JOE AMATO’s latest novel opens with an epigraph from metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat”: “Some men a forward motion love, / But I by backward steps would move …” I cannot help taking mottos and all such intertextual breadcrumbs very seriously, and it’s particularly warranted in this case. Samuel Taylor’s Last Night does tell a forward-moving story and, indeed, the book traces a progress of sorts of the latter-day academic pilgrim at its center. But the forward movement of chapters weaves a plot whose chronology runs in the opposite direction. It does so at a fast clip, too, so fast that in the book’s seventh and last chapter the story almost catches up with itself. The narrative progression thus obtains à rebours, if not “arebourically” — although parallels with Joris-Karl Huysmans’s anti-bourgeois aestheticism would not be wholly misplaced — then “ouroborically,” the recollection of things past chasing its own tail, as the main narrator, a disgruntled writer and untenured teacher of creative writing at a university in the Land of Lincoln, begins to reminisce about “last night.”
Identifying this narrator with Samuel Taylor is unavoidable, given that the first chapter’s title (which, incidentally, differs from the title in the novel’s table of contents) is “Samuel Taylor’s ‘Last Night.’” On the other hand, mistaking the author himself for his narrating hero would be just that: a mistake, one of those fallacies against which the novelist-in-the-novel warns his Intro to Creative Writing students. S.T. is something of an authorial alter ego, one assumes, and, in the same bookish vein, a romantic mask. His anti-romantic, non-transcendent, and culturally disenchanted outbursts suggest one aesthetic, but the onomastic evidence points to the opposite, the obvious intertext being S.T. Coleridge, and the “last night” leitmotif, too, suggests a “vision in a dream.” The novel is, if not a “fragment,” then a vast agglutination of fragments, and at the same time a text, in the narrator’s words, “at war with itself,” the tired metaphor notwithstanding. The book is a narrative experiment caught in a courageously assumed double-bind: it sets out to complete its narrating task while resisting, and critiquing, the kind of complex, textual, and contextual co-opting that comes with the narrative closure common to popular fictions.
Samuel Taylor’s Last Night is a text at war with itself because the narrator S.T. is at war with himself, but on a deeper level, Joe Amato is staging, with humor and inventiveness, an agonistic poetics — an antipoetics in the best (anti)tradition of self-reflective surfiction and avant-pop parodic bricolage. As in Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, Steve Katz, Curtis White, Mark Amerika, and Mark Leyner, this modus operandi speaks to a paradoxically clarifying “anti-transparency.” They all seek to debunk the pseudo-realistic, instrumentalist myth of writing as, in S.T.’s words, “a transparent medium through which a reader might be transported to untold representational or ideational coordinates.” The myth rests on a misconception perpetuated by lay audiences and “storyteller entertainers” alike, for whom “the telling of stories is not the primary aim” of storytelling. Instead, what matters to such “tribes,” S.T. says, is that language might take you beyond itself, to some “places foreign to the text itself.”
To write about (and, no doubt, against) this transcendentalist-consumerist superstition, Amato deploys writing itself. He presses into service language’s opacity, fragmentariness, and messiness, its clichés, cultural thickness, and tightly packed violence of various kinds (racist, sexist, homophobic, classist) to evoke — slowly, painfully, and memorably — the spectacular density of a medium that declines to merely “intermediate” and thus erase itself in the face of “real tragedies.” As far as I am concerned, the book’s ultimate accomplishment is, in fact, the masterful integration of the drama and overall performance of writing, on one side, and, on the other, the tragedies, comedies, and other theatricalities hardly absent from S.T.’s life, or from Vick Jr.’s (a character who may well be S.T. at an earlier age). Intriguingly enough, the opaqueness of a reluctant “medium” constantly problematizing its own constraints and the encroachments of “professionalized discourse” opens out toward, and limns in strikingly vivid realistic vignettes, real-life, picaresque exploits. Recognizing and enacting the limitations of narrative and language more broadly are here expressively empowering and provocative in the best sense. One turns the page — not that Samuel Taylor’s Last Night purports to be your typical page turner — even as the page somehow sticks to your fingers stylistically and intellectually. It has an appeal and an intensity to it that are both personal and cultural, both emotional and critical, and the images, insights, and considerations tarry with you, lending the book a marked, essayistic and moral dimension that calls for a slow digestion.
Still, Samuel Taylor’s Last Night is not a treatise about novel writing, nor is it the chronicle of a novel foretold, even though the fictional novelist does get started on a new project similar to Amato’s book (see, for instance, the use of epigraphs for chapters). There are, to be sure, points of contact with both postmodern metafiction and the (New) New Novel, but the author’s desire to remain formally unregimented (and not only formally) is conspicuous, as is, on the other side of the fictional mirror, S.T.’s desire to preserve his independence intellectually, institutionally, and otherwise. True, the hero’s “forward motion” is rather backward: the novel closes anticlimactically with an unsuccessful job interview. Nora, S.T.’s spouse, dies of lung cancer, and S.T. remains a schlemiel of the academy — or perhaps more of a schlimazel, a loser of tenure battles and other campaigns on and off campus. S.T. seems most successful at the self-waged war that, while undermining his writing, academic success, and self-esteem, and his suburban life, affords him the ethical distance that makes the success of these pages possible. S.T. doesn’t pursue failure deliberately, but failure defines him: his reserve, his tendency to miss the mark, his refusal to follow proven recipes for professional and social success, his quasi-Bartlebian reluctance to act, and the inner split of the creative and self-critical self.
The fragments S.T. shores against his ruins grab you with unique critical force, and his stream of creative consciousness alone is worth the admission fee. He refuses to produce “professionalized” — standardized, canned, lame, commodified — writing, or “civically responsible” journalism, which he calls “churnalism,” and finds “diversity” and “globalization” serviceable but largely dishonest mantras, tenure a matter of institutional and cultural diplomacy, neighborly decorum a function of lawn-mowing skills, success a projection of its image, and personality the studied illusion of consistency. In effect, Amato’s protagonist is not afraid to be inconsistent and appear before us as such: a “mosaic man” (à la Sukenick), an archive rather than a smooth, forward-inching narrative, a container of unreliable memories, improvising and divagating rather than following the beaten track of story and tenure, marriage and comfort, recipe (food included) and genre, private ruminations and cultural orthodoxies. “Last night” — the illo tempore of Amato’s narration — is both the book’s leitmotif and the exemplary temporality in which this collage-like consciousness displays its raucous archive. The patient reader will find himself or herself deeply engaged by this nagging, insistent, and eminently honest voice.