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Reviews Sun Feb 16 2014

A Pocket Death: The Desert Places, by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss

The Desert Places.jpgThe cover might tip you off anyway, but still: you should not read The Desert Places over breakfast. Nor on the bus or train, if you're at all prone to motion sickness. When, then? Perhaps after having battled through a rush hour in which the city seems a nest of hostilities and indignities, or after clicking off the television in weary disgust after too much of something awful: news reports of environmental disaster, maybe, or a long commercial break.

I don't mean to say that The Desert Places will comfort you on these occasions. It will not. It's just that the book may be most bearable if black bile is already close to your surface, if you start off feeling more or less ready for apocalypse. The subject and protagonist of this small book--collaboratively written by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss, illustrated in dripping, furrowed black and red by Matt Kish, and published by Curbside Splendor--is evil, or Satan, or death, never quite named but always recognizable. The story starts in the Old Testament but takes some liberties. For instance: God's probably still hanging around the joint, but it's hard to say where.

From the outset we are seeing the most elemental things through their most horrific lens. We get a glossary glossing terms like "life" ("the good years and days, when you ate your fill of souls") and "love" ("the unimaginable need, yet a soft dull rot in the heart just the same"). The scope is cosmic. And yet the book is tiny: 87 pages and not much broader than an index card. So there is a sense of compression--the ultimate density just prior to some big bang, or the white dwarf after everything's burned out.

Chapter One is a riff on Job, with something in the balance of powers gone awry. It's evil that's being cross-examined, not some puny mortal; the authors' voice from the whirlwind asks: "when a nervous god, still virgin to creation, called you forth: did you marvel at your luck?" We come to know this bone-chomping beast in violent detail, but the substitution--Satan himself for the afflicted everyman--produces an uneasy lingering feeling of identification. We're being addressed in the second person, after all; perhaps we too are monstrously made, "limbs long nightmares" and "heart a vacuum in the soundless scream of space."

Well: I've always been a sucker for the sad, proud Satan of Paradise Lost. This isn't the same guy, although the epoch-jumping narrative does swing toward sympathy on occasion: the beast describing itself as "shivering in my only-ness," or musing that "sometimes it is hard to be alone with so many dead things." On occasion it seems to act from an obscure sense of justice: in Eden it rescues Eve from a murderous Adam, then in ancient Rome haunts a planned public entertainment in which convicts are to be killed by exotic animals, only to emerge and itself devour the entire audience.

It can even be funny. At a 1920s gala celebrating the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb, the beast, in human form now, fills the ear of his archaeologist dance partner with sweet nothings such as "I have eaten many priests of this land." Sparks and Kloss get in a few philosopher jokes, too. But there is also a great seriousness to the book, in its catalogs of real-world atrocities and its visceral descriptions of death. Here evil is a problem that both must and can't be reckoned with. It does not seem merely an excuse for the authors' experiments with form and their very fine (supercharged, poetic) prose.

Illustrator Matt Kish has some experience taking on such leviathan topics: he's best known for Moby-Dick in Pictures, which rendered the great novel in a series of 552 illustrations. Here his semi-abstract drawings are made of teeth and entrails, skeletons and swords. They're all more or less the same picture with its parts rearranged, as the scenes of Sparks' and Kloss's story are more or less the same tableau of butchery with its parts rearranged.

Is there no salvation in The Desert Places' world? Light barely glimmers in all the time we track, from the universe's creation until the extinction of the earth; even the best fruits of human civilization are created "as if some god would cease its slaughter to revel in such a fantasy." But then again, as universal in scope as our view may be, it's also limited--or so we may hope. The beast may be so cut off from humanity's pleasures and particular forms of transcendence as to be unaware of their content. The book ends in annihilation, but no note of triumph sounds for its protagonist. It's a pyrrhic victory death gains for itself: in sating its eternal hunger, it gets forever lonelier.

 
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