A New Book "from" the East

James Chapman
Fugue State Press
336 pages, $16.00

“Have you ever written a letter to your beloved,” James Chapman asks in his sixth novel, Stet, “and then had to rewrite it repeatedly, trying to please a third party?” I hope you get something from the following...
Chapman’s Stet is the story of a Soviet filmmaker, who is also a Russian filmmaker, who might really be — at least to Authority, and popular opinion — no filmmaker at all. For reasons perhaps only slightly more official than personal, this director Stet has made more movies in his own head, for his own private viewing, than he has on celluloid, for the censorious delectation of the Party and its State. He’s born late in the book (50 or so pages set the stage), suffers at the hands of children, grows up, suffers at the hands of adults, runs afoul of the Nomenklatur for his initial filmic efforts — I'm using "efforts" in the way all reviewers avoid saying films — producing his own type of moving-picture-propaganda, reels for the soul; then, he’s exiled out to a work camp, to be joined by his DP-wife, where they less die than, what else, fade to black. Silencio, that David Lynch line. That, however, is only the surface — an “official” reading, which would also tell you that Stet is an experimental novel, formalist in its manic formlessness, as emotionally tough as concrete in which the characters are cement.
Under the narrative, which is roving in the clean-limbed omniscient tradition of Resurrection Tolstoy mixed with the nervously quick cuts of an American neurotic, say Dos Passos, camera-eye-style encompassing Stalin’s funeral, the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, low-level Politburo wonks and post-Communist elinty millionaires, is the autobiography — the author seeming to shine through a chink in the Iron Curtain via allegory, the least postmodern authorial device around.
Enough to say that under the Work, is the Life. And that why autobiography comes to mind is that, ultimately, Stet is art about why Chapman makes art, and an argument for why we lesser lights should make art, too. Stet is the Life and Times of every artist to ever make something “wrong” — in Soviet times “formalist,” “decadent”; in our world, “unmarketable,” “not-reader-friendly” — in the face of everything “right,” which might be symbolized by the Order of Lenin, or the New York Times Bestseller List. (Otherworldly) success, at the end of the book, is nothing less than the gulag.
Which is not to say that Stet is merely reactionary. It’s more like a proofreader’s, or copyeditor’s, “stet” — an editing mark designed to retain the original version of something, scrapping later efforts at change; in pagan Latin meaning “let it stand.” This idea — far from the tropes of “massaging” text, or of fixing everything up in “post-production” — is somewhere between the Beat-Zen “first-thought-best-thought” and the slow acceptance of the self for who and what it is, “becoming comfortable in your own skin.”
Six novels in, it seems that Chapman has made a “career” out of becoming himself — slowly, gorgeously, and as publicly as a small press like his own Fugue State can afford. If he is an undiscovered genius, it’s because genius can only be undiscovered. After that, all is canon, and can be worried apart into schools, influences and intentions. Glass (Pray the Electrons Back to Sand) (1995) was a Gulf War novel as the last Vietnam art, condemning American imperialism in the most intimate terms possible (through faliures of relationship, self-image) while also examining the decadent allure of that alternate America, capitalism's bebop-First Amendment. In Candyland It’s Cool to Feed on Your Friends (1998) was a painful airing of an urbis decayed, semioticized in its ruin to the point where even picking up a spoon to eat your breakfast is an act of performance art, snootily subversive. Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! (2000) was softer, quietly madder than anything else that had come before — a coming of age book, an undomesticated portrait of smalltime, small-town nowhere as lived by a woman who was almost incapable of being a “herself” that could adjust to her manifold selves. Stet reprises these responses to the Official Lie, which is universal, in a way that damn near reaches summation on American soil. It is a book written by a mystic in sneakers. And it tells us that if we don’t represent our own damage in art, then all the Job-comforters and their mini-biographers, the armchair dictators of any regime, the squinty presidents and their multinational kitschmeisters will do it for us. They have their red pens to keep their books in the black. We have Stet.

Metaphor-for-Metaphor for by Donari Braxton

I walked up the stairs as if strung to the barn-like gambrel ceiling cered in my last tuxedo unmoving, or twined by my large left incisor by one thousand feet of fishing-wire, my manic body, already dead, frantically succussing in stupid Egyptian shapes, floundering heartbreakingly as if my life depended on breaststroke-swimming through a cloud I was crawling, by the end of the paragraph I was crawling and the human-parts had all but left me, on the grasspatch-like veins of marble mispatterns, this meandering stair-case that was groping for Babel, I scuttled upwards on four rigid paws, already calloused and bleeding, mouth agape and parched for better humor, crawling, and I had grown a tail, and immediately I did not wag it, rather I put it between my legs and decidedly kept it there—
Still there’d gone missing, hallowed out and mistranslated into something that never was; a one-piece studio with a bed with an angel who was masturbating in wait for me, her wings spread coquettishly, scrumptiously upon the white, linen sheets, enormous, glittering wings without folds, they were spread so large and so wide that it was as if they’d transformed the angel’s entire body into the consummate sex of a woman, enveloped in a cocoon of feathers—
From as early as the second flight I could feel her body’s warming and the moist, sensual air raining down from the roof like trickling water leaking, plopping off my forehead like holy water, the kind that smells of carnal things, and I could hear her, with my every step climbing closer, breathing heavier, loosing patience, growing bolder, coming closer, I knew, closer and closer to her final farewell—
When the voice of an angel, from the seventh flight, began resonating in the cleft of itself, echoing in the ugly white of marble drained, calling, siren-like, “Quickly, boy, come, come to me,” and whisper words followed then, barely intelligible, cryptic words: Forever, Paolo!; my ears had been transformed and the words themselves lost meaning to me, though clearer and louder than ever, and my tongue had grown swollen and saliva dripped, the universe was crumbling and re-forming before my eyes, but I could only think of the angel, of time, one step at a time, her unworldly climax lay not far in the distance, I could barely breath nor even begin to tame this desire, this one that no longer belonged to my species—Only an image, a hug, our beautiful members and her most splendid, divine orgasm, the imaginary, would always could always be mine—
If. I was following scents and they were forever up, up, up Donari, you must continue to climb the stairs, Donari, you are a human-being and angels will understand, Donari, and the tenth story flew by and the eleventh and twelfth, and then finally, the door, Donari, impassable, I learned after fanatical gestures, impassable to clumsy paws, a charcoal-black iron knob was mocking me, had derided sick dogs permanently exhausted where I could do nothing but wait and listen in, and she came, the angel, and it wasn’t mine but another’s name she was calling, it was the name of a man I could have recognized, a man I might have known, a man I’d maybe fucked once, or the name of what I once could have been, and when she’d finished she opened the door for me, and nighttime by then had already fallen and it was very dark save the bright starlight through the large curtained window over the canopy, and the angel led me to the foot of the bed, patted my head and lay me down there, where I slept very quietly for the rest of the night—dreaming the dreams of other people’s prophecies, I walked up the stairs like this.

Donari Braxton is the author of I. See www.donaribraxton.com for more info.