This World is Leaking: A Review of Michael Cisco’s Member

30Mar14

It is hard to review a book that you cannot explain or sum up but especially when it is not one that you can explain or sum up by saying you can neither explain it or sum it up. Michael Cisco’s Member is a book that tests the limits of coherency without appearing to do that.

To get to brass tacks, Member is about a massive planetary-scale game called Chorncendantra that is ‘the human game’ but that involves multiple worlds both real and artificial. Our main character, Mr Thanks, is unexpectedly recruited into the game as a courier to deliver small cans of spells and prizes to a construction site. From there the small absurdities pile up but something at bottom refuses to topple over. It part it may be because the novel starts out as a train of thought but when it stops being that or starts again becomes a challenge to discern: “I will expand the dream to engulf what surrounds me” (7). The indiscernibility between things happening and things being thought pushes Mr Thanks to keep trying to play his part in the game “Relaxing my mind had only brought about a causeless, meaningless sadness” (16) even attempting to ignore the game is playing it. This is the frustation of being a human in the giant system/mechanism of Chorncendantra – one knows one is a human but that this means being a small part of the human machine but not being able to only be a part.

One of the most impressive aspects of Cisco’s novel here is that this does not wander into immediate and obvious existential territory. Mr Thanks, carrying his heavy bag, is not a dreary eyed Frenchman in 1950s Paris: “’Don’t imagine that you are the flaneur,’ I tell myself, ‘looking down on people, like you are the last human in a world of machines the passerby are all soulless robots and you’re the only one who cares—that’s high school shit’” (46). Mr Thanks is mostly just frustrated at the small things and couldn’t know enough about the large things to feel so small simply because there are others that at least seem to know more (so called operationals and high rationals) – high rationals being those creatures that ‘think things up’.

In some regards Cisco could be seen as entering the territory of either William S Burroughs or the graphic novelist Charles Burns – where one quickly leaves ‘this world’ and enters somewhat unreal worlds (interzones and dreamspaces) that are however still attached to this world. And yet Cisco holds the reigns tighter than this. It is the rules of the game or the world themselves that seem parasitic yet completely natural. The attempt at thought to think a world only appears to add to the problem of probing the layers of rules added upon rules till the point that one is not even sure where one is and, for that matter, it is not even clear if the narrator is any more or less sure of what he is doing that what the reader is reading about him.

And of course the wonderfulness of Cisco’s descriptions which are present throughout. For example:

“Perched there, he aims carefully at something I have trouble making out. It’s a large, solid object that seems to be browsing along the sidewalk in its own special darkness; not a blob of shadow exactly, more like a dead, uninteresting haze of grey smoke that collects around it and projects out of it in a reverse spotlight. In overall shape, it resembles a human liver, all covered in imbricated scales. A felty, transparent caul seems to envelop the entire thing, and ripples out wrinkles and folds to palpate its surroundings, making the emitter seem both solid and liquid at once” (44-45). The descriptions shift from weird tale type above to bordering on the romantic: “In that faint, brief light, I see the tendrils of smoke from each little candle immobilized like ectoplasm calligraphy, trailing from the cake” (93-94), to the downright silly: “Somebody left a salad out on the curb, with no bowl around it” (332).

The question becomes less ‘what is happening?’ to ‘why is it that this seems normal?’ The novel flirts again and again with the weirdness of games, of playing them without reasons (170), that the problem is that we enter the game from somewhere or as something not of it (142), that thinking and playing is just a headlong plunge into various kinds of darkness more or less familiar (226). The novel’s restrained but seemingly unrestrained insanity mirrors the very weirdness of belonging to one odd bureaucracy after another. Any attempt of pulling out seems like a childish time out: “That’s what I want: a place in which I have no part. I want to ride through space like wind in wind and sleep on the void, and be a go-between with nothing but between” (258). In so much sci-fi, horror, and weird fiction there is the moment when the narrator passes into the strangeness, where the mundane becomes not the mundane, when you (as the reader) know that they are on a trajectory which ends in death, madness or, optimistically, some small share of triumph. But in Member Cisco’s point is no such prologue exists because of the incessant nature of thought that barrier cannot be recognized – it can only be supposed after the fact when it is already too late. There is no cutting loose.

And while bits of philosophy appear throughout (Spinoza (47), ancient Chinese thought, moments that smell like Heidegger and Deleuze) it would be distasteful to call this a thinker’s or philosopher’s novel (whatever the hell that may mean) but only that, unlike many novels, Member makes a show of when it is pushing at its own limits or trying to catch its own tail. Every practice has its reasons and the reasons do not seem to matter other than to give you a location for your forthcoming injuries. Or, in other words, any attempt at closed precision is absurd..except for that one.

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