For some reason I saw myself writing a long piece about Eugene Marten’s novels. But after reading two of them (Waste and Firework), I’ve kind of abandoned the prospect. Why, I’m not exactly sure. There’s something I find resistant to paraphrase, or to description of any kind in his work. Marten’s prose is often described as “brutal,” “terrifying,” and so on, which makes a kind of sense. Here, for instance, is a passage from Firework, which I happen to have at hand right now: “The janitor came in the morning. The stench filled the cell but Jelonnek was glad; it might disguise the one he hoped no one would notice. He tied his shirt around his waist and was glad he wore dark pants. The kid with the ponytail was gone.”  Here Jelonnek, what I guess we would call the “protagonist” of the novel, has pissed his pants in his jail cell after being picked up for solicitation.  The minimal, threatening “Lishiness” of these sentences is representative: whether Jelonnek is sitting in a jail cell drenched in his own filth or being dragged along on a psychotic joyride through L.A. or  buying hot dogs for a picnic, violence seems to simmer below the very shape of Marten’s sentences.

Not quite “restrained,” his sentences concentrate, as though the effort required to restrain the rage beneath them is almost too much.  Uneducated, drifting, both Jelonnek and Sloper [1] (the janitor/ necrophile of Waste) are too stymied by forms of life and experience outside of their own to ever become curious about the world. Both characters perform acts that are, to say the least, morally questionable, but Marten is able to convey enough misplaced, perverted tenderness in each of them to render them sympathetic. The woman in Sloper’s refrigerator, who is the object of one of the most (I think?) realistically-rendered necrophilic love affairs in literature, becomes the center of Sloper’s world, whereas Jelonnek idolizes and idealizes a football player, “Number Nineteen” [2].

Marten manages to suggest a wealth of unprocessed trauma at the heart of his characters’ obesessions while keep us far enough from them to disable our ability to analyze them. We are placed in regard to them as they are to the world, experiencing something just shy of curiosity, without the language to express what it is we wish to know about them.

And that’s thing, the way these novels take a central inarticulateness as a kind of style sheet, that makes them difficult to talk about. Words like “terrifying” or “brutal” express something about the tone of these books, but thinking about what makes a tightly-written sentence into a little showpiece of horror requires a statement about some deeper source of violence the writing also denies us.

[1] I couldn’t help but think back to Henry James’s Dr. Sloper from Washington Square, my least favorite James novella. It could be an allusion: Dr. Sloper is a stern patriarch who prevents his daughter Catherine from marrying Morris Townsend, who he fears is after his money. Even in death, Dr. Sloper wards off Townsend by leaving Catherine with far less money than she thought she would receive. Sloper is a janitor who, with a kind of scrupulous politeness and the meticulous cleanliness of a true professional, masturbates all over the belongings of people in the office building where he works, and eventually finds the murdered body of the only woman there who is kind to him. He brings her home and keeps her in a refrigerator, taking her out at night to romance her. So pretty obvious connection if you ask me.

[2] Who appears to be a sort-of-disguised Steve Beuerlein. I wouldn’t know that but for some quick Wikipediaing, and also I’m reminded that the Super Bowl described in the novel, Super Bowl XXVII, was supposed to take place in Phoenix, but was moved because of Arizona’s refusal to officially observe Martin Luther King Day. And even after the legislature finally folded and accepted the holiday, it’s still embarrassing to say, as I must, that I’m from Arizona.