KR OnlineReview

On Love Among the Particles by Norman Lock

New York, NY: Bellevue Literary Press, 2013. 288 pages. $14.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In Norman Lock’s “The Brothers Ascend,” Huck’s old traveling companion Jim tells us, “If one is prepared to take the long view, there is no difference between fact and fiction. . . . All of us are fictions. We make each other up—we make ourselves up.” This Jim is manifestly the same as the one made up by Mark Twain, but this Jim is also not that one, as that quote testifies. “Lock,” Norman Lock later warns readers about himself, “is shameless when it comes to adapting the work of other writers. He will annex [another’s] account to his imagination and work it up into a story of his own.” And so it is: in his newest collection of short fiction, Love Among the Particles, Lock uses characters from Kafka, Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, various Universal horror films, history, and his own life (Gordon Lish, notably, makes an appearance). Lock’s Jim’s words suggest that annexations such as those in Love Among the Particles are as much acts of creation—creating the writer, Norman Lock—as they are of appropriation, Lock thus making of his borrowings a kind of metaphysics. As only naturally follows from Jim’s “we make ourselves up,” Lock himself appears as a character in almost half of these stories. And yet there is none of the timidity in storytelling that sometimes comes with such metafictional play—Lock is a rapturous storyteller, and his tales are never less than engrossing. Indeed, they are so engrossing that Lock’s presence as a character sometimes seems an accident, as though he has been drawn into his own stories by some sort of irresistible narrative attraction.

The first of the collection’s stories, “The Monster in Winter,” tells us what happens after Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ends. Hyde, declared dead, has nevertheless somehow been revived (Dr. Jekyll, unfortunately, has not). The authorities cannot imprison him—he has been declared dead, after all, and one does not imprison the dead—so instead they sequester him in an asylum. Decades pass; Hyde softens. He is allowed visitors. Across the Atlantic, Frederick Drayton, an ambitious American entrepreneur, reads about Hyde’s infamous crimes, “his mind occupied by the devising of a lampoon that might, with luck, bring him the fame that he demanded.” But a lampoon—an annexation of another’s account worked up into a story of his own—will not do, Drayton decides. Instead, he seeks out Hyde at the asylum. His plan: to record the monster reciting his transgressions so that Drayton can then replay that record for paying audiences back in America.

“The long view” Jim refers to in “The Brothers Ascend”—the perspective from which we debate whether Jesus Christ was a man or simply a story, whether Shakespeare actually walked around under that name or another—already tends to reduce events to fictions, but Lock is willing to go further. In the story “Ideas of Space,” the narrator tells us,

Because in our occupations we were more or less interchangeable, we seldom thought of ourselves apart from the whole. This is not to say we lived under a tyranny of the collective: The individual will was submerged in a common dreaming, not in an autocracy. To speak of the will is to exalt what was scarcely more than yearning.

Our stories—those we tell as well as those told about us—are what we are, and we can be nothing more. In “The Monster in Winter,” Drayton tries to turn Hyde’s story to his own profit, but finds that powerful story completely drowns out his own, more mundane history; he drinks Jekyll’s formula and becomes another Hyde himself. Later in the collection, Universal’s Mummy will consult on a film about himself and find himself in a simulacrum of his tomb, reading a script detailing how he has come to be in that fake tomb. The narrator of “To Each According to His Sentence”—Norman Lock—writes himself into the story of the Phantom of the Opera and thus “become[s] prose.” And in the title story, another Norman Lock dissolves into a stream of bits. These characters act out their lives for the phonograph, the camera, the page, and the modem, only to find that their act is no act. Their fictions overtake and supersede them. It’s not that life imitates art, but that art is all there is.

It is no surprise, then, that the best stories here draw freely from their inspirations: “The Monster in Winter” from Stevenson; “To Each According to His Sentence” from The Phantom of the Opera; “The Mummy’s Bitter and Melancholy Exile” and “Ravished by Death” from Universal’s The Mummy and Death Takes a Holiday, respectively. Though Lock has admitted (in an interview with elimae) to being a “facile—and not always willing—mimic” (note that “not always willing”), these stories are not simply pastiche. As the narrator of “A Theory of Time” puts it, “Who is to say that we cannot receive another’s recollections like a legacy—an unsuspected inheritance from an uncle who, until the moment when the lawyer informs us that we have come into some money or a property in Ravenna, we never knew existed?” In this collection, Lock has many such uncles, but, we should understand, their stories now belong to Lock.

And yet, the Norman Lock of “To Each According to His Sentence” tells us,

The truth is, I wish to be thought of not at all . . . I wish to be invisible like him, like the Phantom, and to be left alone to do my work. We are creative men, whose joy is only in creation; both bedeviled by an unopposable need to invent forms. His genius was to have designed a structure (the labyrinthine cellars beneath the opera house) that concealed him and modeled his unconscious mind. (If the mollusk has a mind, might not its thoughts be deduced from the topology of its shell?) My intention in these pages is to follow the Phantom’s example (and also, perhaps, the mollusk’s): to devise a form in which I can disappear.

In fact, Lock again and again appears in his stories only to hide himself or dissolve into nothing. When he later asks, “When the Phantom kills me . . . will I become the word corpse?” it is not an idle question. In this collection, losing oneself in a story is not a figurative concern but a very real one. If we can be so taken in by stories, if personhood is, as Lock here suggests, no more than the ability “to change, at least subtly, the surrounding world,” and if fictional characters fulfill that requirement, then “everything that is [is] words—knowable by words, invoked by words, and created by them.” Perhaps this explains Lock’s ambivalence to his own presence in his stories.

“I am, in these stories, proposing myself as a subject of fiction . . . in the interests of weakening the gravitational attraction that binds me to what I am,” the Norman Lock of “Tango in Amsterdam” tells us. Fiction, for Lock, is ontology, or, perhaps simply life itself. Perhaps I ought to quote instead the epigraph to the collection’s first story, by Robert Louis Stevenson: “He, I say—I cannot say, I.” Jekyll is speaking about Hyde, or trying to speak about Hyde while acknowledging that when he speaks about Hyde he is also speaking about himself. Norman Lock’s “we make ourselves up,” is really a question of provenance, for which comes first: the self who makes the self up, or the self thus made up, able then to make up the self? Lock’s solution is to take enough of himself from other people, other characters, to then make himself up. Compared to the living, breathing Lock, the results—this book, Love Among the Particles—may seem nothing more than a beautifully ornate shell, but the whorls and contours of that shell are everything that makes Lock Lock.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (CCM, 2013). With Matthew Olzmann, he is the editor of The Collagist.