Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Six Degrees of Regurgitation

The Dodecahedron or a Frame for Frames

Dolores was a girl I knew in high school. She was soft-spoken and had tiny wrists. Dolores was an artist. She used to pull out her hair and butt cigarettes out on her face. Her wrists were matrices of hurt and self-loathing. When I moved away only four months after meeting Dolores, she made me a mix tape. The cover read Fake Plastic Forests. I didn't get the joke until I pressed play. Dolores had recorded fifteen versions of Fake Plastic Trees, each time at a different speed. Through Thom Yorke, Dolores was telling me the same story from different perspectives. She was begging me to understand her pain. I never did. 

Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron or a Frame for Frames is like Dolores' mix tape. An experiment in form, Glennon's novel (of sorts) piles story on top of story to create a triple-decker narrative that never quite satiates its reader. Glennon models his novel on the dodecahedron:

"A dodecahedron's faces are pentagonal, each a five-sided polygon. In A Frame for Frames these sides represent a relationship to an adjacent story. This is the first constraint. Each story must refer to or be referred to by each of the five stories adjacent to it.  These references to and from adjacent stories provide the shifting perspectives of this book."

Let me try to explain. Glennon's first short story. "In My Father's Library," chronicles the experience of a child over a series of days as he eats the pages from his missing father's library. Convinced that strangers are trying to unlock the secrets of his father's cipher, the narrator swallows them up inside his youthful, misguided belly. A few stories later, - in "Why are There No Penguins?" - an Arctic explorer hallucinates seeing his son, who sounds conspicuously like the boy in Glennon's first story.

Later in the same story, the explorer finds a tale written by one of his dead shipmates: "The boy believes that the captain is holding his father prisoner and that the books contain certain damning evidence against him. [...] To protect his father, the boy destroys the books, by the unusual means of eating every page." The explorer, stranded in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, then finds an abandoned message in a bottle.  In Glennon's "The Collector," the narrator explains his fascination with...you guessed it, messages in bottles. He talks about one particular bottle, dealing with the first Tenebrian Chronicle. Glennon's fourth short story is called "Tenebrian Chronicles." And so on.

Glennon's novel is ambitious and original. Unfortunately, Dodecahedron relies too heavily on geometry, sacrificing narrative for novelty. Too mathematically contrived, the novel fails to engage its reader with its characters and their stories.

In "The American Shahrazad," Glennon tells the story of George Newton, a man who pantomimes his way out of being boiled alive and eaten by a group of savage islanders. The natives mistake his theatrical gyrations for the movements of a porcupine: "The porcupine, he discovers, is a sacred animal. The king of demons, the Nunca called him.  Each of the porcupine's quills is a demon that can be sent out into the world to work its mischief or its magic." Here, Glennon extends his geometric obsession into the real world, by explicitly name-dropping the name of his publisher: The Porcupine's Quill. The Dodecahedron is so self-referential that an adjective like post-modern fails to do it justice. The literary equivalent of later Woody Allen films, Glennon's novel stutters along with the irritating self-consciousness of a nebbish par excellence.

Glennon redeems himself with "The Polygamist," a wonderfully quirky story about a scheming Don Juan with five, unsuspecting wives. The narrator explains, "You know what distinguishes a bigamist from an ordinary man, and a good bigamist from some sap who gets caught three days into his second honeymoon?-imagination." Too much of anything, however, is never a good thing. Glennon's novel drips with the satisfaction of its writer, a man who lets his imagination run away with his narrative restraint.

Admittedly, all this reading has tired me out. At one point, while reviewing Glennon's novel, I had to stop on a passage multiple times to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. In "The Plot to Hide America," the narrator weaves together disparate conspiracy theories to uncover the secret that-gasp!- Christopher Columbus landed on sloppy seconds. While interviewing a writer (who is both connected to this plot strand, but not), the narrator reflects upon her writing:

"It was truly terrible. I actually snorted at one point. The plot was preposterous."

On reading this line, I wondered if I was actually projecting my own thoughts onto a blank page. Had all my reading awakened superhuman powers of telekinesis that I never even knew existed?

Glennon's novel, however, isn't terrible. In fact, despite its flaws, The Dodecahedron provides for an entertaining if not convoluted read.

In "The Last Story,"-which isn't, incidentally-the genie character explains:

"I'm more ancient than any language. None of these names feels comfortable. Each is a sort of constraint, and that's the problem, isn't it? This naming thing that people do. It's the subtle poison with which all human traps are baited. We can be debunked. We can be defined. We can be anthologized, anatomized, taxonified."

The genie's mimetic comments exemplify Glennon's overarching concern with language. The Dodecahedron reflects its author's frustration with rules, genres, and conventions. What's that famous axiom? Hate the sin not the sinner? I respect Glennon's ambitious novel, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

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Of course I've saved the most sprawling and epic of the GG finalists until the end. Join me tomorrow for my thoughts on Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams. After another sleepless night, I'm sure to start calling myself Governor. But that's still Governor General to you.