ALLEN BRAMHALL Reviews
Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz
(Trenchart: The Maneuvers Series, Les Figues Press, Los Angeles, 2010)
This unusual book tells a story, and tells it again and again. That story permutes thru twenty eight versions. The book’s crux reveals itself: how Abramowitz takes the meager narrative and stretches it the length of seventy five 3”x8” pages.
Teresa Carmody provides a useful introduction that I wish were placed in epilogue territory. The reader (I think) needs a chance to scope Abramowitz’s experiment free of elucidation. A minor point but still. You won’t ruin the experience by reading Carmody’s insights first, it just seems afterwordish to me. Carmody effectively quotes Stein, who essentially remarked that repetition does not exist, but insistence does. The point bears nicely on this book.
The basic story is meager, as I said. Recounted in various modes and styles, the gist is of a boy who lives with his grandmother near a lake. He goes for a long walk and “may have gone too far”. A policeman appears and believes that the boy is lost. The boy reacts with gratitude then anger. Each section of this book includes some tilling of that field.
Saying that a gist exists plays right into Abramowitz’s thesis, if thesis it be. What I tell you of the plot lines up with the other twenty eight versions of the story. Inconsistency reigns among the details, to the point of opposition, one version from another.
Each section runs two or three pages in length. Abramowitz writes simply, for the most part. Many sections begin in media res. Repetition of phrases occurs subtly, provoking vaguely like a gnat.
The first section and numerous ones following refer to a ghost story. This story is in fact “The Open Window” by H.H.Munro, also known as Saki. I remember reading this story, an anthology staple, in elementary school.
In the story, a child regales an overly nervous visitor to a house with a tale about dead family members. The child explains that they died while hunting, so a window remains open for them to return. The child in fact recounts the predictable actions of still living people. When the hunters return, and climb thru the open window as the child described how they would, the visitor runs away in fright.
Abramowitz never mentions the humourous part of Saki’s story, and in fact neglects to indicate anything of this ghost story except that it involves a hunter. This neglect suggests the selective fluidity of details. As one reads the various versions, one notes the change in tone and mode of each. One realizes how inconstant narrators can be.
One might categorize Not Blessed with, say, The Ring and the Book or Rashomon, but it is not so much different views of the same events but different emphases. It is as if the narrator were in a different mood with each version. Each version, each section, bears a definite approach. Sometimes the narrator is wordy, sometimes brief, sometimes hearty, and so on. One could think that Abramowitz used certain authors as exemplars. For instance, one section resounds for me with the amiable resource of Laurence Sterne (in a half-baked way); another has the wordy intensity of Poe. It does not read as a what if this or that author wrote the narrative but rather as an exploitation of tonal shift.
The first section, perhaps catching me unaware, made me think of Flann O’Brien. The boy’s story conveys for me the detailed, slightly odd and mildly grim landscape of The Third Policeman. The recounted memory seems to invest a plangent land of intense, dreamlike directive, even as the narrative barely emerges from the ordinary. Other sections suggest someone in counseling, someone giving a speech, someone being interviewed. Abramowitz leaves the reasons for any of that up to the reader.
The boy, never named, endures an odd anger at the policeman’s actions. His relief at the policeman’s apparent kindness becomes aggravation because the policeman failed to recognize that the boy and his grandmother were well known in the region. The narrator intimates future notoriety, but we never learn what that notoriety might entail.
The policeman himself proves especially fluid in character. We see him helping the boy, bullying him, belittling him. We can wonder consistently whether we are getting “the real story”. Of course we are not. We get what the narrator gives us.
As I read, I found myself scanning forward quickly, to see the next change on the theme. I believe one can allow oneself to read Not Blessed so the first time. Later readings can partake of comparison. The rhythm of repetition and key change produces a subtle dazzle.
Not Blessed does not sound like Stein, but you will likely hear a Steinian rapture in its insistence. The redolence of humour and oddity that infuses the little narratives blesses the book with a depth greater than mere experiment.
Though much is of the ordinary, Abramowitz does supply a quirky aspect. In a number of the versions, the boy encounters another boy. This second boy is on a parallel road that our hero can never reach. This unreachable doppelganger adds a weirdness that again provokes in my mind Flann O’Brien’s landscapes of impulse and received detail. Not Blessed is not roisterous like O’Brien’s works, but it contents me to think Abramowitz honours O’Brien with this work.
We all recognize fiction, even against our will, as a firmly resolving plan of action. Yes, satisfaction exists in such resolve, but that resolve is a fabrication. Not Blessed adds to the literature that questions that determined resolve. It faces the narrator’s testimony with inquisitiveness rather than blind faith. For that, and for other marvels, I give it thumbs up.
Allen Bramhall was born by the banks of the Concord River in 1952 and has lived in Massachusetts ever since. He was educated at Franconia College and Lesley University, and in non-academic places as well. / Simple Theory / (Potes & Poets Press) was his first book. He maintains a blog called Tributary (http://tribute-airy.blogspot.com/), and a life with Beth and Erin. He is also the author of DAYS POEM, Vol. I and II (Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco).