Review by Henry Virgin, author of Exit Rostov
Haruspicating meaning in the litany of literary and alchemical sources, this candid account of psychological transformation is set in Midtown, a quasi-realistic zone accessed through the 'Marble Corridor', purportedly mentioned in Baedeker's almanac, if ever Baedeker trailed to the liminal, wherein reflections, mists, ghost-ridden contemplative mantras of diaristic entries recount an investigation into the very self itself, which is mirrored in the labyrinth of Midtown. We are introduced to the important characters, important for their inspiration: Borges, Kafka, who are the 'bricks and cement for the distorted tower' he's built. We find ourselves in the 'decrepit backstreets' of the Western Quarter, entering into the labyrinth which begins like a slideshow of memoirs, like a deck of arcana, with strange symbols, in varying translucencies, in varying levels of opacity, a set of alchemical motifs, miniatures, in an array, as he lays down the works of literature which illuminated his way at different stages of his self transformation. He explains why the writers, and which of their works are important, including Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, Sontag, Banville, Pynchon, Pessoa, Orwell, Akutagawa, Beckett, Joyce and The Alchemists. We learn of the urban locale in his wanderings. The places take on a symbolic character, such as the High Bridge, The Gothic Arch, the Western Quarter, Salamander Road, the outskirts. They are not just places, but they are aspects of his psyche. He's mapping out his subconscious cityscape. The city is himself, and as such, the founder of Midtown plays an important role in deciphering the author. Since fire is at the heart of alchemy, and is the active substance of transformation, it features in three short passages early on. In the first, 'A Short History of Fire,' he discusses the founder of Midtown, Bastion Perrot, who had visions of a man who could not be singed by fire, and set up the fire ceremony of The White Salamander. In the next, 'Primal Fire,' we read accounts of his burial of a corpse with a character named The Ram, we read of their bond of friendship in this act and others. In the third, 'Pale Fire,' he references the Nabokov book, and Kinbote whose biographer John Shade is important to the author, as he makes us question who we truly are. His night walkings are recounted, in sense of dread, where the mythological presses into the reality of the locale in dream-state passages. Voices arise from out of the darkness. A girl named 'A' who came though the Marble Corridor explains that her vision of darkness was that of encroaching paradise. We learn that as Kafka is synonymous and a part of Prague, so too is Midtown to the author. The geo-psychology is clear. This archaeology of the author's psyche, recounts his passage through the labyrinth of Midtown, but beyond the city, it journeys through literature, film, history and popular culture: smoking weed, fumblings, kissings, a ghost train, a focus on The Marble Corridor, the path between this life and the next, encroaching darkness, Fulcanelli, the Liminal threshold, other astrological Characters such as the Bull, the Twins. It's somniferously set in the streets and outskirts, in various shades of shadow, darkness, visibility, in different states of waking, sleeping, dreaming, in different degrees of despair, pain, elation, poetic vision, dissolution, division, devastation. He's seeking the 'elusive goal,' fending off self annihilation and damnation, in this arena of 'true darkness' into which he arrived, via The Marble Corridor. As he says, he is in 'The Land of The Dead.' He appreciates Beckett in 'Texts for Nothing,' 'These solitary beings traversing empty lands and impossible dimensions of space looking for a way out, but finding little to satisfy them... we those disembodied voices in the Void screaming out, hoping to be heard?' But the most salient aspect of Beckett's work is that he taught him 'to carry on despite myself.' Perseverance is an unwritten quality of the author. Recounting tales of friendship with 'The Bull', set in the twilight hours in urban Midtown, in the plaza and video arcade, there's often a sense of enchantment and longing for the elusive feminine. He invokes Trystero, the muted horn, of Pynchon fame, which calls him through the Marble Corridor. Heavily influenced by Buddhist and Eastern writings, by the selflessness it seeks to achieve freedom, he employs vermouth, gin and hashish to reach these plains. Affiliation with Sebald and Pessoa is evident, especially Pessoa, the high priest of non-linear, heteronomical, fragmentary writing. From the canonic Book of Disquiet, he recognized himself in the character of Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa's heteronyms, for being a loner and an alcoholic, and in his description he explains that writing is 'a means to hide oneself amidst the expectations and facts.' In his ghost-like wanderings through Midtown, his writings are laid out in dialogues, diary entries scribed at times in the manner of post-mass-extinction, in letters, paragraphs, parables, visions, epigrams, with titles such as 'Midtown Book of The Dead,' 'The 12th Degree,' 'VIII, IX, XI.' Passages of self analysis, include reminiscences of a character named The Crab saving him, with quotes from Eliot and Walter Benjamin in a series of filmic, hallucinogenic sequences, whereby the voice-over is of one trying to interpret the scenes. Out of body experiences, visions of death, reminiscences through the billows of hash and alcohol, watching slasher films, being dislocated from his self, losing his self images, staring at himself but seeing another. After the death of a close friend he has a visitation from a giant 'Lamplight Moth,' which seems maybe to be his friend who made the 'transmigration across the ocean of death.' He confesses the allure of the purity of eastern thought, the self discovery, transformation and perseverance and also documents his appreciation of Hesse, 'the remedy for his introspection.' His adoption of hash brought him 'closer to the world of writing' with a description of the mythology of the Hashishins. Accidental investigations into codeine, discovered its propensity for automatic writing, while psilocybin granted a perspectival renaissance of the esoteric and a novel vision of nature, but with all these experiments, 'came more introspection leading me further down the spiral.' The prose is interspersed with apparitions in the urban, with locations like The Interzone and the Salamander Road, where avatars appear, and dialogues uncoil like smoke, to disappear in short filmic sequences. The city is the labyrinth and metaphor for the writer, growing more intricate, and in this city, the author has been trying to make a temple out of his mind. In discussing how Dostoevsky's novels focus on murder in literature, he asks 'is it really a stretch of the imagination to think someone would try to elevate murder to the level of art in the real world?' And then turns his attention to an infamous art ritual murder, and leaves a cryptic numerical message seemingly to reveal some information about the case. We find ourselves on Borgesian tangents, such as the arrival of an individual named The Lion, who arrived from the outskirts through The Marble Corridor, which is the access point, in and out of this forbidden city, into the Dragon Court, and discusses the difference between the outsiders from beyond the outskirts, and those from within. In a letter 'To the Head of the Midtown Monarch Society,' he describes his visions of a blue butterfly released from his own coffin, in a crypt with a large bay window. This concept of transformation is at the heart of The Marble Corridor. As Van Gennep, the dutch Anthropologist explained in his seminal work, Rites of Passage, transformation occurs in a threefold pattern. The preliminal, liminal, and postliminal. The 'liminus' is the threshold, it is the place in-between, neither here nor there. It is the passage, it is the corridor, it is the border. In my estimation, The Marble Corridor, this very book itself, is the author's threshold, his liminus. This book is an account of the author's rite of passage. Famously, the liminal aspect of rite is where the world is turned upside down. It is where the transformation occurs. And furthermore, the fact that this corridor, which is the entry and exit zone between the exterior and interior, is marble, is stone, relates back to the alchemical vein which cuts through the work. The transformation of the stone. Alternatively, you have a collection of hard lived thoughts scrawled down, over a number of years, extracted from episodes of considerable pain, despair and self alienation. It's a memoir of his transformation, focusing on the articles of culture which other artists of the cause have produced, be they writers, musicians or film makers. For example, while walking through chambers of Chinese sacrificial halls graced by transient geese, he investigates his interest in the splatter films of Takashi Miike, whose enjoyment he understands in the light of the idea of equilibrium, or 'bringing into balance opposing forces.' New characters appear and disappear. We're introduced to other avatars, archetypes, personalities such as The Girl of The Island, the Chessman, the Conspirator. Maybe old flames, maybe potential identities. A selection of letters stream through the book. Letters questioning the safety of Midtown, and what one sees in sleep, and how he travels to the Mysterious Gate, near The Marble Corridor, inscribed with an epitaph, as in Dante's Door to Hell 'From the shore of life we depart and sail on the heaving waters of experience, arriving at the port of death and into our calm awakening.' Or letters where he declares his intention, 'To create a legendary portrait of my former self as I disappear.' This is the curious nature of the book which is both poison and medicine at the same time. It's poison because this self analysis has had him lose himself, and it is medicine, because it such further self analysis that helps him extract himself. If psycartographics of this book are prevalent, then an investigation into the alchemical origins of Midtown is valid. It makes sense that there are about 14 pages devoted to The Diary of Bastion Perrot, founder of Midtown, and an analysis of its beginnings. Beginning in Prague, in January 1810, the diary recounts the journey of Bastion Perrot and his friend Hanz Overbeck from Prague overland to Lisboa, reading Basil Valentine, and Paracelsus 'searching the pages for a guide to our goal- the Sphere, the Stone, names are endless...' Travelling through Germany to France, they are seeking to decipher The Emerald Tablet, to meet The Chemist. En route, they are both haunted by dreams of a great fire. When they arrive in Lisbon, the meeting with the Chemist is delayed and they are entertained by Madeline the Chemist's mistress. The meeting with the Chemist is further delayed and they have to spend more time with Madeleine, who visits them with her strangely infectious charm. We are returned to a discussion of Midtown's violence and deviance and the Chinese influence, as seen in the finely wrought steel work of the Pavilion Arcade. We also learn of the abandoned cathedral which holds Bastion Perrot's remains at the eastern fringe of Midtown along the famed Salamander road which is the location where Perrot walked through fire in a ritual of rebirth that became known as the mysterious ceremony of the White Salamander. In Salazar's biography of Perrot we learn of his Catholic marriage to Lilith, seemingly Madeline, and how following his cremation, his ashes were spread to the four districts of Midtown. When Perrot returned in 1812, with his and Lilith's combined wealth and Overbeck's sacred geometry, they made manifest a great edifice, the Great Sphere on earth lines, upon whose key points are the Old Library, the Observatory, the Pavilion Arcade and the Marble Corridor. From biographical analysis back to letters we read that the anonymous letter writer is trying to 'to bridge the gap between my current self and the next self.' And are returned to a vignette in the Trinicarium district with Miss Black who whispers to meet him, and as we read of their inseparable love, of his love for her, a lover in deep distress, in 'mental fog,' we learn, 'It was exactly what I craved: elusiveness, mystery, beauty all wrapped up in a neat little package of a person.' And although she vanishes, he felt someone's presence in the shadows who began to see him in a state before he entered 'The Marble Corridor,' 'out of the night a large bird loomed then the city seemed to wash away...' The 'Scales' are invoked balancing intellect and passions, in the guise of the male builder and the female secret muse. 'I see now why we try to breathe life back into the past because of its familiarity to us even though our picture of it fades as well.' He understands Nietzsche, as an agent provocateur, who makes us think and gives us confidence to face the anguish, 'he brings forth the idea we can truly become more than we are as individuals and as a civilization.' The voice characterizes the Flaneur he devotes a passage to. The work is a poetic, listless interpretation of urban seasons, of late-night street-lamp wanderings, musing on The Book of The Dead, inhabiting this city of death, writing letters of introspection. Given his respect of Borges and seeing Borges's story the 'Rose of Paracelsus' we learn how he began to pay more attention to Paracelsus. His interest in alchemy is the interest in the search for knowledge to the secret behind all knowledge. And it is Paracelsus who is responsible for his contemplation of the Stone. The Stone being the Alchemist's Stone, but maybe also, extending the metaphor, it's the Marble Corridor through which one passes to accomplish the author's 'Great Work.' If Alchemy is the transmutation of the self, the different sections of the book are different meditations on significant aspects of the author's memory. So the house on Ash Tree Lane is an evocation of his growing up, imbued with the 'pain that makes you despair but also hopeful. A pain that you want to erase forever, but carry with you in the palm of your hand like an umbrella.' His meditations on film including Akira, Apocalypse Now, the works of Kubrick and Cronenberg, of Lynch and Haneke, reveals his understanding of their importance for their ability to create an interior space. As such with literature, and considering the Nexus, the author remembers how 1997 marked his entry into this labyrinth beyond-within the Marble Corridor, at which point in the narrative, from which he has yet to emerge. In some aspect he hopes he never has to exit. Discovering Jung and Hesse at school, a decade later he found himself in his own Nexus in 'the very eye of the storm,' in 'an extraordinary realm,' 'on the verge of going insane due to the number of synchronicities appearing in my life on a daily basis'. He was suffering an overload of synchronicities but the outcome of this, is that he had a glimpse, an intimation, of existence beyond time and space, 'as though a small fissure in time and space opened allowing me to see the great expanse it was hiding.' Followed by a letter to a previous lover, in memory of their affair, he reinvokes their psychological searching, enough to uncover and discern the unsettling and unholy in one another and walking with the Scorpion through the Vayu district of Midtown, which is known for its pseudo-orientalism manifested by Overbeck we are reminded of the shape-shifting characteristic of the city and how the city changes color. After the jubilation of eroticism and alcohol 'Praise the juniper berry. Praise hops and barley. Praise all the malt, all the sour mash, those fermented grapes and the sugar cane,' the Archer enters, a smoking companion, a galaxy watcher with whom the camaraderie is strong in the disobediency of decadent stargazing. He catches the flow of thought in this memoir of recollection, recapturing flights of despondency, of soul-searching, of extraction from the forbidden city, in haunts of founder ghosts, with archetypal figures such as the Saviour, the Archer, the Scorpion, and the elusive female spirits who like apparitions appear and disappear bestowing sensual yet fleeting attachments, so vividly evoked, so frequently lost, with books, music, food (the paragon of addictions), the 'salty broth of wontons,' the pizza slabs, eclairs, the homemade pierogies, with thoughts on music, Eno, Hecker, Oren Ambarchi, Stereolab and his consideration of Yukio Mishima brings to mind his thoughts of literature as a procrastination, 'literature keeps us pleasantly distracted even as we inch closer to the end.' And writing about an out of body experience, where he sees himself with a brightness, he interprets the scene, the room, the books, bits of dried cheese, as being 'remnants of a cocoon' and attempts to connect the disembodied geist with the self, before shifting focus to his waiting for a girl to appear, his hesitations, and reminisces on his dreams of the apocalypse, and his visions of the dead. Towards the end, the letters show that the voices have become more monastic, despite the 'occasional prostitute.' But he does explain how he found his calling, 'which can only continue to find its way to actuality within the flesh of humans.' Following a list of conspiracies, when he writes about Auster he explains a line which resonates with him about being lost in New York. He then explains how on his journey there, he didn't feel lost, while in his own city of Midtown, 'The only place I feel lost is my own city. I feel lost in myself too.' Because, 'The familiarity of our surroundings turns us inward.' It is after a Revelationesque visionary prose poem when we read a meditation upon the love of his mother, on motherhood, on the 'Urn of The Womb', and his thoughts on the cycle of life. It is here that we learn how parenthood instigated his own resurrection, with the birth of his child. This seems to be the completion of his transformation, and it is contrasted with diary extracts from the previous century, a previous dimension, before rebirth, with wanderings through the Western Quarter in wafts of opium and hashish questioning the nature of love and how he is always seeking the truth of reality, deciphering the mirage and the vacillations between the real and the imaginary. Almost as if the dimension continues on a parallel plain. He discusses the nature of writing as 'saviour and destroyer' where the aim is the completion of the great work: 'I have given my life to my past and animated the forgotten out of my dull gray matter. The tribulation to come is the completion of the Great Work.' And he talks of death as 'a calm awakening' as it was inscribed upon the Mysterious Gate, 'There are no endings, just a continuous line that is the trail of infinity.' He brings to mind the Jeweller, a person of great meaning to the author who was so skilled with his hands he could unpick mysteries like intricate locks and as such, in papers left for the author, he confided 'we are all explorers released from the same mysterious abyss to crawl then walk then crawl in this place, this system'. Almost as a post script, he writes about his connection with Anais Nin; how her writing helped him and furthermore, how literature helped him, how sensitive he was, how her writing gave validation to his feelings and thoughts in how she observes human relationships and love, and how it is necessary to have emotional and infinite intelligence, he explains that both he and Anais are, 'hopeless romantics at heart hoping those high demands we make of ourselves can one day be seen in someone else for us. All or nothing. Love or darkness.' As if moving further away from the Marble Corridor, he writes about outer space, and the terrifying nature of the heavens, 'its radiant strands of light, cosmic dust, floating rocks, and ever present gravity.' The importance of numbers as carriers of power and he reveals his magic numbers, and he explains how 'the only constant is change and the one theory labeled truth today becomes tomorrow's falsehood.' He explains how against reason and empirical evidence he asserts, 'only by experiment of all kinds and living on the fringes of reason and faith might we see different horizons.' He then reveals how he kept his book a secret in its production concerned how people would be 'unequipped or uninterested in diving headfirst into a sea of reference and info pertaining to obscure people places and objects.' And in his final passage, 'Knights and Hexagrams,' he writes: 'I've felt like I've achieved something monumental or at least something rare and undefinable.' After finishing his work, having escaped from a dark fantasy, he walks through the city, unsure of how much time he has left on earth. But he is clear that his transformation, this rite of passage, is complete 'Truly, I've become someone else entirely.' This paean to the lost self, this memoir, is a travel book of Midtown, an almanac, an alchemical handbook, a canon of esoteric works, of criticisms, of literature, of cultural analysis, a mining of the past, a genealogy of his thoughts and influences, philosophical, alchemical, narcotic, filmic, literary, musical, emotional, psychological, historical, epistemological and it is an analysis of his psyche in and around the map of sacred Midtown, it's also a chronicle of narcotic descent, of metaphysical disembodiment, of relationships platonic and sexual set down in letters, diary entries, essays. The tone is confessionally pragmatic, poetically descriptive of the psychological journey whose eventual victory is transformation. Written in the romanticism of alienation and despair, of pushing one's self to the transgressive limit and beyond, in a depth-charge of self introspection whose saving grace is literature and the metaphysical arts which act like the string of Theseus, guiding him out of the maze, one assumes the ending was by no means preordained and transformation could have quite easily failed in self destruction and thus in one aspect, the multifaceted Marble Corridor can be viewed as an algorithm of escape for those lost in the boundless depths of self.