Review of 'BOOK' by Ken Sparling

Ken Sparling’s fifth novel, BOOK, is a postmodern work of metafiction (if one feels metafiction is indeed postmodern) in which Ken Sparling is a character in the book, writing the book. This intentional inclusion of 'the self' calls into question the notion of what it means to narrate—or to write, for that matter. The first-person point of view often seems to (seems to) shift from Ken Sparling to other characters, endowing the text with a provocative poly-vocality that allows Sparling licence to explore all his other 'selves'.

BOOK reads as though it is being written in the moment, and so does not conform to traditional narrative in any sense. Sparling writes about life, about existence, and BOOK explores all its complexities and nuances by showing psychological processes at work rather than their causes and/or effects on the novel’s several characters or its plot. Rather than a single, sequential plot driven by linear narrative, BOOK consists of numerous disjointed subplots which claim no hierarchy over one another. In a calculated chaos, both its macrocosmic structure and microcosmic descriptions rely heavily on the non-sequitor to reflect not only the randomness of nature and existence but the thought processes operating within (and as a result of) that randomness:
She worries that the buildings aren’t where they should be. That we aren’t where we should be. That I’m not where I should be. That we are maybe where the buildings should be and the buildings are where we should be. Think of it this way, she says. The buildings are over there. And there. And look. Look over there. Now look here. We’re here. You see? John saw a building made of little stones. He thought of things you could put in a lunch bag. He thought of a side of beef. He thought of things he saw on TV. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear the spaces in your life. (79)
I was born somewhere and ever since then I’ve been growing up and things have been happening. The breeze has been picking up, like swarms of bees growing angrier at me, until it’s a full-fledged wind blowing, scattering bedding, roof tiles, pig troughs, patio stones and some small animals. A woman has touched her cornstraw hair, saying to the men who stop to talk to her, Think of it as the sun. My parents are no longer living together, which, on the one hand, was a six-year-old’s dream. To be able to make a distinct differentiation between the one parent and the other. The Chinese man is holding his cigarette with his thumb and forefinger, the way you see men in movies hold their cigarettes. He’s looking at me through the smoke from his cigarette. I decide to take a shortcut through the store, instead of going around the outside. The quietness of the vacuum cleaner was not its major selling point. It was not a quiet vacuum cleaner. She touches her cornstraw hair, thick as it is with the sun, ropey marionettes hung from the clouds by wind. The wind picks up like a swarm of bees bending the yellow flowers. The woman bends with it. Don’t worry, she tells the men who visit her. But it isn’t me who worries. She wants to take the pink flower, but I’ll take you instead since Dad will like you better and Grandma and all the penitents will give you water. (89)
BOOK consists of several astonishing passages such as these. Such juxtapositions create a dense atmosphere of thought and experience. The effect is often disorientating, each sentence containing an entire novel of its own. In this sense, Sparling intentionally doesn’t dwell on ideas or incidents for very long—any longer than is necessary. There are, however, moments when he feels an idea is too important to let the narrative wander off, when the very nature of existence and meaning must be thoroughly considered amid all the distractions existence and meaning provide:
A man searches for reason. For terror. He feels it in the most mundane of activities. He seeks to name it. To give it form. He seeks to capture what is lost. A guy takes a walk through his life. He is bewildered. He recognizes the simplest moments. His parents’ divorce. The day the pole beside the dining room table came lose. The day he lost his toy soldiers in a hedge. The guy robs these moments for his own purposes. Uses them like fuel. The guy exists today in the mundane world of day-to-day domestic life, from the skewed perspective of an underling, undermining the simplest emotions, crippled, but at the same time capable. (67)
Bursting with profound moments like this, BOOK’s humor (another effect of the non-sequitor) is at once tender and tragic, illuminating the crippling loneliness felt by all things that exist—including such recurring symbols in the novel as hair and trees. Sparling also explains (and questions) his intentions regarding the use of the non-sequitor technique, as well as the technique's relation to the tenets of traditional narrative:
There are things we have to do in between the things we don’t have to do. The things we don’t have to do are the things that keep us hungry. Don’t ever confuse the things we don’t have to do with the things we do have to do. Don’t ever confuse our terrible hunger with our need for food. Success has to do with the space in between. How the space in between can buffer the non sequitor. Is the non sequitor a kind of failure in a world where sequence is everything? Where story is used insidiously, insistently, to redefine the moment? Is the space a place among non sequitors where you can breathe? A place where you can re-breathe the idea of success as it stands in the non sequitor moment, waiting for us to decide how to make of it something more than what it appears in the moment to be? (78)
Sparling examines not only the role of the author in literature, as the creator of a text, but also the author’s role in his/her own life. BOOK is ultimately a life-affirming work of metafiction. The book itself is the plot—the life of the book, the characters’ lives. The act of writing it, of questioning what does or does not comprise a story even while composing that story, defines the act of being alive—of existing within one's own life as it mirrors art:
The writer, in the act of writing, is reanimating himself in his concession to the absence of animation. The writer experiences an awakening from the sensuous accompaniment of death in the act of writing. This is what makes the writer suffer. But what is this compulsion to write if it draws the writer out of his one project—to die? (212)
The writer suffers because of this inherent contradiction: The author seeks immortality through literature by ultimately euthanizing him/herself to create said work of literature. The author is, despite him/herself, attempting to survive his/her own death—to live beyond life. Finally, Sparling seeks to explain the intoxicating lure of literature, its gravitational pull and how that pull effects/affects the reader:
Sometimes, the right book drifts up and finds itself in your path. You pick it up. You open it to the right page. Your eye falls upon the right word. You follow the flow of the sentences truly, the way driftwood follows the surface of the sea. And then, finally, you close the book at the right moment. You look up. You see. (118)
BOOK is now available from Pedlar Press. Ken Sparling is also the author of Dad Says He Saw You At The Mall (Knopf, 1996), [A Novel by Ken Sparling] (Pedlar Press, 2003), For Those Whom God Has Blessed With Fingers (Pedlar Press, 2007) and Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt (Artistically Declined Press, 2010).

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