Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Reveries Unlimited: The Razor’s Edge Stories of Karl Jirgens

Porcupine’s Quill Press, 2022.

"There is something missing . . . if I knew what it is then it wouldn't be so missing . . . " – Hans in The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955).

No, Reveries Unlimited is not the corporate name of a company specializing in providing services related to waking dreams, dreams we have with our eyes wide open while engaging in psychological wanderings. I’ve coined this hopefully supple phrase to encapsulate the kind of author who prompts, encourages, inspires and otherwise seduces us into sharing his or her narrative roamings through a past, present and future which collide, intersecting gently in a series of gently linked stories. Such is the service provided by Karl Jirgens in the recent collection called The Razor’s Edge, from Porcupine’s Quill Press, which subtly touches upon Maugham’s classic tale of a search for the meaning of life, in which we often feel as if we were walking on that precarious edge, posed between transcendence and a fall into oblivion.

The Jirgens approach to that narrative precipice is to allow the reader to hopscotch along its propulsive precarity, drifting in and out of accumulating oneiric occurrences until they almost become an encyclopedia of wonderment. This seductive selection of stories is a kind of emulsion of three things: the author’s memories, dreams and reveries. Like most emulsions, it is a fine dispersal of minute droplets of one substance into another, into which they never fully dissolve. As such, and to use another unexpected metaphor, this book is practically a balsamic reduction of the author’s life, as lived, remembered or imagined. And it is a very entertaining reduction indeed.

The shared title comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad, usually paraphrased as: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." It embodies something of the search for solidity, or perhaps actuality, which Jirgens skillfully navigates in his sequence of stories shifting from dream to reality, from recollected memory to haptic physicality, and back again. Most crucially in his narrative journey, we are never entirely certain whether something we are experiencing during his reading reverie is fiction, fact, myth, desire or dread.

Much more elusive than any of Maugham’s stories, though told with a somewhat similarly skillful literary acumen, these neo-surrealist tales form a kind of postmodern meta-narrative, in which the content from one is apt to leak into another. That leakage across narrative borders is in fact the essential ingredient in enjoying the ride, more of a leisurely stroll really, as the narrator, who may or may not be of the reliable sort, performs the function of an immobile flâneur, taking us with him as the porous gaps in memory and wakefulness become filled with a slow trickle of awareness. Some in the West call that exotic sensation a lucid dream, while most in the East allude to a kind of dream yoga, in which one can practice realizing that everything we experience is inherently only happening in our mind. Imagine a razor coated with honey and you’ll have the terrain as firmly grasped as it can be, thus allowing you to read your way forward through a series of events that sometimes feel as if they are taking place in a nouveau roman by Robbe-Grillet.

The word lacuna (noun; plural: lacunae) is derived from the Latin word lacus, which means lake. While prevalent in biology to designate spaces or connective tissue in between bone or cartilage, a lacuna is also commonly a gap in a manuscript, inscription, text, painting, or musical work. It is these gaps between physical locations, character structure, plotlines and suspended climaxes which give the Jirgens collection a powerful sense of alternating urgency and restraint at the same time. But for me, what makes these interlinked stories really work so effectively as what culture critic Walter Benjamin used to call an intertext is the way gaps between them rapidly fill up with the reader’s own reveries. The other helpful guide through this narrative labyrinth is almost Jungian in tone and relates to both synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) and the collective unconscious (the realm of archetypes).

Here I’m referring to a zone of awareness that J.G. Ballard (in his stunningly prescient novel The Drowned World) referred to as the domain of the archaeopsychic:

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.

Almost all of Jirgens’ stories in this exemplary collection take place, if they have a place at all, in either the basement or the attic of our minds, and almost never on the ground-level floors where we might be more used to hanging out.

This very fine Jirgens story collection has echoes for me of the roaming minds of Louis Aragon and Pierre Reverdy, as well as Philippe Soupault and René Crevel. I’m not comparing their stylistic approaches here but rather their motivations and intentions. They all sought to scrape away some of the grey surfaces of the daily dream we occupy as we go about our lives. Especially so with Reverdy, whose uncanny preoccupation with loneliness and spiritual apprehension so embodied the surrealist ethos. But these Razor’s Edge stories are also echoes of no one else but Jirgens himself, especially as an evolutionary evocation of his earlier collection Strappado, a novel collection of stories published by Coach House Press back in 1985. That title referred to a medieval torture device in which the victim was secured by a rope and made to fall from a great height almost to the ground before being stopped with an abrupt jerk.

I was reminded of that arresting metaphor at once in the Prelude to The Razor’s Edge, in which the narrator describes a dream he experienced, unless of course he is only dreaming that he is writing this story collection, a dream which is abruptly interrupted by a telephone call from a woman, possibly a friend who mistakes him for a confidante, or a former lover, or someone else entirely. Perhaps it was my own history as an altar boy who went to a Catholic school with the unlikely name of Precious Blood Elementary, or perhaps it was my subsequent experiences of traveling through a similar dreamtime, but that interruption of the narrator’s dream (one in which a white-robed and heart-flaming Christ was approaching him on nocturnal street) by the supposedly real world of a somewhat nagging friend’s phone call – that was a psychic strappado writ large:

Even years later, I remember the dream exactly . . . A wave of recognition swept over me. Soft, long brown hair, flowing white robe, and a red mark on his chest. At first I thought he was injured. As he drew closer, I saw that the colour red arose from an open heart . . . I realized that it was Jesus approaching. I felt as though I was enveloped in a magnetic field of sorrowful waves and unconditional love. I was to have a reckoning. And the, the telephone rang.

The author would indeed have a reckoning, but rather than with an archetypal cosmic being who might transmit some kind of esoteric message meant for him alone, his reckoning is with the waking world which only pretends to be real, a world occupied by unwanted sharing from yet another sentient being:

Following her phone call and my lost dream, I grew listless within the confines of the house and decided to take a walk. I headed south on the sidewalk, looking for something, something different . . . having walked south for over a city block, I realized that I had seen nothing. So, I turned about, and returned to the house. I felt an idiot joy as a warm breeze arose behind my back, carrying me home.

I spent a little time with this “event” unfolding in the author’s Prelude dream because it so encapsulates everything that will follow in his story collection, which is practically curated to address some of the tale folding back in on itself, allowing some characters to escape the bounds of their story all together and appear, as if on a Pirandello quest, not in search of the author but of their own beings. And also to encounter, time and again, that bittersweet Soupaltesque spiritual apprehension, the loneliness of the long distance flâneur, with each subsequent story providing its own subtle corda, the rope snapping trick that prevents the reader’s mind from ever landing on solid ground, and instead propels us sideways, into another story, another dream. Because, whether we are awake or asleep, everything that is happening is happening in our mind. That does not mean, I hasten to point out in my appreciation for Jirgens and his considerable storytelling skills, that nothing is real. On the contrary, and even more arresting, perhaps, it means that everything is.

As with Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, nothing is presented or described that cannot be known first-hand by the author, and it is always delineated with admirable precision, rigor and literary restraint. The resulting deceptive simplicity in this collection, actually masking a considerable narrative complexity, allows for an accumulation of basic data and results in something almost approximating a literary version of Frank Zappa’s explanation for his music: these stories have a high degree of statistical density.

They also have a sweet and evasive liminal condition: everything is in between the real and imagined, the withheld and the revealed, the shared and the secret, in an ever-accelerating roller-coaster ride of references, literary, musical, visual. Everything is interstitial in a way that is still harrowingly real, as a result of the author’s fine managerial control of his reveries, which, though unlimited, are still completely within the realm of the possible. No talking fish reciting Shakespeare or flying elephants singing Bessie Smith songs. And yet, we’re also in a world where such things could easily be unveiled for us, even if they were only momentarily considered and then rapidly withdrawn from our grasp.

So the same dream-interrupter (we presume) appears in several following reveries as well, such as in “Watch, Watching,” suggesting a triadic relationship which may or may not ever be consummated. But that she, or rather, another archetype, also appears in a recollection of the author’s mother, in “The Freshness of a Dream.” Sitting with the two of them at the kitchen table as he describes it, her sharing family memories of fighting with the partisans, first against the Nazis, then against the Soviets, he soaking up her guidance via the card readings she regularly did for him. His maternal seer didn’t exactly predict the future so much as provide reassurances that there would be one: “Everything will fall into place.” Oddly enough, I had a similar mother, one of Scottish heritage, though, no cards in her hand, only the unwieldy faith she bore like a blessing: “Every move you make will be the right one.”

One of my favourites among this selection of fictive gems (which might be memories, dreams, reveries or fictions) is called “Hungry Ghosts,” an oblique reference to part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to refer to afterlife beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. Their affliction is to remain amongst us but to be unable to ever satisfy their lingering appetites. Like many of these stories, it relates to time and circumstance, recurrence and recursion. Again it touches lightly on two perennial subjects and themes: memory and duration.

As such it reminded me of some seminal insights of the great French author Gaston Bachelard, whose Poetics of Reverie and Poetics of Time (sometimes translated as Dialectic of Duration or Intuition of the Instant) are virtual guidebooks for walking the razor’s edge of poetic duration: “Instead of looking for the dream in reverie, people should look for reverie in the dream. There are calm beaches in the midst of nightmares. Thus a whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose.” Reverie coming to accentuate our repose is entire pivotal crux of not only “Hungry Ghosts” but every other story in Razor’s Edge.

The “I” in his stories, whether real or imagined, is reminiscent of Hans in Gaddis’s 1955 masterpiece The Recognitions, in that both are searching for something but remain uncertain what it is they’re searching for. Jirgens also deftly explores the outer edges of a speculative fiction that splashes onto the beaches of philosophy in carefully choreographed tides which are both highly personal and yet dreamily universal at the same time. In those waves some of the finest sentences I’ve ever encountered float like a kind of silky psychic seaweed in his sharing of family and social dynamics. This is especially the case in the poetic reverie insights contained in sentences that evoke a shorter snappier version of the duration in both Proust and James:

Words stagger under the weight of time, under inadequate metaphors of space. Our language asks us to look forward to the future. But for the Andean people, it is reversed. The future is behind us and always has been.  Imagine you are in a boat, looking forward, drifting downstream. What is to be comes towards you. Turn about and face upstream. A simple pivot. The future is now behind you. It always was always there. Does direction matter? Perhaps. Wait a moment, look, listen. You’ll see and hear how the past is always before you. It is as if another hand is writing these words.

This has the charm of not only concurring with a childhood obsession of mine, that I was receiving messages from some future version of myself, but also of being one of the finest sentences, not just in this collection, but one of the finest I’ve ever read, period. It dances to the beat of the Bardo, the shadowy mirror-kingdom of memory.

Jirgens returns us, after a dizzying road trip through twentieth-century art, music, politics and poetry, to the place where we started: the origin of virtually all vertigo, the passage of time. “People retell,” he reminds us in the aptly titled “Postlude: The Sound of Smoke,” “what is most interesting, or what remains brightest in the memory. Memories are flawed, focal points limited, survivor accounts questionable. I trace through documents. Histories of words recorded. Slip back in time, tracking the source of smoke to the fire itself . . . I am sequestered, in my room, alone with recurring thoughts. The joss stick has burned out. I turn my forehead to the sky and remind myself that words recalling things past are only smoke, they are not the things themselves.”

Such an oblique passing nod to a Proustian search for lost time is hard to miss here, as elsewhere in his carefully constructed stories about people, whether living, dead or imaginary. He reminds the reader that there will indeed be a future, though not necessarily the one we expect or hope for, and that is how he tracks the smoke of memory to the actuality of fire. There’s a good reason why this storyteller opens his collection with an epigram reference to Franz Kafka, master of unreliable memories, and the patron saint of unreliable narrators: “A book must be an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” Karl Jirgens hands us just such an axe in The Razor’s Edge, and he cracks open the private sea inside himself, until it slowly melts into first a river and then a waterfall, one perfect sentence at a time.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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