The Undeserved Obscurity of an American Kafka: Michael Cisco and The Narrator
Few writers within the realm of nonrealist or "weird" fiction has more right to feel unjustly neglected than Michael Cisco, who over the course of several novels, including his critically acclaimed debut, The Divinity Student, has forged a singular path in creating visionary, phantasmagorical settings, uniquely alienated characters/anti-heroes, and genuinely creepy happenings. Cisco is, at this point, sui generis, and brings a healthy absurdism and dark sense of humor to his fiction as well. Following on his incendiary and utterly stunning The Traitor, Cisco now offers up The Narrator, a novel that would have made my top 10 of the year if I had encountered it soon enough. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the novel has only been reviewed in a handful of places to date.
In the novel, the narrator Low is conscripted as a Narrator (a recorder of events) into an army to fight against the "blackbirds," who possess lighter-than-air armor. But first, our hero must play a waiting game in a city of cannibal queens and uncanny dead things, with priests for both the living and the dead, and the strange remnants of a mighty imperial power that must be avoided at all costs. Once mobilized, Low sets off on a journey that is by turns absurd, surreal, deadly, and one of the great feats of the imagination thus far in this new century--and one that includes scenes and moments I've never experienced in any other work of fiction.
Given its unique qualities, The Narrator seemed like a good candidate for the troika of blogger reviews that myself, Larry Nolen, and Paul Charles Smith have engaged in for Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps and Matt Bell's story collection How They Were Found. We also added in a guest blogger, J.M. McDermott. Here're some excerpts from those reviews to give you further triangulation and, hopefully, anticipation...
The OF Blog (Larry Nolen): "In his previous works, Cisco tended to rely more on elements such as this to create the "weirdness" that served as a thematic staple in his stories. Here, in his longest work to date, he goes further. Through the character of the Narrator Low, he explores not just the weirdness of the locale and the strangeness (and hell) of war, but the very semantics that underlie our conceptualizations of the world and the medium of language used to express it. Several authors utilize the 'unreliable narrator' trope to underscore the hidden undercurrents of the narrative, but Cisco is one of the few authors I have encountered who have attempted to undermine the very narrative structure itself through the creation of a character whose purpose is to tell and retell events until the events are forgotten and what is left becomes Story." (Read the full review.)
Apex (J.M. McDermott): "The novel is perhaps best understood by the cannibal queen. She lives in hiding, away from the crowds, in decadence. She sees the Narrator and invites him to her solitude to alleviate her sorrow with love. She had devoured her husband. At first, this pariah seems to be outcast. Not so; she is embraced by the death cult. She runs and hides not from shame, but from the reverence of the crowd, who would worship her. This early revelation adumbrates the horrors to come. What is an abomination on par with cannibalism more than warfare? It is celebrated by society like the cannibal queen’s horrific act." (Read the full review.)
Ecstatic Days (Jeff VanderMeer): "I’ve rarely come across so many instances where I was simultaneously in the moment of the novel but also recognizing that I was encounter images, snippets, set-pieces unlike any I’d ever read before. Cannibal Queens, sleepwalkers that bruise the surface of reality as they glide past, assailants who skim the surface of the water in armor that’s lighter than air, conjurings with unexpected consequences, refugees from an insane asylum who assemble as soldiers." (Read the full review.)