Eight. One. One. Twenty-five.
I began this series of columns with a rumination on the questions of genre put into play by the mysterious inauguration of the “new weird,” and Eric Basso’s writing was somewhere in the back of my mind as I made my points. On the back of my copy of his collection, The Beak Doctor Short Fiction 1972-1976 (Asylum Arts), a critic named Stephen-Paul Martin comments on the uncategorizability of Basso’s work, which isn’t simply another way to say it’s strange or a jeu d’esprit or nonsense. Basso does something with genre, and to genre, in ways that call anti-traditional European writing to mind. Especially in the eponymous story, the reader encounters moments very reminiscent of Kafka and perhaps Alfred Kubin, but in a disorientingly familiar American idiom. I don’t like facile comparisons with Kafka, as they usually don’t ring true in the end, but in Basso’s case the comparison is well borne out.
Information about Basso is not abundant. I can say only that he was born in Baltimore in 1947, and has published at least three volumes of poetry and over twenty plays in addition to this collection of stories.
The first, “Gothick Eschatology,” describes a magical ritual which seems to transpire in many places at once, half-hinged through a single scene. At night, in an empty and isolated house by the woods, a woman tossing and turning in her bed is attended by a variety of nocturnal visitors, spying, manipulating. An experiment with petrie dishes in which alchemical operations are scientifically described takes place at the same time and possibly in some relation to the events around the woman; the relation of cause and effect would in this case be supernatural, and so perhaps not immediately or plainly apparent. A monster is summoned, engendered, or created.
The style is highly irregular; among the gnostics, mystic or secretive writers, rhetoricians, anyone who had to memorize long passages of text without the assistance of verse, composite images were sometimes assembled as aids to the memory a male figure with serpent legs and a rooster head, holding a basket in his left hand and a knife in his right, crescent moon above the knife: each of these details keys a particular complex of associated information in the memory, while the whole image is readily conjurable in the mind’s eye. Basso’s writing sometimes approximates the bizarre heterogeneity and surprising incongruities of such mnemonic images; it is incomplete, detailed, suggestive; sometimes like Beckett for terseness, evenly mixing precise and vague, common and uncommon words. Potentially significant details are forced together often without any of the intuitive contiguity that one finds in more “naturally” conceived images. His syntax is not elaborate but follows something like stream of consciousness even in what would seem to be impersonal narration. The narrative voice has an incantatory tone in places, and it isn’t always clear whether that voice is simply recording the thoughts of the characters in the omniscient manner or thinking on its own, so that it would therefore be limited by its own thoughts.
The reader tumbles along intrigued and baffled by several narratives segmented and shuffled in alternation; as a consequence, a plethora of potential total narratives present themselves, and most are never completely dispelled. The adequate narrative that takes shape in retrospect or re-reading does not strongly resist these other possible narratives but permits them to remain in the neighborhood. No one narrative line is ever fully present and dominant, nor does the story at any time regularize into a stably recognizeable form, giving us something like genreless or intra-genre writing. Basso’s style demands an effort from the reader to superimpose elements of story segments which have much similarity to each other but which do not easily lock together. Events congregate together in a faceted sequence, a wry-sounding approach to style and genre, but the trick whereby the big picture is produced is deliberately prevented from happening.
The second story is one of his best known, “Equus Caballus.” It describes an expedition into the interior of a glacier, in a “quest for the great horse.” The horse lives in the glacier with his three human wives and appears to have constructed a natural machine out of the stones and ice to repel invaders. The piece is a wildly unusual combination of an adventure exploration story and a domestic family drama of sorts. The wives are all interviewed separately, their testimony presented in the form of tape transcripts. I’m reminded of Woody Allen movies. Overall, the story is a series of spans in different consciousnesses, a common feature of Basso’s stories, and perhaps a mode he takes from playwriting. The gaps between these consciousnesses are gaps in genre, so that different points of view on a common object or set of circumstances are differing genres. This is part of what makes his work so replete with tension, and often hard to rate.
“Equus Caballus” is followed by a collection of short pieces, “Logues,” and “Equestrian Scenes,” in which the horse reappears as a private eye in Istanbul. I skip these for space’s sake.
The final story, and arguably his best known, is “The Beak Doctor.” A vividly evoked city is gripped by an epidemic disease that induces permanent sleep; this in the aftermath of an earlier epidemic, in which citizens dissolved into fog. The fog clings to the city like a mask, and may or may not be causing the sleeping sickness. For the most part the terse, fragmentary narrative follows the unnamed doctor of the title on his rounds. He is also masked that’s the “beak” fighting off the dragging effects of the disease himself. There is no cure and no treatment: the doctor can only toe-tag the sleepers for eventual collection and registration at jury-rigged dormitories where they will be fed through IV tubes. It is especially important that the female victims are kept under close watch, as they are often raped.
Written last of the stories in this collection, the cryptic-coalescent style of the earlier stories is more highly developed in “The Beak Doctor.” The fog destroys all distance, so everything appears in close-up, in wearying detail. The city is a succession of minutely-described moments and objects seen almost too close up. We often read about cities becoming labyrinths, and most authors, your reporter included, resort to the “crazy streets and cul-de-sacs” school of tropes to express this, but Basso’s fog does the job more elegantly and effectively. The doctor tags bodies with a writerly kind of compulsion; with a foggy, sleepy myopia, he stands by as a succumbing man is beaten and abused, doing nothing until his molestors leave, then matter-of-factly tagging one of his feet (the victim’s legs are sticking straight up out of a garbage can). It is the ill-use of the sleepers that emerges most plainly through the course of the story as its principal theme. The chapter in which he visits an overcrowded dormitory in a roundhouse and briefly interviews the registrar there is especially remarkable, reminding me of Joseph K.’s visit to Titorelli the painter in Kafka’s The Trial (it’s the registrar who speaks the words I’ve chosen to head this column numbers to be painted in phosphorescent ink on the forehead of a newly admitted sleeper). The whole novella has something of the atmosphere of The Trial, of attics and hallways filled with stale stuffy air. The quality of the encounters is the same.
The roundhouse, at last. So black, so huge against the crumbling façades, that is sides could not be seen. I followed the yellow glow hovering near its base: a distant star, a faint streak on the tracks as I walked, before the stones and puddles sloped into deep shadow. Light spilled over the porch from a narrow doorway at the top of a flight of wooden steps. For the first time in what seemed like hours, I could make out voices, rumblings over the muted hum of a generator, sounds the fog or the mask turned into dense echoless murmurs. The edges of the steps, where they hadn’t already been chipped away by time and rot, made a splintery pattern wave-like depressions with gaps of darkness diminishing between them as they went up. I put my hand on the iron post at the bottom and looked up the side of the building, a wide dizzying curve of sooted brickwork whose upper reaches vanished in the mist. In a house across the alley, where the street pitched and cobbles gave way to slabs of concrete splotched with tar and loose pebbles, a weak light flickered in a dormer window. A silhouette passed behind the curtains and lingered there. A man. A woman. Indistinct.
The fog, the mask, the sleep, on the one hand, are the illusory narrator, the dream of the story, the fog of the words which are also the images that struggle to take shape in the fog.