Taking its title, The Hospital for Bad Poets, from Nietzsche, this ambitious collection of short stories comes half from the exurbs, half from the innards. J.C. Hallman’s first book of fiction emerges as prickly and testy, as unsettling voices gasp out warped fables from the phantasmagorical tract homes of our dismal America. In his unsparing prose Hallman forces his reader to gaze at darkness and illusion.
I had admired his earlier nonfiction books The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe and The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest Game. The first applied William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to Hallman’s travels among practitioners of new religions invented during the past century. The second took him from seedy New York City chess clubs to Central Asia’s Kalmykia to federal prisons in a quest to understand the hold of the game upon its masters. Hallman’s stories expand these intellectual interests. Where popular culture blurs into social critique, as in “Ethan: A Love Story,” he makes himself at home.
These stories will disturb more than comfort. The first’s title, “The Epiphenomenon,” shows the level at which Hallman sets his tone. Ironically, it’s about an ordinary man, but one prodded and probed by a Kafkaesque Statistician and his Maestro. The narrator notes how “the soft charge of social routine conducted with strangers is the most rewarding form of intimacy the average man knows.”
It’s a chilly story, fitting its setting. Like others in this collection (“Manikin,” “Dalrymple,” “Savages,” “The Jockey,” “Utopia Road,” and the title story) its detachment felt like looking in at an exhibit akin to my hometown’s Museum of Jurassic Technology, a calculated trompe l’oeil to fool the eye and puzzle the mind. Many of these stories reminded me of Donald Barthelme, and they feel as if they could have been published in 1966. That being said, nearly all of them end at the right moment, always a sign of a writer’s control of his material.
“The History of Riddles,” reminiscent of the writer’s nonfiction books, has an earnest roofer pleading an odd case to his guests: “The riddle is an important part of social custom. It branches out in two directions—mystic philosophy and recreation.” Here, Hallman has an everyday character articulate theories in an elevated diction that may bewilder or antagonize his hearers. For me this story worked better. I have a feeling his encounters with religious zealots and chess fanatics may have tuned his ear for such conversations.
This clash of tonal registers enlivens my two favorite entries. “Carlson’s Team” begins with a familiar observation heard in many seminars. “In the beginning, television simulated reality. Now it’s the other way around. I feel happiest when it seems I have made it to syndication, when the events in my life that used to occur weekly begin to run every day, early prime. ” This set-up unfolds into a novel look at a man’s relationship with his very pregnant wife and his company’s basketball squad, taking on a sitcom creator’s perspective and jargon while once again sounding like a classroom lecture: “The droll roll of suburban time is conveniently expressed by the temporal compression practiced in basic situation comedy construction.” Miscues and fumbles as well as attempts at poignancy, holding a beat, suggest that we’ve all been playing to the camera and our own cue cards.
“Autopoiesis for the Common Man” features a young man’s trysts with two nurses, who quote factoids about the genesis of sex within microbiological responses to environmental threats such as ultraviolet light. “Fungi hold the record for biotic potential, but some bacteria reproduce three times per hour. That’s me flirting, you know,” one tells him. Hallman’s acknowledgments credit Lynn Margulis’ Origins of Sex for this story, and I will check out her book if the fictional text it inspired, The Conjugal Cyst, does justice to its source.
In Hallman’s writing places are given less attention than people, but as a native of Southern California I recognized another native’s eye for this terrain, where “tiered lots the color of grocery bags” fill hillsides. “Everything had been brought here from somewhere else.” However “The Fire,” the longest story, again left me feeling detached. Hallman captures the eerie scene. “The flames fluttered in the coming twilight, the silent surf of a distant beach. There was nothing in the way of trucks or men.” Still, the voice stays magisterial more than tender, and this reaction to threat characterizes much of the stoic, pitiless tone of many stories.
So “Double Entendre” proved a relief. In this metafictional piece Hallman risks the possibility of breaking down post-modern barriers. “Erotic fiction is the chance to eroticize anything at all.” He does not exult so much as extend the opportunity. This essay-story roams a bath, a beach, a graveyard as three places for encounters. “Boy wants Girl; Girl not interested; Boy makes his move; they have sex; a truth is revealed; the sex goes on.”
This story, despite its experimental essence, shows Hallman’s ability to touch on emotion, however objectified. This gesture in a collection oriented around alienation represents a humane, if brief and still intellectualized, attempt to use narrative to comfort rather than chill the reader. These tales will not put you to sleep with uplifting messages, but they will leave you looking up in the dark, wondering how much your own life mirrors the farcical, satirical, and philosophical predicaments Hallman presents. There’s a grimness and a toughness permeating this collection. As formidable as the ideas may be, the glimpses of gentler, softer choices for its characters kept me reading on past his midnight scenes of real or symbolic graveyards, mausoleums, and suburban cities of the dead.