Unfetteredby Blake Butler
(Tyrant Books, 2010)
Eugene Marten’s Firework is a terrifying house. This house has several levels, each of which demonstrates a unique strand of mastery in Marten’s composition style. Whereas many authors find one mode they excel at and wield it, Firework is evidence of a wide range: syllabic sentencery, filmic exposition, street language, massive poise, a kind of brimming overhead. These modes flood the others seamlessly, without warning, resulting in a field of text that operates as might someone wise and skilled, with a damaged skull.
The fundament of Marten’s composition is the sentence: these spaces between the init-cap and the period are locks on a chain, clearly chiseled. A Eugene Marten sentence differs, even from those also associated with the Gordon Lish camp, in that it seems to have beaten its own music down. The music, then, of the language is both cut and black, but somehow flattened, coalescing under intense compression. The knitting of the words among the sentences melts, and allows, from one to the next, the second level of Marten’s gloaming: the syncopation. “There was no more room to sit so he lay on the floor between the ledges and said, ‘I thought this was America.’”
Often what we are given in Firework is so thick and brutal it comes as blacktop more than weapon. What we are standing on has hardened from thick liquid and holds its heat. As the sound of the sentences continues, what we often get pulled into is the heavy sheen: herein, a story about a man named Jelonnek, who witnesses a hate crime and brings himself into the center of the hate by lashing himself to a prostitute named Littlebit, as if both out of flesh of guilt and some sick need to stay close to the burnt meat. From hotel room to hotel room, hanging on for cash on which to exist, Jelonnek burns from earthly corridor to corridor of Marten’s lifemaze like some bloodbent rodent looking for a hole in which to hide and, eventually, to call home. Marten’s prose is often sublimely deceptive in this manner, the flood of sentences to graphs, and graphs to blockades. Among the page-turning terror, a suppressed calm as a kind of second air engulfs the book, even with such thick grime and psychologically ornate ongoings. With clear propulsion and the mindgrip of Jelonnek’s heavy will inside his semi-self-imposed predicament, Marten controls both what is given and not given with a mechanic’s grip: a quickly steepening downward glide that wastes no blink.
As in his two equally masterful works, In The Blind and Waste, Marten’s prose reaches yet another level as it rotates between a deft and brutal evenness punctuated with weird patches, as if the logic of the sentences themselves have become brain damaged, in an angelic, still coherent way. Gaps in logic appear, building strange bricks as the novel continues in its corridor, black licked. “He pressed the button and wrote with his whole arm,” Marten writes of Jelonnek’s making his own writing, using spraypaint on a house. Up to the very last phrase of the book’s unprecedented and crystal-crushing ending, there is a throat-hold of the word, both pleasant and oppressive, wild-steering and tight to the cuff. Marten is a master of somehow resolving elements we had not been able to name and still cannot, and yet feel wired in the blood thereafter. This is a book that does something no other book does, and yet it does it in a way that you might not see coming, so well honed and syllabically chiseled is it. Marten reigns.