Michael Cisco's The Great Lover is a novel about the eponymous hero, a reanimated, demon-possessed, sewer-diving, subway-riding adventurer. Although the book progresses according to an organic structure—nurturing, as opposed to chasing, a primary storyline, and ending only insofar as "the end" is a character in the book that assaults not just the other characters but the story itself—it essentially concerns the Great Lover's alliance with a cult of subway-worshippers, who investigate and perform rituals with the objective of contacting divinities, or achieving objects/states, of whose nature(s) they are unsure. Meanwhile, they must contend with their enemies, fascist student-types and the nefarious forces of Vampirism: the uncouth, the conservative, manifestations of the status quo. The Great Lover must also contend with his machinic creation, the Prosthetic Libido (a receptacle of one man's sexual urges), and an even darker, more esoteric spawn: the Prosthetic Death (a receptacle of that man's dying). The Great Lover is at various points dreamscape, poetry, fight-scene, and toilet humour, and more than likely to titillate fans of the Weird.
But let's start by saying that The Great Lover is, frequently, massively frustrating. It can be very hard to read, because Cisco loves to bombard the reader with enormous vistas of imagery and metaphor for pages at a time, which have a tendency to make, not so much nonsense, as a very difficult, esoteric, and—narratively speaking—unconventional kind of sense. Even though I'd like to give Cisco the benefit of the doubt on those occasions when I have no idea what's going on, I'm tempted to quote from a series of Writing 101 blog posts by Hal Duncan: "Style is not a fucking patina." Cisco's strengths are his ideas and enormous imagination; his failing is a weakness for fat, opaque prose that all too frequently lacks subjects and has zero emotional resonance. That said, there are times when that fat prose becomes poetic and works upon the reader beautifully, reaching out from the pages of the book to stimulate familiar sensations—sensations that, having been sensed, play back into the book:
A colossal woman's face has been carved into the soft phosphorescent stone of the bluff behind the falls. Its contours flicker uptilted and twice the size of the city. Her eyes are closed, an almost wide mouth the lips softly compressed and nearly smiling in sleep. Her face I've never seen before, I say it to myself again and again to fight a persistent feeling that I have, I have seen it before. (p. 164)
But even more confusing than vistas of description is that Cisco employs a most unreliable narrator: a voice that uses "he," "I," "the Great Lover," and "the demon" to designate, effectively, the same character. And although this character may have a "corporeal" form "in" the book, it seems that Cisco himself is really the primary character in this story: the writer is the demon that possesses the Great Lover, making him the centre of narrative operations—the deus ex machina—that causes a story to arise from a world that might otherwise go unnoticed. In one way, The Great Lover is not even a book, but a first person memoir of batshit-insane dreams dictated by the author. But I can't be sure, because Cisco's modus operandi is play, and his toy is the reader:
The subway system recapitulates the progress of the dead soul, from the payment of special coins at the journey's beginning to the negotiation of a maze of names, the pursuit of this or that colored fiber in the map. The subway system is a hermetic calculator, a wheel of essences moving you from this visible, organized space to another by way of dark chaos with no landscape or landmark; the subway system is like thought, and there are all sorts of guides. There are those who enter and never leave, and it clings to some others wherever they may emerge like a foul intriguing smell in the clothing. (p. 92)
The quotes above don't nearly do justice to how strange Cisco's writing can get; I'm trying, for the sake of review, to stick to things that might make sense beyond the context of the novel as a whole. Suffice to say, I don't believe this passage is really about subway systems, even if a subway cult figures in the narrative: this is an allegory for your own passage through The Great Lover. And I would argue that anyone who makes it the whole way through will be left with a "foul intriguing smell" in their clothing. Because—as Cisco repeatedly makes clear—this is not a normal novel. He frequently breaks in—which, remember, is hardly a "break," because the author's voice is so heavily (and, it should be noted, heretically) invested in the novel as a whole—and refers directly to the narrative (usually to its falling-off, its indistinctness), to the reader, to the characters (and their not-characterness) as the elements that they truly are, as fictions, and not as figurative images that ought (in terms of typical literary expectations) to appear in our heads as though they were some kind of authentic substance. The Great Lover seems poised to claw beyond the pages, to give us something that is more than just a novel, something that exists in our lives and not just for them. Says one character:
The lies are part of what has to be cleared away, and they're intolerable in any case. What we want to do is to open the way for the immigrants, and some new humans. Right now, Dominant Narrative co-opts or destroys all other novels in progress the sooner the better. We speak vaguely on account of we're talking for something that we want to happen. We must make room for this to be able to mean something; right now, it might never mean anything. (p. 315)
This passage means a lot to me. Even when Cisco's prose is clunky or his plot confused, he's doing something positive: he's engaged in clearing away the detritus that is the Novel, the reification of an author-voice transformed into a narrative-voice, that hidden and untouchable thing that delivers stereotypes, prejudices, moral lessons, moral failures, and everything else that is specific to a single person as though it were not. Indeed, The Great Lover shines as a text that works to go beyond the commonly accepted narrative orders, and reading it is not like reading other novels. Actually, calling it a novel is sort of offensive to what this text is. Any fight one puts up with the text—being bogged down by the "fat prose" I mentioned earlier—is going at it the wrong way, because there is not some element of narrative—some turn of the plot or character evolution—that one will miss if one isn't careful to appreciate it. If I can be forgiven some philosopher's language here, The Great Lover is not an experience-being-experienced, but an experienced-experience. It is the literary equivalent of Aristotle's eudaimonia, which, though often translated into English as "happiness," always bears the caveat that this happiness is evaluated only when life ends. So, too, The Great Lover is something from which one must exit on the other side.
I'm scanning through a little diner, counter, booths, red and white checkered cloths, all empty. One shadowy booth in the corner—as I zoom in, I see a horrible godlike face glow there. It melts, and I know I am lying somewhere dreaming; I feel myself aping the melting face with grimaces that pull my features down and elongate them. I feel loss—the foreboding that someone will die, the fear that someone will die, and leave me forever. Alone I will be dead as well. (p. 146)
The fact that this is not just a novel, but rather some kind of urtext, is in one sense really problematic. Whenever I hear about Michael Cisco, it's usually accompanied by a lament that he's not better known, or a declaration that he's the godfather of next-generation Weird fiction. But to be totally frank, he's probably not all that well known because he's stupidly hard to read and he doesn't even write fiction the way people expect it half the time; and the history of the novel, of writer's workshops, of literary awards, of all the structures and processes surrounding literary art are of a sort that have made readers stupidly unable to read things they don't expect. People want "great stories," don't they? And "good characters," right? And this isn't even a story, not really, and the characters don't have solidity, not in their most important aspects. This book isn't trying to tell you something: it's trying to do something to you. It is either a magic spell, or a work of art, and as such it is an intellectual challenge. It is not like other books. Don't read Michael Cisco and think you're getting Joe freaking Abercrombie. Don't even think you're getting China Miéville or some other paragon of New Weird. Michael Cisco isn't really a novelist. He's a writer.
The Great Lover could probably spare fifty—maybe a hundred—pages. A red pen might've tightened it up a bit. But that's not really the point. Working through the occasionally helter-skelter (also occasionally magnificently beautiful, insanely grotesque, horrendously poignant, generally genius) prose, you're left with the sort of corona of emotional-intellectual stimulation that very few books can incite. I'm reminded of Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia, which I absolutely, unequivocally loathed—but haven't stopped thinking about for months. Fiction like Cisco's, that doesn't just explore beyond the normal guideposts but actively fights them—ripping them up and throwing them at us, farting in our general direction while doing so—delivers a self-destructive kind of satisfaction that is both easy to write off ("it's easier to destroy than create and blah blah blah") and impossible to ignore. Cisco is clearing away the lies to make way for new humans.
People must hurt each other, as inevitably as they breathe. Nothing can stop it. It's not enough to accept it. Accepting it is not enough, like sighing resignedly and putting on an attitude of long-suffering. Don't get to be too good at protecting yourself. You've got to be ripped to pieces for the one you love, again and again. That doesn't prove anything but love, and its entitlements are a frailty that can't be held. But you will live even in that hell. The fire that hurts you gives off light like any other fire, that illuminates beautiful things, and that is beautiful itself. (p. 198)
Reading The Great Lover will probably hurt. It will take time. It will have to be digested. I am still convalescing from my reading of The Great Lover. Maybe for you this reading will not be difficult: maybe you are farther advanced in your capacities to understand this kind of work than I am. But for me, this book—even though I've read Cisco before—poured sewage all over what I expected from a book, it undermined the foundations of how I think narratives will look, it dragged me—sometimes screaming, sometimes in ecstasy—through the underground pipes of Cisco's aesthetic psyche.
On the other side, now, I don't know what to feel. I am certain only of the fact that I probably smell a little gross.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.