In Brother Carnival (Red Hen Press, 209 pages), a fiercely engaging literary work, Dennis Must plays with time and character, leading the reader into a special world of space and time, almost a quantum universe, where characters can be in two places at the same time–or can they? Laced with an intense investigation into the nature of divinity and deities, Brother Carnival weaves an impressive litany of human weakness into the warp-quest for the divine. These lines point to the nature of Our Problem:
“I read [the monks’] lamentations as the yearning of the consecrated to hoist themselves out of their bones, their flesh, which burdened their souls and hindered them from ascending to another place. I envisioned them dragging their bodies about like veritable crosses.”
The writing in Brother Carnival is visual, suggestive, evocative. It would yield itself to either stage or film with equal weight. There are no straight lines anywhere in this novel. The twists in the sentences are delicious. The complexity is refreshing. The writing is perfect. Its rhythms made me happy in so many ways. The entire monastery sequence—the monks in their graves with the corpse of God in them—is breathtaking, funny, and not at all blasphemous—if that means anything in our world of mish-mash everything.
A good friend of mine, a fellow writer, has taken the view that hides under Must’s concept of being and explodes it into a world unlike anything yet imagined in any science fiction or speculative fiction—a cataclysm disrupts the world, jams disparate ideologies together to produce a glaring and frightening vision of a world without logic, but a world that lives with biomorphic machines, time dives into the past to work out the question of pre-natal patricide, and, like Must, imagines machines wishing to copulate and reproduce with humans. What are the monks in Brother Carnival if not blood sacks wishing to merge with the divine and thereby release them from their pitiful and precarious place on the edge of existence?
This is a novel you want to read without stopping. I could not guess the next step. The layers of the Quest the author has built into Brother Carnival make for an intensity of immersion into a labyrinth and dualism of self-epitomized here:
“As days passed, I fantasized that I was caged in that labyrinth of mirrors and windows, being paraded through the streets for the townspeople’s delight. When sleep at last arrived, my dreams continued the script; I was the labyrinth’s sole occupant, but there were several of me abandoning hope of being set free.”
Reading this novel for the first time you see that it is a voyage of discovery engaging some serious questions as stations of the way—who are we really? What are we doing here? Is religion an answer to our problems of faith? Does faith ever offer up meaningful answers to the fundamental questions of being? Can faith unite the divided self into one?
As with all good fiction, literary fiction, Must’s novel plunges through the veil of our illusory self-importance to show us that we are not much on the cosmic scale, that we want more than we can ever have, that we are not who we seem to be.
“When I passed houses of worship, I no longer viewed them as holy places but monuments to man’s conceit at believing himself to have been created in His Image. I saw nothing inherently unreasonable about this. Except a caveat should have been appended to those edifices.
“That caution might read: HOUSE OF THE MAN-MADE LORD.
“…Fear and trepidation coupled with the prospect of a benevolent reprieve merely served to attenuate one’s spirit…one’s imagination.”
On reading the novel a second time, you dive into the mask beneath Dennis Must’s language, language that hides an even deeper view of the cultural malignancy that’s devouring us in this Century, that has, probably, devoured us through all time. On the second reading, you see how profound Must’s world view is, how deep the malignancy really is, and how there are no answers except the biological ones.
No review of Brother Carnival can be complete without words about the drawings by Russ Spitkovsky. The artist has gone through some kind of transformation that echoes the journey of characters in this novel. Diving as deeply into the words as the author does, Spitkovsky returns from the depths with images that do not simply illustrate but which couple with the words to create a world beyond. Only a perfect union of novelist and artist can achieve this fusion. In the Bar Scene, a scene as fantastic as any drawn by Gustave Doré, Spitkovsky imagines Must’s words in a way that shows the polymorphic reality of human beings. In the tableau vivant (pp 187-190) both Must and Spitkovsky transcend an original and well-known work of art:
“We sat at a long, groaning table set with white linen tablecloths and napkins, fine bone china sterling silverware, and crystal wine goblets. This particular evening’s repast consisted of Cornish hens with fresh asparagus and a quality merlot. Other meals were always adequate but perfunctory; we dressed normally and wore name tags identically inscribed: WHO ARE YOU?
Highly recommended for readers who are not afraid of literary fiction, readers who are looking for a fantastic journey through a multi-dimensional world complete with freaks, the Living Venus de Milo, and monks who crucify themselves for the sheer joy of it.
–Jack Remick, author of Citadel, 2018