Kamby Bolongo Mean River
In his first novel, Part of the World (2007), Robert Lopez performed a kind of textual surgery, using language like a scalpel to cut new, trenchant incisions into narrative territory originally carved out by writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Samuel Beckett. Highly experimental, stylistically minimal, the novel also achieves a kind of suspense that made the book a favorite among many different kinds of readers.
Such trenchancy is wondrously achieved again—but this time with deeper, more gruesome incisions—in Lopez’s devastating second novel Kamby Bolongo Mean River. Told from the inside of a room, which is referred to by our first-person narrator as merely “here,” the novel is a sort of dramatic monologue delivered by a sort of . . . not unnamed, but rather un-introduced narrator: for he neither offers his name nor accepts the name everyone in the story calls him, “Johnny” (which for simplicity’s sake is how he shall be referred to here). At the outset, our narrator tells us that he is trapped in the nearly empty room. On one wall is a mirror, through which he claims he is being watched by “doctors in their white coats and clipboards,” his door guarded, he frets, by “MPs or security guards.” Day in and day out (a relative concept for Johnny, as he is allowed neither clock nor calendar), he is forced to wear a uniform so hot that he sweats and chafes, the insides of his thighs “rubbed raw.” A bit of aid in the form of powder occasionally arrives:
“The people who bring me powder are the same ones who bring the uniforms. I can’t tell how many uniforms they have for me. Every three or four days they take my uniform and give me a different one. This different uniform looks exactly like the other one so they’re not as different as you’d might think. They are the same uniform only different versions.” (pp. 20-21)
The only significant object in the room is a telephone—by which our narrator waits in dread and rage and arousal and confusion and despair for it to ring. Like Beckett’s Gogo and Didi, he waits in anticipation for something that seems forever forthcoming. If traditional craft terms such as character motivation can be applied to Lopez’s fiction, then Johnny is extremely motivated by the possibility of that phone ringing. Throughout the novel, his concern is expressed less as a refrain than as a linguistic tic. (The following is condensed.)
“Should the phone ring I will answer it. I will say the hello how are you and wait for a response. I will listen to what the person on the other end says. I will listen to the words. Sometimes I don’t listen.
What I say to myself usually starts with the hello how are you then I’m fine I have a headache I didn’t sleep last night.
Should the phone ring I will answer and the conversation will stop there. Saying I’m fine is no way to start a conversation or keep one going.
What I’m fine means is please stop talking.
Should the phone ring I might let it keep ringing until the machine answers.
Should the phone ring a decision will have to be made and this is always the case.” (pp. 9-11)
What backstory we are given does little to help us piece together the present. Bits of Johnny’s history arrive not as conventional flashback, but as a series of repetitive associational digressions that take us from the present setting of “the room” back to Johnny’s childhood, where he lived with his mother and older brother Charlie in what he calls Injury, Alaska, where he longs to return and walk again the banks of his beloved Bolongo. The cumulative effect of these digressions is to create a powerfully sympathetic portrait of a family rent by illness, abandonment, and unemployment. In the midst of it all, Johnny and Charlie are each other’s only friend, playing, fighting, watching TV. Johnny coaches Charlie in boxing, but has to do so with great care, for Johnny suffers from an unnamed health condition: “I had to wear a special helmet whenever I left the house. Mother was afraid I’d hurt my head and die.” (p.139)
Add to this difficult history our narrator’s present condition of chronic insomnia and the massive dosage of medication “they” give him, and you have the recipe for a highly unreliable narrator. And yet, what veracity Johnny’s story lacks, Lopez’s story marvelously achieves. As with his first novel, Lopez uses narrative technique as a means of characterization the way other writers might use interior monologue. This goes beyond managing voice, syntax, and associational digressions. Rather, it has to do with the cumulative effect of his fiction on the reader, the way the reader experiences the telling of Lopez’s tale. We come to understand this character by experiencing the story we are reading in the same manner as the character is experiencing the story he is living. This is mimesis as musculature. This is text as flesh. Whereas in the first novel, the fractured narration might have been a symptom of the narrator’s malady; here it is the narrator.
Lopez is obviously an adoring, straight-A student of Beckett and David Markson. Like Beckett’s Molloy, Johnny presents himself as a man trapped in a room; like Molloy, Johnny has no real sense of how he ended up in that room; like Molloy, he is isolated from the world outside that room, and like Molloy, the man has a complicated relationship with his mother. And like Markson’s Kate (from Wittgenstein’s Mistress), Johnny attempts to cover the chaos of his life by selecting and ordering language, a language delivered in chilly, spare, white-spaced paragraphs. But the tenderness with which Lopez treats these fragile characters, the honesty in their rendering, the lullaby of loneliness that coos through this world, whispering along the banks of the Kamby Bolongo and above the rooftops of Injury, Alaska; Johnny’s longing, his fear, his isolation—all of these are pure Lopez.
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