Kat Clay on a new novel by Michael Cisco
At Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), a lone, rusty chapel stands upon the hill overlooking the Derwent River. Visitors pass it by, occasionally stepping in for a brief glance. But the artwork by Wim Delvoye deserves minute observation; inside, the stained-glass windows reveal no sacred vision. Translucent X-Rays of skeletons performing sex acts shine colourfully through the windows.
Why talk about art when we’re meant to be talking about Michael Cisco? Reading Cisco’s work is much like looking at Delvoye’s art. Both are full of grotesque fascination. Both are experimental in their presentation. And both invite extreme reactions because they cross the boundaries of the sacred and profane.
Readers glancing at the blurb of Cisco’s latest work, Pest (Clash Books, 2023), would be forgiven for thinking it’s simply a book about a man turning into a yak, a la The Metamorphosis. Abstract architect Chalo lies in hospital in a disease-induced coma, but his mind is elsewhere: the annual yak rut in the mountains. The question of whether his existence as a yak is a dream or the afterlife is slowly answered, the story cutting back and forth between his life as a yak and the circumstances that brought him to this point. Recruited by cult leader Grant to build a campus on Catalina Island, the novel traverses their strange adventures, crossing time, space, and bank loan appointments. There are demons born of a cathedral, a sociopathic translator, and living buildings fuelled by sea water. It’s bizarre, and bitterly, bitingly funny.
Catalina Island’s campus is no standard construction project. Chalo’s commission is to build ‘a place that is at once real, and yet, not welded to the rest of reality. Only annexed to it.’ It is a living object, built in true surrealist style. To obtain finance for the project, Grant and Chalo attempt to procure a bank loan, in what is the best scene of the book. Anyone who has attempted to get a mortgage will sympathise with the inter-dimensional bamboozlement as they navigate the bank, and its dehumanising staff, dubbed the ‘digital wendigo bank incubus’.
Language is at the heart of Pest’s story, both in the book’s themes and in the construction of the literary annex. A book is a portal between worlds, opened by the author. In different hands, the book would fail, collapsing under the weight of its ambitions. Cisco’s skill at weilding words, the way he deploys sophisticated language and philosophical ideas, the sting that holds it together.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Pest is in how it deals with language and religion. Translator AC takes on the job of interpreting Tibetan sacred documents for the cult leader, but it’s a money job for the broke college student. Instead of translating, she makes up the contents of the text. It’s a commentary on translation (how much does a translator create a new work in the act of language transference?), a satire on modern new age movements and their appropriation of Eastern cultures, and that of the importance of text in religious practice. Rather than be found out as a charlatan, AC’s translation brings the cult into being.
And with it, the demons. Chalo is trapped in a cosmic battle between Grant’s desire for transcendence, and the mischievous demons who seek to take advantage of this breach between the real and spiritual worlds. These four demons, broken off from a profane cathedral much like Wim Delvoye’s art, are brilliantly realised. The Narthex, the Nave, the Apse, and the Pulpit argue about the best way to take advantage of this break between worlds. Their dialogue, told in what can only be described as contemporary olde English, is a highlight: ‘You look like the caet thaet aete the canaery.’
The second half of the novel focuses on the building of the campus, and these demons fade somewhat into the background. It’s perhaps one critique of this book. The biggest escalation in tension and story comes around the half-way mark, as Grant, the demons, and the narrative tumble into metaphysical battle, but the energy dissipates as the story’s focus shifts to Catalina Island and the ‘migrants’ who build this abstract annex.
The wink of omniscience is constant throughout the narrative. Cisco breaks rules about perspective, jumping between point of view characters with a near gleeful abandon. It begs the question: whose story is this? Does it belong to Chalo, AC, Grant, the profane cathedral, or the ever-present author as architect of the grand narrative?
Chalo is haunted by the sensation that there is someone behind his own story directing his actions. ‘It’s like someone, a stranger, is keeping a promise made to me, since I can’t tell my own story now, and since I neither need to tell my own story to myself nor want to hear it.’ There’s something of the authorial metaphor in between the lines, the desiccated corpses that are the teachers of destiny. Cisco writes,
At the heart of this book, there is always a little aperture to the passages, the wind, the uncanniness of these mountains where destiny is made by workers who are masters of their craftless art and slaves to the destiny they make.
The author is the diviner of destiny, tasked with building an architecture of words, a sacred text for the reader. That or they’re a desiccated corpse. Or both.
There are essays and theses to be written about Pest. Cisco’s words invite close observation of their minutiae, like the chapel windows of Wim Delvoye. Where Cisco’s most well-known work, The Divinity Student, felt the influence of Italo Calvino, this is a much more Burroughsesque novel. In fact, it’s reminiscent of Naked Lunch and the land of the eponymous Interzone. The uneven conflict between the arcane and the modern is why the book is more gonzo, less consistent. There are hints of M. John Harrison too, in the wild, cosmic abandon coming together in building the cult campus on Catalina Island. Yet although Pest deserves (and itself invites) comparison, like Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World or the short stories of Julio Cortázar, Cisco’s work defies categorisation, existing in a realm incomparable.Pest is a left-hand turn off a back alley opening to a portal in a demon world.
One of the most original novels of 2023, Pest is best read in the gloaming, in the drowsy moments between waking and sleeping. It is in these waning hours that the mad king of weird fiction wakes. ∎
Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.
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