Przewalski’s Horses are the last species of wild, rather than feral, horses. Mustangs come from escaped domestic horses. The Przewalski’s Horse is named for a nineteenth Russian general and naturalist who went on a quest to find the horse. Przewalski’s Horse, the recent novel by Eckhard Gerdes, is about a working class writer, a bar fly a postal worker maned Keith Fine in the midwest, who drops of his life and goes on a quest to rediscover his former writing life in Chicago.
Gerdes has written published six novels since 1986 and professes an interest in the occurrence of chance, the random divergence in plot. This novel, however, is mostly conventional in structure and tone. Keith wants to return to his former life. He drinks a lot. He had trouble. For example, he writes, “I really tried to be a good husband and a good father. After a while, though, it got harder to pretend that everything was okay. I had a large inner-world dying to get out. And now it’s coming. It’s been held back for so long. Now it’s coming out in streams of freedom.”
The doesn’t read like an uncontrolled gush of imagery or language. The book instead uses a stunted style, like the kind of giddy drawings, or blueprints drawn by someone drunk on wine and rag weed, and wakes up the next morning to consult the illegible doodles thinking they will uncover a mind-blowing invention (not that I would know anything first hand about that.)
The book even addresses this:
One character, Jackson, says: “Alcohol’s the anathema to good writing.”
“I mean the whole artist-as sufferer thing is bankrupt.”
“Could you expand on that?”
And Jackson does.
Where the book begins to find a kind of logic for me is in the purely mundane slices of life that occur. Keith goes to pick up some coffee and cigarettes.
“Fine. Could you tell me where you keep your coffee?”
“On the right against he wall. See the canned stuff?”
“Oh, got it. Thanks.” All they have is two-pound cans of Folger’s and they want almost eight dollars apiece for them. Jeez. Oh well, you pay for the convenience. Seems an odd thing to be paying for. Qualifies as neither goods nor services.
Keith picks up the coffee, goes around the corner past the warm pop and comes back down the other aisle with the refrigerated section. Beer’s on sale. I should get a six.
No. I don’t want to drink. It’ll just get in the way of the evening. It’ll make me too tired. I’ll drink lots of coffee. Of course, with the booze, I can put of my orgasm longer, and she can have more. But without it, I can come twice, so that’s better for her anyway. No beer. Keith carries the coffee to the counter and places it down.
“Oh, could I have a pack of, uh, Diet Menthol Ultradelight Benson and Hedges?” [Referencing the cumbersome cigarette name from an earlier conversation.]
“Soft or box?”
“Oh, jezz. Better give me the box. They’re not for me.”
“That’ll be $9.72”
“And a paper.”
[And so on.]
This writing is perhaps flat, and I suspect many readers would find it unadorned to the point of poverty. This scene lasts three or four pages. It was for me one of the more vivid scenes in the book not because it necessarily moved along what plot there was (the plot kind of felt grudgingly put into place) but because it is precisely the interplay between choice, necessity and the random intrusion of detail that makes for narrative. The books is a story about a guy who comes into an awareness that his life is 7-11s and a prose style unadorned to the point of poverty and that is enough for a life.
In a similar vein:
Mr. Leapold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of a beasts and fowls. He liked thick gilblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.
The coals were reddening.
[And so on.]
Show don’t tell, writers are told if they make the mistake of taking a writing class from a teacher who diligently tries to teach the craft of writing. I think this is a useful to thing to say, but usually isn’t also followed up with a joke to point out that it is perverse to instruct students who are learning to tell stories: “Show don’t tell.”
Then what are supposed to do: show stories?
But everything is written down, which is the point of telling stories. If writing students wanted to show stories, they would become mimes.
In the first Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton wrote (he felt compelled to issue periodic confusing and contradictory proclamations): If the purely informative style … is virtually the rule rather than the exception in the novel form, it is because, in all fairness, the author’s ambition is severely circumscribed. The circumstantial, needlessly specific nature of each of their notations leads me to believe that they are perpetrating a joke at my expense. I am spared not even one of the character’s slightest vacillations: will he be fair-haired? what will his name be/? Will we fist meet him during the summer? So many questions resolved once and for all, as chance directs.
[And so on.]
What difference does it make that Leapold Bloom likes “thick liverslices fried with crustrumbs?” Or that Keith’s purchase is $9.72 without a paper and 9.97 with a paper?
The characters in the Gerde’s book do not commit premeditated acts. many of the incidents in the book with Many of the inciting incidents in the book do not have premeditation. Keith does not live his live toward a master plan or motive. He has a sense of how he would like things to be and a sense of what he should do or shouldn’t do to make these things happen. In turn there is no clear moral to the story aside from drinking too much is not good for your health. Getting into bar fights are even less good for your health.
In this sense things happen in the book but they do not happen in the way of novels where there is a tangible goal for the protagonist, a motive to achieve the goal, a readily defined source of conflict, something to work out. Rather Keith fine and the characters in the book are unsettled. Even when Keith tried to settle down and mediate, he is unsettled.
It is the minutia where things happen.
Roland Barthes despite observing that narration is not necessarily a law of the novel (what is Clarissa or The Making of American if not novels?) also observed in his essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” that narratives may be composed of the larger plot elements that create suspense — who killed him? — but that the essential component of the narrative is composed of set narratives, of events arranged in sequences. A man gets a drink of water. There is a set procedure to pouring a glass of water from the tap. A man opens the cupboard. Finds a glass. Inspects the glass. Sets the glass on the sideboard because it has a slice of dried lettuce adhered to the lip. He retrieves another glass. It is clear. He turns the cool tap letting water gurgle through the pipes and then drops onto the white porcelain sink worn to a black divot where the water drips. He tests the water with his finger until the warmish, metallic water sitting in the house pipe clears and the water turns cold. He pours the cold water into his glass and then turns the faucet off. The pipes groan and then stop. Before he takes a drink from the water, he drops the glass onto the kitchen floor and the glass shatters. The water pools. The man runs from the kitchen, down the steps and into the front lawn.
The pattern of drinking water is known to the reader. It can be dramatized with the statement: he got a drink of water. But it is the breaks the known sequence that provide information in the narrative. Narrative is a sting of purely informative detail. If the purely informative style is virtually the rule rather than the exception in the novel form, it is because, in all fairness, the author’s ambition is to tell a story.