A Potential Dimension
by Bruce Fleming
New York: Turtle Point Press, 1997
Paper, 334 pp., $14.95
Near the end of Twilley
the narrator flashes back to a moment in the wayfaring hero's
past life. The passage knits up several such moments of "feeling"
like a string of beads:
it was not until he was seventeen that he felt this feeling
again, the cool summer morning when he walked up the sidewalk
of the Cité Universitaire in Paris with his suitcase
which was cutting a red ridge in his tightly clenched fist.
What was this feeling?
Perhaps the feeling of being poised on the brink of a world
more solid than his own, a world from which he was forever
excluded but that made his own formlessness solid by contrast.
The passage alludes to a state of consciousness,
a perspective, and a prose style that Fleming navigates with
the skill and brio of a master literary mariner. To a large
extent, Fleming places us "on the brink," giving us
a strange, fish-eye view of our human aquarium, a microscopic
perspective on phenomena as they might appear from, let us say,
Thumbelina's nutshell sailboat skimming over a miniature ocean.
In the statisticalized mirror of the world that
makes up the décor of Twilley,
we are always on some threshold or other. Fleming's novelistic
environment is a "virtual" one in which everything and
everyone exist in a potential dimension in a "perhaps"
or a "maybe," a "not quite" or a "not
yet" stratum which does not belong to the past but is not
yet the future. In describing novels, we are accustomed to talking
about them as, to use a fancy term, diagesis, which in
plainer but longer English means the way a fictional narrative
work organizes its representation of time and space. Fleming's
diagesis resembles the space-time of particle physics in which
phenomena tend to be but never are firmly situated anywhere or
in any definite span of time.
Our rewound glimpse of Twilley arriving in the area of university
student housing in Paris at the age of seventeen is one of several
when we see the figure of the "hero" as a fleeting but
total image of a man-in-progress. But, much as a musical motif
disappears into a composition by Stockhausen or Glass, we lose
him again just as soon as we catch the glimpse; he no sooner arrives
than he departs, disappears in the welter of micro-events and
mini-phenomena that make up the texture of Twilley's world.
What's the value in all these tiny, formic doings? And haven't
we seen all this before? As an eternal literary tea party taking
place somewhere between the coming of Swift, the carrying on of
Carroll, and the goings on of James Joyce, with, perhaps, Robbe-Grillet
thrown in for more contemporary measure?
As he strings together these existential beads, one of Fleming's
accomplishments is that numerous passages can be lifted from Twilley
and pasted up as complete and self-sufficient miniature works.
Like a mosaic of prose poems, Twilley
contains hundreds of small compositions. One of my favorites is
introduced by the phrase "Où sont les papillons?"
(21) which wittily and gracefully recounts a boy's discovery of
a cocoon; his subsequent murder of the giant moth to which the
cocoon gives birth; and his rediscovery of the dead creature in
a drawer years later, laden with the odor of the poison the boy
used to bring the insect down. The little story has a true-to-life
ring to it, the aura of a moment lived and forever remembered,
funny and sad and poignant and painful and beautiful and unfinished.
The odor of the poison still emanating from the drawer years later
functions a bit like a send-up of the Proustian madeleine. Dipped
in the celebrated teacup, the aroma of the little cake resurrects
the entire edifice of memory that becomes Proust's masterwork,
À la Recherche du temps perdu. And much like young
Proust's sensibility, the consciousness inhabiting Twilley is
painfully hypersensitive, a mind that registers all the micro-shocks
of existence. Pain is inscribed at the cellular level; it is seemingly
inevitable, like the red ridge cut into the fist of the hero by
the suitcase he carries to Paris.
While such close-up consciousness of the details of existence
sometimes results in pain, sometimes in just plain wierdness,
it is also sometimes imbued with pure silliness, the sheer battiness
of the panorama. Fleming's speculation on the life of pocketbooks
on a department-store rack partakes of all these qualities:
pressures of hanging cause the softest of them to collapse
slightly as if afflicted with a sort of debilitating weariness
that cracks the edges of their stiff youth under its slight
but insistent weight. Their rigid carrying straps grasp
the metal hooks and seem to pull against them in an attempt
to lessen the pain in the bodies they support, but those
that have continued to resist misshaping under the strain
show no trace of the fantastic struggle that is taking place
beneath their leathery skins. (14-15)
Everything is personified in Twilley; everything
comes to life. Maybe Fleming is overly fond of such animistic
procedures. Sometimes he successfully invests the inanimate
with feeling; sometimes he doesn't.
This brings us to a major difficulty of Twilley's
narrative construction . While we are presumably tracking a
consciousness at very close range through miniature forests
and jungles where everything is invested with human feeling,
the narrative remains rigorously (and rigidly) in the third
person, the "he, she, it" perspective of fiction.
The "What is this feeling?" passage quoted at the
beginning of this review is one of the devices in the novel
intended as a transition or threshold between external and internal
worlds, between the narration of events and the narration of
feelings. But the very question "What is this feeling?"
distances us from the feelings that make up the matter of Twilley.
Despite the virtuosity of Fleming's microscopic descriptions,
readers are situated at an awkward remove from the "feelings"
to which he alludes. We are thus rarely convinced of their human
veracity; we are somehow not being let in on the story. Similarly,
the narrative itself lacks the supple and complex dimensionality,
modulating between interior and exterior worlds, that would
lend the fictionalized central consciousness full credibility
This said, the ending of Twilley,
while adhering strictly to the aesthetic rules the novel sets,
almost convinces us of the proximity of the consciousness the
whole book has labored to bring into being. It is worth quoting
from it at length:
few remaining boards of the pier seem like the last bones
of what was once a magnificent prehistoric creature with
beautiful sleek sides that, feeding one morning early by
the water's edge, found itself trapped in the treacherous
mud by its thick-set ankles. Trumpeting and lashing its
huge tail as it might, it was unable to extricate so much
as one colossal toe or even change its position to a more
comfortable one. Then came the bone-winged birds that settled
on its broad back and gouged out the beakfuls of living
flesh so that the air rang with the impotent bellows of
the pain-crazed beast.
Soon, mercifully soon, the once so-proud creature would
be reduced to a skeleton which would bleach gray in the
successive generations of summer sun and begin to crumble
away one part at a time, until all that was left ... was
a rather bent backbone attached to the stumps of the thing's
legs on which the birds leave their droppings that bleach
brittle and bake on the hard surface until they too might
as well be only discolorations of the bones..." (334)
is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and
was a Fulbright Professor in Rwanda. He has written several
books on modernism and literary theory. Twilley
is his first novel.
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