Thursday, 2 January 2014

THE HOLLOW MEN OF MODERNITY: A REVIEW OF ANDY NOWICKI'S LOST VIOLENT SOULS


by Cecilia Davenport


     Shape without form, shade without colour,
     Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

     Those who have crossed
     With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
     Remember us-if at all-not as lost
     Violent souls, but only
     As the hollow men
     The stuffed men.

                        – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Andy Nowicki’s latest book, the volume of short stories entitled Lost Violent Souls, presents the reader with portraits of angry modern men, striving to create meaning out of nothingness in the face of a hollow world. The title of the work poses a question, to be teased out and answered by the reader in the course of the text: are these lost violent souls really different from T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men? Does their quest for meaning result in anything that might be considered, as one character puts it, “glorious”? (Thereby, of course, rendering the quest not meaningless?) Or does the journey of these violent men in this “dead land”, this hollow world, end up hollowing out the men themselves, in spite of their futile striving?

The most hyped story in the collection is “Oswald Takes Aim”, an alternative history of what might have happened to America if Lee Harvey Oswald had lost his nerve. Nowicki balances the morbid tragedy of Oswald’s soul with an almost hilarious account of what happens to America and the rest of the world. But Oswald, with his proud, twisted idealism, a thwarted Alexander or Lenin, loses himself. Similarly, the first story in the book, “Morning in America”, is a vignette involving two young men who have made a pact to carry out a mass murder, knowing it will end in their “glorious” demise. But their emotions range from transcendent exultation and twisted bravado to despair and dispirited emptiness. They rage against the modern world, but like the proverbial tiger, the world wins in the end.

     This is the dead land
     This is cactus land
     Here the stone images
     Are raised, here they receive
     The supplication of a dead man's hand
     Under the twinkle of a fading star.


The way that Nowicki portrays his anti-heroes seems to suggest something like this: that these lost violent souls are striving for something to give their lives purpose, meaning, glory, even a kind of twisted beauty. For the modern world either perverts these things or makes them impossible. Religion is hollow. Political life is hollow. Sex is hollow. This theme is not particularly new in the genre of Southern Catholic literature, for Walker Percy wrote about it almost 40 years ago, in a book called Lost In The Cosmos (ironically subtitled “The Last Self-Help Book"):

"The fact is that, by virtue of its peculiar relationship to the world, to others, and to its own organism, the autonomous self in a modern technological society is possessed. It is possessed by the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence. The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages."

Percy was, of course, diagnosing the modern ailment: he saw the vocation of the philosophic novelist as a kind of diagnostician of the soul. He was not subtle. Nowicki, on the other hand, presents his characters as they are, as broken human beings, not in a diagnostic fashion, but in a brutally honest exposition of certain stages of the human condition. Like Flannery O’Connor, another Southern Catholic novelist and short-story author, he presents aspects of human reality that both fascinate and repulse us. There are lessons that can be taken away from the tales, but they are not pushed upon the reader.

Not all the stories in Lost Violent Souls end with the hollowing out of Nowicki’s characters (“The Poet’s Wager” in particular offers a choice most clearly). In this way he points the reader toward other alternatives, in the face of what Eliot called, “this valley of dying stars…this hollow valley, This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.” In the face of seeming inevitability, men still have the ability to choose. There’s more than one way out for us, we lost violent souls.

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