Review: ‘Love and the Mess We’re In’ by Stephen Marche

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Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of "Love and the Mess We're In," Stephen Marche's experimental work of concrete fiction.

Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of Stephen Marche’s experimental work of concrete fiction.

Love and the Mess We’re In is like nothing you’ve ever read. I don’t mean that as the usual figurative praise on how good a book it is, but as simple fact. This is different.

What makes this work unusual– and I don’t know what to call it if not a ‘work’ –is its application of concrete poetic techniques in fiction. The result is something quite remarkable.

We’re all familiar with concrete poetry, whether it’s early 20th-century works like Apollinaire’s Calligrams or the more recent poems we all had to read in high school English class. The idea of manipulating how words fall on the page to enhance or alter meaning is an old one.

What’s new is applying this in fiction. It’s a clever idea that produces some startlingly powerful effects.

But let’s step back and look at exactly what we’re discussing:

In case you were wondering, that’s the Buenos Aires rain running down the page as Viv, the protagonist, waits to get into Clive’s apartment so she can cheat on her crazy husband with him. And this is not an exceptional sight in Love and the Mess We’re In. The right-hand page is actually pretty tame compared to the rest of the stuff you’ll come across. The book is a wild and intriguing ride.

These creative structures generate interesting possibilities that Marche explores to great effect. (And it’s not just Marche that deserves the credit — the book was designed and typeset by Gaspereau’s own Andrew Steeves, whose blood, sweat, and tears must be in here nearly as much as Stephen’s.) Particularly in the extended sex scene, “Life of Flesh,” that makes up chapter 3 of 5. When you’re used to book pages carrying 300 words and then you’re hit with a tiny 12-point “No” and a vast sheet of white space followed by a massive “Yes” that claims the entire next page, it’s striking. There’s really something there, something that gets at the feeling Marche tries to put across (in this case an orgasm) in a manner rarely achieved by conventional means.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Marche is a damn good sex writer. He’s also adept at probing emotional undercurrents rarely voiced in our daily lives — things like the guilty, shame, and need that surge up when a best friend and a wife fall in love when the friend/husband goes insane.

And that’s the basic plot. Tim and Clive are best buds. Tim meets Viv and they get married, but within a couple years he loses his mind. Viv sticks with him a long time even though he’s been institutionalized and stands little chance of recovering. Finally she relents in her devotion to a man who’s arguably no longer there, and flies to Argentina for a night of love with said best friend.

It’s a simple story, which is all Marche or any writer could manage in this format. While the book is 260 pages long, it’s really a mid-length novella because there are so few words on each page. This is a plus if you don’t feel like reading 100,000 words of concrete poetry.

Which you’d be justified in, because although this is a fascinating book it does have lulls. The dinner conversation between Viv and Clive from pp. 62-139 is a case in point. Here Marche employs an ingenious structure of columns so readers can simultaneously take in what each character is both saying and thinking (often completely different things). But while this is interesting and amusing, much of what Clive and Viv think is banal (e.g. “Out the window, brothers squabbling with Italianate hand gestures about their mother’s habits”).

It’s already jarring to have to jump between columns to navigate thought and speech (many of the pages in Love and the Mess We’re In have multiple elements with no clear reading pattern). But when the reward for struggling to decode Marche’s message is something as pedestrian as, well, a pedestrian, you just feel like hugging Jonathan Franzen for believing good literature doesn’t have to mean arduous reading.

Of course, it may not be fair to evaluate Love and the Mess We’re In on fiction’s terms. (Although it is marketed as such both by Gaspereau and the bookstores. Head to Chapters and you’ll likely find it on the New Fiction table.) But really, that’s Marche’s innovation with this book — stealing concrete poetry from the verse-writers who’ve been hogging it for centuries and smuggling it over to the fiction folks.

Considering this innovation, it would’ve been grand if he’d made more of a splash storywise. Instead, the book is more about expressing the feelings brought up by a challenging scenario (in this case adultery perpetrated against a madman whom both culprits love deeply). It’s a slice-of-life work. In that regard this fictive apple hasn’t fallen far from the poetic tree.

All the same, Marche’s latest effort is a bold exploration of fictions formal frontier. It’s quite simply a marvel that the book was produced at all, given recent trends toward conservatism in publishing. And while it’s not a perfect book — sometimes Marche’s wordiness goes too far — it’s certainly an inventive piece of art that goes a long way in showing the potential scope for typography to impact the reading experience.

If you like concrete poetry, this is for you. This is the bees knees, this is your mandatory assignment due at the end of class tomorrow in a blue duotang. If you like gorgeously fabricated books printed on paper so good you could eat it, this is also for you. And if you’re gunning for some nuanced explorations of love, loss, and guilt, you might also want to pick this up before you hit your next counseling session. On the other hand, if you recoil at phrases like “Sounding and astounding / Resounding and running and rousing / Slivering and silvering and spilling and slippering / Raining and running and rushing / slumping and slouching,” then consider yourself forewarned.

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