The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft
193 pp., pbk.
Review by Joe Sacksteder
First let me tell you what Gabriel Blackwell’s writing isn’t. There’s an insufferable new strain of fiction that has propagated since the internet started making research so easy. Writers who don’t really have anything to say can spend their writer’s block hours instead honing their web surfing skills and, by sheer happenstance, are bound to land upon some quirky thing that’s happening in some time or space they don’t understand, and suddenly they’ve stumbled upon settings and characters to torque and wrench and puff up with their own neuroses.
“Insufferable” is too strong. It’s the wrong word entirely. If the writer’s craft has been sufficiently workshop-burnished, they often succeed in – forgive the cliché – showing us a new world. We are entertained in largely the same way they were when they made their discovery. What is lost is the dedication, the discipline that a real fixation both requires and nurtures. What is lost is earning the right to tell that story. It leads to an output that feels schizophrenic and directionless. Writers become conduits of quirky factoids, become just another Buzzfeed.
Gabriel Blackwell’s writing is steeped in research, but it’s the kind of life-long, hard-earned research that wallows in the obsessions he can’t shake away. It was noire in his novel Shadowman, cannibalism in his story “An Interpretive History of Addition,” the Elephant Man in “A Model Made out of Card,” and now, in his new novel The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men…. Blackwell, too, has something cool he wants to show us, but his investment in the material is heftier than a momentary blip of excitement. He’s certain that his interests are important, and this certainty will awaken readers to our own kindred feelings of awe. Blackwell means business… do you?
Natural Dissolution is in many ways a sequel to Shadowman, continuing to follow the exploits of Blackwell’s fictionalized version of himself, an unreliable mess of a literary archaeologist. He’s kind of like a Dewey Decimal Indiana Jones – by which I mean that scene in Raiders where he’s drinking away Marion’s purported death in a shady Cairo bar. As Blackwell journeys to Providence to search for his fiancé Jessica, who we learn had split because of Blackwell’s hoarding habits, he stumbles around the nightmarish city on the edge of poverty, squalor, and exhaustion. His hallucinations and maladies begin to mirror those of Lovecraft at the end of his life, which are related through a letter Blackwell discovers amongst old hospital files he has been hired to shred en masse. Lovecraft’s letter appeared in the folder of one Gabriel Blackwell, who the reader is left to assume is an ancestor of present-day author, in response to a letter that ancestor Blackwell sent to Lovecraft, a letter that seems to be a portal to the fifth dimension. “I may have made some mistakes in the transcription,” (21) present-day Blackwell understates in one early footnote. “Coming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed… The events I was transcribing had not only not happened in life but not happened in the letter, either” (22). Both Lovecraft and Blackwell find themselves part of a Lovecraftian story, with sinister forces pressing in upon them. Blackwell gets mugged and has the original Lovecraft letter stolen from him, further leading the reader (and hesitant publishers) to question the document’s authenticity. The intestinal cancer that killed Lovecraft at forty-six is represented as an alien infection brought about by Lovecraft’s inadvertent dallying with a fifth-dimensional shadow creature and its cult.
As with the best books that use a dubious editor to call into question every word of a document, in particular Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a surreal moment is inevitable for any reader of Natural Dissolution: when you forget whose story you’re reading, Blackwell’s or Lovecraft’s, and the real versus fake version of both. The book thus infects readers just as Lovecraft’s letter does Blackwell, just as Blackwell’s ancestor’s letter did Lovecraft, calling into question the stability of the written word as a whole. One remarkable thing about Lovecraft’s stories is that they overload readers with details and trippiness to the point that they lull readers into thinking they can’t possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion – and then the last few pages have a driving momentum that solves the riddle while simultaneously leaving the reader gasping at lingering implications and doom. Both the story of Lovecraft’s last days and Blackwell’s search for Jessica and transcription of the letter frustrate this trend. We’re left with a lot of loose ends. For example, Blackwell’s “Introduction” hints that many of Lovecraft’s stories were forgeries; readers expect this to become a focal point for the plot, but it seems to just disappear. Rather than revealing a lack of deliberateness on Blackwell’s part, this tendency instead illustrates a mind and a genre of writing that have slipped the bounds of familiarity – perhaps even better than Lovecraft, as the answers to his cosmic mysteries can start to feel overly predetermined. “I had finally identified its source,” Blackwell’s Lovecraft writes of his fifth-dimensional plunging, “the long-familiar gremlin of my dreams and half-awake nightmares. It was that sense of familiarity with something so monstrous it could not possibly be familiar, that dissolution of affect, that had rendered the experience so terrifying to me” (139). Here Lovecraft becomes one of his own characters, particularly reminiscent of Henry Akeley in “The Whisperer in Darkness.” The thing about Lovecraft’s characters is that they desperately want you to believe them but desperately don’t want to believe themselves. Blackwell embodies this ambivalence in order to confuse the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, editor and author, sickness and inspiration.
Joe Sacksteder teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Recent and forthcoming publications include Passages North, Sleeping Fish, Booth, Rio Grande Review, and Fourteen Hills.