Alcohol, drugs, sex, blood
It is the mystery that draws you in. What is this place? Who are these people? Their names are, initially, reduced to single letters – R, M. What are they doing? Why is it so gloomy? Is this place an allegory or something else?
The narrator has, among their other problems, an issue with memory. They can’t quite grasp time, it slips through their fingers.
Everyone seems to be in search of Mantra Hand. You look like him, a character muses near the end of the book. Pages later, the narrator adopts the name with a woman he meets and shares a drink with. Her name, too, is pregnant with possibility – Caissa.
Drugs, sex, blood, alcohol
If I am jumping around a touch it is because Ryan Madej’s novella, The Marianas Trench (published by Orbis Tertius Press), is uncomfortably concerned with shifting time and place, and clarity of narrative expression. He wants the reader to feel on edge. The tone is ominous and the skies are always grey. It is as though leeches had sucked dry the sounds, the colours, the smells, the vibrancy of the air. This is Midtown.
The plot itself is reasonably easy to pin down even if the specifics of it are not. The narrator has come into possession of
the journals, letters, and collages collected under the The Marianas Trench by Mantra Hand
“Everyone in Midtown”, the narrator tells us, knows the name Mantra Hand, and all, it seems, flit knowingly or otherwise from the real world into the occult. He reads the works, he drinks, he has sex with women. The people he interact with allude to esoteric matters, and the narrator takes it in his stride. Very often he is unwell; very often he is unsure of the time or the day. In Midtown such matters lose their focus, become less relevant. Shadows sharpen.
This is the kind of novella where there is a City, there are Outskirts, there is Midtown. This is a risk – universality or totality are difficult concepts to convey, but Madej manages it, and particularly well with Midtown. It is Plato’s Form of Midtown, the essence of the essence of a city.
Sex, blood, alcohol, drugs
Menace hangs in the air. Much of the pages of the novella are taken up with sex, which is bloodless even when blood is drawn; much of the novella is taken up with drinking, which causes no joy or sadness, just stupor and the passing of time. Drugs are taken, but they serve to cloud already clouded minds.
Menace hangs in the air. There is a scene where the narrator is handed a cup of water. He notes that even the water is somewhat darkened in Midtown – chilling. Chilling.
When something comes into the Archive it means one of two things: either the person is deceased or the person has consciously chosen to have the material archived. Neither one of these conditions could be confirmed by any source … Midtown has only one way in and one way out, and Mantra Hand left the party early.
Madej plays with the ways in which a scene can be constructed, particularly around dialogue. At times, he borrows from Gaddis or Joyce, beginning speech with a hyphen; other times scenes are entirely in italics, and at still other times dialogue is marked carefully and normally, with ‘he said, she said’ markers. Chunks of text whirl dizzyingly down the the paths of different literary schools.
It is, perhaps, the vagueness which appeals most strongly across the narrative. Places are rarely described beyond the most ordinary of words, and the characters themselves are hardly provided any visual cues at all. It is a shock near the end to have a character’s engagement ring described at all, and this sudden sharpening of focus heightens the character’s perceived importance. All of this allows the primary characters – who truly are Midtown and Mantra Hand – to hulk over the rest of the novel. They cast long shadows.
Blood, alcohol, drugs, sex
And here is where I level with you – a novella wherein the narrator is in search of the writer of a masterpiece is exceptionally, phenomenally, my bread and butter as a reader. I do not even need to be seduced – the clothes are off! Thus, I was exceedingly well disposed towards liking this novella. What I expected less was the tinges of the Occult, the esoteric highlights, the increasingly fractures sense of narrative place and time. These appealed, also, and quite happily so.
But it should be cautioned that this is not a book for everyone. It is narratively fragmented, and while the overarching detective plot is entirely comprehensible and enjoyable, the beat-by-beat writing demands attention and patience as the reader and the narrator together untangle Midtown and its denizens. There very well may not be enough anchors to keep some readers connected to the book, and I could entirely sympathise with someone who found it too cobweb-strewn to continue with. It is the kind of book where a brief spell of inattention can see 30 pages go by without your mind entirely able to process what has occurred due to the wispy nature of a lot of the description and characterisation. All I can say is, do not let this happen to you, and if it does, re-read. There is treasure here.
The book is one of the first by a new press, Orbis Tertius, and they have, for entirely understandable reasons, chosen to use Lulu for their printing. This gives the book a glossy, shiny finish which I personally struggled with, and I found the font choice challenging to read at times. I will fully admit that I have rather specific criteria for fonts, but I will say that I feel quite positive toward the size, margins and spacing of the text – this was very pleasing to my eye.
This is the first book in a planned tetralogy (though I believe the third book has somehow already been published, which is amazingly appropriate and thematically consistent), and as it stands right now my appetite has been whetted. And I do have the third book next to me, beckoning, and so, perhaps…
(Note – While I did purchase this book outright, it’s worth noting that Ryan Madej and I exchange Twitter pleasantries fairly often. I would hope this would leave me unaffected but it is worth noting.)