"troublesome, troubling, resistant, contagious, and rewarding—all at once"

ABSURDIST FICTION

Mark Haber

Reinhardt’s Garden

Coffee House Press

Paperback (also available as an e-book), 978-1-5668-9562-0, 168 pgs., $16.95

October 1, 2019

 

This is an important book, and it’s important readers realize that going in. The story isn’t easy, but the prose is more than rewarding. Let me explain.

 

“Prose is architecture,” Hemingway said, “not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” Therein lies the rub with Mark Haber’s Reinhardt’s Garden: it’s all interiority, a circular, strangling, spiral of tightening thought in a single one-hundred-and-fifty-page paragraph without a breath, much less the light or heat or elbow room of visceral space or conventional narrative sweep.

 

There are flecks of artistic brilliance and tones of an anguished Saul Bellow monologue (think Some Die of Heartbreak) or the mid-career textual experiments of Phillip Roth. There’s also the narrative resistance of Zadie Smith, the outright defiance of Cormac McCarthy, or the skeletal blasphemy of Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Still, none of them claimed the liberty of filibuster to the extent of Jacov Reinhardt’s faithful assistant, Haber’s faceless straw man, in a nonstop rant.

 

Nonetheless, there is a strange, beautiful aesthetic in the spun thread of tightly, smoothly laminated prose. Not since Algernon Swinburne’s nineteenth-century polar poetics has there been a more measured, metrical pairing of opposites layered in description, leaving the reader to discern a heartbeat in the fleeting, aesthetic structures of weak and strong, young and old, beautiful and hideous, saintly and sinful. To accomplish this art in narration, and Haber has, is masterful, touching on genius.

 

The comedy—and we have to assume Haber intends episodic, reflective comedy—is at first Archie Bunker burlesque, but in the single-note chord that is monologue, the framework becomes oppressive, and the repeat pattern in the ever-tightening narrative weave can’t lift the “humor” above repetitive meanness. Reinhardt hates everyone based on his perception of otherness and has a condescending, ignorant hate of cultural—even regional—differences. That’s the unifying, contradictory undertow of Reinhardt’s Garden: the journey of “discovery” as bus tour of intolerance. At each stop, it gets harder and harder to laugh at the joke.

 

That’s where the Swinburnian binary framework re-emerges, as Haber leaves the reader to sense the middle ground between Jacov’s contempt and the narrator’s unwitting, unthinking experience of the people and places Reinhardt scornfully dismisses. What Swinburne accomplished incomparably in poetry, Haber achieves admirably well in prose. That, for the reader, creates another ultimatum: submit to the whirlpool, go with the torrent, and find the middle passage—or drown in the prose. There is an aesthetic reward for the reader, but it’s hard won and by the halfway mark, with much more uphill to go, an uncertain endeavor.

 

Which returns us to Hemingway’s Baroque. Haber sets Reinhardt’s Garden in early post-modernist 1907, hard on the heels of fin de siècle (end-of-the-century, Y2K-ish angst) stress after the nineteenth-century industrial dehumanization of the common man. The world surfed a rising tide of great minds sorting great thoughts to save humankind and ensure world peace. No one knew better than Hemingway how magnificently that particular intellectual Baroque failed. A hundred and twelve years later, Haber dusts off “melancholy” and now it’s kitschy, but is that enough? The reader must decide. 

 

There’s much to like in this story, though much to endure. There are sparks of brilliance in the tonnage of dark freight to be sorted. Through the black-hole density emerge slivers of color and light. If these last three sentences—binaries—widen your vision and hone your anticipation, you’re ready for Reinhardt’s Garden. It’s troublesome, troubling, resistant, contagious, and rewarding—all at once. That’s worth a read.

 

Mark Haber was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Florida. His first collection of stories, Deathbed Conversions, was translated into Spanish in 2017 in a bilingual edition as Melville’s Beard. His debut novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, was published by Coffee House Press on October 1, 2019. Mark is the operations manager and a bookseller at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas.

 

 

Chris Manno earned his doctorate in English at Texas Christian University where he teaches writing. He is the author of the award-winning Texas novels East Jesus and Blood and Remembrance.