If actually bringing attention to the work of "underground" writers is his goal, "King" Wenclas does a pretty poor job of it. For years his blustering and hyperbolizing have discouraged me from reading any of the writers he ostensibly champions. Now his organization, the Underground Literary Alliance, is publishing its own books, and I finally decided to drop my resistance and sample some of what they're offering.
Security is a short (96 pages), Bukowski-esque novel about an American in Paris, a down-on-his-luck security guard who drifts from temporary job to temporary job and whose marriage, which is about the only positive force in his life, is, as it finally turns out, in the process of ending as well. In addition to chronicling its protagonist's current efforts simply at surviving, the novel also relates incidents from his horrifyingly abusive childhood, abuses which, along with his subsequent failures to "make it" in mainstream society, clearly enough contributed to his tenuous mental state (which in turn has contributed to his failure to make it, etc.) "Tom knew he had become strange," we are told during his final phone conversation with his wife, "and he didn't feel like he knew himself or anyone else including Isabelle." The novel ends with what appears to be a positive change in Tom's circumstances (a job, a reunion with Isabelle) only to lead abruptly to what appears to be the character's death at the hands of terrorists/mercenaries. (We can't really be sure at this point if these events are truly happening or whether they're some manifestation of Tom's "madness.")
In his review of Security, Noah Cicero calls the novel "concentrated human suffering," which seems about right, although Cicero doesn't really offer any analysis of how the novel accomplishes such concentration, emhasizing instead how its prose is "too concrete, too direct, too straight forward" to require much "literary terminology" to describe it. "The language resembles that of a John Grishman or Steven King," he writes, "but instead of telling the story of lawyers or a horror story it is showing the life of a man who is alone, alienated, broken, has one tragedy forced upon him after another." I think this is unfair to Nowlan's prose and overstates the extent to which his novel is formless, merely "showing" us a case of alienation rather than composing the events in its protagonist's life into a coherent whole that is, to some degree, deliberately shaped.
Security presents itself as a series of mishaps, a chronicle of Tom's misfortunes related as one damn unhappy thing after another. We could take this as simple plotlesssness, a subverting of conventional norms governing "story," character development, etc. (which perhaps it is), but surely such a strategy doesn't entail a complete lack of narrative purpose, an abandonment of all form, even that minimal formal coherence contributed by "plot." Surely Nowlan's more or less picaresque approach to storytelling in Security is a strategy, used precisely to foreground Tom's plight as "alone, alienated, broken," etc. Nowlan has adopted the picaresque narrative, usually to be found in sprawling tales spread out in both time and space, to create a more foreshortened, more intensely realized, indeed more "concentrated" work of fiction that would not have the same impact had it been "shaped" in some other way, had it instead come in the form of a conventional "well-made story" employing the contemporary default mode of "psychological realism." If the novel is "a story of an alienated human struggling and struggling and struggling without getting any rewards" (Cicero), it conveys this impression only because it has found its "sufficient form," not because it rejects form in favor of "life."
By comparing Nowlan's writing to that of John Grisham or Stephen King, Cicero must be suggesting that his prose is accessible, uncomplicated, not self-consciously "literary." I would say that while it is accessible, this doesn't necessarily make it simple or artless. Grisham and King are "accessible" because their novels are written to be movies, as substitutes for movies, their prose stripped of all distinguishing characteristics, including art. Their "plain" styles are really just exercises in banality, studiously avoiding the "literary" because to attempt something other than bare proficiency would reveal the aesthetic void at the core of their work. Nowlan's relatively unadorned style, on the other hand, is restrained in its effects because this is what is needed to tell Tom's story, to evoke his character in an honest way to begin with. It even at times has its own kind of blunt lyricism:
When he got home he tried on the uniform before the mirror. He tried looking like a security guard but it wasn't convincing. Something was lacking. Then he remembered something he had read about serial killers in America being attracted to work in security. They had frequently tried to get on the police force of several cities but had been rejected as psychologically unfit so they had to settle for the rent a cop uniform. This idea made a sly smile across his lips; he tensed the muscles of his face to hide it and there it was the expression that he wanted. You see such faces and you ask yourself is this someone angry at the world because he is too stupid to understand it or perhaps because he understands it too well? His wife came in while he was getting deeper into his act. She had received the news of his new position with happiness and she had thought they could celebrate by drinking some wine and making love after a nice meal but seeing him there in his cheap uniform turned her off and he ended up drinking the wine alone.
(Although I have to say that Nowlan's disregard of the role of punctuation doesn't always work to the benefit of his prose. At times it simply impedes the forward flow of language, which, if anything, makes the book less straightforward and accessible. And what the book's back cover comment calls the "edginess" created by the frequent "raw typos" doesn't work at all. They do call attention to the text's status as text, but I don't think this kind of accidental postmodernism is what Nowlan (or the ULA) really has in mind.)
The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus is both more constrained and more exuberant than Security. It is more explicitly obedient to the dictates of form (although its formal design is relatively distinctive), but its characters and their exploits are more raucous, more overtly iconoclastic. First published as installments in a "zine," the novel focuses on a year in the life of a rock 'n roll band whose members are also college students. Their efforts to establish themselves as a successful band fail almost as resolutely as does Tom's struggle to hold himself together in Security, but whereas Tom's failure is more or less tragic, the PFE's misadventures are comedic and mostly good-natured.
The novel's chapters take the form of "A-Sides" and "B-Sides," its four main characters alternating monologues labeled "Verse," Chorus," "Coda," etc. This faux-musical structure doesn't really introduce any startlingly innovative changes into fictional form; it essentially just allows a kind of round-robin narration, one episode of which picks up on the previous and makes possible a multi-perspective chronicle of the PFE"s activities and of university life in general. Nevertheless, "Wred Fright" should be credited for an approach that avoids business-as-usual and that keeps his novel as energetic as his characters and their frenetic pursuit of rock 'n roll crediblity.
For all its emphasis on a mileu characterized by rebelliousness (however directed in recognizable channels) and noncomformity, The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus is rather well-controlled and ultimately fairly conventional in its movement toward a kind of rounded-off closure. (I don't mean this as a criticism.) The "chronicle of a year" structure allows for a plausible degree of character development, an opportunity for the reader to witness a process of expansion and maturation in the characters' assumptions and attitudes, as several of them essentially grow out of their adolescent desire to be rock stars and anarchists. In addition to providing a satiric window onto the consequences and implications of that desire, the novel also offers a convincing portrayal of American college life. It's realistic without trying too hard to "capture" the details of university towns and campuses.
Neither Security nor The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus is as revolutionary or disorderly as the ULA proclamations about its mission might suggest them to be, but I don't see why they need to be such in order to be worthwhile. They're easily as good as what is published in many other small presses, and are in fact infinitely preferable to the eye-glazing "literary fiction" shoveled out by the bigger publishers. They provide their share of readerly pleasures while also posing some welcome challenges to conventional expectations of "good fiction." After reading these two books, I can only conclude that King Wenclas would do himself and his writers more good if he stopped attacking everyone else for their sins against the Underground and more honestly promoted--without the exaggerations and the spin--the authors and books he thinks more of us ought to be reading.