About Alan Singer: Singer is the author of six novels, The Ox-Breadth (New Earth Books, 1978), The Charnel Imp (Fiction Collective, 1988), Memory Wax (FC2, Black Ice Books, 1996), Dirtmouth (FC2, Black Ice Books, 2004), The Inquisitor’s Tongue (FC2, 2012) and, most recently, Play, A Novel (Grand Iota, 2020). He also writes about aesthetics and the visual arts, including Unmaking American Literature: Mind-Making Fictions of the Literary (Bloomsbury, 2017) and Literature Is History: Aesthetic Time and the Ethics of Literary Will (Cambridge U. Press, 2015). His most recent work is Posing Sex: Toward a Perceptual Ethics for Literary and Visual Art (Bloomsbury, 2018).
I interviewed Alan Singer here.
“Colors are the things dreamers cling to because they go beyond shape and in respect are like nothing so much as the impetus for dream itself. […] The dream-tautened tongue is only plucked by a reflex of memory with the open eyes fixed upon some inscrutable point of light. You stare in horror at the rising pools where your two feet have disappeared into the sand. But, from the moment you think of it and forever afterwards, your gaze is one that must suffer to blink, filled with the wash of all burning vision and masked with the delicate animal hairs of the living, growing body.”
Published in 1978 by New Earth Books: A Collective, Alan Singer’s first novel, The Ox-Breadth, is now almost impossible to find. Singer, although wary of his first effort (a feeling shared by most authors when it comes to their debuts), was kind enough to send me a copy. Beginning with the title and the cover, we already encounter the cryptic, as well as a distant Southern Gothic flavor in its mention of cattle. The titular letters are placed somewhat unevenly, suggesting a mimeograph machine or something similar was involved (the text within also has slanting and shifting moments). The red cover’s pale image of a crater is duplicated on the first page in higher detail and in black-and-white. It could be a three-dimensional coffee stain as much as a lunar crater, but then you more readily notice a rigid, horizontal groove through the ground below it—clues to the mystery of a missed story?
While it doesn’t explicitly say, it becomes clear early on that the protagonist Nils is some kind of polygamous brothel keeper, enjoying his women even as others do: Ingrid, Britt, Mitgard, Gerta, Helga, Monika, and Ewe. Perhaps, for all we know, he lives in this old, baroque, desert-located home among the phantasms of exes or women who were, are, or could be all at once. Among vaguer mysteries in a story that doesn’t even get summarized on the back of the book (rather, the description emphasizes the language and emotion and epistemology), the most upfront mystery is that of a runaway woman of his, the previously-mentioned Ewe, someone who he is possibly more fond of than the rest. She leaves a note that’s both conclusive and elusive, made more troublesome by later clues that appear as Nils tries to find her, such as a small local boy who delivers a box with an eviscerated rabbit inside of it. The latent and alive violence of that gift and others suggest a mirage murder mystery, an apparitional noir, possibly a secret cabal. Nils even sees Ewe dance at a bar even when it couldn’t possibly be her, could it?
Nils explains how she has “too much pity” and that “she lavishes more care on her poor herdsmen than they can even afford to lay upon the broken necks of their own precious oxen.” At least in this novel and his decade-later sophomore effort (I’ve only read one other so far), Singer has an obvious bovine obsession. Aside from the dead cattle that appear as omens in The Charnel Imp, here we have the metaphor of the ox’s slavery despite the potential power to revolt against its oppressors. Aside from the small breadth of its stall, there’s also the small breadth of its skull, or at least the size of its brain, a “brute existence which transcends intelligence in the exertion of mere being….”
As for style, Singer’s voice is here in its infancy, afloat in an amniotic sac of primordial prose that by some eldritch moon ebbs with Gothic if antiquated melodrama and flows with something more modern, the opening quote of this review being an estuary of the two.
The melodramatic, which adds to the atmosphere even though it can be too much at times: “Light scandalizing the damp bower of my darkest meditations, steaming up my vision. The unblooming thorns against which I guarded every movement of my naked hands were sharpest however where they grew straight up into the sagging arches of my tired feet and I felt the tedious pangs of the night watch, the throbbing calves and aching ankles of the besieged, the prickly skin of all stranded seafarers.” “…I, who had never struck even the flat of my open palm against a crimson cheek [some pimp he is], would have been as responsible for whatever harm came to her as if I had clenched all evil intentions in the moist heart of my own raging extremity?”
The modern: “Our tongues in our heads like the pulsing larval stage of some unspoken thought were all the tumescence of those chastening noontides.” “I gave him water. I fanned his ashen visage with the assiduousness of an arsonist.”
You’ll notice too that Singer’s syntax can also feel antiquated if not alien on occasion, but in most cases it’s enjoyable and is a prelude to the tighter sentential balancing of his later works. And while there’s not much in the way of characterization as such, Singer offers the odd phrase of explication that adds dimension to the names, including this sentence that’s as festooned as it is festering with feeling: “The irrepressible mental image which engorged itself on these sensations was a childhood memory of the ghost clothes of a departed brother, one day re-embodied with coarse handfuls of rancid straw and dried dung, intestinal lengths of oily rags and old, rare blood-colored bottles—all going to make a conceivably human target for the weekend sharpshooter, the backyard hunter, the down home vigilante who sets his sights on everyone he sees: my father.”
Just shy of 130 pages, this brief novel increases in its dream-fevered pitch until the bizarre climax, ending in a twist of the rind? a twist of the sheets? a twist of the blade? Yes, depending on who answers. While it is indeed juvenilia compared to later works, Singer’s first effort is stronger than most other debuts, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to read it.
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.