Kafka’s “The Wish to Be a Red Indian” gives us the fantasy of riding a horse, shedding spurs and reins, until (in the Muir translation) one “hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would already be gone.” In Eugene Marten’s third novel, a road trip through a mid-’90s America dominated by racial fears, poverty, numbness, paranoia, and violence, we see a similar erasure:
Faint outcroppings of earth against the evening sky and Jelonnek thought they would have at least that. Then these were gone and there was only what they could see at the corner of their eye, and this was taken and still night fell, and stole and fell, till there was only the ragged patch of light in front of them through which the distance poured, and it seemed this would be encroached as well, then the headlights, the dashboard, and finally even the faculty of sight so that nothing would be left to them but motion and darkness.
Let’s start with lyrical beauty. One of the wonders of Firework is that while the bulk of its scenes is driven by terse menace (in contrast with the open ending of the Kafka story, narrative and car will have broken down two pages later, leading to an encounter with a state trooper that balances on an excruciating knife-edge of potential violence), the author’s style allows for aggressive dilations. Transcriptions of local news footage, or a several-hundred-word dare-you-to-skim-it list of bureaucratic forms, or a description of “the futile early flying contraption” of a blue heron (perfect, right?) emerge between ugly runs of dialogue and blunt descriptions of people doing harm to other people and animals, or waiting to.
It’s one of the minor formal cruelties of the book that when it comes to many of the lyrical passages (“still night fell, and stole and fell” echoes one of the most sublime passages in Joyce, “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling”), we can’t say if it’s Jelonnek feeling these things, or if the narrator has stepped outside the character. Though we spend a book with
him, Jelonnek remains a blank; he’s watched as an animal is watched—up close, yet wary, unknowable. But if he’s capable of seeing such beauty in the world, in such a fine way—and perhaps he isn’t—how can he live the way he lives, and do the terrible things he does?
The characters themselves are not nearly as malleable as the prose, and that’s where the Kafka comparison is most instructive: while the metamorphoses Kafka documents in his fiction severely test reality and often end badly, they are nonetheless genuine transformations. Marten’s characters, however, remain locked in their own desperately inadequate selves. For complex reasons—class and upbringing, race, addiction, personal failings, the irremediable shittiness of the
world that surrounds them—they never stand a chance. A severe act of violence—as awful as anything this side of Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”—brings Jelonnek to the degree-zero of the self, yet he doesn’t go through a transformation. And here’s the central horror of the novel: whatever our own versions of Jelonnek’s cheap beer and football may be, modern culture has increasingly foreclosed the possibility of change in our lives, to the point that we have even forgotten how to want it.