Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, The San Veneficio Canon, The Tyrant, and The Traitor. He lives and teaches in New York City.
"It seemed as if The Tyrant was the biggest monster Cisco could make, but The Great Lover is now his new masterpiece. Brilliant, light-years beyond . . . still marauding. He should receive plaudits for conceiving the Prosthetic Libido alone. Cisco has an identity as much as any writer I’ve read.”
"The subterranean mindscape of The Great Lover is a cosmos entirely unto itself, a mysterious, reeking, unutterably strange, hazardous, fecund and carnivalesque digestion of events, ideas, opportunities, revelations and mutations. Cisco’s imagination is the most monumentally Tartarean of any dark fantasy writer currently writing.”
The last two books I read were The Great Lover by Michael Cisco and The Sensualist by Daniel Torday. They were widely different, the first being 300+ pages of dark fantasy and the latter a slim novella set in the real world. It was a coincidence that I happened to read them successively, and I think if I hadn’t read both, if I’d only ever read either one, I might not have posed this quintessential question I’d like to pose to you. What genre, or style of writing, better reflects our modern existence: realism or irrealism? And, what is more important: to recreate the world around you and evoke an emotive experience that possibly transcends it, or to mine a thoughtspace threading out inner realities?
I’d like to take each book in turn as examples of their genre and let me think about these questions.
"Do you ever write a story that isn't weird?" A friend of mine asked me this question the other day. I told her I didn't see the point. I write stories to express some inner truth of myself, and a realistic story imitating my own life or someone like me would only be redundant. I wanted to write stories that limned the subliminal. I wanted to explore only interiority, justifying my self-indulgence as microcosmic. I thought that my subjective feelings could somehow reflect objective, grander-scale issues. But I didn't write about my feelings in a diary, emo way. I hid them buried deep under imagery and metaphor.
It was because of all these things that I was attracted to The Great Lover by Michael Cisco. Although not set in a traditionally otherworldly fantasy land, it refuses to describe a real world of any kind. It starts in what might be our own reality but quickly transforms everything into landscapes of pure language. The Great Lover doesn’t describe a real world; it is a real world. By eschewing any semblance of “reality,” it itself becomes hyper-real, the only reality we can be ensconced in and enveloped by. The words themselves and the emotions they evoke are the terrain for the Great Lover to frolic in.
It starts with the protagonist, only ever deemed the Great Lover, dying. He dies and his afterlife or resurrected body or zombie soul carries on trudging through sewer systems, given power. One of his powers is the ability to build a Prosthetic Libido for a scientist who can't be bothered with his own urges as they distract him from his work. So the Great Lover cobbles together a robot golem to bear the burden of all of the scientist's lust.
Even though there are these ideas and sometimes only ideas devoid of plot strung together, it was the prose that really encapsulated the tone of the novel. It was rich and chthonic, transporting you into different thought processes where pure emotive mandates were viable.
The book is published by Chômu Press who champions new irreal novels, works that explore the way life feels and not the way it occurs merely to our primary, primate senses.
In a chaotic world in which “truth” and verifiable facts seem to be a commodity, it may be of more value to trade in concepts.
This isn’t fantasy genre with wizards, dragons and zombies. This isn’t Twilight.
"It’s like time travel or music. . . . Don’t try to fit it all together into one story line, but transfer from line to line,” it says metafictionally. The book is self-aware and uses itself to its own end.
After reading The Sensualist, I began to reanalyze the possibility of writing stories that were based on real experience. Because the environment is real, emotions evoked feel real as well.
The Sensualist doesn’t just take place in the real world, but specifically Baltimore. Torday, by reducing the focal point of his gaze, is able to make subtle and passive generalizations that are universally applicable.
The story tells “[t]he events leading to the beating Dmitri Abramovitch Zilber and his friends would administer to Jeremy Goldstein.” It is told in the first-person narrative of Samuel Gerson who falls in love and tries to stay true to new friends.
Readers can identify with a story set in reality or a realistic setting. They are more easily able to comprehend and empathize if they are not always required to decode the language. There is a given template which we all understand as the thing we have been raised in and guided by. Stories set in the real world obey laws and theories that we are familiar with. The readers can exchange themselves in the roles of the characters even if they don't understand the characters’ exact motives or actions.
Because realistic story-telling is so enterable, it also has the potential of being less engaging. There is a thin line between the familiar and the rote or boring. It is possible that the flaw of realism lies in its closeness to reality, a reality that has its moments of overwhelming boredom. In human experience there tends to only be a handful of distinct stories, but a million ways to tell them. Which is why I left in all of those qualifiers like “possible” and “potential.” In Torday’s hands the story never feels stale even though it is intentionally modeled after classic literature. It directly points out its homage to The Great Gatsby and The Idiot, which strengthens the prose as part of a lineage.
In the real world with real problems, the only solution or salve must be couched in experiences that reflect that reality. Torday’s story is structured so that you feel every emotion as it piques itself viscerally towards its conclusion.
There are strange parallels between The Great Lover and The Sensualist whose titles might almost be interchangeable. They both deal with unattainable love, alienation, and the rites of tribes. They each use exquisite craft of language to evoke their respective ethos.
Here are passages from each that could almost be describing the same scene but to disparate ends:
I pulled her to me by her upper arms. I put my bare arm across the back of her neck and mashed the top of her head against my face. The move was clumsy, and after I had acted I hoped that at least some semblance of intimacy might come across. She pulled away. The momentary rejection of it made me want to grab her, hold her against me. . . .
I got in my car. In the rearview mirror I saw that Yelizaveta was watching. She had already lit another cigarette, and as I pulled away, the burning red ember glowing between Yelizaveta’s fingers became the only thing clearly visible.
I live borne up sustained held and tensed in a gossamer medium of will. Walking up the hump of the street, I have a yen to lean forward arms outstretched. Its slope receives my remains as easily as if they were tipped from a can: and this vile city that barks its hate at me from passing cars, whose buses and streets roar hate at me, whose hysterical citizens recoil from my bland, sallow, wickedly-vacant face. No I don’t belong among you with my nails imbrued in the loam of graves, my breath foetid with my own stale words. Coiled like a turd on my warm mattress, nestled in a chilly reckless draught I bring with me wherever I go. I am a spacious ruin. I am made, and despicable, and I will recount to you your crimes against my sainted person like beads of glowing amber. I have an excellent memory and nothing to gain from forgiveness; I have stored up the venom of blighted days, and trample out your pollution, your stupid trouble, your irreverent work. The music of my soul the world hates.
In the end, I couldn’t tell which was more important or if such a distinction could be made. It might have expected that one relationship to the external world – mirroring or symbolizing – would be superior. But I just couldn’t determine the winner. It is like pitting photography against abstract expressionism. I would definitely recommend either / both of these books to see for yourself which reflects your own worldview.