Book Review: Lake of Urine, by Guillermo Stitch

Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine consists of four parts. Part I, “Seiler,” describes the narrator’s (Seiler’s) obsessive persecution of homely Ms Urine, in a way that calls to mind Harry Mathews’ Tlooth and its narrator’s murderous fixation upon Evelyn Roak. It’s a twenty-page giggle.

Part II, “Noranbole,” is named for Urine’s half sister, who has made her way to the big city and now sits at the helm of the Terra Forma corporation. She seems to be the only one capable of managing anything, because she can manage anybody; and she can manage anybody because each is a nobody, a mere collection of idiosyncrasies that she is adept at manipulating. This section contains the choicest collection of corporate blatherspeak that one is likely to find. Here is a sample:

‘We need to talk about a radical rethink, Ms Wakeling,’ said Mr Perigo. ‘A sidestep, or perhaps a ninety degree. I don’t think we should exclude the possibility of a complete about-to, frankly.’

‘This could deepen the crisis exponentially,’ said Mr Amerideath, ‘sending us spiraling downwards toward some sort of upheaval.’

‘Or worse,’ said Mr Drinkwater. ‘Upwards.’

‘What about any implications for the other crisis?’ asked Mr Freeze.

‘Well,’ said Mr Deer Spirit, leaning forward so everyone could see him, ‘on the bright side, it might actually resolve that one.’

‘Ooh,’ said Vacuity, ‘that would be good, wouldn’t it?’

‘Depending on how things go, of course,’ said Mr Elderkin.

‘Of course,’ said Mr Deer Spirit.

‘And we definitely can’t salvage this?’ asked Noranbole.

‘How?’ asked Mr Star Blanket. ‘I’ve been imagineering all morning. Nothing. And I’m the head of Creative.’ (p. 49)

Part III, “Emma Wakeling,” turns to Urine and Noranbole’s mother. It is ingeniously written, alternating between two sets of chapters that move in contrary chronological order, and it provides the backstory of all the other parts. Despite the cover blurbs testifying to Urine’s hilarity, these chapters are dead serious, exploring themes of domestic abuse and neglectful parenting.

This part is also replete with author Stitch’s unique brand of performative dialogue, which, perhaps, counts as comic relief.

The pastor [Emma’s father], who liked to think of himself as an open-minded man had, as part of his ongoing efforts with the county’s wayward women, turned to psychology. He had been leafing through a copy of Dr Hans Sittlichkeit’s Mother Abandonment: causes, symptoms, and role in the development of the contemporary strumpet and one or two of the eminent scholar’s theories had struck a little close to home. As Phinoola Quigg was fussing about him one afternoon in his study, wiping pristine surfaces and rearranging decorative items, he put his quill down.

‘I would like your advice, Phinoola Quigg.’

‘Would you indeed?’ asked the housekeeper and stopped her dusting.

‘Yes. I have been reading this book – ’

‘Have you indeed?’

‘Yes. And it says here – ’

‘Does it indeed?’

‘Does it…? But I haven’t… The book is about girls, Phinoola Quigg, and how we might, with the use of cutting-edge scientifical interventions, go about the prevention of their loosening.’

‘Well, isn’t that nice?’

‘Yes, let me just… The point is, Phinoola Quigg, that I am of the opinion that some of the theories presented by Dr Sittlichkeit – ’

‘Are you now?’

‘…may pertain, indeed may pertain very closely, to our own situation, and – ’

Our situation?’ The housekeeper clasped her hands.

‘The situation in this house, yes. The long and short of it is that according to modern science, it would seem that young Emma would almost certainly be the better for it if she had rather more to do with her mother than is currently the case. Rigorous studies have shown as much.’

‘Have they indeed? It all sounds very clever, doesn’t it?’

‘At the very least, I think a formal introduction is called for, don’t you? That is the matter upon which I would like to consult you. The fact is, I don’t know how to go about it. I haven’t seen the woman since last October, although there is not the slightest doubt in my mind,’ and here the pastor’s voice became shrill as his eyes darted around the room, ‘that she is listening.’

‘Right, and I suppose that’ll be my job, will it?’ (pp. 116-117)

Toddler Emma’s first word had been harlot, incidentally. (p. 98)

In Part IV, it all comes together, kind of.

Lake of Urine is well crafted, meaningful, and subtler than its title suggests, drawing the reader forward and inward by making him supply what is inexplicit in its pages, showing (rather appallingly) more than telling. It is not so much a guilty as a grim pleasure.

What I’m Working On

My current book project is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try:

  1. I translated a seventeenth-century Chinese text, a detailed account of a tedious political imbroglio, into English.
  2. I extracted an intriguing subplot concerning a despicable family, resulting in a snappy 6000-word text.
  3. I transplanted the setting to contemporary Baltimore. My impulse was threefold:
    • Chinese settings seem to discourage would-be readers, and Baltimore may prove more accessible;
    • Chinese names are especially off-putting to would-be readers, so  rendering Zhang Qi as Tinus Juckman, Gu Xiangtai as Morgan Schwartzenberg, and Chen Luqian as Ruckleshaus Schumacher will hopefully yield more memorable characters;
    • Transplanting Chinese institutions such as eunuchs and public floggings to Baltimore produces a keen jarring effect.
  4. For fuller length and depth (and for the challenge) I am now employing an Oulipo method called larding, which means inserting one new sentence between every two sentences of a given text. The baseline translated/edited/transplanted 6000-word text has, as of this posting, been subjected to almost two full rounds of larding and currently stands at 22,000 words. I plan to lard it a total of three times.

I call it Meet Me at the RASCAL. Here is a choice sentence: “Tinka Klein and an oud player named Ashurbanipal, both naked and dreadlocked to the pubes, leapt back and forth between the modules of Goldie’s Italian leather sofa, trying to avoid collateral damage.”

Book Review: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.