Unbabbling by REYoung
Paperback, 253 pages
Published by Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date: October 1, 1997
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 11/16/1997
If Beckett Were an American Monster
You’re nothing but a worthless little piece of shit crawling inside the belly of some giant worm. It’s bombarding you with acids and digestive juices, it’s sucking proteins, fats and carbohydrates out of you, assorted vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, it’s ingesting you, squeezing you along the endless loops and coils of its alimentary canal, and at some point it’s going to poop you out again, an undigested little turdlet, an ex-parasite writhing and squirming in the great yawning indifference of eternity.–Reyoung, Unbabbling
Some books test the limits of a reader’s patience, and worse. They bombard you with long strings of barely coherent phrases that make your head hurt. They overpower you with language and leave you quivering on the floor, like an epileptic having a seizure. These books are hard to get published, and even harder to sell. Sometimes they are worth your trouble. Gravity’s Rainbow is like this. It kills you with language. It makes your paranoia grow like a cancerous adenoid. It makes you realize that you have no idea of what is going on, and just barely. Something is lurking in there, you know it, and your head can explode in the process of trying to figure it out. It has happened. I have seen it. It is not pretty. But it’s worth it if you survive to read it again.
I spent a long month this summer wading through another such book, or three. Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy — Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are novels which rip to shreds the idea of novel-making. The Trilogy is probably the most beautiful un-reader-friendly work written in the English language. We move gradually from what appears, at first, to be a relatively sensible if prolix tale of a man falling in a ditch and another man setting out to find him while being abusive to his son in tow (this is a gross simplification of Molloy, my apologies to Mr. Beckett) to a point in The Unnamable where language itself makes it impossible to tell a story, any story. In that Ur-un-story, language also paradoxically makes it impossible for a story to die. Closure evades us, even to the end:
I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
In the computer program Photoshop, there are plug-in devices called filters. You take an image, say of mountains, and apply a “fire” filter to it, zap, and they become mountains of fire. In Unbabbling, Reyoung has taken a tale of an accidental revolutionary, and applied the Beckett filter to it. This makes reading the novel more difficult, and ultimately more interesting as well.
I don’t know much about Reyoung. The back cover of Unbabbling says that he was born in Pittsburgh in 1950, got a B.A. in literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and then spent several years as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army. I don’t even know if his name is real (or an identity-stripping pseudonym, like that of Evan Dara, author of The Lost Scrapbook). I’m certain, however, that Reyoung has read Beckett. Unbabbling doesn’t have much in common with Beckett’s Trilogy in terms of plot, except for the fact that in the end neither book has much of a plot at all. Unbabbling is about primarily about voices. The main character is wannabe visionary, a pseudo-novelist, an idea man.
Unbabbling is also a trilogy. In the first part of the novel, “Unbabbling,” the narrative is divided by lines of slashes which apparently represent time transitions (or trips to the typewriter). Harry, the narrator and main character, is a hard partying, hard working American male, damn disgruntled with late capitalism. He lives with Cassa, an artist. The setting is uncertain. They live in a future where life is very much like our own, with the exception of the fact that there has been some kind of cataclysmic war in the Plains (Harry and Cassa live in the city.) Harry is a former soldier in the War, and is a self-proclaimed monster. He cheats on his wife, and is a misogynist to boot. Cassa’s father, Frank, comes over to drink one night and unbeknownst to Harry records his son-in-law as he babbles. This tape becomes a central fulcrum of the rest of the action of the novel. Harry rants his revolutionary ideas about changing the world. He gets his wife pregnant. They have a kid. He continues to come home reeking of perfume and booze. The narrator has a vigorous, aggressive, Henry Milleresque voice, which can make for some energizing reading, though he’s clearly a complete ass when it comes to interacting other human beings.
The second part of the novel, “Hell Squared,” shifts around from the third person, to the second person and the first person plural and introduces another consciousness into the story, “Nakt.” Like “Mahood” and “Worm” in Beckett’s The Unnamable, Nakt is more a representation of a certain psychic state than a distinct character. Harry meets Nakt on the street, and Nakt becomes his audience. At some point Harry is rechristened Luce. Nakt is his dark motivator, a spirit of dissent. At the conclusion of the second part, Luce/Harry is carted away, “he couldn’t move because of whatever it was they had strapped him down or nailed him to with a needle in his arm and that neat little hydraulic system pumping its infinitely slow poison into his veins.” As is in Beckett’s Trilogy, the second and third parts of the book are in some ways a retelling, and reexamination of the first. The second part concludes on this note, “but it didn’t matter anymore, he was so tired, he just wanted to sleep now, he had to sleep, and maybe later, maybe later he’d remember, he’d try to remember again, but it’d be different, it’d be better if he remembered it differently, next time.” Again we see the Beckett filter in action. Something has failed, something has stopped in the story. There is nothing to do but go on again.
In the third part of the novel “Manhole (also called babble on),” our focus is on the Harry/Luce character again, this time renamed Erde. Erde is on trial, and then is a ditch digger, and then is being lowered into a hole. There is a great deal of metaphorical resonance with the conclusion of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which another failed revolutionary winds up stuck in a hole. As Erde is lowered into earth, the story fractures in micro-stories, into slapstick (reminiscient of but on a smaller scale than Beckett’s Malone Dies). On page 244, the inevitable effect of the Beckett filter strikes again, when suddenly,
Erde, merda, that little schmuck doesn’t exist anymore.
He was on a roll. Ready for the big time. Poor fool. Of course it was all a dream, a fabrication of his addled brain. He was completely deluded.
As in The Unnamable, in Unbabbling, the story itself finally becomes merde, something the narrator/writer eliminates, and the final concern of the story is not with the story, but with the shifting voice that tells it. Beckett’s narrator says:
They’ll clap me in a dungeon, I’ve always been in a dungeon, I hear everything, every word they say, it’s the only sound, as if I were speaking, to myself, out loud, in the end you don’t know any more, a voice that never stops, where it’s coming from.
The voices in the dungeon of Reyoung’s Unbabbling are just as transitory and ultimately unknowable as Beckett’s. Like Beckett, our narrator will go on, but in Unbabbling, the “I” becomes “subsumed by we, they, the writhing mass of existence.”
Beckett’s Trilogy isn’t for everyone, and neither is Reyoung’s Unbabbling. You’re unlikely to see this one on the best seller list any time soon. Pleasure-seekers look elsewhere: this is not an easy read. But if you’re up for a challenge, or if you ever wondered what it would be like if Beckett were a lowlife American revolutionary, this is the book for you. Reyoung’s voice is distinctive, and his intellect is powerful. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.