Apparitions of the Living by John Trefry: Mystery Murders

APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING  by John Trefry. 2019. Inside the Castle. $21.00. 389 pp.

APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING by John Trefry. 2019. Inside the Castle. $21.00. 389 pp.

From an office fifteen stories above, I watch the ambulances and fire trucks scream down the streets of John Portman, Peachtree, Baker toward the Marriott Marquis. Minutes later, the novel would be declared dead. As if it hadn’t been already, declared dead, I mean. Countless times, for countless reasons--no good subjects, no good writers, no good readers. As if it could die. As if death were a single moment or something finite. Things die all the time, are dying all the time. We are all dying all the time. Alain Robbe-Grillet proposed that if the novel were to live on, then it must be innovated. Yet it dies regardless. We die regardless. The narrative, our souls, seek new forms and go on. What remains is to determine what happens to the body after soul transference.

I wonder what moment it would be that would be declared as its exact moment of death. When I used the book as a bludgeon, driving its corner into the side of the man’s head, cracking open his skull? When I snapped its (his) spine in half? When I ripped out page after page, crumbled each of them up and gagged him with these entrails? The narrative was gone by the time I sent him falling down the big belly of the Marriott Marquis’ open atrium. It had long departed by the time book and man splattered across the hotel’s relatively new carpet. I hire a car and split.

The murder weapon was the victim and the voice of reason, the act of assault and its foolhearted remorse. More specifically? Apparitions of the Living (Inside the Castle, 2019) by John Trefry, a hefty brick of a book which repels as actively as it entices. Survivors of trauma are known to live out the three roles described in the Karpman Drama Triangle, victim, persecutor, and bystander, long after the initial trauma has passed, embodying each role all at once sometimes, constantly alternating in their minds and identity. That is perhaps the most succinct summary of the ostensible plot of Apparitions of the Living that I can provide. The characters are little more than archetypes of these roles, shifting identities to take on another role within this triad. The bystander becomes the persecutor. The persecutor becomes the victim. The victim becomes the bystander. And so on. No time for contemplation, I think, as I weave down rush hour traffic, yet there are hours and hours of thinking ahead of me. The individual characters are not defined by very clear boundaries which may distinguish them from the external environment or the other characters. Although the characters are inconsistent and often as narratively unreliable of those in the books of Alain Robbe-Grillet, to whom Apparitions of the Living is dedicated, their unreliability is so consistent as to become meaningless.

While there is a plot to Apparitions of the Living, the narrative contained within the text is mere subplot to the larger plot of the reader’s engagement with the composite of the object and textual qualities of the book. John Trefry is aware of this, or at least, Apparitions of the Living is self-sentient. One particular quote reads, “A story was not needed. A story was not compulsory, just the becoming of ritual. Ritual was enough.” A billboard along I-75 reads the same. Analogues may be drawn between the victim-persecutor-bystander triad and the relationships between an author, the reader, and its critic. Consider how natural it is for the reader, when subjected to the delirious ramblings of a book, to desire to impose the whims of their own fancy onto other coerced victims and write their own novels (or worse, poetry)! When a book is depleted of intelligibility, as Apparitions of the Living often is on account of its obscure vocabulary (e.g. “gobbet”, “peccant”, “merestone”, none of which I bothered to look up out of a respect for the privacy of such words) and unconventional framing of object, landscape, and individual, then the reader becomes tasked with partial authorship of the text, forced to derive their own meanings when the spoon which feeds them is retracted. When it is difficult to make sense of things, we may turn to exerting control over physical reality (e.g. organizing our forms and belongings). Oh, reader, sweet little child, if I could advise you to run, I would. I would tell you to seek your comforts in texts which were easier to swallow. It would absolve me, at least some, of my guilt. Yet I cannot help but suffocate you, or in more accurate terms, enable your auto-asphyxiation.

And yet, you still return. You say you must makes sense of it, understand why or what. Here’s what. I pull into a gas station to fill my tank and calm my nerves. Structurally, Apparitions of the Living is divided into five sections which are distinguished by changes in the formatting of the text. Text formatting alternates between being (a) tightly condensed with wide margins and (b) spread out, justified, each line clearly distinct. There are no paragraph breaks. It is easy to forget where you are, as if that matters. Conspicuously, chapters and pages are not numbered. Chapters are identified by the names of geographic locations corresponding to places on a spiral John Trefry had drawn over a map of the United States. The plot of the text very loosely corresponds to these locations. Trefry’s prose is peripheral, difficult to focus upon, often seeming to actively elude study, forcing the reader to study their own reading process. This prose often reads as if told by someone not quite in touch with how people naturally communicate, like an extraterrestrial that taught itself English by reading the dictionary. In fact, because of estrangement from customary expression, it could be considered as an epic poem rather than prose. This coffee could be stronger. The process of reading this text is arduous but in the return from drifting out of focus, the reader becomes opened up to new revelations. I focus on tailing a Chrysler clear across Tennessee.

The text is laden with cycling repetitions, or rituals, if you prefer a word more precious. Given that objects are defined by their relative changes, repetition and consistency deprives a form of what gives it definition, resulting in a loss of meaning. America, too, is remarkable in its sameness. Once you get outside of the perimeter of Atlanta, the roads begin to settle into their rest-stop monotony. Any one gas station/pizza place combination establishment is as good as the next. The interstate highway system makes for one big backache. In Cold Blood made being on the lam sound so much more exciting. Enough driving and you realize you are something of a blood cell drifting down a vein. Landscape, that’s all there is, and you are nothing, an ant. Apparitions of the Living is so imagery-laden that its landscapes are often its most active characters, like a painting by O’Keeffe which holds its subject under a microscopic lens until landscape becomes portrait. Or did the portrait become a landscape? I forget. In Apparitions of the Living, landscape descriptions apply to both human body and interiors. Human forms are frequently stripped of their humanity by reduction to their component body parts. It is so human, if there can be such thing, to seek ourselves in our landscapes--to deem a ridge a backbone, to find a maiden’s face in a rock outcropping, or to call a hotel lobby an atrium. John Trefry’s prose not only renders the geologic as human, but identifies geologic formations in the human body.

The Heathen Maiden, a rock formation near Kranjska Gora, in the Julian Alps of Slovenia

The Heathen Maiden, a rock formation near Kranjska Gora, in the Julian Alps of Slovenia

Roads within myself, I on the road, little more than an extension of this vehicle, this humming-and-thumping automobile, we, it, I slipping down the corridors of southern Illinois. What separates humanity from object? And, what is the word for when something is not living, not dead, but simply not living? It seems that not-life would be a more appropriate opposite to life than death is. No, I didn’t kill the novel and I didn’t kill the man because to kill something presupposes that it was once alive. John Trefry seems to ask if death is that which reduces humanity/narrative to sheer body/form (it is not, not exactly) and probe into the converse: what is it that gives humanity/narrative to bodies/form? It’s not even about finding out answers. It’s just to keep this ball rolling. Years ago, I was reading through analysis of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and was struck by the concept of spiritual reincarnation and the idea that if physical matter can be said to be recycled into other forms, as hydrogen atoms bond with oxygen and fall as rain to become incorporated into the bodies of living organisms, then it would follow that abstract concepts such as the soul, “life”, or trauma would undergo similar processes of decomposition and restructuring. At some point, defining life becomes something of a koan which I will leave to those more masochistic than I.

The book is not so different from the body. It is a physical vessel containing conceptual material. We can easily visualize how the human body breaks down and its particles become recycled through fungus, plants, animals, etc. just as we can understand how narratives move through various forms of media, through tropes, archetypes, and adaptations. After the book’s soul has essentially transferred on, to other forms of textual media or video, the book’s form is left to be broken down by artistic vultures and regenerated. Painting may be said to have been killed by photography, yet it was reborn through impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism. Following the invention of the printing press, writing itself became liberated from the claws of trade and religion. When John Trefry zombifies the book, it is nothing new; humans have been exhuming corpses since technologies began to advance.

After winding long through the Midwest, switching plates and blowing off a searching eye, I pull into a moonlit cemetery outside Kansas City where The Novel was sent to be buried. I grab my shovel and dig.


Katherine Beaman