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At the start of chapter 5 of Jason Schwartz’s short novel, John the Posthumous, we are told, in a short aside, that the title comes from a Medieval French King, alive for five days. This character is not mentioned elsewhere and any reader looking for an explanation as to why this brief aside should warrant the title of the book will be left frustrated, however this sort of pendent association is par for the course with this pleasingly hypnotic book.
Akin to the disembodied and pseudo – professorial documentaries of Patrick Keiller the text jumps playfully from the ancient and the etymological to the modern and meta-textual with little distinction. As in Keiller’s films, such as Robinson in Space, we are shown around a landscape that exists only on the hinterland between the abstract and the corporeal. The source or root of a word is treated with as much attention as other story tellers lavish on the origins of their characters.
A pseudo academic text transposed to the prose form, the narrative thrust appears at first glance to be subjugated to the random fancies and interests of the narrator. But as the storytelling progresses it is clear that the story has a unique logic of its own.
Occasionally the outline of what might be called a traditional narrative is briefly glimpsed, or hinted at, poking out behind a phrase or historical reference but the rolling rhythm of the prose quickly washes any obvious interpretations away in the breakers
Intertwined concepts and etymologies rear up: Cuckoldry and the punishments of adulterers, the significance of the marriage bed in different cultures, the body and the corpse, hornets, beetles and various insects. The distinction between male and female in the animal kingdom is mirrored elsewhere in descriptions of the role of the wife or daughter as distinct from the men of a household. None of these are definitively related but shadowy connections persist.
Despite the extensive scholarly references however there is an underlying playfulness – as when the reader is told:
The word adultery derivers from cry – which calls to mind, certainly, the way the blanket folded back – and from alter, rather than altar, via reave.
Only to be later exheridated of the idea a few pages later:
The word adultery does not, in fact, derive from cry – just as you had suspected – and the town, I will concede, suitably antique, and quiet now, stands in lieu of another town, come what may, these stains – cheerfully small – on the blade of the paring knife.
Throwing out ideas and chains of tangential concepts the text raises plenty of questions but the narrator never tackles these head on, choosing instead to circumlocute. Passing through forgotten byways of human knowledge, the narrator gives advice on the correct etiquette or protocol in dealing with vanished cultural norms.
In places this approaches the style of an old-fashioned almanac, the prose designed to give information in a tone of gentle advice, and throughout the text there is an overpowering sense of traditions and roots.
To treat dropsy, give vinegar and bitters in one-teaspoon doses at night – keeping in mind that the father beset by horrors will favour camphor (two scruples should do) and that squills may inspire needless bleeding.
Certain themes emerge through repetition. Utterly separate descriptions converge with the recurrence of a common word. For example, the colour red describes: red words, red circles, red oak, a red stained face, red boards, red dashes, red fields, red arrows, red tables, red steps and of course red blood.
Similarly geographies emerge through a haze of overlapping descriptions. The reader finds themselves situated in Elizabethan London, Quaker Pennsylvania, Colonial New York. Each location dredged up as a peripheral descriptor rather than a setting for some action.
Indeed, there is no real action or plot in the book but rather a series of visceral textures– adultery, blood, knifes are described for their own sake rather than what they might make a character do. The world as described by Schwarz is not a stage, on which every man must play a part, but rather a steady series of accretions, each contingent and true only in so far as the totality hangs together.