Raking the Dust (forthcoming on Unsolicited Press–April 3)
By John Biscello
Raking the Dust, John Biscello‘s masterful second novel, is first and foremost a novel about second chances. It’s about addiction, obsession, and ultimately, salvation. It’s about the fact that “all roads lead to Heaven,” and sometimes one needs to get lost in order to get found. That things at times need to get crazy, hairy, utterly confused before arriving face to face with that which we most fear. Ultimately, it is in the grip of our own terror that we find the courage to say the brave No that is a Yes to our own Innocence.
Alex is a writer in love with fiction; or rather, a writer in love with himself in love with fiction. For him, reality is unreality. In perfect sentiment with Goethe, whose words are featured at the beginning of Part II, Alex can truly declare, “What I possess, I see as in the distance, and what is vanished becomes my reality.” Alex lives this painful paradox: that what he possesses he cannot love, and in order to love he cannot possess. So in an attempt to love and to live life he must make of it a fiction, which he proceeds to do with admirable dedication. The very value of his daily experience seems to be a function of its fictional potential. DJ, his love interest who is both hauntingly absent and an eviscerating presence, describes his mind as “one of those mechanical arms that is always moving and charting something, always recording non-stop.” To record one must of necessity be at a remove. This paradox is embodied in a scene in which he watches Ella, his ex-wife, unbeknownst to her, through her window as he crouches in her yard. “Tempted as I was to knock on the door,” he recounts, “I knew that being on the inside meant corrupting the warm and wistful state in which I found myself. Right now Ella was a semblance of strongly felt fiction. As was I. Any false or hasty moves would destroy the spell.”
Alex’s fiction fetish is in bed with his addictive tendencies, which become nothing short of a way of medicating, sedating his pervasive background disquiet into quiet oblivion—a tinnitus of the soul out-drowned by booze, books, creatively-utilized prescriptions, and self-reflective disassociation. In one of the early chapters, for example, tellingly entitled “Climate Control,” Alex speaks of his “malignancies” as “anesthetized by sufficient doses of book-medicine.” Even his ambitions as a writer seem to serve a medicinal purpose.
Self medication and disassociation, however, have their associated casualties, and with Alex we find a man emotionally deadened and quietly adrift. As he himself admits at one point, he has a case of the “disassociative runs.” Rarely does he seem deeply engaged in or with anything or anyone besides his inner world and the literary/fictional fetishes of which it is comprised.
Alex is indeed self-centered, though not in an unlikable or malicious way but rather in the way of one who knows his own core emptiness but will not, can not, speak to it. Some part of him identifies with the cripple, with “defects, rejects, recalls, and fragments.” It is perhaps for this reason he take an unlikely liking to the three-legged table in the library, to which he says, “You are the cripple, the gimp, the invalid. You are the table that has been abandoned time and time again due to your defect. I will not abandon you…” Both attached and akin to the table–they support and counterweight one another–Alex fears he too will be abandoned because of some unnamable defect planted square in the center of his being. This is also why some part of Alex’s psyche has a secret fear of being uncovered as imposter. Beneath the façade, he is afraid that others may discover the truth of what is or, more accurately, what (he feels) is not there.
When DJ arrives on the scene, Alex finds her attractive in part because she is a reflection of his own emptiness. She is another broken table that he will not abandon. He admits that what he likes about her is less what she is than what she is not: “I was a sucker for other people’s absences. The less of D.J. there was, the deeper I could fall into her. And I sensed lots of falling-in room.” Ultimately D.J.’s significance is less about who she is per se and more about how she becomes a placeholder for Alex’s own displaced identity. Her very allure is the emptiness that allows for an “illusion of intimacy” based on creative fictional reconstitution. Thus is she “made of fiction,” the creative projection of Alex’s own psyche, so that as his relationship with D.J. progresses, Alex realizes “without a doubt” that “D.J. the concept and D.J. the real girl were one and the same.” D.J. is a weak broth that allows Alex the luxury of adding whatever fictional sauce his psyche desires—or better yet, an empty frame into which he can insert the picture of his own wounds, his dark anima, toward which he is obsessively magnetized by a mysterious fascination.
Ultimately, it is D.J. herself who most clearly shows Alex that the emptiness he sees in her resides first and most importantly in his own chest. In their final confrontation, Alex accuses D.J. of being “intentionally evasive and elusive” and “hiding out in those obscure worlds you make up,” of “creating an aura of mystery and intrigue because you’re being too damn scared to let yourself be loved….the real you. The one that may or may not even exist anymore.” D.J. responds—parrot, mirror, echo—by repeating word for word back to Alex his entire diatribe. When D.J. finishes, she gives Alex “a look that says—Get it?” Alex gets it, though less does he like it.
Perhaps his efforts to find in her something she can’t give him (“What you want from me is not something I can give you,” she tells him) are really his attempts to fix, nay, come face to loving face with those absences within his own spirit.
Though Alex’s obsession with DJ is a necessary and tonic reflection, it is ultimately a distraction. A distraction from the real work which can only be engaged-in neither on the level of fiction nor merely on that of “veils, illusions, and subterfuges.” Yet it is what Alex sees in the heart of these veils that enables him to begin transcendence from the very prison of fiction he has spun for himself. It is within the “Back Back Room” of “The Stars of the Devil,” the club that not only led D.J. farther away from her “true self” but which also embodies and encourages Alex’s addiction to escapist unreality, that he begins to consciously engage with his deepest ugly, his darkest wound, and it is this confrontation that begins the process of reintegration, what Alex will call an “exorcism,” the expurgation of his attachments to surreality that form a smokescreen, hiding himself from himself. It is this encounter that prompts him to confront D.J., and in a final showdown he realizes that he is “through with all of it…sick of veils and screens…sick of living fiction” [my emphasis]. His last words to D.J. are, appropriately, “Get out of my room.”
Though Alex later feels regret, it seems to me this banishment is healthful and represents a kind of ritual exorcism and purgation. D.J. in many ways typifies Alex’s fetish for and addiction to sideways fiction, to coping without confronting, to shunting one’s own brokenness onto the blank screen of another and trying to fix the other when it is one’s own heart that is in need of grace. When he banishes her, Alex begins the process of releasing old ways of being that are no longer serving his spirit. And because most of us share to some degree in this penchant towards escapism, in some way Alex’s story is our story as well.
“Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die it remains but a grain of wheat with no life,” as once famously spoke a certain renowned spiritual teacher. Alex learns that the first step forward in reclaiming one’s self is the willingness to lose one’s self, and that in order to transcend his own madness he must becoming willing to die to his own illusions and surrender to the cruel and wild beauty of reality itself.
Ashleigh Grycner is a native Taosena’ and Renaissance dabbler, who enjoys cold water, baroque music, and Greek tragedies.