Gabriel Blackwell is emerging as one of our great formal innovators. What Gary Lutz has been doing at the level of sentences and words, Blackwell is doing at the level of stories, essays, and novels. In his first novel, Shadow Man, he offered a verbal collage of noir plots, characters, and authors. The short works in his second book, Critique of Pure Reason, regularly attacked their subjects from wild angles. His latest and best book to date, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013), is a dark, wondrous labyrinth fitting for the presentation of a fictional H.P. Lovecraft’s last letter.
The book appears to be a work of historical scholarship. The letter is preceded by a lengthy introduction, is accompanied by numerous footnotes, and is followed by more endnotes. But these materials do not supplement the letter with historical and biographical information on Lovecraft. Instead, they comprise the recent history of Blackwell’s eponymous narrator. The letter complements them.
The introduction takes up where Shadow Man’s “Editor’s Note” left off: with the disappearance of Blackwell’s fiancée Jessica. He follows her to Providence, but once there he quickly abandons the search for her in favor of a day labor job, shredding old medical documents several floors below the ground of a hospital. There he discovers, by the loveliest chance, a file for another Gabriel Blackwell. In that file, he discovers the all-important letter. It is addressed to his namesake.
It is, too, a 137-page, single-paragraph reply to this other Blackwell’s “accursed” letter. We never see that letter, but its words and diagrams have a peculiar effect on Lovecraft. He feels “drawn into the paper,” into a world in which his physical senses go off-line. Worse, after he recovers from that initial plunge, his old reality increasingly resembles a story he might have written. Cats explode and nurses dissolve. Black goop covers him and cannot be scrubbed away. In a particularly great passage, he is pursued by a conglomeration of shades which
climbed out of basements and storm drains or darted out of alleys and around blind corners faster than perception, like an umbral army rousted from the crypts and mausoleums of Providence, a rank of insubstantial and gelatinized specimens jumping about like a moving picture missing frames, their steps bent in the same direction I headed, never straying from the shadows that had birthed them and yet keeping pace with me in vigorous spurts of motion.
Lovecraft’sexperiences reflect Blackwell’s more literal dissolution, which is described in the footnotes. He ends up broke, eating out of dumpsters and having bloody stool. His work with documents leaves him covered with ink which he cannot wash off: “I wore the imprint of all of those words as a record on my person . . . After only a week of shredding, I seemed to have once been covered in imperfectly-removed tattoos . . . I had become a thing.”
Blackwell is a suitably darker Charles Kinbote. Both men are obsessed with their source material, but Blackwell has none of Kinbote’s joie de vivre. His frustration with Lovecraft’s letter is not emotional. It is tactile: “[C]oming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed.” While Kinbote fears that his smarmy colleagues will cheat him of his find, Blackwell ends up definitely mugged. That event costs him both his transcription and the original copy of the manuscript, and though he later recovers most of it from a server, he must piece together the last few pages from memory.
For both Lovecraft and Blackwell, then, words become physically awful things which cause physical suffering. Their reality extends to the visible opposition between the main text and the footnotes, as well as to the intimidating length and shape of the letter. It is vital to the novel’s structure. Words not only describe Blackwell’s dissolution, their very arrangement depicts that dissolution.
I have described this book as a labyrinth. One aspect of this labyrinth involves the relationship between Lovecraft and Blackwell. Another involves the relationship between the two Blackwells, a third the relationships between different sections of the book, and a fourth the relationship between the footnotes and the passages to which they refer. They may be described singly, but it would rob the book of its pleasure to untangle them. It is greater fun to be lost in the maze.
But readers have cause to doubt the maze even exists. The lack of an actual, authentic letter from Lovecraft means we must take Blackwell’s word for everything. Other holes in the story appear in the endnotes, where he says that he cannot remember his time in Providence. His written record—the one we have been reading—is the only documentation we have. We are asked to trust it. Because it is excellent, we do.