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Apocalypse Later: A Reading J.A. Tyler’s Inconceivable Wilson

“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.”
          —Aaron Copland

“Literature—creative literature—unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable.”
          —Gertrude Stein

Inundated by the waves of passable, competent short fictions online, I’ve begun to weary of the sameness, the lack of vision, scope, and range. Recently, I read The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 (selected, edited, and translated by Frances Steegmuller), and in it, Flaubert offers some still pertinent admonition to writers, and seems to speak directly to my own critical concern:

Work, meditate, meditate above all; condense your ideas—you know that lovely fragments are no use. Unity, unity, that is everything. The whole: that’s what’s lacking in all writers today, great and small. A thousand fine bits, no complete work. Compress your style: weave a fabric soft as silk and strong as a coat of mail.

And with the sheer volume of the short fictions out there, it’s hard to get a sense of what people are up to, what their work really adds up to as a whole. So it’s great to finally see some works being collected. One of the online literary community’s most prolific and ubiquitous writers is J.A. Tyler, and while I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of his “lovely fragments” and “fine bits,” I’ve always looked forward to a “complete work” from him. Tyler’s Inconceivable Wilson (Scrambler Books, 2009) is like a shattered windshield, all those lucent chips scattering to the ground in a mound. Each fragment is a manic piece of insistence.

On the first page, Tyler signals us to his method:

I write and what I conduct is words. The words I use are the words I use over and over: Go, go, go. A semblance of existence. As if I exist. I existed once. There is nothing but belief in me. I believe in me, in my existence. I believe I exist. I believe in my once and ever existence. In that. Of me. Darkness is a photograph.

There’s a lot to parse here in these twelve sentences, much to appreciate. That first statement may be understood as saying that the act of writing, for this narrator, results in words that are then conducted, that the act of writing is a kind of transubstantiation resulting in notes which can then be directed as if by the wave of a conductor’s baton, or that words can become a medium of conveyance like metal transmitting heat. And Tyler offers us a kind of primer on repetition. Consider the example of epizeuxis or palilogia, that is, repetition of a word without any other words in between. Remember Hamlet saying, “Words, words, words”? Tyler gives us this: “Go, go, go.” There are examples of conduplicatio where a word is repeated in various places throughout a paragraph. The words used in this form are “words” “over,” “believe,” and “existence”. And there’s anaphora: “I believe…I believe…I believe…” And polyptoton: “existence,” “exist,” and “existed”; and “belief” and “believe.” Lastly, this section ends with a refractive sentence, unexpectedly shifting everything. Ultimately, this first  “fine bit” is an ontological meditation, an investigation of the nature of being and reality that’s deepened in the rest of the novella.

There’s a musicality in the novella (the narrator conducts words), a rhythmic ebb and flow, a bobbing quality driven by its repetitions, its recurring themes, its staccato and legato elements, its incessant commands to “go.” (The word “go” itself appears at least one hundred and thirty-six times (I counted), and this does not include its conjugations: “going,” “gone,” etc.) The narrative’s imperative quality reminded me of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide! / Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!” But its repetitions, its recursions, have much more of an affinity with Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein.

The narrator has plunged into some kind of metaphysical black hole where he finds another throbbing heart of darkness:

Thin streaming black on their mouths, at the corners. Where I am at the corners, the crease of the circle, the center. They eat and become my memories and incidences, the events. These new dreams are the places I walk on crumbling legs and failing arm-lengths, so much more of me is missing, though I want them to partake. I came to take parts of them, the reciprocation is only fair, fitting. And the seams are slick and thinking down into it, only a few of the memories have been chewed, the rest remain slick in their floating, the hinge closed without permanence. Permanent hallucinatory dreams, the landscape of me, the curving bend of my imaginary horizon. The horizon here exists only in cuts and opens and spoons, all else is shadows or hanging from the night or somewhere in the in-between, red dark enough to be black, endless new results. If she is waiting, standing there holding my ruffled body, I beg her wear the same dress, those shoes, the way I knew her before I fell into this all.

The world of Inconceivable Wilson is one of constant movement, of uncertainty, where temporal and spatial boundaries are in flux: “Stop is a word I remember, the sound of it and the feel. Here is a place where nothing stops. Nothing stops. I go. I have gone. I am going.” And the novella ends with these iterations:

Go, I go. I have gone. I am gone. Go. I am gone. Go. Go.

[…] “Go. I go. I am gone.
[…] Go.

I’ve concentrated much of my reading here on how Inconceivable Wilson is constructed, what the narrator’s obsessions are; and much of the pleasure I received from the book came from flowing along within its painterly atmosphere, its lyricism, its odd philosophical speculations. The novella’s incantatory qualities will sweep away attentive readers.

Lastly, it’s refreshing to find a book without any blurbs on it. It’s always something I appreciated about writers like Salinger and Pynchon. And I wonder if Tyler will one day go even one step further and not even put his name on his books. Surely, that isn’t inconceivable.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

18 thoughts on “Apocalypse Later: A Reading J.A. Tyler’s Inconceivable Wilson

        1. I hadn’t thought of the parallel to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. With its references to music, and the musicality of the prose itself, I thought more of how Orpheus was torn to pieces by the maeneds.

          I’m glad your review touched more on the narrative aspects of Inconceivable Wilson. And I, too, thought of missionaries, colonizers; and, then later, of a soldier pilot.

          I thought that this passage from your review addressed both the form and content of the novella:

          As the fragments of Wilson’s existence are all he has left of himself, and we of our impression of his theoretical existence, these fragments repeat themselves like a hall of mirrors, each an exact replica of the first cracked mirror, going on forever.

  1. Very well said, Mr. Madera. I’m all about the music of language and the language of music. It seems you know something of this as well. If Tyler’s kin to Beckett and Stein, then I’m in. Thanks for the insight.

    1. Thanks, Jesus.

      I really just scratched the surface of the book. I didn’t comment much about the convoluted narrative which I also found enjoyable. And though there’s a great deal of complexity the sentences sing.

      If you get a chance to read it, please check in again here and drop a line with your thoughts.

      1. I’m piqued, and I hope to read the book at some point. Now, though, the to-read stack is overwhelming, and I need to read less and write more (final-final-FINAL revisions of my 3xbad book are currently being, um, finalized). But I’ve bookmarked this page under Books to Read. I don’t even want to say how long this queue is. So many books…

  2. Nice post, John! I really enjoyed this book– I highly recommend it for folks who don’t know about it. I remember emailing Tyler after I read it and saying that I thought it was like Samuel Beckett meets Heart of Darkness. I like your rhetorical analysis above– it goes to show what’s possible in language, which is a lot! “Darkness is a photograph”: what a great phrase.

    1. As a born Catholic (even while in the womb), I am deeply troubled by the Stein quote. So deeply troubled, I am resigned to write a story without sex.

      1. For me, the general “themes” of the book. A man leaving a woman but always looking back. Pictures and memories starting to lose their sharp focus. Darkness encroaching. Trying to reinvent yourself in a new place.

        Plus there are some damn good lines – I’ll let you know which ones when I get myself back together. JA and Inconceivable Wilson will be the next subject at http://www.TenEverywhere.com

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