The most significant problem I encountered with Michael Cisco’s newest book was that I kept having to explain to people that I wasn’t reading some kind of self-improvement sex guide for the amorously deviant. I mean, it’s called The Great Lover, which, if it really were some variety of coital strategy guide, would be a laughably over-ambitious objective for the likes of me; but also – just look at that cover art! – it’s like a quasi-cubist, bi-gendered, demon-tongued, masturbating sex robot. Thing. Reading it on the train – eyebrows were raised. Questions were asked. “No, it’s a novel – it’s really good; it’s not smutty”. Okay, so in places it might be a little smutty – but that’s ironic. I think.
The second most significant problem I encountered with Michael Cisco’s newest book is that it’s a book by Michael Cisco. I don’t mean this as any kind of jab or derision – I think the man’s a genius – but being a book by Michael Cisco, The Great Lover carries all of his idiosyncratically voluble, stylistically arch, modernism-esque prose, which, in some places, can be incredibly abstract and difficult. In a general sense, I found it more accessible than his last effort, The Narrator, but page-by-page there were many, many passages that left me very confused and disorientated, with no genuine sense of what the hell was happening. It’s not that his idiolect is particularly avant-garde – I know all of the words he uses – but these words when put in this order become alter and alien and deracinated of their everyday meanings and contexts: there are just so many images! I’m sure there’s an enormous narrative depth of reference and literary in-joke hidden among the cloying, hot dark of these abstract passages, but I’m nowhere near well-read enough to comment on what kinds of weird sub-sub-sub-genres of foreign existentialism have influenced The Great Lover. These occasional, long, opaque tangents test my analytical praxis and render it… useless.
Instead I chose to read these semantically obtuse sequences as mood pieces or tone poetry, passages in which Cisco’s “metered but unshaped words” work as emotionally-manipulative bombardments of imagery and metaphorscapes, supposedly with the intention of imbuing a feeling or mood rather than of moving the narrative forward. It’s not frustrating or irritating in the least – it’s actually beautiful and dreamscapey, infused with Cisco’s characteristically gothic and horror-fiction-inspired language. There’s a hypnotic tonality that’s more about sense than meaning. Indeed, such long, imagist sequences aren’t an arbitrary bringing-together of dissonant words: it’s obvious that Michael Cisco constructs his sentences with the delicate care of a neoclassical prosodist, and it really can be an incredible if ungraspable thing to read; frequently horrifying, undoubtedly grotesque, but also gentle and deliberately, beautifully rhythmic. Some may accuse Cisco of disingenuously elevating tone at the expense of clarity, but ambiguity and unknowability permeate the story in ways that transcend its telling (more on this later).
Elsewhere, the regular (I should probably say “less strange”) prose is still highly stylised, in places completely lacking in any conjunctions or prepositions whatsoever – it’s always fascinating, and as Thomas Ligotti puts it “has an identity as much as any writer I’ve read:
She moves in foggy landscapes of primordial earth before life, walking from fog to fog. Wherever she stops, the wings that hang all over her drop down and squirm together to form a throne, raising above her a dirty carapace made of the same waxy biological plastic of feathers, like a cloudy hood of fingernail.
He frisks her, as though he could find her life somewhere and put it back where it was.
He wakes with tears streaming down his face and into the grass. They never stop.
I know what you’re thinking though – what, if anything, is the book about? Well, in plotting (if that word even applies) The Great Lover is an eccentric mix of hyper-original tableaux and characterisation, with frequent nods to well-established genre tropes from more conventional horror/urban fantasy/weird fiction. These wry moments of reference to Frankenstein or Kafka or Orwell or Peake or whoever, while never veering too close to parody, help orientate the reader in what is an otherwise completely baffling and unfamiliar narrative landscape. The Great Lover (/The Sewerman/The Demon/“Name”) is a resurrected corpse who spends his nights entering the sexual dreams of women he’s passed by in the street or on trains. There’s definitely an unsettling, even ironic, disconnect between the protagonist’s name “The Great Lover” (whether it’s forced upon him or of his own devising is never made clear) and the relatively rapey, non-consenting nature of his sexual antics and the strange magic (erotomancy??) he performs to make them possible. Either way, he’s soon approached by a strange sub-way dwelling cult who’re trying to bring into being some new Godhead, all the while fighting the brutal forces of ‘vampirism’ – here imagined as a kind of white noise of social conformity that chooses fascistic, upper-middle class students as its representatives (in the UK we might call them ‘Rahs’). There’s more, lots more: the city of Sex, the Deep Sun and Hollow Earth, the Gnomes (so-named because the ‘know’); in fact, it’s almost impossible to précis the plot without simultaneously performing a sacrilegious disservice to its complexity and weirdness. Man this book is hard to write about.
Most exotic among the novel’s dramatis personae, however, is the incredible, relentlessly strange ‘Prosthetic Libido’ (I think that’s meant to be him on the cover), a homunculus or golem assembled by The Great Lover to house the libido of a restless scientist. The Prosthetic Libido is this cosmically tragic, permanently aroused yet perennially unfulfilled and childlike manifestation of the Freudian sex drive whose personality and dreadful circumstances can only be read as a kind of metaphor for love itself. At one point the narrator announces, with more than a little wry sardonicism, “in all of literature there is no character more beautiful”. Counterpointing this is an equally strange creation, the Prosthetic Death; possibly the most terrifying, and definitely the most unusual thing I have ever encountered in a novel. The creation of the Prosthetic Libido is one of the more lucid and definitely the longest passage of any clarity in the book; by contrast, all of the prose that surrounds and makes-up the Prosthetic Death is significantly more esoteric and slippery – a stylistic dualism that perhaps reflects the relative graspability of the two notions involved.
But reducing the novel in this way: sex//death, style//clarity, originality//pastiche is to massively oversimplify what’s going on, relegating the work to a straightforward exploration of binaries. In reality, The Great Lover doesn’t exist in the extremes of these contrasts, but in the hinterlands between them. It’s as much a narrative investigation of the problems of defining, well, anything – not least of all the nebulous and elastic relationships between author and character (the narrator constantly flits between first- and third-person registers); character and character; character and reader. The book is immensely difficult and ambiguous, vague and demanding; the characters aren’t “Characters” – they’re too ill-defined; and the story isn’t plotted, but flows organically (an idea metaphorically echoed in the ever-shifting maps and train tracks – usually the most dependably solid of journeys – that dominate the imagery). And you, as reader, become something other: co-conspirator, maybe? Accomplice, definitely. Michael Cisco’s style isn’t a shiny plastic coating around an ambiguous and non-descript capsule; his style is inextricably related to the novel’s aesthetic identity and philosophy. The action, like all the best horror, transpires in the in-betweens: in sewers and dreams and on trains and through windows.
Hold that feeling of the story ending – of the life that you turn to when you put the story down starting to shine through it it is becoming transparent and to feel like a dream hold that feeling and stay in it. Just stay in it.
There’s so much I haven’t touched on; the humour is scatological, the action overly dramatic and aestheticised; the central love story is extraordinarily moving (even if Cisco couldn’t resist the urge to bombard his sightless heroine with the almost cruel aphorism ‘love is blind’) and the final chapter… well, don’t get me started. The Great Lover is phenomenal – at one point I read for six hours without (and I’m well aware that I’m about to spurt a horrible cliché) noticing the time that passed. You could let its twisted dark poetry wash over you, or you could (try to) wrestle it to the ground and into submission. Either way, Cisco sticks a massive middle finger up to almost all of modern fiction by showing you that getting lost is far more worthwhile than finding your way.
Reading The Great Lover is like staring at the sun – it hurts, but it’s beautiful, and when you close your eyes afterwards, its image is still there.