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Robert Lopez

Robert Lopez is the author of Part of the World and Asunder. His writing has appeared in Bomb, The Threepenny Review, The Mississippi Review, Indiana Review, etc. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

Blurbs

“Kamby Bolongo Mean River is an original and fearless fiction. It bears genetic traces of Beckett and Stein, but Robert Lopez's powerful cadences and bleak, joyful wit are all his own.”

– Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land

“In Kamby Bolongo Mean River damage and delusion walk hand in hand, and everything we think we know is gradually called into question. Reading like a cross between Samuel Beckett’s ‘The Calmative’ and Gordon Lish’s Dear Mr. Capote, Robert Lopez’s new novel gets under your skin and latches on.”

– Brian Evenson, author of The Open Curtain

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Kamby Bolongo Mean River

"What I am fine means is please stop talking."

09/12/11

Before I say anything about Kamby Bolongo Mean River, I have to tell you that its author, Robert Lopez, is a friend of mine. I also have to tell you that I edit a journal in which his fiction has appeared several times and will likely appear in the future. In other words, I am completely biased here — I want Robert’s books to be great, and I think they are great, from his first novel, Part of the World, to his recent book of stories, Asunder, to his second novel, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, which, because I taught it last spring, is the Lopez book I’ve read most recently, frequently, and closely.

I think any book worth reading is worth reading more than once. For me, a first read often involves just figuring out what’s going on, answering the who/what/where/ when/how questions. I might have a strong emotional response on a first read, I might admire language or lines or a whole lot of things, but I can’t really tell how good the book is because I always feel like I’ve missed a lot of the nuances. A second read brings greater depth to a book because it allows me to see and feel more — of a character’s isolation, for example — as threads are revealed earlier and woven more subtly than I noticed on the first read. A good book gets better on a second read because that’s when I start to see the purpose and power in its construction, the choices the author made regarding line and language, tone and rhythm, withholding and revelation. Kamby Bolongo Mean River is fluid and funny and moving on a first read, but its exploration of existence and isolation gets smarter, funnier, and deeper every time I read it, and its construction tighter and more satisfying.

The book starts with this sentence: “Should the phone ring I will answer it,” and returns to variations on that line throughout the novel. “Should the phone ring” becomes a kind of touchstone, a way to both ground the story and move it forward, a verbal tic on the narrator’s part that also serves as a kind of reset button and device to propel us forward. Far from being monotonous or irritating, line repetition is one of the great strengths of this novel, the variations revealing character depth and complexity through a kind of evolutionary mutation as the book progresses, the lines taking on the feel of a broken or breaking chorus:

“Should the phone ring I will answer it.”

“Should the phone ring I might let it keep ringing until the machine answers.”

“Should the phone ring I will ask the caller to identify themselves before I say the hello how are you.”

“Should the phone ring I won’t stop the conversation with myself to answer.”

“Should the phone ring I will ask why it is I can’t dial out anymore.”

“Should the phone ring I will let the machine pick up because I have arranged for the machine to tell everyone but Mother to go fuck themselves.”

“Should the phone ring I think I will drop dead all over the floor because it hasn’t rung since I don’t know when anymore.”

“Should the phone ring I will ask Charlie why he and Mother put me here.”

That “here” just referred to, where Charlie and Mother “put” the narrator, is some kind of institution, a hospital or jail, a hospital jail, just a room really, without windows, but with a phone that we initially believe might ring at any moment, that we later think rang just last night, and that we finally know hasn’t rung in years and will never ring again. There are doctors who act more like absurd orderlies or guards or slave drivers as the place comes to feel more like a prison:

“Sometimes when one of them is examining me another one is in the corner reading the newspaper. He is sitting with his legs crossed like he is on a park bench somewhere. I always tell this one to go fuck himself.”

“Sometimes I call the doctor massa because what’s the difference.”

While we know the narrator is incapacitated and institutionalized, we never determine the exact nature of his problem, though we get greater insight regarding his oddness and otherness as the book unfolds. What we don’t get is a diagnosis. And it would be a mistake to try to come up with one, because to diagnose this character would be to reduce him to his diagnosis, and the book is far more interested in a kind of existential isolation that we might all experience, raising questions that fiction so often examines, like, How are we separated from other people? How do we connect and fail to connect with other people? What if we don’t want to connect with other people? How did we get here and why? What happened to me? What happened to you? What happens to everyone? Further, because our narrator has no way to measure the passage of time (“Should the phone ring right now I might say can you at least give me the fucking time of day here”) there’s a kind of horror to a timeless present in which there’s very little opportunity for action. A good deal of the novel focuses on the past, or rather the narrator filtering the past in this nearly empty present, weaving variations on stories about his childhood and his mother and brother Charlie with observations about his present, sometimes using the phone as a device to connect past and present. The narrator is often waiting for a call from Charlie. But the phone only comes to indicate how isolated the narrator is:

“I have often held the phone to my ear and listened to the nothing coming through. The nothing coming through the telephone is the best nothing there is. . . . I am almost always doing nothing it seems. It hasn’t always been like this but it has been like this for as long as I can remember.”

Kamby Bolongo Mean River examines a profound and nearly hopeless isolation, but the book never become leaden or oppressive, and I think there are two reasons for this: First, the prose is as clear as can be, with a lot of air in it, a lightness, and the rhythm and variation in the repetition make for a kind of beautiful song. The other reason Kamby’s not oppressive is because it’s so funny on the page, maybe the funniest book I’ve ever read. And while it’s hard to reproduce the humor here, because so much of it’s based on variation in the repetition and a kind of accumulation of absurd detail — sandwiches and air conditioning and answering machines and coleslaw and ladles and uniforms and meditation and masturbation and powder and chafing and those “glorious” two years long ago — I find myself laughing throughout the book:

“Sometimes,” the narrator says, “the doctors have me write poems to see how I’m doing. They tell me to express myself and I tell them it’s hard to do when I chafe like this. . . . The poem I wrote last night was the best one yet.

The answering machine is like a sandwich

My uniform is like coleslaw

So what the fuck is wrong with the air conditioning?”

Another reason Kamby doesn’t feel oppressive is that it ultimately focuses on a struggle for liberation, a movement toward escape or a moment of freedom. Lopez creates a difficult problem for this book by imposing a kind of stasis on it. Yes, the narrator can move in his mind, back to childhood memories of his hometown of Injury Alaska, which may or may not be a real place. And, yes, the narrator can move about his cell, can draw with chalk on his walls and floor, can interact with the “doctors.” But time and action, which are so crucial to movement and development in fiction, are significantly limited as narrative tools in a world in which the narrator can’t move outside of his cell and has no real sense of how much time has passed since he arrived wherever it is that he might be. Voice becomes crucial, because very little action is going to unfold. And voice serves this novel well, as does the book’s fragmented structure and weave. But if a character can’t move, if nothing much is going to happen, if it’s not clear how much time has passed from one section to the next, what can drive the story? As noted above, a strong voice and so much humor keep the reader engaged on the page, as does the exploration of this character’s odd, often fascinating consciousness, but something else is at work that makes the book more than merely funny or engaging.

As readers, we’re actively involved in trying to understand where our narrator is and how he got there and what happened to him in the past and what’s real and what’s delusion. Gradually as the story unfolds, the narrator’s situation starts to feel more oppressive, the narrator’s caretakers more abusive. We come to learn that his clothes have been taken away, maybe a long time ago, that he must ask permission to go to the bathroom, and later, that he’s often manhandled by his keepers:

“[T]wo of them will grab my arms and another two will grab my legs and the four of them will hold me aloft like I am on the rack. This is what it must feel like to be drawn and quartered is what I tell them. . . . They tell me not to struggle but I forget sometimes and struggle anyway.”

It’s the narrator’s struggle that starts to suggest his movement toward a kind of escape. Further, we get the sense of passing time, the sense that the narrator is changing, though we can’t outline anything close to a specific chronology. He says, “I think I have been in the middle of the conversation with myself for thirty-two years now,” and I wonder, Is this conversation with himself his life? Gradually, I start to think, no; maybe the text — the book in my hands — is the conversation with himself. Later, he writes, “Saying I am in the middle of this conversation means the conversation will continue another thirty-two years or so I think.” But on the next page: “I am probably two-thirds to three-quarters to almost done with the conversation with myself if you can believe that sort of thing without a calendar.”

Is this merely the thinking of an unreliable narrator in a world with unreliable time? I don’t think so. At this point in the novel, there’s a sense of acceleration toward something. Part of this escalation involves greater revelation of the violence and oppression of his present, which also reflects back on his past, as we learn, among many other things, that he “got stuck in Mother’s tubes on the way out.” There’s now a noise in the narrator’s head, “like a horrible dial tone from a horrible phone that never shuts off.” Woven with the escalating violence and paranoia of his present is the evolving resistance and escape thread. The narrator imagines that “[T]he people of Injury Alaska yearn for me.” There’s a kind of dawning indignation: “If the people of Injury knew I was here they would storm the gates and set me free.” The narrator starts to feel more active than he’s felt before, more an agent directing his own life: “When they let me leave here I want to return to my native home of Injury Alaska…. Back to my people waiting for me.” The fact that the narrator “wants” anything is striking. Has he wanted anything abstract in the present before this? Has there been any suggestion of a possible future before this? And while his hope to be liberated by the people of Injury might be delusional or absurd, the fact that he wants any contact with people or can imagine anyone wanting him or waiting for him suggests that he’s still capable of engagement with humanity and life.

But with that engagement seems to come an ability to see his present more clearly, as indicated in one of the most revealing and naked lines in the book: “I do the same thing here because I’m not getting any better.” This recognition of something being wrong with him, something hopelessly wrong (“I’m not getting any better”) is when his awareness of being enslaved becomes most acute, followed by a yearning to escape that seems no longer joined to the possibility of anyone out there awaiting his return.

I think it’s always sort of ridiculous to say what a book “does” or is “about” because good books do and are about so many things. But one thing Kamby “does” is examine a character’s growing awareness of his imprisonment and subsequent desire to be free, his growing resistance to imprisonment, his growing sense of fight even if that resistance (and freeing of self) takes the form of self destruction. Because once he thinks, “I’m not getting any better,” and starts identifying directly with slaves, that’s when he decides that, “should the phone ring I will let it ring and ring,” and that’s when he reveals the two ways to “do something to yourself,” which is self destruction — suicide — and that’s when the people of injury Alaska can “all go fuck themselves if they’re not coming to set [him] free,” and that’s when it occurs to him to “ask Charlie why he and Mother put me here.”

The narrator’s movement toward self destruction is tied to his movement toward self realization or seeing how unbearable things really are, a kind of naked lunch moment that, at least momentarily, sparks a movement toward liberation, toward recognizing a static, meaningless, oppressive present and resisting it, fighting it, even the earlier parts of the novel coming now to seem like resistance based on the narrator’s attempts to create meaning from his stories of the past. And even if the narrator shuts down again, which he will, his ability to become active in his life and to recognize the oppression of a timeless present feels like an  awakening, that awakening as well as the oppression of a timeless present ringing metaphorically or allegorically or universally (existence as a kind of imprisonment) without ever feeling forced or pretentious. The main question of the book — “Should the phone ring,” should the outside world try to reach in — is addressed at the end of the novel with a list of possible responses, including “I will return to the good people of Injury as they are waiting,” and “I . . . don’t feel like talking so please leave a message because I am fine.”

Is he fine? No, not really. At some moments, maybe. But he’s completely isolated and often bewildered and incapable of interactions in the present that don’t leave him feeling like a slave or a lab specimen. He is alone. But he listens to himself tell his story, and we listen too. We participate in his struggle to make his story make sense. We laugh at the absurdity of his situation and are horrified by how easily and casually he’s abused, ignored, and forgotten. But he keeps himself alive with his memory and his fight and his voice, with his conversation with himself that becomes a conversation with the reader that seems to indicate someone on the other end of the phone after all.  Even if he can’t hear us, even if we can’t call, even if he doesn’t know we exist, even if the conversation is entirely one sided, we’re there and we hear him.

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6 Comments

  1. Matt said on 09/20/11 at 9:03 pm Reply

    A great essay about one of my favorite books. Thanks for this, Sam.

    Reply

    Sam Ligon said on 09/21/11 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for reading, Matt!

  2. Nicole said on 09/20/11 at 10:00 pm Reply

    Excellent essay!

    Reply

    Sam Ligon said on 09/21/11 at 8:10 pm

    Glad you liked it Nicole.

  3. Jess said on 09/26/11 at 6:10 pm Reply

    Great essay, great book, great site. That tension–wanting to discover “what’s wrong with him” but having the creeping feeling that you’ll never find out–it’s amazing the way that’s suspended over the book, and how ultimately satisfying, funny and universal it all becomes.

    Reply

    Sam Ligon said on 09/26/11 at 9:17 pm

    I love that tension too–that creeping feeling that we’ll never find out what’s wrong. That sort of unnameable damage, along with the fragmentation and humor, are some of the elements that link Kamby and The Zero so tightly for me.

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