Josh Wardrip’s debut novel Forum begins with an epigraph from Pindar’s First Pythian Ode. In it, the Theban poet recalls the ill repute of the sixth-century despot Phalaris, “who burned men in his bronze bull. . .” We learn some hundred pages after this epigraph that a similar “brazen bull” stood in the center of a forum in Constantinople where today the history of torture and execution that once marred the Forum Bovis is now plastered over with roads, hotels, and shopping malls. “It is also a known site of sex trafficking and prostitution,” the narrator’s only friend among the patients of a mental hospital remarks, as if a kind of residual madness still haunts the area where countless public executions took place.
Wardrip’s fragmentary visions proceed in much the same way throughout the entire novel. Long arcs of memory dissolve and return to form a thrumming dissonance that holds Forum together, injecting it with life and momentum. Though scattered, Wardrip ties his manic episodes together through theme, motif, and associative image, creating a deeply mood-driven work of fiction. It is, in some way, a return to that ideal of Flaubert and J.K. Huysmans, a return to the novel without a plot.
While some comparisons have already been drawn between Wardrip and avant-garde authors like Houllebecq and Camus, I found myself constantly comparing Forum to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel The Erasers. Just as in Robbe-Grillet’s detective story, Josh Wardrip’s anonymous narrator inhabits a similarly undefined town in what seems to be the American heartland. He wanders aimlessly. A classic existential flaneur, stumbling through flophouses and dive bars and chapters filled with section breaks or sometimes populated by a single sentence. The effect is that our anonymous narrator remains stuck for the length of the novel in a kind of American Everytown meets urban wasteland.
However, what may at first appear as a rote existentialist vision of purgatory is complicated by Wardrip’s form. His prose can jump from sparse to encyclopedic in an instant. While plenty is left out of the novel, including the consonants of certain character names, other details are included ad absurdum. Our narrator collects facts, people, events, and images and assembles them in a way indicative of a tradition much older than the obvious existentialist influences. Forum is Menippean satire cloaked in existentialism and brandishing the switchblade of the New Narrative writers. While “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases,” Northrop Frye wrote in reference to the form, “the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect. . .” Indeed, Wardrip’s narrator roams through psych wards and motel rooms, a product of a diseased intellect, committing random acts of violence and debauchery that reach as far back as the fall of Rome, where the oldest extant examples of the form can be found in late Roman novels like The Satyricon or The Golden Ass, among which Wardrip’s episode with the bronze bull fits nicely.
The anonymous narrator comes face to face with this manifestation of diseased intellect in the scene in which he finally meets with the doctor at the mental hospital into which he’s been forced. The doctor explains, “There is a regime that sets the parameters of the human I am both architect and enforcer and you have a say in nothing. . .” This “Dr” (as he’s represented in the text) makes clear that he’s merely an appendage—an idiosyncratic blip—in the larger social apparatus, without name or face or identity, that both defines and refuses to define the “parameters of the human,” the rules of life as it were. Wardrip’s formal choices mirror this chaos, foregoing any punctuation or chronology as if he’s become that same doctor, the one who can offer his readers no help, no reason or order to make sense of the senseless—the onslaught of utterances and violence. We readers, like our narrator, scramble for a way out of the mental hospital. We peer into the moments of clarity like windows offering a quiet pause from the confusion; we stay up to chat with the hospital orderly assigned to suicide watch, finding ourselves plunged back into existential fear when he’s no longer there.
“All memories are bad memories,” we’re told in one of Wardrip’s single-lined chapters. Our narrator’s memories run on nothing but angst and disgust and yet somewhere—among the absurd horror depicted in Forum’s squalor, its drugged-up flaneur who wanders through graphic homicides and debased sexual encounters, who tumbles into a bombing in the town square only to abandon a dying man after promising to get help—among all that, Wardrip manages to capture something of the humanity in someone so outwardly evil. He is as much an object of his own misdeeds as he is an active subject. In one of the early chapters, he wanders the grounds of his flophouse the way some might offer a tour of their childhood home. There’s something tragic, fundamentally pathetic, that builds in the description of the well-to-do family across the street and the unending visits from the police as the neighborhood tries to push the collection of junkies off their block. The house itself, a relic left behind by an eclectic architect who “lived there until his death,” drips with a kind of misplaced longing for home. It’s in these quieter moments of the novel where I was able to stop and take in the narrator’s sad state of existence. It’s there, in the gaps between the vile glee of Wardrip’s world, that readers can recognize a piece of themselves in an otherwise detestable human being.
Forum isn’t a book for everyone. For some, the senseless violence might feel like a sick indulgence. For others, the blurred plotline, complicated further by experiments in form, might take some getting used to. But for still others—myself among them—the violent gashes and disorder in this novel hold open a space for readers to wander and wonder about the state of human existence. Forum’s flash-bang passages and sucker-punch prose open the doors to both heaven and hell—all at once—pushes readers through and asks them to determine what kind of world they’ve just entered.
About the Reviewer
Alec Witthohn is the Social Media Manager and an associate editor at the Center for Literary Publishing/Colorado Review. He is currently an MFA fiction candidate at Colorado State University. Before joining Colorado Review, Alec worked with Copper Nickel for several years as an assistant/associate editor.