Review: The Eater of Darkness by Robert M. Coates

In 2009, back in college, I stumbled upon The Eater of Darkness by Robert M. Coates in one of Cesar Aquino’s voluminous bookshelves. It was sometime in 2009, if I remember correctly, and I was under a Dadaist spell and undertaking a not-so methodical research (read: scatterbrained, drunken pseudo-intellectual talks with myself) into modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, etc. – the whole bunch of them. I had never heard of Robert M. Coates, never heard about his work. Then I learned that it was first published in France in 1926 (a time, I suppose, when the Deleuze-Lacan-Foucault triumvirate was nascent) with the assistance of none other than the matriarch of modernism herself, Gertrude Stein. That, in itself, with the book’s beguiling title, and the discovery that it was Coates himself who coined the term “abstract expressionism,” was enough to lure me into this dreamlike labyrinth of a novel and to buy it from its owner.

From the book’s blurbs, this one seemed to be a particularly strange mongrel of genres – of science fiction, murder mystery, literary noir, and surrealism. Flicking through the pages, I saw that it showcased decorative typographic arrangements, interlinking blocks of passages (like the way terse articles in a newspaper are typeset) with texts wrapping around each other, cartoonish, ungrammatical dialogue, fragmented syntax, etc. etc. So I expected the bizarre, the absurd: some weirdly unfamiliar topography, distorted, disturbing, like the experiences in a dream or the objects or experiences depicted in an almost trance-like dope trip. That is to say, I already knew that what lay before me was one of those anarchic, blatantly irreverent, irrational, “experimental” literature that tries, in vain, to represent the subconscious mind by creating fantastic imagery and randomly juxtaposing ideas or concepts that seem to contradict each other and have no contextual meaning. I expected it all even before actually starting to read the book, and lo and behold, after two days of grudging, cynical reading, the book is indeed saturated with exactly those anti-conventional (but I really would like to say “pretentious”) artistic ambitions.

I’m not going to attempt at making sense and order of this hot mess of textual impenetrability. Here’s a singular argument, a begging-the-question: in an effort to make a coherent understanding out of a work that seems to be purposely opaque, can you conclude that your particular subject of criticism is ineffable, and the criticism of it, as a consequence, is rendered unnecessary? Is it a futile task to try to decipher a work that glares at you with its menacing whimsical conceits and pseudo-highbrowism, a work that laughs at your helplessness, as if declaring that you are too stupid, too crude and unenlightened to understand something that’s supposedly philosophically deep and profound? I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but when I read, I interpret, and interpretation is, to say the least, a bloody fucking arduous labor. Does The Eater of Darkness deserve that kind of labor?

I find that I have a love-hate relationship with works of anti-art that deliberately defies reason, while claiming that what they actually emphasize isn’t negation or the deliberate subversion of literary norms / epistemological axioms but “positive expression.” The Eater of Darkness is exactly that. Especially in its format, it’s overladen with devices and technicalities familiar to “postmodern” texts that include, for instance, entire chapters interrupted by sectional breaks and marked (a) to (i) like the ones found in a scholarly journal or in an academic textbook; footnotes that unfortunately do not give further information about anything relevant to the text; annotations that serve no discernible purpose; diagrams littered with explanatory notes depicting the mysterious “engine of death”; conjunctions that lead on to empty spaces followed by more conjunctions and spaces; a diarrhea of ellipses; and superfluous passages rendered as if describing a scene in a movie, with captions that are interposed as if to summarize a situation in the manner of title cards that appear between the scenes in a silent film.

Its overall atmosphere is weird, uncanny, its compositional style disorienting. But it’s not as if you haven’t been warned. The strange, doddering feel of it is already hinted at on the back of the book cover with the slogan, “the first surrealist novel in English.” At the front, it is further indicated by its cover design, an art deco pastiche of some sort, by its vertically positioned title and byline at the edges (something that is perhaps uncommon on a novel’s book cover at the time) and by the curious exclamation point and question mark atop the art deco image, as if saying “what the fuck is this shit!?”

As a result, Coates comes across to me as an idiosyncratic experimentalist who touts his brand of literary innovation, an innovation that attempts to reinterpret the ideation of the novel as a visual art. He is an experimentalist, in that while experimentation is usually playing with language, social change, interior monologue, intertextuality, individualism, identity, perception and thought processes, and the like, Coates is concerned with the form of the novel itself. My misgivings toward this novel aside, The Eater of Darkness focusses itself primarily on the artistic dilemmas of the age it represents. It is shot through with bizarre incidents, obscure humor and unexpected swerves.

Perhaps one should read this on an acid trip.

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