A Monument of Wonders: Excerpts for an Unending Transformation
By Kurt Frazer, New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 14, 2009
The experience of life in a finite, limited body is specifically for the purpose of discovering and manifesting supernatural existence within the finite.
“I was always resolved that I would never start this work with the pronoun I.” This is the way Roy Dean Doughty’s astonishing opus, A Monument of Wonders begins. And it is between and among those I’s, those distances between ourselves and others, between our present self and our past and future ones, that the work unfolds. And what a work it is! In this monument we discover the whole history of a world so radically different than our own, yet so suspiciously like it, that we begin to suspect that the author has discovered layers of reality, which have been lurking just below the surface all the time, without our being aware of them.
In an introduction which tells of the origins of the manuscript in the personal crises of its narrator — brain tumor, divorce, bankruptcy, and the death and resurrection of a remarkable black cat — we learn that certain mysterious otherworldly teachers are intervening to halt or assist in the author’s disintegration, a disintegration, it is implied, which is essential for the salvation of the world. These teachers gift our hapless narrator with several “awareness exercises,” the last of which, called “rock gazing,” consists of meditations on seven common beach pebbles, one for each day of the week. From these meditations, wonders burgeon. The one-year diary of these excursions into rock gazing make up the contents of the work, the rooms, as it were, of the monument. Each daily entry becomes, first a persona with a voice, and then a particular historical place and time, and then a vast array of stories which weave and interweave together with the baroque intricacy of a multivoiced fugue.
Like all great stories, the gist of these narratives is ably expressed through the lives of remarkable characters. Consider this small sampling from the novel’s Dickensean cast:
Clive Izard, a libidinous young English doctor and dandy (circa 1910s), who treats the frigid and barren wives of the fashionable elite in Trouville, France, by inducing autoerotic hypnotic trances.
Francis, ward of Dr. Izard, a seal-like wild boy washed mysteriously from the sea, who becomes a linguistics expert.
Grace Maryanka, the prima ballerina assoluta, of the famed Ballets Russes, who through the promptings of an apparition from her mirror, undertakes a journey from Paris to St. Petersburg in the summer and fall of 1917. On this journey she plays various trouser roles, as she cuts across the bloodiest battle lines of World War I. (You don’t want to miss the scenes where she enters a forest, filled with a war-and-revolution-diapsora of thousands of chickens, there to take refuge with a hermit, with an incredible secret and an illustrious past.)
Theopompus, an Athenian thespian of 4th century B.C. Athens, whose drunken cruelty to his wife and slave leads him to the famed healing center of Epidaurus, his “cure” involving a strange reversal of roles.
A Quaker trader, Serenity Pitt, in circa 1765, Philadelphia, who creates a miniature Garden of Eden from the crippled and deformed animals he rescues from local abattoirs. Serenity’s diminutive Zen-like teacher, Xuefeng, a man of indeterminate age, who experienced satori at the bottom of the sea, after a whale hunting mishap in Japan.
A troubadour, the famous historical Marcebru, at the end of the 12th century, hiding out from the evil Compte de Foix in the Pyrenees foothills, disguised as an heretical Cathar bon homme, and the possessor of a most sagacious horse.
Guillemette Benet, the troubadour Marcebru’s protector (and perhaps something more), the wily local Godfather-mother of the village of Montaillou, who uses hallucinogenic ergot-infected rye to convert the inquisitor sent by the fat Bishop of Pamiers to threaten her and her neighbors.
Guillemette’s adopted daughter, Esclarmonde, she with the secret and perverted heritage, a child gifted with wild talents — clairvoyance, healing powers, the ability to prophesy the future through the recitation of gnomic verses, which she composes by stomping her feet on the earth.
A cross-dressing eroto-phile Italian ship’s surgeon, Sandro Lieto, a devotee, and perhaps an agent, of the famed Padre Pia (circa 1920). Among other eccentricities, Dr. Lieto cleans his hands at table, like a cat licking his paws. An ageless lothario, he draws women to his bed with the lure of a purity of pleasure that provokes religious apotheosis.
A shadowy former government agent, Howard “Steamer” Lawhead, circa 1988, Phoenix, Arizona, who raises psychedelic toads (Bufo alvarius) in his basement. A sojourner in the DMT-evoke land of Elf-o-topia, Steamer’s powers his operation by means of geothermic Telsa coils, with tragi-comic consequences.
The widow of the Maharaja Nundy, Sri Sri Sri Raniji, who after cunningly eluding the fate of suttee (the burning of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband), escapes to the west (circa 1920) to teach esoteric sexual practices. Sri Rani is assisted, or more accurately, instructed, in her task by her parrot, Jayadeva, a bird endowed with the capability of reciting scriptural erotica in several languages.
Sri Sri Sri Raniji’s foster father, a sadhu, from the infamous Aghoris sect, a sometimes transvestite, sometimes skyclad (naked) dweller of the cremation grounds, who pleases the dark side of Ma Durga by devotional practices which feature various thuggeeish debaucheries, not excluding ritual cannibalism.
A couple of Lone Ranger and Tonto wanna-bees (circa 1988) Phoenix, Az.: Captain Hiram Jinks, self-trepanned Mensa member and New York post-Jacob-Javit’s-current-Ronald-Reagan-Republican Jew, whose spiritual practice involves releasing pressure from the body by passing intestinal gas, and his Apache sidekick, Benjamin Talks-a-Lot, a Viet Nam vet, Sorbonne graduate, and post-Freudian aficionado of the Jacque Lacan school.
Louvernios Razos, professor emeritus of Medieval Studies, Arizona State University (circa, 1988) and his wife, the chain-smoking, highballing, Shirley, a couple who unwittingly harbor the grief of a terrible secret that could threaten national security.
GaGa, the gadgetry avatar, a.k.a., Carl Parks, (2001, Houston, Texas), a mathematical and engineering genius, who has pieced together with vintage television, computer, and recording equipment, the “Quifter” (Quantum Field Thought Receiver), his device activated by an ancient Meso-American crystal skull named “Max.”
Dr. Blasius Erhardt and his dominatrix wife, Brünhilda (circa 1988) Sedona, Arizona. Two leathery and aging former concentration camp officials, who play sadomasochistic sex games, such as Mummy and Embalmer, in their “rumpus” room (sealed off from the rest of their Gesundungshaus (House of Health), by means of a U-boat-type lock hatch). Like Tennyson’s tragic Tithonus, they appear to have discovered the secret of immortality, but without drinking from fountain of youth. They seem to feed off sunlight, or else the vibrations emitted from a Hellenistic funerary sculpture looted during the war.
The famous Elizabethan necromancer, John Dee, and his reprobate, earless medium, Edward Kelly — their crystal ball contact with angels leads to the discovery of the Enochian language, that pre-Bablel, Adamic tongue, whose words vibrate with mutational powers.
Mohammed Ishmail al-Jeberti, the saintly Eritrian war refugee convenience store clerk (the Hep-U-Sef, Houston, Texas, spring of 2001), whose evening with his invisible guardian angels, Munkir and Nakir, tell us much about the clash of two fundamentalisms: western capitalism and Islamic fanaticism.
A five-foot tall cockney, Bigsby Upton, with a one-foot long schlong, whose evangelical travels prophesy the end of our world.
The list could be extended. But all the characters in this monument, major or minor, are illuminated by details of dress, gesture, or manner of speaking, which let us know that their outer skin has been formed by a depth we can only surmise, these markings on the surface the keys to those inner worlds mysteriously connecting us all. This aspect of characterization is emphasized again and again by author’s use of a technique, wherein he first shows us a character from the outside, often ridiculous, stereotypical, and flawed, and then later takes us into that person’s interior life, where we can feel as they feel, think as they think, see what and how they see. The result is not only knowledge, but experience. Reading, we feel as though we have become another person. But perhaps we should not limit ourselves to the word “person” here, because the monument also contains many animals, just as vividly drawn, as well as demons and angels from dimensions that only touch our physical earth tangentially. Before we leave this subject of characters, it should also be noted that Mr. Doughty has blurred the line between fiction and “life” by weaving not only himself, but also many historical persons into his work. These are chiefly writers and artists.
Proust,Tolstoy,WilliamButler Yeats, and Jorge Luis Borges all have prominent parts to play. On the good side, we have the English utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, and also the famous yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda. And on the apostate side, we meet, among others, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, as well as George W. Bush. The description of the latter’s inauguration (Interregnum: Thirteenth Week’s Summary) after the disputed election of 2000 is particularly insightful. Written in the form an hypnotic induction, we become first the limousine carrying the president-elect through the rainy, hostile streets of the capitol, and then the president himself as he is about to address the nation. It is chilling. It is foreboding. It is sad. And it is just one of many examples wherein the author has matched style to content in a way that illuminates both.
Which brings us to another point: in the monument, characters are manifestations of style. We know them by their presentation, a presentation that is influenced by culture, history, biology, and as Mr. Doughty shows, above all, by language. The monument is made up of montages of love- scenes, action scenes, war scenes, classroom scenes, courtroom, scenes, medical scenes, birth scenes, hunting scenes, rites-of-passage scenes, scenes of interior imaginings, scenes of outward movement, each one of which bears the markings of the style of writing and language peculiar to itself. Do you want to read a great war scene, filled with the fear, the action, the turmoil, the pain, and the surreal tragedy of murderous human conflict, then read, as one example, the section of the monument dated 1/28/01, wherein one of the main protagonists, the pilot of a spotter plane, crashes right between the trenches on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Do you want to read a courtroom scene, then try the hilarious example of the Roy Doughty character’s trial in the Interregnum: Twentieth Week’s Summary, as told from the point of view of the evangelical Christian court reporter. Do you want to read a sex scene, then delve into the whole section dated 4/8/01, wherein a bride on her honeymoon has many visions of sex between people, and also among animals — the freshet beads of sweat on her beautiful young body after love-making proliferating the visions. The point is, A Monument of Wonders is a compendium of styles, which is only another way of saying that it is a compendium of consciousness, a compendium of life.
But perhaps the word compendium gives the wrong impression. A Monument of Wonders is not a “collection,” but what the author calls in many places, an “amalgamation,” an example of what he refers to as the “distributive intelligence” which we find in highly complex systems. A person, an animal has intelligence, but a city, a forest has not only a greater intelligence, but a different order of intelligence, an order of intelligence that is difficult to see from the point-of-view of the individual, but which operates as a kind of unity of being to harmonize the actions of individuals and individual species. In A Monument of Wonders, the ordinary time-sequences of narrative fiction are enveloped in a different kind of time, a time in which affinity and metaphor play a unifying role, and of which sequential, historical time is but a subset. The individual characters and stories are woven together through dreams, fairy tales, lost and found letters and manuscripts, objects that endure or float through time, ticks of speech, gestures, or bodily characteristics, so that all of the stories are connected, in spite of their rather modular presentation as diary entries, but connected in non-obvious ways. They are connected by means of a sub- or super-conscious viscosity, slippery, illusive, full of strange affinities and imagery, which can only be alluded to, but never prosaically defined. In brief, they are connected through poetry. A Monument of Wonders is full of poetry, not merely in the figurative sense, but quite literally. For hundreds of original poems, like jewels in dross, or in this case, like precious among semi-precious stones, illuminate the manuscript. Each chapter or diary entry of Mr. Doughty’s work begins with a quote (a book, and a quite a fascinating one could be assembled just from these, some actual, some fictional, some even derived from books written by fictional characters in the monument itself), and each chapter ends with a poem. The author has been quoted as saying that these poems are the “seeds” from which the rest of the work grows, and if “all of the prose of the monument fell into ruins, and only the poems remained, the essence of the work would live.” Certainly there is a wealth of poetry here, and the prose itself is never far from poetry. A Monument of Wonders begs to be read aloud, and perhaps it unveils its greatest treasures to those who recite, to those who listen, for there is a bardic power in these words.
But how do we summarize all this? Certainly it is epical. Not wholly the epic of an exterior world, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, nor wholly the epic of an interior world, like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but an epic of what we might call altered states of consciousness, those strange liminal experiences that each of us encounter when caught in throes of a profound transformation. For, on one level, the work is about the transformation of a single person,in a single year. The year in this case traversing that fateful period in American and World history from the selection of George W. Bush as president to the apocalyptic post 9/11 decision to wage an Orwellian perpetual war, not on a country, nor on a peoples, nor on a government, nor even on a belief system, but a war on a tactic, the ghost of a ghost: terrorism. So, we could say that this institutionalization of terror to defeat terror in a world so intimately connected as our own has mandated not only a new way of thinking, but a new way of being, a new way of being in which the ostensible narrator of A Monument of Wonders is a prototype.
This is the story of a rather buffoonish and isolated nobody, whose mind and body is fractally distributed through all times and all places to become Everyone. Yet on another, and for the reader, a far more intimate level, A Monument of Wonders is a kind of time-consciousness-language organism that, like a benevolent virus, gets inside the head and effects a similar transformation. The work is full of the uncanny, the unexpected arising from the ordinary, a creature more process than product, which, one gets the feeling, has a perpetually open-endedness about it, as if the words that we read are awaiting the addition of the words we are yet to write, in order to fulfill a secret mutual mission.
As we read A Monument of Wonders, it soon becomes apparent that how we read, how we discover in ourselves the gist of what we read, is a major attribute of the work’s power. This is a work that we do not find, but rather one that finds us. The introduction speaks of “the strange circumstances in which people claim to have discovered the manuscript . . . Copies or bits of copies have been discovered by farmers plowing, by plumbers plumbing, in attic trunks, in disinterred coffins, among the medical files of those who have died astonishing deaths, woven into the cylinders of birds’ nests, matted in the midden heaps of archeological digs, scattered amidst the bones in wolf dens, vomited from the skies during frog or fish falls, even comically interpolated into law books and into the tedious annals of The Congressional Record.” The author is perhaps reminding us here that A Monument of Wonders is only an excerpt appropriated from the total content of our total experience, and the part or parts salient to us are the parts that catch us, and fold us back into the whole. We are one poem in the vast amalgamation of all poetry, or as one of the many poems in the work expresses it, one of the . . .
Voices Without Speakers
To be chosen is to be touched by force.
To resist is to be brittle and to break.
The personal is brittle. Understand
That brokenness is a prerequisite
To power, that the sea’s mouth is empty,
That the wren commands the whole domain of flight.
A grass blade suckles fire from earth’s water.
Understand that prophesy is a storm
Where the prophetic rest in supplication.
They are not brittle. They are impersonal.
Their voices speak the fires of the earth,
Whose fires speak the greenness of the sun.