Wednesday, June 2, 2010

J.C. Hallman's "The Hospital for Bad Poets": Book Review

Taking its title from Nietzsche, this ambitious collection comes half from the exurbs, half from the innards. Hallman's debut fiction emerges as prickly and testy, as unsettling voices gasp out warped fables from the phantasmagorical tract homes of our dismal America. Unsparing and refusing to look away, Hallman forces his reader to gaze at darkness and illusion.

I admired both "The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe" and "The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game." The first applied William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience" to Hallman's travels among practitioners of new religions invented during the past century. The second took him from seedy NYC chess clubs to far-eastern Europe's Mongolian outpost Kalmykia to Federal prisons in a quest to understand the hold of the game upon its masters. Hallman's stories expand his intellectual interests, and where popular culture blurs into social critique, as in "Ethan: A Love Story," he makes himself if not his readers at home.

These stories will disturb more than comfort. The first, "The Epiphenomenon," shows by its title the level at which Hallman sets his tone. Ironically-- and this quality as in much of what comes from those schooled in writer's workshops and creative classes as those taken and taught by this author will dominate these pages-- it's about an ordinary man, but one prodded and probed by a Kafkaesque Statistician and his Maestro. The narrator notes after his reception how "the soft charge of social routine conducted with strangers is the most rewarding form of intimacy the average man knows." (6)

It's a chilly story fitting its setting, and like others ("Manikin," "Dalrymple," "Savages," "The Jockey," "Utopia Road," and the title story) its detachment left me looking in at an exhibit akin to my hometown's "The Museum of Jurassic Technology," a calculated trompe l'oeil to fool the eye and puzzle the mind. I admit that many of these stories listed reminded me of Donald Barthelme, and they felt as if they could have appeared in 1966. Their studied distance may appeal to some readers, but they left me looking in at them. That being said, they nearly end at the right moment, always a sign of a writer's control.

"The History of Riddles," suiting the writer's two subjects previously published, has an earnest roofer pleading his odd case to his guests: "The riddle is an important part of social custom. It branches out in two directions-- mystic philosophy and recreation." (231) Here, Hallman likes having an everyday character articulate theories in an elevated diction that may bewilder or antagonize his hearers. Therefore, for me this story worked better. I have a feeling his encounters with religious zealots and chess fanatics may have tuned his ear for such conversations.

This clash of tonal registers enlivens my two favorite entries. "Carlson's Team" begins with a familiar observation heard in many a seminar. "In the beginning, television simulated reality. Now it's the other way around. I feel happiest when it seems I have made it to syndication, when the events in my life that used to occur weekly begin to run every day, early prime." This set-up unfolds a novel look into a man's relationship with his very pregnant wife and his company's basketball squad, but taking on the sitcom creator's perspective and jargon, once again sounding as if out of a classroom lecture: "The droll roll of suburban time is conveniently expressed by the temporal compression practiced in basic situation comedy construction." (97) Miscues and fumbles as well as attempts at poignancy, holding a beat, suggest that we've all been playing to the camera and our own cue cards.

His acknowledgments credit Lynn Margulis' "The Origin of Sex," and I will check out her book if the scenario it inspired for the fictional text "The Conjugal Cyst" does justice to its source. The tale "Autopoiesis for the Common Man" features the protagonist's trysts with two nurses, who flirt by quoting factoids about the genesis of sex within microbiological responses to environmental threats such as ultraviolet light. "Fungi hold the record for biotic potential, but some bacteria reproduce three times per hour. That's me flirting, you know," one tells him. (52)

Places gain perhaps less attention than people, but as a native of Southern California, I recognized another native's eye for this terrain, where "tiered lots the color of grocery bags" fill hillsides. "Everything had been brought here from somewhere else." (211) "The Fire" as the longest story here, however, left me again detached. Hallman captures the eerie scene. "The flames fluttered in the coming twilight, the silent surf of a distant beach. There was nothing in the way of trucks or men." (163) Still, the voice stays magisterial more than tender, and this reaction to threat characterizes much of the stoic, pitiless tone of many stories.

So, "Double Entendre" proved a relief. Hallman risks in this metafictional piece the possibility of breaking down post-modern barriers. "Erotic fiction is the chance to eroticize anything at all." (177) He does not exult so much as extend the opportunity. This essay-story roams a bath, a beach, a graveyard as three places for encounters. "Boy wants Girl; Girl not interested; Boy makes his move; they have sex; a truth is revealed; the sex goes on." (187)

This story, for all its experimental reach, shows Hallman's ability to touch the emotion, however objectified, and this gesture in a collection oriented around alienation represents a saving, if brief and still intellectualized, humane attempt to use narrative to comfort rather than chill his reader. These tales will not put you to sleep with uplifting messages, but they will leave you looking up in the dark, wondering how much your own life mirrors the farcical, satirical, and philosophical predicaments Hallman presents. There's a grimness and a toughness permeating this collection, and as formidable as the ideas may be, the glimpses of gentler, softer choices for its characters kept me reading on past his midnight scenes of real or symbolic graveyards, mausoleums, and suburban cities of the dead.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-26-10'; 4-30 to via its Re:Print BookBlog. Photo:

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