Native Language: The TFT Review of Robert Lopez’s Asunder
Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.
– Madame Bovary, Gerard Hopkins Translation
In his essay “The Cracked Kettle of Flaubert,” critic Eric Ormsby examines the notion of style as a means of ordering the world. For Flaubert, Ormsby argues, style was not merely physical, (though in a letter he once remarked, “I have abscesses of style, I itch with sentences.”) but also acoustic. At night, Flaubert shouted his work aloud in his garden at Croisset. “Words must connect justly with other words,” Ormsby says, “but they must echo in actuality as well.”
In the title story of Asunder (Dzanc, $16.95), Robert Lopez’s latest collection, a narrator “shamefully ignorant when it comes to the rules and regulations” struggles to tell a story “without characters and details…without a setting…essentially a story with no language to get in the way of the telling.” No stranger to the shortcomings of sentences—see the brilliant Kamby Bolongo Mean River—Lopez once again tackles Flaubert’s cracked kettle. Style-centered and sparse, Asunder is composed of critical acoustics and a heartbreaking search for something greater than words to expose the human condition.
Outcasts and eavesdroppers, the characters here are loners so emotionally blocked that explanations for their relationships border on dementia. “If I had to guess I’d say I met this woman in a downtown bar in some bad luck city,” says one narrator. “I think I’ve known this woman for years” says another. “I think we met in college and have tried since then to get away from each other.” Lopez’s narrators “like unfamiliar people best. If I had my way” says one, “I would only associate with people I didn’t know.”
Asunder is isolating even at the sentence level, yet at the heart of the collection is a struggle to find connection and understanding. In the story “Bleeders,” eavesdropping on an arguing couple serves as a kind of intimacy for the narrator. “Why I am listening to this is because there’s nothing else,” he says. “The three of us are in this together. She looks like someone I could lose sleep over, lose money over, bleed over.” Tormented and incomplete, the few characters who seek union through physical collision find themselves trapped in their own headspace. For them, sex is what happens when men and women look at each other “like butchers look at locksmiths.” The object of one’s affection is described as having “hair and eyes and lips and all the rest of it…”
If Lopez’s goal, like his narrator in “Asunder,” is to write a work with “no discernable style whatsoever,” then this collection is a brilliant failure. The Lopez syntax has evolved over the years to become both recognizable and utterly unique in its uncompromising approach. Language may be a dull instrument, but it’s the best we’ve got; lucky for us, Lopez is up to the challenge.
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