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