Natalia Holtzman on Richard Makin’s Mourning
It’s now something of a convention for a writer to complain about the inadequacy of language. How difficult it is to apprehend the world by way of sentences. I can’t help thinking that it isn’t language that is inadequate, but our use of it, our insubstantial grasp. We seem to flicker in and out. Some days I am so articulate; other days I can barely form a sentence. Language can certainly be inadequate, I think, when you cast it away from you, which some writers do, like throwing dice.
Richard Makin is a writer with a tempestuous relationship to language. His writing, whatever else it happens to be about, also has, at all times, itself as its subject. He writes urgently about the negligibility of language, of literature. His novels communicate hopelessness as to the possibility of effectively communicating. He writes sentences about how nonsensical sentences necessarily are. “Consider the arrangement of vowels and consonants that compose any random sequence,” he writes in his most recent novel, Mourning. And so I have been. And as I have, I’ve also strayed further away from any sympathy I might once have had with Richard Makin and his linguistic despair.
Most days, I’d like to have been a musician. I’d like to play the saxophone. I’ve never even touched a saxophone. I’d like to think that music is somehow more immediate than language is. But this is such an easy complaint for a writer to make, and it is so frequently made.
Langston Hughes famously described James Baldwin as being able to use words “as the sea uses waves.” How appealing to think of language as tangible, as tactile, mercurial, and palpable as water. Or to think that it could be.
Baldwin himself told the Paris Review that when writing, “you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had.” Baldwin’s model is a paradigm of raw, brutal honesty. “You want to write sentences,” he said, “as clean as a bone.”
I was reminded of this as I read Makin’s Mourning. Richard Makin is a writer of many talents, but he does not write sentences as clean as a bone. Nor has he stripped himself of his own disguises, or delusions; in fact, he sometimes seems swaddled with them.
Mourning is the third of a trilogy; it follows Work and Dwelling. Mourning deals, in part, with the various limits and failures of language. It is a piece of fiction about the impossibility of making fiction, a narrative about the violence that narrative-making must necessarily wreak. There are characters and there is dialogue in Mourning, but we are not really told who the characters are, and when someone is speaking, it is often hard to tell who that is. The narrative, such as it is, does not proceed chronologically, or along any other linear route we might find familiar.
The first line is: “I can’t remember.” Flip, impertinent, to begin this way. It’s difficult to convey Makin’s disparate, cut-up style without quoting rather extensively from it and so, to give you a taste, the rest of this paragraph continues: “We’re just below the hospitality hoax at the riverend. By then I was sold: low ebb of gravity hence had already the vision. The things that hatched out of the eggs resembled lizards.”
They certainly did! I can’t help being reminded of Naked Lunch. Makin seems to share with Burroughs his distrust of straightforward narrative. “I cannot recall a single detail,” his narrator announces. “There are characters, then the dilemma forms its own solution.”
If our inability to communicate with ourselves and each other leaves us in a kind of desert of insignificance, it also leaves time in that desert.
Occasionally, Makin will mimic the conventions of storytelling before undermining the validity of those conventions. Midway through the first page, he writes, expansively, “It was a warm night in July. Picture me.” Then comes the subversion: “I once was named, now I go about the earth uncalled for; I’m one of the thirty-six.”
Makin’s little subversions can be tart, ironic, and smart. Unfortunately, he can also fall into a kind of juvenile pathos, as in this same passage, which continues: “No one seems to care or notice. I’m the past dug up and lost again, forbidden archaeology.” Or, a bit later: “I began my philosophical career under the influence.” Or, yet again: “Self-loathing gets you everywhere.”
He is occasionally prone to hopeless grandiosity: “I encompass the need for your discontinuance,” he—or his narrator—says, early on. “Origin is a kind of fatality.” “[C]haos is a dying art, it needs reviving.” These statements become tiresome rather quickly. We’ve all, I think, met, or observed, or been, the boy in the basement, widening his eyes, pondering the Big Questions, speculating wildly. For all his subversiveness, I don’t see a great deal in Makin’s work that I haven’t seen before. His observations—about self-loathing, or chaos, or time, or language—don’t seem as original, as groundbreaking, as he might have expected, as we might have hoped.
“Every word lacks consequence,” he writes, on his very first page: “There’s an inexplicable clouding of the clarity, followed by a long period of quietude.” Here and elsewhere, Makin seems to pursue alliteration to his own detriment. Meaning seems occasionally to spiral away from the music of a line, rather than to be bound up in it. The sentence quoted above, for example, clacks along delightfully, even devastatingly, through its hard “c”s: in “lacks,” “consequence,” “clouding,” “clarity,” “quietude,” and twice in “inexplicable” (the “x” and the “c”). But is the clouding of clarity really all that inexplicable? A non-linear narrative, indistinct attribution of pronouns, associative logic, a private frame of reference—these all seem to contribute rather explicably to a clouded clarity.
Makin bewails the distances that separate us, one from another. Language does nothing to bridge those distances: “Impossibility of communication – to bring one’s partner across a dangerous situation, i.e. a creeper bridge. The former had moved back and awaited instructions (risk of greenstick fracture, dissolving hull integrity).” We are, each of us, left stranded. Not only can we not communicate, we can’t even think on our own, individually: “He dare not dream of identifying himself, quite the contrary: that word may well not exist.” We have no way of recognizing ourselves; we haven’t the language to do so.
If our inability to communicate with ourselves and each other leaves us in a kind of desert of insignificance, it also leaves time in that desert. “Other insignificances,” the narrator says wearily, listlessly: “chronicles of wasted time, lost seasons.” Without language, we can’t track time. “Objects and events were entering me from all directions at once,” somebody—who knows who?—says at some point.
The logic here is circular. Makin inhabits a world in which time sweeps past without meaning or significance; in which our lives, therefore, lack all significance; in which we do not even hold significance for each other—in which we can’t—lacking as we do any effective means of communication. There’s no helping each other across any bridges. Or, as he says a few pages later, “we can’t do anything for one another.”
As he circles through these questions, Makin—or his narrator, or his nameless characters—continually undercuts his own method of questioning. “Is this writing?” he asks. “Once hatched they”—who?—“promptly chewed their way through every volume of the dictionary.” Did the chewing help? “There was literally nothing to write about.” Ah, cruel fate! “Stop me if I say something stupid.” “Some people read it and scream wordplay.” What’s the alternative? “Simply avoid hearing about it or speaking about it or thinking about it or being affected by it in any way.” What is “it”?
Occasionally, Makin is unabashedly solipsistic. “You need not answer back,” he says: “I can readily resume the dialogue.” And yet he is quick to lash out at the overly earnest, the self-involved, anyone else he finds deserving of contempt. “What people really love,” he says, ferociously, “is that they hear their own sound being scored, within these already familiar patterns.” Indeed! Sharp and sarcastic as he frequently is, Makin seems entirely unironic when it comes to himself. For all his undercutting, undermining, etc., he takes himself dead seriously.
What I’d like more than anything is to see him strip away his own disguises. How badly I craved a sentence stripped clean as a bone. But maybe Makin did anticipate this response. I couldn’t always tell when he was in earnest and when he wasn’t. “Believe me,” he writes: “I would rather not be here.”
Natalia Holtzman’s work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hobart, Redivider, B O D Y, and elsewhere. She recently completed her MFA at the University of Alabama, and currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI.
Mourning by Richard Makin • Equus Press, 2015 • 254 pages
Photo courtesy of Micah McCrary