Two slim books in one, Vancouver author John Culbert’s first collection of fiction is a small masterpiece, a double A-Side of breath-taking ingenuity and beauty.
The Purgatory Press presents itself as the catalogue of a defunct publishing house. But this is no ordinary catalogue–and no ordinary publisher. Each imaginary book is described at length with a delicate appreciation that aims less to sell us a product than to entice us into another world, a world glimpsed through the act of reading. Appropriately, many of the works described are critical appreciations or biographies of artists and writers who have for some reason been neglected or fallen out of favour after a brief moment in the sun. The critic’s task is to rescue them from what would otherwise be oblivion, from the condescension of ignorance or the judgement that these are merely aesthetic dead ends. Likewise, the catalogue aims to pique our interest in arcane research and lives devoted to perhaps useless erudition. But we know that this task has already failed: the Press is “ceasing operations.” Which leaves its authors and their books in the limbo of the backlist, an afterlife from which they may or may not be redeemed.
The aesthetic and intellectual experiments covered by the catalogue provide flashes of mystery and illumination: bizarre endeavours whose secret key may or may not be revealed by the texts that describe them, or which may or may not hide a secret at all.
They include a performance artist who drives cross-country with her “left-turn signal blinking for the entire trip.” We gain only the slightest glimpse of the rationale for this project, in a brief quotation from her book Left Turn (64pp.), which is a Kerouac-esque screed denouncing “’America’ the gluttonous, the insatiable, with endless black tongues of asphalt, every mile another neon sign touting precious ‘vacancy.’ And very minute another good citizen tells me I’m not turning left” (9). Then there is Eric Radiswill’s Masks of the Ceremony (244pp.), the biography of an anthropologist who, studying the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Coast, apparently sacrifices his own work in sympathy, making “a concerted effort to eradicate his history among the First Nations” (36). Secure in his tenured professorship, he appears to be nothing more than “academic dead wood, a seeming dilettante and amateur collector of native paintings, carvings, and artifacts.” Could it be that all the while he was lending “his support to the tribes’ covert ceremonies, about which he was sworn to secrecy” (40)? Meanwhile, we are told that Alice Mei Chen’s The Beaten Track (245 pp.) cuts up the prose of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa to produce unsettling poetry in which, for instance, the story of the tracking and shooting of an antelope is transformed into a “childhood diary that recounts the death of a beloved pet” (49); would-be readers are advised that they “may wish to have Hemingway’s original text at hand to best appreciate the perspicacity of Chen’s work of creative citation” (51).
But this is a book in which the “original text” is never at hand. All we have are the traces of imagined books that in turn (we are told) claim no more than to read traces of traces. In their labyrinthine structure, their erudite mixture of fact and confabulation, their philosophical challenges, their interest in the creativity of (mis)reading, and not least in their wry, deadpan humour, these stories are more than a little reminiscent of the work of Jorge Luis Borges. And yet (ironically enough) they do not feel derivative in the slightest. Rather than dry exercises of homage or intellectual dexterity, each story is animated by a delight in the powers of imagination and the paradoxes of language, as well as gentle mockery towards those who set out to pin down meaning and arrest signification.
One story tells of the posthumously-published life’s work of literary scholar Harold Loomis (Legends of Memory; 383 pp.), whose painstaking close readings of Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo, James Joyce and Henry James, reveal in great detail the mundane contexts of these authors’ master texts: “Loomis claimed to know what Joyce has eaten the day he penned the final lines of ‘The Dead’” (46). Ultimately, however, he discovers (it is suggested), buried deep within the literature he is reading, “the figure of a future researcher [. . .] who Loomis recognized, probably too late, as the figure of his own self already contained in the texts he was reading” (47). Likewise, The Purgatory Press provides a mirror to the reader: as we scan its catalogue we imagine ourselves reading the books it describes, but because those books are missing we suddenly realize ourselves alone with only blurb for company.
After the End, the second book packaged within the same covers as The Purgatory Press, continues much of the same preoccupations with reading (and what cannot be read), with finitude (and what follows), and with loss (and what it leaves behind). The title story is suitably enough the penultimate, rather than the last one: there is of course always something to come after the end. So its conclusion should be understood to be provisional, temporary. But it is also quite beautiful:
Chances are, when you pick up a book you’re reading the words of the dead. Maybe that should be enough to strike a person dumb, but from what I gather it caused no trouble to our forbears. [. . .] A book expects no response, only our focus. So we pay close attention, with the result that, on this side of the hecatombs, all meanings have become inverted. We’ve become silent as books, while they chatter on in the face of our impassivity, often about requited love, the end of times, the realms of tranquility. It’s not for us to correct them, but we can at least crack a volume and put our face up to an open page. (144-5)
Culbert’s slim volume is well worth cracking, not so much to find resolution (in the sense of “cracking a case”), as to follow the cracks, the twists and turns of chatter and plot, the promise of meaning and its ironic inversion. This is a truly great book, which teaches us the virtues of close attention and the rewards of quiet focus on the pleasures of the text.