May 10, 2011

Review: "The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel written by Christopher Higgs"

Title: The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel written by Christopher Higgs
Author (Editor?): Christopher Higgs
Publisher: Sator Press
Genre: Experimental Fiction
Year: 2010
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 978-0-615-33999-3
Binding: Paperback (or .pdf. Or audiobook?)
Price: $13.99 or name your price (for now).
Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,629,010
Weather: Stormy, raining, flood warnings in Utah
Shirt: Black and red flannel


"Certainly this is more than just a long jumbled course of calamities."
—(Marvin K. Mooney, p. 262)

This is the first sentence of this review of a book, which is long and scattered. If you enjoy this review you'd probably enjoy the book it reviews. I could be wrong about that. Either way, I'll personally be reading this book, or at least excerpts from it, again. I'm the sort of person who likes thinking about footnotes, brackets, editorial insertions, and there is plenty of that stuff here. Plus, this book also got me in the mood to write fiction. Something I'd been wanting to start doing for a while.

Most of the books I read and nearly all of the books I review are non-fiction. As a reader/reviewer I've developed a variety of attitudes, call them postures, toward the various books themselves. I approach a book differently if I know I'll be writing a review of it, for instance. I look for the architectonics of the book, the main themes, unspoken assumptions, stated goals, and their successful or unsuccessful completion. I heavily annotate and have a weird two-color highlighting system (green and yellow) complete with symbols, brackets and other techniques I've developed over time. I'm almost always happy to read a book without the specter of a review hanging over my head, which is one reason I took a friend's advice and bought a copy of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. But once I finished it, this review just sort of spilled out, and if it seems a bit disjointed I blame Mooney. After all, he practically demanded a review from me, really:

If someone asks you:
"Hey, what's that you're reading?"
You could answer a number of things, one of them being: "It is a new work of creative non-fiction by Marvin K. Mooney."
In follow-up, you may be asked:
"What's it about?"
To which you can simply reply: "It is a text about itself. It is pretentious, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, and hardly worth my time; but for some reason I continue to read it - perhaps because I am being forced to at gunpoint, perhaps I am slightly enjoying it" (320-321).
That's a fairly good description of the book, actually. After Marvin K. Mooney (whose parents named him after a Dr. Seuss character and whose Social Security number ends with the digits "43") disappeared several years ago it evidently fell to novelist Christopher Higgs to collect and compile Mooney's disparate papers into one volume (as per Mooney's own instructions, 82-83). The difficulty of this task is multiplied because Mooney's works are often rambling or disjointed and they hop genres. Throughout his controversial career, Mooney tried to find his narrative voice in different modes ranging from poetry, to short story, to academic paper, screenplay, and other genres. You'll find each of these literary approaches here. Included also are his attempts at historical writing. One extended chapter traces something of a tragi-comic history of the circus complete with real names and sketchy details, providing that Google can be trusted (198-210). A personal memoir compares the chambers of Mooney's heart to the people who mean most to him as he suffers heart failure, literal or metaphorical I'm not quite sure ("Hang Up Words For Ardor," 261-277). An encore to the Collected Works tells the historical narrative of the "Invention of America," but physical participation on the part of the reader (in addition to the actual act of turning pages) is required if you want to finish the book (332, 335-351). Chapter Five, "The Discursive History of a Familiar Integer" gives a brilliant and funny overview of the number five (but it isn't five pages long, 114-120). Chapter Seven, "The Eight Word Essay," appears to be Mooney's brief commentary about/personal enactment of environmental destruction: "This essay is about the destruction of nature" (136-143). Each word gets its own page. This point was lost on me when I first read it on my Kindle version. It wasn't until I had the paperback that it was called to my attention. I talk a lot about the various bits that make up this book, but at 352 pages you're bound to find plenty I don't mention. Well, I've probably said too much. [Is this supposed to be a retroactive spoiler alert? please advise —ed.]

Higgs has also done us the favor of including other Mooney papers which evidently were not written for inclusion, like Mooney's "Letter To The Person Who Keeps Putting Pornographic Magazine Cutouts In My Faculty Mailbox," which led to his dismissal from an unnamed university (219-220), and a "Confession written by Marvin K. Mooney [date omitted] found on the back lid of a shoe box" (291-?). Non-Mooney-penned material also appears throughout the text. In addition to quoted excerpts from Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, Nietzsche, and Derrida, we find reviews of the book printed prior to the start of the first chapter: "Only the most dedicated masochists would subject themselves to this travesty of tangents Mooney calls a novel," says Rory O'Flanagan, Guggenheim Fellow (32). Independent Scholar Twyla Faye Robinson disagrees: "I believe it is a triumph. I predict it will one day be considered a defining text for the generation that followed postmodernism," (34). Several critics mention that this is all so much pretentious nonsense.

Later in the book we read heart-warming, sometimes disturbing memories related in interviews Higgs conducted with old neighbors of Mooney: "I took writing classes with Marvin K. Mooney...He loved telling us to marinate on things...During that period of my life I did a lot of marinating" reports Ernie Sheffield (281). Ernie's mother called Mooney a godsend: "All because of Mr. Mooney, our son is a published writer on his way to a master's degree" (281). "I thought he was pretty mean. He screamed a lot. He was really angry" recalls Zed Hurlbert (284). [This may be the best point in the review to mention that Mooney's writings include some explicit language and a few adult themes scattered throughout. Consider adding "scare quotes" and censored s***. ]  

This might have been better to mention more clearly at this review's outset, but the novel can be thought of as "experimental fiction." Supposedly this is a somewhat contestable genre according to what I've gathered from reading Higgs's own blog posts on the subject. Most works of fiction, he says, are directed toward a "closed reading" despite the fact that readers can interpret them differently.1 Authors lead readers to particular conclusions using devices like setting, character, plot, point of view, conflict, epiphany. Higgs (and Mooney) evidently dislike Aristotle, as they blame his Poetics for helping spread these perniciously common devices (213).2 They opt instead for "open readings" through which the reader must work towards, not receive, information. Readers are asked, even required, to co-create throughout this book—most times implicitly but sometimes explicitly. It can be confusing. I'm not convinced I would have given this book a chance had a friend not recommended it and given me an idea of what to expect. (Granted, his warning—in and of itself—gave my reading of Mooney a different hue altogether to begin with. So thanks and no thanks.) This book is a collection of work by an imaginary writer who has disappeared.

As I said earlier, I read a lot of books which require a critical eye, whereas this book demanded attention of an entirely different sort. This is probably why I enjoyed it so much. It called my attention to the strange negotiations we make as readers and writers. After directing a series of rhetorical questions to the reader, Mooney quotes Gertrude Stein: "Writing is not conversation." He continues:

Why are you reading this? Why don't you give up? Quit reading. I had a professor once who told me never to bully the reader...The New Critics want to do away with the author. I am not to be done away with. I am a transmission....What about you? Like me, do you ever [END TRANSMISSION] (65-66). 

Higgs and Mooney seem to think of reading as being a "phenomenological experience" in which we, the readers, must engage, which is why Mooney "challenges the reader to participate." One of the block quotes elsewhere in the book comes from Charles Bernstein's "Writing and Method" essay: "The text calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning... The text formally involves the process of response/interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of herself or himself as producer as well as consumer of meaning" (222). Higgs or Mooney refer to the text's "opacity," a lack of solidity which some readers will have a low tolerance for. This explains why "the wayside fills with shipjumpers, readers who haven't the patients [sic] for shenanigans, exercises, games" (121).

I stayed aboard the ship, but I can understand why some readers wouldn't. You might not like this book. You might agree with Dr. Wilson Parnell, Professor Emeritus (who, incidentally, coined the phrase "takes one to know one"), who said "No sane person would waste time reading Mooney's rubbish....It's a royal shame that some fringe academia literati find it necessary to vindicate such tripe" (31). But maybe you shouldn't rely on my review of the book anyway. As Mooney is said to have said, "In order to dissect something, you must kill it first" (82). Granted, Mooney and Higgs sometimes interrupt the opacity of the text, they sometimes provide the surgical instruments required for dissection. This occurs when they include excerpts from actual conference papers on the topic of experimental literature, for instance (213-217). But they are only providing me with the tool, or the weapon, so I may be committing murder here in this review, bibliocide. But it seems to me that by thinking about the book even now, as I did when I was reading, I'm really bringing the book to life in my own experience, from my own perspective, with my own imagination, for myself, which is precisely what any reader can do—though we will potentially reach radically different conclusions. Like this one:

Interestingly enough, as the book calls plot itself into question it actually helps reaffirm the utility of plot; it  recognizes and somewhat fulfills our drive for plot, though it requires our assistance. As soon as you start getting a feel for the arc of the book they pull the rug out from under you. (This is a phenomenon I recognized even prior to page 99 where Mooney writes "You see? Right when you think you might know where you're headed you get the rug pulled, you end elsewhere. This is new. You got comfortable and that is the kiss of death.") At times the rug-pull doesn't matter anyway because when gravity and center are lacking altogether you don't notice as much. Like when Mooney (or Higgs) is simply stringing interesting words together.

Count footsteps front door carefully. Do it twice if you must be the number code to keypad opens the grey latch the blue barn the Montana forest. Busted sits electrical inside guitars strewn living room (129).

At one point I discovered I could read a paragraph top to bottom in one-word columns rather than left to right and it nearly made as much sense, but I looked for clues in vain. These instances of "documenting patters of consciousness" (46) provide interesting contrast. They help lead into and out of the more organized prose. Imagine spinning around and around in one place, then stopping. The world feels like it's still turning, it's hard to walk straight for a moment. It feels floaty and dreamlike. This is the precise effect I felt at moments of this book, it was amazing really. At one point it literally felt to me as though I was in a dream myself, which was quite honestly bizarre, unique, and invigorating. Like a simulated dream without the use of sleep or drugs or a knock on the head:

Afterwards you will be on your front porch, drinking a cold beer, and out of nowhere you will hear the ghost cough. This is your signal. You will know it is the ghost coughing because the cough will be loud and there won't be any people around. Finish your beer in a timely manner; throw the bottle into the recycling bin; go down to the basement and light the fire you have prepared under the stairs. The flame should burn green. If the flame is not green, if it is blue or orange or any other color than green you are in a world of trouble: you will need to immediately put the fire out and call 911—with any luck the ambulance will arrive in time to resuscitate you. That is the worst case scenario. What is more likely to happen is that the flame will be green, which is the color it needs to be in order to initiate the second phase (91).3   

A subplot (if it's fair to call it one) to the collection of Mooney's writings is the mystery of Mooney's disappearance. As editor, Higgs occasionally provides information about Mooney's disappearance. I should point out that the excerpt above ("Why are you reading this? Why don't you give up? Quit reading...") is taken from Mooney's last-known written words. This final piece of writing (included by Higgs early in the book, perhaps reflecting the ambiguity of calling this the "Complete Works") was "saved under the title 'Grand Unified Theory'" on June 26, 2002, "three days before he went missing" (63). There is a sense of pathos at the loss. But it seems to me Mooney wanted to disappear, he had been wrestling with his identity for years:

At this moment you could be anywhere on the globe and you have no idea where I am, which is how I am invisible. You don't know me. You've never met me. If you are my wife, my mother, my sister, I am sorry to break it to you like this but you don't know me. You only know a version of me I have given to you over the years, a side of the real me I have decided to show you, not the whole me (302). 

The very question of authorship is quite puzzling throughout this book, as the voice switches from Mooney to Higgs to characters to thoughts to dialogue to fiction to history to rambling. Sometimes they all get to arguing: "Editor's Note...this is the biography of an imaginary character. I am real but he is not. How could it be? I am not a creation. He is. Wait...who is 'he'? Him or me? Which one is this typing here? Is Chris Higgs involved? Who is Chris Higgs?" (221).  Whoever it was, Mooney is said to be missing. "'It's raining.' —the last known words spoken by Marvin K. Mooney before his disappearance" (144). So he's gone now, though we have the literary leavings of his life dutifully compiled by Higgs for our consideration. Throughout the book Higgs himself formulates several hypotheses concerning Mooney's disappearance:

There are many good reasons to want to disappear from society,
just as there are many bad reasons. There are also many good ways to
disappear from society and there are many bad ways, too (287). 

To conclude this review I have created a simple but helpful chart to assist future readers who are formulating their own theories about Mooney's disappearance. The various ways and reasons may be mapped accordingly (click to enlarge):




"I have." is a good sentence because it is very
brief and tells us very little. Remember: clarity
is not always the name of the game; it is just
one choice, one decision. 

—(Marvin K. Mooney, p. 97)

***

I almost forgot to tie this review into Mormonism or religion, which people might have expected given that this  blog regularly focuses on those things. There are certainly some interesting connections to be made, but I wanted simply to review the book aside from that framework. Fortunately for me, a relevant reference to these themes is found in one of Mooney's more self-absorbed ramblings, titled "Lonely So Very Much Was I." I trust my including it will help justify my reviewing this book to those who might think it strange of me:

Apologize, the postman sees underwear everywhere strewn on the couch. Invite him inside to drink and chip taste. Watch a little telly? Talk about the weather? How every morning I pray for proselytizing Mormons at the door. Or Jehovah's Witnesses (123-124).




FOOTNOTES:

1. See Christopher Higgs, "What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 1},HTMLGIANT, 18 November 2010.

2. Higgs, "What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 2}," HTMLGIANT, 15 December 2010. Higgs quotes Brian Evanson, a contributor to a collection of LDS short fiction edited by Angela Hallstrom, Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2010).

3. In one of Higgs's blog post comments he mentioned a book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. I picked up a copy and this morning was struck by this observation: "To read poetry is essentially to daydream" (17). I think Higgs somehow channeled that into his prose here, found a way to make this type of reading more obvious, at least to my own experience. Pretty cool.


Post Script: Hi, Mr. Mooney, if you happen to be reading this!

7 comments:

Ken Baumann said...

Blair,

Thanks so much for this excellent review! This made me see new possibilities in the book, even a year after publishing it. Testament to its strength as a novel and your strength as a writer. Thanks again.

Yours,
Ken

BHodges said...

Wow, thanks Ken, and congratulations on your excellent press.

Tantra Bensko said...

Very well written, makes me look forward to receiving the book in the mail even more. I like having the plot rug pulled out from under me.

BHodges said...

Remember for later: "bathos."

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