The Traitor – Michael Cisco

Traitor cover


Apologies for the blogging hiatus. My confidence in this thing goes up and down like a sine wave, and with that same kind of regularity.

The Traitor (2007) is an early novel by avant-garde horror fiction maestro Michael Cisco. I’m confident in calling it “early” because, although it’s his fourth published book out of nine so far, it pre-dates The Narrator (2010), which, it seems, is generally considered to be the point at which Cisco’s work adopted the strikingly more challenging and abstract tone for which it is best known. That’s not to say that The Narrator was an abrupt volte face for Cisco stylistically, and this book – The Traitor – contains many of the narrative qualities commonly associated with his oeuvre as a whole (societal rejection, moral ambiguity, emotional darkness, repetitive idiosyncratic prose, long philosophical asides, etc.), but the book’s small cast of characters, its consistency of setting and relatively easy-to-comprehend plot perhaps make The Traitor a good way-in for new readers intimidated by the abject confusion-fests of his more recent novels like The Great Lover (2011), Celebrant (2012) and Member (2013)

The Traitor takes the form of the autobiography of the tongue-contortingly named Nophtha, who’s writing his first-person confessional while incarcerated for treason at the end of his life. Nophtha is a ‘spirit eater’, that is to say, a guy who consumes pesky spirits that harass the public and who uses their energy to heal people. He’s imprisoned because of his actions relating to Wite, a one-time spirit eater who’s gone rogue and become a ‘soul burner’ (essentially the same thing, but a ‘soul burner’ uses the spirit energy he consumes to increase his own, self-serving powers, rather than to heal others).  Nophtha and Wite have a tempestuous, deeply unhealthy relationship, with the former becoming more and more disciple-like as the latter’s power grows to godly proportions. Indeed, the second half of The Traitor smacks more of a dark Gospel than the end-of-life confessional that the narrator initially claims the text to be. Characteristically, Cisco refuses to satisfy the reader with any real information about the book’s setting, but we do know that it takes place in a country under the occupations of the “Alaks”, a force who remain kinda mysterious, except for a suggestive one-time description of their troops as “goose stepping”, which I guess tells you all you need to know about them, really.

The plot, such that it is, is a relatively simple one: the narrator, Nophtha, is tasked with tracking down the rogue spirit eater Wite. After a brief period as Wite’s captive, however, he becomes his disciple, tasked with spreading the word while Wite grows ever more terrifyingly powerful (like, reducing an entire army to mulchy red goo using only his thoughts powerful). There’s a definite suggestion that by the end of the novel Wite can do, literally, anything he wants to.

Ostensibly, then, The Traitor is a Gospel to Wite’s transformation, from a healer-gone-rogue, to a God-like being on the verge of bringing about some terrible species-ending apocalypse from which only wretched social outcasts will be saved. But it’s his disciple-narrator Nophtha who really piqued my interest. The novel opens with a sort of coming of age montage that depicts the child Nophtha as, variously, a victim of familial abuse, perennial romantic reject (and obsessive), and pretty much constantly ill. This history of persecution (as he sees it) forms the subtext for Nophtha’s eventual rejection of humanity and his siding with the elementally destructive Wite. As a justification for his later actions, however, I found Nophtha’s traumas to be a little on the nose, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that Cisco hadn’t quite reached the peak of his abilities w/regards to narrative subtlety.

But despite this seemingly clear dichotomy between, on the one hand, Nophtha as a persecuted victim and, on the other, society as pitiless persecuting force, our narrator remains nonetheless confused about his own identity and moral standing. Stylistically this comes across in the brilliantly stilted, repetitive and self-obsessed narration that doesn’t really develop its pure philosophy of annihilation until the novel’s final pages, when Nophtha’s rejection of the world is most keenly expressed. It makes for hypnotically addictive reading; page-long paragraphs swirl and tangent, with a strange rhythm and a sense of dark poetry that’s unlike anything outside of Cisco’s own highly idiosyncratic method.


The crux of the story is that Nophtha wants so much not to care about the world, about other people, about himself. He wants so much to be like Wite, the man-turned-God entity he idealises; not because he desires Wite’s phenomenal powers, but because Wite has transcended beyond humanity, beyond that mortal state of human vulnerability that has made such a victim out of Nophtha. Nowhere is this more keenly demonstrated than when Wite, besieged in a country house, melts the approaching army with his thoughts while locked away in a hermetically sealed room: a metaphor for his uncaring distance from the rest of humanity. Wite is idealised by Nophtha because he is beyond those who would persecute him. Wite is the ultimate expression of the Nietzschean Ubermensch and the Will to Power: whatever Wite wills to happen, happens.

Wite has already lost all resemblance to his former state, he’s become something else entirely, he’s as blind and relentless as a hurricane – do you imagine there’s something you could say that would “change his mind”?

So in part The Traitor is about Nophtha’s struggle against his own humanity as he endeavours to achieve the sort of ultimate aloofness manifested in Wite, and which would liberate him (in his mind) from his abusers. This struggle is evident by degrees; firstly Nophtha falls in love with Wite’s cousin, the unpronounceable Tzdze (seriously… “Tuz-duh-zeh”? “Tuh-zee-duh-zee”? “Tuzzed-zee”? I literally have no idea), but later betrays her to further aid Wite. By the end of the novel, Nophtha protests that he doesn’t care about anything human whatsoever, while, somewhat paradoxically, also claiming that his “pity is reserved only for those you’ve pushed out of your commonsensical way”.

What makes The Traitor so great is that it’s full with these kinds of contradictions. That in attempting to go beyond what’s human, Nophtha unintentionally expresses the most human trait of all: that we’re all inconsistent thralls to the moment, and not the unified and consistent psychological constructs of certainty that we’d all like to believe. Nophtha rejects humanity, but still finds himself subject to the whims of love. He welcomes Wite’s coming apocalypse with a maniac glee as he anticipates the downfall of the human race, but while longing for the destruction of everything, he still finds people (the wretched) that he wants to save.

Paradoxically, he allies himself with Wite because he delights in the idea of extinction, but also because he thinks that by doing so, he may be able to save himself. His rhetoric of annihilation, then, isn’t total; it’s not humanity he despises, but a certain view of it: he would save his lover and those like him. Nophtha’s final vision of the world is of cities, those great symbols of civilization, now ruined, sparsely inhabited and lorded-over by the one-time wretched, those underdogs who society rejects; from the weak, to the sick, to the criminal to the romantically incompetent.

Those future ruins of your city now shall have vanished under a blank expanse of trees and grass stones hills rivers lakes oceans swamps sun and weather, and shall have been blanked out of the ghostly minds or our silent solitary successors. Once and always alone they are going on, they will go on and you will drive them on, and they will betray you to what isn’t human, I was part of them once and I betrayed and betrayed, I betrayed you all and I could never betray you enough.

The language is suitably Biblical, and the more I consider my earlier description of the book as a “dark gospel”, the more apposite I think the label. Nophtha’s compassion for the rejected and his desire to wipeout everybody else is definitely a twisted and over-literal version of the Sermon on the Mount’s Beatitudes (“Blessed are the ____”). Similarly, biblical analogues can be found in the Judas-like behaviour of our narrator; at one point, overcome with anxiety and love for Tzdze, he attempts to kill Wite – one of the many instances of treachery alluded to by the title. Placing Wite in a cave, he returns later to discover that Wite, still alive, has become even more powerful – a resurrection analogue if ever I’ve read one. This is also, though, one of the novel’s few character missteps: Nophtha’s an intelligent guy who’s just witnessed Wite make protein shakes out of his enemies using only his thoughts; does he really think that taking a knife to him would bring the guy down? Maybe you could generously argue that it’s an act of desperation or whatever. Either way, Wite’s “resurrection” is genesis of Nophtha’s annihilation fantasies, so it’s an important narrative event, albeit reached in a kinda weird fashion.


In a way The Traitor reminds me of that modern phenomenon we might call the “revenge of the persecuted geek”. I’m sure we can all bring to mind some story or other about a bullied and romantically rejected college loner who pens some hate-filled invective about “I’ll show you all” before going on to commit a horrific act of innocents-killing reprisal. Here we have much the same thing, only transposed to a Dark Fantasy setting where the “I’ll show you all” threats actually carry the possibility of apocalypse. Nophtha definitely fits into this type, rejected for his unusual abilities/interests (here manifesting as ‘spirit eating’, but you could paste whatever geek niche you like over the top of this), and developing a bitterness that goes way beyond what could reasonably be expected.

Maybe Cisco had this idea of the Geek Revenge Fantasy in his mind when he wrote The Traitor, maybe not. And I don’t want to claim that the book is any kind of satire on this pathetic notion of persecution; rather, the whole idea actually makes fantastic fodder for horror fiction. The end-of-the-world manifesto, while rational in its writer’s head, is of course a thing of abject horror and a disturbed mind. There’s a satisfying tension between the reader’s desire to pity our downtrodden yet fascinating narrator, then, and the desire to utterly condemn his philosophy. There’s also a third conflict too, whereby those of us who don’t feel the world is quite set up how we’d like it to be may knowingly smile in recognition at the fantasy of wiping it all out and starting again from scratch. (Does the human race deserve to end is one of the subtextual questions raised by the book) Michael Cisco’s most resounding achievement with The Traitor is in perfectly balancing all of these contradictory elements, the end result of which is, as we’ve come to expect, something genuinely disturbing in its revelation of the human spirit’s propensity for darkness.

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.


The Narrator – Michael Cisco

When I was being interviewed for a place at university (by a disappointingly institutional cliché of beard, tweed, and stutter), I decided to rail against all the pre-facto advice I had been given to stay on-topic with the canon, and instead I talked about the writers I really loved.  I waxed garrulous (if not quite poetic) about Michael Moorcock, Iain Banks, Edwin Morgan, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Philip K. Dick – you know, the truly outré, weird, unashamedly intellectual side of fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction – and how one day this kind of writing would become the Literature that most pushed boundaries and meant something to readers (call me naive if you like – I was an idealist!).  Given my interviewer’s moth-eaten demeanour, I perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprised when he promptly told me to abandon this line of discussion and talk instead about “proper books”.  Begrudgingly I acquiesced, and jumped through the hoops of canonical lit crit with some improvisational, boring and hackneyed comparison of the landscapes of Wuthering Heights with the seascapes of Moby Dick – but hey! this seemed to please him (I passed, afterall).

What really stuck with me afterwards was his phrase “proper books”, and the way this casual dismissive swept-aside everything I was passionate about with simultaneous contempt and institutional disregard, while demonstrating a repulsive literary snobbishness and elitism.  His accusation wasn’t so much that the books I liked were ‘improper’; rather, that they were frivolous, non-literary, of no consequence.  The blunders of his argument are many, but significant among them are: 1) He’d never read the novels he was so caustically dismissing, and 2) he’s never going to read them: all modern attempts at Fantasy writing being, in his mind, a shallow caricature of Tolkien-esque clichés (or at least an attempt to ventriloquise them) and so of no literary merit.

There’s a larger issue here (which I’ll save for another day) about the institutional disregard of speculative fiction (I’m also looking at you, Man Booker Prize) and the over-praise lavished upon the heavily commercialised literary-lite novels that dominate the arts pages of the Guardian and the like; books which are both critically lauded and bestselling, but which never strive for anything beyond the middle-brow (McEwan, Amis, Faulks et al).  My over-laboured point being: Fantasy and Sci-fi really are becoming the new home of the literary avant-garde, and I wish, wish, wish I’d been able to read Michael Cisco’s The Narrator ten years ago (it was published last year) – because not only is it just, like, totally awesome; it also would have stood as a great illustration of my point.

The Narrator is really weird stuff.  Through a strange and comically baffling bureaucratic misunderstanding, Low Loom Column is drafted into the army and sent to the city of Tref, where his designs on desertion are ruined after he is seen by an ‘Edek’: paradoxically blind, tall, effeminate beings whose powers are never fully explained.  The book is predominantly constructed in the first-person present tense, with Low as the narrator; but he is also a “Narrator”: ostensibly a convergence of historian with biographer – a Narrator’s ultimate vocation being to become a chronicler of their experiences in the creation of what will, eventually, become state-sanctioned and approved truths.  When Low’s brilliantly realised, insane and murderous jingoist of a commanding officer, General Makemin, discovers this, he immediately grants Low special treatment; not out of any due respect for the Narrators’ office, but out of a self-serving narcissism which hopes that Low will become the conduit of Makemin’s own heroic mythology.  That Makemin is raving mad and kills his own men as indiscriminately as he does his enemies doesn’t function as any kind of obstruction to this: self-deluded as he is.

Presumably the novel itself, The Narrator, is the end-product of Low’s endeavours, the book which, as a “Narrator”, he has produced.  This inter-textual placing of The Narrator as a novel within itself is where Cisco really shines, as the standard tropes of novelistic story telling are bent and blurred and twisted and malformed until what results is a book that’s at once compellingly original yet frustratingly difficult to know.  I’ve never encountered an unreliable narrator quite like Low Loom Column before.  On a superficial level, the book is riddled with grammar errors: deliberately misapplied commas and hyphens are the first clues that, enigmatically, our ‘narrator’ isn’t to be trusted – surely a ‘Narrator’ by profession shouldn’t make such faux pas?  Frequently Low makes the (admittedly minor) grammar mistake of ending sentences with a preposition, only to immediately correct himself in the subsequent sentence:

A rough trunk of parched wind will strike and suck at me a moment, raking in my nose and throat the glittering dust it’s laced with.  With which it is laced.


I suppose to be eaten or perhaps simply fondled and torn and toyed with.  With which to be toyed.

Low’s correction of his own grammar acts as a covert communication to the reader that nothing in The Narrator is entirely trustworthy or to be taken at face-value (why else would he include his own mistakes?); it’s a style characterised by fluidity and uncertainty; the fundamental structure of language is being fucked with, and this extends outwards to colour every aspect of the novel.  The Narrator is a dark and gothic dreamscape of the undefined, full of contradictory axioms: “as a follower you are always the first to arrive” and obscure sentence construction: “Hear the companion writing their reciprocal dreams made.”.

Compounding this, I think, is an incredible tension between the literal and the figurative: so much so that when Low describes a man as having “a rabbit mouth” or “falcon face”, I was never quite sure whether such language is a flamboyant and impressionistic description of physicality, or an entirely literal one (this is a Fantasy after all (although the genre-label on the back cover knowingly describes it as ‘experimental/other’)).  While some chapters are bewildering simply because they are formally difficult (stream of consciousness/dream sequences/mass hallucinations), others are ungraspable not because of any lack of specificity – quite the opposite – but because they’re so adjectively dense that they give James Joyce a run for his money on the what-the-crap-is-going-on scale.  Ironically, Cisco uses an over-abundance of adjectives to obstruct clarity: perverting language’s most descriptive sign by stripping it of its expressive power: cloying it up with ambiguity.

But The Narrator is much more than an exercise in tone and gothic ambience.  Low’s narrative agenda is decidedly anti-war.  The whole book functions as analogy for the destructive capacity of war: death and suffering bleed through the pages of this novel, to the extent that (as shown) even the narration itself is unstable and self-destructive.  There are long passages in which you really can’t tell whether events are actually happening or merely delegate of something else entirely.  Bookcases bleed ink and the leather hinges of bindings become mouths, even Low splits himself into a double: Narrator and character, fetishising the very material of the book in your hands:

I’ve remembered this moment so many times since out of black and white I swam together and became a “character” –

Metaphors become realities in The Narrator, such is the ferocious yet ambiguous power of Low’s narratology: he dreams of a giant, black ship (Bonant), the inescapability of which is a clear metaphor for the coming war – but no sooner does he set sail than this ship becomes a literal threat, chasing his army across the ocean.

Unsurprisingly then, horror (notably the phantasmagoric) plays an important role in the book.  There are too many set-piece battles that are confusing and deliberately vague (a rare flaw: if Cisco is trying to capture the repetitive tedium of skirmish warfare, he over-shoots the mark, and could have made the same point without quite so much repetition), but the slower inter-skirmish sequences are characterised by disturbing events, frequently redolent of Lovecraftian grotesque: a cannibal queen, a disgusting séance of some kind, and a vagrant group dubbed the ‘vomiters’: disfigured, emaciated people who’re perpetually throwing-up.  That such horrors are conceived in the same beautiful and entrancing language as the rest of the book only adds to their power to disturb.

So how do I end this?  I’ve not spoken much about the plot because even that is slippery and difficult to pin-down.  From obscure and unexplained “magics” like the construction of ‘alphabets’, to long, drawn-out military campaigns: even the most basic events of this book are infinitely interpretable.  The Narrator is incredibly literate Fantasy; a text perpetually attempting to tear itself apart from the inside with its own conflicts and ambiguities.  War subverts not only life, but language and even truth.  I’m still not sure what that university lecturer meant by “proper books” – but if only The Narrator had existed back then, and if only I’d had the confidence in my tastes that I have now – I’d have stood up for myself much more than I did, with this book as my prime example of the literary legitimacy of modern Fantasy.