Post Pulp Spaces: On Laird Hunt
By Tobias CarrollDecember 3, 2012
Finding a label for Hunt’s six books isn’t easy; he juxtaposes pulp traditions, ambiguous narratives, and a fondness for referentiality in them, but never at the expense of being readable. His latest novel, Kind One, seems to be his most traditional — it’s set in a specific and distinct historical moment and features a linear narrative. But even here, Hunt’s eccentricities manifest themselves, leaving Kind One as an expansion of what his fiction is capable of achieving.
Hunt’s most emblematic work is arguably his 2006 novel The Exquisite. Its plot focuses on Henry, a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who becomes enmeshed in a conspiracy to carry out staged murders, a service offered to a city already jittery after the destruction of the World Trade Center. There’s a mysterious benefactor, an alluring but morally ambiguous woman, and sudden acts of violence. But within this post-noir structure, The Exquisite is also a meditation on specific works of art — including Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn — as well as a reworking of elements contained in Hunt’s earlier novel The Impossibly. If this makes The Exquisite sound imposing, it shouldn’t — it’s occasionally byzantine, but also eminently friendly. Its blend of rigorous structure, self-reflexiveness, and warm acceptance of pulp tropes is par for the course for Hunt. The Believer’s summary of a 2005 Rick Moody essay on Hunt and experimental novels may put it best: “Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly is traditionally ‘difficult’ literature. It’s also traditionally accessible literature. What the fuck?”
Until recently, Hunt’s books have largely rested in a post-pulp space. The Impossibly and The Exquisite feature labyrinthine criminal conspiracies. Certain characters in Ray of the Star and The Exquisite exist somewhere between life and death. And stories within stories are woven into their structure, particularly The Paris Stories and The Exquisite. In a 2006 interview with Bookslut, Hunt said, “I tend to think that not all that much, actually, has been done in literature with non–straight noir. Where is noir's equivalent of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, for instance? Where, for that matter, is noir's equivalent of The Turn of the Screw?” It isn’t hard to look at much of Hunt’s body of work as an attempt to answer those questions.
The Paris Stories, Hunt’s first book, loosely follows a couple as they wander the city, hear stories, and occasionally catch glimpses of folktales dealing with authority, of punishment, of horrific violence. The Impossibly, his second, is a stark and stylized novel whose milquetoast protagonist interacts awkwardly with his neighbor and occasionally journeys out of his apartment for office supplies. These supplies turn out to have uses far more malicious than filing and desktop organization. It’s a novel where numerous details — the names of people and places, for example — are kept vague, even as other elements (the narrator’s fluctuating weight, say) are monitored with precision. Indiana, Indiana traces the life of a man named Noah, nearing the end of his life in relative isolation. While the setting and imagery are decidedly pastoral, the narrative itself unfolds along lines that are slightly askew, including Noah’s mild precognitive talents. Through letters and entries in a family Bible, the history of Noah’s marriage — cut short due to his wife Opal’s propensity for starting fires — is told, giving his solitude a context.
The Exquisite has a relatively straightforward plot: after falling on hard times, Henry becomes enmeshed in the ritual simulation of murder. For all the stylization on display, the narrative is a familiar one for those versed in noir archetypes. Henry is lured in by the mysterious and ailing Aris Kindt; is seduced by the ambiguous, tattoo-bestowing Tulip; and learns of Kindt’s mysterious past before inadvertently betraying him to his enemies. This is juxtaposed with an account of Henry in a hospital, where he also encounters Kindt, and interacts with a doctor named Tulp. For most of the novel, the relationship between these two plotlines remains unclear: Is the noir one a delusion of a hospitalized Henry? If not, does it precede or follow his interactions with the conspiracy — and if it’s the latter, what exactly is Kindt doing there?
The novel’s conclusion provides some answers, though readers seeking a solution rooted in kitchen-sink realism may be disappointed. (Hunt does nod in the direction of David Lynch here, his fellow maker of mutant noir — though the nod happens to be in the direction of Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune.) This is a novel in which identities are fluid: Mr. Kindt takes his name from the subject of Rembrandt’s painting (“A very long time ago I was a very bad thief,” he tells Henry, a nod to the origin of the corpse being studied in the painting), but he also takes it from an earlier man using the name. Aris Kindt, one suspects, will never entirely die; whether physical or spectral, some element of him endures. “Mr. Kindt, now that we have begun discussing it all, has confirmed the likelihood of this for me — that this is only one version among several,” Henry says as the novel reaches its conclusion. While there is some comfort there, there’s also a great throbbing fear that squats beside it.
Hunt has spoken of The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana, and The Exquisite as having a thematic alignment. “Perhaps then they are all one book. One giant chimera of a chimera. I shudder to think of it this way,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Collagist. And after the relatively insular perspectives of that trio of novels, Ray of the Star stands as the first of his books to drift away from his protagonist for a significant period of time. Previously the motivations of those around the central character — or whether or not those around that character were real, or dead, or hallucinated — were up for grabs. Ray of the Star, while still keeping those questions close, found Hunt willing to shift perspective from that of the protagonist to those around him, clarifying certain motivations and revealing the existence of other circles, patterns, and (once again) conspiracies. It follows Harry, a grief-stricken man who has relocated to an unnamed European city which, if not Barcelona itself, seems a reasonable analogue. (The city remains unnamed, but Hunt has cited Barcelona as its inspiration in interviews.) There he falls in love with a woman named Solange, a living statue whose own history contains her fair share of mourning. He becomes part of a circle of street performers, first through an ill-fated attempt at human statuary himself, and later through positioning himself within a model submarine. The ghosts hinted at in The Exquisite become more tangible here, if also more mundane; the conspiracies grown more terrifying and metaphysical. And while the grief Harry carries with him is apparent throughout the novel, the specific tragedy from which he’s running remains more nebulous; a handful of lines, sentences easily overlooked, provide revelation. It’s a strange, subtle book, one which borrows certain elements from its predecessors while striding into a different territory.
All of which brings us to Kind One.
In an interview with Astrophil Press publisher Duncan Barlow, Hunt noted that Ray of the Star was “the first in a new series of projects that followed the first volley I dreamed up and wrestled interminably with during the past decade or so (The Paris Stories, The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana, and The Exquisite).” In the same interview, he also alluded to two novels that were written concurrently with Ray of the Star: one set in Kentucky (this would turn out to be Kind One) and one set in Colorado. In a 2010 interview with the journal Hobart, Hunt referred to the novel that would become Kind One as “my most narrative thing.”
The novel opens in 1830. The unnamed narrator of the first section (labeled “Overture”), lives in isolation with his wife and daughter and sets out to dig a well. The task grows to obsess him, his efforts taking him deeper and deeper into the earth, leaving him unable to intervene when a wild bear’s intrusion leads to the death of his daughter. There is a burial; the section closes with these lines: “Some years hence I dug another well, but I would not drink from it, nor sit at table beside any who would.” From here, we have our themes: obsession, family, failure, and a kind of primal taint, a sin that leaves those who encounter it prone to dealing in absolutes.
From here, the narrative of Ginny Lancaster begins, told from a vantage point in the early 20th century, though set in the middle of the 19th. We gather that something has happened to make her change her name; her past is something to be abhorred. “Once I lived in a place where demons dwelled,” she begins. “I was one of them.”
But when we first encounter Ginny, she has become an idealistic young woman, fond of books and storytelling and hopeful that life will match her with someone who shares these passions. She is swept up by her mother’s cousin, a man named Linus Lancaster; she leaves home to be his bride and finds herself living in Kentucky in the 1850s. Linus, who had seemed a freethinker, is revealed as domineering, an owner of slaves, and thoroughly delusional about the nature of his pig farm. (“The mansion lacks nothing but the building,” he tells Ginny’s father.) There are respites from the horrors of her marriage: occasional visits from her parents and her growing bond with Cleome and Zinnia, both working in slavery on Lancaster’s farm.
“I was 20 and Cleome and Zinnia were 16 and 18 when Linus Lancaster commenced to paying them visits,” Ginny writes. And it’s as a result of Linus’s actions that Ginny’s moral corruption begins. She is separated from her compassion and turns abusive, though the full extent of it won’t be apparent until later in the novel in a section narrated by another character. Ginny largely describes her own actions — which, decades later, strike her as abhorrent. But it’s only in this later section that the consequences are understood. Ginny’s denial of her own handiwork is reflected in the shuffled chronology of these early sections, in which she leaps back to memories of a calmer time. The present never fails to intrude, however; as much as she hopes to construct a better story for herself, she can’t quite do it.
Linus Lancaster’s alliterative name seems better designed for a superhero than for the morally putrid figure on display here. His violence begets more violence, but he doesn’t remain around to witness the consequences, which will take decades to resolve. Instead, he meets an unexpected and violent end. He remains a presence, both as his death threatens to call attention to the farm and more literally, as Cleome and Zinnia force Ginny to spend day after day in a room with his corpse. Her description makes her punishment seem like something out an old EC horror comic:
I talked at his forehead, which was ever dripping forward and pooling up on the table and sogging toward the edges and spooling toward the floor, and I talked at his hair, which had a blue sheen on it that had probably settled down from the stink stuck to the dust that had always been in that air.
Before Kind One has ended, Ginny will have handed off her role as narrator to Zinnia, a shift that makes her early comment about demons that much more relevant. Ginny herself flees Kentucky for Indiana, her work there a penance. What she endures is admittedly horrific, but Kind One reminds the reader that what she has done (both through her actions and through her complicity with Linus’s) is worse.
As with Hunt’s other books, there is ambiguity in play: it’s unclear whether the relationship of the man digging a well to the rest of the novel is concrete or symbolic. There are ghosts that walk and impart knowledge. There is escape, and there is reinvention — not just in Ginny’s decision to rename herself “Sue” once she reaches Indiana, but also in Cleome’s son Prosper, whose light skin allows him the ability to thoroughly investigate his family’s past.
That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that all of Hunt’s preferred themes are at their most realized here. A few revenants show up in Kind One, but given Hunt’s more realistic tone in this novel, these intrusions of the supernatural feel more jarring than they do elsewhere. And while Toni Morrison has certainly demonstrated that weaving ghosts into a narrative grappling with the effects of slavery can be expertly done, the visitations in Hunt’s novel feel more sudden. Hunt has married gritty realism with the paranormal before, but even in Indiana, Indiana, Noah appears from the beginning as separate from the rest of the society around him. His visions therefore don’t seem like much of a leap.
A scene in which a spectral Linus visits Ginny and shares some of his history does humanize him without making him less odious; his words both reaffirm his megalomania and provide more details on his charged relationship with Bennett Marsden. But here, it feels less like an incursion of the uncanny and more like a delivery vessel for exposition. Far more successful in adding elements of the irrational and inexplicable to the narrative is a story told by a slave named Alcofibras, whom Linus will eventually murder. It’s a kind of folktale focusing on a clever onion, but it also contains echoes of his own bondage:
The men carried torches. The onion took a bite of his other apple and the earth split asunder. The heavens raged and its powder kegs roared and a cataclysm ensued. The earth turned to water and the water to earth. Ice smashed at the trees. Time burned. There was a howl in the throat of the winds. Still the men came.
This passage gets at something else that Hunt does remarkably well: the evocation and channeling of different voices. Though Ginny’s narrative takes up the bulk of the novel, she is not the only narrator we encounter; besides the different first-person narrators, there are also narratives within narratives. With the exception of a few letters from Noah’s wife in Indiana, Indiana, Hunt’s supporting characters elsewhere rarely have a voice of their own. Even in that novel, though the letters convey a sense of heartbreak, Opal never seems quite as alive as Noah or Virgil, his companion for most of the book. Her unknowability, and the irrationality of her actions, is what characterizes her.
This division between open and unknowable characters recurs in Hunt’s books. In The Exquisite’s doubled structure, the femme fatale Tulip exists in parallel with Dr. Tulp, into whose care Henry is placed. Her name evokes the surgeon delivering the anatomy lesson that gives Rembrandt’s painting its title, but it also suggests the Buddhist concept of the tulpa — a kind of thought-construct given form. That concept could describe much of Hunt’s players, from the sinister operatives in The Impossibly to the malevolent running shoes in Ray of the Star.
All told, Kind One has five narrators, each of them distinct, some of them encompassing the narratives of others, from Alcofibras’s surreal tale to the photographs that punctuate Zinnia’s section of the book. Hunt has previously focused on individual consciousness, rather than on the interaction between people. Kind One’s climax is built around reckonings, around moments of unabashed human connection. While more accessible, this remains recognizable as Hunt’s work: several of the novel’s most significant interactions happen in moments that occur off the page, and Hunt is content to let the contents of one narrative bombshell simmer for nearly half the novel.
For all that Kind One feels more accessible than any of Hunt’s previous books, it still feels like an organic followup. And the ways in which it finds him advancing his style suggest an expanded humanism at work, even as he’s also willing to follow his protagonists onto more morally treacherous ground. If the Hobart interview remains accurate, Hunt’s next book will follow Indiana, Indiana and Kind One into historical territory. History should provide unexpected fuel for Hunt’s distinctive, unsettling pursuits. As Kind One (and, to an extent, The Exquisite) shows, Hunt’s penchant for the ambiguous, the divergent, and the unsettling can flourish when rooted in American history.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor for the online literary journal Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Tin House magazine, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, The Collapsar, and Joyland. He can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.
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