Fiction: Illness as Metallurgy
David Ohle, The Pisstown Chaos (Soft Skull Press, 2008)
There’s chaos in Pisstown tonight. Stinkers are roaming the streets—wretched souls who are not quite dead yet, but who are, without doubt, dying, slowly and inexorably, infested with parasites so potent and swarming that at times whole colonies can be seen roiling under the surface of the victim’s skin, devouring the host over the course of years, even decades, bursting out finally through the victim’s rotted abdomen in a flushing spray of “cadaverine” (no etymology dictionary necessary). Living among these putrid stinkers are the good, parasitically uninfected citizens of Pisstown, desperate to avoid all physical contact with the infected ones, with fear of the illness being so great. It’s an uneasy situation for everyone involved.
This local conflict takes place amid a more widespread civic unrest called the Great Chaos. Of this Great Chaos we know the following: in addition to infected stinkers and uninfected humans, there are necrophagous creatures called imps that feed on the remains of stinker carcasses. These carcasses may, it turns out, contain vast treasures of “tooth gold,” a gold whose prospector must be willing to exhume and/or mutilate a stinker corpse to extract. And we know that many characters in the novel are taking part in the gold rush that leads to this morbid metallurgy: “‘I wonder what they’re mining,’ someone asks. ‘Probably teeth. They’re finding veins of them all over the place. [The government] needs gold for all those altar pieces, the gold thread in the vestments, all that.’ ‘Teeth mining? I hadn’t heard of that.’ ‘You will. You will.’”
Indeed, in David Ohle’s The Pisstown Chaos you will hear about teeth mining and many more dystopic delights. The novel, Ohle’s third, arrives a tad sooner than the thirty-two years his readers had to wait between the 1972 publication of the cult classic novel, Motorman, and his second, The Age of Sinatra, published in 2004. Chaos brings back the recurrent character of Moldenke, who this time around is a dead stinker, returning from the “other side” as a “necronaut,” traveling the countryside, performing his one-man show billed as “Moldenke of the Afterworld,” regaling audiences with his tales of “post-life experience.”
The Pisstown Chaos continues Ohle’s interest in sci-fi dystopian political allegory. Pisstown (and the larger region known as the Fertile Crescent) is a place where at least eight former presidents have been either assassinated or toppled, and where now a power-hungry and possibly insane religious leader named Reverend Herman Hooker, known to his followers as the one and true American Divine, rules the whole of the land with caprice and vengeance.
When the novel opens, Reverend Hooker is imposing a forced implementation of the old “shifting program” on all the citizens: “Hundreds of thousands of shiftees were on the move…headed for new mates, jobs and living quarters. Shifting orders arrived in the mail without forewarning and relocation assignments had to be carried out within days, sometimes hours.” Shifting represents not only a forced physical relocation but also a forced mating assignment—women and men required by law to mate with whomever the Reverend selects.
Played out against this darkened political plain is the drama of Mildred Balls, and the family she is working to reunite after numerous shiftings. Her husband, Jacob Balls, has died. Her son, Roe Balls, is shifted around many times, working many jobs, variously having his testicle bitten by a snake at one job and becoming a kind of bagman/enforcer for the Reverend at another, shaking down wealthy stinkers. Ophelia Balls, Mildred’s daughter, is imprisoned in Hooker’s Templex and forced to serve its Abbot, a Russian giant named Machnov, who weighs “nine-o-six” and stands “eight-ten” and whose “reduction belt” (think: colostomy bag) Ophelia must periodically empty into the gutter.
Ultimately, however, The Pisstown Chaos reveals iself to be a sly and rambunctious satire, devilishly well-imagined and playfully rough with the reader. Examples of Ohle’s humor can be found throughout. Here, for example, is a scene in which young Mildred Vink meets her future husband, Jacob Balls, who is trying to seduce her by making reference to her great potential as a pedaler (there are no motor cars here, only pedal vehicles):
“That’s quite a set of legs you have. They could support a piano….Give me a kiss. It’s the law, you know. Compulsory mating.”
“Perhaps…but not compulsory kissing.”
Exactly why mating is compulsory and why the Reverend holds so much power is never explained. Little in The Pisstown Chaos is. The reader looking for tidy explanations and tied-up plotlines might face a challenge. And yet David Ohle’s fiction—for all its reputation as a genre-blending speculative, dystopian, picaresque, political, allegorical romp—owes some debt to the elliptical style of Hemingway and the minimalist aesthetic of Gordon Lish (who was one of Ohle’s first editors). Certainly there is a whiff of the early Thomas Pynchon to be found here, but Ohle has claimed a stylistic middle ground that is his alone. In an online interview, Ohle explained that his motto as a writer is “to always stop just short... never, ever completely tell enough detail for anyone to figure it out... I don’t want to over-explain things. Leave it kind of vague and uncertain.”
As with much of the best science fiction, where the world of the story is presented without exposition in order to render the speculative more credible, Ohle’s fiction sets the fantastic against the quotidian, the human against the other-than-human, the grisly against the mundane, the rational against the absurd—with little authorial commentary to be found. Here’s a scene in which Roe receives some on-the-job training:
Mrs. Peterbilt still lay sprawled on the floor. The maid and the servant had been watching these doings with interest, smiling, their arms folded. “Hurt her good,” the servant said. “I like to see it.” He held out a pair of poultry shears. “Cut something off her.” Roe took the shears, knelt beside the old stinker, placed her little finger between the blades and cut it nearly off by squeezing the handles as hard as he could. “My apologies, Mrs. Peterbilt, but I was just shifted into this. Just doing what I’m told. Where do you keep your bucks?”
As Ohle’s readers we might imagine ourselves in a similar situation to Mrs. Peterbilt—sprawled on the floor of our reading room, with Ohle standing above us, looking down with interest, smiling, and then slowly extending his hand.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore