Reviewed by John Madera
With all of the almost necrophilic releases of famous writers’ unpublished works (the recent posthumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura comes to mind), you might think, especially because of its affectless prose, its despairing tone, its absurdities and monotonies, that Kamby Bolongo Mean River is the last treasure trove from the Samuel Beckett estate:
I didn’t forget about the you in how are you but when I think too much about one word and then another I sometimes decide I’ve had enough of the words and will listen only to the voice from then on. The words aren’t as important as the voice and when you only listen to the voice you don’t have to think about the words themselves. You can listen to what comes between the words and behind them.
But no, although certainly navigating within similar troubled waters, Robert Lopez’s prose is his own. And it’s written as much with a mind toward revealing a solitary’s disturbed consciousness as it is toward telling an equally disturbing story. Kamby Bolongo Mean River’s estranged narrator is confined in some kind of holding cell with only a bed and a telephone. Through a mirrored window, doctors watch to see whether he chooses to answer incoming calls. The phone’s intermittent ringing—or at least the intimation that it might happen—in the story sets the narrator off into all kinds of circuitous conversations with himself, into self-absorbed reveries on language, or, rather, the failure of words to communicate meaning:
The trouble is when I listen I don’t listen for the words. I listen for what is between the words and behind them. The way you do this is to listen to how the voice sounds. If you concentrate on the words you lose the voice and the voice is always too important to lose. How the voice pronounces each word is probably the most important thing.
It is this mining of the words between the words, the interstitial remains of what is left unsaid, that provides the forward propulsion of Kamby Bolongo Mean River. The narrator’s conversation with himself has been going on, at least by his estimation, for over thirty-two years. He struggles with answering the phone because it will disrupt this presumably schizophrenic state. Though he’s in some kind of institutionalized environment, not much is definitively stated about where he is exactly and why he’s there. Yes, he’s in “a room with four walls and one window and almost nothing else,” and we also learn, through the narrator’s obsessing over it, that there is no television and air conditioner. Why he’s allowed the single convenience of a phone, and why, in whatever strange, debilitated condition he’s in, he’s allowed to have conversations through it, is never explicitly stated either. This is how the novel begins:
Should the phone ring I will answer it. I will say the hello how are you and wait for a response. I will listen to what the person on the other end says. I will listen to the words. Sometimes I don’t listen. Sometimes I wait until the person finished answering the hello how are you so I can say whatever it is I’d been saying to myself before the phone rang.
All this may sound bleak, but the book’s last lines signal to us that there may be some hope for the narrator:
I will say you are who you are and where you are and I am who I am and where I am so let’s stop now with the hello how are you I have a headache and don’t feel like talking so please leave a message because I am fine.
That’s what I’ll say should the phone ever ring again this next time.
I will say I am fine which means please stop talking.
The absence of commas, colons, semicolons—actually all punctuation save the period, hyphen, and apostrophe—in Lopez’s novel makes for an oddball kind of rhythm where thoughts collide and then are abruptly stopped only to start again, like turning on a faucet and then quickly shutting off the valve, only to let it spurt out again. Ordinarily, Lopez’s constraints would result in suffocating prose, but instead, the dispensing of most punctuation, the stripping away of inflection, of any remotely flowery description, results in sentences that precisely limn the narrator’s consciousness, a narrator who would, given a chance, “rewrite the dictionary” because “[t]here are a lot of words in there [he doesn’t] like the definitions for.”
Kamby Bolongo Mean River’s unreliable narrator may sit comfortably next to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and also “Chief” Bromden from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, although “sitting” may not be the best image, as I picture the narrator fidgeting around his cell, obsessing over trivialities, and almost choking with his crazed, insular, no, airtight, logic, and continuing to draw on the walls, masturbate, and interminably talk to himself.
Robert Lopez’s carefully crafted, insistent prose is matched by his bold exploration of madness, abuse, emotional and psychological trauma, isolation, but also of one man’s self-motivated, if still ill-directed, plan for rehabilitation. Kamby Bolongo Mean River may just tie both your brain and stomach into knots.
About the author:
John Madera sees good in too-small glimpses, doubts that there’s a thing called a soul, and sometimes wishes there was a god so he had someone to blame. With his medicine woman and fierce little girl, he slips into the still, dusky spaces safe from the big city’s bright lights. www.johnmadera.com