DEGENERESCENCE by James Chapman (Fugue State Press, 2009)
Degenerescence is a creation myth the way only James Chapman could tell it. It starts in a world without stories, where WOE, (the central character, who begins the book disembodied until she speaks her form into existence) creates an island and everything in it by speaking the names of all things. In a world without stories, people only see objects for what is immediate and eternal about them, and nothing can be humiliated or damaged by stories which exist to “trap a word, maybe ‘honey,’ and enact other words against it. You can eliminate honey by telling a story against it.” But the people of the island lose touch with words. They ignore WOE and her daughters, they begin to lose touch with things as they are. Stories trap the world, and words get distorted from their original weight, dulled and made useless by the kind of organizational thinking that makes them into stories.
This might sound confusing. At times, it is. Degenerescence aims for a kind of simplicity that, in ways, it accomplishes, but in the process of tearing the world down and building it back up, many things are blurred. The book shifts constantly, like an abstract camera switching between blurry and brilliantly focused. At times it can be one of the strongest characteristics of Chapman’s style, and at times the shifts are so disconnected that there are no roots to allow the debris to stack up together.
But it’s hard to even call this a fault of the work. Degenerescence is a novel about the danger of stories, how they corrupt and decay the power of words and images. It’s a book advocating the absence of them, the return to the raw material of words. It seems only appropriate that the nature of it’s form be amorphic like this, floating between fragments of story and idea, speculations. The book explains its own intentions and nature well:
“Upon waking from her dream, WOE found the world infested with stories. WOE became cautious. WOE became unwilling to speak aloud. May WOE not change. That WOE can create worlds, may she not change. That WOE can invent new worlds, may she not change. That WOE weeps for her daughters, may she not change. That WOE is of childbearing age and can produce an eighth daughter, may she not change. That WOE speaks her own words, that WOE speaks no Europa words, tells no stories, sings in rituals, shrinks the sky, has the thoughts of WOE, has the dreams of WOE, may she not change.”
What Chapman gets most in this book is this voice, this trancelike voice that moves in a way both tragic and full of awe, almost ancient if it weren’t removed from time altogether. It’s a voice both enlightened and ignorant, in an argument that this sort of ignorance is the key to enlightenment. The voice has always been the greatest strength of Chapman’s, different in every book though always fully immersed in their directions. His mastery of voice is matched only by his ability to perceive and understand. Degenerescence is a book consisting of very strong instances of both of those things, without a doubt.
I cannot say the book is for everyone. It’s abstract and sprawling nature will be hard for some to latch onto, and anybody looking for a story won’t find it here. But I have found the experience of reading it very valuable, as I find everything James writes valuable. It’s art that takes the time to observe and reflect, and does it with a kind of gracefulness and insight that you could only get one place.
Order the book here.
STAY TUNED, BECAUSE TOMORROW WILL FEATURE AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES…