The Great Lover – Michael Cisco

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.

Tomcat.

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8 responses to “The Great Lover – Michael Cisco

  1. This review was a challenge to my ‘McDonalds Happy Meal’ level of intellect so god knows what reading the book would do to me or for me!!! At the end of reading your review i took your phrase about getting lost being far more worthwhile than finding your way and applied it to your review to read it again! And it worked! After the second reading was I any the wiser about the book? Yes I was- I think! Was I entertained? Absolutely. I really enjoyed this review though I won’t try Cisco myself till my intellect grows to Big Mac Meal (Large) proportions!!!

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting – I’m sorry if my review was a tad confusing – the book is freakishly difficult to write about, or even describe. Having re-read my review myself, I probably could have made it less twisty and directionless, and I’m not massively happy with it as it stands.

      Michael Cisco can be very hard to read, it’s taken several novels of his to find a readerly approach that works for me, and I think the amount you get out of it correlates to the amount you’re willing to put in. ‘The Great Lover’ is his longest, so there’s more to sink your teeth into – not sure if this makes it a good place to start or not, really.

      Thanks again for stopping by,
      Tomcat.

      • I loved the review – it was really clever and thoroughly entertaining. What comes across is just how fiendishly difficult the book must be to read and write about – but I think you’ve done a great job!

  2. Your review seems to convey how difficult it must be to review a novel as abstract and abstruse as this one sounds. I had to re-read passages to sort out some of the jargon you used but I still found your review enjoyable and the metaphors of getting lost and staring at the sun end it beautifully.

    As for the book itself, I’m caught somewhere between laughter at the cover art (and your wonderful description of it), being wildly intrigued and wanting to track down this or some other Michael Cisco book right now and fear that it would be way above my head and therefore a futile endeavour. Clearly I’ve got a new author to research….

    • Michael Cisco is a massive challenge – and I know that as much of the book as I understood, far more of it just went over my head. Sorry about my jargon – it’s a technically complicated book, so I felt I had to use technical terms in order to discuss it most effectively. I’ll try to make my next review less confusing. Sorry.

      It’s a fantastic book, but absolutely stuffed with passages, even sentences, that just left me thinking “what does that MEAN?”, – which is a characteristic of all of his books. He can be writing something you *think* you’re getting a sense of, then all of a sudden he’ll include a sentence that just stops you dead in it’s weirdness, like “Hear the companion writing their reciprocal dreams made.” That’s a complete sentence. Odd, odd stuff.

      But I sincerely hope you give him a try. Some of his earlier stuff is hard to find, but he’s becoming better known – his publishers Chomu Press are singing the song of Cisco more than his previous, it seems. Plus, he’s got a new one out, “Celebrant” in a few weeks’ time – very much looking forward to it. Cautiously.

      Tomcat.

  3. I’m daunted by two things.

    Firstly, that you read it straight for six hours and didn’t finish it, which suggests it’s a rather large book.

    Secondly, that I review on my own blog everything I read, and I couldn’t possibly write nearly as good a review as you have here.

    “Hear the companion writing their reciprocal dreams made.” – sounds almost like cut up fiction, a la Burroughs.

    If you were pressed, where would you suggest starting with Cisco?

    • It’s just shy of 400 pages – but i) it’s INCREDIBLY dense (bring a pen!), and ii), I’m an INCREDIBLY slow reader :). Really – so slow:– I was always behind at uni just because it took me so long to get through the reading lists.

      Also, many thanks for your kind words about my reviews – to be honest, I generally think they’re a bit messy. I have so many clear ideas about books, but I get very lost and confused when I try to express them in ordered, eloquent sentences. This review was particularly irritating to write, as everything felt like it needed to be said before everything else.

      As for where to start with MC – well, most of his earlier stuff can be kinda tricky to track down. ‘The Divinity Student’ and ‘The Traitor’ were his ‘breakthrough’ books (for want of a better term – he’s still pretty obscure even now), and they’re also much shorter than his more recent novels (every book he writes is longer than the last one – I wonder how long he can keep that up?). But, to be honest, I don’t see anything wrong with diving straight into the deep end. ‘The Great Lover’ is (and I don’t use this word lightly) genius.

      His newest book ‘Celebrant’ is published this week, actually. Apparently it’s about a city full of people who worship giant ‘natural’ robots that formed spontaneously – sounds awesome!

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and to comment – it means a lot to me.
      Tom.

      • I looked on Amazon and this was the only one they had, so I guess if I try one it’ll have to be this. I’ve sent a sample to my kindle.

        If it’s any help by the way, I’ve never been happy with pretty much anything I’ve written. I think it just comes with the territory.

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