David Ohle is a natural born terrorist—inso-far as Naked Lunch is the definitive English translation of the Koran. And if—as was provocatively asserted in Don DeLillo’s Mao II—the terrorist has hijacked the novelist’s role within our culture, is it then somehow supercilious of me to report that Ohle has written a novel that will behead his readers? Said novel is The Age of Sinatra, in which, it should be noted, “elective deformation” of one’s body is the predominant fashion trend. Readers, in this case, can attire themselves however they see fit (the orange jumpsuit is optional). And I’d like to propose that getting your head lopped off by Ohle’s fiction is a strange and unforgettable experience.
Some essential backstory: The Age of Sinatra is billed as a sequel to Motorman, published in 1972 by Knopf, and just reissued by 3rd Bed. Here we first encountered Moldenke, the stonepick-smoking, compulsive letter-writing, Beckettian hero (“At best I can say that I am here, although I don’t know where. I am at large and about”) as he journeys to and through a place dubbed the bottoms. Moldenke, suffering from a heart condition, consults his physician, Dr. Burnheart, who installs four sheep hearts in Moldenke’s chest, and removes one of his lungs. Moldenke is also a veteran of the “mock War” in which citizens enlist for an injury of their own devising. He, in a moment of guilt-induced heroism, volunteered to give up “a list of feelings” and to receive a “minor fracture,” whereupon a nurse promptly smashed his kneecap.
Motorman‘s landscape is chockablock with multiple suns and moons (Ohle effortlessly strafes the traditional tropes of science fiction, the epistolary novel, and the picaresque), and is populated with a nefarious breed of faux humans called jellyheads. Here is a scenish bit of prose in which an otherwise listless Moldenke combats two hitchhiking jellyheads he unwittingly picked up in his k-rambler: “Moldenke exposed his letter opener. ‘You first.’ The man came forward. ‘Bend over.’ The man bowed. With the letter opener, Moldenke opened a small hole in the back of the neck, enough for two fingers. He put a thumb and forefinger in and widened the hole, a clear jelly spilling out, down his trenchpants. He did the woman, her jelly more clouded, her rubber skull a little thicker than the professor’s had been. In the morning, with two suns behind him like stray moons, he examined his vehicle.” This is a textual torture so pleasurable that Motorman generated an ominous subplot while out of print—that of readers’ reverent anti-chatter about the novel’s spiritual effects. Forget cult status: Motorman birthed its own sleeper cell.
In The Age of Sinatra, Ohle has seemingly concocted some sort of covert Oulipian recipe regarding the fantastic versus realism. Yes, there’s still a wealth of joyful, invented terminology (edible books, contraband hair) in the sequel, but this time around there’s substantially more reality injected into Moldenke’s world, which paradoxically bolsters the novel’s bizarro quotient. Familiar historical icons (the Titanic, the name Hitler, etc.) are invoked in such a light as to make them seem alien, heretofore nonexistent. When we catch up with Moldenke in The Age of Sinatra, he’s aboard the Titanic, and suffering from the most recent “Forgetting,” which amounts to an erasure of the citizenry’s collective memory. One day in the Titanic‘s bistro Moldenke is convicted of a crime he did not commit (“Crime is not a failure of the individual, but of the culture. As long as someone is held accountable, and punished accordingly, that’s jolly good for the commonweal”) and is sentenced to do time in the French Sewer. His daily task is thus: “The procedure is simple. Use the rabot to break up the clumps when you see them. Push the material along.” After serving his sentence, Moldenke’s heart and scrotal sac are replaced with those of an actual “French pig,” although in reality the heart probably belonged to a “Stinker,” the latter to a “neutrodyne.” Moldenke eventually gets entangled in the one-eyed prison guard Sergeant Montfaucaon’s campaign to have President Ratt assassinated (the same President Ratt who in his radio address declares the number 11 should be called onety-one). Think The Phantom Tollbooth in a Technicolor, head-on collision with the Book of Job.
So how does the sequel measure up to the original? Both novels are required reading, and one wishes 3rd Bed godspeed in their apparent mission to exhume innovative works of contemporary fiction from our nation’s literary graveyard (their other resurrected title is Gary Lutz’s syntactelicious Stories in the Worst Way). American readers should take note of this insurgent fiction writer, David Ohle, who flays the human condition to singular, hallucinatory effect. And if the current president manages to sustain his siege on the White House in November, you might just find a headless state the preferred modus operandi. Stick your neck out.