When I originally reviewed Yuriy Tarnawsky’s collection of mini-novels, Like Blood in Water, some years ago, I didn’t imagine (or perhaps realize) that it was just the beginning of what would become The Placebo Effect Trilogy, which consists of that book (now in revised form) plus two others: The Future of Giraffes and View of Delft. These extraordinary, difficult (but very rewarding) works require readers to forget all of the conventions of the ordinary novel (or novella, or short story) and prepare to enter a strange and wondrous land, where dream-logic rules and deeply-felt emotions are often expressed in screams of anguish or awkward sexual advances.
Tarnawsky’s ambitious and worthy project is in every sense just as significant as that of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s in the 1950s. The Nouveau Roman (New Novel) of that era turned novelistic conventions on their collective head[s] and produced works that were completely fresh but also, for some, completely confounding. Similarly, Tarnawsky’s “mininovels,” as he calls these densely-packed, short story-length works (there are fifteen in all, between the three books), will likely have a polarizing effect. But for those willing to delve deeply into their subtexts and references (some veiled, some less-so), their linguistic wordplays and clever verbal acrobatics, the payoff is great.
The author himself gives an analysis of the trilogy in a fine-print, page-long note placed at the beginning of all three books, in an attempt, perhaps, to help the unprepared reader out a bit. This guidance is both appreciated and also somewhat dangerous, for it is generally best (in this reader’s experience) to let one’s own reactions naturally emerge, rather than to follow another’s analysis from the get-go. That being said, it is interesting to note the themes of the trilogy as the author himself sees them. They are, in the order presented: “alienation,” “the scream as a manifestation of existential despair,” “loss of a child,” and “fear of death.”
Note: I will herein primarily discuss three central mininovels, taken from the second and third books of the trilogy, as I have already presented my thoughts on the selection of mininovels in Like Blood in Water in my earlier review.
The Future of Giraffes opens with a mininovel in eight parts. From the very first section, Tarnawsky presents us with a scream, albeit an ambiguous one. A boy, throwing ice-cold water on his face, “makes a sound halfway between a scream of pain and a laugh.” As he continues washing himself with icy cold water, he continues to make such sounds, the narrator tells us. By the time we reach the end of section eight, the motif of the scream has returned again. The boy, finding that his town—including, and perhaps most importantly, his own house, where his parents had been living—has been deserted (seemingly a variation on the suggested theme of “loss of a child”), and not knowing what else he can do to change his isolated situation, screams with as much force as he possibly can, though “no matter how hard he screamed it would never be loud enough.”
The central character of “The Quarry” is also a boy, one who is trapped inside an “unscalable” quarry, which is described in the opening paragraphs with great precision and detail (much as it might be in a “nouveau roman” novel, in fact). We are told that this quarry is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and also that it is well-guarded, not to mention that the boy is tracked by infra-red binoculars at night (as if further surveillance were needed!). In the third part of the eleven-part mininovel, we learn that the boy has to search for all of his food and clothing in the trash. “The object,” says the observer to a somewhat shocked visitor, “is for him to survive on his own. His wits must be quick enough and his body strong enough for him to do it.”
In part six, we see the boy eating a live rat, implying his “savage” nature, and in part seven the boy tries to escape from the quarry, falls, and then goes back to his cave where, in the final scene of the mininovel, he is observed playing a violent game of something resembling (but clearly not) chess. The entire mininovel is peppered with dream sequences, which create an uncanny sense of what is happening in the main (i.e. the “real”?) narrative, since there are many gaps left for the reader to fill with his/her imagination. The piece has a parable-like quality to it, and, according to the author’s note, its theme is “abandonment.” But why, the reader may ask, has the boy been abandoned in the first place? And by whom? Why is the “object” of the exercise (game?) to see whether or not he can survive on his own? Is the violent variation of chess the boy plays at the end—in which pawns destroy one another—an indication of what he has become/what his captors have made him into?
I would like now to focus on the fifth and final mini-novel in View of Delft, as it clearly refers back to the first mini-novel in Like Blood in Water: the main character has the name Richard Rohark (or, simply, “RR”), while the protagonist of “Screaming” is named Roark (both names, the author notes, contain the word “roar”). Whereas, in the former story, people engaged in intense screaming sessions in a “screaming cube,” seated in lotus posture, here a very different, much quieter (at the outset) practice is described that revolves around a form of meditation (“the technique of closing…eyes”) that leads the participant to envision nothingness (death?)…and, ultimately—because it is downright terrifying!—to scream.
But this is not where the screaming ends in the final mininovel of the series (entitled “The School”). In section 12, “Stopping,” Rohark has a dream in which he is learning the technique of stopping the breath. However, because he continually shows signs of strain, the facilitator screams at him repeatedly in a “huge Wagnerian soprano voice.” He feels that he is suffocating and will soon black out; he panics, likely fearing his own demise. Finally, in the end, managing to pull the facilitator’s hand from his face, RR at last breathes in and produces “the loudest scream he has ever made.” In this scene, then, both the themes of “screaming” and “fear of death” are limned, while the next, penultimate scene is entitled “Before the Funeral” (i.e. of four “students” from the school). The mininovel—and also the entire series—ends with a sort of stream-of-consciousness prose poem, which cuts off mid-sentence, leaving the reader eternally in limbo.
For those who enjoy fiction that challenges, there is a lot to love about The Placebo Effect Trilogy. Tarnawsky is a unique writer who never ceases to push the envelope of what is possible in literature, and the reading experience left this reader feeling both dizzy and delighted… It is a work that deserves to be read and reread multiple times, for there are layers and layers of meaning (as well, perhaps, of non-meaning; that is, an acknowledgement of, and respect for, the absurd, the illogical, the irreal) to be gleaned from the fifteen mininovels (though I have here only had time to touch on a few of them) that make up its roughly 700 pages. Scenes and images from the trilogy are sure to remain in the mind long after the books have been closed. And don’t be surprised if, in your dreams, you find yourself screaming…screaming because you realize that, in the end, we are all very much like Roark and Rohark.
November 12, 2013
Read Yuriy Tarnsawsky's poetry HERE.
wears many masks these days, too many to list here. His latest ebook collection, Nothing Man (2013), is available through Smashwords and other vendors such as iTunes (iBooks), Barnes & Noble, etc. His first ebook collection, ‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions (2010) is (still) available as a free .pdf download from ISMs Press.
has authored more than two dozen books of poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and translations, including the books of fiction Meningitis, Three Blondes and Death, Like Blood in Water (all FC2), Short Tails (JEF Books), and most recently The Placebo Effect Trilogy (JEF Books, 2013), consisting of Like Blood in Water (revised edition), The Future of Giraffes, and View of Delft. His other most recent book is a collection of Heuristic poems Modus Tollens: IPDs (improvised poetic devices; Jaded Ibis Press. 2013). He was born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the West. An engineer and linguist by training, he has worked as a computer scientist at IBM Corporation and professor of Ukrainian literature and culture at Columbia University. He writes in Ukrainian and English and resides in the New York City area.