to fiction or nonfiction is never clear. The character—and narrator—Gabriel Blackwell becomes worried that another writer, also named Gabriel Blackwell, has published two books under the name of, you guessed it, Gabriel Blackwell, and that the imposter Blackwell has assumed the real Blackwell’s author page on Amazon.com. The two books listed on Amazon by the imposter Blackwell are actual books published by the ‘real’ Gabriel Blackwell, the Gabriel Blackwell who is the author of Madeline E. Geoff Dyer, in an interview with The Paris Review, has claimed that the only real difference he recognizes between fiction and non-fiction is one of form, but Blackwell, in destroying the distinction between forms, in denying the reader the life preserver of knowing whether or not what she is reading is based in reality or not, treads boldly into the darkness of the unknowable.
I should here be clear that I once met Gabriel Blackwell, at a conference in Seattle. He does exist. I even published a short, very early excerpt of Madeline E in the literary magazine I edit. However, neither of these two facts helped me parse out all of this, as the excerpt of Madeline E that I published dealt almost exclusively with Vertigo (although it did not deal with the Blackwell character’s Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo project), which is, of course, a film about a man who tries to save a woman named Madeline who believes herself to be a woman named Carlotta Valdes who is actually being played by another woman named Judy who actually becomes, and befalls the same fate as, the original Madeline.
Underscoring all of this doubling and tripling lies a very interesting work of criticism. After steadily gaining ground for years, in 2012 Hitchcock’s film replaced Citizen Kane on the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound list of the greatest all time films. It was the first time a film other than Orson Welles’s classic placed first since polling for the list began in the 1950s. Vertigo’s final attainment of the top spot was symbolic of the steady shift in western notions about art, theory, criticism and politics that has been underway since the beginning of deconstructionism. The book functions as the film’s doppelganger; the plight of Jimmy Stewart becomes the plight of Blackwell. Much of the book’s in-scene moments take place in San Francisco, near or around places where the film was shot. The book’s transition from a series of critical notes to seemingly unrelated pieces of short fiction to, eventually, a novel, makes for jarring reading. But it’s meant to jar. The effect is claustrophobic, airless—and, ultimately, successful.
If it seems implausible for a book’s main character, who seems to be the writer himself, who is in the process of writing a book of nonfiction, to come across his own double—and to accuse that double of having written books bearing the author of the book’s name, that implausibility only serves to underscore the work’s artifice. It’s a tricky line, a line most writers of fiction avoid, because it risks so befuddling or irritating the reader that the work’s inner authority is lost. Blackwell quotes Deleuze: “[M]odern thought is born of the failure of representation, of the loss of identities.” Madeline E is about just this failure of representation, just as Vertigo is about the loss of identities. Blackwell layers over his own artifice: “Why do we find things disguised as other things (even when those disguises actually expose their wearers),” he asks, “more appealing than things left undisguised?” The question points to his own disguising of himself in the work, layering over his own face as the author. Opacity over and through opacity, with a wry nudge.
What Madeline E ultimately serves as, whatever it is—novel or not, study of Vertigo or not—is a work of creative criticism of the highest order. It is a brilliantly flawed book not about Hitchcock’s film, nor of the film, but rather is a true response to it, containing all the madness and torque that Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, claims marked the best works of criticism, wishing for the “lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.” As George Steiner said: “The best readings of art are art.” The book breathes fresh life into both the task of the novelist and critic, resisting interpretation even more fiercely than the uninterpretable film on which it ruminates; its utter refusal to develop the mysterious plotlines it brings forth—and intentional confusion of same—heralds a step forward in the contemporary novel. Yet while every truly new development in a form at first seems like a destruction of that form, at the same time every truly new formal development is borne from the past—even if the unlikely past. The only novel I know of to blur its own lines so thoroughly is Kenneth Patchen’s far too-little read Journal of Albion Moonlight.
A work of meticulous, creeping dread, Madeline E flies in the face of the idea that anyone can be who they say they are, that any claim ultimately leads towards a stable truth. Yet it is no polemic, and Madeline E is far too slippery about its own intentions to be used for anything—which is a comfort in and of itself.
“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult,” wrote Donald Barthelme, “but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” In Madeline E, Gabriel Blackwell aims for the unspeakable. He strikes the mark dead-center. - Nathan Knapp

That Alfred Hitchcock’s films have a deep literary component is undeniable. Some of his best-known works were adapted from novels and short stories by a host of acclaimed writers: Psycho and Strangers on a Train were adapted from novels of the same name by Robert Bloch and Patricia Highsmith, respectively; The Birds was adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, and Vertigo is an adaptation of the novel D’entre les morts by the writing team known as Boileau-Narcejac. It’s an impressive array of writers and one which—given the enduring place of Hitchcock in popular culture—helps keep the name of certain essential writers in the public consciousness.
Hitchcock’s work with talented writers didn’t always pan out—in Francois Truffault’s book of interviews with the filmmaker, Hitchcock, he has less-than-warm feelings about his time working with Raymond Chandler. (“[O]ur association didn’t work out at all.”) But when it did, it led to films that remain classics, and which have heightened the profiles of the authors associated with them. And for all that Hitchcock’s films have had an enduring cinematic legacy, many of those same films have also had a lasting influence on literature.
Sometimes, this can take the form of sly allusions to iconic cinematic moments. Eric Kraft’s Flying collects a trio of short novels about a man named Peter Leroy, who looks back on his time crossing the country in an unorthodox flying vehicle in the 1950s. At one point, Peter finds himself in the Midwest, fixated on bizarre goings-on in the distance involving a man being chased through a field by a crop-duster. In other words, the action pauses for a moment while the story’s narrator can lurk in the background of a famous scene from North by Northwest. The Birds has also worked its way into various novels, with the “seemingly normal beings suddenly overwhelmed by murderous urges” plotline used by in books by writers like Emily Schultz (The Blondes) and Nick Antosca (The Obese) to satirize contemporary American society.
A more subtle structural nod to an iconic Hitchcock film can be found in a recent novel by the French writer Marie NDiaye. Ladivine begins with a woman with a secret: Clarisse, who periodically leaves her family behind to travel by train to visit her mother. Clarisse, the reader soon learns, has kept the truth of her background from her family, and changed her name from Malinka when she became an adult. Her relationship with her mother is a complex one, sometimes guilt-ridden and sometimes contemptuous, but it’s clearly left its mark on her. Eventually, the strain of this fractures her family—but before the full scope of this deeply personal drama can play out, Clarisse is abruptly murdered.
The suddenness of this, and the way in which it sends a carefully-balanced narrative into unexpected places has prompted multiple critics to make comparisons between it and the murder of Marion Crane in Psycho. In said film, what began as the story of a woman on the run shifts into something progressively more unsettling, and while NDiaye’s narrative concerns are very different, that initial act of violence hangs over the rest of the proceedings, and establishes a mood where anything is possible.
Vertigo is considered by many to be Hitchcock’s best film, as well as one of the greatest films ever made. It, too, has had a substantial literary influence; in recent years, its effect has been felt in works as diverse as Bennett Sims’s unconventional zombie novel A Questionable Shape and Gabriel Blackwell’s disorientingly metafictional Madeline E. Vertigo offers a host of narratively compelling components: obsession, control, disguise, doubles, and possession; a protagonist whose sanity is called into question; a multi-layered narrative that easily takes on a metaphorical aspect.
A Questionable Shape is a haunting book, an intellectually-told story about intellectually-minded people in a world where the dead have begun to walk again. Footnotes abound in Sims’s narrative, including textual observations on how the footnote is a kind of zombie relative to the rest of a book. In interviews, the author has cited Vertigo as a zombie movie of a kind, and, in one with The Iowa Review, he explained its relevance to his own work. “One of the properties of the novel is that it takes place in a world where zombie movies don’t exist,” he explained. “So what they end up having to do is read undeath into movies we don’t normally think of as zombie movies, like Vertigo or Solaris.”
In a conversation with his publisher at this year’s Mission Creek Festival, Sims also spoke of how the novel’s cover design evokes Saul Bass’s iconic artwork for Hitchcock’s film. A different riff on Bass’s design encloses Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. Blackwell’s fiction often echoes well-known literary sources, from Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction to H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Madeleine E. is organized as a book-length essay, interpolating quotes from other books (some directly about Hitchcock, some not) with observations on Vertigo and scenes from its author’s life. But it’s here that Blackwell pulls an interesting narrative trick and one which evokes the instances of doubling found in Vertigo. The author of the book within the book is Gabriel Blackwell, but he’s one of two writers sharing that name, each of whom is about to begin work on a book inspired by Vertigo.
Things advance even more when Blackwell ventures from Portland to San Francisco and begins to search for his doppelgänger. The narrative is occasionally punctuated by proposals for Blackwell’s book on Vertigo, none of which quite line up with the work we’re actually reading. Identities blur even further as the novel progresses, and the ways in which Blackwell uses the techniques of sober nonfiction to encircle a narrative which is quickly becoming a delirious meditation on a film that’s far from lucid is memorable and, at times, ingenious.
Among the reasons Alfred Hitchcock’s films have endured over time is their simultaneous understanding of the form and their willingness to subvert it. One can learn a myriad of lessons from studying these films, and their narrative implications can be put into practice in any number of different mediums. And the stories that can be told as a result have an almost limitless number of permutations available to them, from satirical thrillers to existential meditations on identity. It’s an almost limitless cultural legacy. -


A man watches Vertigo more than 50 times. A man with a fear of heights watches another man, Jimmy Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, develop a fear of heights in Vertigo. A man watches Vertigo, a film about obsession and identity, more than 50 times and writes a book about Vertigo (and obsession and identity).
So goes the premise of the complex, melancholy Madeleine E. by Gabriel Blackwell. Billed as a commonplace book—a collection of quotations from other sources—Madeleine E. is a layered patchwork of such quotes and the author’s cinematic analysis, memoir, and fiction. Blackwell minutely annotates the famous Alfred Hitchcock film, arranging his passages around each scene—from the first to the last.
Insights ebb and flow throughout Madeleine E., named for the woman that Kim Novak’s character pretends to be in the film, as the author considers themes like identity, artificial intelligence, Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and the slipperiness of truth. This happens through not only his critical analysis and chosen excerpts (from such authors as Robin Wood, Rebecca Solnit, and W.G. Sebald—fans of the latter will be at home here) but also his nonfictional and fictional passages, in which he often demonstrates obsessive qualities similar to Stewart’s character. In one section, Blackwell sees his doppelgänger in San Francisco (not for nothing, Vertigo’s setting); in another, he considers following his wife after seeing her far from work in the middle of the day.
What’s most interesting about the fictional sections is that they at first disguise themselves as nonfiction, so similar are they to what the author has presented as fact, throwing into question the memoir that came before. This might frustrate readers who want a clear delineation between fact and fiction, but one argument the book offers, like Vertigo, is the near impossibility of determining what is and is not true, what is and is not artifice, persona, or acting. The answer is that it is all both true and false, as one’s perception frequently holds the most weight.
Some of the fictional sections feel extraneous, however, as the book runs long. The momentum slows halfway through, as Blackwell adds more and more examples of doubles and mistaken identity. Occasionally he seems to ignore the most logical explanations for things, as that would deflate their potential for intrigue. This imbues Madeleine E. with a layered logic similar to that of an M.C. Escher drawing or Synecdoche, New York, growing larger and more complex as it circles back on itself.

The book shares two of its strengths with the movie it’s based on: its tone and its theme of obsessive looking. Despite the book’s multiple voices, Blackwell maintains a melancholy and ruminative mood throughout. More important is his perspicacious eye. Like Scottie’s obsession over “Madeleine,” Blackwell has a keen perception, yet, unlike Scottie, he is aware of his male gaze and obsession. (Those who’ve seen the film at least a few times will get the most out of this book.) In a beautiful passage near the end, Blackwell describes one of the most self-aware ideas at the heart of his observations: “[W]hen we see something seemingly everywhere, it doesn’t mean that the thing we think we are seeing again and again has multiplied somehow or that the world is a code or a conspiracy, but that, in finally taking notice of that thing, we are creating for ourselves a new way of seeing...” This doesn’t result in a lean, driven book, but it does present an intelligent, personal meditation on one of the greatest films of all time. - Laura Adamczyk


Gabriel Blackwell describes Madeleine E, a project he began as a personal rumination on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as “a kind of critic’s notebook, an assemblage, a commonplace book, but also an homage and an acknowledgement.” This is a very apt description of this strange and eclectic book, which contains critical commentary on the film, passages of fiction, sections of what might be memoir, and an assortment of quotes from writers as diverse as Jose Saramago and Slavoj Žižek.
I begin with Blackwell’s own words because the book is loaded with these obsessive acts of self-description. In the multiple chapters self-referentially titled “Madeleine E.,” he provides several possible versions of the a book he is supposedly writing. For example, he says, “This is a book about a man and his girlfriend, who live together . . . She is going to have an abortion.” But later the narrator (if it is the same narrator) says, “In this book, a man goes through a painful divorce. He believes his wife cheated on him, and she maintains her innocence.” And, by contrast, he asserts that “This is a book about a woman who has a terrible accident. She goes into a coma, and it is two months before she comes out of it.” Like Vertigo, each retelling or reframing of Madeleine E. leads always to deeper mystery rather than to clarity and resolution. It is a book that does not develop in any traditional sense but estranges. It is a work that seems to be in the midst of revision, as if it isn’t quite finished, as if it can never be finished. Sometimes revision is an act of cutting and compression; sometimes it is an act of expansion or rearranging, but then there are those works of art that grow only as you become increasingly estranged from them. The more Blackwell doubles and trebles his themes, his narratives, his allusions, the farther he gets from the narrative voice(s), the more we enjoy the experience. It’s as if he wanted to recreate the vertigo of Vertigo (in himself, in the reader) rather than simply explain it, describe it, or critique it.
Though the book relishes its dizzying array of postmodern techniques, there are two major elements that drive the book and keep it connected to the movie: doubling (and doubles) and obsession. While working on a book about Hitchcock’s classic, the narrator spots his double on the street. He predictably becomes obsessed with this double and has several more run-ins with him until they eventually meet. However, this is where the narrative ends. Blackwell says, “All the stories of doubles and doppelgangers I’ve read involve a confrontation between the two doubles, and they all end with the death of one of those doubles.” He then goes on to say that this is not one of those stories. On the one hand, this is a novel variation on the doppelganger device; on the other hand, it seems less than satisfying. I certainly don’t require narrative satisfaction from a book of this kind; in fact, I expect to be thwarted at every turn, and yet there was something more I wanted if not from the doppelganger narrative at least from the book as a whole. Infinite regresses can be tedious if there isn’t something more to be gained from their use. Thankfully, Blackwell has had another trick up his sleeve.
For all of Vertigo’s ambiguous strangeness, at heart it is a movie about the failure of love. Scottie (Jimmy Stewart’s character) falls in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak’s character). What he doesn’t know is that she is a fake who has been hired to pretend to be Madeleine as a part of a convoluted murder plot. Predictably, Scottie falls for her and is devastated when she appears to jump to her death. However, a year or so later, he runs into Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak) and becomes obsessed with her just as quickly. Of course, Judy is the same woman who had been hired to play Madeleine previously. Scottie embarks on a disturbing mission to transform Judy into Madeleine, making her change her appearance so that she more closely resembles the “original.” To make matters worse, Judy has now inexplicably fallen in love with Scottie, which is why she allows him to change her. She asks several times if he couldn’t just love her for herself, which, of course, he can’t do. More to the point, he doesn’t even try. He’s in love with a person who never existed, and she is in love with a man she cruelly duped and nearly drove to madness. What’s far more disturbing is the fact that no one seems to take any responsibility for anything in the movie. Scottie never accepts responsibility for Judy’s death; Judy never accepts responsibility culpability for Madeleine’s death, and Elster appears to have gotten away with murdering his wife.
This notion of blame seems to be on Blackwell’s mind. At the very end, he gives us one last description of the book he is writing. He says,
This is a book about a man writing a book about Vertigo. In his book, he thinks, he will trace his thoughts about the film as they relate to the guilt he has about how he has lived his life, about the lives he hasn’t led, and about the lives of others he believes he has ruined.
Clearly someone named Gabriel Blackwell is trying to take responsibility for his actions, but which Gabriel Blackwell and which actions? If we can’t even agree on the basics of the story, then we really can’t assign guilt, which means no responsibility can be taken. This is a clever and well-thought-out ending, which sustains the ambiguity of the movie and yet creates a deep sense of yearning for closure, luring us towards and then thwarting our desire for the kind of simple, coherent narrative we often confuse for “the real.” - Carlo Matos



“All that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
It’s probably unfair of me, but I’ve never quite been able to take collage seriously as an art form. A spray of decontextualized snippets from other works seems not to mind casual attention, giving the reader, in the case of literary collage, permission to tune in and out at will, like channel-surfing during the commercial breaks of a TV show I don’t care enough about to want to see every second of; whereas a long, continuous piece of original writing, whether or not it gets my full concentration, is at least bold enough to assume it has it. Collage is a timid, polite form, a bit abashed about its own voice: it borrows because it doesn’t have the courage to steal.
Part of my irritation with collage works is that whenever one gets a lot of attention—most notably, in recent years, David Shields’ Reality Hunger—some critics praise it, in language teetering on the edge of political, for its radical newness, forgetting that the form is not really a new one, just a forgettable one, so that whenever a new one pops up, similar avant-garde experiments are buried deep enough in the dustbin that it only seems new. (They also take for granted that newness in itself has intrinsic value.)
To its credit, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is not just a literary collage. There is a playfulness about it that parodies the self-seriousness and pretentiousness of the genre. Its pages are peppered with highfalutin names like Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Baudrillard, and Deleuze, but its tongue is in its cheek. It’s both engaging with the foggy critical discourse that has swirled up around Alfred Hitchcock ever since French intellectuals started taking him much more seriously than the filmmaker ever took himself, and poking fun at it. Madeleine E. is a very fun book, a genuinely mind-bending and dryly hilarious hall of mirrors that combines metafiction with criticism, film theory, and philosophy. Making a work of art about another work of art—in this case, Hitchcock’s Vertigo—is criticism permitted to play.
Interestingly, Madeleine E. does not only pull its quotations from major works like Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, but also from plenty of contemporary writers, leaning especially heavily on Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Dyer (perhaps doing itself a disservice, as each time these names came up it mostly just reminded me how much I loved River of Shadows and Out of Sheer Rage); incongruously including Gillian Flynn; and borrowing a lot from Philip K. Dick, whose cult status has always somewhat baffled me. Madeleine E. circles around the distinction between “high” and “low” art, and criticism’s latent power to sluggishly move something from the latter category into the former. That’s exactly what happened to Hitchcock, and I guess it might have happened to Philip K. Dick, though I wasn’t paying attention.
The other day, after a conversation with a student about what she called the difference between “‘capital-L’ Literature” (say, Hamlet) and “‘lower-case’ literature,” by which she meant contemporary literature that hasn’t yet withstood the test of time, or received institutional approval (if it ever will), I thought of a metaphor on my drive home. Say every writer (or really every artist) stands somewhere on the slope of a snowy mountain. The snow on the mountain is culture, and the mountain itself is time. The artist scoops up some of the snow at her feet, packs it into a snowball (a painting, a film, a text), and tosses it down the mountain. The vast majority of these snowballs break apart and disintegrate almost immediately—but some of them, for whatever reasons, gain traction, pick up more snow, and become bigger and bigger snowballs as they roll down the mountain. A text rolls down the slope: every new reader it finds, everything that gets written about that text, every time it is quoted in another work, every time it is referenced or alluded to, is more snow that sticks to it, and the longer it rolls, the bigger it gets, mass begetting more mass—until, of course, it begins to be forgotten, and the snowball slowly shrinks. (The deserts are littered with crumbled Ozymandiases: Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos—like many readers of his generation, Updike was a hallowed name for my father, but I can already see his ghost growing faint. Eventually, everything we cherish or loathe will disappear.)
The bigger a text is, the more revered it is; reverence suggests mystery, and mystery attracts interpreters—it becomes, effectively, a religious text. Interpretation of narrative actually has its origins in religion, and In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes:
Once the question that haunts post-mythic consciousness—that of the seemliness of religious symbols—had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. . . . Interpretation is a radical strategy fro conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it.
Those who worship (interpret) art religiously choose to believe the most worshipped texts are so because they’re the greatest works of art; that is, the most pregnant with mystery. “Whatever is preserved grows enigmatic; time, and the pressures of interpretation, which are the agents of preservation, will see to that,” Frank Kermode writes in The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, a book which I happened to have been reading at the same time I was reading Madeleine E.
I believe the religious readers of art delude themselves as to the crucial importance in the process of its consecration of pure and terrifying chance. How many Melvilles have there been who didn’t just happen get beatified by another century’s critics many years after they died in obscurity? How many Emily Dickinsons have died without a stubborn surviving sister willing to fight a long, frustrating struggle to publish their work? Those who believe what is truly great will inevitably resurface take it as an article of faith; there is no evidence for it. And the nonbelievers, just as in religious faith, aren’t playing on an even field in this argument, as there are naturally no negative examples to point to—what disappears, disappears.
Sometimes, the most revered texts, those that accumulate more and more text around them as they roll down through time, are not necessarily the most beautiful and perfectly formed, but simply the stickiest: the ones with gaps in them that can be plugged up with more text. The reason Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest (among a handful of others) are Shakespeare’s most frequently explored works is precisely because they are the most complex, not necessarily because they are the best; they are labyrinths abounding with trapdoors, trick mirrors, and hidden passageways, inviting exploration. The Bible itself, with its many mysterious gaps and vestigial oddities, might be the “stickiest” text of them all, and likewise the works of secular literature that are the most perforated with holes come to be regarded as the most holy. Those who interpret secular art religiously, the way theologians interpret scripture, are liable to look most closely into a text’s omissions, flaws, glitches, and accidents, finding in them clues pointing the way toward the illumination of the profound mysteries surely lurking under the surfaces of those texts that have rolled and waxed on long enough to gain institutional approval and become sacred. These critics peer through the chinks in the armor, looking for the body beneath the suit.
Rodney Ascher’s riveting 2012 documentary, Room 237, interviews a series of religious readers of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as they reveal over many, many clips of the film the clues they have found indicating what it is really about—you know, under the surface. The Shining is really about the genocide of Native Americans. The film is really about the holocaust (Jack Nicholson is typing on an Adler, a German brand of typewriter!). The film is really all about Kubrick’s guilt at having cooperated with the US government to fake the moon landing.
One of these religious readers points out the following clue. About midway through the film, Shelly Duvall timidly enters the enormous, opulent room that Jack Nicholson is using as a writing studio to check on how his descent into madness is coming along. There’s a shot of Shelly Duvall from below, her head against the plain red background of a curtain. Cut to a shot from her perspective, looking down at Jack Nicholson looking up at her, seated at his desk behind his German typewriter; in the background, we see a fireplace, and some furniture—a couple of chairs flush against the wall. Cut back to Shelly Duvall. Cut back to Jack Nicholson—but look! Freeze it right … there. Look in the background. Notice how one of those chairs is now missing!
Now, film sets, especially on major productions, are complicated, chaotic places, with a lot of people bustling around, moving equipment, setting things up, adjusting things between takes. I am almost certain that somebody had to move something between takes that required the removal of that chair, and forgot to put it back. It’s a simple continuity error, and if you devote such microscopically focused attention to almost any film, you’ll notice dozens of them. But to a religious reader, Stanley Kubrick was not an ordinary human but an infallible being, categorically incapable of making even a very slight mistake. That missing chair has to mean something!
Is it possible, as that interpreter argues, that Kubrick deliberately planted continuity errors throughout The Shining in order to subconsciously disorient his viewers, to make us feel like we are going insane without quite knowing why? Sure—I wouldn’t put it past him. If there was ever an auteur who might pull something like that, it would be Kubrick. But if it quacks like a duck… As Robert M. Adams wrote about the blizzard of minute aporia in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “the meaningless is deeply interwoven with the meaningful,” such that “the book loses as much as it gains by being read closely.”
I bet that Hitchcock, a far more devil-may-care filmmaker than Kubrick, would have found such theological interpretation of his films a little hilarious. I think I can detect a faint undercurrent of amusement on his side of the conversation throughout Hitchcock/, the 1966 film theory sleeper-classic based on conversations between the two directors, naturally one of the most important source codes for Madeleine E.. Unlike Kubrick, Hitchcock was not a stickler for details. In Madeleine E., Blackwell quotes Hitchcock, who is talking to Truffaut about what he’d said to the actress Kim Novak (who plays both Judy Barton and Madeleine Elster) on the set of Vertigo: “I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.” A few pages later, Blackwell quotes Truffaut misinterpreting Hitchcock in his adoration of him, glossing his insouciance with (concealed, now revealed) truth:
While Hitchcock maintains that he is not concerned with plausibility, the truth is that he is rarely implausible. What he does, in effect, is to hinge the plot around a striking coincidence, which provides him with the master situation. His treatment from then on consists in feeding a maximum of tension and plausibility into the drama, pulling the strings ever tighter as he builds up toward a paroxysm. Then he suddenly lets go, allowing the story to unwind swiftly.
Hitchcock readily admitted that he cared much less about crafting an airtight plot than about the “visual impact on the screen.” He drove his plots toward his images, not the other way around, trusting that his viewers would be too lost in the dream to get hung up on logistics. Forget that Elster’s elaborate plan to set Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) up as a witness to his wife’s staged “suicide” all depends upon Scottie recognizing the old Spanish mission from the dream described to him by Kim-Novak-as-Judy-Barton-as-Madeleine-Elster-as-possessed-by-the-spirit-of-Carlotta-Valdes, as well on his suggesting that they go there, in order to jog her—memory?—or something?—or what? Never mind that! What matters is the image of Jimmy Stewart struggling up the spiral staircase in the bell tower, looking down, seeing the steps recede beneath him, employing for the first time in cinematic history the dolly zoom, in which the camera dollies away from the subject in the foreground while simultaneously zooming in—a famously trippy effect that would go on to become a horror movie staple, and would later come to be nicknamed the “Hitchcock zoom” and the “Vertigo effect.” If Hitchcock was content to let the quibblers quibble, confident that that would be the image to buy the film’s way into mythic memory, then he was right. In art, as in religion, spectacle leads, theology follows. Aesthetics sanctify the text, and only then do the interpreters come along to stick their fingers in its holy holes, and ponder them, and explain, explain, explain.
Vertigo is one of those especially sticky texts, the kind that magnetically compounds tremendous critical mass because it is such fertile soil for interpretation by dint of its imperfection. It has generated far more scholarship than, say, North by Northwest, which is in many aspects a much better film, I’m sure because Vertigo, with its plot riddled with holes and pivoting on several ridiculous coincidences, allows for more creative exegesis than a (more) straightforward, solid construction like North by Northwest. Precisely because it is so pockmarked with flaws, Vertigo is a text that gives the critic something to do.
In Madeleine E., Gabriel Blackwell—the character writing the book, not its author—opens up one of these gaping plot holes in Vertigo, something I remember thinking myself the first time I saw the film:
Earlier in my notes, I had wondered about how Elster could have gotten down and out of the tower unseen. I had wondered how Scottie, stricken by acrophobia such that he could not accompany Madeleine up the tower or move from the step when he saw her go past, could have gotten down. Nowhere did I wonder how Judy could have gotten down, but hers is the most unlikely escape of the three. Judy has been made up and dressed to look like the dead woman just discovered; she cannot be other than dead, must now act out that part, remain confined to the tower, unable to call out or move as though in a grave. If Elster is spotted, he might go unnoticed or unrecognized (no one knows how he is dressed, only Scottie knows what he looks like), invent some excuse or give a believable reason for his presence (“My answering service rang to tell me the police were looking for me”) but if Judy is spotted, all is lost. There can be no such coincidence or explanation for Judy, no blind spot in the crowd below—she looks like the dead woman and is costumed as her, and both of those facts are immediately apparent and infinitely suspicious.
I hadn’t seen Vertigo in at least ten years or so when I read Madeleine E., but I rewatched it the other night in preparation to write this piece, and noticed that this logic gap is rather lamely papered over at the end of the film, when Jimmy Stewart (Scottie) takes Kim Novak (Judy now dressed and made up again as Madeleine) back to the bell tower at the mission, and after revealing that he knows Judy was “Madeleine,” says, “You both hid behind there, mn?… till everything was clear… then sneaked down and drove back to the city.” So that explains it. Of course, in order for their getaway to have worked, Elster would have somehow known that Scottie would flee the scene before they could come back down from of the tower (and before anyone would bother to come looking up there). A few lines of dialogue above this in the last scene in the script, there’s this exchange:
SCOTTIE
And she was the one who died. Not you. The real wife. You were the copy, you were the counterfeit. Was she dead or alive when you got there?
JUDY
Dead. He’d broken her neck.
SCOTTIE
Took no chances, did he? And when you got there, he pushed her off the tower, was that it? But you were the one who screamed. Why did you scream? 
“Took no chances, did he?” Took no chances! This must be the most absurd line in the film.
Perhaps, though, the closer one reads any text, the more one approaches psychosis, paranoia. Like that woman who injects meaning into the continuity errors in The Shining. (“A paranoiac delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system,” Freud writes in Totem and Taboo.) But it’s a bit of a dry psychosis, a bean-counter’s paranoia, discontent to let art’s sounds and images—and the feelings they evoke—alone. To go about excavating the many logical problems with the plot of Vertigo not only leads to interpretive dead ends that Hitchcock correctly figured most viewers would be uninterested in arriving at, it also just feels like a banal and philistine way of looking at a work of art. It makes me feel like one of those “people” in that famous first line of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Critics who interrogate around the corners of the opaque mysteries in a work of art are not coming to a deeper understanding of it. They are trying to subdue it, as Sontag writes: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art comfortable, manageable.”
Watching Vertigo for the first time in many years the other night, I was surprised by the disquieting shiver I got when Judy emerges from the bathroom with her (again) newly blonde hair done in the same way as it was in the first half of the film, walking toward Scottie (the camera) in the hazy, sickeningly green light of the neon EMPIRE HOTEL sign buzzing just outside the window of the cheap apartment of this salesgirl from Kansas transplanted to San Francisco, and somehow enlisted by Gavin Elster into this complicated conspiracy. All that matters is what’s on the screen. What matters is on the screen, and the feeling it evokes at that moment—and that remains impervious to prying interpretation.
A work of interpretation is not at all what Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is. It is a novel—or rather, a mash-up of novel, essay, and collage of ideas. I don’t think there’s a word for this thing yet; perhaps one day when there are enough of them someone will invent one. Whatever we’ll call it, it handles ideas with a properly respectful mysticism, anxiety, and confusion.
Wallace Stegner wrote something on the subject of ideas in fiction, a metaphor so elegant that I’ve had it in my memory for the long time since I first read it: fiction should be a house “haunted by ideas, not inhabited by them; they should flit past the windows after dark, not fill the rooms.” Ideas by themselves, Stegner argues, are not dramatic, and they are a poor substitute for narrative when an author awkwardly shoves them, articulately expressed, into the mouths of his characters. The result is hokey and didactic. If you have fully formed ideas ready to reveal, then narrative art is not the best vehicle for them—just write an essay. But what art is good for is playing with ideas that are not fully formed, and maybe never will be. Art is an excellent medium for experimenting with things halfway between ideas and feelings, and Madeleine E. does this without banishing the intellect to the back of the house, as in a fable or allegory, or engaging in that philistine tiger-taming Sontag complained about, vainly attempting to mollify the foreboding at the heart of its subject matter (Vertigo), which as a genuine work of art resists all intellectual corralling.
The novel that glues the essay together in Madeleine E. is about a writer named Gabriel Blackwell starting and restarting and ultimately failing to write a book about Vertigo. The author of the book is aware of how this project mirrors Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a book about failing to write a book about D. H. Lawrence, which is why he quotes it frequently, but if the character in the interstitial novel is aware of this, I don’t think he ever says so. That character is aware of the theme of doppelgangers. He tries, and fails, to track down his own in San Francisco, and later stalks his wife’s double. Ideas float just barely visible through the discombobulating fog of narrative, essay, and quotation without ever being so disappointingly banal as to reveal themselves. It allows us to dully fear the shadows of objects without ever flicking on the light. Blackwell’s book engages in this tantalization while somehow simultaneously addressing it head-on intellectually, as when he quotes Pascal Bonitzer’s “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth”:
Specular space is on-screen space; it is everything we see on this screen. Off-screen space, blind space, is everything that moves (or wriggles) outside or under the surface of things … What is frightening is that it is not there! The point of horror resides in the blind space.
Madeleine E. is a work of art about interpretation that, to the frustration of its narrator, never quite manages to interpret, as it is not itself a religious revelation, but the horror in the blind space. - Benjamin Hale

Image result for Gabriel Blackwell, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men

Gabriel Blackwell, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men, Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013.





“It’s difficult to know if Blackwell is a sharp editor, a stone-faced ventriloquist, someone possessed by the ghost of Lovecraft, or all three. The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Man is a startling investigation of the evanescence of the self. It’s not so much that it will leave you changed as that it will leave you nameless and wandering.”- Brian Evenson







The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is fiendishly clever, endlessly byzantine, and brilliantly tongue-in-cheek-in-cheek. In this book, Blackwell has essentially invented a new genre, the inverted quest: having started at the Holy Grail, the seeker works his way backward into mental and spiritual derailment. Gabriel Blackwell tips his hat not only to Lovecraft, but also to Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, and anyone who’s ever explored the dark horrors (and humor) in the suffocating inferno of the self’s banalities.”- Amber Sparks

Gabriel Blackwell channels H.P. Lovecraft in The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men, an epistolary metafiction that serves as part of a trilogy of works connected by his earlier Shadow Man and Critique of Pure Reason. In the introduction, Blackwell reveals that he has set out to Providence, Rhode Island, to find his girlfriend, Jessica, who disappeared while he was finishing the writing of Shadow Man. During that trek to Providence, he discovers the final letter of H.P. Lovecraft and that last message comprises most of the book in a footnoted poioumena intertwining his own desperate search with Lovecraft’s pestilential descent into madness. This isn’t just a pastiche of Lovecraft though, who died of intestinal cancer and whose last years were the most painfully productive. The mystery takes on a bizarre twist when he discovers the letter is addressed to another Gabriel Blackwell. Horror gets deconstructed and Lovecraft is retrofitted in a work that is less concerned with categorization than the ‘dissolution’ of existence. Experience itself becomes suspect as does the scholarship of pain. Blackwell, the meta character in the book versus the actual author, is typing out Lovecraft’s final letter. But as he does so, he is faced with a troubling revelation:
That is, coming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed… This was undoubtedly made worse by the thicket of Lovecraft’s characters, by their lack of line breaks and paragraph breaks and even space between words, but it was also a quality of the prose. The events I was transcribing had not only not happened in life but not happened in the letter, either.”
It’s a setup for a mystery, a noir doused in elements of phantasmagoria with a magical lantern projecting Blackwell’s prose. The events described within are as gruesome and macabre as a Lovecraft story and in fact could be mistaken for one of his short stories. Horrible things are happening to the people in Lovecraft’s vicinity as in “this disgusting pile” that “was the remains of a man after he had been devoured and regurgitated by some horrid fungus or slime mold!” The grippe in his belly is devouring him from within and his mental state is corrupted into a decay and darkness that overwhelms his vision as much as his being:
This thing in the basement was some sort of central node, a convergence of nerves. It was dowered with dark properties and obedient to dark laws; darkness was its element as air is the cloud’s, as water is the sea’s- the clashing, gnashing plates of its existence, in all of their horrifying splendor, were not so much dark as in aspect as of the dark…”
What adds a twist and requires a philological scalpel are the footnotes Blackwell uses to annotate his transcription of the letter. Much of the notes involves further elaboration of the plot details he outlines in his introduction. But there are disturbing intimations that require deciphering, a linguistic sonar to extrapolate from the echoes of meta-Blackwell’s journey. As his pursuit of Jessica becomes more desperate, his physical plight degenerates in a downward progression similar to Lovecraft’s. He is starving, cold, and suffering anemia. His body gets soaked with ink to the point where he does not recognize himself. With his impoverishment, things only get worse:
I had a chronic inflammation around my anus- it itched all of the time and stung like a cut doused with hydrogen peroxide when wetted. I worried that I had soiled myself because of the wetness there, but always it was only blood.”
This is the hermeneutics of insanity with parallel tracks siphoning off one another. Two stories seem to be running concurrently between the letter and the footnotes. Together, the strands result in a mutation, a third form monstrously baring its fetid belly. Lovecraft dissolves into Blackwell, much like the fungus mysteriously consuming those around him. A 5th dimension is sucking both of them into an agonizing symbiosis that is as much about writing as it is a search for Jessica. Only the search never actually began and the writerly muses are discombobulated, decapitated, then vaporized into “fleeting-improvised men.” The craft of writing takes on a sinister epidemiology as the memory that Lovecraft wrote his best work under the threat of imminent death and intestinal cancer throbs uncomfortably. Meta-Blackwell quotes from Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness:
I cannot say with certainty who does the writing down. As I cannot imagine God’s omnipotence lacks all intelligence, I presume that the writing-down is done by creatures given human shape on distant celestial bodies after the manner of the fleeting-improvised men…”
Who is the real Blackwell? Who is the real Lovecraft? Both questions are rendered moot when the definition of ‘real’ becomes suspect and the boundaries of fiction and metafiction dissolve. The dissolution only appears natural, when in fact, it has a more ominous etiology lodged somewhere within the maddening brilliance of Gabriel Blackwell’s mind.
Is it possible to be in a fugue state within a fugue state? Is it possible to forget forgetting something without calling that thing to mind? My past “I”s have been erased from myself, replaced as 1s and 0s on a hard drive are, overlaid with new 1s and 0s that both supplant and destroy.” -


Part of the appeal of H. P. Lovecraft’s work is the sensed worlds (of teeming monstrous biology, creeping paranoia, undeniable nihilism) that lurk not so much within the text itself (famously verbose and weighted with archaisms as it is) but in the spaces between the flowery words and behind the formal lines. Lovecraft’s fiction is all about the suggestion, the hint, and that which we speak of when we speak of the unspeakable. To read Lovecraft is, in a lot of ways, to get what the man was about, under his surface veneer of genteel literary gentleman and scion of a decaying New England family. Under all that, well… horrors abound. Potent fears. Crippling anxieties.
All of which goes a long way to explain his continuing popularity well into the 21st Century, while the other, more successful pulp writers of his own time are all but lost to obscurity. Lovecraft somehow speaks to the current human condition. This is the Age of Crippling Anxiety, and Lovecraft is fast becoming its patron saint.
Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) taps into that pervasive feeling of alienation and helplessness that bleeds out crimson between HPL’s purple prose and infects the reader. And the manner in which Blackwell does it!
Here are the bare bones of the plot: Lovecraft did not die of a combination of bowel cancer and Bright’s Disease. Or rather, he did, but the illness was merely a symptom (and not the only one) of a foul existential contagion transmitted to him through a textual artefact, a letter from a deranged fan resident in an asylum. And the name of this secret priest of the Great Old Ones? Gabriel Blackwell.
Natural Dissolution… is the record of the author (the present-day Gabriel Blackwell) travelling to Providence to search for his vanished girlfriend (who may or may not actually exist), where he finds temporary work shredding old hospital documents. Among these he finds HPL’s file, and within that, he finds Lovecraft’s final hand-written letter to his fan/persecutor/killer, which details the effects of that Blackwell’s (no relation? Maybe. Maybe not…) letter to him, and the rapid slide into hallucination, madness, and disease it triggered in him. Effects which, as the author Blackwell soon learns during his own descent into madness, continue to transmit through Lovecraft’s own letter.
There are some marvelously descriptive passages in Natural Dissolution…, passages that deliver on the fevered promise of both Lovecraft’s fiction and psychedelic use: if we could only look deep enough into things, then all would be revealed. It’s William Blake’s doors of perception getting busted wide-open, only to reveal, not a spacious and infinite universe of light and reason, but a claustrophobic infinite regression of fractal foulness, mutating forms, and crushing psychological darkness. Lovecraft, who only thought he saw the truth at the bottom of things, finally sees it, and it kills him. Blackwell, who only wants to find his girlfriend, instead finds a twisted passage (through the transcription and translation of the letter) into the emptiness of his own existence. The final chapters, with his return to the West Coast (divested of the letter by a thoroughly Lovecraftian trope: the jostle/mugging by a dark stranger in an alleyway near the piers) and the half-life he left there, give the reader a final maddening coda: Gabriel Blackwell the Author is perhaps host to the personality of Gabriel Blackwell the Lovecraft correspondent, and evidence of another person or entity living in the apartment he rents (and has filled with hoarded material to become a maze-like mirror of his psyche) hints that doors through time and mind have been opened and will never shut.
That being said, Natural Dissolution is also funny as hell. There’s a real David Foster-Wallace feel to the narrative, a dry humour in the sorting of awful phenomena and altered perceptions. Much of the story is pieced together through footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes, reminding me of House of Leaves, but in a good way. And Blackwell hits the perfect tone for Lovecraft’s voice: plummy and self-assured at points, devolving into “my god, that hand! The window! The window!” fevered hysteria at others, but sympathetic at all times. It’s Lovecraft’s last letter, and it feels just so, which is an amazing accomplishment.
The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is far and away one of the better literary horror novels I’ve read. Witty, urbane, deranged and ultimately very unsettling. Highly recommended. - Scott R Jones


While reading The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men, Gabriel Blackwell's third novel out from Civil Coping Mechanisms, I have to admit that I lost track of time. This review, in that case, is perhaps unreliable.
I was stretched on a couch in a low-lighted room, frequently pausing the further I read. Not just because the book is good, which demands that the reader go ever more slowly, but also because it is hugely complex.
With its looping, funhouse architecture and infinite layers of shaky narration, The Natural Dissolution takes the meta-fictional premise that a person who may or may not be the author -- Blackwell himself is listed at the novel's "editor" -- has hopped a bus from Portland, OR to Providence, RI in search of his fiancée, Jessica Blackwell, who has recently left him. After taking a job at an old hospital where he's charged with the shredding of medical records, Blackwell discovers what would seem to be the last letter of H.P. Lovecraft, a notoriously un-cuddly horror writer who lived most of his life in the same city that Blackwell now wanders in search of his darling. As it happens, the letter itself is addressed to yet another third party named Gabriel Blackwell -- the actual Blackwell assumes, his ancestor, in response to a letter he's written. And it doesn't get any less trippy from there.
As Blackwell privileges us with a transcription of the letter, he annotates Lovecraft's last days on this earth, dwindling away from intestinal cancer, with his own de-familiarized rambles through Providence (he soon becomes a sort of bum). By the end of the novel this parallelism, achieved through footnotes that cut forward and back, creates a kind of two-way glass into which Blackwell and Lovecraft both stare, beholding each other's uncanny reflections.
But back to that time that I lost. Now where was I? I was lying, I think, in that low-lighted room. I was reading a part of the Lovecraft transcription where the fictional author begins to perceive what he describes as an "odd, husky, buzzing whisper" at inopportune times (an allusion to the sound that the farmer Ackerly hears in Lovecraft's story, "The Whisperer in the Darkness"). Pausing to wonder what that sounded like -- Blackwell, like Lovecraft himself, is a gorgeous abuser of imprecise language -- I gazed into the middle distance, absently stroking the top of the book. I came back to myself maybe five minutes later, or what I perceived at the time was five minutes. But on checking the clock a full hour had gone past, and I was still sitting there, stroking the book.
To read the book, in any way, is to experience its dread, its bottomless narrative dislocation. Like Brian Evenson or Thomas Bernhard, The Natural Dissolution is phenomenological, inviting the reader inside of its headspace. Its effect on the mind is to bend and unmoor it, to "leave [the reader]...wandering," as Evenson says in his blurb on the back. The sum-game of this -- in accordance with Lovecraft -- provokes a sort of cosmic terror, not from turning to gaze on the reaches of space but rather deep into the self. The fictional Lovecraft himself, too, succumbs to the chiaroscuro of being alive. "Darkness," he writes, "was everywhere... It was the thing that hid inside all of us, the shade that we carried with us to the well-lit space, the shadow we inevitably cast in the presence of brilliance. I could never escape this thing." While we hear from Blackwell, whose own experiences in Providence begin to eerily parallel Lovecraft's: "I was afraid of myself because I could not escape it, and so I blocked it, blacked it out." As in the works of Bernhard and Kafka and Lydia Davis, the book spirals inward, consuming its subjects.
The gist of the confluent plot lines is thus: Gabriel Blackwell, transcribing the letter, in which, he admits, he has "made some mistakes," saves its contents to an online file service. Lucky that he does, because soon he gets mugged and his laptop is stolen, along with the text of the letter itself. Blackwell informs us that the backed-up "version of the completed letter" is all that he has "access to" -- "...the physical letter was gone," Blackwell writes, "and, with it, all of my hope of corroboration." Meanwhile, the letter by Lovecraft describes the author's final days in Providence, living in a garret in the house of his aunt, and increasingly privy to dark entities whose provenance I'll not disclose.
Suffice to say, though, that the horrors that come are not unlike those found in Lovecraft's own fiction, itself obsessed with books and letters, especially found forbidden ones. Lovecraft himself confesses to us in a moment of shrill and Lovecraftian horror, describing the dark entities that he sees, "the plates and planes of the thing gradually became tentacles...a thing from my nightmares, a thing from my fiction."
Neither one of the narrators, Lovecraft or Blackwell, is ever lacking self-awareness. Nor are the two ever the least bit reliable: both of them equivocate, abandon themselves to full-blown paranoia, lose track of time that they never recover, see things that cannot -- that must not -- be real, and the layers of truth and untruth coincide with the narrators' worsening mental conditions. As Gabriel Blackwell lets us know at the beginning, but really the end of the book: "...though I spent a month in Providence mostly on foot, I could not draw you a map or even pick out where I had been. I might as well have been in any city at all." If you're thinking that this must get old, then you're right. But not in quite the way you think.
Granted, the branches of plot propagate through limitless empty and half-destroyed rooms, and the narrators ceaselessly question themselves at nearly every observation, playing gritty flaneurs to the city around them in a way that begins to belabor effect; and sometimes the writing becomes so abstract that we scarcely discern what it means anymore. And yet to indulge any one of these judgments would be to lose sight of the book's chief achievement: humanizing the racist and misanthrope, Lovecraft; elevating the tedious business of dying. The novel's mazes and abstractions, its layers and dissolutions, are reflective at last of the rote ceaselessness of Lovecraft dying in his bed, in whose mind intellect, fantasy, contemplation are all of them, painfully, draining away.
The Natural Dissolution is a puzzle-box, yeah. It's also elegiac and indelibly human. But I can't verify my impressions hereto. It's a masterpiece, sure, but don't take it from me.
This review of the book, after all, has meant nothing. - Adrian Van Young


Gabriel Blackwell’s new novel trades in dread, its “dissolution” a reprise of the chilling fade in his debut, Shadow Man (2012), yet the reading has its own pleasures, in particular the yelp of recognition: “All along my route these obscene shades climbed out of basements and storm drains or darted out of alleys… like an umbral army rousted from the crypts and mausoleums of Providence.”
The style of H.P. Lovecraft fits so comfortably here that anyone familiar with Blackwell’s previous novel will be all the more impressed.
Shadow Man likewise erased identity behind washes of language, but with the telegrammatic punch of noir. The change of key, this time out, reveals adept fingering.
Dissolution serves up a layer cake of terror and entrapment in which Lovecraft is merely the frosting. The novel follows the plan of Pale Fire, creating a text with commentary, and the author speaks from behind a doppelganger “Gabriel Blackwell,” impoverished by chasing a runaway girlfriend across the country to Providence. This narrator finds bottom-rung work, pulping papers, and stumbles across the last letter completed by Lovecraft (a legendary correspondent). More intriguing still, the letter’s addressed to yet another Gabriel Blackwell, care of an insane asylum.
The book in hand, then, combines Lovecraft’s letter, the mysterious correspondent, and Blackwell’s commentary — all three in downward spiral.
As for Lovecraft, he’s beset by an “umbral army” which may be deathbed hallucinations or may be the Eldritch itself, set loose somehow by the “Blackwell” to whom he’s writing. That’s the fun part, as I say: a parody of the “Master of the Weird” that itself sends shivers. Dissolution’s other two tumbles, however, prove less engaging.
The Blackwell working the paper shredder begins with the difficulties of Lovecraft’s manuscript: “The thicket of… characters, …their lack of line breaks….” In footnotes and endnotes, he does little besides reiterate such ambiguities. Even the mugging that robs him of the original amounts to another degree of unreliability. The robbery mirrors the Lovecraft letter, in that both narratives feature mutilation, and indeed this Blackwell turns into a horror story: “ink-smeared… a blistering blackened thing.” Neat as the correlation may be, though, it only takes us back to where we’ve been since the first, with both text and reader going to pieces.
As for the other Blackwell, the asylum inmate — his letter to Lovecraft apparently contained sketches of Cthulu creatures, and so triggered the final delirium.
It prompted the entire meta-exercise we’re reading via its echo of an earlier brilliant madman.
Daniel Schreber, a German judge from the turn of the previous century, published a notorious memoir of his psychotic break, and Blackwell’s novel takes its title from Schreber’s 1903 text, referenced explicitly in a couple of footnotes. Schreber too saw human beings as “fleeting-improvised,” dissolving, and so he provides yet another avatar for the “Darkness,” which in Blackwell’s novel is “a constant, hidden only to those who wished not to see it.”
The layer cake, that is, risks a lack of variety. A passion for the dark never hurt W.G. Sebald, to be sure, but then Sebald never allowed promising story possibilities to drop. Blackwell abandons such promise (a detective, a pregnancy) in favor of ruminations on his impossible paperwork.
On the other hand, he begins and ends in poverty and homelessness, and, really, is there a scarier thing of darkness? This novel’s richest passages — distinctive for more than wordplay — come when our commentator grapples with living down and out in 21st-Century America. There he finds the last work of a fascinating writer and, with next to no resources, he must try to forge meaning. The worst of the monsters haunting Dissolution is that of literature itself, fallen among the use-and-discard labor force. - John Domini

The conceit of this book is that the primary text is the lost, final letter written by H. P. Lovecraft days before his death. Lovecraft is known for his “weird fiction,” a name applied to gothic-style horror and supernatural stories beginning in the Victorian era and extending to Lovecraft, the undisputed master of the genre (with the possible exception of Poe) in the early part of the 20th Century. Lovecraft’s weird fiction is so iconic that not only did he reinvent the genre in many ways, but certain aspects of his fiction have entered into popular culture, for example his use of the vicious elder god Cthulu, which has been appropriated for everything from comic strips to tee-shirts to plush toys. Lovecraft is also known, to devotees, as having written over 100,000 letters in his short life—many of these letters have been collected and published—and so it’s not unusual that his final letter would be the subject of an analytical treatise, which is what Blackwell purports to present.
Structurally, the book contains three sections: an introduction in which Blackwell summarizes his finding of the letter, his “translation” of its difficult-to-read (and quite lengthy) text, his lifestyle and experiences during this, and the final calamity that lead to him losing the original copy of the letter, leaving him only his transcription. The second section is the letter itself, which runs to 137 pages, complete with footnotes which expand on Blackwell’s experiences with the letter and attempt to add insight on possible translation errors. The third section is a kind of afterword in which Blackwell gives broader stroke notes.
Written while Lovecraft lay dying of stomach cancer, the letter deals with a darkness so tangible it becomes sentient in its malevolence, but my simplistic interpretation doesn’t do justice to the story. The darkness attaches itself to Lovecraft’s stomach and seeps out to devour people, places, and any hope Lovecraft has for escape. The darkness allows Lovecraft to glimpse another world, though, or rather to better glimpse our world by giving him some insight into the fifth dimension. It’s disheartening that what he finds with this sight is death and mayhem. As he “translates” Lovecraft’s letter, Blackwell gains insight, as well, or rather slips into the darkness through the letter, but not to the extent of Lovecraft. It’s sort of like Lovecraft sneezed onto the letter and it made Blackwell a little sick, except the “sneeze” is really the ability to sense a dimension beyond space and time which connects us all with its malice-ridden tentacles. So Blackwell simply slips into the darkness, whereas Lovecraft bored full-tilt into it. Blackwell’s trek into darkness is precipitated by a breakup with a long-time girlfriend, which led him to Rhode Island where he found the letter.
The structural comparison to Nabokov’s Pale Fire arises immediately, and it’s warranted. Blackwell’s explanation of finding the letter, from the introduction, is difficult to accept, which Blackwell admits. Blackwell’s footnotes, which mirror the text of the letter in subject matter, if not style, add to the reader’s suspicions. Of course, this is Blackwell’s intent, and what he’s given us is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the master of weird fiction which mirrors his own character’s journey of heartbreak. One of the more enjoyable elements is Blackwell’s explanations about fallout from his first novel, whose authenticity was also challenged. (His first novel was a similar homage to pulp and noir books.) What we have, in the end, is an enjoyable, insightful novel that stretches the limits of what one might think the novel is capable of being. - C. L. Bledsoe

Gabriel Blackwell is emerging as one of our great formal innovators. What Gary Lutz has been doing at the level of sentences and words, Blackwell is doing at the level of stories, essays, and novels. In his first novel, Shadow Man, he offered a verbal collage of noir plots, characters, and authors. The short works in his second book, Critique of Pure Reason, regularly attacked their subjects from wild angles. His latest and best book to date, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013), is a dark, wondrous labyrinth fitting for the presentation of a fictional H.P. Lovecraft’s last letter.
The book appears to be a work of historical scholarship. The letter is preceded by a lengthy introduction, is accompanied by numerous footnotes, and is followed by more endnotes. But these materials do not supplement the letter with historical and biographical information on Lovecraft. Instead, they comprise the recent history of Blackwell’s eponymous narrator. The letter complements them.
The introduction takes up where Shadow Man’s “Editor’s Note” left off: with the disappearance of Blackwell’s fiancée Jessica. He follows her to Providence, but once there he quickly abandons the search for her in favor of a day labor job, shredding old medical documents several floors below the ground of a hospital. There he discovers, by the loveliest chance, a file for another Gabriel Blackwell. In that file, he discovers the all-important letter. It is addressed to his namesake.
It is, too, a 137-page, single-paragraph reply to this other Blackwell’s “accursed” letter. We never see that letter, but its words and diagrams have a peculiar effect on Lovecraft. He feels “drawn into the paper,” into a world in which his physical senses go off-line. Worse, after he recovers from that initial plunge, his old reality increasingly resembles a story he might have written. Cats explode and nurses dissolve. Black goop covers him and cannot be scrubbed away. In a particularly great passage, he is pursued by a conglomeration of shades which
climbed out of basements and storm drains or darted out of alleys and around blind corners faster than perception, like an umbral army rousted from the crypts and mausoleums of Providence, a rank of insubstantial and gelatinized specimens jumping about like a moving picture missing frames, their steps bent in the same direction I headed, never straying from the shadows that had birthed them and yet keeping pace with me in vigorous spurts of motion.
Lovecraft’sexperiences reflect Blackwell’s more literal dissolution, which is described in the footnotes. He ends up broke, eating out of dumpsters and having bloody stool. His work with documents leaves him covered with ink which he cannot wash off: “I wore the imprint of all of those words as a record on my person . . . After only a week of shredding, I seemed to have once been covered in imperfectly-removed tattoos . . . I had become a thing.”
Blackwell is a suitably darker Charles Kinbote. Both men are obsessed with their source material, but Blackwell has none of Kinbote’s joie de vivre. His frustration with Lovecraft’s letter is not emotional. It is tactile: “[C]oming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed.” While Kinbote fears that his smarmy colleagues will cheat him of his find, Blackwell ends up definitely mugged. That event costs him both his transcription and the original copy of the manuscript, and though he later recovers most of it from a server, he must piece together the last few pages from memory.
For both Lovecraft and Blackwell, then, words become physically awful things which cause physical suffering. Their reality extends to the visible opposition between the main text and the footnotes, as well as to the intimidating length and shape of the letter. It is vital to the novel’s structure. Words not only describe Blackwell’s dissolution, their very arrangement depicts that dissolution.
I have described this book as a labyrinth. One aspect of this labyrinth involves the relationship between Lovecraft and Blackwell. Another involves the relationship between the two Blackwells, a third the relationships between different sections of the book, and a fourth the relationship between the footnotes and the passages to which they refer. They may be described singly, but it would rob the book of its pleasure to untangle them. It is greater fun to be lost in the maze.
But readers have cause to doubt the maze even exists. The lack of an actual, authentic letter from Lovecraft means we must take Blackwell’s word for everything. Other holes in the story appear in the endnotes, where he says that he cannot remember his time in Providence. His written record—the one we have been reading—is the only documentation we have. We are asked to trust it. Because it is excellent, we do. - MARCUS PACTOR

First let me tell you what Gabriel Blackwell’s writing isn’t. There’s an insufferable new strain of fiction that has propagated since the internet started making research so easy. Writers who don’t really have anything to say can spend their writer’s block hours instead honing their web surfing skills and, by sheer happenstance, are bound to land upon some quirky thing that’s happening in some time or space they don’t understand, and suddenly they’ve stumbled upon settings and characters to torque and wrench and puff up with their own neuroses.
“Insufferable” is too strong. It’s the wrong word entirely. If the writer’s craft has been sufficiently workshop-burnished, they often succeed in – forgive the cliché – showing us a new world. We are entertained in largely the same way they were when they made their discovery. What is lost is the dedication, the discipline that a real fixation both requires and nurtures. What is lost is earning the right to tell that story. It leads to an output that feels schizophrenic and directionless. Writers become conduits of quirky factoids, become just another Buzzfeed.
Gabriel Blackwell’s writing is steeped in research, but it’s the kind of life-long, hard-earned research that wallows in the obsessions he can’t shake away. It was noire in his novel Shadowman, cannibalism in his story “An Interpretive History of Addition,” the Elephant Man in “A Model Made out of Card,” and now, in his new novel The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men…. Blackwell, too, has something cool he wants to show us, but his investment in the material is heftier than a momentary blip of excitement. He’s certain that his interests are important, and this certainty will awaken readers to our own kindred feelings of awe. Blackwell means business… do you?
Natural Dissolution is in many ways a sequel to Shadowman, continuing to follow the exploits of Blackwell’s fictionalized version of himself, an unreliable mess of a literary archaeologist. He’s kind of like a Dewey Decimal Indiana Jones – by which I mean that scene in Raiders where he’s drinking away Marion’s purported death in a shady Cairo bar. As Blackwell journeys to Providence to search for his fiancé Jessica, who we learn had split because of Blackwell’s hoarding habits, he stumbles around the nightmarish city on the edge of poverty, squalor, and exhaustion. His hallucinations and maladies begin to mirror those of Lovecraft at the end of his life, which are related through a letter Blackwell discovers amongst old hospital files he has been hired to shred en masse. Lovecraft’s letter appeared in the folder of one Gabriel Blackwell, who the reader is left to assume is an ancestor of present-day author, in response to a letter that ancestor Blackwell sent to Lovecraft, a letter that seems to be a portal to the fifth dimension. “I may have made some mistakes in the transcription,” (21) present-day Blackwell understates in one early footnote. “Coming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed… The events I was transcribing had not only not happened in life but not happened in the letter, either” (22). Both Lovecraft and Blackwell find themselves part of a Lovecraftian story, with sinister forces pressing in upon them. Blackwell gets mugged and has the original Lovecraft letter stolen from him, further leading the reader (and hesitant publishers) to question the document’s authenticity. The intestinal cancer that killed Lovecraft at forty-six is represented as an alien infection brought about by Lovecraft’s inadvertent dallying with a fifth-dimensional shadow creature and its cult.
As with the best books that use a dubious editor to call into question every word of a document, in particular Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a surreal moment is inevitable for any reader of Natural Dissolution: when you forget whose story you’re reading, Blackwell’s or Lovecraft’s, and the real versus fake version of both. The book thus infects readers just as Lovecraft’s letter does Blackwell, just as Blackwell’s ancestor’s letter did Lovecraft, calling into question the stability of the written word as a whole. One remarkable thing about Lovecraft’s stories is that they overload readers with details and trippiness to the point that they lull readers into thinking they can’t possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion – and then the last few pages have a driving momentum that solves the riddle while simultaneously leaving the reader gasping at lingering implications and doom. Both the story of Lovecraft’s last days and Blackwell’s search for Jessica and transcription of the letter frustrate this trend. We’re left with a lot of loose ends. For example, Blackwell’s “Introduction” hints that many of Lovecraft’s stories were forgeries; readers expect this to become a focal point for the plot, but it seems to just disappear. Rather than revealing a lack of deliberateness on Blackwell’s part, this tendency instead illustrates a mind and a genre of writing that have slipped the bounds of familiarity – perhaps even better than Lovecraft, as the answers to his cosmic mysteries can start to feel overly predetermined. “I had finally identified its source,” Blackwell’s Lovecraft writes of his fifth-dimensional plunging, “the long-familiar gremlin of my dreams and half-awake nightmares. It was that sense of familiarity with something so monstrous it could not possibly be familiar, that dissolution of affect, that had rendered the experience so terrifying to me” (139). Here Lovecraft becomes one of his own characters, particularly reminiscent of Henry Akeley in “The Whisperer in Darkness.” The thing about Lovecraft’s characters is that they desperately want you to believe them but desperately don’t want to believe themselves. Blackwell embodies this ambivalence in order to confuse the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, editor and author, sickness and inspiration. - Joe Sacksteder

I was interested when I was offered an advance review copy of The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men by Gabriel Blackwell. After all, though I hadn’t read Shadow Man, my familiarity with Blackwell’s Critique of Pure Reason suggested that I’d enjoy this new book. However, I hadn’t looked into The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men enough yet to realize that H.P. Lovecraft was somehow involved in the plot. If I had, I would have camped outside Blackwell’s door and refused to leave until he handed over a copy.
You have to understand, I’ve been a Lovecraft fanatic since I randomly decided to read a collection of mythos fiction I happened to find in my high school’s library back in 1991 (I don’t remember which collection specifically, though I do remember it was hardcover and had a hand with a mouth on it prominently displayed on the cover). After reading that collection, I devoured everything I could find: Lovecraft’s actual works, biographies about Lovecraft, fake versions of the Necronomicon, works by other authors in the mythos (though I came to despise anyone like August Derleth who screwed up the basic framework, changing the Old Ones into an old hat good and evil fight between Elder Gods and Outer Gods), anything. I even played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game and wrote my own (extremely bad) Lovecraftian stories when I ran out of more material to devour. My obsession has died down a bit in more recent years, but when I saw that  the subtitle of The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is “The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft,” it flared right back up again. I dug right in.
What I found was strange. I didn’t expect yet another mythos tale, but I wasn’t expecting a disintegrating quest novel. Inside there are multiple narrative threads intertwined with a meta narrative. A writer, purporting to be the actual Gabriel Blackwell, introduces what he believes to be a letter he found from Lovecraft. Though it starts out as an actual (though fictional) introduction, it quickly becomes an account of how he supposedly found the letter while searching for his girlfriend, who disappeared from Portland, in her hometown of Providence.
While searching, he takes a day labor job shredding old records in the basement of a hospital and comes across a file for a long dead patient coincidentally also named Gabriel Blackwell. In that file is supposedly a letter from Lovecraft, purportedly written to the unknown Gabriel Blackwell in response to a letter the unknown Blackwell had written to Lovecraft. Apparently, the unknown Blackwell’s letter had malevolent effects upon Lovecraft:
Dear Mr. Blackwell,
Given a last spur of energy by the bile the memory of your accursed letter has set off, I am writing to return the awful blight that it has visited upon me. I knew not whom you were when that mad thing appeared on my desk a month ago, but if I had known what was enclosed, I would have destroyed it without even unsealing the envelope. You end your inquiry with a wish for my continued health; I wish in this reply my haunted oblivion returned to sender. My horror and disgust at the thought of the dimming of the lights, my fierce loathing of the things the nurses innocently bring into our ward–these I wish upon you also, for you are the reason that I am here.
The narrator Blackwell presents a purportedly imperfectly transcribed version of Lovecraft’s letter, the transcription of which apparently had malevolent effects upon narrator Blackwell. Footnotes to the letter describe the narrator Blackwell’s disintegration during the transcription:
16 The subject matter of Lovecraft’s letter did not aid in reassuring me of my own sanity, obviously. Often, I had to read the passage in front of me five or six times and then transcribe it three or four times just to be sure that I was seeing what I was seeing. At least, that is what I remember about the process. That, and the stifling heat of the library, the hot-and-cold of the basement, the sweat that seemed to pour in black streams from my every pore, dripping onto the table, onto the keyboard, which had been white to begin with but had now become black, the keys almost indistinguishable from each other, the screen obscured in places by ink. My head swam almost constantly, and the letters, difficult enough to discern at rest, on the page, seemed to hover like heat-shimmer on the screen.
***
I must have eaten during this time, at least something, some time. I must have slept. I had vague memories like the last moments of dreams of waking alongside doors, out of the way of foot-traffic at the mouth of alleys, in the shade of benches and dumpsters, but I could not recall how I had come to lay myself down in those spaces, nor could I remember not being awake…I might indeed have been at a pole, might have been anywhere, but I was instead in Providence. Nothing was real.
Endnotes after the letter then detail further disintegrations of the narrator Blackwell, both before the trip to Providence and after.
The various narratives intertwined with the meta narrative exerted quite a pull on me, something akin to undertow–powerful and sinister. I felt drawn in similarly to how the narrator Blackwell is drawn into the purported Lovecraft letter and how Lovecraft was supposedly drawn into the unknown Blackwell’s letter. I had no more ability to choose to stop reading than they did, though I had no desire to do that anyway.
Looking at The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men as a whole, I have to admit that I adored it. Given the Lovecraft connection, the surreality of its claimed reality, the various levels of storyline, and so on, what’s not to love? The story is engaging and the form is intriguing. Let’s just hope that my curiosity in reading this book doesn’t result in the same fate that so many Lovecraftian heroes met when they encountered an eldritch tome. - David Atkinson




GabeFace
It started with a cover: a familiar detective-novel image slowly bleeding into the abstract. This was my first encounter with the work of Portland’s Gabriel Blackwell: picking up a copy of his Shadow Man after hearing good things about some then-recent readings he’d given in NYC. Subtitled “A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer,” Blackwell’s book creates a narrative out of the spaces in which noir‘s chroniclers and its characters overlap: a dense, thrilling work with hints of abused power and still-buried secrets. His collection Critique of Pure Reason contained work that bent the lines between fiction, history, and (at times) criticism; it’s nearly impossible to describe, but never less than compelling. I checked in with Blackwell to discuss his methods, his inspiration, and what works and histories might inspire his future projects. (Hint: one Howard Phillips Lovecraft makes an appearance, as does a certain storied British filmmaker.)
In an interview with The Lit Pub about Shadow Man and Critique of Pure Reason, you spoke about creating “parasitic works.” Where did this idea come from, and how did you end up arriving at it as your preferred method of writing?
It came from years of conversations, works of art, books, genes, etc., but that’s a vague and unsatisfying answer, so we’ll pretend it came from two specific sources. The first is Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which was, I think, my first extended exposure to recorded sound used as an instrument. At the time that I first heard it (age ten? eleven?), I don’t think that it registered that the samples I was hearing had any sort of story to them, any other context—the clip of Malcolm X, the air raid sirens and whistles, all of the noises the Bomb Squad used, it all seemed completely of a piece with the drums, bass, horns, and guitars of the JBs and Kool and the Gang. I mean, I knew that they weren’t just part of a song, but I didn’t know the original contexts of any of those sounds. And as I got older and discovered their original contexts, the album got more interesting, deeper, richer. Why wouldn’t you want to at least try to emulate that?
And then, some night many years later, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, it occurred to me that what I was laughing at wasn’t what was on the screen (some low-budget movie) nor what I was hearing (three people commenting on that movie) but the confluence of both. That idea doesn’t exactly sound momentous, but it happened to occur to me at a time when I was dissatisfied with what I was writing, and when I tried to replicate on the page the effect of a commentary on something already existing, I liked the result.
Your next book will incorporate H.P. Lovecraft. What attracted you to him as a figure? 
My next book is called The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft. It is the (heavily annotated) last letter that Lovecraft wrote before he died from stomach cancer. Like the biographies of the men in Shadow Man, Lovecraft’s fit the story I was writing, or the story I was writing changed in interesting ways to fit his biography. He was before his time not only in his fiction: he interacted with the world in a very virtual way, spending much of his time in his room writing letters to people he would never meet. That seemed applicable. And, of course, I am a fan of his stories. He’s much more Borgesian than he’s usually recognized as being.
Your story “Untitled” tells a deeply unsettling story through the act of describing the contents and composition of a single photograph. (I was reminded of Steven Millhauser’s “Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)” in places.) When telling a story like that, did you know from the outset that that would be the structure, or did you wind up arriving on that blend of form and content more through trial and error? 
“Untitled” began as a story called “Sid and Nancy Go to Hell,” which was a very different story with a very different form. It wasn’t very good. Sid and Nancy are really compelling subjects, though, so it stuck around. Maybe a year and a half later, I watched John Berger’s great series Ways of Seeing, and I saw that telling “Sid and Nancy” as a description of a static work of art would give it an interesting focus, a focus it had lacked to that point.
My concerns about form come from worry about why stories exist. People don’t tell stories to each other the way most writers write stories. People generally tell (written) stories in very oblique ways: in lab reports and legal briefs, contracts and small print, op-eds, emails, and memos. This makes stories that most people recognize as stories seem precious; they read like they ought to be under glass, in a museum (they sort of are, for most people—we read them on airplanes and beaches and otherwise steer clear of them). I like found forms because they still seem alive to me, and because I find them helpful in understanding a story’s reason for being. I don’t like to think of my fictions as ornament. I don’t think they’re frivolous, and so I don’t want to treat them that way.
Both Lovecraft’s work and Lovecraft himself have shown up in popular culture in various forms. When writing about him, did you make a conscious effort to avoid territory that might have already been covered?
No, not really. It isn’t part of my thinking, I guess. I’m more interested in just telling a story than I am in telling a story about Lovecraft or a story involving Lovecraft’s creations. Lovecraft’s work and Lovecraft’s biography are important to the book in the same way that any of the sentences that I’ve written for it are—they fit the story (or have come to fit the story, or the story has been interestingly altered by them). If someone out there has already used certain tropes in a similar way, that’s fine. Words, phrases, even whole sentences get used in the same way by different speakers all of the time—it’s what makes communication possible. Besides, claiming originality has always struck me as a little grand for what it is we do: our chemistry makes possible a certain set of responses to the world; our technology makes possible a certain set of methods of recording those responses. At this point in our history, only the latter is ever really new, and it’s not new for very long, and the novelty of such work is often its only virtue. I’m for refinement, which requires something already in existence.
Are there any other writers who you’ve considered for a similar narrative treatment to The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men or Shadow Man?
The book I’m working on now has to do with a work—Hitchcock’s Vertigo—rather than a person (although of course Hitchcock plays a part in it). It’s supposed to be a suspense novel, but it seems to have taken the form of a commonplace book—a collection of quotes from my reading, some interpolated stories, a few stray thoughts. I don’t know. We’ll see if it comes together, or if it even needs to come together.
Earlier, you’d talked a little about being inspired by sampling. What do you make of the work being done by writers like David Shields and Jonathan Lethem in terms of repurposing existing quotes and prose into new works? Do you feel as though the work that you do is in a similar vein, or takes that notion of sampling into a different area?
Shields’s books (the last three or four, anyway, the ones I’ve read) are basically commonplace books, so, naturally, I like them. Lethem I’ve read much less of. I loved his essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” but that may be the only thing of his I’ve ever read. As for my own work, I think I may be too nervous to just let a quote lie there. I mean, I have been, in the past. I’m trying to calm down, especially in the new book, to let my quotations and their new context speak for themselves occasionally, but it’s difficult to give up that kind of control. I always feel the need to mangle the things I appropriate, to mess them up or distort them or create (new) cause-and-effect out of them in some way in order to make them more story-like. I like story, even though I mostly feel incapable of telling it.
With respect to Vertigo, at what point did you realize that there was some quality present in the film that you wanted to turn into its own work?
In some ways, I haven’t yet reached (and may never reach) the point that you’re asking about; I hope that the book—even when finished, if it ever is finished—will be the beginning of a process rather than the end of one. The commonplace book is meant to be a searching toward a possible idea; the record of a thought process, not the result of one. I don’t know. We’ll see.
I can tell you that, before I started working on it, I was thinking generically: I’d written a noir (Shadow Man) and a horror novel (The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men), and I thought that I might as well follow them up with a suspense novel. Except that I ended up choosing a film instead; Vertigo stuck with me in a way that none of the books I’d read did. Part of the reason I seem to be writing this book is to find out why that is. I don’t really need much more to go on, I guess.




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Gabriel Blackwell, Critique of Pure Reason, Noemi Press, 2013.

"Unique and compelling as the very souls they depict—from the unknown to the famous to the infamous—these stories are wildly inventive, sly, astute. There's a bit of Sir Thomas Browne (Borges, too) for the twenty-first century in these wizardly, magical narratives. The notion of 'pure reason' has rarely had a more subtle, comical, yet deeply humane alchemist at work in the great lab of fiction than Gabriel Blackwell."—Bradford Morrow

"In CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, Gabriel Blackwell bends found forms to story, repurposes history, sets mathematics and a programmer's logic to generating emotion and wonder. This is the work of a talented storyteller slyly taking the stance of a documentary filmmaker, or else of a first-rate bureaucrat, perhaps rising quickly through our Ministry of Imagination—and with each new diagram and footnote and well-made sentence the philosopher in Blackwell provides us another piece of that most illusive of proofs, a verification of our shared humanity, captured here in all its absurdity and horror and glory."—Matt Bell

"Critique of Pure Reason is an ark captained by a mad genius who has summoned—from the depths of his wild imagination—a vast and stunning species of fictional forms and set them adrift upon a relentless flood. Cerebral, lyrical, mischievous, and hypnotic, these stories pulse with the focused urgency of creatures who, having survived an event of apocalyptic proportions, are now determined to thrive."-Matthew Vollmer

"Gabriel Blackwell's Critique of Pure Reason is a transgeneric textual labyrinth. Readers will take great pleasure in wandering these peculiar dark halls, encountering the shadows of Raymond Chandler, Sid Vicious, The Marx Brothers and David Lynch, to name a few."-Adam McOmber


I’ll read anything by Gabriel Blackwell at this point. I don’t know if this was just perception, or what, but it felt, in the 90s/00s, that there was much more interesting experimental stuff going on in fiction, which experimental stuff specifically tasked itself with wrestling through/into various forms (I may believe that simply because I came of readerly age at that time, so maybe I should just say that it felt like that in those years for me). I bring it up simply because Blackwell’s stuff is awesomely, interestingly experimental, but formally experimental: “Story (with Dog)” operates as a large-scale if-then set up (“IF a character A exists SUCH THAT character A is human AND is male AND has been vacationing in Yalta for a week and a half AND is married to a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows…” that’s the first bit of the first paragraph/sentence, which, yes, wraps up with a then). I guess the thing is that the title’s not cutesy: this is a book ultimately addressing or attempting to engage with aesthetic and emotional concerns through the bakery or shop or kiosk of math or logic or reason, and I’ll here cop to a pretty firm readerly hunger for such moves, and Blackwell (as he did with Shadow Man, which was a genre-breaking thing as well) delivers. Again. - Weston Cutter




There is a moment in Gabe Blackwell’s debut short story collection, Critique of Pure Reason, where the whole book threatens to eat itself. That moment is a seemingly inscrutable piece of prose called “Latitude 33° 11’ North, Longitude 40° 28’ West,” which is partially built around John Conway’s “The Game of Life” (not, mind you, the game of Life). See, the story includes these diagrams that coincide with the way that groups of cells evolve in Conway’s game, and between the diagrams is a narrative about Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated boat race and his boat, the Teignmouth Electron. I mean, what the fuck, right? When I read this story in Blackwell’s collection, I was dumbfounded. But then I did a little research and came back to the piece and suddenly the story was one of my favorites. All of Blackwell’s stories are rooted in forms and layered with references, ranging from the obscure to the archaic, but every time a story pretends that it might get away from us and, you know, eat itself, some brilliant notion or quiet beauty emerges and suddenly everything makes sense. Elsewhere, “A Night at the Opera,” in which the Marx Brothers are interrogated by the CIA, is both funny and unsettling.  “A Model Made out of Card…” partially explores the heartbreaking life of Rondo Hatton (who starred in The Brute Man, which was featured in an excellent episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), humanizing a man who, for many of us, only existed as a terrifying B-move actor. As I learned through my experience reading “Latitude 33° 11’ North, Longitude 40° 28’ West,” Blackwell’s work might sometimes require a little bit of work from the reader, but his stories never feel like work—in fact, these stories are thrilling thanks to the risks they take and the trust Blackwell puts in his readers.—James Brubaker




Another writer whose work I’d first encountered earlier this year is Portland’s Gabriel Blackwell. His Critique of Pure Reason gazes out imposingly, with a title that suggests philosophical history  and the potential of madness both. (Not surprisingly, Blackwell has a forthcoming book touching on H.P. Lovecraft.) Here, Blackwell uses nonfictional techniques to tell decidedly surreal accounts: one early work uses a Lawrence Wescheler-esque comparison of a contemporary photograph to centuries-old art to gradually unravel a sinister account of doppelgangers and conspiracy. There’s also a story of Raymond Chandler becoming enmeshed in a kind of proto-noir plotline that anticipates his book Shadow Man, as well as a discussion of David Lynch that slowly becomes an account of a much earlier attempt to tell the story of Joseph Merrick on film. It’s heady and often thrilling work, the satisfaction of the known giving way to gasps as expected borders begin to give way. - 

There is a moment in Gabe Blackwell’s debut short story collection, Critique of Pure Reason, where the whole book threatens to eat itself. That moment is a seemingly inscrutable piece of prose called “Latitude 33° 11’ North, Longitude 40° 28’ West,” which is partially built around John Conway’s “The Game of Life” (not, mind you, the game of Life). See, the story includes these diagrams that coincide with the way that groups of cells evolve in Conway’s game, and between the diagrams is a narrative about Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated boat race and his boat, the Teignmouth Electron. I mean, what the fuck, right? When I read this story in Blackwell’s collection, I was dumbfounded. But then I did a little research and came back to the piece and suddenly the story was one of my favorites. All of Blackwell’s stories are rooted in forms and layered with references, ranging from the obscure to the archaic, but every time a story pretends that it might get away from us and, you know, eat itself, some brilliant notion or quiet beauty emerges and suddenly everything makes sense. Elsewhere, “A Night at the Opera,” in which the Marx Brothers are interrogated by the CIA, is both funny and unsettling.  “A Model Made out of Card…” partially explores the heartbreaking life of Rondo Hatton (who starred in The Brute Man, which was featured in an excellent episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), humanizing a man who, for many of us, only existed as a terrifying B-move actor. As I learned through my experience reading “Latitude 33° 11’ North, Longitude 40° 28’ West,” Blackwell’s work might sometimes require a little bit of work from the reader, but his stories never feel like work—in fact, these stories are thrilling thanks to the risks they take and the trust Blackwell puts in his readers.
James Brubaker
- See more at: http://thefiddleback.com/_blog/Blog/post/Shit_We_Like,_412/#sthash.qcH5EbFO.dpuf
By naming his collection of short stories after one of the seminal philosophical texts of the last two thousand years, Gabriel Blackwell set the bar so high you’d need a telescope to see it.
In the original Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant sought to determine how much is knowable through reason alone, divorced from the evidence of past experience. He challenged the very idea of a priori knowledge, or what we think we already know, arguing that just because something happens the same way ten thousand times doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen the same way the ten-thousand-and-first time.
In this collection, Blackwell sets out to follow Kant’s logic to its literary conclusion. He reduces his stories to their most essential, knowable levels. By stripping them of the details that authors usually use to telegraph meaning through shared experience, accepted symbols or cultural/literary references, Blackwell forces readers to approach the page without any a priori conceptions. He tells a love story as a math problem, reduces an account of torture to a transcript, a play to a list of characters and their motivations. By silencing the static of literary tropes, characters or story lines that might remind readers of other things they’ve read and therefore set up expectations, Blackwell attempts to challenge the way we read a story in the same way Kant challenged the way we perceive the world, the number of assumptions we bring to any experience.
The philoso-literary experiment of Blackwell’s collection was most successful in a piece that consists of a description of a photograph that’s never shown. The description is meticulously, obsessively detailed, but is also convoluted and seems to contradict itself. Following along becomes a mental exercise for the reader trying to conjure a clear image of the photograph, and since the description meanders and doubles back on itself, the reader can’t skip ahead and fill in the blanks but has to build the image step by step along with the writing. It makes the reader slow down and think about their own reading, the conclusions they’re drawing and assumptions they’re making along the way.
Telling stories from a remove, through documents or notations, has the potential to abstract the subjects in a way that could make them clearer. It’s like the classic art class assignment of turning an image upside down to copy it, so that rather than drawing your a priori, preconceived concept of a face or a tree, you draw the shapes as you actually see them.
That clever extension of Kant’s philosophical principle seems to be at the heart of this collection, and it’s an admirable undertaking, but Blackwell doesn’t quite accomplish the mind-bending, a priori knowledge-challenging affect he seems to be going for. Somewhere along the way Blackwell loses sight of the great potential of his premise to serve as a foundation for great writing, and gets distracted playing with the device itself. In a way, Critique of Pure Reason reads more like a series of experiments, a book of templates for cheeky ways to tell stories, than like an actual collection of complete, finished stories.
Instead of serving as a starting point for the work, the clever idea is presented unadorned, as if its presence is enough to inspire adoration, rather like a date stripping naked upon entering your apartment without waiting for lights to be dimmed and wine to be poured.
These stories might have worked better if served up one at a time rather than together in a collection—there’s a fine line between cohesiveness and redundancy. Once the reader has figured out the game that Blackwell is playing they’re left wondering what more there is. The literary extension of Kant is fascinating, bold and clever in each story, but when they’re read one after another the luster fades with each new installment so that even a reader who’s excited and inspired during the first piece is likely to be frustrated and bored by the last, wondering why the same note is being played yet again, that sky-high bar still far out of sight. - Lilly O’Donnell



“A Night at the Opera,” the opening story in Gabriel Blackwell’s CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON (Noemi Press, 2012) takes the form of a post-9/11 Department of Justice (DOJ) memo on the sadistic interrogation of three suspected terrorists: Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx.  It is, quite simply, the most inventive and funny story I’ve read in the last few years.

Blackwell’s diction and form so closely mirrors what we’d expect in an actual Bush-era interrogation brief that I wouldn’t be surprised if bits and pieces were lifted verbatim from actual leaked memos.  I say this not to accuse Blackwell of plagiarism (he’s much too inventive to slouch to anything so prosaic) but to marvel at his tight, legalistic prose. 

“Evidence suggests that pressure on the heel [of a detainee] while held in this position causes chronic, fulgurant pain in the detainee when so held for the recommended 24 out of 28 hours.  Musculature of the leg must be kept tensed in this position to relieve pressure on the calcaneus, reducing the likelihood of the contravention of auxiliary protocol(s) and retarding decomposition and atrophy.

“[…] detainees may be held so immobilized for as much as 86 per cent of time under detention, or 24 out of 28 hours, with an upper limit of 28 out of 28 hours, provided detainees are given inadequate or nonexistent nutriment, a median ambient temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit is maintained, and all such periods occur consecutively.”


Go ahead.  Read those paragraphs over again.  An upper limit of 28 out of 28 hours?  Inadequate or nonexistent nutriment? Who amongst us would be surprised if this came from an actual US DOJ memo outlining the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees? 

 “A Night at the Opera” however is not just another humorless diatribe on Bush-era crimes, for it bristles with wit.  Blackwell is a master ventriloquist, nailing perfectly the Marx Brothers’ voices. 

Consider Groucho’s response when asked about how long he can undergo the above-mentioned enhanced interrogation techniques:
  “[Detainee Marx, Groucho reports that he could go 29 out of 28 hours if you gave him a head start and a broken clock; oh, and while you’re at it, he wants to see his lawyer; more than that, though, he wants to see the Cubs win one; more than that, though, he wants to see his wife again; more than that, he wants to see your wife again.]”
  Here’s Chico, adlibbing after his interrogators discuss “auxiliary protocols”:
  “[Detainee Marx, Chico reports he knows a pro to call, but she-a charge too much]”
  And Harpo, not to be outdone, appears as well:
  “Detainee Marx, Harpo, questioned separately and simultaneously, removed administrator’s headgear and attempted to set fire to it.”
  Now, I admit being a Marx Brothers aficionado, and it’s possible that people lacking a passing knowledge of their personas will be mystified by the story’s references, but the Marx Brothers’ shenanigans underscore the absurdity of what the real-life US DOJ was perpetrating.  Parts of the story work like a scientific lab report (à la George Saunders’s “93990”).  Overall, the story is chilling and, in its way, believable, a perfect piece of social commentary that both entertains and causes us to think of the greater issues at hand.
  I had hoped to review CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON (thoroughly solid collection that works in a myriad of modes, models, and styles) when it was first published but my relationship inexplicably collapsed at the outfit that I thought was going to run the review.
  Hell, Blackwell even redacts parts of the ersatz DOJ memo as the story progresses.  What’s not to like about that?
  ~~~
  A while back, shortly after reading CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, I fell into a bit of a depression.  “A Night at the Opera,” or, rather, the world’s failure to take notice of it, was the reason for my funk.  It galled me that the story hadn’t received greater acclaim.  It should have been reprinted in the major anthologies, talked about on countless lit blogs, been on the lips of everyone who cares about innovative fiction.  In short, it should have made a star out of Gabriel Blackwell.
  “A Night at the Opera” is a dazzling, dizzying whirlwind.  The story totally put me to sea.  As a writer who kids himself into believing he’s written a couple of half-decent stories, I was in awe of Blackwell’s talent.  I felt like one of Leonardo’s lesser contemporaries gandering a look La Gioconda for the first time and realizing, by comparison, the inadequacy of my talents.  I wanted to bow down before him and hail my hosannas.
  Reading this story again tonight, I felt that same dizzying respect.  Consider this blog post a hosanna.  And do yourself a favor: search out this story, and search out CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. - Nick Kocz


Joe Milazzo: Gabriel Blackwell and the Legacy of Metafiction


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Gabriel Blackwell, Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2012.

According to Dashiell Hammett, a shadow man is “meant to blend in, to disappear by being always there.” Hammett knew something about disappearing. Behind the shadows thrown by “Miles Archer,” his fictional detective, was a very real detective—his partner in San Francisco, Lewis Miles Archer, a private detective so private that, when he went missing in February of 1929, no one even thought to look for him. Shadow Man is the biography of the silhouette Hammett, as well as Raymond Chandler and even Ross Macdonald, eventually filled in, a man who was always there. Until he wasn’t.


“Shadow Man is a stylish, metaphysical romp through a noir labyrinth. It manages to do for the hardboiled classics what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead did for Hamlet.” —Jedediah Berry

“Shadow Man’s project is to unnerve biography’s careless assumptions about selfhood and historical knowledge. The real detective work involved in in this bright, complex, comic, melancholy critifiction about the epistemological static at the nexus of art and the rest reveals itself in the intriguing chess game the reader is asked to play on every page with the puckish meta-author.”—Lance Olsen

“Borges warns us of ‘the contamination of reality by dream,’ and with that in mind, Gabriel Blackwell’s infectious book drives us out of our minds, defying quarantine, plum crazy on Plum Island. The narrative genetics of this nonfiction fiction is masterfully mosaic. Rules are all busted and bested. Shadow Man is sicker than sick but in a good way, in the best way.” - Michael Martone

“In Shadow Man, Gabriel Blackwell stakes his claim as conductor and curator extraordinaire of shadows textual, characterological, and historical. Raising the language of noir to the nth power, and serving up a plot that might lead Ray Chandler to hang a white flag on his carriage return, Shadow Man rewards its reader richly in style, substance, and insubstance. Brace yourself to shadow Blackwell as he charts the fraught, frayed boundaries between fact and fiction, but also to lose yourself delightedly in the murky, twisting alleyways of this book.”  —Tim Horvath

Part sophisticated pastiche: a hardboiled egg painted a pulpy purple; part metafictional play employing the supposed objectivities of historiography; Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer is both a generous homage to classic detective fiction and an incisive critique of same, employing the genre’s detached and cynical narratological tone and style to, yes, evoke tension and apprehension, but to also displace those affects and effects. Blackwell is an artful ventriloquist, demonstrating in this fake-biography a sharp and muscular command of the hip argot of the so-called golden age of Hollywood noir films and American pulp fiction, a lingo as invented as it was inventive, a hyper-mediated discourse of various African- and Jewish-American discourses. True to the genres it circumvents, the text explodes with rapid-fire repartee, double-entendres, and incredibly elastic metaphorizing. A tangled tale of moral ambiguity, of the muddle that is human agency, it questions and complicates the dialectic of good and evil, presents historicizing as an overdetermined act, an act vitiated by various ethical, political, philosophical, and psychological subjectivities.
I also read Shadow Man as a post-genre intervention in conversation with texts like Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Robert Coover’s Noir, as well as various texts by Brian Evenson and Alain Robbe-Grillet, which all engage with the tropes of crime and detective fiction in manners which foreground not only the artifice of the genre’s narrative architectonics but also deep investigations of epistemological and ontological dilemmas.
Actually, Shadow Man might be thought of as a post-post-genre text, that is, an open text that quietly takes textual fusion and indeterminate structures not for granted, but as a part of the history of literary discourse offering further opportunities for provocative, productive disruption. - John Madera


The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is subtitled “The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft,” and is offered to us as a letter putatively written by Lovecraft a few days before his death, along with an introduction by the man who claims to have found it (“Gabriel Blackwell”), a series of annotations, and a few extended endnotes. Although readers could certainly find this “novel” successful and satisfying on its own, reading it in tandem with Blackwell’s previous novel, Shadow Man (2012) may help clarify the aesthetic assumptions behind both. Considering the two books together confirms that what otherwise seems in each a kind of clever mimicry of genre conventions or of a particular writer’s prose style is really just the most visible manifestation of a more deliberate and comprehensive literary strategy. This strategy could loosely be described as one of “appropriation,” but in Blackwell’s fiction the simple act of appropriating other writers and their work is not finally the ultimate aim. Instead, these writers provide the material with which Blackwell creates new work using recognizable elements of fiction, even if what results still begins with what others have already written.
The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men’s most impressive achievement is its persuasive impersonation of Lovecraft’s style, complete with Lovecraft’s signature stylistic effects: the breathless cadences, melodramatic descriptions, and often stilted diction. Here “Lovecraft” describes a man he encounters in a hospital waiting room:
My neighbor turned to me as I sat, looking at me full in the face, though rather more at my forehead than at my eyes. I would have ventured some conversation were it not at that moment his mouth dropped open, and, expecting something to come out, I stayed silent. When nothing did and I had realized that nothing was likely to, enough of an interval had passed that it seemed wrong somehow to speak, and so I did not, trying to turn away but feeling his glare. Shortly, a kind of low, whining ululation began to emanate from the man’s throat, neither building nor lessening in volume. Nervous, I scrabbled about in my pockets, to no purpose at all. The second nurse suddenly appeared on my right side and gently pulled my arm, signaling that I ought to go with her. I was only too glad to do so . . .
Likewise, in Shadow Man, Blackwell channels the hard-bitten, wised-up prose style of classic detective fiction in authoring a “biography” of Lewis Miles Archer, purportedly the real-life detective on which Dashiell Hammett’s “Miles Archer” was based (himself a character to whom Ross McDonald’s “Lew Archer” was subsequently a clear homage). Both Hammett and Raymond Chandler make appearances in this account, and much of the plot concerns people and events that readers of Chandler’s The Big Sleep will immediately recognize. (Ultimately we are to believe that Archer is the prototype of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.)
If a common complaint about “experimental fiction” is that it too readily turns its back on the traditional readerly pleasures provided by narrative, voice, and character, both of these novels parry this objection by providing plenty of each. Shadow Man features the same sort of labyrinthine plot found in Chandler’s fiction, which appeals through its very complications and sudden twists, while Natural Dissolution adds to the horror narrative embedded in the Lovecraft letter another narrative strand relating the circumstances by which the letter came into Gabriel Blackwell’s possession. This narrative emerges through the annotations to the letter, and eventually the two stories almost merge, each of them a story of “dissolution”—Lovecraft’s into the hallucinations preceding his death (induced no doubt by the undiagnosed cancer that killed him), Blackwell’s into ennui and debilitation after his girlfriend leaves him. Thus not only does The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men highlight story, but reinforces its centrality by drawing the reader’s attention to the parallels between its twin narratives.
Clearly, however, Blackwell’s storytelling is still not an ordinary kind of storytelling, concerned as it seems to be with reiterating existing styles, narrative practices, and even characters. This approach involves an inherent risk: Although Blackwell’s simulations of a Chandler novel and a Lovecraft tale are very skillfully realized, and part of the enjoyment of reading is in appreciating his rendering of Lovecraft’s prose style and his reproduction of the typical features of a Lovecraft story, readers who have not read much, if any, of Lovecraft’s fiction will necessarily be less able to experience the full effect of Blackwell’s performance. The fictional narrative taking up most of the Lovecraft letter has enough of the menacing, metaphysical horror and quasi-psychedelic imagery characteristic of Lovecraft’s better stories that even these uninitiated readers can still find the story of H.P. Lovecraft’s disintegration compelling, especially in its increasing resonance with Gabriel Blackwell’s descent into his own hellish circumstances, both of them becoming the story of “fleeting-improvised-men.” Nevertheless, the risk that readers who are familiar with Lovecraft’s work will inevitably be more aware both of Blackwell’s strategy and his accomplishment in creatively appropriating that work is one Blackwell is venturesome enough to take.
Both Shadow Man and Natural Dissolution are appropriations of genre fiction, and one might say that Blackwell has taken the tendency among some contemporary writers to incorporate elements of genre to a literal and logical extreme, exhibiting a relationship to genre conventions that goes beyond homage or assimilation and might even be called parasitical. While surely Blackwell is an admirer of the genres (and authors) from which his novels borrow, neither work is really very far from parody or satire. This tongue-in-cheek tone is part of what makes these novels appealing, and the distance it creates between the invented narrative and its underlying source prevents them from becoming versions of “fan fiction.” Ultimately, neither book toys with the elements of genre per se, or with the specific conventions of detective and horror fiction, so much as they use these particular genres to create a fictional world, second-hand, out of fiction, to fashion alternative forms of storytelling from the shards of conventional storytelling.
In this way, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men could certainly be called a work of “metafiction”; if anything, it is more radically “fiction about fiction” than the work of those first identified as writers of metafiction—Barth, Sorrentino, et al. Self-reflexivity as practiced by these writers was meant to disrupt the reader’s suspension of disbelief, reminding us we are reading fiction, with all of its artificial devices. Blackwell’s novel doesn’t ask us to be mindful of the distinction between fiction and reality. Instead it invites us into a fictional creation we already know to be blatantly artificial. However much “the last letter of H.P. Lovecraft” is framed through circumstances meant to vouch for its authenticity, and despite the quasi-scholarly tone of the introduction, no readers are likely to assume the letter is real and thus to accept the accompanying account of the hardships faced by “Gabriel Blackwell” as anything other than an invention. One could say that The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men asks the reader to suspend the inclination to believe—that what we are reading could at some fundamental level “really happen,” or that the experiences related must in some way reflect the author’s own.
In explaining his own turn to metafiction, John Barth invoked what he called “the literature of exhaustion,” a kind of fiction that proceeded on the assumption that the received conventions of fiction had been “used up” and that the task facing the adventurous writer was to find a way to create something new out of the very “exhaustion” of fiction’s traditional resources. Barth himself did this by always reminding the reader that the imperatives of storytelling are not the imperatives of life, that the former should not be constrained by the latter. Gabriel Blackwell accepts this task as well, perhaps even taking its potential a step farther, a step toward his own version of what John Barth also called the “literature of replenishment.” Shadow Man and The Natural Dissolution of Fleeing-Improvised-Men pretend to give up on the possibility of telling new stories in fiction and instead recycle elements of “old” fiction—but in the process, paradoxically they produce something new, after all. - Daniel Green



Is there a form called smart noir? There should be. In Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, published by Civil Coping Mechanisms, Gabriel Blackwell both conducts and writes the story. As the meta-writer and the meta-detective, he’s inside what happens, and outside, all at the same time. Blackwell claims, rather coyly, to be the “editor” of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, and he is listed as such on the cover. But like a savvy gumshoe, Blackwell is too humble—and too sneaky—to list his skills upfront. His project is to blur lines between fiction and nonfiction; genre and form; noir and innovation.
We should consider ourselves forewarned meta-readers because Blackwell, as editor of this book, as author and researcher, is the ultimate shadow man. Blackwell disappears into the story and lets us know that he will be seen—and not seen:
It’s easy enough to be seen when you want to be. Easy enough, too, to not be seen, if that’s what you’re after. But to be both at the same time? It’s like someone telling you to act natural, or not think of a pink elephant.
We read to name that “pink elephant” in the room and, in the manner of noir, to find that missing femme fatale in the bar. The reader’s suspicious impulse might be to sit with the book and with Google, to search what is fiction, nonfiction, or imagination. We are inside the story as it unravels and outside the story as it is revealed. The story becomes confounding, like “a maze”:
A maze, maybe. The trick to a maze is, you keep your hand on the outside wall and you can’t go wrong. But that only works if you know which wall is the outside wall. And if you start the minute you step in.
I soon gave up the inter-textual Google approach to reading Blackwell and let myself be drawn into the cheeky editor’s devilish and impish fun. Those who are unseen and unknown are often the characters of literature that might reveal the most, were we to bother to ask. Blackwell bothers. He uses this knowledge, his questions, to great effect, illuminating a man who existed and didn’t exist, someone who disappeared with nary a backward glance.
Shadow Man takes as its cue Dashiell Hammett’s fictional detective Miles Archer, and jazz riffs off of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, too. Nevertheless, before you think you must be familiar with works by those three, consider that I’m not all that familiar with noir, and I found myself thoroughly, willfully engaged. Submerged.
The reader’s project might be similar to investigators who uncover eyewitnesses. The reader uncovers characters and characterizations. The book shadows (that word again!) the character Archer through different appearances. If we are all dicks (detectives, I mean), then our tracking is perpetual: Our reading goes on, detective-like, tracking femme fatales, missing falcons, and Archer.
Dashiell Hammett used a fictional detective, “Miles Archer,” but Blackwell illuminates the fictional with the real dick behind the story, Lewis Miles Archer, who was Hammett’s partner and a real detective. I’m a fan of union history, so the references to Pinkertons thrilled me (and seemed prescient to our times with the recent union-busting laws in Wisconsin and Michigan). Archer writes in his detective’s notebook, which is included in Shadow Man, and thus gives us more reading clues: “It’s all up front. Everything’s a front.”
Blackwell’s exhaustive noir knowledge of “no-name Joes, guys with names that mean bunk” means that we are in the hands of a gleeful guy. Blackwell is our leading private eye:
Which leaves Archer out in the cold, on Union Square in mid-December with no hearth to go home to. Hammett’s account of the events after Archer’s murder in The Maltese Falcon doesn’t exactly paint Hammett in the stained glass as the White Knight, so there’s probably some truth to it. In the novel, Hammett gets wrapped around Iva Archer’s little finger, turns the bird over to the police, and lets Wonderley flap in the breeze.
The girl stays out of the picture—that’s for sure. Daddy’s money takes care of that.
Again, one feels the impulse to fit the pieces together to follow this detective author, but even that impulse—to make sense of literature or to make literature make sense—is rightly questioned in Blackwell’s astute hands. To create Lewis Miles Archer, Blackwell borrows from Hammett. The momentum behind The Maltese Falcon forms the genesis of Shadow Man. Then Blackwell creates. He conflates. Blackwell borrows from Raymond Chandler, from Ross Macdonald.
Blackwell challenges our desire to build character through illumination, filling in the animus not by erasing the past but by including the past and adding to it. Recall one of the Latin quotes at the start of Shadow Man that tells us that “although changed, [he] shall arise again.” The story here, although changed, rises again. Built on narrative history, it’s also built on its own beginnings:
Using the chopsticks of Archer Investigations’ Chandler/falcon file, along with the few scribblings that are left on the case in Archer’s notebook, we can start to pick apart the Angler’s loop that Hammett manages to make out of The Maltese Falcon.
While creation arises from imagination, the source of imagination might be uncannily familiar. We are literary cannibals, all. The mystery forms the wicked fun of this meta-critical project—but Shadow Man stands on its own, aside from its meta-critical inquiry. After all, as Blackwell writes:
The best place for a pigeon that’s delivered its last message is a shoebox under the roses. In this case, the Hall of Justice, in a police evidence locker right along with all of the other three-legged stool pigeons, drowned rats, and crushed bugs, where no one with half a brain would ever think to look, and only the half-witted have keys.
It’s noir, it’s your shadow, it’s Borges’s interweaving maze-like blindness. Let narrative loose under klieg lights and watch narrative lose its mystery. Keep narrative shrouded in a dusky haze, and let narrative reclaim its mystery—of form, of story, of meaning. - Renée E. D’Aoust



                               EXCERPT:
Lewis Miles Archer, or anyhow the man known to creditors and clients as Lewis Miles Archer for just long enough to build up a respectable sheet of both, was born sometime between 1879 and 1888, somewhere in the shadow of Lake Michigan. That’s a hole wide enough for a boxcar full of babies to fall through, sure, but then the first time that that name, “Lewis Miles Archer,” rears its salt-and- pepper head in the public record isn’t until 1928, a full forty years later, and on the West Coast. Like a tramp holding two pieces of bread and praying for cheese, it would be nice to have something to put there in between, but the man’s history before 1928 is like wet tissue paper—try to pick it up and watch it disappear.
In those forty-odd years, this great nation was dragged into the Great War and then managed to drag itself into the Great Mistake, Prohibition. It’s hard to know which was worse; at least we could blame someone else for the war. We elected a Roosevelt twice, a Coolidge once, and a Debs not at all, which didn’t stop the man from trying four times. The Chicago White Sox dyed their footwear black for a season, the Bums from Brooklyn couldn’t buy a World Series, and the Red Sox sold the greatest player in the game for a box of cigars and a play called My Lady Friends. The boardwalks of America went from sawdust and nickelodeons to Al Jolson and Lights of New York, while the airstrips went from Wilbur and Orville to Charles and Amelia. Things changed from day to day, and people learned to keep up, or else they didn’t. The ones that didn’t were called “suckers.”
Lewis Miles Archer’s birth doesn’t feature in any of the history books, but sometimes the suckers write books, too. In 1879, a boy named John Macdonald Millar was born in Kitchener, Ontario to a family of Scots. Another boy, Raymond Thornton Chandler, was born just a few hours away, in Chicago, Illinois, in 1888. Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born a few years later still, in 1894, in Maryland. Somewhere in between, our boy, Archer, breathed his first; at least, that’s the best guess anybody’s come up with so far. All four men, Hammett, Millar, Chandler and Archer, would be in San Francisco by the time the lanterns got hung out on Market Street to celebrate the ringing in of 1928. Only Hammett would be left when those lanterns went back up to herald 1929.
In that year, “Archer Investigations” is listed in the San Francisco directory at 111 Sutter Street, the Hunter-Dulin Building. It would be gone before the year was up, replaced by an insurance outfit, “L.D. Walgreen’s Family Insurance Company.” The tea leaves of public documents from that single year, 1928, are the only solid evidence that the man existed at all, and even there, there aren’t that many clues as to the man he was. There is no “Archer, Lewis Miles” listed in any of the city directories from that year or any other, and Archer’s name appears only twice in the public record: once on a marriage certificate, and once on the business lease of the office space on Sutter. Back then, all you needed was a signature and ready cash, and you were in business. Archer had a signature and ready cash, and Archer Investigations was in business.







Wonderfully, you have two books coming out back to back–Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM) and Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi)–what’s going on behind the scenes? Is it hectic managing the release of two books?
It’s maybe appropriate that these two books are both coming out at roughly the same time; I wrote them more or less in parallel. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with them now that they’re almost here. I really have no one but myself to blame. I make my own work—nothing that I’m doing now is “required,” and I could probably just be taking it easy and letting things play out the way they’re going to anyway. But I can’t bear leaving things entirely up to chance. I don’t know if there is an ideal reader for either book, but if there is, I want the book to find her, somehow. I only know how I find books to read, so I’m trying to do the kind of things that would get my own attention; presumably, I’ll find other readers like myself. You can see the problem—doing things in this myopic kind of way is very limiting. Fortunately, I’ve had a number of really kind, really generous people help me out and offer opportunities that I wouldn’t have thought to ask for, and maybe together we’ll get the books into people’s hands.
Did you find any similar obstacles while working on both of these books? Was one harder to write than the other? What were the differences or similarities in the experiences of working on one book compared to the other?
Critique of Pure Reason seems the easier of the two now because it was mostly done by the time that I realized that it was an it. At that point, I had been working on what it would be for four years, and all but three of the pieces had been published or accepted for publication. My work on it last spring leading up to me sending it to Mike Meginnis at Noemi was a matter of putting the various parts together in a way that made meaning out of the whole. But thinking about it in that way discounts the four years of work that went into its components. It’s deceptive, I mean, but when I think about Critique as a book, that’s usually what I think about—the process of ordering it, rather than the process of composing it.
Shadow Man was very different. It felt difficult throughout because of how complex it ended up being, and because of how concentrated my work on it had been by comparison with Critique. By the end of my revision process, I was reading through the entire book each time I changed a line, just to make sure what I was changing wouldn’t disturb something earlier on. I sat at my desk for ten, eleven hours at a stretch. I gave myself acid reflux. I had to sleep sitting up for weeks. It was not something I would do again, except that I probably would.
While writing, editing, and revising–what did you learn about the process? What stuck out to you that you hadn’t thought about before?
I learned as much in the two years I worked on Shadow Man as I did in the two years I spent in graduate school. Maybe more. There’s no substitute for creating and revising something so sustained. It is its own pedagogy. But, because I finished it very early in 2011, and because I’ve since finished another book (The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men), I’m not sure that I can remember specifically what I learned while writing Shadow Man. I learned how to write Shadow Man, and I would guess that all of what I learned is on its pages somehow. Very little of that learning carried over to NDFIM. Even the processes of composition were radically different—I wrote my first draft of Shadow Man in three weeks or so; it took me more than a year to complete a draft of NDFIM.
Just by reading the excerpts of your upcoming works, it looks like there was some heavy research being done (in particular, Shadow Man)–how did this play a role in your works?
I’m not a big fan of hermetic stories or novels, honestly. I prefer work that has something to say to the world around it, that acknowledges that it will never really get its readers’ undivided attentions. I try to create parasitic works, building on others’ creations—not just acknowledging the reader’s life outside of the book but (so I hope) pointing in fruitful directions for his or her distraction. Obviously, I have to know something of those other creations if that’s going to be successful, so I do research.
You have so much going on–your own writing, teaching, being the reviews editor for The Collagist, writing for Big Other, and you do so much more–how do you manage your time? What is your schedule like when you’re writing?
This isn’t a life that I would have wished on my younger self, but it seems fine for now. I learned late how dedicated I needed to be to be a writer I’d want to read, and I feel like I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. There is no substitute for working with language on a daily basis, even if it isn’t your own; honestly, it seems better to me that it isn’t my own, often. I don’t need to be more prolific (though there are plenty of writers who are, and who are fine writers), so, even though my work for The Collagist or Big Other takes away from my typing time, I don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. I think I’d prefer that I was different from story to story, and that seems to me to require that time passes. If I can spend that time working with language, all the better.
As for my schedule, it varies a little. When I’m typing something, I usually get up early and write before work so that I can spend the late afternoon/evening taking care of my other responsibilities. If I put those off for too long, they take over my schedule and it becomes difficult to find time to write. So I have to be very disciplined. I very rarely take a day off, but I don’t think that makes me different from most of the writers I know—like I said, it seems necessary to be working with language in some way every single day. The few times I’ve tried to “do nothing” for a day have been disasters.
What’s it like being a reviews editor?
There are substantial rewards—I get to work with some really smart writers, find out about books and publishers I never would have known about otherwise, and help get the word out about some really great books. I don’t know if it’s perfect for me or if I’ve perfectly adapted myself to it, but either way, it feels completely natural now, two years into it.
Do you have any book recommendations? What have you been reading lately? What are you looking forward to checking out?
I’ve been so pressed for time lately that I read while walking the dog—I read Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, Amber Sparks’s May We Shed These Human Bodies, and Brian Carr’s Vampire Conditions walking around my neighborhood—and I’m doing research for a new book, so most of what I read at home isn’t exactly by choice. But I’m trying to make time for Michele Disler’s [Bond, James], Mike Kitchell’s Variations on the Sun, Kellie Wells’s Fat Girl, Terrestrial, Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat, and Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones.
Who are some authors you find yourself admiring? Why? What is it about them or their works that appeal to you?
This seems like a question whose answer would get out of hand in less than a sentence, so I’ll just say that I seem to have totems for each book I write, and for this latest one, those totems are David Markson and Christopher Priest. I’m not sure what that means or if it means anything at all.
What about journals? Which ones do you find yourself reading regularly?
I read Conjunctions cover to cover. I also look forward to new issues of DIAGRAM, [out of nothing], Puerto del Sol, Tin House, Black Clock,and Artifice. And I’m really looking forward to the second issues of two new magazines, Uncanny Valley and Unstuck. I’m sure I’m forgetting dozens of others. - Interview by 

Author Conversation: Gabriel Blackwell and Robert Kloss





In this new series, we’re going to pair authors together and have them discuss anything and everything that authors discuss. In this inaugural conversation, Gabriel Blackwell and Robert Kloss discuss the similarities between their books, historical nonfiction, blurbing, and more.

Gabriel Blackwell: “Historical fiction” seems naïve to me even as a concept, and I’m allergic to categorization. But if there is anything in Amazon’s sales algorithm to connect our books, it would have to be that, right? That we’re both exploring/appropriating history in our fictions? So, why bother with the historical? I mean, the Greely expedition happened. The Civil War happened. Lincoln’s assassination happened. Why write about them or around them? Why not just make something up out of whole cloth, set it in the present, set it in the future, Middle Earth?
Robert Kloss: I always liked books like Reed’s Flight into Canada and Coover’s The Public Burning—historical satires. But that’s not the kind of novel I set out to write. And, in most ways, it’s not the kind of book I did write, although I think that’s the most obvious part of my book. It kind of just happened. I set out to write about a man’s fear of mortality and his extreme grief and that led my to Lincoln’s morbid grief over his son’s death. The Civil War then seemed like a natural subject—it allowed me to dig into personal griefs in an epic way, while also letting me make a kind of broad comment about American past and present. But the historical side of the novel emerged very organically out of the more imaginative side of the story. I began with alligators.
And then it becomes a kind of game, doesn’t it? The process of inspiration, of blurring the lines between imagination and historical record, between fact and Truth?
So let me throw it back at you a little bit, because you’re maybe even playing with the form a little more than I do—you’re not just manipulating biography and historical record, but you’re also playing maybe the two most important and famous novels of their genre, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. So the question then is: Why rework the texts? And also, where was your starting point? What was your process on this?
GB: It seems to me that Shadow Man is a book about creation or a book about the failure to create. Why rework the texts? Because Shadow Man’s a book about creation and the failure to create.
The men who wrote The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep were terribly confused men, men who made mysteries out of their lives while writing books about men whose jobs were to solve mysteries. It’s not their work I’ve appropriated—or not only their work I’ve appropriated—but their position, their predicament. But it is/was my position, too, where I found/find myself.
What I’m trying to say is that this wasn’t a book that could have been written from a zero point. I don’t believe that such books exist. But that’s another subject for another time—this was a book that needed a father or fathers, a heritage that was both obvious and mysterious. The book is a paternity suit.
Which brings us (back) to fatherhood, something I found particularly important to The Alligators of Abraham. The you of the novel is a son with a very strong father, but it’s a you, not a he, not an I. Why is that? Why the second person? David Ohle described your book as being “led along dark alleys of American history by an all-seeing voice-over narrative,” but, as “all-seeing” as it is, it is also, oddly, intimate, perhaps by virtue of that you.
RK: I would like to never again write about the feelings or thoughts of any of my characters, especially when writing about the bizarre. I would rather focus on physicality—defining through action. The second person allows for that kind of distance, while also creating the kind of intimacy that you mention. There is also something about the second person that lends to a voice and language driven narrative, while at the same time limiting the kinds of character-related concerns that a first person narrative may have. Finally, second person allows for a sort of sweeping vastness—Ohle’s all-seeing narrator—that I find necessary to writing the kind of book that interests me.
At different points in the writing of Alligators, I did toy with making the second person into a kind of first person. And then for a while I toyed with writing the book as a dialogue between Robert Lincoln and the “you” character. The structure of the first few drafts was much less straightforward. And I found those experiments very frustrating and limiting and dull. The more and more I moved away from characterizing the narrator in anyway, while also retaining the qualities of a narrated story, the more liberated I felt. There is just something very sweeping and from the clouds or burning bush about writing this way.
I think in many ways my goal is to show everything while telling nothing. I think mystery is a very important element in all great writing. I would rather not have things explained away. And, of course, you use multiple perspectives in Shadow to deepen the mystery, rather than solve it.
So, in my mind, our books may be more closely linked by our use of language and perspective than our use of history. Your book is maybe even more driven by language and voice than mine. And you certainly use more perspectives than I do. I’m hoping you’ll comment on your use of language—I find it impressive. In particular, I’m curious about how you constructed the voice—your influences, your method in writing it, and so on.
And then the other linked question I have, is about the use of Gabriel Blackwell as a character at the very end. What was your thinking in using what is essentially an aspect of meta-fiction to deepen the mystery? Usually the entrance of the author diminishes the mystery—at least in my experience.
GB: Maybe it’s a question of genre. I guess I’m okay with the publisher calling Shadow Man a novel (even though I did ask that it be called a biography on the cover, to be internally consistent; that doesn’t seem to have stuck), but only because I recognize the novel as novel, as being one of the most pliable literary forms. I’d feel just as comfortable talking about it as an essay (or even a memoir), though, as that’s how I see my role with regards to this material—as an essayist. I was as careful with facts as I was with fictions, and the material, after all, already existed. I just shaped it. Given that relationship, I don’t really see it as a metanarrative, though I will concede that it probably is, in a Schrödinger’s cat kind of way.
I love “something very sweeping and from the clouds or burning bush”; I think you’re better at describing your style than I am at mine. I can see your you effacing the narrator; that’s an interesting aspect of your use of the second person, maybe of the second person in general.
My natural inclination is to move in an opposite direction—to focus as intently as I’m capable on that entity, whatever/whoever it might be, to inhabit it. I’m always thinking in terms of how the teller should be telling the story, what story it is, what form it should take, and what that all means for the resulting language. It’s the only way I’ve found to get the language right. It’s slightly puritan, I think, or maybe just functional, but I tend to lose patience early with writing that doesn’t exercise some care and consideration there. Voice is all there is.
Voice is paramount to Alligators, too: weeks after finishing it, I can’t shake that drumming “And. . . . And. . . . And. . . . And.” There’s something seductive in it, as a reader, something pulling, even commanding at times. Coupled with that reticence to write internality you mention above, I felt close to the narrator as a storyteller, but not necessarily as a character. Seduction relies on mystery, right? The books that I took the most from for Shadow Man, too, play on that kind of mood—Hammett, in particular, was wholly action-focused, unwilling to grant access to his characters’ heads, something he’d stolen from Hemingway (who’d learned his drumming from Gertrude Stein). [And since I’ve mentioned Hemingway, I see a strain of In Our Time’s interchapters in Alligators—am I way off base?]
So, around the time that I was having to think about who to ask to blurb Shadow Man, Matt Bell posted something about blurbs on Facebook that made complete sense to me. It was something like: “Choose the company you want your book to keep.” Less aphoristic, probably. Maybe this was no part of your thinking, but can I ask why you chose Adam Braver and David Ohle for your blurbs? I’m a huge fan of Ohle’s work, but I don’t think I would have thought of him while reading Alligators. As for Braver, I have his latest novel, Misfit, and I’m eager to read it, but it will be my first Braver.
RK: Well, first, that’s an interesting comment about In Our Time. I hadn’t thought about that book—I read it years and years go, in college, I think—but I can see where the devices are slightly similar. Actually, I was watching a lot of Malick films when I was finishing the later stages of the manuscripts, and I think that’s where the idea of the italicized sections came from, like whispering over the gunfire and slaughter. On the page it becomes something else, of course.
As for blurbs: it’s funny you mention Matt, because I actually consulted him early on—and he gave me much the same advice as you mention. So I wanted to use authors who wrote about the Civil War or the post-apocalyptic. We actually toyed with getting Civil War historians to blurb the book or fake Civil War historians or even use Lincoln’s words, somehow.
Finally we settled on these two.
Ohle’s novels were early inspirations for Alligators—Ohle’s books taught me to free up my imagination and to be fearless, and I think those ideas, plus the dystopian elements—are apparent in Alligators. So it was natural to try for him. Adam Braver was actually Matt’s suggestion. I was aware of his JFK book, but not Mr. Lincoln’s Wars. I picked up that book and enjoyed it—the lyricism, the way he wrote history as literature. And I liked the idea of someone like Braver—who has a completely different approach to lyricism and historical fiction—taking a look at the book.
The blurbing process is kind of strange, I think. I’m uncomfortable with all of these parts of selling the book, because they boil the novel down into little understandable parts. Little nuggets of wisdom. I think it’s unfair to The Alligators of Abraham to call it a “post-apocalyptic Civil War novel” but that’s evidently what I tried to reduce it to when choosing those two authors to blurb the book.
I suppose that’s what we’re doing here, and probably each of us resisting in our own way, right? Reviews, jacket copy, blurbs, . . . and whatever else is out there, it’s all about finding a way of reducing something hopefully complex and, in a way, kind of inexplicable into something that will sell the public on our work. So, I think I coined “post-apocalyptic Civil War novel” just now, which is what I’m going to call Alligators whenever I’m approached about it, at parties or on the street (ha). So, now it’s your turn. What were you trying to boil your novel into when you chose your blurbers? How do you go about presenting your book in easy to swallow pills?
GB: I think the italicized sections of Alligators do come across as oral, as vocalized. And, again, I like the way you describe it: “whispering over . . . gunfire” captures it perfectly. (Though I thought of Herzog rather than Malick; hope you don’t take that as an insult. Herzog describing Even Dwarfs Started Small: “an attempt to make inner states transparent . . . realized in a kind of nightmarish horror vision.” ANYway.) I think I am, in general, much less successful in describing anything having to do with me or what I’ve done in a way that makes any kind of sense or seems at all appealing. It’s less a matter of resisting—though I’ve done plenty of that with this book—than of incompetence. I plead awkwardness. I plead stupidity.
The only way I could be of any help with Shadow Man’s jacket copy/description was to think of that piece of writing as part of the book, part of and consistent with one of its narrators. Instead of trying to compress everything into some sort of capsule, I tried to think of it as a knob or a handle. I still got totally frustrated and hated doing it, but I hated it much less than my earlier attempts to encompass the whole of the thing. It seems to me that any successful novel is at least a little shaggy and messy, necessarily. If it is something that could effectively be communicated in a paragraph, the natural question is, why hasn’t it been? I mean, why write more than that paragraph, right? Obviously, this kind of thinking explains why I will never write a bestseller.
With my exceptionally kind blurbers, I was attempting to make up for my own inadequacies. I tried to triangulate the thing I had written, to at least plot the craft and the spirit behind it, if not the subject. I did start out thinking in terms of subject(s), and I debated whether to ask someone like John T. Irwin, who has written a couple of great books about mystery and noir, or Richard Layman, whose work on Hammett was tremendously helpful to me. But I had trouble keeping up the pretense, maybe, or maybe I just couldn’t resist one good wink at the reader.
Speaking of readers, even though I tend to be shark-like in my reading, but I can’t see not rereading The Alligators of Abraham. The excesses of language, the indelible imagery, the cadences, the bizarre and intriguing characters—it was tremendously satisfying, a rare book. Aside from that rereading, though, when can I read more from you? What’s next? I think you said that you’d completed another novel, yes?
RK: The novel you mention is titled Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. It’s in the style of Alligators, but it shows a natural growth from Alligators. It takes it’s time a little more than Alligators—it lingers more. And it focuses more on their characters, their relationship and fears and atrocities, a little more. I am more proud of it than anything else I’ve to this point done. The novel does not yet have a publisher, so we’ll see what yet happens with it.
I do have a shorter work appearing in 2013—a chapbook co-written with Amber Sparks called The Desert Places. It’s a series of linked flash pieces that traces the evolution of a monster from the beginning of humanity through the end. Matt Kish will be illustrating and Curbside Splendor will be publishing, in October I believe.
And what about you? I know you have another book that is now available for pre-order. What’s that one about? Is there anything else on the horizon?
GB: I have a collection of fictions and essays that’s just come out, Critique of Pure Reason. And then I’ve “edited” another book called The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H. P. Lovecraft, that will be out in October. It feels very strange to have three books come out in just under a year—strange, and a little tiring. I hope any readers I might have aren’t as sick of me as I’ve become.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly fast or productive writer, despite this anomalous year. I started work on the next book after finishing Natural Dissolution this summer and handing it over to the publisher, and I’ve been adding to it bit by tiny bit, but it still hasn’t achieved that point where its momentum determines my schedule—you know that point? It just feels like something one does right now, like a habit one isn’t very proud of. I’m probably not supposed to say that, huh? In all honesty, I don’t believe in anything I’ve written until it has a complete shape, until I can really get started on the revision. I think of myself as a reviser, not really a composer.

RK: I can relate to this idea. There are times when I’m holding out buckets to catch the words, to paraphrase Saul Bellow, but more often now I find it necessary to slowly throttle the thing to life. I think that’s very natural, for growth to come through an uncomfortable struggle.












I interviewed Gabriel Blackwell this weekend. We talked about his new bookThe Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft, which is a strange, scary, and above all absorbing novel about the final days of said author of the weird. We talked about our experiences with Lovecraft and Lovecraft fanfiction, Mexican men’s shelters, why we don’t like House of Leaves, and writing “objectively,” among other things. Please watch and enjoy. Then buy his books. - 




                                                                                                                                              FICTIONS
..................


A Field in Winter {Vestiges}
The Before Unapprehended {Conjunctions}
The Invention of an Island {Conjunctions 62: Exile} 
(   ) {Conjunctions 60: In Absentia}
[CURTAIN] {Artifice 5}
The Mystery of the Flesh {Follow the Blood}
A Model Made Out of Card {Unstuck 2}
MID-CAREER WRITER® {Necessary Fiction}

The Last Film of Alan Smithee {Conjunctions 58: Riveted}

An Interpretive History of Addition {Uncanny Valley #0001}

A Crackle of Crickets {Nouns of Assemblage, Housefire Publishing}



Neverland {Uncanny Valley Press}

The Whistle of the Knife-Sharpener {Super Arrow, Issue 4}

The I and the It {Conjunctions 56: Terra Incognita}


  OK    THE DAMNED {On Earth As It Is}

Story (with Dog) {Metazen}

A Night at the Opera {Puerto del Sol 45:2}

An Artists' Interregnum {Excavating the Ancient City}


Play {The Collagist}

The Little Death {Conjunctions, Not Even Past: Hybrid Histories}

The Behavior of Pidgeons {Conjunctions}

..................





OTHERS

..................


On Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder {Tin House 51}


Review of Lance Olsen's Calendar of Regrets {Puerto del Sol 46:1 & 2}

Interview [w/ Tim Horvath] {Necessary Fiction}

Interview [w/ Mike Meginnis] {Uncanny Valley Blog}

Review of Evan Lavender-Smith's Avatar {American Book Review, 32.4}


Review of Peter Mountford's A Young Man's Guide. . . {The Literary Review, Vol. 54, No. 3}

No News Today {Kamby Bolongo Mean River}


Grace Krilanovich [Interview] {Hobart, October, 2011}





On Reading {The Laughing Yeti}

Interview [w/ Matt Bell] {The Collagist}

On Ross Macdonald {HTMLGIANT}

On Roy Lichtenstein {HTMLGIANT}

..................

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