A review of Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Reviewed by Justin Goodman

Unspeakable Things
by Kathleen Spivack
Knopf
Hardcover: 304 pages, January 26, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-0385353960

Kathleen Spivack’s Unspeakable Things has everything a great novel, let alone debut novel, should have. There’s irreverent passion, unexpected ways of shocking, a healthy libido (in this case the two are connected), light touches of magical realism, and poeticism. At 78, after over 30 years of poetry, it’s curious that she’d suddenly turn to the novel; you could also ask why Amy Clampitt waited until she was 63 to publish her first poetry collection, or ask Charles Bukowski why his first novel arrived after 11 years of poetry and short stories though. To paraphrase Reagan, the work, not the age, is important. So, having finished this work full of great debut material, I’m left with an itch. Why isn’t Unspeakable Things great?

I was reading Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness several years ago—specifically, I had just finished the magically dirty reality of “Animal Cracker In My Soup,” a bestiality story—when I had to reach for the nearest object (a shoehorn) to relieve the same itch. Of course, the story of a bourgeois Viennese family struggling to survive in America after being forced to emigrate amidst the chaos of WWII is not exactly similar to the belabored grunginess of a Henry Chinaski story. His is not the story of Herbert who, “yes, he had been chosen to live the hardest life of all: that of the survivor, the savior.” Tortured by his failures—including the once-imperial matriarch, Adeline, now bedded in Shakesperean madness (“Couldst thou save nothing,” King Lear asked)—he promises to recover the removed and stolen pinkies of the famous Tolstoi Quartet, not believing it possible; the Quartet’s story won Spivack the Carpe Articulum award for short fiction.

As is the nature of time’s affect on the immigrant experience, Unspeakable Things is not the immigrant novel of the 21st century. It’s neither Teju Cole’s Open City nor Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breakers, but vies to be something more contemporary than its subject. Instead of the popular and historical Unbroken, it attempts to transcend history like The Book Thief. What other reason is there for a Dr. Mengele-type disguised as a pediatrician (acting on his pedophilic desires) and also, absurdly, “[taking] out ‘Little Hanschen’ from between the garter belt and the top of his stockings….to stroke it tenderly, crooning” to pictures of Hitler? Dark comedy, yes. But that’s why we still remember King Lear in his crown of wildflowers too. There’s a clash, however, between its attempt at mockery and realism; the child molesting, Nazi scientist with an obsession with immortality becomes more real than the pseudo-christ.

The heart of the novel is Anna, “The Rat,” a hunchbacked countess who was the childhood love of Herbert, lost her family to the war, her ‘innocence’ to Rasputin before being physically desired by the Nazi Felix. Less time is devoted to her story than the hammy Tolstoi Quartet who, in their pathetic way, remind me of the Buffalo Bills from The Music Man. It’s not simply her scoliosis and intelligence that make her central, however, nor the odd fetishistic obsession every man has with her “hump.” In a way more literal than I would prefer—in the end “The Rat curved and curled herself into [Felix’s] large-bellied earthenware jar” as a sacrifice of sorts, for the fingers—I’m reminded of Shiela Heti’s story “Mermaid in a Jar.” “Unless I loosen the top,” that narrator says, “she’s not coming out to kill me.“ Once Anna arrives In America (she tells her story to Herbert’s granddaughter) the story begins to curve into its conclusion.

What’s most trying about Unspeakable Things is how hard it tries. Unlike the immigrant novels of Cole and Danticat, which emphasize difference and distance and attempts to fit in through memory-haunted urban realism, Spivack reduces her scope by bending reality. The Quartet’s pinkies and instruments possess autonomy, making noise and music responsively, the latter’s raucousness at one point forcing Herbert to shush them when they’re at the New York Public Library. This urban fantastic has a claustrophobic effect, turning the characters themselves into instruments. Rasputin’s handprint on Anna’s thigh (left during one of their awkwardly described sexual encounters: “It throbbed and weaved toward her, pointing toward her body as surely as a dowsing stick”) turns her into a vehicle for an odd attempt at sexual enlightenment—Kate Chopin’s The Awakening with less psychology. But Chopin’s transgressing was societal, impactful. It was one of the many predecessors to the official ‘70s/’80s genre practiced by many, including Bukowski.

But, whereas they were gnawing on mores finally dissolving after WWII introduced the moth to their cloth, Spivack is gnawing on bones. Her teeth could use some sharpening. The “unspeakable things” of the title refers to what was described in its entirety in the chapter “Rasputin’s Mark,” begging the question of the authenticity of the unspeakable. Then, it’s realized, Herbert, Anna, and Felix are interested in Esperanto and music, which “like chess [is] a universal language for mankind.” They try to embody Felix’s words, “nothing is lost, only transmuted.” In a humorous parallelism, Unspeakable Things is the opposite of everything it tries to be. It’s an immigrant story about the unity of American identity (“O My America!” is the final chapter, evoking the soulful American poet Walt Whitman), and a Transgressive novel about curing the stains of history. A far cry from that most popular of Transgressive novels, Fight Club, and evidence for the French philosopher Foucault’s claim that “transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows.”

In its way, Unspeakable Things is a sequel to one of Kathleen Spivack’s poem “Their Tranquil Lives.” “Oh lost world of Gustav Klimt” it begins, invoking the painter of gaudy, erotic nudes that created controversy for those adjectives. In the same way she invokes “Vienna before History” in the poem, her novel is the conclusive “century,/demented, wait[ing]/for its urgent re-inventions” come forth. But the poem’s weight is lost on a novel that turns pumps mystery full of helium, hiding the loss behind the revelations of elderly attachment to when “everything that was man-made was made to delight the senses. Nothing was simply what it seemed” in the last performance of the Tolstoi Quartet, once Herbert retrieves their fingers from Felix’s lab. Afterwards, Herbert and his family living stably, “the War ended so quietly that the family hardly noticed. For a long time after, their lives did not change. Which is to say that their lives had already been changed, irrevocably.” I’m itchy again: where had been this beautiful subtlety?

About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.

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