Reviews

October 15, 2011      

Theoretical Animals by Gary J. Shipley

Review by Nicola Masciandaro

Like floating down a divinely limitless fluvial junkyard, like knowing in ever more concrete and literal ways that life is a corpsy dream from which you do not wake, like moving along an opium-stream of deathly imagining towards some sea that only invisibly and never arrives, like some gnostic conspiracy in which certain favorite authors (maybe Baudelaire, Lovecraft, Lautréamont, McCarthy, Rimbaud – “Si je désire une eau d’Europe, c’est la flache / Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé / Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche / Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai”) would be only indigent fellow informants . . . reading Theoretical Animals places one in a terrifyingly vexed position – traumatic and unspeakably hopeful – of being singular witness to the diurnal drama of cosmic crime. To ‘review’ it would be wrong, a violence to the kaleidoscopy of a truth that is prismatically evident in each opening of the page: “I can’t believe I’m still waiting to get out” (102). I cannot read the book in modern, serial fashion, but must only consult it oracularly, like a sepulchral tome of inverted koans. And this haptic relation is continually mirrored in its murderous mudlark world: “Half an arm, cleanly severed at the elbow lays hidden in a riverbank slagheap. On the inside of the wrist is a skull with coded teeth. . . . One is led to suspect that this is not an isolated instance, that this has happened before and will happen again” (64). There is no end to the consultation, to the violence of our freshly wanting to know what it is all about. Proving the magic, this is what the text now says about its use: “Sticky patrons wriggling from the waist down discuss the importance of hermetic precautions. At specific intervals each reads aloud from one of the many instruction manuals fastened to the walls with thin blue ropes” (59). A philosophical consolation, but one in which, around the flabby gravity of bodies, philosophy and consolation are only mutual, manual laminates.

The reason why the work is called Theoretical Animals is that its visions, whatever beauty or horror they happen to be of, always restore one to the beauty-horror of vision itself, to the fact of being something chained alive in the grotto of seeing in all its senses. And this is a fact that Shipley’s scenes often dramatize and refract: “A sliver of sunlight found its way into that grim basement, and I saw on the faces of my fellow players the look that was my own I saw lust free of restraint; I saw hunger thriving in its processes, a hunger that had made a mirage of every forseeable end. I found myself digging down into their blank eyes for company and finding nothing but endless reflections chasing their source” (54). Or: “I looked and the mirror infected me. I did not recognize my contamination” (114). Which suggests a good way of grasping the book as whole, as a kind of rotting, nigredic transmutation of Plato’s cave parable into a dream-river awash with objects whose truncated incompleteness proves that they are but will never only be shadows. There is another way out behind and below the puppet show, a dark stream running through the earth. The current, co-extensive with pathetic human consciousness itself, is suffused, like water electrified with broken machinery, with the divine shock of citation: the power of seeing anything to break free from the false world: “A stumbled montage of mutilated words and open mouths shield us from irrelevant friends” (116)

About the reviewer:

Nicola Masciandaro is Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College and a specialist in medieval literature. He is founding editor of the journal  Glossator and co-director of the open-access press Punctum Books.

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