Hyper-Paranoid, Fascinating, Thought-Looping, Twenty-First Century Anxiety
It is only somewhere near the end of Jonathan Callahan’s The Consummation of Dirk that you realize the extent to which these stories, almost no two of which initially appear to be written in what might be thought of as the same “style,” coalesce around particular questions, objects, and phenomena in a tantalizingly (suspiciously?) coherent fashion. This realization proves so great that in retrospect the stories can appear like successive takes on the same body of material from various angles.
Some elements, to be sure, are clearer from the start as Callahan-favorites than others. Here one might speak of the marvelous and seamless way in which narratives have a tendency to enter into the central material only through side and back doors, sometimes several sets of them. Once one has traversed the labyrinthine foyer of one of these tales—and now I offer a largely made-up though representative example—it initially seems only too obvious: of course the story is really about Mr. X and his sexual frustration, his drinking problem, etc., and what is it if not self-evident that all that initial stuff about Mr. Y on the other side of the world, and basketball, and magical pianos and the rest of it was just a kind of extended prelude, a perhaps indulgent, arguably entertaining, questionable in formal terms, means of throwing you off the path of Mr. X? It is he, after all, who sits in pain each night as ex-Mrs. X is engaged in whatsoever she pleases with whomsoever she pleases. But then again, wouldn’t this be throwing us off a path we’re not even on yet? How can Callahan seek to distract us from Mr. X when up to that point the only person on our radar is Mr. Y? Maybe then the two are complementary, their divergent locales and temporal realms inventions (again to throw us off the path) and Mr. X and Mr. Y are simply the two halves, objective and subjective, physical and emotional, ethical and phenomenological (for a stretch), however you want to put it, of some grand Callahan character only waiting for the opportunity to walk upon the stage of literary greatness in full regalia, shoes shined, medals carefully placed, sabre in hand, an eye to the horizon as he saunters casual in the knowledge of destiny up to the stage, complete in our minds in each aspect, the mighty, the noble, the incomparable, Mr. Z.
The next story you will read from the collection might temporarily abandon all that brand of hyper-paranoid, fascinating, thought-looping, twenty-first century anxiety and retreat into some forest or other easily available removed setting for an almost-parable. Callahan will perhaps give up the kind of pedantic yet honest explosion that reminds the reader of the time Virginia Woolf got wasted, gave up the British witticisms but kept the torrent of images piling into sentences piling into pages, and told it like she felt it right then. Instead the next story will strive for simplicity. Pain will still abound, perhaps even nervous pain, but pain more manifested in fantasy and images from an imagined Old World or a book of bent children’s stories than in compulsive gulps of medication or in the leveling of affect in the face of a concrete jungle. Good old adventure will be reintroduced: there will be boats and rum, places with names like Underwood Forest, even perhaps unicorns if Mr. Callahan is feeling gutsy. Fancy will be allowed a turn of dominance, though not at the expense of interest or even necessarily complexity. Instead, we will simply not be forced into asking who the story is really about and things like that: even if such things are unclear, that will be fine, fantastic, kind of the point—a little bone of heroic escapism for the tortured, introspective, yet Zen-cool stoic twenty-first century dog.
After reading this latter type of story, you might wonder whether this isn’t perhaps the dream or the daydream of the nebulous Mr. Z of past lore. In other words, you start to suspect the side and back doors of leading between stories as well as within them. This suspicion is perhaps marginally confirmed when we end up back in familiar territory like Japan. The doors are also thrown open to the non-Callahan-conceived reality, as when the real live basketball player hinted at in the title appears, or the author himself non-disguised but heavily edited, or David Foster Wallace (we speak not of influence or anything of that sort, but of “D.F.W. is in this room right now”).
In the midst of the thematics, techniques, and meta gestures worthy of Borges, Callahan still has before him the task of keeping us, in some sense, on board, immediately engaged and consoled that someone is at the helm through the wanderings and the what-is-real-and-what-is-not scenarios. He does this with his voice and I choose the word carefully because it’s something you can hear; it’s a practical sense of closeness effortlessly fostered. He uses these incredible italics, and if you are ever briefly in a position to wonder as to the intended thrust of a line, Callahan is always ready to give it to you just where you need it. He draws a lot of humor out of this move and others like it: as a reader you can often hear with intuitive clarity the sarcastic inflection of a perfect comedic delivery, conveyed through hardly more than punctuation. He keeps the reader aware of the vast difference between “What will you do if he comes to dinner?” and “What will you do if he comes to dinner?” He has an excessively, nervously active narrative voice that works in the way some filmmakers use the camera constantly as its own agent. You can hear the sarcasm of a particular syntax or italic in the way you can with a particular shot in a film. The camera’s laughing, Callahan’s laughing. The italics are laughing.
Roger Wallace is an editorial intern with Late Night Library. He studies music at Reed College and knows just enough Spanish to fumble through fantastic writers like Borges and Márquez in the original. Favorite books include Pale Fire, The Castle, and Things: A Story of the Sixties.