Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Shiny Unused Heart by J. A. Tyler

Black Coffee Press, 9780982744055, $12.95

A Shiny Unused Heart is a novella written by a poet, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say by a novelist with a poet’s sensibility. This is not straight narrative, but a story propelled by language itself, by sound and simultaneous meanings, by an undercurrent of symbolism. To read of the main character’s wife on her “bruising cruising rituals of couch sleep”, or the main character “resting on his back, his skin monstrous tracks. Leaning on the bricks of buildings, subsiding. The rain, in continuum, begging him off, early every next morning” is to follow a kind of musical score. And even in these few bars, these few notes, we catch the drift of a very different kind of story, not one in which there are events that simply happen or characters that simply act, but a story that questions what events and actions are. At bottom A Shiny Unused Heart is an ontological meditation, that is, a poetic fiction on the nature of existence. This is seen even in the musicality of the prose, for within each chapter or movement the music is beautiful, but the movements are jumbled.

There is, funny enough, a beginning, middle and end, but they are out of joint. Every chapter is either a piece of the beginning, of the middle or the end. The story opens with the end, so we know where we are going because the end is not the point, the end is inevitable, as it is in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In fact, as in that story, in this one not even the how is very important. What is of the essence is the why. Why are things unraveling toward that inescapable end? So the logic of time and sequence are irrelevant. What is relevant is the psychology of deconstruction that is the reality of the character. What is within the character is becoming the reality of his life and so there is a blurring of boundaries. When his wife is pregnant, it is also, “Him, pregnant.”

One of the great poetic truths retold by countless great poets from Spencer, Milton and Blake, to Stevens and Richard Wilbur, is that “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n” (Book I, lines 254 & 255, Paradise Lost). This is the basis of many of the great modern works from masters such as Virginia Woolf, Hermann Broch and Fernando Pessoa. A Shiny Unused Heart is a part of this same exploration, a story that takes place in the head, where we are made and unmade, where the reality of what didn’t happen or what we would like to happen has as much presence and force as what did happen. This is so because the mind, or the imagination, is a kind of primordial place where all potentials coexist. As the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart indulges his inner desires within his imagination, he unravels the reality of his daily life: matter and antimatter collide.

The poet Philip Larkin said, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere” and A Shiny Unused Heart is the nothing that happens to a person in the act of his unwinding, his unbecoming. The story is a stripping down, not only of character, but of style and psychology. No one is named in the story and no one should be because we are on a plane on par with essences.

“The hole in his insides stayed, stood, him, feeling less, less, less. Her, unhappening now, fading and fickle. Her, that girl, the one who drug him up from the bottom, the daughter, the wife, her, she was becoming unbecoming. Sharing herself out, pieces and bits and bobs, herself, trinkets, sparkling laughter unringing, shredding smile, peeling, peeling.”

Here again we see how the boundaries are blurred. “That girl” is daughter, wife and also the woman he cheats with who is called “the girl in the black sweater.” All are “becoming unbecoming.” All are “peeling, peeling” because the story is one long unmaking, one long un-existing. The story is about the main character’s slow un-happening. And it is remarkable how well it works, how the general drift of the story is understood below the current of discordant unmaking. The story seems to emerge slowly from a larger general flow, a stream of essences chaotically mixed and pregnant. From the vast drift of this river, we spy a fish swimming, we follow it with our eyes and realize the story playing out under the flashing surface.

But there is always an underneath that’s below the underneath. Or, as Nietzsche pointed out, there is always something in the unconscious no matter how much we bring up to consciousness. So underneath the tug-of-war between the real and the unreal there is the basic narrative of how a couple implodes after their daughter is stillborn. But the story under that, and the real one, is how that birth of nonexistence becomes the reality of their existence. How the birth of that nonexistence ignites all the unacknowledged potentials within the main character’s imagination making him, as Tyler says, “pregnant with unchances.” The main character becomes “existence unbecoming.” Or his central desire shifts to “wanting to embrace the things that were beginning to stop, or cease existing, or never having existed at all.”

But don’t be mistaken; though this is a profoundly philosophical and lyrical book, there are emotional roots that run deep. There are issues of fatherhood and the consequences of failing to live up to that role, the disillusionments of a fractured relationship and the constant pain of regret. The pain of the marriage dissolving is like witnessing someone dismembered with a butter knife.

There are only four characters: the main character, his wife, his daughter and the woman he cheats with. But all of these exist only in so far as they exist as projections of his imagination, as realities corresponding to his needs, even as symbols. Beyond this they are each only negative spaces unmaking his life in their own way. Him “undreaming himself from a life he never lived, couldn’t, didn’t want to.” The most fascinating of these is the girl in the black sweater who is a kind of dark Donna Angelicata. The Donna Angelicata is the figure who leads the poet into his beatific vision of the divine. For Petrarch it was Laura, for Dante it was Beatrice. For the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart it is the girl in the black sweater. But she leads him not into a vision of the divine, but returns him to a vision of the primordial chaos that is the first and final cause, it is what Goethe called “the realm of the mothers.”

“But her eyes looked above him, over him, down into him where the depths were, where things were, where pieces of him lay in pieces. She wasn’t supposed to look there but she did, and then she was gone. Seconds, minutes, days, months, years. She pulled and he sank, deep in depths, swallowing water, arms aflame.”

It is a place within, where, Blake told us, all gods reside. And it is a terrifying place. Here it is important to realize the connection between the daughter and the woman in the black sweater. They are first and final causes, one and the same figure leading him into his impossible grasping at the primordial chaos, the root of imagination.

“His daughter, she didn’t exist. She should have, but she didn’t. She was a figment of him, taunting, tempting him, like the girl in the black sweater.”

The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote that “wanting to see the soul face to face, you go down in flames.” This is what happens to the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart. He fixes his gaze on the chaotic source and is dissolved in a violent unmaking. But the boundaries, as I’ve said, blur here. The penultimate chapter is simply the sentence “A baby is born, a baby is crying.” The main character’s potential redemption is mixed in among the bottomless bottom of potentials that consume him and thus his death is paralleled with the birth of another life. In the primordial chaos out of which all things emerge, his daughter is there reaching out toward the light of existence. And who is to say if his daughter wasn’t, in fact, born and outlived him? There is no certainty where existence is all potential, at the threshold of death, which is the same threshold as life. It is only a question of the direction one is traveling.

A Shiny Unused Heart is the kind of story we should read. It is the kind of book that cracks the shell of what we think we know about ourselves and our lives and lets us escape into a new understanding of how we relate to the world. It shows us that we are not only the consequence of our choices but the consequence of all our hidden desires, that we are simultaneously what we say we are and what we refuse to acknowledge in the dark, secret land of our imagination.

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