Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman
Reviewed by Nicholas Birns
Trip Street, 2008. 125 pp. Paper: $15.00.
Wellman, long known on the New York scene as an innovative dramatist, here provides a series of narratives discontinuous in both subject and meaning, yet undergirded by a vertebral jauntiness in the ability of language to still matter after all its customary props have been denied it. By writing coherent sentences that yet use phony, concocted, or deliberately absurd referents, which in turn do not carry over even from paragraph to paragraph, Wellman satisfies both our urge to read along and our dissatisfaction with merely mimetic or illusionistic tableaux. Citing "bong farmers" and “postmodern critical theory” on the same page, Wellman's travesty of reference sends up the many books that are bolstered by such reference—from three-dimensional realism to encyclopedic experimentalism. Wellman’s ways of worldmaking exult in the way the writer creates new worlds without regard to whether or not they “really” exist, but also mocking the allure of preferentiality for writers who use it to fix reality and provide pleasing detail in a way that short-circuits the imaginative reach of their texts—e.g. “The Name That Was Too Much.” He is a sensible, forthright game-player with a subversive if stalwart temperament. As names, Z’hung, El Pez de Fuma, and Twin Donuts all jangle together, and the sound-clusters that lie beneath customary usage but that we usually actively resist are allowed full play—“Another lemma of Gemma’s dilemma” or calques of phrases, such as, not World War Two (or World Wide Web), but “Wu World Woo.” Science fiction, exoticism, and parody are used to defamiliarize, yet are also defamiliarized, as Wellman makes them no less solid or more preposterous than that which is usually taken as reality. The third world from the sun is one of many worlds whose madness Wellman congenially and steadily reveals.