Reviewed By Kenneth Nichols
- Triquarterly (2010)
- 240 pages
In formulating his conceit for the novel Drain, Davis Schneiderman takes a page from forbears such as Kurt Vonnegut, whose agents of apocalypse are treated as perfectly ordinary matters of fact. Instead of coping with the chill of ice-nine (Vonnegut’s stable and contagious polymorph of water that freezes at room temperature), the characters of Drain contend with life in a primal and unforgiving 2039 Post-America, nearly four decades after Lake Michigan “drained through the suddenly emancipated gates of the Ogallala water table,” leaving only an empty lake bed “flush with ruddy loam.” The Quadrilateral Commission and the Maneuverians are the authorities and rebels, respectively, both vying for unity with a force that is both omnipresent and invisible. The former group worships order, so much so that individuals are named for former United States Presidents. The latter people, somewhat adrift, have embraced base sexuality and the kind of primitive tribalism often found in a fictional dystopia.
Fiction that confronts the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world has always appealed to me because it allows characters, relieved of the oppressive strictures of modern society, to act with more sincerity and honesty than are ordinarily found in the world. The title character of David Brin’s 1985 The Postman, for example, gains insight into humanity and its meaning after American excess and bounty have been deconstructed. “The father” in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is characterized with a single-minded depth that is far more difficult in a real world populated by cell phones, W-2 forms and Lindsay Lohan. The motley cast of Drain, those lucky few, have traded often-oppressive modern living for a worldview very much like that of our distant ancestors. Instead of laboring to please an invisible, omnipresent deity, many of those in Post-America act purely on impulse, failing to acknowledge or fear consequences. They tell stories of the “World Worm, Umma-Segnus” and have developed a mythology involving anything convenient to justify anything that feels good.
There are great pleasures contained in the pages of Drain, but they are encoded in the opaque structure of the book, relying upon the reader to mine them. The narrative is slack and deliberately erratic, placing deliberate emphasis on the novel’s expressionistic qualities. Realist readers and writers (I admit I’m on their team) can struggle with books such as Drain and Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, in which conflict is put on the back burner. In many ways, in fact, Drain rejects analysis on these grounds.
W. Lawrence Hogue suggests that postmodern American fiction “attacks the universality of instrumental reason and other Enlightenment ideas” and “validates all kinds of excluded/unacknowledged psychological, social, sexual, and nonrational human dimensions and experiences.” Drain certainly fits this description. Upon coming to a novel, I’m usually lulled into a happy spell by the comforts of narrative, including the efficient release of exposition and the establishment of a consistent, reliable point of view. Schneiderman makes negotiating the narrative a conscious challenge, trading point of view between multiple consciousnesses, including the first-person account of a Blackout Angel (one who has rejected Quadrilateral hegemony), a third-person observer of Washington Jefferson Lincoln Qui (a Quadrilateral loyalist whose career is ascendant) and sections about an Island of Lost Souls that feel like an excerpt from a modern-day religious mythology. The emotional goals of the characters are recognizable (the yearning for freedom, the desire to reunite with dead loved ones), but Drain makes a conscious effort to avoid easy questions or answers.
It’s this resistance to conventional fiction that made the read somewhat difficult. Drain is not a book that can be read in one sitting by most people, as Schneiderman takes far more risks than other authors playing in the same sandbox. Indeed, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange rubs salt into the same raw nerves, but the vernacular in the book doesn’t overwhelm the narrative. With both positive and negative effects, Drain threatens to violate a fundamental tenet of fiction writing that I had long subconsciously believed before it was codified by Lee K. Abbott: it is the writer’s job to do all the work so the reader can have all of the pleasure. Schneiderman makes a different compact with his reader, the same promise Everest makes to a climber: in exchange for the slow pace and occasional disorientation, you’ll experience a stark intensity and find magnified joy in the otherwise overlooked pleasures along the way.
Schneiderman makes music with his incessantly playful use of language, using the elements of poetry to create sentences that are alternately blunt and razor-sharp. Lofty rhetoric filled with beautiful Latinates is bookended by some of the coarsest words in the dictionary. (Like Hamlet, Schneiderman’s characters consider “country matters.”) The effect is a hypnotic, kinetic breathlessness that demands the reader’s full attention. There are sentences that demand to be read aloud, to allow the syllables to be felt on the tongue: “Qui feels sewn into the lining of a counterearth, a nascent insect larva swaddled in radioactive soil, or maybe a numb Post-America, in a land where polarity reverses completely, where right brain goes left, toes become a decalogue of tiny mouths, and the Worm, yes, this Worm, Umma-Segnus, takes everything once proudly differentiated into the subterranean lining of its undifferentiated epidermis.”
This is the overall effect of sitting down with Drain; the book is an obstacle course for heart and brain and lips that results in the same sore catharsis one feels after a particularly earnest workout.
Kenneth Nichols earned his MFA from the Ohio State University and his fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in print and online publications including Skeptical Inquirer and Suss. An award-winning playwright, Kenneth currently teaches writing at Oswego State University and Cayuga Community College.