A Polyglot Maximalism
Chris Via reviews Rick Harsch’s The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas
This book is many things. A story of two young men caught in the crosshairs of shady government operations, mafias, and billionaires; an observation of violence from petty crime to global warfare; a panorama of American history from the days of the Oregon Trail to the post-9/11 era; a multi-generational family drama; a love triangle; one man’s extended transmogrification and apotheosis in the plight to right a history of wrongs, even in the face of the “bones and parasites and opportunists and madmen and genius in the desert’s simulacrum of a vacuum”. Ostensibly, it recounts the meeting of two young guys, Donnie and Drake, who find themselves more enmeshed in danger the more they uncover the dubious pasts of their fathers. A host of conspiratorial characters emerges around the murder of Drake’s father, the head of an organization called Blackguard (think: Blackwater), while Donnie’s father, a creative writing teacher, assumes the persona of a gun-slinging ancestor in his plight to rescue his son. The plot, however, becomes incidental to the novel’s continuation of a literary tradition of a certain ilk.
Lists — check. Redacted text — check. Intermittent walls of sprawling prose-poetry — check. Clever neologisms tending toward Joycean jubilation — check. A museum of deft rhetorical devices — check. Peppered ideas (like the mouth as natural wound, and long airline flights as entries into the psychotic realm) and metafictional interruptions from the author and an encyclopaedic scope — check. In short, Rick Harsch’s The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas has all the formal trappings of a maximalist novel. It’s a seven hundred-page cocktail of postmodern tropes and techniques that blend the ribaldry and reverie of Rabelais with the governmental conspiracies of Pynchon, the historical grotesquery of DeLillo, the crowd-pleasing lingua-nastics of Joyce, and perhaps even the cinematography of Quentin Tarantino. Yet each of these antecedents, to whom we could add Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson, comes through only in shades, close to The Manifold Destiny but not quite touching it: that is, asymptotically. Harsch has excavated a space all his own on the literary landscape. His brand of big book seeks not to bewilder but to dazzle the reader even as it strips away the surface qualities of a history at once sullied by and besotted with innocent blood.
The explicit aims of the book include shredding idiomatic clichés, toying with literary heritage, and obliterating quotidian English prose. Deliberately trading words like “useless” for such novelties as “inutile”, the diction alone freshens the sentences. The title of chapter six is ‘Hector Gets His Odyssey’, which signals an upending of the narrative structure of a canonical lodestone, and a wide array of speakers across epochs affords Harsch the opportunity to toy with dialect in myriad forms (American frontier: “I guess Marie Fire must be off somewheres, lessen ya giver the same treatment”; Anglicised Belgian — half-Walloon, half-Flemish: “That’s the funniest joke I did ever hear”; Aboriginal polylingualism: “Bridger speek this, parlay non, vaminos”). When figuration is used to describe a quirk like uptalking, Harsch makes good on an original delivery — “he said it with a lilt rising at the end, like a pimply ice skater coming to the beaten down beatific halt on the toes of the skates before the Rachmaninov was ready to recede” — and, at other times, his romping wordplay takes on musical cadences, like the staccato of jazz improvisation: “Drake gave great grave thought to this impinging grievance, for he was an honest man when not rigging the games, wriggling the gamine, innocently gamboling the gamble”. If Harsch needs to manipulate a word to obtain a sound effect — like, say, the onomatopoeia of a Mojave rattlesnake — he effortlessly imports Slavic diacritical marks from his sumptuous lingual repository to tease out the sounds: “Čćrhčćrhčćrhčćrhčćrhčćrh”. In one case, he introduces a nineteenth-century Native American polyglot whose jambalaya of English, Spanish, Italian, French, and several other languages is rendered right on the bleeding edge of what a native speaker of English with a sophomoric grasp of languages might be able to handle. This operates to great effect for those of the school of thought that writers should strive to reach beyond their grasp.
Of course, one might ask after the purpose of this stylistic makeup on a book whose substance is so much bloodshed? Why the proverbial lipstick on the pig? We would do well to quote Lichtenberg: “Even truth needs to be clad in new garments if it is to appeal to a new age.” While Harsch makes words waltz, sentences sing, and paragraphs parade, his artistic flourishes belie the novel’s violent terminus. In a sense, then, for all its postmodern pyrotechnics, Eddie Vegas is mimetic of the paradox of a world in which beauty and suffering are entwined. And, importantly, it sustains its energy: hundreds of pages into the book, the prose remains fresh and varied, the story both complex and engaging. Harsch does not expend all the aesthetic pizazz at the beginning — the accepted ruse for catching the eyes of capricious editors and prospective readers — nor does he submit to narrative sensationalism via the clichéd histrionics of infidelity, murder, and revenge. His is a multifaceted story, and a well-wrought one, and yet, in telling it, Harsch spurns the alembic of cinematic mutation and asserts the hallmark of the written word, the superiority of the book over television. Where else to revel in the shine of such portmanteaux as nimbostratular, pigvicious, concecatentrated, exasperpentorigors, recalcitruant, solipschism, sardoniceismic? And where else to find such coinages turned to purposes beyond mere acoustical playfulness? Harsch’s command of history, if secondary to his mastery of language, is vital to giving Eddie Vegas the narrative sweep that warrants the stretching of vocabulary. Having completed degrees in sociology and history, and resettled in Slovenia in 2001, the wealth of world history at Harsch’s disposal is enviable and on full display in Eddie Vegas. Giambattista Vico — he of the concept of the “historical cycle”, from his monumental book La Scienza Nuova (1725) — is more than just name-checked in the novel and was, of course, important to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), which has perhaps a bit more than a passing influence on Eddie Vegas. Working one spindle in the nineteenth-century America of the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, the Mexican-American War, and the founding of Nevada, and another in contemporary America and Western Europe, the narrative threads of the twin distaffs weave across the gamut of historical atrocities — two world wars, Vietnam, the War on Terror, drone strikes — and eventually meet in an important sequence that strikes an unexpectedly redemptive note.
The book’s eight lists bolster the text with an historiographical lifecycle, beginning with sexual euphemisms, progressing through the greed inherent in the naming of gold mining sites, the christening of offspring, the free market commodification of the uncanny Other (symbolised here by dwarfism), the power disparities of war, and finally ending with a chilling thirty-page litany of actual names given to actual bombs. The list of things one of Donnie’s ancestors could not believe about World War II is perhaps runner-up as exemplar for Harsch’s sharp, tragicomic coiling, commingling, and coupling of absurdities, which include: “Mussolini’s odd Greek timing”, “The second Czechocapitulation”, and “Benjamin Britten’s free lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery, London, during the Blitz”.
Like William T. Vollmann, foremost in his Seven Dreams heptalogy (1990–2015, so far), Harsch speaks of the way in which topography affects the human experience:
The land shapes a man’s destiny, however appallingly insignificant. A sheltered deepwater harbor invites a port, a grand phantasmagorical history that arises grotesque and jauntily squalid, degenerating into a carnival of murder and fiscal cannibalism; a mountain range rises late and high to prevent cultures from mingling before their perverse maturities settle and set them upon each other and once wonders at the wonders of monolithic fervor have ceased and the ceaseless lust for attrition is born; a river runs deep runs wide runs muddy a river runs long after you are gone, a bridge is a raft of strapped bladders, a boat is a bowl of dried growth, a bridge is a flat raft on a string, a boat is that raft with a sail and asses for the return, a bridge is twine or wood and boats move upstream and down, a bridge is a strategic vortex of death and a boat is aflood with the wretched to be drowned. A stream winds along grassy bottoms and turns up as if in surprise and the land away slopes gently down, miles and miles before another rocky stream and miles and miles before the great Salmon River, and Hector, yet on hands and knees and so then unhurried in physicals, feels not the mentals to pine at the loss of his last known natural guide back to Fort Vancouver, instead dutifully veers, in what he feels should and must be northwestern tilt though is and should be rather near true west.
The title could be taken as purely oxymoronic in its apposition of “manifold” and “destiny”, or perhaps only a clever play on America’s “manifest destiny”, and both interpretation would be correct. But in another way, when considering the titular character, there is no discrepancy between the singularity of destiny and the multiplicity of “manifold”. There are double identities — and, in at least one case, triple identities — that tie into a parallel generational plot. As with a deck of cards, there are fifty-six chapters (thus we are given four unsuited jokers for our sleuthing pleasure) and several “doublet” chapters, including the first two, which offer inventive clues to the book’s structure and its idea of the unification of chance into the singularity of destiny.
Harsch’s framework takes the form of a stochastic system, mentioned explicitly in the text, such as that of card games like poker. In these systems, patterns emerge randomly, meaning they can be statistically analysed a posteriori but cannot be predicted with precision. In addition to the “Vegas” of the title (a metonym for “gambling”), the titles of the opening doublet reference the ubiquitous lottery-like game Keno, and the bracketed subtitles identify for the reader the hole cards: that is, the cards that have been laid face-down. In time, those cards will be revealed, à la the events of the story, so that even though the book initially appears random, it ultimately, if gradually, lays bare its careful patterning. Historical calamities; familial compulsions, choices, and consequences; and even conventional patterns that constrain a few of the book’s lists are just some of the formal expressions of its stochasticism.
How could one suspect, from all of the above, that Rick Harsch is a graduate of the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop? He is (Class of ’95) but you’ll never read anything like his work from among the school’s more prominent exponents. Breaking with the representative caste of other notable graduates — Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, and John Irving, to name a few — Harsch stands as the enfant terrible of the alumni, a successor to Rabelais and Sterne and, closer to our time, Gilbert Sorrentino. With his verbal hijinks and literary mesmerism, as well as his sobriety of moral purpose when surveying the wastelands of American history, Harsch points up a serious dissonance between façade and folly that is more and more a part of everyday life and ever more in need of confrontation.