Reviews

We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Cal

Stephen Deusner

It's like a psych-rock album, reveling in its pretensions and subverting the dominant systems (in this case, narrative linearity) as it breaks the form.


We Are Billion Year Old Carbon

Publisher: Livingston Press
Subtitle: A Tribal-love-rock-novel Set in the Sixties on An Outpost Planet Called Memphis
Author: Corey Mesler
Price: $27.00 []; $14.95 []
Length: 200
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2005-12
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

That lengthy subtitle -- A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis -- tells you what this mercurial novel is, but only hints at what this novel isn't -- the expectations its frustrates, the conventions it subverts. For one thing, Corey Mesler's second work of fiction isn't a novel in the traditional sense, but a ragtag collection of short stories and poems, found scraps of narrative, and scribbles of stray thoughts collected together and labeled "novel" because there's no closer category. It's like a psych-rock album, reveling in its pretensions and subverting the dominant systems (in this case, narrative linearity) as it breaks the form. This is by no means a new technique; in fact, it has been around since the decade Mesler writes about.

In this way, Carbon is similar to Joan Didion's epoch-recording essay "The White Album," in which she described the dissolution of a public narrative as the horrific hallmark of the era: "I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no 'meaning' beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience." That same fragmentation defines Carbon, but for Mesler, it builds meaning instead of shatters sense. For him the dissolution of an overarching storyline is cause for candy-colored celebration -- a perhaps misremembered victory over the Establishment as well as an opportunity to indulge every literary whim into a Technicolor whole.

While most Southern novels set during the 1960s inevitably address race and social issues of the era -- which can allow the lines between right and wrong to become all too clearly drawn -- Mesler's novel-for-lack-of-a-better-word is very different; its head is elsewhere, namely a few feet above its shoulders. His subject is: "The Sixties, in caps, jauntily, [which] existed in time and out of time, and perhaps it is because of this it was a period of hauntings and gramarye and that old green magick." Mesler is much more interested in hippies than activists, layabout artists than on-the-move revolutionaries, and surprisingly, Memphis has its fair share of longhaired, bead-wearing, poetry-scribbling, free-loving Movement types. By setting the action so far from the popular gathering-spots in LA, San Francisco, and Woodstock, Mesler is able to view these specimens in their natural habitat, so they're as pure as a control group. Their actions feel amplified, seemingly representative of every '60s outpost. It's Everyman, man.

The novel-such-as-it-is kinda-sorta follows two main characters as they roam Midtown Memphis, writing poetry in coffee shops, rummaging though garage sales for found art, spinning records by real and fictional local bands, and, in one memorable segment, actually smoking banana peels. A sometime artist and renowned lover, Johnny Niagara "was strong. He was a Man, part of the Movement to end the war, to unseat the demon president." His chapters alternate with those featuring the poet Camel Jeremy Eros: "Camel was just a man made of smoke," Mesler writes, "a man who wrote unusual poesy, a man who seemed to always be on the scene, either at Beatnik Manor or The Bitter Lemon, or at Croswaith's Empyrean Puppet Happenings, but who, for the most part, was background color."

Camel and Johnny interact with a flashy menagerie of colorful characters both real and fictional. In the former category are Memphis artist Lon Anthony and musician Sid Selvidge; in the latter, the erstwhile narrator/journalist/onlooker Creole Myers (an anagram of Corey Mesler). A few stories (including one that was included in the 2002 Best of the South collection) recount the legend of Buddy Gardner, a haunted guitar player who has to sell out to escape his demons.

Tying all of these disparate elements together in one big tie-dye, Mesler's prose and verse swirl psychedelically, making use of obscure words like paralipomena and clerihew, as if learning to speak a new language. He possesses an easygoing, slightly stoned wit: he refers to a character's canvas as being "like those paintings by that painter" and describes a memory as "strained through the cheesecloth of time." Overall, his writing possesses a noodly quality, as if each sentence were either a guitar solo or some hippie variation on square literature.

Another thing this book is not, thankfully, is boomer nostalgia. Mesler refuses to paint the '60s in the same broad strokes with which many romanticize the period. His '60s may be perhaps equally rose-colored, but in Carbon the times seem much more personal and idiosyncratic than generational. In fact, at times this amiably ambitious novel -- especially the poems, which read as later-in-life ruminations by any one of these characters -- often reads like Mesler's attempt to reclaim a personal past from the mass-market memories of flower power and Woodstock. He's fighting against the public demystification of the past, desperate to unmake certain connections, to leave some things unexplained. As Camel observes, "Mysteries ... were beautiful as mysteries." Far out.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.