Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous (OR Books, 2013) is a luscious work of fiction. I am not sure if I can call it a novel. I am sure that I do not care whether it is or is not. The book is the product of a uniquely intelligent, elegant writer.
It is full of possible stories. None of them are developed. We are granted no more than hints of the narrator’s life and relations to others. Perhaps the narrator murdered his mother, his father, or both. Perhaps he merely witnessed their deaths. His brother, or perhaps his son, seems to have died, either by neglect or premeditation. Now the narrator appears to have returned to the family home after a long time away. Over the next year, or perhaps years, he learns how to maintain this rural property. Sometimes he offers advice on the folding of sheets or the trapping of mice. He describes the rooms and the land, recounts local history, catalogs the native ants, and indulges in etymology. His phrasings convey menace: “bedsheets, according to that old saying, are the knives of the bed.” The exact nature of the menace is never quite specified. Someone betrayed someone else. Someone, perhaps several people, are dead. But we never learn who did what to whom or even what the narrator’s position in the family really was. Different details point us in different directions.
Many of Schwartz’s sentences are simple and direct: “The word cuckold also refers to certain insects.” This assertion grows into a powerful network of associations and allusions. Shortly after the narrator makes it, he talks about the word “horn,” which reminds us of Othello wearing the cuckold’s horns. He says the word is “akin to ‘hart,’ as in ‘stag,’ which reminds us of Antony’s description of dear, dead Caesar.” The narrator ends with the word “hornet.”
Schwartz depends on the reader remembering this sort of association throughout the book, as continued references to bugs lends a light but definite touch of betrayal to otherwise bland talk about, for instance, doors: “The door was removed the following summer, incidentally–beetles of some species having taken the frame.” Elsewhere, it adds extra spice to the conclusion of darker passages: “The gown is town. Does the knife hide politely? Brown ants cover the hands, the outlines traced with dye.”
Other sentences are more complicated, but no less fascinating:
If, as I have been led to believe, shroud implies groom (the latter deriving from the former, or vice versa) rather than dagger (which is apparently without connection to dowager—but how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations)—then notwithstanding the corpse on the bier, whether hers or his, the body may imply, say, the contours of a hornbook or a nuptial bed, or it may, simply, fall.
The sentence allows that a corpse does exist. But the corpse is the least important part of the logical formulation. The narrator’s peculiar etymology makes the implication of the corpse more important than the corpse itself. Everywhere, Schwartz makes obscurity into a value.
The narrator appears to set thoughts and objects (sheets, hornbooks, beds, etc.) either between him and people or in place of people. Is the book a portrait of denial? Easy psychology seems beneath Schwartz.
Perhaps a more interesting view is that supporting characters are actually in the objects: “In Daniel and Susanna, the house is said to resemble a person–though you may find such comparisons embarrassing” and “Some colonial floor plans trace the progress of the body.” Toward the book’s end, in a fantastic rendition of an autopsy (of a child, perhaps, or a piglet, or a calf), he says that “Maps of the body, in early anatomy, display the organs as houses in a town” and that “The heart is thought to contain eight rooms–or ruins, given the eventual corruption of the term.” While the associations of cuckolds and insects cast a shadow upon the numerous mentions of insects which follow, these new associations, particularly those that occur during the autopsy, lead the reader to see earlier descriptions of rooms, doors, and harts in an even grimmer light.
The turn of mind, then, is everything. The book is not so much what this narrator has done in the world as what the narrator can make of it with language. This book is certainly not for readers looking for comfortably developed characters and plots. As in Beckett’s trilogy, Lispector’s The Passion of G.H., and Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, Schwartz’s novel is a wonderful monologue. The narrator can brood entertainingly on the history of the bed or the proper uses of different knives. The novel works with a number of old themes–marriage, betrayal, death, violence–but the narrator will not tell his story or anyone else’s. He would rather tell you anything but that.