John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz
Jason Schwartz’s second book arrives more than a decade after Knopf published his first—the short story collection A German Picturesque—in 1998. Like A German Picturesque, John the Posthumous is experimental fiction and it is similar in style to Schwartz’s earlier work. Readers who admired those stories will certainly appreciate John the Posthumous, and may have already read sections of the book that were previously published in print and online literary journals.
But what to say about Schwartz’s latest? Well, it’s a novella—sort of. It is certainly strange and bewildering. Paragraphs contain declarative sentences that state arcane facts. Sometimes those facts turn out to be fabricated. (“The word adultery does not, in fact, derive from cry—just as you had suspected—and the town, I will concede, suitably antique, and quiet now, stands in lieu of another town.”) Only on occasion does the first-person narrator insert himself into the text. Old-fashioned words and jargon are frequently used but rarely interfere with the rhythm or direction—such as it is—of this dark, peculiar novella.
Schwartz’s prose is obsessive and repetitive, often with in-sentence contradictions or qualifications. His language can be poetic, sometimes hypnotic. Elsewhere the writing is taut, which when combined with macabre subject matter creates a perceivable tension and anxiety. Schwartz, meanwhile, seamlessly combines the real and the invented. To wit, readers might be interested to know that John the Posthumous—he of the excellent title to this book—was indeed an actual person. He was a French king who lived for a mere five days in November 1316.
Throughout the novella Schwartz centers on several specific subjects, e.g. architecture, etymology, entomology, and ornithology. He writes in detail about geographical names, folklore, household fires, war history, tableware, weapons, beds, coffins, embalming, and biblical text. In experimental writing like Schwartz’s, sentences are the paramount element. Yet digression and assemblage might be the important artistic techniques here. Schwartz’s words have the precision of a poet’s, but his prose is the compositional work of an accomplished collagist. As such, Schwartz is able to collate in John the Posthumous a fine baroque art piece on domesticity, marriage, and betrayal.
For example, at one point insects—rather than the much-discussed adultery or cuckoldry—threaten to ravage the very structure of a home. There are bees, meddlesome botflies, betsy bugs, common wasps, destructive termites, and swarming hornets. But:
Other insects are even less congenial, given the habits of the household.
Such as: waiting at the window.
The scars on the doors are a better measure, however, like hatpins, and like the disposition of copper pots at five o’clock.
A calf’s head, divided, accounts for the gnats. The heart decays on a polite white plate.
It is correct, I hope, to remove knives from left to right, and the glasses last. This one has cracked in my absence.
The hallway offers its own disappointments, beginning here, in poor light, and following discreetly to the gash in the far wall.
Deathwatch beetles will attack woodwork of this variety.
And then: the joists and cripples.
The ticking sound, once thought a final sign, is actually a fact of courtship.
The above is one of many quotable passages in the novella. It comes at the end of the first third of John the Posthumous—from a section titled “Hornbook.” That opening third serves as a poetic introduction, I‘d suggest, to the rest of the book. “Hornbook” would be a fine stand-alone prose poem on its own, and it might be the strongest part of the novella. On the other hand, the latter two thirds of the book—“Housepost, Male Figure” and “Adulterium”—are cohesive as aggregate units, and they form the vertebral core of the book. In all three sections, there is a collective, distinct elegiac quality, set very often in the life and rituals of bygone Pennsylvania. Yearnings, disappointments, and lamentations are broached repeatedly, and then abandoned. In the province in which Schwartz operates, too much has already vanished, so much cannot be realized. It is a sad but far from grim or cynical book; most of it is quite lovely.
Recommending a book like this is a bit like recommending your favorite song by a new band no one’s heard of, or a poem in a journal published by a small, no-name college English department: you know it won’t resonate with most recipients but that doesn’t stop you from recommending it anyway. Schwartz’s novella is a difficult, challenging work but it’s worth reading if you’re up to the task. You—the reader—won’t find out what happens to a wife, her lover, her husband, the children. This despite the fact that Schwartz describes what you’re reading as a “marital narrative” or a “marital history.” No, you will get only impressions. As you’re reading it, in your mind, instead of a collage, you might visualize the story as a pen-and-ink drawing—in blue, perhaps—and you might fill in the shading yourself or leave all as Schwartz arranged it. Either way you’ll get sentences. My main point is a high compliment, for any writer: I never once considered not reading every one of the author’s sentences.