Friday, January 02, 2009

Che Elias, West Virginia

Che Elias’ newest book, West Virginia (Six Gallery Press, 2008), is, like many of his others, a story about abuse. But what makes it good is that Elias is not trying to reclaim some lost sense of normality or wholeness; it is not some stereotypical journey of “survival” designed to touch the hearts of book club readers. I say this because there is often a stereotype of what a book about “surviving abuse” entails. This book, however, entails experimental prose and an extreme, almost primitive, sense of avant-garde art.

One could make an analogy here with the historical avant-garde and the birth of Modernism. After the First World War traumatized Europe and destroyed any conception of the old order, a literary movement like Dadaism made perfect (non)sense. A return to the poetry of the past would have been ridiculous. So it is with Elias: despite it all he will fearlessly face forward even as he faces his past, eschewing any return to innocence. Elias’ reaction to “another kind of nihilism...all the men making love to the boys, and the men now, I guess they are all fascists, and the men all love to fuck these other young men, and the men who came in our asses, the dogs now running out from the bush...” — his reaction to all this which is embodied by the state of West Virginia where he is from (a previous Elias novel is titled Wheeling) is to live life in the subsequently cracked state, albeit in a different geographic state (Elias is now a leading figure in Pittsburgh’s underground literary scene).

Elias’ prose in West Virginia, though, is perhaps his most readable yet. It is often dense and circular, with at times an almost shamanic sense of repetition, but it remains open to the reader who is willing to sink into it. West Virginia is perfectly described as “all gun shops and places to have your nails done correctly too....” And the “room” where most of the action takes place, the room which is witness to the horror, becomes personified almost as an entity unto itself: “...and we did not see the people who oppressed us, and the room said oh, wait, here’s one more burn across you, and here’s one more blade to slice you into, and the room said well, wait, we’re going to slice you into what?” The room too reinforces the sense of uncertainty in the wake of incomprehensible terror: “...and the room once asked us if we’re really going to know what they have got in store for us and the room now, a lot of the room made to look cold and the place made to look bad as well.”

This is the human condition, which really any feeling person can recognize. We may not all have undergone the intense abuse described in West Virginia, but unless we live in a mansion or la-la land, we have all been oppressed in some way or another at some point. In any case, a good novel or poem does not require that one can “relate” to it (though one may or may not), but that it springs to and marks out its existence in an original way. The way in here is not solely through the book’s content, but through Elias’ writing itself, his text which is starkly brilliant, often poetic, intense as the experience it describes, and singularly original. There is no one else writing who is like him, and that of course is a true hallmark of great art.

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