Like the set-up for a classic joke, The Session begins with an intriguingly nutty premise: two detectives named Smith walk into a mental institution. From here, the characters embark on a spirited dialogue, improbably peppered with both Victorian and postmodern sensibilities, and a healthy dose of verbal slapstick that’s part Stoppard, part Abbott and Costello.
Using only dialogue, Petrovich does an admirable job of creating a sense of place for The Session, as well as two distinct character voices. The first Detective Smith is a cool, capable master of deductive reasoning, while his partner is more a bumbling Watson, suggestible and insecure. The pair is investigating the murder of a mathematician whose body was ripped to pieces by his own audience in the midst of a lecture proposing a collective (or cult) in preparation for the end times.
However, this is not a story of action-packed sleuthing, or ultimately, even definitive answers to the questions posed. What emerges instead is an examination of identity from a variety of angles, some more fully realized than others. Petrovich’s depiction of the frenzied audience as victims of a “pre-traumatic stress disorder” is cleverly done and well-characterized. Having become detached from any sense of themselves, the asylum inmates “are using the word ‘I’ in reference to objects. They are referring to objects and clinging to objects and are confusing themselves with the objects they are clinging to.” However, the characters’ discussion of culture and the language of culture as inescapable forces never quite penetrates the surface.
Released by Akashic Books, The Session, is the debut publication of Hotel St. George Press, a literary art press that, according to its mission statement, weds “the formal novelty of children’s books to the content of sophisticated mature fiction.” The Session succeeds admirably here. Vilem Benes’s noirish monotypes fit seamlessly with Petrovich’s text and contribute to the starkly surreal mood of the work.
Though some of the ideas set forth in The Session are left dangling, there is a great deal to recommend the book. Petrovich’s dialogue is linguistically playful, pithy, and flawlessly paced. Together with Benes’s illustrations, the result is a darkly imaginative work of art. The Session is a unique take on the art press book and a strong debut for Hotel St. George Press. Their next publication, Alex Rose’s The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, scheduled for release in September 2007, should be eagerly anticipated.