Continuing in my read-through of Harry Mathews’s body of work, I recently delved into his novel The Conversions. It begins in a recognizable fashion: the narrator is invited to the home of a wealthy man, where he takes part in a competition; winning it, he’s given a mysterious adze. As the novel continues, the narrator must delve into the adze’s history in order to answer three fairly surreal questions. And while this might seem like the framework for an adventure story, or a pulp-influenced quest into history and archaeology, Mathews’s intentions here are far stranger (and more absurdist).
Rather than normalizing the narrative, Mathews takes it to stranger and stranger places. The narrator cedes the narrative to others; found documents and testimonials, each of them compelling on its own, but not fitting together into a recognizable shape. That may well be the point; each iteration of the story ups the inherent absurdity of the novel so far. After finishing it, I sought out this Dan Visel piece about it, which delves into The Conversions‘ literary lineage and discusses its structure and unlikely resolution (or lack thereof). It’s compellingly strange, charming, and highly unpredictable.
Another author I’ve been meaning to read more from? Denis Johnson. And so I picked up his Resuscitation of a Hanged Man a few months ago; it’s the story of Leonard English, a man in his mid-thirties who, after a suicide attempt, finds himself living in Provincetown in 1980, where he works as a private detective and DJ. English is a fascinating protagonist: flawed, sometimes admirable in his dedication, sometimes deeply reactionary. And while there are elements of detective fiction in here–a shadowy paramilitary organization, a missing person, a surveillance case that leads to romance–they come together in odd ways. At the center of it is English, on a bizarre spiritual quest, slowly disintegrating along the way. It’s a haunting work.
While we’re talking about unraveling psyches, it’s probably worthwhile to mention Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes. It’s about an academic, named Amós Kéres, becoming slowly unhinged–though it might be more accurate to say that he starts out unhinged and becomes infinitely more so over the course of the book. “There is an Ouroboric quality to Kéres’s descent from genius to madness,” Adam Z. Levy writes in a review of the novel, and I’d agree. Reading Hilst is a far more immersive, experiential sensation than most fiction; there’s nothing quite like it.