25 October 2004

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf, a recent book from Soft Skull Press, is the first novel of Paul Fattaruso, who has an MFA in poetry. It's the kind of book that makes me yearn for a better adjective than "surreal" to describe it, because during the course of the novel we encounter Iple, a young man who is deafened when a truck full of chickens crashes into a gas pump; we encounter the driver of the truck, a man named Zebedee, who always wins when he gambles; we watch Iple go to Antarctica with a bunch of scientists, one of whom kills him, and then we continue to watch Iple when he's in the afterlife, a place of strict social rules and fish that offer a lens back to Earth; we meet Penelope the microbiologist who studies Isabella, a brontosaurus found in the ice in Antarctica and thawed by the scientists and an ex-president who sometimes insists on being called Harry; we hear Isabella's story of ancient humans who were slightly shorter than the current versions but who were scientifically advanced, capable of remarkable genetic manipulations; we travel to other planets.

The book is a novel created from fragments of incident, prose poems that ache to add up but can't quite get there. There are 58 chapters over the course of 114 pages, and a few of those chapters have a gnomic beauty to them, the beauty of roads disappearing over an untouchable horizon:
Thirteen. Life on Other Planets

There's a way by which things get unsorted. A crucial button takes a gyre-dive down the sink's drain. A language vanishes, turns to babble.

Iple feels better. He doesn't miss his favorite shoes. In the evenings he uses his brain like a crystal ball to watch over the living world. He enjoys now understanding languages, the Bantu languages, the Mandarin dialects, the dialects of the owl, the dialects of water. There's a brook Iple watches over, that tells all at once the many interlocking stories of its polliwogs.

There's a boy who looks like Iple did, who takes naps by the brook in the afternoon. He wakes up from these naps feeling right and calm, then goes back into the world to get unsorted.

When someone is taking a trip, one way to wish that person off is to say, "in boca al lupo," which means, "travel in the mouth of the wolf." If the wolf's mouth will have you, it is the safest place to be. Just the world alone is so big that it's hard not to vaporize. But when traveling, there is also the giant emptiness between one place and the other to consider.
Chapter after chapter is entrancing on its own, and they go down like bite-size candy, but the book only begins to reveal its best elements upon rereading, because to understand how all the strands fit together, it helps to have a sense of where the book is going, its contours and boundaries. Someone -- maybe Gregory Benford -- said writing fantasy is, compared to writing scientifically-based science fiction, like playing tennis with the net down. Robert Frost is reputed to have said the same thing of free verse poetry. But a book like Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf shows how narrow-minded such a view is, how obdurate and mulish and wilfully perverse -- because this is the sort of book that creates its own court, its own game: raquetball, not tennis. On a first read, it seems that anything could happen, any sentence would be allowed, but by the end we realize this isn't true. There is a structure here, a purpose and meaning. It's not a random sampling of strange imagery held together by bizarre characters and even more bizarre situations. No no no. It's a book that traps a universe in its pages, and though the physics may be unfamiliar, there are still at least a few scientific laws at play, even if they don't come from the science we know.

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf is, ultimately, a book about time and memory and mortality and reponsibility. But, unlike so many doorstopping volumes of soon-to-be-remaindered lore, this is a tiny book with a comic, naive tone, a pixellated Rasselas. It ends, like all of us, with death, but we already know that after death the thing to do is ignore your neighbors and find some fish, so we're prepared.

Note: More excerpts from Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf are available at Soft Skull Press and La Petite Zine.

1 comment:

  1. "Someone -- maybe Gregory Benford -- said writing fantasy is, compared to writing scientifically-based science fiction, like playing tennis with the net down. "
    Nope, I said sf without knowing science is like that. Also, mystery fiction that doesn't know the rules of evidence. Etc

    Gregory Benford

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