On the one hand, Peter Markus's Bob, or Man on Boat is a welcome departure from most debut novels in that it is not some form of bildungsroman, or more loosely a disguised memoir, a perfunctorily fictionalized version of the author's youthful experiences (more precisely, of the author's experience of youth). Nor is it, like most literary fiction, whether a first novel or the latest mid-career production, a mostly recognizable variation on conventional narrative or psychological realism.
Indeed, a reader expecting a conventional first novel will surely realize after only a few pages of Bob that this is not one, that, in terms of plot development, it is a novel that isn't going to go much beyond the delineation of the character and situation named in the title. The portrayal of Bob and his boat could perhaps be said to reach inward--although this is done through concentration and indirection, not through the tedium of the "free indirect" method--as well as to expand outward and around Bob in concentric circles of thinly-layered exposition, but it could hardly be said to ever really push forward into a plotted narrative. Just as Bob himself, a fisherman, generally sticks to one spot, where he knows the fishing is good, this novel remains anchored in its narrator's mostly static perceptions of Bob, with whose piecemeal revelations we will have to be content.
On the other hand, experimental fictions that try to dispense with story and character development in their conventional form run the risk of simply alienating the reader if they don't substitute for them some alternative strategy or technique that engages the reader's attention and to an extent, at least, satisfies the need for "entertainment," if only in the narrowest sense as "interest," most readers bring to works of fiction. Often this substitution takes place as the manipulation of language in odd or surprising ways, the use of "style" to create or even replace "form." Bob, or Man on Boat is a novel of this kind, but, unfortunately, in my view it doesn't really manage to play its language game with sufficient vigor or dexterity to redeem its otherwise commendable resolve to avoid the usual practices associated with fiction. It is, on the most immediate level, not much fun to read, and this problem originates not from the novel being "difficult"--it is in fact a very quick read--but from its rather unimaginative simplicity.
Although practically any brief excerpt from the book would do as illustration, this passage does exemplify both its stylistic approach and the limitations of that approach:
The fish, unlike the sun, listen to Bob.
When the fish hear Bob singing to them, singing to them through the darkness of the river, the fish can't help but take a bite: of Bob's son, of the bait that Bob is fishing with.
Sometimes, Bob takes his fishing hook and Bob digs out the eye of a fish to use this fish's eye for bait.
Most of the time, though, Bob baits his hooks with mud.
Bob is a mud man.
Some men who fish for fish fish with minnows or worms.
We call these fishing men worm men and minnow men.
We call this kind of bait live bait.
But live bait never lives long.
Live bait usually dies before it's eaten.
Which is why Bob fishes with mud.
The most obvious features of such writing are, of course, the arrangement of sentences into what seem at first to be something closer to lines of verse than to prose, the deliberate repetion of words--Bob, fish, bait, mud--the simplicity of word choice in general. It is somewhat reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, but where Stein's sentences break down syntactical sense, and in doing so paradoxically draw more attention to the sentence as sentence, as a unit of composition, Markus's approach simply breaks down the paragraph into its individual sentences without otherwise questioning their ultimate connections in an expository chain. Combined with its focus of attention--baiting a hook--such language is not only more prosaic than poetic, it winds up emphasizing the least compelling element of traditional prose fiction, namely exposition and its obsessive scene-setting, which in this novel threatens to become almost endless. It might be possible to focus on exposition as a substitute for narrative and still make such a work lively, but in this case the information we are gradually provided about Bob and his life as a fisherman just isn't of sufficient interest to keep the fiction afloat (so to speak).
In this context, the repetion of words comes off as labored, the unstudied syntax robotic and enervating, making even such a short novel something of a chore to read. In his review of Bob at The Brooklyn Rail, Joseph Salvatore claims of Markus's work that
The integrity inherent in Markus’s simple structure. . .is deceptively powerful, often leaving the reader in a hypnotic swoon. It is through the accumulation of so few words, their repetition and syntactic arrangement and re-arrangement that a kind of linguistic alchemy takes place. Inside the blast furnace of Markus’s prose, language gets smelted down and reconstituted. Words we assumed to have fixed meaning slowly begin to lose meaning, begin to take on new sound and new sense, and, finally, return to a meaning that has been enriched with new alloying elements, both uncanny and astounding.
All I can say is that although this might sound good in theory, in practice, at least as embodied in Bob, or Man on Boat, it doesn't quite work out. The arrangments and re-arrangements just get bogged down in their own aimlessness and the "alchemy" never happens. Words don't so much get "smelted down" as lost in a processing loop, and they don't really enrich themselves through repetition but simply become repetitive and don't accumulate as much as they cancel themselves out in a linguistic haze. Sometimes the postulate through which a work of experimental fiction is supposedly to be understood just can't overcome the ennui with which the work is actually experienced.
Unlike Che Elias's West Virginia, a novel which also strips fiction down to the effects of language and its rearrangements, and in which language truly does get "smelted down and reconstituted," Bob, or Man on Boat isn't going to transform anyone's expectations of what fiction might be like if taken beyond the conventional. The language of West Virginia roils in conflict with itself, setting off sparks of energy. For the most part, Bob's language just hangs there limply.