Read “Jackal Pattern,” new fiction from Jason Schwartz

The invention of the pattern often requires—among other tender elements, subject to the grotesqueries of decollation—a moonlight scene, the foreground inhabited by an animal, a black knot hanging from its throat. But when a bird, disinclined to die, is tied to a child’s collar, outside a schoolhouse, where we might otherwise find—hidden in a fire—a fragment of a jackal: well, this is just another cheerful little game, played in splendid weather. A boy’s face, they used to say, is just a grave atop a collar, the garment perhaps a shade darker than mouse gray, or so I gather from an adjacent phrase, in which the brother draws cloth across a wire.

The first paragraph from “Jackal Pattern,” new fiction from Biblioklept favorite Jason Schwartz.

Read the entire piece in the Winter 2021 issue of The Evergreen Review.

The piece is accompanied by images of three tapestries by China Marks.

Detail from Tomorrow the World, 2017 by China Marks (b. 1942)

Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous is a dark, disarming novella

Knife and Glass, Richard Diebenkorn

The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.

What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements). 

So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.

Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:

The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.

Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.

A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.

Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.

Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.

Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that

The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.

Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”

Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.

At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.

Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:

The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means strangervillainenemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.

The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?

I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.

The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.

Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):

In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.

I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.

The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.

There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.

I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in 2013. I reread John the Posthumous last night and it’s even better than I’d remembered. Get it from OR Books].

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

All of this is basically reading around/between/over Gravity’s Rainbow:

Rereading Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas again. (I reviewed it here on this blog over five goddamn years ago). I want to read 2666 (yet) again, so this is…I don’t know…a staving off against that urge?

Yuri Herrera’s excellent novella Signs Preceding the End of the World also makes me want to read 2666. You should read this book (Signs, but also 2666). I will write a Full Goddamn Review—but excellent. Get it from And Other Stories.

Reading GR interspersed with short (often very short) stories from the collection Africa 39—two hits, a miss, and a shrug so far. More thoughts to come.

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Like a palate cleanser. Wait. Not the right term. I mean, like, a sorbet—tasteful, tasty, snappy, bright. There are some longer pieces at the end, I see, that I will not get to for awhile. More to come—but let’s get real, you either like what Davis does or you don’t and your indifference, like all indifference, is uninteresting, but not boring or damning, let alone an indictment of your beautiful character. Chill.

David Winters’s collection Infinite Fictions. Damn him! Not really. This book is great—the book I wish that I had written.

I have tried and failed to write about Jason Schwartz’s first book A German Picturesque four goddamn times now.

I don’t think I will even try to write about Gravity’s Rainbow. (Unless I do try).

A German Picturesque (Book acquired, 1.23.2014)

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Pharos is reissuing Jason Schwartz’s debut collection A German Picturesque, pictured on the right, above, by the original. The title was selected and introduced by Ben Marcus, who quotes from the interview Schwartz granted me last year—

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I actually think that it was this review which led to Ben Marcus consenting to talk with me over the phone for an hour in December. I’ve been typing that interview very slowly and swear it’s on the horizon. Painful dreadful anxious work. Interview with Marcus to come. Review of Schwartz to come.

Horn! — Kevin Thomas’s Collected Reviews (Book Acquired, 6.14.2014)

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Kevin Thomas has been doing illustrated reviews of contemporary books for The Rumpus for a few years now. Now, the good people of OR Books have published the reviews in one volume—HORN! The Collected Reviews.

I’d read a few of Thomas’s reviews in the past and always been a bit jealous at his control of his medium—of his ability to go past or through or beyond the language under discussion to provoke with a sequence of images. Reviews is maybe not the right term—commentaries seems more fitting. Take his review of George Saunders’s Tenth of December for example, which manages to condense an overview of the collection’s themes along with a viewpoint on those themes into nine small panels. (I needed over 2000 words for my own review of the Saunders book).

Thomas’s technique works especially well with novels that are very difficult to write about/after, like one of my favorite recent titles, Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous. I stammered and hiccuped through my essay; Thomas explicates, illustrates, and piques reader interest—again, in just nine panels.

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I’ve been trying to limit myself to just a few strips a day from the collection, but more often than not I’ve failed, curious to see Thomas’s takes on Levin’s The Instructions (a novel I couldn’t finish), Peter Hook’s memoir, Renata Adler’s Speedboat (yes!) and more. Great stuff.

Some books I wish I’d written about this week (or last week, or the week before)

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An Interview with Jason Schwartz

Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it “a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I  wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”

Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.

SchwartzBiblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?

Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed.  Why dwell upon unpleasant things?

Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.

JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too.  I seem to recall something about a war.  A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid.  Remember Little Wars?  I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids.  Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage.  That seems more likely.  But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark.  I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera.  A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist.  Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade.  But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was.  I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies.  So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.

Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?

JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives.  They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling.  The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie.  The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases.  The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods.  Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.

Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?

jtpJS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so.  The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.”  The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.”  Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.”  There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously.  “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence.  I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.

Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?

JS: As to the second question: it varies.  No set method.  And as to the first:  I’m not really editing in that direction, no.  I see this more as a simple matter of description.  So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes.  A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine.  I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters.  And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door.  She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion.  “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.”  And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

JS: Sure.  Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say.  The book was The Deer Park.  I was three, I believe, or four, or five.  I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer.  I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort.  I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display.  It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red.  Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child.  Anyway, my grandmother gave chase.  She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me.  And then?  I was caught, of course.

A German Picturesque (Book Acquired, 11.14.2013)

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Jason Schwartz Interviewed at 3:am Magazine

3:am Magazine has published an interview with novelist Jason Schwartz. Schwartz’s latest, John the Posthumous, is my favorite book of 2013.  In the interview, Jason Lucarelli talks with Schwartz about John the Posthumous, his experiences with Gordon Lish, and teaching writing. The final answer of the interview though is my favorite moment—it reads like a wonderful and bizarre microfiction. Here it is, sans context:

This comes to mind: long ago, in New York, I taught middle school for a year. Rough and tumble sort of place. Lots of mischief, and no textbooks, as these had all been lost or destroyed or thrown out into a courtyard, where—I may be revising the memory slightly—there was a great pile of books, a pile nearly one story high. So it was upon the teacher to scratch out lessons on the blackboard. This was transcription, the transcription of many items, all these chapters from the absent books. And once this had been accomplished, once the blackboard had been covered with words, first thing in the morning, it was upon the teacher to guard the blackboard all day. So what to do when the fistfight breaks out? You know how people gather around. The teacher now fears the press of bodies, and the tendency of bodies to smudge, or even erase, words. Stop the fight or protect the blackboard? This seemed to me, at the time, the central educational dilemma. If you’re lucky, the fracas is close by, and you might arrange things accordingly—one hand here and one hand there, finding yourself in various complicated postures. I never managed that to successful effect. And perhaps all this explains why, in the old country, contortionists were always thought the best schoolteachers. Anyway, Mr. O’Riley’s room has been set afire in the meantime, or Mrs. Wilson has been trampled in the stairwell. The day would pass in that fashion, and then I would go home and write about postage stamps and Judas Iscariot.

 

Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous Is a Dark, Disarming Novella

Knife and Glass, Richard Diebenkorn

The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.

What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements). 

So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.

Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:

The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.

Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.

A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.

Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.

Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.

Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that

The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.

Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”

Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.

At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.

Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:

The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means strangervillainenemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.

The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?

I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.

The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.

Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):

In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.

I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.

The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.

There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.

I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.

John the Posthumous is new in trade paperback and e-book from OR Books on August 6th, 2013.

“How to survive a household fire, 1905” (Jason Schwartz)

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From Jason Schwartz’s forthcoming novel John the Posthumous, which I am trying to write about at present.

Gordon Lish on John the Posthumous (Book Acquired, 6.26.2013)

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Some folks I know and whose taste I trust told me about Jason Schwartz, whose new novel (“novel” is not the right word) John the Posthumous is forthcoming from OR Books (the final cover art, which you can see via OR’s site, is much nicer than the reader copy above).

The book bears blurbs from Sam Lipsyte and Ben Marcus and Gordon Lish—so that should be enough for you. (It was enough to pique me).

What is it about? Violence. Cuckoldry. Murder. Satan. Ritual. Animals. Beds. Etc. I don’t know. I’m a little over half way through, and I keep rereading it compulsively, rereading the sentences. Schwartz’s prose approaches a dark, poetic logic of substitutions and omissions that is probably best left unexplicated, but I’ll do a write up after the Fourth of July anyway. Here’s Lish’s praise (a short story in itself):

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And two samples from the book (context is unimportant; or, rather everything—that is, the context of the entire book, in that the book is its own idiom, if you follow (or don’t)):

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