If “CanLit” refers to relatively conventional storytelling, often with regional themes and characters with pioneering spirits befitting their age/geographical location/occupation, then Claudio Gaudio’s Texas perches awkwardly on this shelf.
Texas is a post-structuralist novel (first clue: the opening words are “My exit”). Nothing is as it seems; seams reveal nothing and nothing itself is a character. It is rife with comma splices — a trick with a knife that few can pull off (Beckett can) — and deconstructionist strategies, including an impressively unreliable narrator who sees everything from a locked room wherein he awaits his death (“From this room I resist the words that will remake the world”). Or the death of American military and cultural imperialism (“I have consented to the fall, but not the splat!”).
The narrator of Texas is trapped, in almost every possible way, including the ways we are all complicit, er, trapped: “The people of the world are the same and the other… host and hostage.”
The debt to European, particularly French, intellectuals (bonjour Derrida) is apparent in Texas, but while reading it I was reminded of the American writer David Markson and his brilliant, experimental novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). I honestly can’t think of a Canadian comparison, but if you can, let us know.
Reading Texas will make you want to be a better writer. Regardless of your own style and voice. Reading it might even make you a better writer. Exceptional books have that power. It is not a “difficult book”; it is a thoroughly engaging book.
(A word of advice if you plan on a trip to the US this summer: don’t bring this book with you. In this post “9/11″ world, border guards, er, customs officials, have detained people for much less: “… freedom, or free enterprise… both are worth killing for.”)
You can listen to Claudio Gaudio reading from Texas here.
Enough of my blather. Here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Texas.
The Madman in the Palace
A Review of Texas, by Claudio Gaudio
Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. Published by Quattro Books, 2012, 198 pages. On the cover, the unmistakable shape of a certain middle-east country.
Claudio Gaudio’s writing takes a degree of dedication to read, but it is a commitment that yields a rewarding return. He writes in a tradition of prose-poets, where there are never easy answers, while wielding a particularly distinct voice.
In Texas, Italian-born and Toronto-based writer Gaudio presents a layered narrative in this style, discussing global politics, madness, philosophy, and above all, language. The novel primarily explores the conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East through reflective poetic-prose, yet it is difficult to know whether we are in the hands of a poet or a storyteller. Whatever the author may be, it’s clear that Texas is balanced precariously on the line between the two. This balance is not always maintained, and at times there is straying and stumbling, but Gaudio is always able to return to his exquisite writing, a style packed with stimulating wisdom.
Texas is one of those unique books that can be approached at any page to experience the beauty of its writing. Since the plot is thin (an American diplomat, unnamed throughout, is captured by Middle Eastern insurgents where he awaits death in a plain, unadorned room – yes, that’s all) it’s Gaudio’s meticulous focus on language, his intimate knowledge of global politics, his use of philosophy as art that lifts from every page, every paragraph, every sentence. He makes precise philosophical assertions with an acute ear: “The condemned man is the opposite of the king. Things are because they do not belong to him, and that includes the sun and the wind.”
Even the title is layered. The “Texas” the diplomat so often addresses throughout his imprisonment is really only a substitute-name for the United States as a whole, possibly even a euphemism for all political empires. It is a place larger than itself; even the diplomat comments on how, when he travels, he lives “in New York. New York is in Texas.” This same largeness extends to its influence, which is as complicated as the United States’, and just as unreliable. Gaudio’s “Texas” is a hodgepodge of an entire country with a longstanding tradition of questionable political values – it is imperial.
Since the narrative doesn’t rely on the story as much as it does on the diplomat’s global introspection, there isn’t a moment in the novel when something innovative isn’t presented. We are constantly jumping from one desultory thought to another as he drags “random pieces laughing and screaming onto an incredulous page.” Trying to absorb so much in such a short space, without the structure of a shifting plot, can be daunting. The struggle pays off, however, through a reflection of the writing, and the frequent emergence of breathtaking imagery:
“Night follows day, not as foil but another light before the day breaking. The sacred sleeps on broken glass, eyes open and opening with each and every scar.”
The key word of the novel is invent. As Gaudio actually uses it a number of times, no word is a greater representation of what the author is attempting (and often achieving) in this work. Gaudio is an inventor of new ways to approach the English language. As the diplomat says:
“I am writing in English, a distance separated by commas and an ocean that whispers of a stream where I am still weeping. Waiting to be born. Then this will end, better for having tried, or worse.”
This could easily be formatted into a poem, as much of the novel could be, and is the beauty of its invention. Every moment of the story we are in two worlds. The diplomat thinks in poetry, and so as a proper response, Gaudio’s poetry “thinks” in politics.
Through this process, much of the novel becomes comprised of expanding symbols. The diplomat is a fluid character, a representation of global relations throughout history – he’s there in the Middle East, he was there “to take in the ocean” when the Titanic sank, he was there when “Moses tried to escape in a basket,” he served the presidents of the last 100 years – and he comments on these events with a singularly insightful perspective. Yet his views are so various, at times he contradicts himself. The diplomat is political history, therefore he is increasingly irrational.
Toronto-based writer, Claudio Gaudio.
Gaudio’s careful balancing of insanity and reason is one of the book’s strongest features. He shows us how poetry, politics, and philosophy all originate from the same puddle of madness. Two of the novels most interesting characters are a pair of cryptic-speaking animals, an opposing dead bird and a mouse, who visit the diplomat in his cell. They converse with him about his ever-forthcoming liberation, or his pending death, or his relations with Texas, or even whether they are real or not. He develops relationships with these figments, trades information with them. And as the diplomat deepens in his insanity, he begins to produce exquisite visions:
“With Sisyphus I stood at the top of the hill, he smiled as we watched his boulder roll to the bottom. Kings perish but my work goes on, he said, I am learning what I have already done.”
It’s clear that Texas is a novel that must be digested slowly. It is just shy of 200 pages but reading it will certainly take you the time of more. Fortunately, Gaudio knows how to properly feed you this dish. Every chapter comes in bite sizes (no less than four pages, no more than six) and is often comprised of only twelve paragraphs.
It is this simple detail of construction that pays dividends to enjoying the reading process as a whole, preventing us from thinking, “Oh no, he must mean to kill me with this seventeen page chapter of prose-poetry political philosophy! Damn you, Gaudio!”
He keeps the form simple to allow for a complex subject. But like any piece of complex work, there are evident snags. Gaudio sometimes participates in what I like to call the “Woody Allen Dialectic,” wherein a sentence or phrase is constructed by taking two obviously unrelated ideas and thrusting them together to share the same space. With Allen, the effect was always comedic:
“I ran into my brother today at a funeral. We had not seen one another for fifteen years, but as usual he produced a pig bladder from his pocket and began hitting me on the head with it.” ~ Woody Allen, Without Feathers
There is little (if any) meaning to these words, but their jocularity emerges from their ridiculousness, their clear incompatibility within our frame of references. This, too, happens in Texas, but toned down and with a much more serious, poetic twist:
“Hope is a little bit of thread, a patch of wheat, a peach, things a geologist cannot find. Men with scarred lungs stumble out of mountains, sometimes it’s called Egypt and sometimes it’s Wyoming. It’s just people making things, mostly from dust or dry rot.”
The WA Dialectic often works in Texas, wherein Gaudio acts as a veritable poetic chef, serving up dishes of new flavour and wondrous un-tasted combinations, but there are times when it doesn’t work, and we are asked to digest a sentence of disagreeable quality, one that doesn’t sit well in the mind’s digestive tracts:
“There’s no difference between breasts and the Himalayas except the mountains have been speechless for longer.”
Or, my favourite -
“If I could draw, there would be a cat on the bed and blood in the Whitehouse.”
I’m not sure what these sentences mean exactly, and even looking at their context within the paragraphs, I’m reasonably lost. Texas is a book closer to poetry than prose, but that doesn’t excuse it from avoiding lines which slow down rather than progress the reading. The good thing is that these illogical phrases occur far less frequently than the lines of eloquence for which Gaudio should no doubt be lauded.
And it’s in those perfectly executed lines that we see Gaudio at his best. Texas may waver at points, but it comes in a package teeming with political and philosophical wisdom, with unusual word combinations and phrases which elevate the novel as an important Canadian text, poignant and insightful, willing to push boundaries. I will leave you with his narrator’s wise words, a moving comment on art:
“I’m hoping to meet myself again in the future. In an invention perhaps, an idea without a blueprint, I’m tired of the replication. Art is the smoke, the vestige, not the thing, an explanation that explains nothing. But where or what could nothing be? All through history it’s been a mystery, and sometimes it rhymes.”
By Justin Lauzon
Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. Last week he reviewed Kafka’s Hat and, with Jack Hostrawser, co-authored this review of Rove for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.