Tuesday, August 9, 2016

“Narrative Noir”: A Review of John Gartland’s Resurrection Room: Bangkok dark rhetoric

 (Lizardville Productions, 2016)
“One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster/The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free’You'll find a god in every golden cloister/And if you're lucky then the god's a she/I can feel an angel sliding up to me” (“One Night in Bangkok,” Chess)
There are cities in the world that pulse with a deep mystique: the sleepless dichotomies of New York; the romanticism of Paris for lover and writers; the foggy Victorian mystery of London… the list goes on and on.
Bangkok (Thailand) conjures images of crowded streets full of steaming food, rickshaw drivers, and exotic women finger-motioning from alleyways and doorways… and Resurrection Room takes these images wider and deeper than perhaps your average reader wants to go.
Which makes it essential reading.
Gartland—a true Renaissance man known in writers’ circles as the “Poet Noir”—pulls no punches. In his several books of poetry, his misericordia-sharp Facebook posts, and his Robert Anton Wilson–esque novel Orgasmus (you can read excerpts from my review at the back of Resurrection Room), Gartland strides the barbed ex-patriot boundaries of a Seeker who splits energy between East and West, Occident and Orient, and who shamelessly shares the costs and conditions of such a state of being.
Resurrection Room opens as follows:
“The rain continued, an inescapable tyranny of rain; a venomous hiss of rain, like amplified static on an audio feed; a steady crackle of dread between broadcasts.”
This opening sets both the tone and structure of the book: it unfolds exactly as described, mixing straight narrative with poetry and an almost stream-of-consciousness jazz writing that originates with a narrator who is often as delusional and untrustworthy as those of Poe.
Resurrection Room is an exquisite blend of worlds, where the Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror meets Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, spawning complexly cross-cultural, image-laden lines such as: “Orson Welles, sunk in a Rembrandt chiaroscuro; he was Olivier’s doomed Danish prince, beckoning to Jung.”

The dreamscape rendering of Gartland’s Thailand is overrun with Bible-plague lizards who leave their stain (their shit) over everything—objects, rooms, landscapes, and people—while the writer-actors who populate its human pulse plot and plan to keep their souls in an airless university landscape where they must reconcile the lies of why they remain with the dreams that initially drew them.
Gartland must be credited for working from a clear through-line, from which the sparks of the jazz prose and poetry emanate with a life of their own without abandoning the forward momentum of the narrative. This through-line is elegantly simple: An English department at a Thailand university is being moved toward a Business emphasis, dashing the dreams of its transplant professors to teach the Arts to their students (and keep them alive in themselves). The Administration (led by the complicated “Miniporn Soopalek, known to her friends as Grendel’s mother”) is portrayed as cold, heartless, and as caricatured as the bureaucrats of Douglas Adams and C.S. Lewis—making them the perfect foils for the all too flawed heroes of our tale, who are the types of dark truth-seeking messes that would get along great with Hunter S. Thompson’s coterie of foreign-landing journalists.
Amongst this cast are the pointedly named Watson and Holmes and L. Semper Lazarus, a mysterious immortal who tells their tale, all the while intermixing his experiences of his resurrection at the hands of Jesus, the Ostrogoths, the de Medici’s and Macchiavelli (whom he pushed to write The Prince), Hastings, and the gas-gushed trenches of World War I.
“Ypres, Arras and the Somme;
of some infernal triptych
Hieronymus Bosch nightmare
he’d been painted into”
Like Anne Rice's Louie wandering the plague-filled streets of New Orleans, Semper seems to crave this dark and bloody fuel as his reason to (pardon the pun) soldier on. Why wouldn't an immortal crave the death-fields of battle?
The themes of Resurrection Room are far ranging, as would be expected from a Renaissance man like Gartland, who has studied and written in a wide range of styles and subject matter. Resurrection Room touches on vampirism and alchemy, while indicting politics and, especially, education and religion (it is a university founded by monks after all), diving through the layers of a corrupt, off-kilter system where no justice is to be had and everyone is trying to stay one step ahead of getting scammed or exposed by everyone else.
Indeed, the book’s structure is itself out of balance—the “prologue” (the unnamed opening) is about 25% of the book, followed by only two chapters.
One of the main themes in Resurrection Room is the pursuit of creative and emotional freedom, full expression, through the use of ritual and drugs, which serve as a thematic crossroads for lashing all of the disparate areas of examination together:
 “The elaborate progress of a priest through the transcendent pantomime
of the eucharist, the preparations and Ming-glazed equipage
of the Japanese tea ceremony, were no less ornate and stylised than
the ritualised foreplay of this methamphetamine harlot.”
While describing a Thai puppet theatre: “these puppeteers control their subject with the power of ritual, and the lightness of art.”
“Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and, of course, De Quincey, among them, certainly used laudanum and opium. Dickens refers to it in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. So many, in fact, indulged, that it is a missing part of the jigsaw in our modern analysis of their work… Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, to dull the pain of his moral decomposition, sought out the oblivion of opium dens…”

I would add to his list Rimbaud and Blake. And, of course, all of the Holmesian imagery and references fit needle in arm with the rest.

Regarding the indictment of education: “The uneducated masses are easily led, and misled. A cynic might say, it is in the interests of the powerful to keep educational standards unimproved. … In the University in which we are employed, where is there any evidence of creativity or independent thought? When does one ever
hear a student offer a radical view? When does one hear the voice of
compassion for the dispossessed?”
And religion: “Hubert of Tours, the dark eminence who fired the
imagination of the Marquis de Sade.” Hubert suffers a drubbing at the point of Gartland’s pen, which draws light into the ebony truths of sexual dysfunction and politics in the Roman Catholic Church. Gartland brings together education and religion in the book through one of the secret-hiding administrators, and locks it up with a smile in a pair of hot pink handcuffs.
In the end, as with so many, if not all, matters of Art, it comes down to Story: who has it, who controls it, who tells theirs the loudest. When the book’s anti-hero says: “he had been looking for a narrative, and I gave him one. I gave him a part in mine. I have so many; I ache with narratives, like old wounds” he speaks for many, if not all, writers and artists. I think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of London, and of Joyce.

Similar to Orgasmus, and the Illuminati tales of R. A. Wilson, the last fifth of the book delivers as expected with a relentless ratcheting up of the tension, interweaving the storylines and exploding—literally—with what has been simmering from the start.

A fitting end to the book, and to this review, are the last lines of the final poem:

“Carl Cutlass, tail-gunner,
spiraling to Hanoi,
finger extended.”

The extension of the finger, coupled with the spiraling artistry of the writing, is what makes Gartland well worth a read in these shit-stained, warped-tale times.

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