Sunday, May 22, 2011

Todd Orchulek on The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

Ever wonder what would happen if those things you dream about but never, ever tell anyone about came true? Ever wonder what it would be like to live out your most depraved fantasies, you know, the ones that only come creeping out of your subconscious under the cover of darkness, behind the shadow of dream? Well, John Hawkes certainly has, and he was kind enough to share. The Lime Twig is the thing, and it’s a fever I have never quite gotten over. I first read it the summer before transferring to UMass and it’s one of the things that Mike and I talked about at our first meeting, where I landed my internship, NOÖ style. It was fitting that I had read it in the haze of summer, in a field, under the watchful eye of shape shifting clouds. The free association feel felt right. I named clouds. I listened to the brittle music of Hawkes's narrative, snapping the lives of the bored Banks and the unfortunate Hencher in two. I watched them squirm under the long scrutiny of Hawkes's wish-fulfillment-gone-awry microscopic lens. 

It all happens in the name of love, somehow, for as Hawkes says, “Love is a long scrutiny like that.” If you know nothing else about Hawkes’s style, you should know
that. The quote is applicable to the whole. The narrative lens filters like consciousness itself. It’s discriminatory, distracted and spastic. But there’s always love and there’s always terror; the two are forever inextricably intertwined, just like in life. And that’s what it’s all about, really. It’s like a study in love and terror and desire and the places where those things meet, and it’s all wrapped up in a tasty poetic prose tortilla. There’s also a horse and kidneys cooling on the ledge. Hawkes's other works - The Blood Oranges, or Death, Sleep and the Traveler explore similar areas, but in different ways, mostly without the overt sense of terror, and without the sinking feeling that The Lime Twig can give you. The Cannibal might be a sister to The Lime Twig, and, really, you can’t go wrong reading any of his stuff if you’re even a tiny bit curious. Finding Hawkes was, for me, like stumbling across some fantastic secret or discovering some previously unknown, underground band that you feel right away, from the first beat, the first note. I remember, straight off, I wanted to simultaneously share and not share it, him, with the rest of the world. I wanted to keep him all to myself, but in the end I knew I couldn’t do that. He’s too good. So here I am, shouting from the rooftops.

It’s that long sense of scrutiny that holds it all together, all the out of focus elements, the fuzzy in-betweens, the moments of reflection. Hawkes' ability to hone in on the most minute details renders certain scenes lucid, even transcendent. You’ll feel like you’re dreaming, or reading a dream, if that’s even possible. Some say it isn’t, but I disagree. I’ve done homework in dreams before. Yes, that’s about as exciting as it sounds, and no, that wouldn’t be an example of the kind of dream Hawkes' is talking about here. So don’t worry, or do, if you’re afraid of the dark, because this book is full of shadows. Read it in a well lit room. The narrative thrust oftentimes leads you into moments of uncomfortable clarity precisely because of its capacity to convey a sense of terror with a single image. Or just clarity, depending. You’ll find yourself immersed in an image, a smell, a sound—the smell of lime, the image of the horse, a pair of buttocks, or the sound of footsteps a floor below. You’ll wonder how you ended up there, but not how the narrative ended up there. And that’s an important distinction, because wherever the story goes, it feels right, even when things go wrong. It feels hyper real. You don’t wonder about it, while you’re reading, because it’s so brilliantly rendered. It’s only after you’re done (which won’t be long – at 175 pages, it is more novella than novel) that you stop and think, wait, what?

And the imagery haunts. Measured against those moments of intense, long scrutiny, the rest of the time things simply aren’t as clear, as is often the case with life, or dreams. That’s where it becomes, for me, “magic time” as Kevin Spacey would say (doing his best Jack Lemon impersonation), because it is a dream, after all. And like a dream, this novel is filled with those moments of transition, where identity and focus become blurred and fuzzy—people go in and out of focus, images appear and disappear, time speeds up or slows down without you even noticing. And then, boom goes the dynamite, things suddenly snap back into focus. And it’s a clear, lucid, sick focus that Hawkes throws at us. It’s a sharp, frayed, lyrical focus.

As for the story, well, Hencher’s the way in. He’s a fat man, missing his mother, living in the past. He finds a new outlet for his loyalty, the misoneist Banks, Michael and Margaret. Hencher wants to please them, to show what a loyal dog he really is, so he decides to help Michael fulfill his dream, owning a race horse. It’s a dream that everyone seems privy to, Michael and Margaret and Hencher, too. It affects all of them, the dream and the horse. Their lives and relationships are inextricably tied to that horse, Michael’s dreams, and their own.

“You may manipulate the screen now, William,” Hencher’s mother tells him in flashback, and he does. Hawkes does, too, subtly shifting perception and summoning tension at will, with a deft turn of phrase, or an image, suspended. He messes with holotropics, hanging the image of the horse in the middle of the narrative, in the Banks’ apartment, teasing and toying with the reader and reality. It’s unnerving, but an effective narrative mechanism:
“Knowing how much she feared his dreams; knowing that her own worst dream was one day to find him gone, overdue minute by minute some late afternoon until the inexplicable absence of him became a certainty; knowing that his own worst dream, and best, was of a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams; knowing this dream, that the horse was in their sitting room-he had left the flat door open as if he meant to return in a moment or meant never to return-seeing the room empty except for moonlight bright as day and, in the middle of the floor, the tall upright shape of the horse draped from head to tail in an enormous sheet that falls over the eyes and hangs down stiffly from the silver jaw; knowing the horse on sight and listening while it raises one shadowed hoof on the end of a silver thread of foreleg and drives down the hoof to splinter in a single crash one plank of that empty Dreary Station floor; knowing his own impurity and Hencher’s guile; and knowing that Margaret’s hand has nothing in the palm but a short life span (finding one of her hairpins in his pocket that Wednesday dawn when he walked out into the sunlight with nothing cupped in the lip of his knowledge except thoughts of the night and pleasure he was about to find)-knowing all this, he heard in Hencher’s first question the sound of a dirty wind, a secret thought, the sudden crashing in of the plank and the crashing shut of that door.”
Once Michael gets involved with Hencher and his mob friends, things begin to change for everyone, and not for the better. Michael is spared, for a spell, and gets to live out his most lurid fantasies. Margaret and Hencher, well, not so much. It all quickly devolves into a nightmare from there. The chrysalis doesn’t change into a butterfly, but a beast.

What Hawkes does best is manipulate time. In this study of reality vs. unreality, or fantasy vs. nightmare, this has the greatest effect on the narrative. He has it on a string throughout, speeding it up, slowing it down, or suspending it altogether. He flashes forward, flashes back. He does away with it completely when it becomes burdensome. This allows the terror to bloom fully within the reader’s mind. And the image of the horse resonates and echoes throughout, from start to finish, for temporality has no dominion in the realm of dream or nightmare. For Michael, and for me, it carries with it an eerie, undeniable sense of jamais vu.

So, be careful what you wish for, or, at least, remember what that old adage, “if you can’t be good, be careful,” because who knows, there might be a horse out there somewhere with your name on it.

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