Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mel Mathews: A Review of His First Three Novels, by Joey Madia

As an avid reader, writer, and writing teacher, I’m always on the lookout for new authors and new forms of literature, especially re-inventions of the novel. My own experimentations with what constitutes the novel form have paralleled the innovations found in film and music—using technology to aid with research, presentation, formatting, marketing, and all the rest.

In Mel Mathews’ novels I have found a new form that leaves modern innovations behind and instead goes for a simplification of the novel into its earliest roots—as a kind of hybrid journal, fairy tale, travelogue, and reiteration of fact thinly veiled as fiction. At least, it seems to be fact thinly veiled as fiction. The parallels between Mel and his main character abound, and the lines of reality are often crossed (“You’re in the next book,” his main character says to people along the way). Samsara (the third book in the series) opens with a potential clue: “The lies will be honest.” In Menopause Man there is even an extended discussion of the fairytale allegory of LeRoi that serves not only as a vehicle for an illustration of the narrow view of an “Old Mockingbird” named Mrs. Shams I talk about later but as an explanation from the author to the reader about what he was trying to accomplish.

Toward the end of Samsara, Malcolm meets a drunk in a pub called “The Wicked Wolf” (names of places and people in the books always seem to have some underlying meaning—along the way we meet women named Sarah and Sophia, a man getting married named Freeman, and a town called Five Points). The drunk, upon hearing his name, says “Malcolm, you know there’s a Saint Mel…[my emphasis],” to which Malcolm answers “’That wouldn’t be me,’ I proudly announced.”

If I am wrong, and the books aren’t thinly veiled fiction, then Mel’s work represents an ultra-realistic form of fiction that rides the structure of a nearly day-by-day accounting of the main character’s experiences over a relatively short amount of time—weeks, usually. Samsara, for instance, covers the time period December 21, 2000 to April 24, 2001 and is presented as a daily diary, with many days having multiple entries.

The parallels extend beyond the story to the storyteller as well. As Mel says on his websites and My Space page (http://www.melmathews.com/; http://www.malcolmclay.com/; http://www.myspace.com/melmathews) he is a storyteller—an ex tractor salesman, and not a novelist. His counterpart in the novels, Malcolm Clay, also an ex tractor salesman, says in Menopause Man, “I write, but I’m not a writer.” Fair enough. Mel doesn’t concern himself much with the high artistry of the writer—the toiling for hours over the construction of the sentence, painstakingly taking out typos and finding the perfect rhythm and combination of words as proscribed by such literary luminaries as GB Shaw and Mark Twain—but instead he viscerally and straightforwardly relates Malcolm’s journey—a journey that takes place physically as well as metaphorically, using references to Jungian psychology, the trixter, Mary Magdalene, and the sacred feminine (e.g., Kali and Lilith), and the traps and trappings of being Male and Female. Along the way we are treated to both explicit and implicit explorations of such motifs as the slaying of the dragon, the rescuing of the princess, and the dethroning of the wounded, ailing king.

A unique element of Mel’s novels is that he has said that you needn’t read the three books in any particular order, even though they are all built around the same main character. The experiences happen somewhat out of time, and one book’s ending does not lead to the start of the next. Adding to this disunity is the fact that Mel has also broken convention by writing the first and last novels in first person and the middle novel, Menopause Man, in the third person. Given these facts, it seems pretty clear that taking this review novel by novel would be a mistake, so I am going to talk in generalities, considering the main character, the considerable amount of people who come in and out of his life, and the larger themes and symbols I found to be at work in these books. When appropriate I will mention specific passages from the three books and parallels between them.

Malcolm made his money young and has or had all the things that go with it—he is very proud of his Tony Lama boots, he owns a plane, which he is trying over the course of the books to sell, as he no longer needs what it once represented (i.e., he no longer needs to be the Eternal Child, the Puer Aeternus, of Marie Louis von Franz), and he has an MG that certainly is more status symbol of middle-aged male virility than reliable mode of transportation (its breaking down is the preceding circumstance of the novel LeRoi).

Malcolm is somewhat the middle-aged American archetype in other ways as well—he is a recovering alcoholic and addict, divorced, and trying to realign his Maleness in the anti-macho modern world so carefully considered by the likes of Robert Bly in books like Iron John. His “rigid Calvinistic heritage” even applies if you insert your own applicable religious upbringing if it felt, like his, more of a prison sentence than a path to enlightenment. But he is trying to change and is making a committed search to do so. Over the course of the novels we find him reading such books as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hawking’s Brief History of Time, and Coehlo’s The Alchemist. A strong selling point of the books is that for Malcolm, like the rest of us Seekers who have read these and similar titles, the initial embracing of the theories is far, far easier than actually applying them as a means to profound and long-term change. Too often a character in a modern novel meets his or her guru/guide and within 200 hundred pages undergoes a wholesale transformation. If only it was that easy…

In the third book, Samsara (a Hindu word meaning the death and rebirth cycle), Malcolm takes a physical journey across several countries (Switzerland, France, Italy, and Ireland) in pursuit of the feminine—spiritually (at a conference on the Magdalen in Florence) and physically (as he pursues a woman named Kelli in Ireland).

LeRoi, published first, opens with the following unattributed quote: “Woman cannot be contained./Real or ethereal,/she cannot be harnessed.”

This pursuit of both the symbolic and physical woman (the “mystical union”) truly is the meat of the matter in these books. Malcolm talks in detail about the mechanics of the chase (“…it was always the woman who came to the man. Man chases, pisses on tires, jumps up and down like a baboon drooling all over his red-assed self, but if the woman doesn’t come to him and open herself to him, he might as well take his shriveled up hard-on back upstairs…”). I found it incredibly refreshing that Malcolm more often than not wound up back upstairs, alone. He also has many at-length discusses about matriarchal, patriarchal, and man–woman matters along the way, especially with the members of the Magdalen conference, a section of the books that provided the most thought-provoking and interesting passages for me. There is lots of good information on sacred feminine art in Florence, the symbolic union of Mary M. and Jesus as the nexus of the male and female aspects in all of us (the hieros gamos), the birth of the Divine Child, and issues of Gnosticism and the Gnostic gospels such as the one attributed to St. Thomas.

Along the way Malcolm meets many women who seem to be male-bashers—militant in their feminism to the extent that they find fault with any man simply for being one. In my own experience, I have found some Wicca covens to be a cover for this sort of attitude, and this issue of Maleness in the postmodern world is one with which many men struggle. One of my favorite lines in any of the books is when Malcolm says in Samsara: “I love women who love men.”

Amen.

There is plenty of attention given to the child–parent (especially son–mother) relationship and the larger metaphors of how males and females relate. Characters like the diner owner Flo and the landlady Mrs. Shams (who fully lives up to her last name, at least in Malcolm’s eyes) represent the stuck-in-time, all too grounded matriarch who hands down proclamations of exactly how a middle-aged man like Malcolm should be living his life, while younger, more vital women such as Sarah in LeRoi and Sheila in Menopause Man represent the continued evolution of the soul and psyche that comes with the adventure of fully living life, no matter one’s gender or age. Stuck unpleasantly in the middle (as is Malcolm) is Jenny, who wants a platonic experience with Malcolm. She has forsaken sex, claiming menopause at 30, and thus is neither male nor female, and yet somehow both. A pet name she uses for Malcolm in a letter in Samsara turns out to be the source of the second book’s title. Add in Cassi, the wife of his best friend, Turner (they have three children) and we have the Triple Goddess—the maiden (Sheila and Sarah), the mother (Cassi), and the crone (Flo and Mrs. Shams). There are plenty of other examples throughout the three books that reinforce this model.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, Malcolm is not always an easy character to like. Most disturbing to me was his homophobia. He makes remarks about “queers,” “gays,” and “fags” on numerous occasions (sometimes right on the heels of a philosophical–spiritual exploration) and there is even a point in Menopause Man where the narrator breaks into first person and describes a “faggy pair” of teal colored shorts. Malcolm also refers to someone as a “preppy little faggot.” He is absolutely vicious about the French (months before it became über-vogue after 9-11). Malcolm is also, at the end of the day, a wolf-like womanizer; a self-proclaimed “ass-end” man who judges women in very physical, sexualized terms, and he turns such disparaging phrases about unattractive women as “her pink polyester two-ton ass” over the course of the books. This turning on a dime from the spiritual to the physical, at times with unsettling speed, really makes his faults hard to overlook. He can be talking about making one woman “divine” and then make a biting comment about another woman who just came into his view.

He is nothing if not complex.

Characters like Jimmy, Sarah, and Flo, the staff at the diner/boarding house where Malcolm waits out the repairs to his MG in LeRoi, are all archetypes representing the different aspects of Malcolm’s ever-evolving psyche. Malcolm knows it, too, saying “…the people I encountered who had the ability to upset me were often reflections of unacceptable parts of myself.” This dovetails nicely with the Jungian dream analysis in Samsara. Jung said that every member of the dream-cast is an aspect of who the dreamer actually is.

The idea of one’s identity is a key aspect of the books. Mel–Malcolm often comments about people making you into what they need you to be. It seems clear that this practice also applies to the gods and goddesses they choose to worship. Malcolm struggles with trying to find a definition of God, traveling back and forth between the Old Testament god of vengeance and wrath (Yahweh) and the New Testament god of compassion and forgiveness.

The novels all revolve around eateries and those that work in them, which is an excellent device for bringing a lot of different archetypes and life stories into the mix. There are philosophical and spiritual exchanges, long conversations over coffee and sandwiches full of the same, and plenty of “bullshit sessions.” The transience of such an atmosphere also serves the overall theme that life is fleeting and it is the small moments rather than the big ones that chart the course of one’s life—a philosophy that informed Joyce’s work, especially in his collection of short stories, The Dubliners.

There is the very Jungian imagery of fishing in a stream in LeRoi, searching in the depths of the psyche for treasures and trophies. That elegant struggle to land the fish, whatever it may be—money, love, respect, actualization. Being a catch and release man (“all you get to keep of the fish is its tale”), Malcolm is trying to extricate himself from the tangle of material symbols he has anchored himself with in life—replacing them with experience and memory—so the metaphors of the fish and water are apt ones indeed. In many ways, as he sits in those myriad restaurants, he is fishing for tales—he is, after all, a writer, whether he chooses to admit it or not. Like Yeats, he knows about the Masks we all wear, and he is trying to change his—to transition from the lunar to solar phase, as we all must begin to undertake around our fortieth year.

Also in line with the Jungian aspects of the novels, Malcolm is increasingly interested in exploring and explaining his dreams (a practice that finds its full fruition in Samsara). Adam, his chief advisor (although he has many older males with whom he engages in philosophical discussions), has been his biggest help in this way and it is Adam who brings us Samsara, after receiving it via mail from Ireland, where Malcolm spends a good deal of time in the third book.

Perhaps most compelling (and realistic) of all is the fact that in the course of three books and hundreds of pages Malcolm barely changes at all. He gets out of Mrs. Shams’ house in the third book (a major step) and begins to give away to strangers or leave behind many of his possessions—even his cell phone—as he begins to become enlightened, and this manifesting of the spiritual with the physical is a very positive sign, but he still has a long way to go.

And, no doubt, many more books to write.

All three novels are published by Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com, and are available through the publisher, through Mel’s website and My Space, as well as at online booksellers such as www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com

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