Monday, September 18, 2017

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

There are two ways to tell a story *.

The first is to come up with a plotline--boy meets, loses, regains, mutates girl--and play it out beat by beat until it reaches its natural endpoint. This is a great method! Most books are like this, in my experience.

The other, of which Hoban seems to be a fan, is to take a concept like, say, the ephemerality of life or the reality of real aloneness or the permenance of loss, and pick a seemingly arbitrary entry point and follow it through to an equally arbitrary endpoint, and make the reader do the hard work of making an end-to-end narrative out of it. In The Medusa Frequency, he cops directly to this tendency, or maybe just to its origin:

Page one? I didn’t think so. Suddenly the idea of turning one’s experience into a story seemed not only bizarre but perverted. Where was the beginning of anything, how could I draw a line through endless cause and effect and say, 'Here is page one?’

And Hoban sometimes seems to fully embrace the quixotic nature of that question in the novel, starting with half-made-up conversation with the mythical Kraken that takes place on the green and black screen of an old Apple II, and ending with a comic book adaptation about a monster who is the plug in the plughole of the universe. Its name is The Great Snyukh. Oh, and the decapitated head of Orpheus, which manifests as any rounded object, probably has more dialog than anyone else in the book.

But in between, and often during, these fantasias, Herman Orff, the epically (lol) named protagonist of the book struggles to come to terms with the loss of Luise, an ex who acts as his own incarnation of the mythical Eurydice. With his act of looking at her too soon, he has lost her--although, as Orpheus informs him, the real crime is looking away. And the cyclical nature of the world means this story will happen again and again, with different details but the same prosaic, banal ending--loss and some form of either death or rebirth. As Herman says:

"The death of a moment's longer than the moment. The goneness is what we're left with. It's very hard to have anything, isn't it?"

In summation, this doesn’t sound like the kind of book that would be much fun to read. But Hoban has a light touch and squeezes a lot of humor--often actual jokes--into less than 150pp. I enjoyed his explanation of why villains in pulp stories never get inappropriately sexual with the heroines:

“For the same reason they can never shoot straight: they’ve got no self-confidence. That’s why they’re the bad guys--repeated failures have made them bitter and antisocial.”

And, of course, as in the equally strange Riddley Walker, Hoban nails the moments of pathos, making real flesh-and-blood out of Herman, Orpheus, and a number of delightfully-named minor characters (surely Pynchon is a fan--Melanie Falsepercy, Gom Yawncher). What could have been a tedious meta exercise in navel gazing instead functions almost like poetry in the end.

When Herman, rapidly falling apart in his confusion and post-breakup malaise, says, "It seemed so little to ask, that the next moment should come." it feels real, even when he’s saying it to a talking cabbage.

*I know there are a lot more than two ways, but this is a rhetorical device, dear reader.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I really enjoyed this one. Hoban's like nobody else, for sure.