Marcial Gala - Told by a chorus of narrators―including gossips, gangsters, a ghost, and a serial killer―who flirt, lie, argue, and finish one another’s stories, this book is a darkly comic indictment of modern Cuba, gritty and realistic but laced with magic.

The Black Cathedral: A Novel: Gala, Marcial, Kushner, Anna ...

Marcial Gala, The Black Cathedral: A Novel, 

Trans. by Anna Kushner, Farrar, Straus and 

Giroux, 2020.

Haunting and transcendently twisted, this English-language debut from a Cuban literary star is a tale of race, magic, belief, and fate

The Stuart family moves to a marginal neighborhood of Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of Cuba. Arturo Stuart, a charismatic, visionary preacher, discovers soon after arriving that God has given him a mission: to build a temple that surpasses any before seen in Cuba, and to make of Cienfuegos a new Jerusalem.

In a neighborhood that roils with passions and conflicts, at the foot of a cathedral that rises higher day by day, there grows a generation marked by violence, cruelty, and extreme selfishness. This generation will carry these traits beyond the borders of the neighborhood, the city, and the country, unable to escape the shadow of the unfinished cathedral.

Told by a chorus of narrators―including gossips, gangsters, a ghost, and a serial killer―who flirt, lie, argue, and finish one another’s stories, Marcial Gala's The Black Cathedral is a darkly comic indictment of modern Cuba, gritty and realistic but laced with magic. It is a portrait of what remains when dreams of utopia have withered away.

“Accidental cannibals, tenderhearted killers, angst-ridden ghosts and well-behaved artists soon populate [The Black Cathedral’s] topsy-turvy universe . . . Even as the novel charts the voyages of its vagabonds, it represents an attempt to draw the periphery into the center, steering us toward the provinces as it renovates the Cuban novel . . . Its narrators, more than a dozen in number, are usually granted a page at a time before other characters butt in, pick up the thread or offer their own spin on the same series of events.” ―Shaj Mathew, The New York Times

"By telling the story from the perspectives of various people in the community, Gala achieves an oral-history-like effect, producing a profound, and often humorous, meditation on how desires―religious, sexual, financial―clash in a small-town environment." ―The New Yorker

“Trained as an architect, the author seems less interested in chronology and its secrets than in creating the illusion that we’re experiencing his story from every angle, as we would were we walking through a building. The strategy of embedding the future in the present has the effect of deepening the pathos, heightening our awareness of the vulnerability of characters who, in keeping with the principles of tragedy, appear to be moving inexorably toward their fates . . . The Black Cathedral is a book about survival―every character is in danger of imminent harm―but there’s a melancholy playfulness that enlivens the tragedy.” ―Maxine Swann, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Strange and beautiful... Told by a chorus of mutually contradictory narrators―think George Saunders's Lincoln In the Bardo, except with fewer ghosts (just one ghost narrator, in fact) . . . [it is] a difficult book to explain, and yet an impossible one to put down." ―Thrillist, The Best Books of 2020 (So Far)

“In Gala’s many-voiced tale, Cienfuegos is a provincial capital harboring mundane material aspirations, ingrained racial divisions, and serious artistic longings in competition with religious urges... The Black Cathedral is finally not about larger ideas of redemption and the future at all, but about predictable paths of minor failure and major self-justification. It’s no accident that key events... happen during the early years of the Obama administration: there’s a pervasive sense of dashed hopes, business as usual, faith ignored or betrayed.” ―Brian Dillon, 4Columns

“A transcendent tale of what it is to be human in a place not made to nurture. Exploring this idea of humanity in all its twisted, generous, deviant, beautiful forms, Gala’s novel is a twisted ode to a town teeming with magic and limitless potential, and replete with people in chase of unlikely dreams. Written with an astute colloquialism that captures a true and impressive diversity of voice, The Black Cathedral transports the reader to the marginal town of Cienfuegos, making no efforts to shield us from the dangers―and subtle joys―at the heart of its stories.” ―Leah Scott, Asymptote

"A story of family, an account of a transforming Cuba, an exploration of religious devotion, and a harrowing tale of a sinister man engaged in horrific acts. The Black Cathedral might not be what you first expect, but its unpredictability serves as one of its many strengths." ―Tobias Carroll, Literary Hub

"Marcial Garcia’s The Black Cathedral is told via a panoply of voices ― all the better to narrate this expansive yet taut novel of faith, family, and violence. What begins as the story of a religious family moving to a small Cuban town gradually becomes broader in scope, encompassing obsession and murder along the way." ―Vol. 1 Brooklyn

"An ingenious construction . . . Gala's novel isn't based around a single event, but rather the continual horror and occasional beauty of people reacting to one another and their own feelings, setting the courses of their lives according to rhythms that exist outside of them―those of money, love and power . . . The Black Cathedral is an effervescent read filled with energy, possibility and chaotic delights." ―Elisabeth Cook, BookBrowse (Editors’ Choice)

"Strange, exuberant, and altogether brilliant... An enthralling work of imagination and grit, Gala’s novel captures the complexity of one neighborhood as much as it exemplifies the many pleasures of great fiction." ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Award-winning Cuban writer and architect Gala links the fate of a community with the doomed construction of a cathedral in this dark, violent, often comic novel . . . A raucous, anguished, fast-paced story, tautly written and deeply rooted." ―Kirkus (starred review)

"For anyone who has nurtured the fantasy of Cuba as a tropical socialist paradise, that illusion is heartbreakingly shattered in this award-winning novel . . . Kushner’s nimble translation flows with flavor and intensity . . . Gala's raw, compelling, and highly readable novel lays bare a Cuba that, just like everywhere else, has not found an answer to human desperation, envy, or evil." ―Sara Martinez, Booklist

"Marcial Gala's magnificent The Black Cathedral is a chorus of unforgettable characters that linger in the ashes of Revolution and personal passions. This novel is the broken mirror in which modern Cuba is portrayed with unsettling humanity." ―Eduardo Lalo, author of Uselessness

The Black Cathedral is a multi-voiced novel, the narrative a quilt of recollections by witnesses to and participants in events in a neighborhood in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos (and, in part, way beyond it), covering many years. It is a look at the past, a sort of how-did-we-get-here collection, with many of the figures involved now distant from them and that place, including physically. The account does proceed mostly chronologically, but there are glimpses of what has become of many of the figures, and hints of some of the outcomes from early on, including that the black cathedral of the title would remain an unfinished project, and that the family behind it would be involved in some tragedy; "All of it could have been avoided if they hadn't drawn so much attention" one local notes very early on about the new arrivals that set the story in motion.

The novel begins with accounts of the arrival of Arturo Santos and his family in the Punta Gotica neighborhood of Cienfuegos, from Camagüey, and they are an immediately disruptive presence. Their coming here alone, of all places, is already suspicious, one character noting:

What could they have done in Camagüey ? Because it had to have been something major for them to run away from that city and end up burying themselves here in la cuartería

The father is religious, with three teenage children freighted with the names: David King, Samuel Prince, and Mary Johannes (and known by their second, rather than frst names -- even the girl). Interestingly, in a novel in which so many get their say the voices of the family members are almost never heard except second-hand; even though they are cast as central, their own versions of any of the events are barely on offer. So too in the novel as a whole, the Stuart family tends to be more shadow than real, exerting a strong influence, but -- here -- remaining in the background, and shadowy, too, as there's lots of guesswork around them and their lives, (practically) without them able to give their own explanations.

Similarly, the grand project that Arturo initiates -- the building of an enormous 'Black Cathedral', which many of the locals then become involved in -- is barely ever at the fore of the story. It is significant -- something that long dominates the neighborhood, as its construction stretches out over many years -- but only occasionally at the heart of some of the episodes; most of what is recounted is elsewhere. The temple is also, in its now ruined state: "the only remnant of Arturo Stuart's time in Cienfuegos", and so the novel is both reconstruction of what the family's now vanished presence there meant and, in its chronological recounting, construction of the same, as what happened, and the nature of the family members and their relationships only gradually take shape -- though with a sense of foreboding from early on; as the local high school principal says about the kids when they were under his charge:

To the core, they were rotten; something was hiding behind the Christianity their parents paraded about -- something.

Indeed, rather than being about the construction of the temple, the novel is largely about, as one character calls them, "the Black Cathedral generation" -- the Stuart kids, with their different talents, but also others in the neighborhood. It's not just the Stuart kids who seem rotten to the core, the whole neighborhood is one where not just violence but evil simmers underneath. The charismatic character whose accounts come up most frequently is known as Gringo (and goes by many names over the course of the story) -- is: "evil, evil, he was like a real Cro-Magnon", and we already learn early on that he winds up on death row in Texas. From his gruesome but almost comic early crimes -- recognizing a market-gap in contemporary Cuba, he figures out a creative way to further cash in on the murders he commits -- he eventually flees to the United States, where he does quite well for himself, albeit in seriously criminal manner; this larger than life figure is the dominant one in the novel, even though his interaction with the Stuart family is relatively minor (though he does court Johannes -- and tries to impress the father to further his cause -- and also corrupts one of the sons).

Other characters of note include the ghosts of some of the dead, the architect charged with helping design the Black Cathedral (who eventually backs out of the project), a Ukrainian thug, and Berta, who becomes a well-known novelist. There's some poetic talent in the Stuart family as well, while Johannes finds both escape and fame abroad, breaking through as a painter (and changing her name to Judith). The fate of the other two sons, and of Arturo, is rather grimmer; the story sort of builds towards that, but covers so much else along the way.

The Black Cathedral winds up being an odd mix of character-/neighborhood-/nation-studies and suspense story, Gala dangling the mystery surrounding the collapse of both the Stuart family and the grand cathedral project but drawing that out over a very long time (many years, as well as many pages) while pacing the suspense also with Gringo's doings, the serial killer conveniently spreeing along for quite a stretch (but, soon, on the road, far away ...). It's a pretty dark picture Gala paints of contemporary Cuba and its corruptions -- extending also to Arturo's clever playing of and in the system in order to get what he needed to build his cathedral (so, for example, he made sure his followers went through the right motions: "You couldn't organize anything for the anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution without them showing up. They were the first ones to donate blood. They went to do volunteer work and the May 1 and July 26 parades"). Despite being a fairly compact novel, it is, however, a(n overly) diffuse picture, with so many characters and stories -- many intertwined, but also straying (especially in the case of the dominant Gringo) far afield.

One other interesting aspect of the novel is the racial one, as the Stuart family (and many of the other characters) are black and this features, on some level, in much that happens (including when and in how Gringo adapts to the United States). Gala weaves this into his novel well -- but he's weaving a lot into this novel, and elsewhere seems to promise too much (with the cathedral-project, for example), the ultimate delivery of some of this rather weakened. The Stuart family members' often limited presence in so much of the novel is a problematic void -- and in its resolution, where they (or some of them) are more at the fore, the fact that we have learned so little about them to that point undermines that as well.

An interesting and colorful if ultimately too loose (with its so many threads ...) read.

- M.A.Orthofer


Marcial Gala was born in Havana in 1963. He is a novelist, a poet, and an architect and is a member of UNEAL, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. He won the Pinos Nuevos Prize for best short story in 1999. The Black Cathedral received the Alejo Carpentier Award for best novel in 2012 and the Critics’ Award in 2012. He lives in Buenos Aires and Cienfuegos.


Dale Brett - For the wandering alien of existence whose faith tabernacles are a vivid, stroboscopic carousel of interpassivity, a Bohemian Bermuda gesturing at a Xanadu of qualia, the shambles of eternity but echophenomena. Chasm or cataract, all terra incognita, microdosing damnation, a gospel for raffish waywards of Otaku and other esoteric persuasions, continuity as tundra of pulsing melancholy

Dale Brett, Faceless in Nippon, Expat Press, 2020.

Slip through the aqueous mist whispering nostalgic sweet nothings. Embrace this invitation to become enveloped. Your breathing slows to a controlled pant before settling into its new tingling default, a hum of vacant reception, a reassuring murmur of inviolate presence, an ontology of de facto delirium. You mind meld with Dale Brett’s narrator, lapse into a state of mind malleably purposed to your bagged bones and jerky, spastic energy. Cruise control with unblinking techno-addled fascination in an oblivion of echoing sorrows passing epsilons of diaphanous clarity through a carnival of lewd and cerebral pleasures decadent and ancient, a love letter to an amorphous city of reverie rendered as bleary-eyed consumer simulation, a reveille for the overwhelmingly sensate, atomized into arresting poetic narrative constellations. Brett’s nameless metropolis is a promised land for active psychonauts and enthusiasts of stupefacient pastimes, veteran readers with a taste for narcotic drip allures, the world-weary human tourist pining for exotic lands while wired to a modem. For the wandering alien of existence whose faith tabernacles are a vivid, stroboscopic carousel of interpassivity, a Bohemian Bermuda gesturing at a Xanadu of qualia, the shambles of eternity but echophenomena. Chasm or cataract, all terra incognita, microdosing damnation, a gospel for raffish waywards of Otaku and other esoteric persuasions, continuity as tundra of pulsing melancholy. A lucid high for burnout syndrome. Exhilarating, charming mythopoeia for the modern computer mode sentients of the new decade, an aesthetic rarefaction to a world beat. By turns whimsical and winsome, by orders alchemical, etheric, cosmic, alethic- ride the inexorable plunge to lush latitudes, sink into egalitarian opulence, not substance impairment but rapt surrender, a living end reminder you haven’t lived ’til you’ve downloaded this sim, this proto-dystopian technological Mecca, this deconstructive underworld, brain molten and photosensitive, erogenously tactile. Quintessentially vibe-compatible. Comical, blissed out. Incomparably lovely. Dale Brett collapses wide-eyed wanderlust with the Promethean inertia of the zeitgeist. A word machine marvel. A seismic arrival for a protean raw talent. A resonant confirmation that visionary gusto remains unabated in literature.

Faceless in Nippon is perhaps the most sincere contemporary novel about banality, modernity and existential ennui to exist, this side of 202X. With surprising ease and admirable restraint, Brett competently weaves the tale of one individual’s attempt at self-discovery and extreme escape. It is powerful, mildly depressing at times, almost always funny, rarely cynical and completely unironic. I wholeheartedly applaud any writer capable of crafting a complex (but easy-to-follow) story structure without the employ of meta-narratives and post-everything tropes. Brett presents a writing style that is both exuberant and attentive—enough, to present juxtapositions that alone, pretty much approach silent excellence and supreme intellectual sophistication. The not-so-subtle anti-groupthink motifs within the text posit a very important question vis-à-vis the perceived status quo, and what is to be expected of humanity, as a whole, in the years to come. There are several breathtaking moments and unique descriptors, like: ambient observations RE: the different colours of the sky, the muted magnificence of neon lights and their effect on the substance of the night, abstract ideas of the ethereal and its ineffable properties, the magickal aspects of vapourwave music, the stunning ethnographical discourse and of course, Blade Runner. If any or all of this sounds familiar, I assure you, Brett takes what you think you know, and turns it into the unfamiliar. - Mike Kleine

The time has come … pick up … put down those bread knives … Dale Brett has written with a livid expression … attacking the aluminium fascia of literature … kicking the coffee cans of Asia. Dale Brett wrote a book. A meditative trance of a novel … full of nocturnal sounds … painful blows … the menial tasks of modern society … the strange feeling from a variety show … the bitter taste of cheap drinks … cup noodles … late-night advertisements … J-pop … and beautiful human bodies. The broken murmurs of inner loneliness … the blank mass of social media pleasure-feeds … the convenience store. Faceless in Nippon. F.I.N. Fin. Begin. Finnegan’s Wake. The beautiful skins of previous worlds. Apartment buildings full of hentai magazines. Glass containers of bizarre taxidermist creatures. Dale Brett’s novel isn’t some mandatory script … it is a mental scab … a burnt-out body encompassing kawaii and key chains … the public intimacy show … excessive mayonnaise … Styrofoam and corporate entrails … warm waves of gaudy sashes and electricity. Nameless in Japan. Eyeless in Gaza. The overhead ramps of your social conditions. Turbo jets inside a fancy shell. Wasteful conglomerations of real people. This book contains the night’s forgotten moments … the hard times … the artificial light … dirty river … facial expressions … Japan … flip phone … capitalist perfection. Inside … on these pages … the glossy lustre of Jesus … aluminium fascia … cigarette ash … greasy convenience store debris. Don’t be a suspicious customer … read this. - Shane Jesse Christmass




K. Ferrari barrels through this blackly comic story the way his protagonist, Luis Machi, barrels through life: loud, crude and indifferent to the finer points of character and plot as he rushes inexorably toward doom ... Heavy on action and dark humor

Like Flies from Afar | K. Ferrari | Macmillan
K. Ferrari, Like Flies from Afar: A Novel, Trans. by Adrian Nathan West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Oligrachs gone wild, in a brutal and darkly comic Argentinian noir

Mr. Luis Machi is an unforgettably loathsome and hilarious Argentinian oligarch who made his fortune collaborating with the worst elements of society—parasites, pushers, and secret policemen. He has a cocaine habit, a collection of three hundred ties, ten million dollars in the bank, and a bloody corpse in the trunk of his BMW . . . but as far as the body goes, he's completely innocent. He has no idea who the victim could be, or who among his many, many enemies might be trying to frame him for murder, and he doesn't have much time to find out . . .
The profane and uproarious Like Flies from Afar follows Machi through twenty-four hours of his eventful life—one full day in which to solve this mystery, or at least to make sure he isn't the one to take the fall.
The first novel to appear in English by the "subway janitor by night, novelist by day," who began his writing career while an undocumented immigrant in the United States, Like Flies from Afar will demonstrate why K. Ferrari is already an award-winning star of international crime fiction. A hardboiled noir thriller, a whodunit, a black comedy, and a filthy catalog of the excesses of wealth, this is a Jim Thompson novel for the globalized world.

"Not only is Like Flies from Afar a tough, perfectly constructed novel, it was written with the understanding that the noir is the new protest novel of the twenty-first century." ―Paco Ignacio Taibo II 

"K. Ferrari is one of the most important voices in the contemporary Argentine crime novel. His unique tone creates characters that are unforgettable―realistic and poetic all at once. Like Flies from Afar is yet another example of his literary mastery." ―Claudia Piñeiro

A darker shade of absurdist noir featuring an Argentine businessman, as contemptible as he is successful, who finds his life inexplicably falling apart.

The opening of this short novel finds Mr. Machi in the afterglow of a fellatio-induced, cocaine-driven orgasm, luxuriating in his obscenely opulent success, as he prepares to take a drive. “He doesn’t need to wonder what success is, because he can feel it in the potent purr of the accelerator beneath his right foot, in the cushioned upholstery, in the power steering, in the sunlight and the stares of astonishment and envy reflecting off the BMW’s gloss finish,” writes Ferrari, who works as a subway-station janitor in his native Buenos Aires after having been deported from the United States in the 1990s. This is his first work to be translated into English, and it could pass as a madcap mixture of Kafka, Bukowski, and Jim Thompson. In quick order, the corrupt, politically connected Mr. Machi finds his tire sabotaged and his trunk somehow occupied by a corpse whose face has been mutilated beyond recognition. Then more clues seem to link Mr. Machi himself to the murder. He has no idea who the victim is, who the perpetrator was, or why he has been targeted. The book follows his efforts over one day to dispose of the body and the evidence and to discover the motive and culprits. He “feels there’s no bottom to the pit he’s fallen into,” and his attempts to dig himself out find him falling deeper in. He believes he has no enemies, but as he ponders his predicament, it appears to the reader that pretty much everyone he knows could have wished him ill—his wife and their children, his employees and partners, his rivals. His daughter’s boyfriend is a writer who supports himself with menial work (like the author) and has plans to write a detective novel much like this one, in which Mr. Machi would be the protagonist “and terrible things would happen to him.”

Though ultimately unsatisfying as a mystery, it works as an existential parable, with a protagonist whose character is destiny. - Kirkus Reviews

Like Flies from Afar comes with epigraphs from Jim Thompson and David Goodis, and Ferrari's writing is clearly modeled after theirs -- fast, sharp, and pitch-black dark; the third epigraph, squeezed in between the other two, is from Karl Marx, suggesting the novel's other focus, as its protagonist is the embodiment of ugly capitalism. Yet another epigraph on a separate page, from Rodolfo Walsh, spells the combination out more clearly: "If someone wants to read this book as a regular old thriller, that's their right" -- implying, of course, that it can also (or should) be read as something more than that.

Like Flies from Afar begins with a coked-up (and Viagra-supplemented) Luis Machi getting a blow-job and then lighting up an expensive cigar. He is one for enjoying the fruits of his labor, getting his due; his business empire is called 'El Imperio', and he likes to see himself and be seen as an emperor-figure, bending every-one and -thing to his will (and whims). A supplicant on her knees, offering him gratification, sets the stage just right.

It is early morning, and Machi wants some domestic satisfaction too: he calls his wife and demands that she have breakfast waiting for him when he gets home in what he imagines will be: "an hour, give or take". But breakfast, it turns out, will have to wait.

Machi gets in his car, a two-hundred-thousand-dollar BMW, and begins the drive home. He does not immediately realize there are two things in his car that don't belong. One is a book that his daughter, Luciana, dropped -- Michel Foucault's The Order of Things -- though she calls him up to be on the lookout for it, because she needs it for an upcoming midterm. The Order of Things famously begins with the observation that: "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges", as Machi sees when he leafs through the book; the passage -- quoted by Foucault -- is from Borges' 'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins' and is itself a list Borges reports finding in a work by Franz Kuhn, who attributes it to a Chinese encyclopedia, the 'Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge' ('Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos'), categorizing animals; the listed categories are used by Ferrari as the titles of the thirteen parts of his novel, with the final, fourteenth one -- "que de lejos parecen moscas" -- taken for the title of the novel.

The list -- and its transmitters, Borges and Foucault -- thus very obviously serve as a scaffold for the novel. Machi is, unsurprisingly, oblivious to it, unimpressed by what his daughter is studying and by Borges; amusingly, he eventually purchases a new copy of the book -- and, at the suggestion of the counter girl at the bookstore, Barthes' Writing Degree Zero -- as well as two Sidney Sheldon novels (for his wife).

If The Order of Things pretty much goes over his head and is nothing more than a slight irritation -- at what his daughter is wasting her time with, at what he's wasting tuition-money on -- the other thing he finds in the BMW proves to be considerably more urgently problematic. He doesn't realize it immediately, but soon enough he's in for a very rude surprise: there is a dead body in the trunk of the car. Complicating matters further, it's handcuffed inside -- making it even harder to dispose of -- with a personal accessory, the pink fur handcuffs he likes to use in some of his sexual encounters.

Machi has a problem -- and it's a confounding one too. He's baffled by how the body came into the trunk. Machi lives in a gated community, and his office garage is well secured. So there are a lot of open questions about this corpse that he can't even identify, and how it got there:

Where, Mr. Machi asks himself.

Who, he asks himself.

He asks himself how.

And why.

Last of all, Mr.Machi, a businessman above all else, can't stop wondering: What did they expect to get out of planting a body in his trunk ?

He spends the next couple of hours driving around, trying to figure all this out. And trying to get rid of the corpse.

It brings him -- and his very showy car -- to neighborhoods where he stands out like a sore thumb. He's covered in elitist markers: Scappino, Versace, Rolex, Armani. And he's sitting in that obscenely expensive BMW. Driving through these common neighborhoods, he can't help but be outraged , his blinding sense of entitlement leaving him baffled: "Why are they all calm and not me ?" He can buy anything -- and anyone -- so why can't he have the piece of mind he deserves ?

Like Flies from Afar is then a fast-paced ride-along, as Machi tries to extricate himself from this very uncomfortable situation he finds himself in -- and wonders who he can trust and who has it in for him -- complete with some blasts from the past and examples of his cutthroat policies and the damage they've done. His rise is one of ultra-capitalist success -- taking advantage of the possibilities, having the right connections, trampling anything in his way. It mirrors the Argentine experience in general, complete with high-finance games that crush the general population and benefit only a few winners. And Machi is one of those winners:

I passed the factory over to the investors at Varano, we issued bonds, we stripped the motherfucker down, and we declared bankruptcy a few years later. In '92 all we had was a second-rate textile plant and in '94 I could put two million just into remodeling the club, see ?

Like Flies from Afar is a novel of comeuppance -- but Ferrari doesn't go for facile moral tales: if this is the story of Machi's fall (into the abyss), it isn't the one of straightforward justice. Machi remains oblivious. Machi continues to believe he can get his way. And, mostly, Machi does. Sure, his wife has cleared out by the time he finally does get home, pissed off that she made him breakfast and he didn't show. But, hey, he bought her some Sidney Sheldon novels; it'll all be good in the end, he figures.

As the invocation of Jim Thompson and David Goodis at the opening suggested, Ferrari's writing heart is in a deep, dark place, and that is where he brings the novel to in its conclusion. If most of Like Flies from Afar is a traditional tale of dark countdown suspense -- will the authorities catch up to what Machi is hiding or will he somehow extricate himself from this predicament ? -- its conclusion finds Machi confronted with the fact that he's at best managed a brief detour in the game that's actually being played with him. Does Ferrari play fair ? Absolutely; it's the perfect conclusion for this tale -- even as it leaves everything open. (But, yeah, it's hard not to think that Machi might have met his match.)

Like Flies from Afar is a cruel portrait of a modern-day success story, its protagonist, forced by rare circumstances beyond his control, to navigate the world at large -- exposing him to how the other 99 per cent live, but he incapable of even beginning to comprehend the divide (much less accept any blame as to his own role in creating the conditions around him, or what is happening to him). Machi is being taught a lesson, but regardless how it's hammered home he doesn't seem to learn, which is part of the (sometimes grim) fun over the course of the story; the nice closing touch suggests that it won't be that easy for him to escape in the long run, which is fun too.

Much here is familiar excess and outrageous behavior, but Like Flies from Afar is fast and furious and sly enough in Ferrari's presentation to work well on its multiple levels -- whether as simple thriller, socio-political critique, or anything in between. A solid little thriller, of and for our times. - M.A.Orthofer


K. Ferrari telegraphs his intentions from the outset of his novel “Like Flies From Afar.” Newly translated from the Spanish, the book opens with epigraphs from Jim Thompson, Karl Marx and David Goodis: a trinity of writers who guide, or inhabit, Ferrari’s sensibility.

Thompson and Goodis were among the most unrelenting of the 20th century American noirists, their fiction set in a universe that is indifferent, if not outright hostile, to their character’s concerns. And Marx, of course, is Marx, perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the last 175 years — regardless of whether, or to what extent, we agree with his worldview.

“Like Flies From Afar” collapses these perspectives — the hard-boiled crime novel as social allegory. Ferrari, born in 1972, was deported as a young man from the United States and works as a janitor in a Buenos Aires subway station. He has published six other books in Argentina, but this is the first to appear in English.

Unfolding over the space of a single morning, it revolves around a character known only as Mr. Machi, who, as the action begins, is in the office of his Buenos Aires club El Imperio, high on cocaine and engaged in some sexual hit-and-run.

Mr. Machi is a walking act of blunt force trauma, pushing his way through the world in his Versace sunglasses and a BMW that electrifies the road like “a black bolt of lightning” and sparking his Montecristo cigars with a gold Dupont. He is a bad father and a worse husband, a bully who has trafficked in power for so long — first during Argentina’s junta of the 1970s and now under its democratic successor — that he cannot recognize that he, like all of us, is vulnerable.

His precarity asserts itself after his tire is flattened on the Panamericana highway. On his way to retrieve the spare, he finds a man handcuffed to his trunk, his face shot away with a bullet from Mr. Machi’s own Glock.

That’s a terrific set-up for a crime novel: The locked-room murder mystery transplanted to the cocoon of the car. Ferrari, however, is not after resolution so much as entanglement, a widening net of implication in which Mr. Machi finds himself ensnared. The body in the trunk is less important in its own right than as the catalyst for an internal reckoning, in which Mr. Machi is forced, through a series of recollections, to assess the flashpoints of his life.

More often than not, these reexamined moments involve the people (his son, his enforcer, a business partner, the maid he cheats with) whom he has used or wronged. Ferrari’s plotting is ingenious, not only in the way it unveils the kaleidoscopic, potentially viral network of Mr. Machi’s connections, but also in how it shatters the illusion of his mastery to reveal “the great beast of paranoia” within.

“When all’s said and done,” he writes of Mr. Machi, who is trying to soothe himself, “I’m a good guy, he thinks. … But the crack’s already there and doubt is threatening to blow his skull wide open.” The ensuing breakdown — heightened by Ferrari’s strategy of blurring Mr. Machi’s point of view into his own as well as those of other characters — is the real subject of the novel, which is less about any external crime than the disintegration of his protagonist’s arrogant façade.

“Like Flies From Afar” is, in other words, an existential mystery, in which corruption emerges from the inside and the most pressing dangers are those we bring upon ourselves. Ferrari makes the point explicit during a scene in which Mr. Machi’s enforcer, an assassin named Pereyra, pulls a gun on a student in a Che Guevara tank top that features an inverted (and misattributed) version of Emiliano Zapata’s slogan: “Better to live on your feet than to die on your knees.”

Ferrari knows exactly what he’s mocking, as he reveals with Pereyra’s response. “I’ll give you ten seconds to choose,” the killer barks, reframing the line correctly: “Live on your knees or die on your feet.” After the frightened young man sinks to the ground, he shoots him in the kneecaps anyway. The scene is horrifying but also, in context, bleakly comic, reflecting both Pereyra’s brutality and the callowness of bourgeois youth. Even as we shudder at the violence, we cannot help but appreciate the ironies.

Mr. Machi himself is not unaware of these incongruities; early in the novel, he pitches Foucault’s “The Order of Things” from his car after discovering that his daughter has left a copy there.

The postmodern text is a signifier, as Ferrari makes clear when Mr. Machi reads from it: “This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought.” Something similar happens to Mr. Machi as the order of his life is swept away.

The idea takes unexpected shape late in the novel when we meet the daughter’s boyfriend, a crime writer and a radical, who decides he will “write a novel with Mr. Machi as protagonist, and terrible things would happen to him.” It’s a spectacularly meta move, framing him (perhaps) as not just author but antagonist.

For all that, “Like Flies From Afar” is hardly a work of literary gamesmanship. Instead, it offers contrapuntal pleasures — a propulsive chase across Buenos Aires as well as a finely rendered portrait of a man so enraptured by his wealth and power that he has lost sight, if he ever had it, of his frailty. The novel takes prodigious turns as Mr. Machi pushes harder, every decision leading to more disruption and more doubt.

What happens when your world blows up, when everything you thought you could count on is revealed to be a reverie? It’s a question a lot of us are asking in the surreal, occluded moment we have come to occupy.

“[H]e can’t trust his recollections just now,” Ferrari writes of Mr. Machi. “He’s nervous, he feels hemmed in, stuck in a dream or some other kind of irreality. But the stink of his own vomit tells him it’s real.” - David D. Ulin


Subtlety is not something Ferrari has time for. He barrels through this blackly comic story the way his protagonist, Luis Machi, barrels through life: loud, crude and indifferent to the finer points of character and plot as he rushes inexorably toward doom ... Heavy on action and dark humor — fluidly rendered in West’s translation from the original Spanish — Like Flies From Afar is for those who like their noir fast, short and nasty. - David Gordon


Futurity Report - theorists, historians, and artists address the precarious futurity of the notion of the future itself.

Futurity Report – Sternberg Press

Futurity Report, Sternberg Press, 2020.

Theorists, historians, and artists address the precarious futurity of the notion of the future.Not long ago, a melancholic left and a manic neoliberalism seemed to arrive at an awkward consensus: the foreclosure of futurity. Whereas the former mourned the failure of its utopian project, the latter celebrated the triumph of a global marketplace. The radical hope of realizing a singularly different, more equitable future displaced by a belief that the future had already come to pass, limiting post-historical society to an uneventful life of endless accumulation. Today, amidst an abundance of neofuturisms, posthumanisms, futurologies, speculative philosophies and accelerationist scenarios, there is as well an expanding awareness of a looming planetary catastrophe driven by the extractionist logic of capitalism. Despite this return to the future, the temporal horizon of our present moment is perhaps more aptly characterized by the “shrinking future” of just-in-time production, risk management, high-frequency trading, and the futures market. In Futurity Report, theorists, historians, and artists address the precarious futurity of the notion of the future itself.

Contributors: McKenzie Wark, China Miéville, Kerstin Stakemeier, Diedrich Diederichsen, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Marina Vishmidt, Johannes Paul Raether, Felicity D. Scott, Silvia Maglioni, Graeme Thomson, Doreen Mende, Pedro Neves Marques, Achille Mbembe, Kodwo Eshun, Haytham El-Wardany, T. J. Demos, Ana Teixeira Pinto


Flann O’Brien: Gallows humour - 16 great chapters on O'Brien, biopolitics and body humour, ranging from violence, eugenics & capital punishment to gender, prosthetics & Gaelic games

Flann O’Brien: Gallows Humour, Ed. by Ruben Borg and Paul Fagan, Cork University Press, 2020.

The essays collected in this volume draw unprecedented critical attention to the centrality of politics in Flann O’Brien’s art. The organising theme of Gallows humour focuses these inquiries onto key encounters between the body and the law, between death and the comic spirit in the author’s canon. These innovative analyses explore the place of biopolitics in O’Brien’s modernist experimentation and popular writing through reflections on his handling of the thematics of violence, justice, capital punishment, eugenics, prosthetics, skin, prostitution, syphilis, rape, reproduction, illness, auto-immune deficiency, abjection, drinking, Gaelic games and masculinist nationalism across a diverse range of genres, intertexts, contexts.


Edmondo De Amicis - - In this comic masterpiece timid little Mr Celzani is consumed by love for the disdainful Miss Pedani, an Amazonian gymnast. He finds his romantic efforts repeatedly thwarted by his beloved’s single-minded focus on her rigorous physical discipline

Love and Gymnastics (Hesperus Classics): Edmondo de Amicis, David ...

Edmondo De Amicis, Love and Gymnastics, Trans. by David Chapman, Hesperus Press, 2011. [1892.] 

‘Great God, how beautiful she was! He had never seen her looking so well as she had that evening, sitting there with an erect torso like an empress on a throne with that ample bosom quivering with life… He had observed her hand, which was a bit thickened by gymnastic exercise, resting on the table; still it was long and beautiful, full of strength and elegance, and he had wanted to swoop down upon it like a vulture on a turtledove.’

In this comic masterpiece from 1892, timid little Mr Celzani is consumed by love for the disdainful Miss Pedani, an Amazonian gymnast with whom he shares an apartment block.The machinations of their fellow inhabitants notwithstanding, he finds his romantic efforts repeatedly thwarted by his beloved’s single-minded focus on her rigorous physical discipline.Through the intertwining themes of the title, De Amicis proposes a timeless meditation on devotion, hope, persistence and the need for balance in all human relations.

Rediscovered by Italo Calvino, this rare novella by one of Italy’s best-loved literary talents links the themes of romantic love and sportsmanship. It is published here for the first time in English.

'David Chapman’s translation, the first into English, is clean and sprightly, and shows De Amicis as a master of the skewering one-liner which fixes a character to a page... Best of all is his portrait of Celzani, which astutely traces the surging hopes and withering self-delusions of this thwarted no-hoper as he tries to persuade “la Pedani” that he’s more worthwhile than a “simple jumping half-step.” It delivers fistfuls of cruelty, but always with a smile. This edition comes with a foreword by Italo Calvino, who thought it was the best thing De Amicis ever wrote, and you can see why.'– Intelligent Life, The Economist

"All this is very funny, as is the bland, light-hearted satire of the infatuation for physical training which was sweeping Italy at the time. (...) (H)e has a real gift for accurate observation of both characters and scenes. (...) Amore e ginnastica (...) still makes for delightful reading, and one would not be surprised if it becomes as popular as Cuore." - Times Literary Supplement

Love and Gymnastics is set largely in a single house of six apartments, one of the oldest in Turin -- and one which: "suited itself well to intrigues and to the secrets of amorous passions". The time is the late nineteenth century, as a gymnastics-craze is sweeping Italy -- not competitive gymnastics, but rather as a fitness- and wellness-exercise, suitable for all to participate in; as presented here it's perhaps most comparable to the present-day yoga fad, complete with competing schools of what are the best forms of the exercise and devotees who swear by it.

Several of the tenants of the house are very wrapped up in this gymnastics enthusiasm, with the third floor being: "all scholastic and gymnastics". It is there that Maria Pedani -- a: "tall and strong lass of twenty-seven" -- lives with Miss Zibelli, who is nearly a decade older and "the physical opposite of her friend".

Miss Pedani is completely devoted to gymnastics -- obsessed with it: "She lived with one thought alone: gymnastics". Her life revolves entirely around it: she practices and she preaches it; she is a teacher as well as an ardent proponent of the activity and she follows all the latest news and trends; she also writes about it, to spread the word and share her expertise, including for professional journals. If not a classic beauty -- her facial expression and gait are a bit too manly, for one --, she is, thanks to her lifestyle, still quite a figure: she "was of statuesque proportions, breathed health and strength from her entire body" (and she has: "the flexibility of a ten-year-old child"). And so she of course attracts some attention, including from one of the sons of a family in the building, as well as from the landlord's nephew, employed by his uncle as secretary after he decided that the path to priesthood he had previously embarked upon wasn't quite for him after all -- though he's not allowed to forget it, as: "all the tenants of the house had for years called him 'Reverend' Celzani in jest".

It is Celzani's passion for Miss Pedani that dominates the story. As is perhaps to be expected from a priest-manqué, he is not just not a ladies' man -- he really doesn't even know how to approach one, and so his is fumbling actions around Miss Pedani are a source of much of the comedy in the novel. He might only be: "a few years past his thirtieth birthday, but he had the bearing and behaviour of a man of fifty". But it isn't only his bearing and hapless approach -- which includes first making his feelings known by sending her a letter -- that hinder his hopes for romantic happiness: there's that problem that Miss Pedani doesn't even think of romance, her entire being taken up by gymnastics.

De Amicis' tale is an enjoyable romantic and gymnastic romp. Celzani's first letter quickly makes the rounds, and many of the tenants get pulled into the affair to some extent. It doesn't develop into much of a romantic affair -- Miss Pedani makes her position clear, time and again -- but Celzani is the sort of deluded would-be lover who refuses to give up. De Amicis presents this very well, right down to Celzani's voyeurism, which sees him gaze down longingly into Miss Pedani's rooms from an attic perch, as well as how Celzani goes to pieces when his suit fails, again and again:

When she had first arrived at that house, he was wise, hard-working, calm, good, and liked by all. And everything had fallen apart from there.

Miss Pedani doesn't even seem to think of romance, trying to explain to him: "For my occupation I need to be free; I have decided to be free". And De Amicis convincingly presents her as completely wrapped up in what is her true passion -- hilariously over the top, down to the enthusiasm with which she immerses herself in the reports coming hour by hour from a gymnastics-meet in distant Frankfurt.

The basic story of Love and Gymnastics is a fairly familiar one, but De Amicis makes of it one that is quite the cut above the usual variation. For one, he deftly ties in Italy's enthusiasm of the day for gymnastics into the story -- "The teachers of gymnastics will become the nation's elite", one enthusiast insists --, gently, rather than harshly, mocking it; his characters are all sincere in their engagement with it (though there is the occasional exaggeration-for-purposes-of-flattery). It's this sincerity, that extends beyond gymnastics, and the true-to-life depiction of the characters' behavior and attitudes which De Amicis pulls off particularly, with his well-drawn characters and his presentation of the house, and the interaction of the tenants.

These strong supporting characters, and their own issues and interests, work particularly well in the story, especially in relation to the in many ways oblivious-seeming Miss Pedani, whose interests are so specific and limited. So, for example, her flatmate seesaws in her intense feelings for Miss Pedani, in a relationship where it is at one point suggested: "one would assume that she was a husband rather than a friend". Similarly, the different ways Celzani is treated by the others in the house, including his uncle, as he falls apart in his failed courtship is very well-handled.

Love and Gymnastics is a surprisingly rich work, with even the satire of the gymnastics craze of the day holding up very well. It is an accomplished novella, in all respects -- and it's very good entertainment too.

- M.A.Orthofer


 Edmondo De Amicis (1843–1908) was one of Italy's most popular writers, and perhaps more than any other figure in post-Risorgimento Italy, he reflected the common hopes, dreams and prejudices of his countrymen. De Amicis was particularly interested in gymnastics and physical education, and he wrote about them frequently. His most famous work on these subjects is his novella Amore e ginnastica [Love and Gymnastics] (1892) which explores female fitness, sexual stereotypes and gender roles in nineteenth-century Italy. This opus, along with two others (a lecture and a magazine article), can help modern readers understand the role of female sport and gender expectations in post-Risorgimento Italy. In addition to exploring women's gymnastics, De Amicis was also interested in female mountain climbing. By examining the activities and physical appearance of lady mountaineers, the author reveals his personal criteria for the perfect woman. When these are combined with the gymnasts in the earlier work, we can distill the writer's own particular attitudes toward gender and female perfection. For De Amicis a woman was required to be athletic, beautiful, modest, faithful, loving and with just a soupçon of uncertainty about her sexuality to make her interesting. - David Chapman


Julian L. Shapiro - the sort of thing that has to come after Joyce, Stein and Surrealism. It is as fine and sensitive at times 'as beautiful' as Virginia Woolf

Julian L. Shapiro, The Water Wheel, Tough Poets Press, 2020.[1933.]

 First-ever new edition of The Water Wheel, the 1933 semi-autobiographical debut novel by Julian L. Shapiro, who later achieved cult status writing as John Sanford.

From the original edition's dust jacket:

"The Water Wheel recounts both the real and imagined-real adventures of one John B. Sanford in New York and London over a short period in 1927. The novel is completely dominated by Sanford, a self-assumed individualist--and self-styled 'lawclerk, sinner, ex-convict, adolescent, grandson and legatee of a Litvak matchvendor.'

"The author has maintained a rigid objectivity, at no time intruding upon the narrative, or showing his hand by making Sanford a mouth-piece for the expression of ideas outside the scope of the novel. Notwithstanding the author's neutrality, only the most literal will overlook in Sanford a character definitely in our time.

"In form, The Water Wheel has no counterpart in American letters. It deliberately avoids the traditional, but its objectives are always clarity and simplicity. The many technical and typographical innovations are designed to suit the subject matter, and are not fake-modern tricks."

"This first novel has some effective, even brilliant, scenes. It has originality of language, especially in the projection of moods... verbal brilliance."- The New York Times

"I can't say that I have ever seen better work. It is really written, it moves, it has the quality of a novel. The story as a story bites in, a matter of serious concern to anyone who can think and feel. It is excellent." - William Carlos Williams

"I personally regard Shapiro's novel as the sort of thing that has to come after Joyce, Stein and Surrealism. It is as fine and sensitive at times - if the word were not so utterly damned, I'd say 'as beautiful' - as Virginia Woolf.... In addition, Shapiro is a highly conscious and finished craftsman, which is to say that he is always exceedingly readable."- Samuel Putnam

The Water Wheel by Shapiro, Julian L. , pen name of John Sanford ...

Julian Lawrence Shapiro was born in Harlem, New York, on May 31, 1904, to a first-generation American mother and Russian immigrant father, who was a lawyer. He obtained his law degree from Fordham University and joined his father's legal practice. While still a law student, Shapiro had a chance encounter with his childhood friend Nathan Weinstein, who was then going by the name of Nathanael West (later known for such works as Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust) and working on his first novel. Inspired by West, he ultimately decided to retire from practicing law in order to devote all his time to writing. In 1935, Shapiro adopted the name of The Water Wheel's protagonist, John Sanford, in hopes that, in a time of rising antisemitism in the U.S., a gentile name would aid book sales. In his earlier novels, he was noted for blending experimental techniques with realism. He was described as "perhaps the most outstanding neglected novelist," by The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. While Sanford's later novels were well received-especially The Old Man's Place (1935), Seventy Times Seven (1939), and his masterpiece The People from Heaven (1943)-The Water Wheel was panned by reviewers when it was released. The Miami Herald was appalled by the sordidness of the novel, tame by today's standards. In a review titled "Sex, Sin, Slime," they wrote, "This is a first novel. It should be the last." and "It is a pity that God's green trees must be sacrificed to provide paper for printing this stuff." The New York Times was a little kinder. While admiring the author's flair and "originality of language," they dismissed the work as "sensitive, neurotic workings of the Sanford mind, with its defensive egotism and pleasure in self-torment-a study in the immature egotist and his inferiority sense." The review concluded, "Mr. Shapiro, with his verbal brilliance, will do better work in a more objective novel." Sanford wrote half of his books after he was 80. He published a five-volume autobiography, for which he received a PEN Award and the Los Angeles Times Lifetime Achievement Award. He left three unpublished novels and was writing up until a month before his death on March 5, 2003, at the age of 98.

Robert M. Coates composed the book like a collage, employing an experimental writing style that incorporated billboards, advertising slogans, and traffic signs to make immediate and vivid the perceptions and experiences of the characters. Dada' spirit brings to life the cacophonous, visually chaotic and mentally demanding life of New York City

Robert M. Coates, Yesterday's Burdens, 1933.

 Originally published in 1933 by The Macaulay Company, Yesterday's Burdens is the second novel by Robert M. Coates, "Lost Generation" writer and long-time art critic at The New Yorker. Prior to publication, three chapters of the novel appeared in The New Yorker under the title "The Dada City" (1930), and another chapter in The American Caravan, a Yearbook of American Literature (1931).

Yesterday's Burdens was first resurrected in 1975 by the Southern Illinois University Press as part of their “Lost American Fiction” series, and included a new afterword by Malcolm Cowley. A paperback version of that edition was published the following year by the Popular Library. The novel has been out of print since.

"Coates composed the book like a collage, employing an experimental writing style that incorporated billboards, advertising slogans, and traffic signs to make immediate and vivid the perceptions and experiences of the characters. In Yesterday's Burdens, Coates's 'Dada' spirit brings to life the cacophonous, visually chaotic and mentally demanding life of New York City."— Mathilde Roza & Jack Mearns, "Collecting Robert M. Coates," Firsts, The Book Collector's Magazine, October 2007


"Yesterday's Burdens is certainly one of the most original books of the year... The strange thing is that, despite the confusion, despite stylistic vagaries unequaled since E.E. Cummings's EIMI, Yesterday's Burdens is an enjoyable book."— The New York Times, December 10, 1933

"An arresting, free, unique work of art which may possibly leave an effect on novel-writing in the next few years."— Vanity Fair, February 1934

"Not easy reading because it is done in the Dadaistic style but worthwhile as a kaleidoscopic picture of our present kaleidoscopic life. Fine humor and written with distinction."— Scribner's, February 1934

“The writing in detail is always fresh and frequently excellent; some of the isolated episodes . . . are no less than beautiful.”— The American Mercury, April 1934

This new edition of Yesterday's Burdens contains Malcolm Cowley's afterword from the 1975 Southern Illinois University Press edition as well as a new introduction by Mathilde Roza, associate professor of American Literature and American Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and author of Following Strangers: The Life and Literary Works of Robert M. Coates (University of South Carolina Press, 2011).  

The Eater of Darkness: Coates, Robert M., Roza PhD, Mathilde:  9781947951235: Amazon.com: Books

Robert M. Coates, The Eater of Darkness, 1929.

American expat name of Charles Dograr is tricked into firing a laser death ray. Chuck is so in love with the idea, he helps the laser's maker plan a bank job. Then it gets surreal. First published by Robert McAlmon in 1929.

Considered by many to be one of the most unique, avant-garde works published by the Lost Generation, The Eater of Darkness is hailed as the first Dada novel published by an American. Previously out of print for more than fifty years, this new edition has been updated with a new introduction and contemporary material that pays homage to the groundbreaking life and career of author Robert M. Coates.

One of the cleverest tours de force ever contrived by the pen of a wit.”

Young, charming, and fresh from a passionate jaunt in France, Charles Dograr leaves behind his French lover and returns to America to spend a year in New York City.

Eager to make his year in New York one to remember, Charles leaves his boarding house room one night in search of an adventure. As he wanders, Charles stumbles into the living quarters of Picrolas, an eccentric, crazed scientist who refers to himself as “the Eater of Darkness.” Picrolas reveals his prized invention: a remote-control x-ray machine, designed to electrocute and kill at random by shooting “x-ray bullets” into the brains of Picrolas’ intended targets.

Tricked by Picrolas into releasing the trigger, Charles is instantly taken by the machine and the power it holds. After a string of murders ensue, Charles agrees to help Picrolas plot an elaborate bank heist, using the x-ray bullets to kill the bank’s guards and any unlucky witnesses that happen to be on the street during the heist.

As the city is terrorized by these mysterious murders, Charles becomes entangled in the fallout. Characters disappear and reappear; events spiral in a disorienting, antirealistic fashion; and genres collide in an unpredictable, dreamlike conclusion.

Often compared to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, The Eater of Darkness is many things: both an acclaimed crime novel and a study in surrealist fiction; an experimentation of style, structure, and syntax; and an innovative, avant-garde concoction from an author who wrote years ahead of his time.

I stumbled upon The Eater of Darkness by Robert M. Coates while undertaking research into visual prose, sometimes also called visual writing, for a recent lecture. I had never heard of the novel, first published in Paris in 1926 by Contact Editions with the help of modernist matriarch Gertrude Stein, and the title alone would have been enough to compel my attention. From descriptions, the book appeared to be a genre-busting collision of science fiction, murder mystery, and Dada and/or Surrealism. A spread reproduced online — the same spread I show below — seemed to indicate that it featured artful typographic arrangements, with texts wrapping around each other and fragmented syntax. Even more promisingly, the website where I found it proposed that its interlocking passages anticipated the multi-voiced patchwork layout of Jacques Derrida’s Glas, meticulously designed by the late typographer Richard Eckersley.

Unfortunately, the American paperback edition in question, published by Putnam in 1959, was not immediately accessible to me in London, and it was also expensive. But it seemed there was an alternative. Out of print for decades, the book was republished in 2012 by the latest incarnation of Olympia Press, notorious Parisian purveyor of narrative pornography and literary landmarks such as Lolita and The Naked Lunch. This cheap edition I could obtain at once. Alas, this screen dump of a book makes a complete hash of the typography and treats the spread that had interested me as though it were a linear text. No way around it: I found the cheapest copy of the 1959 edition available and waited for it to turn up.

In the meantime, I contacted Milton Glaser because the other thing that made The Eater of Darkness a book I wanted to see was Glaser’s cover design. The website with the spread also reproduces the back cover where he has a credit. It doesn’t look like Glaser as we came to know him as designer-illustrator — he was then around 30 — but it is still an enticing design. The uncanny atmosphere and disorientating compositional style of the book, described on the back as “the first surrealist novel in English,” are signaled by the vertically positioned title and author’s name (surely unusual on a novel at the time) and by the curious device of the reader-beckoning, centrally placed exclamation/question motif with the gothically styled points — a graphic “what the heck.”

The illustration, a black-and-white photo of a Joseph Cornell-like surrealistic box, to which vibrant color has been applied at the printing stage, is not at all Glaserish. The mechanical elements and optical discs reminiscent of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs represent the machine that the inventor and self-styled “Eater of Darkness” in the novel devises to kill people at a distance by means of a deadly, invisible “X-ray bullet.” “I very rarely ever use any art other than my own, so it may in fact be mine,” says Glaser, “but I have absolutely no recollection of having made it. I do, however, recall designing the cover.” I couldn’t find any occurrences online of the box as a freestanding work of art, suggesting that the piece was indeed made for the cover, and most probably by Glaser since there is no other credit.

The properly typeset 1959 edition of The Eater of Darkness turned out to contain fewer departures in visual prose than I had hoped. (My lecture was prepared for a one-day event at the Royal College of Art about the British experimental writer Christine Brooke-Rose, and I included examples such as Glas, Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book, Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, and Mark Z. Danielewsi’s House of Leaves, alongside Brooke-Rose’s Thru.) From a layout point of view, the spread shown here, where the central character, Charles Dograr, learns from a newspaper report that the first victim has been found mysteriously dead, is the most adventurous in typographic terms. Still, this is a book saturated with the anti-conventional artistic ambitions of 1920s Paris where much of it was written. Just before the killing, the narrative devolves into a three-page list of objects that the X-ray bullet passes through before destroying its target’s brain, which reads like a gleefully sustained exercise in Surrealist chance encounter:

. . . a pack of cards

a glass eye

two felt slippers

the C in a Chop Suey sign

a cigarette holder

an umbrella

Reginald Marsh

a bottle of gin


Other devices include a chapter broken into sections labeled (a) to (i) like a textbook; footnotes (years before Nicholson Baker); an annotated diagram of the “engine of death”; conjunctions that lead on to empty spaces followed by other conjunctions; and a lengthy passage rendered as if describing a movie, with interpolated captions summarizing the scene in the manner of intertitles. It is worth adding that Coates felt it necessary to update some of the more obscure references for the 1959 edition. These changes can be spotted easily because the lines of type are lighter; the unsatisfactory Olympia Press edition has the original text.

The Eater of Darkness is shot through with bizarre incident, antic humor and unexpected swerves, and comparisons have been made with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. The novel seems like perfect material for Exact Change, Dalkey Archive, or Atlas Press, and it deserves a proper reissue. Robert Myron Coates (1897-1973) had a long relationship with The New Yorker, where he was a contributor and art critic from 1937 to 1967, and he wrote other novels and short stories, but he has tended to be regarded as a “minor” writer and most of his fiction is out of print. His most committed advocate, Dutch academic Mathilde Roza, published the first biography about him in 2011 so a revival of interest may already be mounting. - Rick Poynor


 For more on his life and works, check out “Collecting Robert M.Coates” (PDF) by Mathilde Roza and Jack Mearns.

Robert Myron Coates was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on April 6, 1897. He graduated from Yale University in 1919. During World War One, his studies were briefly interrupted by naval aviation ground training at M.I.T. and flight training on Long Island. In the winter of 1921, he moved to Paris, where he befriended such “Lost Generation” writers as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and Ford Maddox Ford. Coates returned to New York in 1926 with two completed novels, the first still in manuscript and the second, The Eater of Darkness, already published by Contact Editions in Paris with help from Stein. It was released in the U.S. in 1929 by The Macaulay Company and is considered the first Dada novel in the English language.