A Manhattan Odyssey

Battery Park, Lower Manhattan, c. 1929
[Written on July 16th, 2016. See also the version published on Amazon.com, which includes a review of an earlier version published here on September 6th, 2013.]

A reader of this blog has published a novel. I promised to submit a review for Amazon and then spent weeks agonizing about how to do it justice, instead of actually writing anything. This is part of my modus operandi, the other part being to dash something off in a frenzied finale of editing. It ended up like this:

What intellectual colossus could claim to know and understand everything? The impossibility of these doomed projects soon becomes apparent to most of us. And a consideration of these complexities reminds me that there also exist a multitude of cities: for every citizen there exists a different city—yes of course there is a shared reality—but no one’s city ever entirely corresponds to any other, and will often diverge wildly. If a great city can boast of harboring ten million citizens, then the number of extant cities will also be ten million.

What Späth’s narrator says in his novel can also to be applied to every review and every reading of its rich text. I could write a dozen reviews of it, each showing it in a different light. This is my second. The first was about an earlier draft, less than half the length*. Quirkily, I choose to compare his treatment of Manhattan with Joyce’s Dublin seen through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus and a host of incidental characters. Thus he builds a composite view of the Irish capital in a 24-hour vignette rooted in a series of incidents and interactions. The Sun Temple by contrast is almost free of plot, narrow and specific in its viewpoint and route between Cooper Square and the battery Its characters are the Sun, whose touch gives life to all, and the solitary narrator’s personal Manhattan. At the prospect of a random act of kindness, towards “the Chinese man and his wife”, he clumsily fails. Stung by retrospective guilt, he dedicates his novel to them.

His Manhattan is rooted in its own crumbling past: steeped in history and nostalgic atmosphere which only a sensitive pilgrim can uncover: not with archaeological tools but the antennae of a psychic: a sort of dowser who unearths powerful primitive realities. Their essence is encoded through visible remains, especially at the southern point of Manhattan Island known as the Battery, redolent with history, custodian of mysterious monuments and the burnt-out remnants of a structure known as the Concession, symbol of the narrator’s regret for the missed opportunities of youth.

Meanwhile, Manhattan is being constantly renewed—buildings torn down and replaced, old landmarks erased—abetting our narrator’s “debilitating Nostalgia that posits the past as always superior to the feeble and diluted present.” His remedy is to stand aloof from the crowds and the illusions that sustain their bad faith. Instead he offers worship to the Sun, for it reigns beyond our time, from where it creates, sustains and controls all the cycles of life.

The text is erudite at times but unlike Ulysses is easy to read. Thus:

Bolstered by the Savage Hemp (the preferred suffumigation of the ancient, warlike Scythians), I fear no man, and could possess any woman, if I so desired. But the unsustainability of these God-like states is an unfortunate fact.

His writing is suffused with an endearing candour, conveying an honesty that for all its flights of fancy strikes true in the heart and comes gracefully down to earth. He builds himself up, only to knock himself down again:

Arising, I move languidly through this gold-coloured equation—as if following the dictates of an ancient sect—undoubtedly presenting a most strange appearance and perhaps causing certain members of the crowd to ask ‘Is he among the Prophets?’ However . . . another segment of the public . . . takes me for a skulking, heavy-lidded malingerer . . . the most dismaying aspect of all this that I do not entirely disagree with their opinion!

As a user of psychedelic drugs whose habitat is the open air (his little apartment being too squalid, merely the place where he has nightmarish dreams), he compares himself to an Indian sadhu, despised by some, venerated by others.
There are hints that the novel derives in part from the journals of its author, covering a few weeks of his life long ago. But this is merely the base metal. In his sprightly prose (riddled as it is with unimportant typos that merit proper editing for the next edition) the raw material is smelted into gold in an alchemic crucible. The person and city are both thrown in. So here we have one out of at least ten million Manhattans, as real as any other; not static but like all of life constantly expanding and deepening, combining and being refined. First there is raw experience with its recognizable common features that we call reality. Add to this the quintessence of subjectivity. What do we get? Transported to an ordinary place beyond the reach of time, as we shall not discover until the final page.

Perhaps I ought to say somewhere that I like The Sun Temple very much, because I do.

* See this post


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