Why not embrace the return of the weird? One of the most welcoming side effects of the blurring of genre boundaries in recent years has been the exploration of fiction that eludes easy classification, but unsettles nonetheless as it traverses the boundaries of the fantastic, the surreal, and the horrific. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s 2012 anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories finds common ground on which China Miéville and Kelly Link can co-exist with Bruno Schulz and Leonora Carrington. Editor D. Thin’s 2015 collection Shadows of Carcosa provides a welcome primer to the early days of cosmic horror — but includes work written long before “cosmic horror” existed as a genre unto itself. And thus, the works of writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe can be seen both in their own unruly splendor and as literary ancestors of a disparate series of modern literary strains.
Some contemporary authors have picked up this signal and are turning the genre into something different. For certain others, though, the modernization of archaic weird tales involves a re-immersion in historical events. Consider Steven Millhauser’s surreal fictions, which hearken back to a strange and remembered past, sometimes evoked with pinpoint prose even as Millhauser describes places and events that defy understanding: a bizarre and hellish amusement park, the stories of a child prodigy, a department store that transforms into something baroque and fantastical. Working in a similar vein is Norman Lock, whose 2004 novel A History of the Imagination serves as a deconstruction of colonialism by using as its setting a dreamlike version of colonial-era Africa.
The works of both Millhauser and Lock are replete with acknowledgments of older forms of storytelling, but their aims are deeply contemporary. That’s a solid way of describing Mark Haber’s fiction as well: he’s an author who is clearly aware of literary history and of antecedents to his own work, but he’s not content to simply lurk in place, creating works that could be inserted into the literary canon of a bygone decade without anyone taking note. Haber is ultimately an experimental writer in the sense that he, well, experiments: he’s looking to see what can be done when techniques from across recent literary history smash together.
From the first pages of his debut collection Melville’s Beard, or even from glimpsing its title, one might make an educated guess as to the literary territory Haber is venturing into. The collection opens with a brief “note to the reader.” Here we learn that the narrator has written these stories “under the observation of the estimable Dr. Henrick Audubon,” an observation resulting from the fact that he has suffered from a “mental malady.” The note frames the stories to come squarely within a mood and a style evocative of a particular strain of nineteenth-century fiction. This device may be self-consciously archaic, but it seems not to act as a constraint for Haber — not all of the stories that follow read like documents unearthed from some bizarre vector of the past. Some do indeed dabble with conventions of older fiction: “The Speech on the Death-Bed Edition” has a title that evokes a case fit for Holmes or Dupin, but the actual text of the story is much more bizarre. The narrator is obsessed with “the most accurate death-bed editions of writer’s works,” and much of the story is comprised of a disastrous speech, which loses its focus and becomes more and more unhinged, delivered at a gathering of a like-minded organization. It touches on aspects of literary history — the creation of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Kafka’s connection to Max Brod — but gradually transforms into something between a call to arms and a cult manifesto.
Haber’s stories in Melville’s Beard often follow characters with a particular mania or compulsion — or explore characters in a world where a mania has taken hold of society. That’s certainly the case for the collection’s opening story, in which an “ad-hoc think tank” waits in an isolated bunker, pondering the reasons behind a recent societal collapse. It comes down to one thing, really: a grotesque inflation of the number of holidays, benefiting only greeting-card manufacturers and causing a number of calamities. A holiday designed to call attention to the plight of an endangered species of owl, for instance, backfired when the owl’s keepers were given the day off, leading to the demise of the species.
“The Speech on the Death-Bed Edition” and the title story are two of the many places within the collection in which literary history is treated as malleable, and Haber taps into a similar vein with “Skin, Part Porcelain,” which includes a fictional poet. As the collection’s title indicates, Haber is not averse to juxtaposing fictional characters with real literary figures — and that’s something that his first novel ramps up to an even more heightened pitch.
In Haber’s first novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, he shifts his focus to another corner of the weird fiction landscape. This territory is a bit less self-consciously Gothic than some of the stories found in Melville’s Beard, but there’s plenty of obsession and a penchant for bad decisions to be found here — along with a host of knowing literary references, including a subplot involving Leo Tolstoy and a plague of rabid and roving hounds across his estate. But where Melville’s Beard abounds with a sense of dread, Reinhardt’s Garden leaves plenty of space for comedy — though, by novel’s end, some of that turns out to be comedy of the bleakest possible kind.
Before the text of the novel begins, a caption alerts the reader that the year is 1907. The narrator is the assistant and amanuensis of one Jacov Reinhardt, a wealthy European who has traveled to South America in search of Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla, a philosopher whose work concerns itself with melancholy. As the novel opens, the narrator is feverish and wonders if he’s on the brink of death; Reinhardt himself has developed a copious cocaine habit and is fully enthralled to the mania of his search for answers around the fundamental nature of melancholy. The bulk of the novel, then, is a long flashback in which we track their misadventures leading up to their current circumstance.
If this seems a little paradoxical, you’re not wrong: it takes a little while for the overall effect of the novel to set in, but there’s a vein of absurdist comedy present throughout. This passage, from early in the novel, for instance, gives a sense of both Haber’s prose style and of the ways in which the philosophical quickly becomes the ridiculous.
Jacov was waiting impatiently outside in a carriage, accompanied by Sonja, for they had begun a passionate affair at the sanatorium, endless nights of violent lovemaking, he’d bragged, of wild contortions and animal positions that would stretch the erotic imagination to the point of fissure, since, he happily disclosed, the carnal appetites of Bohemian women were well documented, and although sex, fucking, as he called it, seemed the furthest thing from melancholy, it was, he insisted, one of the most refined and enlightened ways of unearthing that noble feeling, and thus, I repeated, I was leaving Croatia forever.
As this passage readily demonstrates, Haber’s style abounds with a splendid and baroque use of commas and semicolons. As the novel’s narrator is constantly recording Reinhardt’s observations, the lines between certain characters begin to blur: Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wasteland uses a similar device, and also features obsession, horrific injuries, and unreliable narrators. It’s an impressive feat if you can pull it off; both Reinhardt’s Garden and Öræfi do.
Reinhardt’s quest for those who will speak truth to melancholy also leads him to visit Leo Tolstoy and his disciples. It will surprise no one to learn that this does not go quite as planned, though the spectacular degree to which this mission fails makes for one of the book’s best comic set pieces.
While Reinhardt’s Garden is often hilariously funny, to call it a comic novel wouldn’t be entirely accurate. That Reinhardt and company are well-intentioned Europeans traveling through a South America about which they know little is, at best, a morally ambiguous journey. And the narrator’s musings at the end bring together several strains within the novel about Eastern Europe, the nature of progress, and the condition of melancholy. There is a punchline to these closing observations, and Haber does not hold the full force of its potential back.
From a narrative perspective, Haber’s summoning of seemingly archaic techniques works quite well — and folds in neatly with his preferred themes. In glimpsing how dreams of progress can go awry and how bygone visions of the future fall by the wayside, he offers a cautionary note about our own dreams of what may come next for society, while simultaneously demonstrating a welcome literary virtuosity.
Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books: Reel and Transitory. His third book, Political Sign, will be released in 2020.
Banner image: untitled by Marco Nürnberger, shared under CC BY 2.0.