Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Stove-Junker (S.K. Kalsi)

In an excellent, depressing, and undoubtedly realistic 2012 blog post entitled " 'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience," Kurt Ellenberger notes:

...most of the music we are trying to build an audience for is cognitively demanding. So we're looking for some marketing, education, packaging or programming strategy that will influence and/or supersede both personal taste and the enormous pressures of the dominant popular culture; at the same time, we're asking people to commit to an art form that will tax (and probably frustrate) their capabilities before, hopefully, delivering a heightened aesthetic experience.

Most people, even most educated and intelligent people, don't want to grapple with cognitively demanding material in their leisure time. Attempts to make them want to - Oprah Winfrey's 2005 "Summer of Faulkner" is a great example - are almost always foreordained to failure. Dragging those who are not accomplished swimmers into the deep end of the pool is more likely to alarm them than stimulate or satisfy them.

I say this by way of preface to introducing a beautiful novel by a clearly gifted author - S.K. Kalsi's The Stove-Junker. As it happens, Faulkner is the first author that Kalsi acknowledges in a list of influences in the "Acknowledgements" at the back of the book, and the comparison is not an over-reach, because the commonalities are apparent:

  • Stream-of-consciousness writing style
  • Dense, poetic, highly specific prose
  • Unreliable narration
  • Thickly described place-setting (in Kalsi's case, Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania)
  • Only a couple of inches beneath the highly figured modernist surface, you find a melodramatic, potentially pulpy story of a deeply dysfunctional family across a couple of generations, with heavy "shadows of the past" 
This last point is what makes Kalsi more Faulknerian than Joycean (Joyce is the second writer he thanks). Joyce is NOT melodramatic; he does a deep dive into ordinary clear water. Faulkner and Kalsi leap, too, but into a muck of sin and unresolved goop. That is a big difference.

The specificity of the prose is worth pondering. Let me choose a Kalsi passage that is very detailed without being difficult:

Everything can kill you. The elements, wind, water, sun, cold, heat, everything is dangerous, coiled to strike your heart. I entered the medicine aisle, surrounded by shelves of fever-reducing pills and cough syrups, diabetic foot creams and salves for insect bites, joint braces for sprained wrists and ankles, and wraps for bruised knees. They had every remedy, for everything from chronic flatulence to dry eyes, sleeplessness to foot odor, gum disease to earwax, but what about loss? Maybe St. John's Wort, maybe Stinging Nettle, maybe a cocktail of B-complex vitamins and fish oils? They offered you power bars to build muscle, testosterone pills for a lazy libido, vitamin-infused water, lotions that promised to liquefy your skin, making it buttery soft and impervious to the harmful sun. They offered ointments for psoriasis, stress packs and fiber powders to regulate your bowels. Simple solutions to complex problems.

Notice how this forces you to deal with profusion in precision, at a level of attentiveness that we seldom attempt in "real life." The fact is that generalities (even cliches) are comforting and relaxing, whereas poetic precision is exhausting. It must be taken slowly (which is part of the point). It makes you think. Many people do not want to think, or to experience anything that intensely and densely. Even romantic love, which is intense by definition and should be specific (because you love this person and not that one, right?) often resolves in people's minds and emotions into vague and universal simplicities. Easier that way.  

The audience for a novel such as this, therefore, is self-selecting once they know of its existence; it's the ones who revel in the cognitive challenges. Others will scent trouble ahead, because the instinct for avoidance of certain materials operates in them powerfully and unerringly. Needless to say, I hope you are in the first group. But I do my job by putting the facts of the case in front of you.

Plot? Characters? I'll step out one inch on this: The Stove-Junker is about a man who goes home. Or thinks he does:

...I wonder if I'm inventing my life by remembering it? Perhaps I am. Perhaps imagination is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Perhaps tale-telling to fill up the time and ease this heart is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Maybe I am imagining being home, imagining the Dutch barn, the cold air and this boy. Maybe the dog is not barking and what I think is real is just imagination?

Or perhaps there is a kinship with the movie Carnival of Souls, and at a certain point in the narrative, the protagonist Somerset Garden changes states without being ready to admit it. Clues are provided but (it will not surprise you to learn) no definite answers, because it just isn't that sort of book.

I leave the exploration to you.

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