In the fantasy of La Farge’s Zuntig, the society and culture of the Swamp Apes have been fully crafted, seemingly over centuries. The customs have been set and are known by all, the positions of power are spoken of without explanation (as who are we to not already know them?), the islands dotting their territory are specifically held to their purpose, and, most importantly, the taboos live in the minds of each ape—maybe at the forefront when faced with a choice, but always subconsciously lingering, affecting even unrelated actions. The root fear, that most unbreakable taboo, is centered around death. The fear of dying is so pervasive throughout their society that it has been decided it is less terrifying to take one’s own life at the time when one knows death is closing in. If one takes power over death, not allowing it to spread its way through the apes and taking them when it desires, then perhaps the fear will be abated—if only for a moment.
In fact, the touching of the dead is a fate more taboo than dying oneself. Now, having touched this root fear, you have become it. You walk among the living, transmitting that sense of dread to every ape you come across. The fate for touching the dead is of course death itself. Drowning—pulled down to the depths of the swamp by a heavy stone. Yet, Zuntig, our main character, after being found to have touched the dead, is not ready to die. It is that last moment of fear she experiences while sinking to the depths of the swamp, maybe only seconds away from taking her final, watery breath, which saves her. Her shape shifts and so begins her metempsychotic journey.
Zuntig is about many things, all centering around these primal fears: it is about culture, expression through changing language, alienation, and evolution. When Zuntig is not yet ready to die, she miraculously takes the form of various animals, then another and another, shifting her language and thought patterns with those of the society she now lives in. La Farge’s purpose for this is not only to demonstrate the lengths one would take to preserve themselves but also how societies build rituals around this fear and how language can be used to express it. In one instance, we watch as she becomes a fish that can only think in rapid, distracted thought. The life of a small sea creature is so comparatively short and more dangerous than the life of an ape—how else can thoughts of death be cast off but a difference in language. Her view is now composed of “left-world right-world.” She experiences bombardments of sensory information and evolutionary input: “two thousand ductile homes drawn down the joining streams twine in the Flood’s thick cable / hunt them by pause and surge / pause and surge / none of these paradises mine”. These never-ending distractions act as a shield until Zuntig changes again.
Romance takes precedent in some societies: monogamy in one, pure unfettered procreation in another. In the former, the love of a specific individual may give one the comfort and happiness they need to come to terms with mortality. In the latter, the knowledge that your line has been given the possibility of exponential growth could make you believe that you have, in fact, become immortal. Other societies thrive because their methods of hunting require a plunge that involves so much skill and bravery that what else could take precedence in their mind but the hunt itself? Some find solace in moving from location to location—for what is better to distract than a life that never remains the same. And even the languages of these societies exemplify these means. Whereas the fish used a stream-of-consciousness style, some find relief in verse, some through theatrical means, some stay stoic and serious.
Nearing her final transformation, even though Zuntig now understands so much more than any creature possibly could about life and death, she still has not found acceptance in herself. She has not moved past the pure terror of death. Because, in societies not built around her psyche, comfort cannot be found no matter the lengths they have gone to remove that fear. Still, they were not pointless endeavors. She now sees the importance of culture—how one culture’s taboo may be the means of another to survive, how different mannerisms or methods of language are more than simple variation. And with this knowledge, she better understands her own society. So, in her final transformation, what else could be possible but to shift back into herself? The Leg, the fused portion of the dead child she touched which caused this whole fantastic flight, has been trying to pull her back to the swamp the entire time. She now sees why. It, being Death itself, knows that the swamp is the only place she could find solace in dying. The home there was built for her. While the fear can never be erased, it can be eased. Its incomprehensibility can be given meaning. She can be given a purpose, a meaning beyond nothingness, in death.
In the literary world today, Tom La Farge reminds us of the purpose of literature. He pleads for us to not allow complexity to fall to the wayside in favor of stoic, to-the-point sentences. Because stream-of-consciousness is not simply some pretentious way to convey the same thought; it weaves its way into our mind, showing how fluidly unrelated ideas can morph into something greater. And contemporary poetry is not dying – it is beating away in the underbelly of the world of literature, mimicking great authors but still bringing wholly original verse. How else could he have conveyed the veil that the ice-matrix laid over Zuntig’s mind? Simple prose would not do. Yet, while La Farge’s distinctive style goes nearly unheard, drowned out by thousands upon thousands of less original authors, a voice of this power cannot be hidden forever. It is my belief that a voice of this capacity will reemerge as a prevailing force. Not immediately, perhaps, but like Melville, will be rediscovered and hailed.
Andrew Hermanski is currently a high school English teacher. He has received his Master’s in public health and his B.S. in psychology from the University of Arizona. Although his formal educational background is in the sciences, his love for literature and teaching has led him to pursue a different career path. His focus in literature lies in postmodernist and experimental fiction. In his free time, he also loves to watch movies, cook, write fiction and book reviews, and play video games (and, of course, to spend time with his partner and his cats). Find him on Goodreads, Twitter, or moderating over on the TrueLit subreddit.