On learning to read Joe Pulver’s ‘Portraits of Ruin’ by writing the introduction to it
Today I stumbled across the first full review, or at least the first one I’ve seen, of Joe Pulver’s imminent new book Portraits of Ruin (due out next month from Hippocampus Press) at Hellbound Times. The book will arrive with an introduction by me, and I was surprised to see the reviewer not only mentioning this fact but singling out my intro as “an excellent prelude to the stories” that “tells us how to read and get the most from Pulver’s unique style.” That description accurately captures what I intended when I wrote the piece, so it’s nice to see this carrying across to one of the book’s early readers.
My introduction to Portraits of Ruin is actually the record of my trying to understand how to understand the book. I had already provided a blurb for Joe’s previous opus, the novel The Orphan Palace. (“Joe Pulver,” I wrote, “is like the answer to some arcane riddle: What do you get when you cross one of Plato’s Muse-maddened poets with a Lovecraftian lunatic, and then give their offspring to be raised by Raymond Chandler and a band of Beats? His work caters to a literary hunger you didn’t even know you had, and does it darkly and deliciously.”) But when I accepted the request to write a full introduction for the new one, I discovered that I was in for some difficulty, because, in short, I couldn’t understand the damned thing. The reasons for this are nicely described by the book’s reviewer at Hellbound Times, Walt Hicks:
All writers are influenced and inspired by other writers, and we all know writers who echo those influences, running the gamut from subtly to obviously, but I don’t think I’ve ever read an author who is capable of blending/bending his influences quite like Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. As impacting as a violent train wreck, the resultant explosion of mellifluous ethereality onto the page is something so totally different that it’s almost a completely new art form. Sure, you’ve got your Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, Ramsey Campbell, William Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Chandler — even T. S. Eliot — but jam them all together into Pulver’s psychotic centrifuge, and the resulting velvet-swathed, running-the-guts spatter pattern ends up as a collection like Portraits of Ruin.
Then there’s Tom Ligotti, who provided a blurb for the book that wrenches literal laughter from me with its dead-on imitation and evocation of what it’s like to read Joe’s writing:
Let us posit that Bukowski is the sun. Or Brautigan, Burroughs and the Beats — a solar Coney Island of the Mind where Timothy Leary’s dead and dead Cthulhu waits and sings the live long daydream believer. Then Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin would be the burst of planets, Big Bang-Bang, Marquee Moons hanging on for what they got, scream of consciousness — in Outer Space no one can hear it . . . except Coffin Joe, Monster Mash Potato that big ol’ Portraits of Ruin — Mars needs it, you need it, so just open the lid and shake your fist — then say: “They kill horses, horses, horses, horses.” Thank you. Come again?
In my introduction, along with expanding on my previous reference to Plato and the madness of the Muses while offering a close reading of certain segments of the book to demonstrate its imperviousness to all attempts at conventional understanding, I explain some of my process of coming to terms with such things:
I’ve always found “experimental” literature very difficult, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve produced a couple of pieces of it myself. Apparently as a fundamental fact of my literary taste and predilection, I’m drawn mostly to conventionally worded writings and traditionally structured narratives. Give me Lovecraft over Burroughs, Poe over Pynchon, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man over Ulysses (and especially over, God help us, Finnegan’s Wake). As with fiction, so with poetry: I’ll take Robert Frost over T.S. Eliot any day, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti just makes my head hurt.
Or actually, this has changed somewhat over the years. It was Robert Anton Wilson, of all people, who cracked open my cosmic-literary egg and initiated me into some of the pleasures and rewards of conventionally unreadable and/or incomprehensible writing. He loved to mix things up in his novels: plain old prose on one page, then stream of consciousness gibberish on the next, followed by a scene or two in screenplay format and then a metafictional flourish for good measure. And since I was drawn to him helplessly at age 19 when I recognized him as one of my natural philosophical mentors, I just rolled with it. I absorbed the lessons he overtly taught and subliminally imparted. All these years later, I find I’m grateful for this education when I approach the Pulver corpus and try to wrap my mind around it, or perhaps let it wrap its mind around me.
Literature, it turns out, can do a lot more than one might think, especially when it tries not to be literature, or to forget that there’s such a thing as restraint by medium, or to burst the bounds of what can actually be communicated via the written word, not just in terms of the concepts being broached but the very form in which they’re presented.
Sometimes it’s the attempt to say what can’t be said, or what can’t be said in any form that “makes sense,” that says the most.
Which is all to say that I heartily recommend the book to appropriately equipped readers. Just be prepared for a ride that will upend your sensibilities. Tom and I compared notes after I wrote my intro and he wrote his blurb, and were both amused to see that we had independently invoked the ghost of Ferlinghetti. The more I dwell on it, the more appropriate this seems, because Portraits of Ruin truly is a Coney Island of the Mind. But it’s one where the rides drip with darkness and tilt at non-Euclidean angles, and whirl you into an abyss of strange entity that grins and chitters and babbles in alien tongues (which eventually come to sound like your own voice).