As I read Going Dark, Selected Stories by Dennis Must, (Coffeetown Press, 170 pages) I saw a realistic foundation in each story. Here is a recognizable world with real people suffering real-life anguish. What interested me, however, was the way the author then handled time, space, and imagination. To come to grips with it, I had to invent a literary term—lyrical surrealism—to distinguish Must’s work from fantasy which, to my mind, means dragons and dragonspeak, time warps, elves and men with long beards carrying oaken staves and speaking some dialect of incomprehensible origin.
There is much pain and sorrow in these stories but the writer glides over it as if to say—That’s right, but let’s move on. But oh, what moving on.
The way I see it, these stories, despite their foundation in a concrete world, twist away from the real. The work isn’t naturalistic, neither is it realistic nor completely surrealistic. It has, instead, this element of the beyond, which the French poet Stephane Mallarmé called the “au dela” and others called the ephemeral. In Going Dark, the drudgery of realism is loosened and the imagination, which is the wellspring of the surreal, then combines unexpected images to produce a state of mental reality of its own. This is Lyrical Surrealism.
There is of course little lyrical about French surrealism so Must has come up with something that bends genres while staying faithful to a time and place of loss and yearning. That in itself evokes the surreal which is always yearning for something which reality cannot give.
These stories tell tales of a lost time. The way Must handles the quest for the “I” or the “self” is intriguing and has given him, in the long run, a style which is at once timeless and bound with the time of a lost world.
There are elements in the stories that appear in Must’s novel The World’s Smallest Bible (Red Hen Press), elements which remind me of the way the Spanish playwright, Fernando Arrabal and the American mystery novelist Raymond Chandler used their work as foundation for more complex and challenging pieces. This technique lends to Must’s writing a sense of self-referentialism–one of my favorite techniques. For example a truck load of trucks, a car towing a car. The self-referential suggests a closed system while our minds are working on and yearning for something beyond–hence our Martian and Saturnian journeys.
The social substrate of Nazism and the SS infuses Must’s work to produce a terror of the mind and a fear of death that combines with suicides to leave the reader with a feeling of complete horror at being alive. The number of suicides in these stories made me think, and as someone once write about Samuel Beckett, his is a work that makes you think, so Must joins some big-league writers in toying with our mind while giving us stories with anchors. No mean feat that.
These lines struck me for their suggestive and haunting emotional bases:
So in truth I was an adult, looking twelve and having to relive the torment that I would commit suicide if I was honest with myself.
Apparently a year before I met her, she’d been jilted by her football star squeeze for a best girlfriend, causing her periodic spells of crying, loss of appetite, and suicide flirtation.
It wasn’t the tranquil suicide but metaphor of the joining rivers that haunted me.
The poetics of prose run strong and deep in Must’s stories. His is a lyrical prose that at times enters pure poetry—which I think of as images, compressed, condensed, and evocative rather than descriptive. Take a look at this:
I watched him trot like a mustang through that meadow, the fire leaping out of his pant legs and dripping off his hands like water into the dry stubble; it snaked across the meadow, that flame keeping right up to him, never getting ahead of him, trailing him as if it was how he ordained it.
If you work that a bit, you get metered lines with strong images:
I watched him trot–a mustang through that meadow,
fire leaping out of his pant legs and dripping
off his hands like water into the dry stubble;
it snaked across the meadow, that flame keeping
right up to him, never getting ahead of him,
trailing him as if it was how he ordained it.
There are places where I stopped reading for story just to enjoy Must’s words. In the words, in the vocabulary, Must speaks to us living in an age that does not enjoy lexical prowess, but seems to seek out the lowest elements in the lexicon. In Going Dark, Must refuses to admit that the dumbing down of America is in full swing, and I like that, although I despair as well.
In his novel The World’s Smallest Bible, Must entered the lost world of the illustrated novel. I think of Gustav Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy, and I also look at my 1933 Bibliophilist Society copy of Roxana, DeFoe’s masterpiece, and I see a book that treats the eye as well as the ear. Going Dark does just that. It is not a comic book but an integrated work of words with scattered drawings—in short, it is what Must’s publisher calls the hybrid novel. The author must feel happy also that he found an artist who shares his vision. He is to be congratulated for taking this risk—writing smart in a time of great stupidity. Going Dark, Selected Stories is a joy to read and you must read it on several levels. Highly recommended for readers who do not believe that literary fiction is a thing of the past.
-Jack Remick, author of Trio of Lost Souls, 2016