duncan b. barlow - Gilles, dreamer of dark and beautiful dreams, spinner of strange syntax, copper biter, spark shooter, cat chaser, tunnel explorer
duncan. b. barlow, A Dog Between Us, Stalking Horse Press, 2019.
duncan b. barlow delivers tender shocks and the profundity of mercy in this poignant, delicate novel of loss and love. A Dog Between Us holds the reader between what can be said and what is unspeakable in our most vital relationships. this is an unforgettable novel of beauty and delirium.
“Early on, the narrator of Duncan Barlow’s moving A Dog Between Us offers a rule to live by: never state the important things. Lucky for us readers, this is a rule broken on every single page of this beautiful novel, a book haunted by the details of dying and grief, by the ways in which every once-hidden mote of a lost life’s minutiae can, once revealed, be made to shine, to glow, give back fresh heat and new light.” —Matt Bell
“A Dog Between Us is a loving and moving novel of heartbreaking loss that is also beautifully written—and it is through this beauty that Duncan Barlow provides the reader with some great comfort too.” —Michael Kimball
“In A Dog Between Us we are asked, “What words outline a human life?” If we could read the lines cast around our edges – our janky and shining, beautiful and hell-filled edges – what might we divine? Duncan Barlow’s compelling novel gives us a hint: it has something to do with generosity and fever; that moment when the shadows of the words that outline a life turn into a cloud of blackbirds. They break open your heart upon their sudden departure from the field where you believed so long you were standing alone.” —Selah Saterstrom
I am not sure where to begin this review. While most who follow my blog know I review mostly genre novels that are Science or Horror fiction. I have to know Duncan for many years, our first books were released by the same publisher and I have followed his career closely since the beginning. I can't erase my bias towards him as a great person and artist but his last two books have still found a way to surprise me with their strength and depth. After the brilliant mind-fuck noir that was The City, Awake my bar was really high. There was a lot about that novel that made it my jam, so when I read about this novel I was not as excited.
That being said I trusted Duncan Barlow and I am glad I did. On the surface, this doesn't sound like my type of book. An experimental character-driven story with no genre elements but grief and a feeling of dread through-out. for the record I don't just read genre, I love a character-driven novel as evidence check out my top ten last year with How to Set Yourself on Fire by Julia Dixon Evans. It also does two things I normally don't enjoy. This novel is first-person with time jumps and doesn't follow any conventional rules of grammar.
Normally if a writer chooses to write a whole novel without quotes for the dialogue that would annoy me. Very few writers can pull that kinda raised finger at grammar off besides Kathy Acker or Cormac Macarthy. In this narrative, it makes sense since the entire story is one of personal reflection by the main POV Crag. No one is speaking really. Crag is recounting the death of his father and their relationship.
A Dog Between Us is a thrill ride or filled with laughs. It is a novel soaking with emotional richness driven by raw and heartfelt prose. This is the type of novel that leaves you wondering how much of this is autobiographical? There are moments of gut-wrenching grief that is so powerful it is like an emotional knife's edge. The story jumps back in forth between touching and heartfelt love, clumsy disregard of youth and adult reflection.
Duncan Barlow will never be a mainstream artist he grew up in Louisville Kentucky's underrated punk and hardcore scene. He is known for his hardcore bands By the Grace of God and Endpoint, but it was his band Guilt that has no comparison. Probably Barlow's most personal band of the time it mirrors many choices he makes as an author. Experimental without being so weird that the artistry and skill are forsaken.
A Dog Between Us is as close to a mainstream novel as I suspect Barlow will give us. It is weird, just not as gonzo weird as past efforts. I loved this novel would consider a masterpiece like the last one. A Dog Between Us is Duncan Barlow's best novel to date even if I personally prefer The City, Awake. -
The Light for Both of Us
After the Ossuary
"Dragging the Body of the Thing": An Interview with duncan b. barlow
duncan b. barlow, Of Flesh and Fur, The Cupboard, 2017.
When even the inner parts of a heart squall with want, calling out a compulsion to procreate, to propagate, to continue the family line with a child, a child—then a child must be had, by any means necessary. But in duncan b. barlow’s Of Flesh and Fur, what was once so wanted twists towards its own toothy hunger, smacking counter slabs and shrieking out the wrong words for a father's love. Squirrels scatter. The coyotes are closing in. There is only so much meat.
Of Flesh and Fur is an ancient fable that comes from the not too distant future. Its fevered coyotes worry the bones of fathers who don't have sons, of those who are abandoned and abandon in turn. There's only hunger in these pages, fantasies of manliness that make thin feed. Barlow's spare prose spares us nothing. Read or be eaten. — Joanna Rucco
Part post-modern creation myth, part eerie feral parable, duncan b. barlow’s Of Flesh and Fur is a viscerally stunning and unnerving novelette rendered in corkscrew-tight lines that silver-spiral their way deep into the raw meat of the reader’s psyche. In terse, hallucinatory, meditative chapters in which an accountant attempts to care for a blood-hungry baby cloned from his own genetic material, the story meditates upon fatherhood, melancholia, loneliness, and monstrosity with deft language and razor-sharp imagery. This primal howl of a story is disturbingly tender in all the best possible ways.
—Lee Ann Roripaugh
This new chapbook from frequent Vol.1 Brooklyn contributor duncan b. barlow taps into threads both primal and futuristic. It tells the story of a solitary man who uses flawed technology to create a child; strange and bleak happenings ensue. It’s a disquieting read, and has us eager to read Barlow’s forthcoming novel. - Lidia Yuknavitch
duncan b. barlow, The City, Awake, Stalking Horse 2017.
“Barlow’s metaphysical noir The City, Awake is a novel of chemically induced amnesia, doppelgängers, fanatics, and killers. Saul, a man without a history, awakes in a hotel room with a note in his pocket. Hunting for answers, he must survive rival assassins, a millionaire with an axe to grind, a shape-shifting femme fatal, a silent hit man, and a psychotic who is only looking for an exit. Barlow evokes a vast mid-century modernist cityscape in prose that is by turns hard-boiled, then unexpectedly psychedelic and delicate. With temporal and spatial distortions reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A, the novel that inspired Godard’s Alphaville, this is a vivid investigation of identity, scientific speculation, and Biblical Apocrypha. The City, Awake is a mirror maze of dark streets and darker secrets.” – James Reich
Labyrinthine, lyrical, and provocative, The City Awake is part philosophical mystery, part dream-like meditation on what it means to be human, all wrapped up into a beguiling postmodern puzzle. Buttressed by Barlow’s luminous prose, The City Awake takes us on an astonishing journey through the darkened bars and hidden alleyways of an expertly-constructed, claustrophobic cityscape where hitmen are sometimes helpless, where femme fatales are seldom what they seem, and where grit and the angelic mingle on every page —a gorgeous surprise. — McCormick Templeman
The noir novel drops us into a world whose contours we know well: an urban sprawl of violence and sex and caustic pith, with a mystery (a murder, usually) at its center. At the level of logic—the how and the why of its wanton, crime-ridden ways—the noir world simply is. For the reader it must remain this way, through a suspension of disbelief, as her immersion in the narrative depends on not calling it into question.
Initially, The City, Awake appears to be no exception to this rule; this gothic noir presumes its dystopic city and motivates only the particulars of the plot that unfurls within it. In fact, though, over the course of the novel Duncan Barlow subtly manages to overwrite these rules with those of his own devising—and with great profit.
City begins with a series of lookalikes awakening in the same hotel room. Distinguishing between these counterparts is (naturally) difficult at first, until one realizes that Barlow’s numbering of the book’s chapters holds the key. Rather than proceeding sequentially, chapter numbers work to distinguish between counterparts: 7, 23, 29, 30, and 18 are the only numbers used throughout the novel to label its sections, each indicating which characters’ perspective we’re in; and we might use Duncan’s numbering system to distinguish the characters thus: David 7, David 23, David 29, David 30, and David 18, who early on decides that ‘Saul’ better suits him.
All five of these lookalikes awake carrying the same note in their pockets: “You are David. You were made in God’s image. You are the author of all language, emender of sins.” Absent any memories, the men nevertheless find themselves full of knowledge; without recollecting the how or why of their being, they are able to attach words to the things they see, as well as to the abstractions that cross their minds.
From the hotel room, they all follow a similar routine, as though preordained: they find a matchbook from a local bar, Smathers’, to which each makes their way. Thereafter the counterparts’ stories wobble off onto distinct yet similar paths.
All of the Davids sans Saul meet a Mr. Erelim, who either confirms their faith in God and uses them as minions working toward His will (Davids 23 and 30), or disowns them (Davids 7 and 29). Precisely who Erelim’s “God” and “His will” is, we don’t yet know.
Saul, for his part, is intercepted at Smathers’ door by a chameleon-haired woman called Merav, your femme fatale with an orange twist. Merav brings Saul to her boss, Mr. Uriah, an elderly invalid attached to insidious-seeming medical technologies (“a series of compressors, wire and metal”) that maintain his tenuous link to life. Uriah tells Saul he’s an apostate of the Council of the New Mystical Body, an alternative Catholic sect. As a younger man, he’d been the Council’s top representative, boasting of a connection to God so profound that he would fall into fits and seizures, speak in tongues, even have visions. Ultimately, he was found to have a brain tumor, the true cause of his episodes. He lost his faith soon thereafter. Saul’s response to Uriah’s tale is simply that “no god masters” him, which seems only to confirm that Uriah and Merav have “found their man.” As for Saul’s fate, Uriah reveals only this: “Names I can’t give you, for I don’t know them, but you’ll know when to fire when you see yourself.”
Erelim and Uriah, the two opposing puppetmasters, aren’t forthcoming about their designs, other than Erelim’s devotion to the Council, Uriah’s defection from such, and their seeking to thwart one another. Though the orders they give ostensibly flow from antithetical viewpoints, they are in practice nearly identical: to track the movements of the opposition. Thus closed is the city’s circuit of lookalikes, Saul on one side and the Davids on the other, surveilling each other’s movements. Our only certainty is that violence must follow.
Indeed, the plot’s pixilation is slow to resolve into anything like high definition. It isn’t until roughly a quarter of the way through this slim novel that we gather the first clue of true significance: instinct leads Saul back to the upturned hotel room of his waking, where he finds a conspicuous card with religious demarcations. Needing to decode it, he ventures an alliance within the city’s church—specifically, with Father Tentorio, the first man in whom Saul stakes his trust.
Tentorio identifies the deity on Saul’s card as Rogziel, the angel of wrath, and links the card to the Council, a “heretical group” dating back to the Middle Ages that “believed that there were parts of the Bible removed for the sake of securing Papal power, ” including passages about the more “aggressive angels.” The Church, Tentorio says, moved to excommunicate the Council to avoid the “violent and wrathful ideology of those priests.”
With Erelim established as the Council’s wrathful steward, and Uriah his redemptive adversary, Saul is still left in the dark: suspicious, confused, certain only of his presence, of being awake, and little else. He finds his purpose both meaningless and immediate, hopeless yet necessary, as the question of survival shrouds a deeper, more singular imperative yet to be realized. Without any memory to rely on, and allotted but crumbs of intel by Uriah, he carries out reconnaissance with strabismic eyes darting in any direction from which danger might arise. His wavering states of awareness and loyalty leave him as likely to turn on Uriah and Merav as to strike at his prescribed foe.
The Davids take a different course. 23 turns vagrant, rebelling against the instinct he was bequeathed by his creator, Erelim. He sleeps in cardboard hovels erected in alleyways, using newspaper for blankets. He has dreams of his genesis in which men like him, lookalikes, lie prone in serried bathtubs filled with gelatinous fluid, attached to a network of tubes, and we surmise that Erelim is cloning from the amniotic fluids of “God” his army of “angels.” David 23 fights his violent instincts, which manifest as disembodied voices and visions of critters crawling from beneath his skin. Sometimes this leads to self-mutilation as he attempts to uproot the creatures; other times, he simply repeats to himself that none of this is real. Increasingly, he becomes aware of what he’s been created to do, what he is trying to stave off so desperately: the instinct to kill.
Meanwhile, David 30 is utterly unfettered by this “God-given” instinct; in fact he seems propelled by it. Unquestioningly loyal to Erelim’s orders, he bears down on Saul, leaving a river of blood in his wake. Drawing closer to Saul, Merav, and Uriah, he offs, among others, a cab driver blowing up his stakeout and a pestering street urchin, each murder as much in service to his immanent need to spill blood as to Erelim and his occult aims.
This waltz to the rhythm of factional surveillance continues with little additional broad-arc backstory and plotting, until we near the novel’s climax; whereupon, finally, we learn of Uriah’s chess-like use of Saul’s instinct to kill against Erelim and his minions. This isn’t to say City lacks for narrative tension. Saul’s relationship with Tentorio and David 23’s encounter with a gypsy busker provide a themed roadmap, pushing forth the story while scudding past the motifs that make up the novel’s thesis, which perhaps is delivered most pithily by Tentorio: “Son, one should never trust a man who tells him what to believe.”
It is from this combination of predictably grim mise en scène and metaphysical mystery that Barlow synthesizes the book’s central achievement. More than the noir’s sprawl of violence/sex/pith, the reader begins to form a complex intuition about the logical underpinnings of something far deeper than plot and mystery—namely, about human agency and purpose, its paradoxes and limits, for both the characters in the book and its readers too.
Over the noir genre’s paradigm of predictable violence and inscrutable crime, Barlow superimposes a set of characters who seem equipped with experiential knowledge yet who are unable to deduce, a posteriori, the cause and origin of what they know and feel; they are left to determine their life’s purpose solely from untethered instinct. Is this, though, so far from the general human predicament?
Standard noir genre tropes absolve Barlow of having to explain certain absurdities, such as the string of murders left so blatantly unsolved, while simultaneously opening the door to a metaphysical laboratory. And contrary to such films as Brick or Memento, he’s able to utilize the technology of the novel, the written word, to unleash hard-boiled beauties such as this: “He stood quietly and waited…Patience, after all, was a virtue. When the novelty of his virtue began to wear thin, David rang the bell.” There are also more tender rhythms here, linguistic delicacies between the edgy noirisms, from which a very different novel might have been built: “The man behind him spoke a language that seemed to manifest only in his dreams. Sharp and angular. A language unfriendly to song.”
Though Barlow’s narrative fog is slow to lift, these lurid strobes of language light it up. Perhaps this is best expressed by the author himself, when he writes, “He was looking past him to some space that only Jonathan could see, a thought metastasizing in the smoke.”
Still, even more experimentally minded readers might find it more of a struggle to see than it ought to be. The reader’s instincts and intuitions are relied on a bit too much. Ultimately, though, whatever stumbles there are in City are only stray boughs fallen across a rigorously paved ontological path. Without some courting of obscurity—which admittedly furrows the brow almost continuously here—the novel would have been diminished in power from a thematic point of view. It also would have negated some of the readerly pleasure to be had in parsing Barlow’s distinctive novelistic logic.
Indeed, perhaps more than any character in the novel, it is the reader’s mettle that Barlow wants to test. His ingenious tale will amply reward those who pass. - Brian Birnbaum
duncan b. barlow, Super Cell Anemia, Afterbirth Books, 2008.
"A man who is obsessed with germs is obliged to bite on copper strips to keep from electrocuting himself - or others. While chased by a mutant cat man, suspected by the police, and desperately searching for a cure, it's no wonder that dating presents a particular challenge."
“In Barlow’s Cincinnati-gone-strange, a germ-obsessed electrified man finds himself at the mercy of a mutant cat man, an odd doctor, misguided policemen, and (perhaps worst of all) the terrors of dating. Unrelentingly bizarre and mysterious, unsettling in all the right ways, Super Cell Anemia is a strange and powerful debut.”— Brian Evenso
“Prepare yourself, good reader, for you are about to have the great fortune of meeting Gilles, dreamer of dark and beautiful dreams, spinner of strange syntax, copper biter, spark shooter, cat chaser, tunnel explorer, vigilant neighbor and, most importantly, hero of this knockout novel. Go ahead, try it, see for yourself (the guy, like the book, is high-voltage)... shake his hand...” —Laird Hunt
"In Cincinnati, there lives a man who sometimes emits an electric spark so strong that it burns holes in fences and household furniture. He spends his days and nights either at the office of a somewhat dubious occultist physician, with a Russian dancer who works at a sex shop, or in pursuit of a mutant half-man/half-cat through the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the city. The man’s name is Gilles and he is the protagonist of Duncan B. Barlow’s mysterious and strange new novel, Super Cell Anemia. Through first-person journal entries, third-person narrative, and the occasional tract of modern anthroposophy, Super Cell Anemia offers a wide-ranging jaunt into a gnarly and somewhat schizophrenic urban universe.
Set over a period of thirteen days, the novel follows its main character through an extraordinary series of events and acquaintances. Gilles, an obsessive-compulsive young man afflicted by a rare illness that causes his muscles to generate large amounts of electricity, has moved to Cincinnati in order to be close to Dr. Moore, the only physician who has been able to help his suffering (all the others just sent him to a psychiatrist, assuming the illness to be psychosomatic). Dr. Moore has suggested that Gilles is in need of a muscle transplant and has prescribed copper strips for him to chew on as a way to control the potentially lethal electric surges in his body.
Although the novel utilizes some conventions of speculative fiction, the premise of Super Cell Anemia owes as much to the legacy of Kierkegaard and Kafka as it does to H. G. Wells and Edgar Allen Poe. Questions regarding illness and perception figure heavily into the novel’s conceit, providing an intriguing search for rationality in a world generally characterized by irrationality and medical confusion. The language of the novel is often laden with a gothic lyricism:
Gilles attempts to sit up, but four thick, black tentacles slither from the growing darkness and wrap around his chest. He can feel the bed sinking, and as it gains speed, he fears that his stomach might tear up through his mouth. For a moment, he can see himself with his stomach dangling out between his lips like a dripping wet balloon.
Between visits to his physician, Gilles lives a nervous and unconventional existence. He develops a fledgling, if somewhat challenged, romance with Charlie, a Russian immigrant’s daughter who was trained to be “the nation’s best dancer” but who now works in a sex shop. Part of Gilles’s time is spent attempting to understand why there is a mutant cat-man (whom Gilles dubs Calicoman) climbing up the side of his building at night. After some investigation, Gilles comes to believe that Calicoman is the leader of a local conspiracy to harvest human eggs and that two of Gilles’s neighbors are involved in the scheme—one of whom is sculpting regurgitated walnut seeds into small nests to serve as incubation chambers for the harvested eggs. Not all the people who live in Gilles’s apartment building are in on the conspiracy, however; Gilles’s landlord, an ingenuous and unexpectedly normal character named Roger, seems to be as surprised as the reader to find that one of his tenants is hiding nests made of regurgitated walnut seeds in heating ducts throughout the building.
The character of Gilles’s physician plays a central role in the novel. Because of his position, we might assume he is able to provide some answers for Gilles, whose world is characterized almost entirely by uncertainty. But Dr. Moore is also an outcast among the scientific community because of his passionate advocacy of the theories of Rudolph Steiner, the anthroposophist whose theories of education founded the Waldorf Schools and whose agricultural ideas were the first attempts at biodynamic farming. The novel has sporadic excerpts from Moore’s writings regarding “Spirit-Science” (the coming together of divine and corporeal realities that he believes Gilles’s electro-magnetic muscular condition embodies), as well as his social theories on community building. But the writings of Gilles’s physician are in a curiously antiquated dialect, and read like 19th-century religious tracts of an aristocratic prelate: “If a human lacks a connection to his spiritual side, he might never come to experience his full potential as a functioning member of society. Just as a blind man will never see, a percentage of degenerates will never come to good.” Although the doctor is represented as honest in his enthusiasm for his medical and spiritual causes, he also appears out of touch and not quite trustworthy in his analysis of Gilles’s condition or his own medical and theoretical pontifications.
Constructed as a story of intrigue, Super Cell Anemia relies less on questions of narrative suspense than on its own inexplicable oddness to drive the plot. The reader is not so much compelled through the pages to find out whether someone will catch the Calicoman in the act of harvesting human eggs or whether the police (who have it out for Gilles after he called them on a false alarm) will arrest Gilles for a crime he never committed. Instead, a progression of poignantly bizarre circumstances cause Gilles (and the reader) to keep pushing forward in the hope of arriving at some explanation for what is happening. Despite the surreal quality of the novel, Gilles’s quest for understanding is at root a human one, and the reader consistently identifies with Gilles’s sense of unease and desire to get a firm grasp on his bizarre existence. But Barlow hedges in proffering any physical rationale for the narrative’s obscurity; rather than hone in on a “solution” to the novel’s mysteries, he instead drives the story deeper into its own uncanny nightmare. Gilles’s search for answers over the course of the book develops from being generally hopeful to one characterized by insecurity and paranoia. One night, he follows Calicoman into the subway tunnels beneath the city and observes a woman there he believes is Charlie’s co-worker, becoming convinced that even Charlie is involved in Calicoman’s conspiracy. As Gilles’s suspicions about those around him increase, the reader is forced to question the “truth” of the narrative, giving rise to the possibility that the story is less a recounting of events than a psychic contrivance of its protagonist—a sort of oneiric travelogue of a paranoid subconscious struggling to live in multiple realities. The final pages of the novel bring this issue of diegetic reliability to the fore, when Gilles’s confesses to Charlie his reluctance to trust people and his fear that everyone in the world is against him. Although Charlie suggests this fear is understandable considering his relationship with his mentally ill mother, for the reader, this admission addresses an issue that has dogged the story since the first paragraph, which indicated that all the doctors Gilles had ever seen said his afflictions were psychosomatic. Although the question of which reality is the “real” one is never entirely resolved, the novel does deal with Gilles’s own lack of mental self-control. Without giving away the surprise of the book’s ending, suffice it to say that the last moments of the novel are intensely unexpected and force the reader into reconsidering the events of the last 236 pages.
A striking and often gripping debut novel by a writer with a prolific and energetic imagination, Super Cell Anemia is charismatic, intelligent, and driven by an intellectual curiosity that substantiates its extreme imbrication of dream, illness, and reality." - Christopher Lura"Super Cell Anemia is the first novel by author Duncan b. Barlow. From doing some snooping online, I found several of his short stories, a few critical articles, and a ton of sources about his former music career (he was a touring punk musician for many years before he quit and got his PhD in English). The novel was recommended to me from a friend who is an avid follower of Brian Evenson's work (Evenson does a quote for the back jacket of this book). This book plays with many genre conventions, but never completely commits to the genre, making it a strange but enjoyable read.
The book centers around a strange, germ obsessed character named Gilles. Gilles has a problem whereby his body produces way too much energy and as a result of this, he begins shocking things. He fears that he may explode and begins to see a strange doctor name Dr. Moore. Gilles' paranoia begins to get the best of him and he believes that the doctor and his newly acquired love interest, Charlie, are out to get him. Throw in a strange hybrid Calicoman, a group of homeless ruffians, two misguided policemen, a man who regurgitates sunflower seeds to make sculptures, and an abandoned subway system and one can begin to see how deep and rich the world Barlow creates truly is.
Duncan b. Barlow has a strange prose that reminds me of Franz Kafka's later work. It is dark but abounds with hope. It is political but in a very subversive way. Simply by choosing not to give into genre, is a political statement. "How is this?" you might ask. Barlow takes good care to walk a very difficult line between the real and the unreal. His work requires the reader to read actively, to make decisions and not expect the author spell it out for him. If you are expecting Barlow to tell you in the end "it was all a dream" or "he is insane," you won't get it. Barlow wants his readers to decide if Gilles is sane or insane. Whether or not Gilles is sane in an insane world or insane in a sane world is not an answer he wants to give easily; honestly, I don't think it matters because the end result is the same-Gilles is isolated.
Super Cell Anemia is a journey. The language and lovely dark images Barlow creates makes it a journey worth taking. If you are anything like me, you'll never want the story to end. I hope to read more from this author soon." - Donovan Mansfield
"Somewhere along the way, I read Super Cell Anemia by Duncan Barlow. Not that it is at all relevant to Thailand or this trip, but he gave me the book a long time ago and I hadn't gotten around to reading it and figured this was as good a time as any. Upon cracking the cover, I even discovered that he thanked me in the credits. Brian Evenson and Laird Hunt both blurbed the book, which was appropriate enough, as to me Duncan's writing style is like a hybrid between the two—macabre as Evenson, while being noir-sleuthy like Hunt.
Gilles is the electrically charged (literally), obsessive-compulsive, germophobe hero/anti-hero. He periodically needs to chomp on copper strips to diffuse excess charge that builds up in his body. This strange condition provides a certain tension to the book—when you're reading for a while and he hasn't discharged, you almost feel yourself charging with him, in need of release. In a paranoid and hyper-aware state, Gilles navigates through a world of bizarre characters including a calico-cat man, a strangely sympathetic landlord and his confidante Dr. Moore who strives to understand Gilles' ailments, though he appears to have ulterior motives of his own, to use Gilles as his guinea pig. And there's his love interest, Charlie, through which Duncan exposes the strangeness of human dating (when you stop to think about it) by breaking "contact" down to a molecular, germ-obsessed level.
I actually finished and left the book down on the beach in Krabi for some unsuspecting soul, the day after Xmas which was the fourth anniversary of the Tsunami, and I was watching a show on Thai TV on how animals can predict Tsunamis. In light of this, some of the wisdom Dr. Moore imparts on Gilles was especially interesting:
"Not quite, Gilles; you will find that when one is completely in touch with his body that it will send small electric impulses to the mind when there are movements that might affect him—specific movements that directly relate to the future of the said individual. I'm not saying I can predict the future, but I have learned to develop certain certain reliable hunches from the information my body generates by way of its electro-bodily reactions."The book is full of such interesting well-researched anecdotes, that usually don't seem too forced or tangential. And even if they distract from the "story," what is it we read for anyway, these morsels of sensory interest? At times it was almost like reading an archaic lecture, or one or those old juju-science books like Devils, Drugs and Doctors. He even lists out categories in the book such as anthroposoph, psychosophy and pneumatosophy, which further break down into sub-categories of
understanding the senses
supersense in the human
electric currents and the sensesAppropriate enough for the censory name of this blog. There's even a bar in the book called the Frayed Knot—I'm assuming an inside reference to my favorite joke about the piece of the string that walks into a bar and orders a beer. Though the first mention it's called the Fayed Knot. There were a number of distracting typos in the book actually, which reflects on Afterbirth Books more than anything, and there's twelve pages of unsightly ads at the back of the book. Somehow this otherwise literary object got pulped, which I guess might make sense for it as it does fall somewhere in between (i.e. not overly pretentious or high-brow, but not mindless trash)—making it a good poolside read." - Derek White
"A few summers ago I visited Cincinnati. I found it boring, quiet, placid. There were parks and museums and golf courses everywhere. I saw families riding their bikes together. I saw happy children at the zoo, waddling along with ice cream cones. Moms in minivans zooming to Kroger. Cincinnati is the sort of place described as "globally aware" or "old world" or "charming." In short, it was nothing like the Cincinnati portrayed in Duncan Barlow’s debut novel, Super Cell Anemia. Barlow’s Cincinnati is much stranger and darker. It’s more like Cincinnati’s psychotic doppelgänger.
I cannot summarize the plot of Super Cell Anemia. For one thing, it is too complex—a beautifully meandering work—and for another, it contains too many surprises. Suffice it to say that the novel begins with its protagonist, Gilles, waking with an abnormal pain—thunderous electrical jolts rumbling through his body. It concludes with a disturbing and unexpected disaster brought on by another kind of pain (the ending is the biggest surprise, so I cannot tell much). In between, Gilles controls the jolts by biting down on copper strips given to him by the enigmatic Dr. Moore; he constantly worries about germs, going as far as to clean his cuticles every night with a microscope and a thin sliver of wood soaked in isopropyl alcohol; he chases, and is chased by, a mutated cat-like man (the Calicoman); he struggles to find love with an attractive sex-shop worker and ballet dancer named Charlie; and he evades some suspicious policemen. Put together, it tells a story of fear versus desire, faith versus reason, and reality versus illusion.
But, ultimately, this fantastic debut novel succeeds not because of its plot or its characterization or its ideas; what makes Super Cell Anemia such a remarkable reading experience is its mind-jolting language. High-voltage similes crack and spark on the page, and there are enough electrifying vivid details in the book to light up a small room. I throw you a few instances: the Calicoman’s eyes peering through Gilles’s window are likened to "black coins floating in orbits of crème brûlée." The leaves of a tree are said to "clap together like an audience of tiny hands." Gray weather "creeps into the apartment like an old and sleepy white tiger." And a whisper in Gilles’s ear is "a breeze of peppermint laced with vodka." This is poetry of the most zestful and animated order; at the same time it is lucid and easily read. Barlow’s language has the sweet toxicity of a plum dipped in kerosene.
Overall, the result is an absorbing novel with a special appeal for readers who yearn for something exotic and challenging. Super Cell Anemia is one of the finest first novels I’ve read in a long time." - Jason Moore"This is a debut novel, but I’ve been following the work of Duncan Barlow the artist for many years. My senior year of high school I would travel all over the Midwest to watch him play guitar in the legendary Louisville hardcore band Endpoint. On the surface Endpoint was just another hardcore act but their emotional shows and genre bending records played with convention. Barlow himself has said it seems like another lifetime. Duncan also played in bands such as the Lull Account, Step Down, By the Grace of God, Dbiddle and my favorite Guilt.
The most important thing for those of you unfamiliar with Duncan’s musical work is that it was always powerful, original and deeply creative. So the when the news came that one of my favorite presses was set to release barlow’s first novel I was excited. The novel Super Cell Anemia proves in the medium of prose that Duncan Barlow is an artist that values creative expression.
SCA is about Giles a germ-a-phobe who is so electrified that he relies on an experimental treatment (involving biting copper) to deal with his rare illness. Giles has moved to Cincinnati to continue this treatment and be close to his doctor. As you read the book you begin to wonder how much you can trust the journal entries that often competes with the present tense narrative.
There are two great strengths to this book. The first is the subtle nature of Barlow’s take on the absurd. I enjoy the over the top whacky-ness of some Bizarro authors like Bradley Sands (also an afterbirth author) and D.Harlan Wilson Especially but this book has different take. Like a slow burn gothic horror novel the moments of the absurd are peppered brilliantly through the first hundred pages. From there the strangeness of the book expands like lungs sucking in a deep breath.
The second strength is the structure. Giles neighbors get stranger, his doctor goes off on convincing pseudo scientific monologues and most unsettling is the half man calico cat Giles knows is stalking him.
This is an unsettling debut in all the right ways. Effectively organized through journal entries, narratives from shifting perspectives, and chapters focused on the various rooms and neighbors in Giles building are an inventive touch that relates to the character nicely. My favorite was room 104 where Giles obsesses over the sound of his neighbors late night pisses.
Super Cell Anemia is a doozy of a character based Bizzaro novel. Excellently written and everything I hoped for when I started it. Duncan Barlow has transcended my perceptions of him as an artist. He is a great novelist who happens to also be a pretty good musician. If you like a strange read this book needs to be on your TBR pile." - David Agranoff
Places to read other stories:
"The Light for Both of Us" -- Banango Street
"Phone Etiquette" -- The Denver Quarterly
"Unintended Consequences of Utterances" -- The Collagist
"Phone Etiquette" -- The Denver Quarterly
"Unintended Consequences of Utterances" -- The Collagist
"Nonconcentric" -- Matter Press
"The World Dimmed" -- Masque and Spectacle