[Editor’s note: Eric Mader is an American expat writer working in Taiwan. His satirical novel A Taipei Mutt
was published in 2002, and he has since published a collection of essays, Heretic Days
. His most recent book, Idiocy, Ltd.
, is reviewed below by Hugh Hochman. Idiocy, Ltd.
is available through Amazon.com
and will be brought out in a Chinese version by Comma Books (逗點文創結社) in 2017.]
Nowhere in Idiocy, Ltd. does its author, Eric Mader, make a claim about the genre of the texts this book contains. The texts are numerous (56 in all). Most are brief (the longest is 10 pages; all but one are far shorter than that). Nearly all are in prose (two might be said to be in free verse). A reader may conservatively say that this book does not take its genre for granted. Another reader, more worried — or sophisticated, or even just anxious — about the question of genre, might go ahead and say that this is a book of (almost entirely) prose poems.
Less a hybrid genre than the renunciation of the distinguishing formal features of poetry, such as rhyme, meter, versification, etc., the prose poem is the very contestation or interrogation of genre. It is arguably not a genre at all, or maybe it is the limit of generic conventions. Its first instance, Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit (1842), and its most famous example, Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris (published in 1869) inaugurated a crisis of genre in poetics. Once the formal veneer that historically let readers know they were reading poetry was stripped away, the poetic qualities of the text had to be sought and located somewhere more profoundly and more properly in the linguistic resources of all literary language. “Prose poem” is not so much a catch-all term for an infinite number of varying examples as a name for a kind of text that spares us readers the bad-faith abdication of the responsibility to continually ask ourselves the question, “What am I reading?”
At just the moment we ask ourselves that question there arises an opportunity to again avoid our readerly responsibility: we don’t necessarily have to answer the question of genre. But it is enough to ask, because in asking, we take note of and ideally go on to characterize the rhetorical and figurative operations of the texts we are reading. We can say what is poetic about them, or what in them is poetic. In this way, we don’t say only what they are not – i.e. poems. In saying that these texts are prose poems, we confront the obligation to read. There are no consolations of genre here. In saying what the texts of Idiocy, Ltd. are not, we invariably end up saying what they are or what they do.
The very first thing – the very first poetic thing, really – these texts are not is lyrical. To be sure, there is often an “I,” and this may reasonably call to mind a modern instance of the romantic self-willing lyrical “I,” constituted and consolidated by personal experience and recollection. And the title might even justify or fortify the echo of the romantic “I.” Long obscured by the common usage of the word “idiocy” to denote ignorance and simplicity of mind, at the etymological origin of the word was a reference to what was private, or what was one’s own. And no one has ever owned anything more or better than the personal, private interior property of the poetic self: emotion, sentiment, memory, self-reflection. But the “I” that appears in Idiocy, Ltd. resists private, personal ownership and lies instead at the intersection of what is owned in common. The texts often explore the end of the private self, the demise of originality occasioned by the collective modes of cultural, corporate, clichéd expression. In other words, this book explores idiocy in the current, ordinary sense: the idiocy that we negotiate and navigate as we try to remain original in our habits or expression, whether these are public or private, literary or ordinary.
The “I” is what we might call a cultural “I,” a self that repeats, undermines, disputes, critiques, mocks, and conflates various codes and types of discourse. For example, in a text titled “Idiots,” the narrator declares he doesn’t want to talk about idiots but about pandas, but quickly questions the cliché of pandas as irresistibly cute, calling them “stinking vegetarian cats posing as bears.” Next the narrator warns that if we see a panda, we must not “approach it to take photos,” transposing the discourse of “Be Bear Aware” warnings from Yellowstone National Park onto the inoffensive pandas. Mocking New Age sensibilities about nature, the text resists the mimesis of animals in nature and in its place imagines people swimming with dolphins head-butted to death by the so-called docile mammals. Or else it claims that the swimming appears to sharks like a dolphin having a seizure: easy prey, and a well-deserved fate for a dilettante. But the text does not only redraw the lines of representation and reject assumptions about the natural world, it draws on ready-made forms of mass culture with a reference to Kung-Fu Panda. The cultural aptitude required by Idiocy, Ltd. is erudite (for example, references to Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en X”) and populist.
With texts titled “Rhino,” “Mosquitoes,” “Snails,” “Giraffes,” and so on, Idiocy, Ltd. is a sort of bestiary at the start, but one that has the Bible (the story of Noah’s ark) as its main intertext. And although it does invoke the moral register of animal fables, by which we read representations of the animal kingdom as models of human behavior, the book problematizes the conventional relationship between the ethical and the natural registers. The lion, sovereign among animals, and complacent in his superiority, occupies himself with his appearance and becomes instead the paragon of vanity. In this way, we are reminded that the trope of the lion’s courage (the example of metaphor that Aristotle cites in his Poetics is Homer’s use of the lion as a metaphor for Achilles) has come to emblematize our own complacency about regimes of figurative language, as if we have forgotten how to read. The fable recedes as the mimesis of ordinary – as opposed to exemplary – human activity seems more and more literal, as if lions really were vain, a literal meaning limited only by the pressure of the original trope, which never entirely vanishes, but instead persists in the margins to remind us that the text is refiguring a cliché more than lions themselves.
Rhetorical and representational gestures of this sort often allow us to observe that the texts in Idiocy, Ltd., in addition to not being poetry in verse, are also not principally, or wholly, narrative, and so they are not short stories, or very short novels. For example, “Making the Grade in Naples, Florida” narrates incarceration for the crime of non-conformity, specifically lack of corpulence, and rehabilitation in the form of weight gain. But this text is more a figuration of excess and ignorance in American culture than a narrative of events.
“A Man of Action” appears to be an anecdote of air travel. Passengers on a plane hear the contents of an overhead compartment shift during taxiing. The narrator imagines the response of the man seated below the compartment to be “My God, it’s actually happened! The contents have shifted!” But of course, this text is not an anecdote but the enactment of a discursive meme or a cliché that we all hear every time we fly. In imagining another traveler’s reaction, the narrator provides the universal reaction, determined by the phrase, and more specifically by the miracle of the phrase finally denoting an event of time and space, or finally being instantiated or incarnated, as if prophetically, in the world of things after belonging so exclusively and tenaciously to the order of words. They all marvel at this, as do we: “How can it finally have come to pass?”
This book is entertaining and stimulating, demanding and rewarding. It solicits our literary, popular, and critical knowledge and returns to us the pleasure of its own play. It is polyvocal, but not in the way that a novel is. Its voices are not those of characters but the many registers of our culture. A text that conjoins biographies of Voltaire the Enlightenment philosophe and Voltaire the 19th-century British race horse exploits the fact that proper names can acquire semiotic meaning in a cultural context even as they denote a living biped or quadruped. Another text confronts the breakdown of the mimetic or referential function of language by naming nameless things:
“How could he [utter my name]? the girl asked. “I am a nameless girl.” “He gave me your namelessness, and I sought you out.”
Each text is a linguistic, or literary, or cultural event, something performed or enacted in one or multiple domains of discourse. We spectate and participate in these events, constantly invited to read vigorously or rigorously but never strained by the demands of the texts, which always remain playful and witty. The intelligence of Idiocy, Ltd. never interferes with its humility. Idiocy is, in the end, the dominant trope: this book manages originality through fluency in the common languages of our culture. It owns, in its own way, what we all own in common.
* * *
Reviewed by Prof. Hugh Hochman, Reed College, Portland, Oregon.
Eric Mader’s Idiocy, Ltd. and Heretic Days can be purchased at Amazon.com. To learn more about the author and his works, visit his blog: Clay Testament.