Baby on Brain: notes on reading Percival Everett, Urs Allemann & Amos Tutuola
I've had baby on the brain lately. Not that we're planning on having one, but it seems everyone else is & the last few books i've read seem to have to do with babies in some shape or form—from Urs Allemann's Babyfucker to Percival Everett's Glyph.
My «baby» is in Sussex right now & i'm here in the cold of Rome at 4:49 a.m. wearing my parka inside. The only light is coming from the screen i'm writing on. It's funny how people call their partners, those that make babies, babies. Like Joey Ramone claiming the KKK took his baby away. Why do we assume it's his sweetheart & not a baby baby? I think i read somewhere that the song is actually about Johnny taking Joey's girlfriend away from him. I'd look it up on Wikipedia to verify, but it's blacked out, which is maybe a good thing. Who needs fact.
What if snopes.com got debunked? Would that make everything they debunked, bunk? I brought this up over tacos the other night, with some friends who didn't speak English as their first language. In explaining what «bunk» was i realized that debunking something doesn't really make it bunk. And it doesn't help to look it up in the dictionary either.
& i'm pretty sure none of the Ramones had rugrats. That wouldn't have been pretty. Technically I should've said «.... none of Ramones had rugrats», but it sounds funny without the definite article. Like Ramones, my baby & i have opted for memetic propagation rather than genetic propagation. My newborn is at the printer as we speak, being delivered. Not that it's «mine»—it's its own being.
Even though i've christened this papered neonate as its own being, you might argue it's not the same, because «real» fleshy babies are born with the ability to turn around & spawn more of the same. Though i could argue that book-babies can also propagate & recreate themselves by planting memes in other people's heads, who will in turn author more book-babies with mutated memes from the parental book. This is one of the driving forces behind Ark Codex ±0, that it's like a Frankenstein stitched together from other books. I literally «took a page» from other books & rejigged them to tell whatever story you want to hear.
The other newborn Calamari hitting the streets as we speak is Chiara Barzini's & Chiara is also pregnant with a real child (in fact the book is dedicated to the father & the unborn child who already has a name, Milly).
A baby with the mental capacity but not the physical capacity, but self-aware of his helpless condition, reliant on adults, to be fed or bathed, to not be stuffed in a weighted sack & dropped in a lake. «The idea of my own drowning made me more interesting to myself.»—baby Ralph says. «I hated the helplessness, the doorknobs so far above my head, not being able to completely trust my sphincter muscles.»
The catch is that although Ralph can't speak, he can write (though he usually chooses not to)—this seems a bit contrived, but the whole thing is so why not accept it? Ralph amuses himself by dreaming up imaginary conversations with dead poets & philosophers, or by silently judging & disagreeing with his father, a hack philosopher who has Roland Barthes over for dinner. Between chapters, Everett provides us with diagrams to illustrate some of the ideas floated both in the story (in Ralph's cognitive development) & in the subject matter he is reading, like this:
And we also get interspersed philosophical musings from Ralph, woven into the story:
& while his wunderkind ability enables him to understand all these «adult» topics, he is also smart enough to see through all the bullshit & rip Barthes a new asshole.
There's a plot to it, as you'd expect—the baby's talents are discovered & a series of kidnappings ensues, everyone scheming to find ways to exploit baby Ralph's talents & Ralph the whole time unable to help himself. Some amusing & at times hilarious scenes come from the drama (you can only imagine the look on the woman's face who reaches into a stranger's babystroller to pinch a baby's cheek & is handed a note that says: «Help me! I am a kidnapped baby and this woman is not my mother. We have no relationship beyond captor and captive. Please get help.»)
Oh & btw, the baby is black, as is the author. Which makes scenarios like the one above even funnier (as his captor was white). That's the cool thing about Everett, I don't know about his other books, but his blackness is only a sidenote with this book, not something he always needs to remind you of, like other African-American writers. This lack of attention to this detail (except to point it out at times when society deems it an issue) is the best way to make others realize that the color of your skin is only a big deal if you make it into one. Otherwise it is just another attribute to an otherwise strangely brooding & troubled existential baby:
Another passage I particularly liked, in light of the writing of Ark Codex ±0 (waiting for a flood at the north pole & thinking about primal language) was this:
& all sorts of other morsels for thought are delivered in this book, including a finale of «Ralph's Theory of Fictive Space: an appendix within the text for the purpose of serving the last sentence». I'll definitely be looking out for more Percival Everett.
By explicitly stating these words, Allemann milks them of harmful intent, reducing them to meaningless morphemes.
I mean, we're all adults here. We know the drill about sticks & stones. The question is, is it interesting enough once said? & what kind of sick fucks feel the need to read such things? If it wasn't such a short little book, translated by Les Figues Press (which I deeply admire), I probably wouldn't have. But I heard him out. Should you? I don't know, I suppose some interesting things were said while he was busy fucking the babies, but there are plenty of other fish to fry. Like perhaps Assisted Living by Nikanor Teratologen, equally «not for the faint of heart» & which Blake Butler (who has more tolerance for these things than me) so eloquently reviewed in Vice.
It has the usual Tutuola trappings—a hunter goes on a journey & encounters all sorts of supernatural & hostile beings along his way, distracting him from his original quest, which in this book is to get juju so he can knock up his wife. It's the wild creations that Tutuola comes up with along the way that are mind-blowing & make it all the worthwhile. Though how much credit he gets for «creating» these figments of imagination is questionable—it has been said that he borrows liberally from Yoruba folktales in spinning his yarns. Hats off if he does, I say. One new angle to this book is that the narrator is splintered into two different minds & a memory, each separable & at odds against one another throughout the book.
Whenever faced with a predicament, his two minds would trick him to act rashly against his will, one way or another. Tutuola has a funny detached way of writing (such as putting things in quotes like in the above passage) that makes it all more believable & convincing, like the story is something that came to him verbatim in a dream or from his subconscious, something he has no control over—he just tells it like it happened to him, in a reportorial matter-of-fact tone. He'll often be really specific about things (like say he walked 1200 meters instead of saying «about a kilometer,» as if he is documenting his discoveries in some sort of psychogeographical field notebook for the Yoruba subconscious. Here's how he describes the boobs & arms of a stout, many-breasted woman he encounters:
And he continues on, describing the body & the head that looked «like an image carved by an unskilled man.» As in his other books, he'll be very detailed over a mundane period of a few minutes, but then just gloss over a few critical years time in one sentence, giving a strange quality to the passage of time. He even introduces his own (Yoruba?) unit of time called a «twinkling», which he uses regularly (even in increments of say, a «sixtieth of a twinkling»).
Another thing worth mentioning, that ties in with the baby-theme of this post, is Tutuola's narrator keeps referring to himself as a «Born and Die Baby», who had «betrayed many fathers and mothers of their property». The repercussions of which (his betrayal of these otherwise innocent mothers & fathers) would keep coming back to plague him on his quest. And yes, he refers to mothers & fathers in the plural, as if acknowledging the long line of parental beings that got him to this singular, dead-end existence.
What really struck me more than ever with this book is how hostile & menacing the world (the bush) that Tutuola inhabits is. Not that he doesn't encounter threatening & malicious beings in his other books, but it seemed everyone he encountered was out to get him. (& could this be said to be typical of the Nigerian psyche?) After a dozen or more of these violent encounters—fighting powerful & evil forces against all odds—i must admit i started to get a bit bored. But then again James Bond movies & video games bore me eventually for the same reason. Lets face it, we all know who will win before the fight is over. Albeit in Tutuola's case, he can be quite clever in getting his heroes out of sticky situations, though usually (& conveniently) it involves using some sort of juju.
Sometimes the forces that haunt him are demonic monsters (like the Crazy Removeable-Headed Wild Man, whose head Tutuola steals & carries around on a stick for the rest of the book as a sort of totem, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies), but at other times the ominous forces are more nebulous, like a strange shadow that envelopes him:
The fact that his language is awkward & at times grammatically «incorrect» only adds to his unfettered conviction. You can't make this shit up. And another thing he does is he often puts «etc.» at the end of lists, like he's in a frenzy to get it all down on paper & you the reader should get the idea, you should fill in the blanks, complete his sentences. This haunting scene as he was fighting the Crazy Removeable-Headed Wild Man:
While it is written as narrative, at times you feel detached from the body doing the speaking, like having an out of body experience, hovering just above the body with the narrator, as in this passage:
Despite these body detachments & his fracturing into multiple minds, one thing he (Tutuola, the narrator) can't seem to shake is his omnipresent consciousness. Not to reveal too much of the plot, but yes, after years of trials & tribulations, he finally reaches the Remote Town & meets the Witch-Herbalist who gives him some specially concocted soup to take back for his wife with the explicit warning to NOT eat it. But even as she tells him this, like the silly rabbit he knows he won't be able to resist & sure enough (spoiler alert) he nonchalantly (against the advice of his "second mind") cooks some up & just eats it. T.I.A., as they say in Africa. Just like this whole Concordia fiasco is so typically Italian. «I fell into the lifeboat.» & what happens after he cant help but to help himself to the soup? HE gets pregnant!
He manages to get himself unpregnant (with the help of the Crazy Removeable-Headed Wild Man's severed head). & in the end he purges his two minds & memory in front of a judge (his «kidney») & they have it out in a surreal courtroom setting—his memory accusing his two minds of deception & betrayal. And his two minds counter-suing with claims of desertion. Exorcised of his two minds & memory & his self-judging kidney, he becomes merely the «Possessor», am empty shell. No punishment can be handed down which does not effect this Possessor, so a sort of mistrial is proclaimed. But does his wife have a baby in the end? For that you'll have to read it yourself.