All Back Full
by Robert Lopez
Dzanc books. 2017.
Robert Lopez’s All Back Full is the most nihilistic book I’ve read in years. It is a remarkable achievement, especially if one measures an artistic achievement by its completeness of vision and demonstration of technique. Yet it also left me cold.
The novel’s basic materials seem borrowed from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In the first act, an anonymous man and woman eat pastries and discuss the news. The news for them means not congressional investigations but sexual imbecility, men sleeping with cars and trees. In the second, the woman leaves for a bridal shower and the man is joined by his friend. The men describe, among other things, the people they see on the bus and in the park and the reasons they reject the people there. They drink first beer and then whiskey. In the third, the woman returns and the three of them drink and drink and drink. Their final scene builds toward an admission which suggests the marriage will be shortly dissolved. (No, the woman has not slept with the friend.)
Long-time readers of Lopez’s work will not be surprised by the Carver influence, nor will they be surprised to hear him compared to Beckett. For sure, the novel’s division into acts, its spare setting, bitter wit, and humorous depredations remind me very much of Beckett’s plays. Beckett has often been called a nihilist, but while his characters drop more than a few acid lines about the world and its people, they are often exiles looking for a safe route home, their vague hopes resting with Godot or tape recordings. They are blind but believe they might one day see. Lopez’s characters, by contrast, think no one can see trees, whether they are or are not sleeping with them.
That thought leaves the characters detached from the world, though they are, unlike Beckett’s characters, upstanding members of that world’s mainstream. They are homeowners. They have held jobs and cared for pets. They have lengthy though not scandalously lengthy romantic histories. They dress modestly. They drink to excess only in the privacy of their homes. On a bus or in a park, they cause no scenes. Though they have done and continue to do what society asks of them, they are empty. They stand at windows and comment tersely on abandoned cars or passersby. They shrug at the uselessness of these and all other things. “These things,” the man says, “don’t amount to anything. The trees and cars. The seagulls. It’s like zero plus zero times zero, divided by zero. Rather than argue, the woman deadpans, “Say that two times fast.”
Lopez has proven in previous works to be a master of echoed phrases and passages. In last year’s stellar collection Good People, he used repeated words to glue together wildly swerving sentences, giving order to his narrator’s manic voices. The narrator of his first novel, Part of the World, told and retold scenes and lines, each time slightly adjusting circumstances, adding and subtracting key details. The awesome combinatorial variations kept readers off-balance and mesmerized. In All Back Full, the repetition of phrases like “awkwardness, confusion, frustration” describes and ties together the protagonists and a wide web of strangers and their activities. It also underlines his characters’ shared views when, for example, the friend tells the man, “It’s like zero plus zero every day around here and it never changes.” The man himself carries an echo of Part of the World’s narrator, in no small part due to Lopez’s reuse of that novel’s description of a junk car.
But the tightening of vision squeezes out the qualities which made Lopez’s previous books great. In All Back Full, every character, including the narrator, speaks with the same cynical voice. There is no manic excitement. Nothing is ever off-balance. The reader would like Lopez to throw a monkey wrench into the works, knock something out of whack, just to see what would happen.
Lopez may well have tried throwing several wrenches. He occasionally inserts a narrator to comment on his characters. In the second act, this narrator widens the scope of the novel by describing the lives of bus passengers and diners at a restaurant. But Lopez’s appropriation of Wikipedia articles is his most interesting potential wrench. He constantly interrupts his characters’ conversations with passages on a wide range of subjects: asthma, mussels, submarines, dwarfism, the philosophy of George Berkeley, etc.
Here is what I admire most about Lopez: each time he sets out, he attempts new techniques to achieve new effects. Conceptual art is hardly new, but its power is usually derived from its rearrangements of text and subsequent recontexualization as art. A news article about a missing girl, for instance, becomes poetry when someone arranges it in lines of verse. Lopez goes further. By juxtaposing these interruptions against the characters’ conversation, he gives a sense of the depth and variety of knowledge readily available to them. At the same time, the juxtapositions show how useless this knowledge might be to them. How might the history of knowledge about asthma help the woman, or anyone, really, understand her condition?
These passages are most interesting when they provide another way for Lopez to echo his characters’ ideas, as when we read about the history of tennis scoring: “Another theory on the origins of the use of ‘love’ comes from the acceptance that, at the start of any match, when scores are at zero, players still have ‘love for each other.’” The repetition further tightens the novel’s vision but, again, at a cost. Instead of knocking things off-line, the wrench is assimilated to the larger machine. The same is true of his omniscient, commenting narrator, who says that the idea of any connection between love and zero seems especially ridiculous.
Moreover, these passages often become ponderous and skimmable. Too often I felt my eyes blurring or wandering or searching for the moment the characters’ conversation resumed. They diverted me from Lopez’s descriptions of characters and their thoughts, one of his great strengths. His affectless style, particularly when discussing sexual matters, often doubles as a killer deadpan:
“The man imagined performing certain acts or having certain acts performed on him, but that is the entirety of what he has imagined. He has heard about men having sex with animals but he has never imagined having sex with an animal. He doesn’t think he’d be able to perform sex with an animal. Yet he doesn’t pass judgment on those who have. He cannot imagine what it might be like to have a sheep, for instance, tempt one into sexual expression. He cannot imagine how long without human company one would have to go for a sheep to arouse this sort of interest. Still, if he had to have sex with an animal, if someone put a gun to his head, he thinks he’d choose a dolphin. They seem clean and of a good temperament.”
Note the prose’s concision and precision. Lopez doesn’t burden readers with complicated sentence structures or ridiculous erudition. The repetition of phrases carried from one sentence to the next reminds us of Lopez’s best stories. The unpredictability and rightness of the phrase “tempt one into sexual expression” is a straight pleasure. The reader is not so pleasured at the bottom of the page, or on the next one, when he must endure a lengthy and bland description of the mating habits of dolphins.
The novel is swollen with sexual references and histories. Sex for its people is never a clear pleasure, nor is it an expression of intimacy. It is full of “awkwardness, confusion, [and] frustration.” One of the novel’s most important sexual histories is repeated twice. Its contradictory details suggest it actually might have been repeated any number of times. The scene occurs at the friend’s house. The man and the friend are watching either a football or a baseball game. The friend’s wife comes home, strips, and gives oral sex to the friend while the man masturbates. The man receives no more pleasure from it than he received from his breakfast pastries.
I have used the word “pleasure” several times in the preceding paragraphs. Sustained nihilism, among its many drawbacks, degrades both the idea and fact of pleasure. The completeness of this novel’s nihilism empties it, slowly but surely, of pleasure. It presses relentlessly on the reader until, at some point or other, he rejects it. It is healthy to reject nihilism, but that rejection entails a rejection of the characters themselves, so when the climax arrives and the man is apparently shaken, we shrug.
These characters are human holes, receiving much, containing nothing. They are destroying themselves a little bit every day simply by carrying on their inoffensive and regular lives. Lopez’s characters seem trapped not only by their choices but by their author, who uses an array of techniques to hold them down. The techniques, unfortunately, become more interesting than their story.