Michael Cisco, The Narrator (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2010)
Every modern (along with many ancient) war on the planet has produced a definitive novel*—The Killer Angels, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Thin Red Line, Purple Mountain, the list goes on. But war, especially in recent times, has gained something of a broader definition than it had during the days when heavily-armored men spent hours lining up on battlefields to charge each other with lances. Nowadays, we go to war against ideas. Few people would consider attempting a definitive novel about the war on terror. (One assumes anyone who would attempt one about the war on drugs is, well, too stoned.) But as far as I can discern, that is exactly what Michael Cisco has given us in The Narrator—an absurd book that chronicles, albeit in urban-fantasy mode, an absurd, unwinnable war. It is the very absurdity, the unwinnable-ness, if you will, of the war on terror that makes The Narrator such a strong addition to the literature of war. Well, that and Michael Cisco’s narrative style.
We begin with Low Loom Column, a somewhat unassuming student, being drafted, despite having put in for a student exception. Protesting all the way, he leaves his home in the mountains, from which he has never been far, and heads for the city of Tref, where he is supposed to meet up with his regiment. While in Tref, he befriends a number of students from the local mortuary school, including the urbane, witty Jil Punkinflake, and has a whirlwind affair with a local widow known throughout the city as the Cannibal Queen. Alas, the lackadaisical nature of the army comes to an end, and Low, along with Jil and a few of the other mortuary students, set out for the coast with Makemin, their commending officer, and his regiment. While their initial encounters are lighthearted, not dangerous at all (the regiment, which is severely undermanned, picks up strength—as well as another former mortuary student in the gangly, obsessed Thrushchurl—by liberating an asylum from the enemy), once they get to the coast and prepare to set off for the island they will be defending, things start getting nasty, and Low and his friends all handle the stress in different ways. Low, being the regiment Narrator, is supposed to be the one apart from the action, the dispassionate recorder of events, the historian. But he has also been pressed into service as Makemin’s translator, the only member of the regiment who understands Lashlache, the language of the enemy, as well as the company medic. It is impossible to stay dispassionate, and the strain begins to wear. Low’s very capacity for language begins to break down, and we, reading this account, are left to wonder: are things really as absurd as they seem, or has Low Loom Column simply gone insane?
The jacket copy compares Cisco’s language in the book to both Antonin Artaud and Alain Robbe-Grillet, “with a tinge of Thomas Ligotti.” The comparisons are warranted, and as a worshipful fan of all three of those writers, I do not make such pronouncements lightly. I would also add a comparison to the mythpunks, those writers whose depth of language is as much a feature of their work as their worldbuilding (Sonya Taaffe, Jeannelle Ferreira, Catherynne Valente, Wendy Walker, etc.). But all this aside, the novel I found myself returning to time and again was Heinrich Böll’s first novel, The Train Was on Time. I had thought that comparison would wear off as Cisco’s situations got more and more absurd, but instead, the opposite was the case; the farther apart the two novels grew on the fantasy vs. reality level, the closer they seemed to grow thematically (Böll’s novel, after all, is an examination of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many of Low’s symptoms as time goes on could be explained that way as well).
The novel does contain a somewhat ridiculous coda—its only weak point. It does serve to answer the question posed at the end of the plot synopsis I gave above, but that could have been done any number of ways without stretching the reader’s credibility quite do far. Still, that’s a very few pages at the end of what is, in every other way, a masterwork. “What one word,” Low asks himself (or us), “could I possibly write about war, as though I could pick it up and handle it like it were a sane thing?” Michael Cisco abandoned that idea from the outset, and it was the best decision he could have made in writing The Narrator. **** ½
(* it is possible we are still waiting for a definitive novel about the Boxer Rebellion. Got one? I’m all ears!)