Long ago and all across the world we had msn groups, where I met many fine writers. One of these was the Maryland writer, Josh Davis. He has had three books published now through pretend Genius press, who are based in New York and also across America, Europe and the UK. Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of his latest novel for review.
|cropped image from the cover of Vanishing is the Last Art|
Vanishing is the Last Art by Josh Davis, (pretend Genius press) ISBN 978-0-9852133-0-5
RRP $15- (USA) SKU:VITLA-001 http://www.pretendgenius.com/ Review by Raewyn Alexander
Surely when something is gone, a new thing has to take its place? Zero, nothingness after all does not exist, does it? Thoughts of this nature crowded in when I began this fine novel by Josh Davis. Also, an artist who erases faces on printed pages from magazines or prints of old masters sprang to mind and magicians' illusions, their disappearing acts. But to vanish is not just disappearing which implies reappearance, surely, this is about completely ceasing to be or possibly changing so much it appears that way. Perhaps a witness protection programme of some kind? Intrigued immediately in any case, I wondered how Josh Davis would explain this supposed last art effectively in a narrative and whether it was all just a trick to draw a readership, but the unreality of his prose proved to make the vivid, somewhat alarming story appear all the more real.
Life is absurd, truth is stranger than fiction, a writer may entertain themselves anywhere with their imagination. When other more practical folk seek entertainment to distract themselves, we may create our own fancies from the marvels of our own inner machinations. At first this book appears to be an effective portrait of a young writer and his ability to make the impossible appear plausible or vividly real, to himself at least, throughout his typical and rather self-indulgent day. A romance with reality, ever-changing. Surprising, everyday miracles occur constantly. Every action and vision is pushed just that little bit further than many people would find credible, except Davis somehow manages to persuade us after a short while that this is actually happening. Introducing doubt is persuasive, on the first page. 'Or maybe I am hearing nothing. Or maybe I stopped listening. Or maybe you stopped making sound.' Then by the second page, 'I stand in the spaces in between spaces wondering how to become one or the other.' Playing with language, introducing a bewildering array of images and making it clear that in his world, anything could happen. Perhaps the reader has vanished and is now somebody else?
It was difficult to get into this book, since it does start off as it means to continue and such an idiosyncratic world takes some getting used to. The wonders of Davis' wordplay, imagination and persuasive powers did make me persevere however, so within ten or so pages I was hooked.
This book also describes such beautiful, intriguing women, urban adventures into occult realms, strange deals around baseball cards which I alternated between thinking represented the worst of consumer-culture addictions to expensive dross, or were simply slang for some kind of psychedelic drug, then simply accepted them as what they are, (however strangely illicit they appeared), then there are road trips and falling over, endless imbibing and a fantastic slew of litter, debris, belongings and furniture. When Charlie Fell the main character says he could lie on the floor and make a 'slacker angel' I laughed aloud. It was also extraordinarily endearing when he expresses that feeling of regretful idiocy people feel when they dare hope for a girl, (or boy) to call them. 'I slip Gwen my phone number...Something resembling a gratified laugh escapes my lips, and I secretly remind myself not to talk to anyone, anymore. Ever.' Charlie's the lost marvellous boy, the talented, kind man with a monster libido he tries to hide, the young man still wishing he could stay a boy who nevertheless pushes himself somehow to grow and change, even while appearing to be wasting every precious minute of his waking hours with ludicrous pleasures, mad, bad, dangerous company and fruitless desires. This book is a celebration of hope and youth in a terrifying morass of the depths of shallowness, (scary because it seems to be everywhere), with a determined push for imagination and love to conquer far more material and ruinous forces, after all.
Contradictions appear, Charlie hates 'the bicycle shorts' while he's a 'real New Yorker' but later loves the joggers, (who can't be dressed so differently to the cyclists, can they)? He doesn't take cabs, proving he truly belongs to the tough world of that great city, New York but then within only six pages he does ride a taxi. We're observing a real person obviously, rather than these anomalies making no sense. The possibility Charlie may change his mind is evident too and stands him in good stead when he takes a new tack.
Variety in the writing also moves this novel along through stages, like we are seeing a person develop as a man. The repetition where he's saying he is a 'real New Yorker' and also later speaking about 'golden' p 128 works with elements of surprise and relief. Until then there's been an unrelenting tide of startling, original and often a hallucinatory language which has swept the reader along. Not that the oddities of Charlie's thinking ever disappear entirely, but life for him has to be more than it is for others because he is free. Inside his head he recreates the world, strangles anyone overly curious and reinvents everything else, (it does appear there is more than the world in this story).
This author has immersed himself so thoroughly in recent American literature that it's forever altered his consciousness to the extent he completely believes reality can always be altered, improved, added to, jazzed up, or just played with like a kitten does with a ball of yarn. He's rewoven America in its own image - always a place where circuses appeared inside buses, girls grew snakeskin dresses like mermaid tails and baseball cards enabled people to breathe, not that any of those things are in the book exactly but the spirit of it is somewhere near my thinking about them. This book inspires further ideas.
A deep anxiety and despair masked with imaginative delights underlies everything in subtle ways, gradually appearing more apparent. Charlie checks out the window to see if the world is still there. 'You didn't always have to wake up and make sure there is still a world...' These feelings of danger, alarm and the general air of disrupted contentment gains more strength, but Charlie seeks a way forward in any case.
Davis' phrasing, humour and original use of language is superb, for example, p 88 '...after dark he is to art what Willy Wonka is to chocolate.' or on p 174, '...vertical patterns like a wallpaper made of memory.' (Inside someone's eyelids when they close their eyes). On p 126, ' "You like jazz?" the cabbie asks with enough sincerity to blind a child.' So many fine quotes, every page.
I'd have preferred there not to have been quite a few errors I spotted, including some gaps in sentences, but most books do have some editing glitches.
Charlie is extremely annoying at times. Young men who drink too much, move through the world with little true commitment and interest regarding the wider community, they irritate me. It's like watching someone pour good water into a sewer and laugh about it, while not knowing where more water is going to come from. Then the character reveals more depth, some vulnerability and a searching quality I found fascinating so it was worth persevering. Davis has also of course created a character who appears real, if I was riled. I think the beginning of the book could've been more accessible however and Charlie's carelessness could've been revealed a little more gradually.
This is a journey inside of a magician's top hat in any case leading to small, white kitten morning-afters, frazzled rooms, smears of neon, nonsensical fellow writer conversations, (hilarious), fascinating women in various costumes with peculiar and banal requests, nut-case men and old codgers with curious atmospheres carried with them, nicknames, a search for something like success and...well, that's the story.
Charlie took me along with him. How he does this is mysterious and wonderful and it should be, magicians never reveal how they do their tricks but in this case it's all done with words. Josh Davis accomplishes a great deal and I'm not sure how he did it, but I can say the author does vanish and his story takes over with some rewarding results.