The Endless Bookshelf : simply messing about in books

13 May 2014

A Clyster for the Republic

— [Nicholas Currie]. Momus. UnAmerica. Penny-Ante Editions, 2014. Success and Failure Series. 157, [1] pp.

From the very first sentence of UnAmerica, it is plain that we are in another universe ; just how near to our own does not become apparent until later in the paragraph, when the narrator, Brad, makes an illegal U-turn in his Dodge Custer and parks at the Tastee Freez. Brad is on his way to meet God in Summerville, South Carolina. By page 11, it is clear what shape that universe has taken : “ the triumph of the slave-driving South over the Yankees during the Civil War, and the Confederate States of America’s use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Britain during the Second World War. ”

UnAmerica is the third is a series of explorations of national stereotypes and alterities (The Book of Scotlands, 2009, reviewed here , and The Book of Japans, 2010). Nicholas Currie, who writes and performs as Momus, is past master of the gross-out, the bravo of bestiality, the cantor of incest, and the psychopomp of the obscene. He is able to break strong taboos in a single aside. Even at his most transgressive, the satire gleams pure gold and his tricky prose demonstrates the high level of intellectual agility and engagement. UnAmerica is a genuinely Swiftian satire, obscene, blasphemous, and necessary : a clyster for the republic as vigorous as anything the Lilliputians administered to Gulliver, depicted by William Hogarth (The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver [December 1726] ). The truly apposite gross-out is another form of the lie that tells the truth. Everything is fair game : art, murder, botany, the seasons, diet, numbers, music, the American legal system, and especially, commerce.

At the meeting in the Tastee Freez, Brad is instructed to make a voyage like Saint Brendan’s : not to reach Tir na nÓg but to undiscover America. The labors of his preparations are a voyage into the darkest corners of the malls of America. With all due apologies to Joaquin Miller and Avram Davidson, to ask if Momus has visited South Carolina is to ask of Dante, “ Say, Bub, has yoouu ever been to Hell ? ” (or perhaps not), but it is to ask the wrong question.

Why don’t I have a car ? It’s a legitimate question for a man living in a nation where a driver’s license is the default ID, and only 30% of the population has a passport.

What is the purpose of a book or a work of art ? Oscar Wilde reminds us that all art is useless, but that does not preclude a meaning or a purpose. What is the purpose of a book or a work of art ? To elicit (or provoke) a response from the participant. To that end, all means are legitimate — trickery, killing off characters, and all forms of play with the medium.

I’m nothing more than an alert and anxious skeleton covered in skin. “ All air and nerve ”, as Robert Lowell once put it. Now, American culture looks down on thin people just as it does on poor people.

Brad overcomes innumerable obstacles to recruit his ill-matched crew. Gulliver is given passing mention — “ Horses are folks who keep to themselves, but they’re at least as intelligent as humans, and in some cases more so. " — but the horses are swiftly killed off. There is a glimpse of Heaven in a religious community outside of Summerville, : a naturist, “ utopian Starbucks. The Starbucks of Things-As-They-Ought-To-Be. It’s how a Starbucks would be in a world in which every applicable rule and regulation were followed. ” But Brad does not get fooled by the doctrine of full compliance. He builds his coracle. “ And Brad takes the twelve with him, and bids farewell to South Carolina. They row out into the great sea of the ocean . . .  ” As in The Odyssey, or The Ship That Sailed to Mars, the adventurers call on many islands, each more beautiful and dangerous than the last : “ an island of sheep, an island of whales, an island of psalm-singing birds, an island of eternally young, bread-eating monks, an island with a well of forgetfulness . . . . ” By the end, Momus turns Genesis upon its head and the beautiful Jacobean cadences accomplish a different order of creation.

That specific aspect of UnAmerica is not quite as ambitious as Ursula K. Le Guin’s “ She Unnames Them ” but the aim of the journey has been achieved. The satire of the early passages of the book is of almost fractal involution, so dense that it almost conceals the most appalling point of all. The terrain of UnAmerica is all too recognizably twenty-first century America : what Momus is telling us is that we are living in a world where the South Won. Not like Winston S. Churchill’s “ If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg ” or Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, but in a manner dark and inescapable utterly insidious for being almost unnoticed.

The physical form of the book must be noted briefly. The book looks and feels distinctively unAmerican, and strongly resembles a small 1970s German paperback (Suhrkamp, from memory). However, the interior typography and legibility is not really up to those retro standards, for the text appears to be set in 6 point type with 8 point leading (or something equally crowded : 38 lines of text, in a live area about 32 picas in height). The East German paperbacks on my shelf are 37 lines of text, about 36 picas in height.

UnAmerica was a lot of fun to read, to pick up the art-historical references and consider the peculiar place of popular music in the events of the novel. And most of all, to watch how my own preconceptions of what is and is not suitable matter for satire were challenged again and again.

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