Motorman is the only book ever given to me photocopied in full. That's how hard to get it was, and how badly I wanted it.
David Ohle's legendary first novel was published some three decades ago, in 1972, and it has since been out of print. Ohle himself, while continuing to write and intermittently publish, has remained almost completely unknown. So this earlier book, reprinted to coincide with the release of his new novel, The Age of Sinatra, enters the world as something fresh that is also the secret ancestor of the most daring speculative fiction of our time.
Motorman tells the story of a hapless everyman named Moldenke, who gets by in the gray areas of a world that's almost all gray areasˇa science fiction- world with two suns, a number of "government moons," man-made humanoids called jellyheads, and mock wars where soldiers volunteer for injury. Moldenke receives some menacing phone calls from a man named Bunce, who claims to have tapes of everything everyone's ever said about him. To escape from Bunce, he sets out to find his old mentor, Dr. Burnheart.
Motorman is a quest narrative, of a sort. But you won't read this book for the plot. It does have a narrative thread, but one composed of snippets whose ends barely meet. The language, too, is not quite English as we know it. Attributes and effects coagulate into strange new objectsˇ"a building with structural moans"ˇwhile familiar objects are defamiliarized. Here's Moldenke taking notes on some birds: "Rapid pecking followed by pauses." Got it. "Long, agile tongue coated with a jellylike substance." OK . . . "When the tongue is retracted it apparently wraps around the brain." What? That "apparently" is the kicker here. This is a world that does factsˇwe're not in the realm of pure poesyˇbut the rules have all been changed. Don't expect Ohle to spell them out for you, either. Like very few other writersˇthe Joseph McElroy of Plus, the Burroughs of Nova ExpressˇOhle maintains a high level of indeterminacy in both his fictional world and the language he uses to tell us about it. The result is disorienting, vertiginous, thrilling: "Roquette pierced the water with his stick. 'Good,' he said. 'It's thick enough to walk on.'"
It helps to be light on your feet. Like one of the novel's geographic oddities, the River Jelly, this book is only semi-solid. The tiny chapters (sometimes no more than a few lines long) appear adrift in white space, which starts to feel like a positive substance, something Ohle himself might invent in his fiction: a sort of viscous fog from which unrecognizable objects emerge. "He felt something without form, something edgeless, rushing at him from the direction of eastern light." But before you float away on this nebulous fare, Ohle gives you something solid: a name. "Is that you, Bunce? Mr. Bunce?"
Bunce. A goofy name, a bounce with just a little of the air let out of it. There is something clownish about Bunce and his threats. But clowns are scary, and all is not right in this world of incessant, pointless surveillance, petty bureaucratic meanness, decay and graft and moral inertia. All is not right inside Moldenke, either, and that's obvious not just from the arrhythmia in his four sheep hearts but from the arrhythmia in the narrative, its stutter and lurch. By the end of the book, we have lost track of time (easy to do in a world where six "technical months" can pass in a single day), and neither we nor Moldenke knows exactly what has been going on. Moldenke thinks he might have let the goo out of a pair of jellyheads with a letter opener. Or was it a screwdriver? It's dizzying but exhilarating for a reader to be given so much room to play. A typical mobile might seem too pretty an image to serve as a descriptive metaphor for a book by Ohle, but I have a different image in mind. A friend from high school once called me in tears: He was trying to make a mobile out of dead bugs but was having trouble bringing them into balance. If he had succeeded, that mobile might resemble this book: delicate and grotesque, tragic and hilarious, precarious but perfectly balanced.
The Age of Sinatra picks up Moldenkeˇlast seen heading into the floodplains of the River Jellyˇafter one of the periodic spells of Forgetting that sweep his world, erasing personal and social history. He is still more done to than doing, but while Motorman crepitates with secret agency, in The Age of Sinatra almost everyone is someone's patsy, as befits a world that worships the half-remembered Lee Harvey Oswald as the god Arvey. President Ratt keeps changing the rules, so you can be indicted today for what was mandatory the day before, and the hapless Moldenke, between arrests, finds himself involved in a plot to unseat the leader. He also develops a disturbing growth on his chinˇa flocculusˇthat ripens with the plot. Something's going to give, but will anyone know the difference? Another Forgetting is coming soon. But even on the Titanic (where the book opens), you gotta eat. In this book, it's always time for lunch.
Do not read The Age of Sinatra while eating an egg-salad sandwich. It is to your average novel what "Great, Green Gobs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts" is to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I'm told the manuscript's future hung in the balance as its own publisher gagged over the "green gland":
"He's showing his gland to us," Ophelia said excitedly. Within the flocculus, the green gland passed from top to bottom, paused there a beat or two, then extended its tip through the flocculus opening. Vink grasped the gland with the long fingers of his three-digit hand, pulling it out to its full extent. "Have a bite, folks."
It is a considerable achievement to conjure up an imaginary substance so vividly that something strange happens under the reader's tongue. An art critic once sniffed, "This painting seems to have been made for the sense of smell." If a book can reek, rot, ooze, swell, burst, flake, and fester, The Age of Sinatra is that book.
Why this obsession with the body afflicted? "I took a job one summer working for the Louisiana State health department, not knowing what it would be," Ohle said when he e-mailed me recently. "Turns out it was testing shit. Hundreds of jars of it came in every day from all over the state. It was my job to streak it onto agar in petri dishes and incubate it. . . . Another thought is that my mother was dying of colon cancer when I was a freshman in college. I spent a lot of time with her and saw some very unpleasant things like oozing, bursting, and stinking." A caution, then: Let's not forget that "great, green gobs" can cohabitate with what is most heartfelt. Ohle's gross-outs come with belly laughs, but also with a strained tenderness. The Age of Sinatra, a litany of symptoms, is less like an ordinary novel than it is like a patient history. But those might be the stories we feel most keenly of all.
Motorman's scope is personal; The Age of Sinatra's is scenic; it's a sort of travelogue of hell. In the new novel, Moldenke is a roving eye rather than an actor, a decaying Candide whose suffering is meant to instruct us in the ways of the world. Bunce, with his air of a peculiarly private demon, has disappeared, to be replaced by the multiple eyes of a panoptic society where judgment is swift and brutal but transgression nonetheless rife. It's not a culture of control but one where punishment produces desire and vice versa in a febrile cycle of expenditures. Ohle's inferno shows some of Dante's gift for the grisly, but not his implacable sense of just desserts. If you have a waiver, the authorities will cheerfully punish the guy standing next to you. Possibly it doesn't matter much. The perks of this world (having your head cut off and sewn on backwardˇtrŔs chic!) are little better than its punishments.
This dystopia is a tour de force of scabrous invention. It is also uncomfortably real. As a kid I flipped through Science News and got an unpleasant shock when I inadvertently put my finger on a close-up of a spider's mandibles. Similarly, something about Ohle's prose closes the gap between the representation of a disturbing thing and the thing itself. You feel you ought to wash your hands after touching the page. But if you think that wiping will remove the stain, consider this: Doing time in the French Sewers (don't ask), Moldenke learns that they supply the bakery where edible paperˇ"for money, for waivers, for wiping, for books"ˇis made. Shit is books, books are food, food is shit. The conclusion? We're in it. Deep.
Shelley Jackson's collection of stories The Melancholy of Anatomy was published in 2002 by Anchor Books.