The Barely-There Before or: Paradise Lost (& Found)by Chris Campanioni
Among the Dead and Dreaming
(Leapfrog Press, 2016)
Samuel Ligon and Stephen Knezovich,
(Lost Horse Press, 2016)
The experience of reading Among the Dead and Dreaming is not unlike watching a soap opera, or a slasher film, or a Greek tragedy, or even a car crash; a catastrophic collision on the interstate where bodies and objects evacuate and disperse and hang for a moment, or half a page, and ultimately fall, which is actually the novel’s entry point, the vehicle that sets this polyphonic operatic tragic romance or romantic tragedy in action. And make no mistake, if we are watching a soap opera, this is must-see TV. Ligon is able to move between characters—the living, the dead, the barely-there, the unborn—and inhabit each voice with a pace and precision that makes the prose move, too. He begins by conducting the spare moments before a motorcycle crash through the voice of one of its pregnant victims, and in the span of three pages, orchestrates the thought-process of four other characters, including the unborn baby, Isabelle, whose solitary “Oh” delivers the single biggest understatement of the book, a caustic pause before we become submerged in a narrative of returns and remunerations, a postmodern ghost story set in New York City.
It’s no surprise that Ligon prefaces the novel with two quotes about falling and proceeds to narrate that slow-motion lyrical dive from motorcycle to asphalt; the uncertain certainty of forever, or what feels like it. In many ways, Ligon seems interested in investigating the fall itself, the liminal act of it, the in between-ness of the action, everything suspended until impact, if it ever comes and when it does. And during that first chapter, each character he narrates through voices a similar fascination with the ungraspable, and the inevitable trajectory of every human transaction.
Kyle: “[…] and even though she had Mark and I had Nikki, I didn’t really have Nikki, not the way I wanted to have her …”
Nikki: “I need him now more than I’ve ever needed him, and now that I need him, I won’t get him …”
Mark: “But in the dead air of the waiting room, her presence was everywhere, and then her absence, and then her presence again, so that her presence and absence felt like the same thing.”
These are people who keep missing, each other and themselves. Mark loves Cynthia, whom he thinks loves Kyle, both of whom are dead after the first page. Nikki doesn’t love anyone, in spite of the fact that Kyle loves her, or at least she thinks he does. So why did he keep drawing Cynthia’s eyes on Nikki’s body in all of his paintings? And why did Mark continue to love Cynthia unabashedly, despite all her money or the inkling of infidelity? Out of every character, dead or undead, in this novel Mark seems to have the most faith, but even his faith in people eventually becomes curtailed by the looming gesture of currency, as he admits about halfway through the novel: “I didn’t want to believe every human interaction was nothing more than a transaction. […] But I didn’t think people worked that way. Everyone wanted something. […] All of it finally resolved itself with money.”
This notion of transaction, debt, and payment, becomes a focal point for a story that is also about fate: what Burke, the chief antagonist, frequently refers to as “the guiding hand” and another character calls “just another way to talk about the mystery of God or existence or whatever you like.” When everyone is subjected to something outside of their purview—but in line with the reader’s—each character becomes an instrument, and Ligon is adept at playing all of them. His use of dramatic irony in Among the Dead and Dreaming makes us question our own affinity for drama too, and our own morals, as we become the voyeur who watches this “gigantic soap opera” from afar, knowing everything about the tragic moment before the tragic moment comes: the privileged gaze of the one who is falling, according to Theodore Roethke in the preface: “What falls away is always. And is near.”
Ligon’s haunting portrayal of these characters’ inner and outer lives is inhabited by actual ghosts, too. Cynthia and Kyle return, with lyrical first-person italicized passages. Burke’s dead mother, Maryellen, returns. Burke’s murdered younger brother, Cash, comes back. Mark hears Kyle’s voice on Cynthia’s answering machine and feels as though he is communicating with Kyle from the other side. Mark hears his own voice on Cynthia’s answering machine and feels as though he is the one who died. A few pages later, Mark imagines what all of them look like as ghosts.
“I sat in traffic surrounded by people going to work, imagining Cynthia and Kyle and the baby ghost floating through space, weightless, holding hands, never growing older, and I wondered what age would be ideal for death if that’s how you’d spend eternity—floating through space like an amoeba in the ocean.”
With so many characters colliding into one another, either in physical form or through photos, voice message, the haunting landscape of memory—memories that simultaneously “crush and fill”—the other joy of the voyeur is being able to watch the divergent perspectives of a singular, revelatory moment.
Burke: “I nearly have a heart attack when I see her Monday afternoon, sitting on her stoop on Wyoming Avenue. I look enough like Cash that it’s possible she’d recognize me, even if I am twenty years older than him when he died, but I never could have dreamed she’d look exactly the same as in the photos, though women have all kinds of surgeries today, and I only get a quick look before I push the rental car past. […] She’s still there on my next loop, even looks up from her book and sees me across the street. I wave. She waves back. She has no idea who I am. But I know exactly who she is.”
Alina: “The western sun hits our little porch where I sit with The Odyssey—my stupid book for Freshman English—pretending to read, pretending I’ll go back. […] Some creepy guy in a Mets cap waves from across the street. I wave back, feeling Kyle all around me, protecting me.”
It’s telling that Alina, whom Burke mistakes for Nikki, her mother, is reading the Odyssey, yet she could have very well been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream; all the people mistaking someone for someone else or something for something else and especially still missing, each other and themselves, playing a small part in what Ligon so aptly describes as “this gigantic movement, this beautiful dream, the beautiful empty enormity.” Burke’s desire toward “trying to make myself an instrument. To surrender to the hand” is mirrored in the prophetic crash of the novel’s first page. What else can we do as readers, as voyeurs, but let it happen, have it wash over us, out of reach and uncontrolled and uncontrollable—and isn’t there beauty in the transcendent fall?—perpetually mid-flight, always moving, as Nikki does daily, always hoping to lose ourselves completely.
Wonderland, like the circus of its title story, presents readers with a glimpse of magic, equal parts gritty and glittery, fairy tale parable and Middle-America pornography. Behind every curtain is another opportunity to experience the sideshow, and revel in the grotesque and beautiful dichotomy. Collage and pastiche propel Ligon’s short story collection, and each story is prefaced by a similarly startling cut-up by visual artist Stephen Knezovich. So it is with an almost-expected disquiet that each character seems to communicate with one another throughout the text, always on the verge of outperforming whatever and whoever came before. Voyeuristic talking goats, a wife whose remedy for the common cold includes whiskey, raw beef, valium, a pound cake, Robitussin, and Menthols (not in that order), a mother whose breasts flow with whiskey and butter (one at a time), a couple who copulate after jointly fisting the last glazed donut in the box. Ligon is saying something about consumption and desire and death, too, and his stories often start or end with the threat of violence; the threat or the opportunity for violence. Violence which is as much of a pleasure as a plight.
Ligon’s best stories are also his most unusual, inventive in subject but also in the storytelling, as when he traces the history of two major gas stations’ merger by following the teenage angst of their daughter, Exxon Candace Mobil.
“She couldn’t bear to wonder where her phone or hands were, or whether DuPont could ever love a woman so confused about who she was or who she’d been or who she was becoming—herself, her motherfather, her granddaddy, all of her cousins or sisters or pieces of herself broken apart but reuniting—brash Chevron, shy Amoco, lost Sohio. Oh, God, lost Sohio!” (“Exxon, My Love”)
Identity and performance become paramount throughout this collection, and Ligon crafts his narratives with stark aphorisms, funny-because-they’re-true, but also: terrifying for the same reason; the caustic, revelatory punch line that underlies every good joke. “You can’t get closer than killing for love,” he writes in “This Bed You’ve Made,” “In fact, you’ll never get that close again, though you’ll think it’s all just beginning.” And a few pages later: “They were horrible people, the king and the queen. What do you expect? Treat people like gods and they’ll behave like swine.” Ligon’s characters are performers, yes, but sometimes the joke is on them, as with Lucas Astor, Ph.D., who communicates with an old flame through an (unsolicited) blurb of her new book. “New York is such a hateful place,” he discloses in his write-up’s last line, “and I can only imagine how lonely you must be there without me.”
So much of Wonderland reads like 2016’s answer to William Blake’s 1794 illustrated collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, the dualities of experience resolving itself in the seesaw between consummation and consumption, the permeance of life and the permanence of death. “Will you believe me when I tell you that this news delivered unto us a kind of living death?” Ligon writes in “Paradise Lost.” “The horror of innocence lost not gradually or gently, but snatched violently with Mother’s proclamations that our whiskey and butter days were nearing an end.”
Ligon’s best parables combine the ageless with the very applicable, as in “The Little Goat,” where the little goat of the title coaxes out a discussion with two lust-struck children that broaches issues of shame and discretion and public surveillance, too, but also, the perceived lack of liberty inherent when we voluntarily give up our rights to privacy.
“We don’t want you watching us,” the girl said.
“Are you ashamed?” the little goat said.
“It’s private,” the girl said, “what we’re doing.”
“This is a public place,” the little goat said.
“It’s a free country,” the little goat said.
“No it isn’t,” the boy said. (“The Little Goat”)
Though Ligon seems most interested in the picture of the world before it explodes. “The way things sometimes seem,” he writes in “A Prayer For My Neighbor’s Quick Painless Death,” “before they fall apart completely.” There is something beautiful in that space, perhaps because it’s neither here nor there, not yet consummated or consumed. It just exists. And so, too, do all the charged possibilities.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation American, the child of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of Death of Art (C&R Press) and Drift (King Shot Press). His “Billboards” poem, a response to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world, was awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid prose piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. He edits PANK, At Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches Latino literature and creative writing at Pace University and Baruch College.