Black God by Ben Spivey (A Review)


Blue Square Press

144pgs. | $12

Black God swells like the ocean. A reader’s toes curl into the dry sand. Dampness seeps into skin. Suddenly knee deep, waste deep, neck deep.

How like a dream one perceives Black God the next day prompted by seeing a clock or a crow. What was that again? A wedding? A life? Children? A fishbowl filled with the sea. What did the boy say? Oh, yes:

Is water removed from the ocean still ocean water? he asked. If my arm is removed and consumed by another’s body is it still my arm after it’s mixed with their blood?

If the disturbing questions are the most meaningful, this is a disturbing and meaningful successor to Spivey’s first novella, Flowing in the Gossamer Fold (Blue Square Press, August 2010). It is surely a song, an extended poem, a love story and a lament worth experiencing.

The narrator of Black God is protagonist Cooper O’Rourke. His tormented life centers on caring for his bedridden wife, a former architect, dying of a web-like tumor, from which she suffers headaches and hallucinations. Cooper is devoted to her in the most pathetic if not endearing way. He works long hours to afford her healthcare, a mechanical lung, and doubles as her caretaker. All work no play, in Cooper’s words, “The new American dream: keep working, don’t die.” He ages too. His ears bleed. His feet ache from shoes worn for twenty years. Time is a wink of the eye.

These are facts realized as the world unfolds from the thick fog of Spivey’s consciousness. We don’t know Cooper’s job, or his wife’s name. We cannot be sure they have children. Sure, Cooper says, “How my wife bore many children,” and “We burgeon many more children.” But aside from a bedtime-story-and-morning-eggs reference, those children are mostly ostensible as Cooper and wife move from home to home. Supporting roles are played by a cast of crows flying and pecking along the beach, which is another recurring character. Time quickens. Cooper smokes Marlboros and keeps secrets. He makes caster figurines of people and animal shapes.

A reader reared on television and contemporary fiction might find this a plotless work. It feels like a trance, a collection of observations, as one feels in the moments between sleep and wakefulness. A redactor has stripped away a thousand pages of plot leaving us to rubble. Black God is all the better for it. Astute readers find all the markings of good literature: the plot’s major dramatic question, the protagonist’s burning desire, the novel’s thematic implications. Black God is a work of art not concerned with conforming to prejudices of genre. Read along.

Cooper’s desire is his wife. Even and especially as she persists neurotically about a particular house – she entreats him to surveil it, though she does not tell him why – he honors her every request. Here lies the tension. Will he persist? To what depth of insanity will love descend? The beach, the crows, the park security informing Cooper he may not sleep wherever he likes. The stalking of a house. And then a boy with glass around his head, oxygen rich, fogging the fishbowl with his breath. How Cooper is led through a filter rising through the flooded house and the mud where he sees at last the people like conductors of a cosmic symphony leading the parade of crucifixion. How a reader gets the impression of everything being sucked up from the bottom end of an hourglass by the unbearable gravity of God like a black hole, into the upper chamber. As with anything foreign, it is threatening. Yet in the darkness of Black God’s upper-world, the most unexpected experience. Read on.

Atlanta-based Spivey, a founding editor of Blue Square Press, looks for surprises through “unconventional use of plot or lack of plot or structure.” His genius is dealt through sensory data, which comes across sans exposition. The reader enters into the nervous system of the scantly-described characters, and that is a big reason for the vertigo. It takes some work, having been dropped into the world of Spivey, to figure out where you are, who you are, and why. But isn’t this the human experience? Here we are, from the womb, and now the quest for association, for meaning. We are given in this culture no authoritative third person omniscient one; see the barrage of cute and quick-tongued first person (unreliable) narrators. Here is an alternative. Spivey takes hold of the collective inner consciousness by recoiling the omniscient authoritarian and the cunning raconteur alike. What we have, then, is fiction that not only deemphasizes plot, but narration as well; the storyteller hidden behind seamless senses.

In the process, the reader navigates the matrix of thematic underpinnings, most obviously (perhaps) the recurring motif of clocks, their unreliability, and the way Spivey through Cooper’s misty narration ambiguates time. All of which can only lead a reader to revere life’s brevity. “How it seemed one day I slept and woke again married and older.” And: “Time passed on an undetermined slope.”

It is, of course, impossible to miss the book’s thematic namesake, and the recurring motif of God, appearing in a dream hovering over water (twice), painted black, hiding in binary code, placing a tumor in Cooper’s wife and residing in “an unsolvable road map leading to one (undefined) place.” One cannot help pondering God, rendered ambivalently, while also comparing and contrasting God to humanity, as does Cooper:

How I sat in the garage with all of the things I had imitated with plaster and all of the papers with half sketches, crumbled. How I thought God must have worked in a similar fashion. Half knowing. Half wondering. Half drunk, full of shit.

Over the next week I constructed a dozen new plaster casts, life-sized. Three males, one female, the rest were children. Each night when I looked at my wife, while we lay in bed, I could still feel plaster on my fingers when I touched her skin.

Cooper and his wife become a motif for any marriage; for that matter, any relationship. We are all dying. This is the problem with relationships. There is inherent decay. If one person is not notably degenerating, the other one is, or a part of the relationship, or the world of the couple. Decay can be no more evident, paradoxically, in the act of procreation:

the tumor grew. I imagined its growth as I entered and exited her. How that felt like rape, her mouth exhaled fog. Her body was vapor. She was a mist all around me, consuming me, speaking in dead tongues. How after years of marriage sex became a polite exchange of time. And then it was a memory—as I walked back to the bathroom—an occasion I enjoyed all the same.

So Black God is a domestic novel. It is the fable of one husband seeking to serve one wife in banal and dire circumstances, riddled with elusive children with bruised and boiling skin, painted like clowns and chewy candy, wearing masks like birds, dreaming of their father on fire, their mother in the mist. Cooper’s blooming fear is his dead wife leading the children into the drowning pool of ocean. The reader wonders, And where have the kids been all along? This is history’s glimpse at our domestic milieu. Families sketchy, ambiguous, fearful.

Such familial fabulism finds kinship in other current works in which the post-feminist husband tries kindheartedly to keep the family together even as it dips into an ocean of the subconscious, just beyond grasp. The man is left alone (if by implication) with his guilty or paranoid complex. In matters of theme as well as tone, Spivey with Black God forms a triumvirate with (to name two of his Millennial contemporaries) Amelia Gray (Threatsand Matt Bell (In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods). Each author’s work is a waking dream with husband as central character, authoritative wife largely off scene, with a house functioning effectively as a third, ominous character. How this generation works through issues of marriage and family. How it revisions the script on writing fiction. Realism has given way to dream. Characters – previously subjected to Freudian subtext in which exhaustive lifelong detail is offered to explain why protagonist finds himself in the present predicament – are more abstract renderings engaging in a dance with the environment and supranatural forces.

Readers unaccustomed to this type of prose will find, particularly in Spivey, a difficult read. Like the others, his work is rich in illusory, allegorical or metaphorical imagery. A single or double read falls short. I found myself spending an hour (a day) on a page. The result is a more collaborative experience between author and reader, because much is left to imagine. And long after the reading, we might share Spivey’s (Cooper’s) experience, that

my vision played between what was there and what was also there. A kaleidoscopic transmogrification of the senses I’ve known—or felt to know since I could remember—into new signals, new stations that also felt real, were real. My vision was a folded piece of paper, a water color praise painting freshly wet being jostled back and forth.

Even after mulling the other thematic trajectories – however we come to understand time, God and relationships – we are still left to ponder our very interface with all of existence, our senses, and the nature of reality as we sense it, and the role of art in the process.

T.C. Porter’s first novel is in draft. His work has appeared in ManArchy, Utter, The Speculative Edge and elsewhere. He facilitates writing groups and contributes to the blog of San Diego Writers, Ink. Find him here.


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