The Orphan Palace (Anglais) Broché – 19 octobre 2011
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There's a plot. Of course there's a plot. "Plotless" is a word that's thrown around pretty often, but how many books really fit the label? Here, as is often the case in novels with such emphasis on style, the plot works around the demands of the language rather than vice versa. To quote Roger Ebert, it's the rhythm section, not the melody. The protagonist, Cardigan, twisted by terrible years in a children's home under the attentions of the cold Dr. Archer, is an arsonist and murderer, but in the world of The Orphan Palace, where inexplicable and unsatisfied yearnings are the only things you can be sure of and happiness is something to be observed from outside but never possessed, his insanity is simply a fact. Neither pathetic nor monstrous though his behavior can be both, Cardigan is simply who he is because he's incapable of being otherwise. His latest dangerous compulsion is a desire to head east, toward Dr. Archer and the unresolved past, even though he knows nothing good is likely to come of it.
Cardigan's journey, a series of small encounters with contemporary anomie and ennui punctuated by violence and by memories of his tragic childhood, is as marked by repetition as the mysterious, nearly-identical pulp novels he finds in a chain of worn-out hotels, but Pulver's language is never quite the same thing twice. At times it has the staccato quality of noir; at others a superficially similar style is so abbreviated and rhythmic that it becomes poetry; at yet others the poetry is far from spare, an ecstatic, irrational medley of morbid images that don't cohere on the literal level but have, when approached in the right spirit, the rolling intensity of revelation. No quotation can be representative, and the range of styles means that most readers will encounter some they don't care for. This is one of those books you can never quite get a grip on. After finishing it I halfway wanted to start again from the beginning, reading more slowly to appreciate the style, and halfway knew I couldn't reimmerse myself in the paranoid chill of Cardigan's world so soon. The cosmic terror of mythos creatures (most notably the Hounds of Tindalos) fits perfectly within the mental disorder of troubled children, and both align with the fatalism of noir and the serial killer's overwhelming perception of crawling good and evil. In a fittingly Lovcraftian touch, explanations are suggested but finally withheld, although their general nature is as obvious as Cardigan's insanity. There are bounty hunters, ghouls, elderly authors, and a talking rat, but somehow instead of feeling thrown together they're each as inevitable as the next note in a melody. If it's anything, The Orphan Palace is an extended song, one without music, or with a music that exists only as part of the altered state of consciousness its twisting language generates inside a reader's head. Some readers will, it must be reiterated, find this formless and ridiculous, and those who have no experience with Pulver's style are advised to sample it before making a purchase. But some who open themselves to it will find unexpected rewards. My own early uncertainty, born of disdain for what I perceive in most contemporary poetry and songwriting as disconnected and unsubtle imagery, melted into the appreciation offered here. What can I say? Perhaps Cardigan's madness is catching.
This is the twelfth book from Chomu Press, and like all their fiction, offers something you can't get from any other publisher. What's all the more remarkable is that its releases provide the truly distinctive without sacrificing quality: whether new writers or established names in the small press, Chomu authors use language so carefully and inventively that even the occasional misstep is less disastrous than one would expect in newly-launched unconventional publishing. There is no easy category in which to place Chomu's releases; the closest thing I can come up with is "disturbing fiction," where "disturbing" is more than an elite way of saying "frightening." It means breaking up, if only temporarily, the way one looks at the world, providing a new and baffling perspective on the reality we all inhabit but rarely observe. Whether that perspective is the absurdism of Rhys Hughes, the subtle moral philosophy of Reggie Oliver, or the discordantly poetic bleakness of Joe Pulver, it's always idiosyncratic and unexpected. Publishing being the business it is, presses that can maintain such a vision are rare, and those, like Chomu, that manage it deserve all the support that readers who genuinely appreciate the unique and the memorable can give them.
UK-based Chômu Press' dedication to publishing "fiction that is both imaginative and unhindered by considerations of genre" is certainly very well realized here. The version I read is comfortable on the eyes; well-proofed and edited (all the odd capitalizations, unusual punctuation, off-kilter spelling and linguistic cadence are there on purpose!) The Peter Diamond wrap around cover art is perfectly evocative of the madness found within.
Pulver's writing is often lushly poetic, while being simultaneously brutally jarring, rendered in a unique and syncopated phrasing that is both captivating and austere. His striking prose notwithstanding, Pulver also possesses a searingly intuitive insight into the human condition that is painfully evidenced with each carefully turned word and phrase. There are ghostly echoes of various genres, influential authors and styles, but like a master alchemist, Pulver has forged his own unique mutant alloy, consisting of an often insalubrious mixture of clay and gold that renders a canny study in modern ethnography. While I readily confess to the belief that Pulver is a postmodern literary savant, his work will not appeal to all; this ain't no beach read or comfortably ensconced genre novel (and there's nothing wrong with either--when well-written and clever, I enjoy both). While here, the journey's mostly the thing, for me, the denouement is neither satisfying/frustrating nor inevitable; it is only one of many chance endings to a voyage impelled by the Tides and Winds of Chaos. So far, I have read this novel three times; the first in a rapid, 'what happens next?' fury, the second to see what I missed the first time amid the decayed ruins and rapid-fire violence, and finally, to savor the rich, layered textures of complicated syntax and deeply-rooted symbolism left for the reader to decipher. As Cardigan's conveniently oft-vanishing companion/tormentor, a rat named D'if allows, after being accused of being Fate's Finger: "I am but a tiny piece of Night." I can easily imagine a fourth and fifth read.
A very solid 4.5 out of 5.
We know him only as Cardigan (this name no doubt taken from the novel CARDIGAN by Robert W. Chambers, a literary hero of Pulver's). Cardigan is on a road trip across the country. Like a shark he must keep swimming; to stop might be the end of him. And like a shark, he is liable to tear into those who cross his path. Is Cardigan a serial killer, or a dark avenger? For he has been wounded, has Cardigan. Long ago he escaped the orphanage called Zimms, where he was tortured by a mysterious Dr. Archer and his staff. And so Cardigan is on the road back to Zimms, to right past wrongs. Having once run away from Zimms, and now running toward it, has he only traced one great zero?
On the road, Cardigan weirdly seems to encounter the same hotel again and again, with one of a series of oddly identical pulp fiction books in his hotel room in place of a Bible, furthering the sense that he has only been running in a circle -- an Ouroboros swallowing its own tale. Running like a rat in a treadmill, really going nowhere...except deeper into his own madness.
Speaking of rats -- Cardigan has a friend named D'if: a talking rat. Is D'if some kind of spirit, like the infamous Gef the Talking Mongoose, or an externalization of Cardigan's insanity? And along his journey, Cardigan encounters much more malevolent entities: ghouls from the universe of H. P. Lovecraft, and cultists of Frank Belknap Long's Hounds of Tindalos. Again, are these creatures real, or only further manifestations of his paranoia? The people Cardigan kills along his journey -- often women -- to his eyes are filled with BLACK (and has there ever been a novel so filled with the word black -- always written BLACK -- like some kind of repetitive chant?), but once more, are his victims truly vessels of evil or merely a madman's justification for venting his own monumental rage?
I prefer to think of these supernatural elements as merely delusion, so effective is the novel in immersing us in the mind of a dangerous, tormented man. Cardigan is Travis Bickle without a taxi; not since AMERICAN PSYCHO have I felt so thoroughly, and uncomfortably, forced into the skin of a deranged person.
Pulver's style -- however poetic and often outright hallucinatory -- keeps the forward movement unrelenting, the novel's momentum hurtling us through page after page. It is a trippy road trip indeed, more a gigantic sustained prose poem than anything else. Its repetitive imagery, the nonstop barrage of violence, certain phrases and flashback sequences appearing again and again, put us in an almost hypnotic state as the pages turn. The book could easily have been a hundred pages shorter, or a hundred pages longer; within those pages we seem to charge blindly with Cardigan through distorted time and space. Tenses change from line to line -- something that normally, as with even the great Thomas Harris, sends me into fits, but here it just seems fitting. You are not a passive reader of this book; it pulls you into a greater engagement than that, whether you like it or not. THE ORPHAN PALACE is light years beyond Pulver's first book, the entertaining Cthulhu Mythos novel NIGHTMARE'S DISCIPLE. It is a literary experience quite unlike anything I've ever encountered.
But don't get me wrong. This is not a sunny journey you're about to take, by any means.
It is black. With a capital BLACK.
(Note: the striking cover art, which perfectly captures the feel of the novel and makes for one of my favorite book covers in years, is by Peter Diamond.)
The poetic structure in this is undeniable if strangely intuitive and un-analyzable. You mull over some of the crazier passages and you realize they're polished to the bone -- that Joe didn't just excrete some stream-of-consciousness psychobabble onto the page, but edited and revised as if his intent were to make this a book length poem rather than a prose novel -- but then, show me evidence proving that WASN'T his intent. You can't, can you?
Pulver succeeds in making Cardigan sympathetic, which is an incredible accomplishment given Cardigan's almost casual viciousness and destructiveness -- within the constraints of this story, Cardigan's mere EXISTENCE is an affront -- but somehow, without stooping to anything as puerile as 'diminished capacity' or any other moral/legal loophole, we are unable to turn away from Cardigan's inherent humanity.
Dr. Archer is more of an archetype, an OT deity almost -- as this book puts us firmly in the backyard of a writer unashamedly revering Robert W. Chambers' 'King in Yellow,' we almost expect to hear the fluttering of the tattered mask, or to see the black stars shine from the white sky above Carcosa. But no: this is not that kind of book.
Joe is not for everyone; he's an acquired taste, and there are those who don't 'get' him. The man is one of a kind, and this book is his proudest (and humblest, given his own reclusive distinction) that he has produced to date. Like strong wine, he rewards repeat sips until the bouquet is mastered and dominated.
I won't even deign to recommend you read this book. It's possible you're not worthy to join Joe Pulver's clan. But if you're one of us you'll find your way here soon enough -- and this book will be your first stop on the way.
The Orphan Palace is more than a book. It is a work of art; experimental, bold, vicious, and at times stunningly beautiful. It reads like a long prose-poem. Lyrical and musical, there are small staccato passages of almost unbearable intensity that are relieved by longer, more traditional prose passages. The overall work seems fractured, almost schizophrenic; but intentionally so -much like the book's protagonist, Cardigan. Pulver bounces between prose and poetry with such motion and intensity that he blurs the line between the two and creates that signature style all his own. He plays with the rules of grammar... scratch that; Pulver demolishes the conventional rules of grammar and creates his own language.
To think of The Orphan Palace simply as a horror novel would be a huge mistake. This book is an absurdist masterwork that fuses elements of horror together with bits of philosophy, metaphysics, poetry, music, noir, and even nods - like little inside jokes - to some of the people or stories that influenced it. Pulver is such a damned clever writer that I want to re-read this book just to see if I can pick out all the subtle references and little Easter Eggs he has hidden in it.
Although this is a full-length novel, there are subplots and side-journeys from the main story that are like little individual pictures in a larger tapestry, all woven together by the strand of the main character Cardigan's journey. These little vignettes read like they could be stand-alone poems or short stories in their own right but for the fact that Cardigan is injected into them. I wondered a few times, as I was reading of Cardigan's side escapades, if Pulver might have taken unrelated short works and re-written them to include Cardigan. Either way, the book doesn't suffer from their inclusion. As with any great travel story, most of the fun is in the journey itself.
I really did not care for the ending much at all; but that is really just a matter of personal taste, not any indication that it was poorly written or executed. To each their own, of course - you might LOVE the ending. But even if it were the worst ending ever written in all the history of the written word (which it is not) I would still *strongly* recommend this book since it is roughly 95% sheer genius.