Read Motorman Online

Authors: David Ohle

Tags: #Literary, #Science Fiction, #General, #Short Stories, #Fiction

Motorman

MOTORMAN

David Ohle

 

 

 

 

 

1972

Introduction

 

 

 

 

For a long time I was scared to read
Motorman.
It had come recommended to me in such hushed tones that it sounded disruptively incendiary and illegal. Not only would the reader of this crazed novel burn to ashes, apparently, but he might be posthumously imprisoned for reading the book-—a jar of cinder resting in a jail cell. Books were not often spoken of so potently to me, as contraband, as narcotic, as ordnance. There was the whispered promise that my mind would be blown after reading
Motorman.
There was the assurance that once I read it I would drool with awe, writerly awe, the awe of watching a madman master at work, David Ohle, awesomely carving deep, black holes into the edifice of the English language.

I was, to say the least, guarded and jealous of it in advance, protesting the very idea of
Motorman
. Its existence bothered me, and I grew leery of being artistically paralyzed by its reported high oddity and invention, its completely unexampled decimation of fiction-as-we-have-come-to-know-it. At the time, when I and the few writers I knew fantasized more about
how
readers might react to what we wrote than
what
exactly we might write-—our readers would be sprung aloft and unable to land, rendered gummy and mute, form an army, start a new language, or simply melt into malleable form so that we could use this “reader spackle” to build an outdoor shelter in Duluth-—Ohle's reader response behavior was the pinnacle of what I thought could be achieved. His fans were so serene. In non-confrontational tones, they could casually remark that he was the best out there, the strangest, oddest, most original fiction writer no one had ever heard of. The most dismaying aspect of their allegiance was their seeming indifference to whether or not I ever read the novel-—in fact, it seemed that they might prefer it if I refrained. More spoils for them, after all. Too many readers might ruin the book. This anti-missionary approach turns out to be the best recruiting tactic of all. Ohle's readers behaved as if they never had to read another inventive fiction writer again. They had read the sort of book that finally satisfied the thirst, a final book that could behave as a sort of source bible for anything that might come afterward-—the creation text for all new fiction. I might try to tell them about some other writer, possibly equally as obscure, intense, and wild, and they would listen politely, say “huh,” and then assure me that whoever I was lamely sponsoring had nothing on Ohle. Ohle was onto some sublime weirdness that he achieved so easily it was as if he was writing behind his own back. His very sentences seemed equipped with tracers that generated secondary and tertiary amazements in the wake of the primary spectacle. Ohle was the dogsbody that resulted from a glandular mishap between Flann O'Brien, Leonora Carrington, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, Borges, and Raymond Roussel. That is, if those writers had all been alive at the same time and partying together at the same organ swap.

And the kicker was always the rumor (still unverified) that Ohle worked in Kansas for William S. Burroughs, transcribing the man's dreams every morning.

In other words, David Ohle was reported to be the custodian for the subconscious of William S. Burroughs.

One might fittingly wonder what that job interview was like, but that is a curiosity best saved for another time. One suspects, soon perhaps, a rash of one-act plays to bring the idea to life for us.

 

I finally read
Motorman
, cautiously, moving through its dark pages with a mixture of suspicion and anxiety, waiting for aphasia to strike. I soon discovered the book to be more suspicious and anxious than I was, swollen with a mixture of dread and apathy, a world that showed a healthy disrespect for physics and the laws of biology. But not sci-fi. Not magical realist. Not anything but itself. It was far more story-driven than I expected it to be, much more located in a character and his struggles, even if that character had four sheep's hearts inside his chest and had a penchant for smoking stonepicks. I must have been expecting, in the pages of
Motorman,
a new alphabet, a demanding, unintelligible, ferociously experimental and annihilating text that would bitch-slap my language processing abilities until I had succumbed to a boneless heap on my reader's carpet, moaning in Spanish. But I discovered an oddly tender book that used imagination as an afterthought, however potently, as if beautiful fires on the horizon are precisely the backdrop that might restore life to our identity-quest stories and make us care again about the most elemental things. Extreme imagination, for Ohle, was simply the atmosphere in which a primal story of loss could breathe most freely.

I did not die or even catch fire during this bout of reading, although I did discover that Ohle had created, if not an influence over the fiction that would come after
Motorman,
then a shadow that could not be ignored, a reminder that some of our most provocative directions in fiction are too intense and scorching to be followed by others. So while it might be true that Ohle burned the road after him, that heat has cooled enough for a new generation to travel over it, to once again read a groundbreaking book that looks no less novel now, over thirty years after it first appeared. Thanks to this heroic reprint by 3rd bed, his older admirers can once again sponsor him to a new legion of readers, and the Ohle vocabulary and scaffolding can re-enter the bloodstream of the culture.

It is curious that a reprint could be heroic. It is more curious that a book this good could go out of print so quickly. And it is most curious that an introduction would even be required for a novel that, if you examine it carefully in the right kind of light, might actually be seen to be
steaming.

I would venture that had
Motorman
not been
published,
but instead
shown
at an art gallery, page by page plastered to the walls maybe, its cachet and value would not be in question, and Ohle would now be regarded as a vital conceptual artist of the seventies, akin to someone who built a behavior cannon out of bent plywood that pelted pedestrians with one of the seven leading emotions, each emotion equipped with a fur backing and a set of workable teeth. That Ohle did something like this, but purely with language, eschewing bricks and mortar, seems even more amazing, yet it's not something that usually happens in a book, and this might partially account for its resulting obscurity. When a book gets called “experimental,” you can hear a ghetto opening up to swallow it, the sound of a few nickels falling into the author's pocket, whereas experimentation is a given in visual and other kinds of art. It is expected. Without it there is regionalism, or, more simply, crap. Without fevered ambition, you have competent seascapes hanging in the hotel lobby, ass-relaxing music playing in the elevator. Without the desire to produce something unexampled in the art form, you have books that are cynical blueprints for the movies that will bring them to life. You have characters with beards playing hockey.

Visual artists have critics, ostensibly, while innovative writers have, for the most part, reviewers, whose job it is ever more frequently to determine the cost-benefit of purchasing the book, using heart-crushing standards such as beachtime readability, difficulty, sameness, narrative drive, and superficiality (more, please!). Or they are hen-pecked jacket copy plagiarists, dutifully paraphrasing publicist's pitch letters in their newspapers. But rather than remark on the obvious cultural conditions (or lack thereof) that have rendered many artistic writers (as opposed to, uh, other kinds of writers) marginal, based on their low sales-—The people don't lie!-—while visual artists, who might not sell what they make to even one person, can work at the limits of their art without the overt burden of audience pleasure (read: Snickers and Cheez Doodles) in mind, it seems better to be pleased that this book is back in the hands of people who might read it for themselves. This is what matters. It is not difficult, unnecessarily challenging, minor, or needlessly cerebral.
Motorman
is a central work, pulsing with mythology, created by a craftsman of language who was seemingly channeling the history of narrative when he wrote it. It is a book about the future that comes from the past, and we are caught in its amazing middle.

 

If we had to label it,
Motorman
might be called apathy noir, a gasless detective story minus the detective, set inside a hollowed-out egg, with flashlight shadows roving the shell. The inventions and fabulations-—the double suns, the fake years-—seem to flow from Ohle's left hand, which is to say that his bursts of oddity are never showcased, but rather incidental and downplayed, as if they might not really be happening, and this distinguishes him from many concept-driven sci-fi writers who are eager to lacquer their imaginations to a full gloss and create a museum spectacle of their concepts.

At the level of story,
Motorman
is a digressive escape narrative, with a vaguely persecuted main character of the sort one might find in Kafka. But while Kafka's bureaucratic settings were clinical, grey, and typically consonant with architectural reality, Ohle has embellished his world with impossible weather, illogical time structures, and enhanced surveillance powers, including bursts of craziness and color that might have embarrassed poor Kafka. It's fitting that Ohle quotes Escher, whose fabulist, escape-free structures are much like what Moldenke,
Motorman's
hero, discovers as he travels through a territory called “the bottoms.” Escher created images that appear logical and coherent on paper, but could not exist in three dimensions. They perfectly assert the purity of imagined space, the intractability of what can be conceived. They argue that the third dimension should be called “disappointment.” Ohle, too, is expert at contriving logical veracity for the most impossible scenarios. His delivery is droll and often bloodless, from the side of his mouth, and thus the strange happenings of his story appear strangely true. Adjectives are anathema to Ohle. Precision and clarity are all. He is mathematical and concise in his descriptions, never wasting a word. And he favors the short, one-sentence paragraph.

Which has a way of knocking you over the head, creating propulsion into even the most strangely decorated narrative tunnels.

The narrative tunnels which, when you turn the page, you will enter for yourself.

 

To read
Motorman
now is to encounter proof that a book can be both emotional and eccentric, smeared with humanity and artistically ambitious, messy with grief and dazzling with spectacle. Do not think, however, that you are entirely protected reading it, although I can mostly vouchsafe about the claims of cindering. At this time, chances are fairly good that you will not burn.

Now you're on your own.

 

Ben Marcus
    
2004

For Beverly, Alice, and Ed Wolfe

Bricks are usually rectangular, because in that way they are most suitable for building the vertical walls of our houses. But anyone who has had to do with the stacking of stones of a non-cubic type will be well aware of other possibilities. For instance, one can make use of tetrahedrons alternating with octahedrons. They are not practicable for human beings to build with, because they make neither vertical walls nor horizontal floor. However, when this building is filled with water, flatworms can swim in it.

-M.C. Escher

 

1]

 

Moldenke would remain.

As a child they kept him in a crumbling house, a building with structural moans, whose eaves cracked in summer heat and gathered winter ice.

At that point Moldenke's chest held two lungs and a single heart.

He experienced a shortened boyhood, a small degree of youth and carelessness.

Most phenomena puzzled him and sent him on aimless walks among the leafless ether trees. He would fix on his goggles, his gauze pad, and study the flying birds, see them casting frightened earthward glances.

He would press his face against the pane of his bedroom lookout as spring fell and wait for the greenbird. The greenbird would circle a dying ether, peck spirals on its dry trunk. Moldenke would fold himself into a chair and watch the greenbird work, writing down its habits, behaviors, and essences:

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