by Vincent Czyz
Rain Mountain Press (May 2015)
from the preface by Samuel R. Delany
Like every one of the last three dozen MFA theses I’ve read, the following text is neither a novel nor, really, a collection of stand-alone stories. Familiar characters—Zirque (rhymes with Jerk), Blue Jean, the Duke of Pallucca—disappear or are abandoned, reappear or are revisited tale to tale. But equally clearly these are not novel chapters. Our young writers seem unhappy with the strictures of both genres and are struggling to slough them.
If you are a reader convinced of the irrevocable sociality of fiction, I warn you: By and large, the text will not linger on how characters manage to pay for their various flights from Pittsburg to Paris, from Kansas to Amsterdam, how most of them make their living, or even scrounge up change for that next pint of booze, not to mention make the rent on an apartment in Budapest—another trait Vincent Czyz shares with many of his contemporaries; although, in their conviction that the world’s socio-economic specificities are every self’s necessarily distinctive background, neither Austen nor Flaubert, Knut Hamsun nor James Joyce, Virginia Woolf nor Henry Miller could have let such an omission by in their successive attempts to delve more and more deeply into some more and more highly foregrounded presentation of the subject. But the clash of micro-class and micro-class, macro-class and macro-class, that makes fiction interesting, or even useful, to the average Joe or Sue (not to mention to the commercial editors riding shotgun on the stopcock of the smoky trickle of confused tales—overplotted, understructured, and as incoherent and mixed in metaphor as the images within these parentheses, outside these dashes—throughout our Barnes & Nobles, onto our Big Name bookstores shelves) are simply not in focus on Czyz’s screen. They are bracketed along with all notion of labor.
If you feel art is an enterprise in which, when you have found an artist doing what every other artist is doing, you have necessarily found an artist doing something wrong (yet another story or poem voicing its appeal to aesthetic distance in that artificial and so-easy sign of the literary, the present tense: Yawn…!), some of the elements—or absences—I’ve highlighted here, in a book such as this, might give you pause.
What’s extraordinary here, however, what recommends and finally makes such work more than commendable, what renders it a small landmark in the sedimentation of new form in fiction, is a quality of language, a surface that signals that the structure of anything and everything that surface evokes beyond it is simply other than what we have grown used to. Finally such a surface signs to the astute that the reductions our first three paragraphs suggest are, in this case, wildly off the mark. (Czyz is not an MFA product.) Such language as we find here projects a particular aesthetic consciousness, rather, it might be more profitable to read as interested in other things, and not as one merely slovenly, unthinking, or ignorant of the tradition.
Nothing is careless about this writing at all.
Poetry is about the self as it is defined in the response to love, death, the changing of the seasons….However indirectly, however mutedly, traditional fiction has always been about money. I could speak easily and easily speak honestly—and at length—about how much I admire Czyz’s considerable talent, his fictive range, his willingness to plunge naked into the gutter, to leap after stellar contrails, his grasp of how ravenously one body grasps another, or of how his impossible apostrophes out of the night are the necessary utterances that make life possible, confronted with the silences of the day, with the deafness of those who never hear. But this is still a more or less rarefied, a more or less dramatic bit of lit. crit. It only becomes a recognizable “story” when I write that Vincent Czyz is a long-haired, newly-married taxi driver living in New Jersey and has sought my imprimatur—a gay, gray, pudgy professor with income tax problems, who commutes to work in Massachusetts by Peter Pan (cheaper than Amtrak), and who has published thirty books over as many years with various presses, commercial and university….But Czyz’s are not traditional stories. Indeed, they are part of a counter-fictive tradition that attempts to appropriate precisely the substance of poetry for prose: Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, Toomer’s Cane, Keene’s Annotations….Average Joes and Sues are just not Czyz’s concern. He’s fixed his finger, rather, on yearningly romantic figures who combine rough American—or foreign-tinted—dialect with pristine insight; men and women who, clawing at the evanescent tapestry of perception as it unravels madly from the loom of day, are as concerned with myth and cosmology as they are with moment and the night, and who now and again have more consonants in their names than vowels, many of those names not commencing till the terminal handful of letters flung from the alphabet….Though they fixate on indirectly answering just such questions as Czyz here sets aside, not Proust, not Musil, not Ford of Parades End or The Fifth Queen is “easy reading” either; and finally for much the same surface reasons. Though the sexuality is more or less normal, the poetic method is closer to Genet’s—another writer whose novels tends to ignore those grounding questions, unless the characters are pimps (i.e., living off prostitutes of one sex or another) or in jail (i.e., living off the state).
As an appendix to his 1934 collection of essays, Men Without Art, Wyndham Lewis proposed “The Taxicab Driver Test” for good fiction. Suggested Lewis: Open the text to any random page and give it to any average cab driver. (Fascist Lewis assumed the driver’s first language would, of course, be English; Czyz is conversant in several—besides working as a cab driver, he’s taught English as a foreign language in Turkey…) Tell him to read it. Then ask: “Is there anything here that seems strange or unusual or out of the ordinary for a work of fiction?” If he answers “Yes,” then you may have some extraordinary fiction. If he answers “No,” you don’t. Lewis went on to apply his test to, respectively, a Henry James short story and a banal society novel by Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point, which was thought much of back then because it was a roman à clef about the Lawrences and the Murrys—I remember reading it when I was around seventeen. I said, “Huh…?”). James certainly wins; Huxley doesn’t. (Today, does anyone read anything else he’s written other than Brave New World, possibly Island?) I don’t think the Taxi-driver Test is a hundred-percent reliable. Still, it’s a good one to keep in mind; and it’s a salutary corrective to today’s mania for “transparent prose,” even (or especially) among our most radical experimenters. I mention it because Czyz’s work (as does Melville’s, Joyce’s, Hemingway’s, Woolf’s, Faulkner’s, Patrick White’s, William Gass’s…) passes the Taxicab Driver test admirably. The work of the vast majority of Czyz’s contemporaries does not.
That is to say: Czyz is telling stories many of his contemporaries are trying to tell—and telling them far better!
If you are a reader who can revel in language—in the intricate and intensely interesting “how” language imposes on its “what”—then, however skew his interests are across the fictive field (and how refreshing that skewness!), Czyz is a writers rich in pleasures; it’s a pleasure to recommend him.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.