Two slim books in one, Vancouver author John Culbert’s first collection of fiction is a small masterpiece, a double A-Side of breath-taking ingenuity and beauty.
The Purgatory Press presents itself as the catalogue of a defunct publishing house. But this is no ordinary catalogue–and no ordinary publisher. Each imaginary book is described at length with a delicate appreciation that aims less to sell us a product than to entice us into another world, a world glimpsed through the act of reading. Appropriately, many of the works described are critical appreciations or biographies of artists and writers who have for some reason been neglected or fallen out of favour after a brief moment in the sun. The critic’s task is to rescue them from what would otherwise be oblivion, from the condescension of ignorance or the judgement that these are merely aesthetic dead ends. Likewise, the catalogue aims to pique our interest in arcane research and lives devoted to perhaps useless erudition. But we know that this task has already failed: the Press is “ceasing operations.” Which leaves its authors and their books in the limbo of the backlist, an afterlife from which they may or may not be redeemed.
The aesthetic and intellectual experiments covered by the catalogue provide flashes of mystery and illumination: bizarre endeavours whose secret key may or may not be revealed by the texts that describe them, or which may or may not hide a secret at all.
They include a performance artist who drives cross-country with her “left-turn signal blinking for the entire trip.” We gain only the slightest glimpse of the rationale for this project, in a brief quotation from her book Left Turn (64pp.), which is a Kerouac-esque screed denouncing “’America’ the gluttonous, the insatiable, with endless black tongues of asphalt, every mile another neon sign touting precious ‘vacancy.’ And very minute another good citizen tells me I’m not turning left” (9). Then there is Eric Radiswill’s Masks of the Ceremony (244pp.), the biography of an anthropologist who, studying the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Coast, apparently sacrifices his own work in sympathy, making “a concerted effort to eradicate his history among the First Nations” (36). Secure in his tenured professorship, he appears to be nothing more than “academic dead wood, a seeming dilettante and amateur collector of native paintings, carvings, and artifacts.” Could it be that all the while he was lending “his support to the tribes’ covert ceremonies, about which he was sworn to secrecy” (40)? Meanwhile, we are told that Alice Mei Chen’s The Beaten Track (245 pp.) cuts up the prose of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa to produce unsettling poetry in which, for instance, the story of the tracking and shooting of an antelope is transformed into a “childhood diary that recounts the death of a beloved pet” (49); would-be readers are advised that they “may wish to have Hemingway’s original text at hand to best appreciate the perspicacity of Chen’s work of creative citation” (51).
But this is a book in which the “original text” is never at hand. All we have are the traces of imagined books that in turn (we are told) claim no more than to read traces of traces. In their labyrinthine structure, their erudite mixture of fact and confabulation, their philosophical challenges, their interest in the creativity of (mis)reading, and not least in their wry, deadpan humour, these stories are more than a little reminiscent of the work of Jorge Luis Borges. And yet (ironically enough) they do not feel derivative in the slightest. Rather than dry exercises of homage or intellectual dexterity, each story is animated by a delight in the powers of imagination and the paradoxes of language, as well as gentle mockery towards those who set out to pin down meaning and arrest signification.
(More at original website) ~ Jon Beasley-Murray, http://posthegemony.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/the-purgatory-press-after-the-end/
"John Culbert’s double book The Purgatory Press & After the End pulls off a double feat: its ingenuity is matched by an undiminished sense of wonder and a talent for the delicate shaping of enigmas. It is at once deeply knowing and wide open to the unknown. Culbert’s prose moves with unfailing grace from the layered jokes of his “imaginary lives” to the surprises that keep coming “after the end,” which test the powers of fiction to tickle, puzzle, haunt or devastate the reader. This is a book to be relished, cleverly and lovingly designed to follow you and echo in your head." ~ Chris Andrews, translator and poet
"A tour de force & true treat! Come and visit this locus mirabilis where fiction meets thinking, a rarer pleasure than you may surmise. Imagine Borges as a satirist with the Great Library of the Internet at his disposal. Or imagine a Proustian salon that doubles as an all-American saloon where you can meet everybody you ever wanted to. They’re all here — with walk-on parts for Frank Zappa & Jacques Derrida, E.T.A. Hoffmann & Isua Nunaap, fictional authors & real characters! But be careful, reader: don’t do as you imagine the author does, i.e. tuck tongue firmly into cheek — he isn't, and on this roller coaster ride you’d risk to bite it off, maybe in laughter, maybe in deep thought, as you crash into the next curve." ~ Pierre Joris, author of A Nomad Poetics
"Sometimes John Culbert’s work sounds like Bolaño, other times it sounds like Lydia Davis, or a demented art historian. He embodies so many voices and styles and finds the virtues in conventions even as he is critical of them. A writer shouldn’t be able to do this many things this well." ~ Adam Novy, author of The Avian Gospels