In contrast to Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars, which I wrote about yesterday, Gordon Lish’s book, rich in language play, employs a loquacious first person narrative in two extended notes before and after a list of select vocabulary. It is implied that the narrator is loosely based on the author self, although this is more of a ploy to draw the reader more closely into the narrative world with its frequent call to check the factual details of the narrative online.
The first note delineates the biographical details of his mother and her sisters, Jewish immigrants from Austria, based in New York, and his own situation at Mills public high school, at Millbrae, California. Finding himself without a job and having to support a wife and three children he wrote to his winsome Aunt Adele asking for work not dissimilar to hers. Apparently, in 1963, Lish was refused tenure at the school due to his association with the Beat writers he published in Genesis West and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady of the Merry Pranksters. The narrator’s aunt worked as a section leader in cryptology for the National Reconnaissance Office and replied with a long list of words with the instruction to solve this and perhaps we’ll talk. There follows 165 pages of rarefied vocabulary and the quest to find some links between them to solve the puzzle.
‘Into The Cesspool’ makes play on ‘cess’ meaning a tax or levy before herding readers into the full on verbal play of a ‘cesspool’. Here is a random sample of the list:
On first glance some connections and associations emerge, a succession of words from severable to spall about breaking apart, and then there are words that are variations of more common words. Soon one is lost in the Collins or Oxford English Dictionary placing words into sets of words, the ponderables and possibles, both repeated, that make up the list. The selection is seemingly isolated from context until one picks up on the repeated use of interpellate, mischance, perchance, orison and onton, which is not in the dictionary, as a sign of humour and the list becomes a way into Adele’s character. Adele, the spy and cryptologist has a predilection for words from a range of discourses that can be at a stretch connected to a cesspool, cloaca being an archaic word for sewer and so on. She has a wicked sense of humour beginning her list with ‘FLUSH LEFT’ and ending with ‘ALL SMALL CAPS’, which turn out to be the key to the puzzle. ‘Flush’ here is employed for all its meanings and has a neat comic touch.
The joke may be on the reader as one skips to the final note, which is a tour de force of narrative ebullience. The narrator is considerably deepened and extended into a maniacal loudmouth. The sentences are rich in rhythms, asides and resonate with biographical detail creating a memorable persona. The reader tends to look back on the long list as a conceit, a way into the deeper layers of language, and wants more engagement with the nature and uses of language. This then becomes the point of the list an insistence on grappling with the use of words within lived experience and literature. The final note succinctly illustrates this with its combination of a probing, quizzical tone and continual search for the right word. The narrator drew lessons from his Aunt and her witty and joyous list. Who would not like to discover more about such words as fent, spall, fard, slub, doce, pelf, frit, sot, ort and orse?
Cess: A Spokening has a power and pointed veracity as a language game and fiction of distinction.
David Caddy 11th August 2015