Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Thursday, June 12 2003, 04:20 PM
Experimental fiction is a lot like experimental music. The people who consume it are usually the same ones who produce it. The result is intellectual inbreeding, where the isolation of the ideal pool results in a high percentage of artistic birth defects. Of course, we don't like to call them "birth defects" anymore when we're talking about human beings. Few dare to raise the specter of eugenics: it smacks of fascism. Metaphors, however, are the domain of political incorrectness. The thoughts we refuse to think about real people still enter our minds when contemplating the world of art. We have a hard time suppressing the suspicion that experimental fiction is only able to survive because it is treated as "special," because we wall it off from the tumult of the mainstream.
Travis Jeppesen's first novel Victims invites this line of inquiry without becoming hopelessly tangled up in it. There are plenty of moments that scream out "experimental fiction," like this passage from late in the book:
"The silver cows carried on a conversation. The stars in the sky were shattered dots. No one was awake to see them. Center of sharing beneath the skin. Two brains beat back and forth. Evil is removed from every situation. Glad dogs revel. The future a cold piece of toast."
By themselves, sentences like these seem to be trying too hard. Sure, they make a point about language, how our minds struggle against all odds to make sense of nonsense, filling in the chasm between each sentence with a story of our own devising. But there's something too obvious, too easy about the insight. What makes this passage work is its relationship to the rest of the novel.
What sets Victims apart from the sort of experimental fiction you'd rather talk about than read is Jeppesen's sure-handed use of repetition. Because you've already encountered the "silver cows" in a number of different settings prior to the passage above, the words resonate richly. Even if the sentences in the passage are cut off from each other, they are sufficiently connected to Victims's multiple storylines to answer accusations of randomness. It also helps that Jeppesen knows how to balance the more extreme prose of his novel with more conventional storytelling, where you don't have to work so hard.
The character of Tanya, a teenager who discovers that she's pregnant at the beginning of the novel, provides a welcome respite from the religious cult delusions of Herbert, for whom silver cows are as unremarkable as screwing his own mother:
"Anyway, I'm studying my body in the mirror. I wish my tits were bigger. I'm such a freak. I don't know why I decided to dye my hair black. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, like I'm dying or some shit."
As the stark contrast between the matter-of-fact first-person narrator here and the directionless confusion of the previous passage suggests, Victims is, among other things, about the difficulty of reconciling mundane reality and disturbing fantasy. In this respect, Jeppesen follows in the footsteps of the controversial sex-and-death novelist Dennis Cooper, who selected Victims as the first offering in the Little House on the Bowery series he's now editing for Akashic Books. Like Cooper, Jeppesen has a gift for balancing accessibility with lyricism, the laconic speech of teenagers with philosophical density. But his storytelling ranges more widely than Cooper's and so does his prose style. Perhaps Jeppesen will develop into the rare writer who isn't afraid to include a variety of readers in his literary experiments. The fact that Herbert is more or less forced into incest by the claustrophobia of his cult certainly indicates that Jeppesen is wary of situations that necessitate preaching to the converted.
Victims is available from Akashic