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One often hears the fiction of certain writers praised as poetic, but the effects those writers produce actually have little to do with poetry. What makes their work so striking is a mastery of the rhythms of prose, so that their sentences fall with an elegance that may be simple or extravagant but is always orderly. Truly poetic language is another matter; largely the preserve of experimental writers, it awkwardly yet beautifully occupies the space between prose and poetry, can often be read either way depending on the moment and one's mood. Chomu Press has published a number of writers who explore this territory-- Brendan Connell and Michael Cisco come to mind-- but their latest release, Joseph S. Pulver Sr.'s The Orphan Palace, is the most mind-bending hybrid yet. The blurring of the line between prose and poetry is only the beginning; Pulver's sharp, dark narrative mixes Lovecraftian cosmicism, noir fiction, psychological horror, and urban squalor so seamlessly that it's hard to remember they ever worked separately. To say a book like this is "not for everyone" is a massive case of stating the obvious, but for the right reader, it's an awe-inspiring, mind-bending experience.
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.