Let’s just get this out there: I think Robert Kloss is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from the indie world in the last few years, period. His language-heavy, seemingly-contradictory-but-it-works-perfectly-somehow-post-apocalyptic histories read like a tinted silent film: black and white with the faintest blush of something warmer, stranger. Read Kloss once and you’ll think him a pessimist; read him again and you’ll realize he’s a bit of a romantic, too. If not optimism, there is a certain bitter hope in most of his pieces, and there is almost always a mangled, broken, bloody, but very vivid kind of love.
How the Days of Love & Diptheria, just published by Mudluscious Press as part of their Nephew imprint, is Kloss’s first book, and love and hope are woven throughout its bleak nightmare-scape. Kloss paints a world ablaze, in which fires never really burn out. They just smolder on, reducing houses and families to ash. Our shifting protagonist, a boy and a kind of boy-golem are killed, rot, rise, travel, love, and mature in a way that almost seems to equate puberty with a kind of death and rebirth. This is a world in which the dead always return to trouble the living.
Surely it is no coincidence that the second father is blind: for this desperate attempt to save memories and dream them as people involves a great deal of willful blindness, eyes shut to the blackened skin, wasted muscles, clotted blood in the throat. Families start out as man and women, innocent as Adam and Eve, and end up slothful and rut-stuck as a sitcom family. But then those families give way, make room for new children, new families, and the cycle continues.
As I read Diptheria, I started to feel the same dread that I felt while reading On the Road, or Scorch Atlas, or William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”. Indeed, the sinister figure of death trailing and being trailed throughout the book (and boy as prey and preying) reminded me of the killer in Gass’s short story. Kloss makes brilliant use here of the long sustained note, this death-presence and the threat and the child-as-outsider all part of the taut note of dread sustained and sounded throughout the text, like the soundtrack for Eyes Wide Shut:
How the mother undressed and the shape of her figure, her pink brassiere, through the lighted window. How the boy thought she would taste. How she would look strewn. The way the family who was not his family would look cut and severed. How the boy watched from the hillside and considered the voices and what you would do to this house, erected in the flickering shadow of all he loved.
By the end you don’t know which you’re more afraid of: that the terrible thing will happen, or that nothing will happen after all.
Diptheria, like all of Kloss’s work, is primarily a language piece, with the long strings of doomsday words doing the work of prophecy for the reader. The gorgeous, edible phrases and sentences paint a vivid, shifting landscape in muted grey, sickly green, scarlet splashes and brilliant orange blazes. Frame-worthy sentences like these one abound, the mundane made sacred: “Now a woman vibrated into shadow. Now her fluids gone into steam.” Or this one: “The man gestured to the skies, Under the shadow of our aircraft, he said, a schoolyard of children become a river of tar.”
Kloss makes fantastic use of sing-song and repetition to give Diptheria a kind of fabled quality, the long-ago-and-far-away of fairy tales inherent in the action-through-description method he mostly employs in the book. Many of the sentences begin with “How the,” and yet even as this delivers us into storybook land, it simultaneously draws us closer to the tale and the characters, as though these events are our own personal recollection, snapshots of memory held close to the chest and examined from time to time in a different light.
Motifs of birth and sacrifice and rebirth run through the text, but distorted; birth in a broken mirror. The distortions of natural processes, of family and nature, reminded me of Aase Berg’s poetry a little. This prophecy-driven passage seemed especially a mirror to the nature-as-catastrophe:
How deer, skittish and blind, ran through shop windows and into cars while goats, half-burned, and herds of black sheep once white, lay smoking and blind. How coyotes seemed the hunched figures of bears, and how bears sweltered into deer, and how deer fell with tongues pink and burning, men tripping over them, lamenting the terror visited upon moose. How scorched kittens licked the charcoal bodies of dogs, beavers, goats. How these animals mewed into the vibrations, moaning and melting. How they wailed.
A personal note: everyone knows I’m insane for cats, so it won’t be too surprising that I adored the curve ball in the “dog-as-loyal-companion” trope that Kloss throws by making that a “cat-as-loyal-companion.” The cat is a symbol of loyalty, love, hope. But because it isn’t that known quantity, the dog, but the more mysterious, secretive cat, love/loyalty/hope become a thing of mystery rather than of comfort, of intense emotion rather than known feeling. And since the cat is still a bit of a portent of doom, that sense of the black cat, the unlucky cat lingers and hangs a big question mark over the loving feline’s head.
No doubt How the Days of Love and Diptheria is not something book clubs across America are going to read. But I wish they would. After all, at its heart this is a gorgeous book about a simple and universal idea: the decay and destruction of love, and the weird thing that lingers on in its place. It is a book with a broken heart. And to read it is to break your own, in all the ways that pain equals love equals endings. Beware. Buy it here.