By Mike Corrao
Recently, Schism Press has begun releasing open-access titles through Schism-Neuronics, a division taking its name from a theoretical concept in J. G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World. Like most titles from the press, many featured in Neuronics are written in unconventional ways and explore complex and often supremely ambiguous narratives. They operate as a kind of theory-fiction, proposing an alternative means of seeing or reading and then engendering this method with what a text viewed in this way might look like. Their newest release, Wretch, by Ansgar Allen, explores the relationship between the mechanical and the human, stripping away the decadence of hyper-detail in order to create a spartan depiction of the analog writing process.
The novel main narrative thread follows an unnamed narrator who’s been imprisoned in a small cell with nothing but a typewriter. Every day, a sheet of paper is slid under the door and the prisoner is expected to copy the text and return it to whomever is waiting on the other side. In this isolation, the prisoner and the typewriter begin to develop a unique relationship. Their behaviors and even anatomy become intertwined. The typewriter deteriorates with the prisoner’s mental state. At times, the process of transcription becomes overwhelming and leads to the frustrated destruction of previous typewriters. Allen writes: “The machine bore the imprint of chaos, they said. It demanded rehabilitation.”
The setting of Wretch can be difficult to locate/pinpoint, difficult to find some type of footing, to stand in the room where it all takes place. More often, it feels as if you’re standing in complete darkness. No light. No surface beneath you. There are only the objects that occupy the room. The typewriter. The body. The sewer grate. The door. It’s a non-space with the capabilities of observing its tangible surroundings. “Distance remained estimates,” Allen writes, the novel’s environment never completely rendered. It never exists all at once, or in its fullest capacity. There’s always something missing. Some room or object or surface that hasn’t loaded in. A glitch in the formation of space. An emptiness always lingers.
The act of transcription forms a connection between these delineated zones. The emptiness of the cell is subverted by the vast and complicated narratives occurring outside of it. These documents about a Known City and an Unknown City. Descriptions of travelling parties and their esoteric procedures/rituals. When the guards stand outside the room, they act like members of a theater troupe. Almost performing the stories and gossip they’ve overheard. They imbue these seemingly mundane documents with personality as well as more intimate narratives. “All knowledge is unreliable,” Allen writes. “It is produced in a certain context.” Wretch operates with a subtle paranoia. There is never certainty about what is or isn’t true. The guards at times appear deceitful. And the narrator suffers from selective memory loss.
There’s this sense that language itself cannot be trusted. The speech of the guards and the text of the documents aren’t enough to solidify this world, this environment. There’s always a disconnect between what’s said and how it’s interpreted. Something that’s only accentuated without the ability to read gestures or facial expressions. Even the narrator is all too willing to flourish the transcripts they copy. They admit to the faultiness of their work. How it’s built from this unstable praxis. They don’t have the clean functionality of the machine. They’re only a body.
This faultiness creates an ambivalent antagonism between the body and the machine. The body is a fragile mound of flesh. It bleeds and flakes and falls apart. There are numerous scenes of the narrator’s deterioration. Skin flecks peeling away from his ears. Injuries obtained during typewriter repair. Measurements of fingernail growth. The machine on the other hand is passive and efficient. It does not divert from its work or fall apart on its own. It does as it’s commanded—most often through the copyist’s usage and operation. If it sustains damage, it’s because it was used wrongly or without proper care. The shortcomings of the body lead to the both accidental and intentional destruction of the machine. In a fit of past rage, the narrator smashes their first typewriter to bits. Later, after not having access to copy paper for many days, they overwork the machine and damage its keys and ink ribbon.
The machine undergoes a kind of body horror, with its anatomy being manipulated and disrupted by this external force. It’s forced into the malleable position of the subject. Bending to the whims of its user. Forced to perform the actions that will eventually destroy its form.
Ansgar Allen’s Wretch is an impressively spartan work with complex implications, its narrative shrouded in ambiguity, the nature of its subjects, though, comprehensible, distinct. When there is so little else to distract the reader, these relationships are engagingly foregrounded. In short, Wretch is an incredible work exploring the nature of transcription and isolation.
Mike Corrao is the author of two novels, Man, Oh Man and Gut Text; one book of poetry, Two Novels; two plays, Smut-Maker and Andromedusa; and two chapbooks, Avian Funeral March and Spelunker. Corrao's work has also appeared in 3:AM, The Collagist, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.