Rarely in life do we have time to sit and read a book in one sitting. If you have the time to do so–which I did not–I recommend doing so with George McCormick’s 2015 Inland Empire (IE). It is an artist’s novel that challenges standards and makes bold structural decisions not unlike great jazz. But I believe that any person who trusts that the artist is taking you somewhere meaningful, that the artist is acting on that trust in good faith, then the reader will be rewarded. Not unlike great jazz.
Before I go on, it should be known that I was just coming to know John Coltrane’s (JC) music when I met and got to know McCormick a little; it was 1998 and I was bartending in a shitty little bar like the ones McCormick often describes in his stories; I was 22. I was a runt of a literature student at SJSU and a pupa of a writer. McCormick is only a few years older than me, and it was long before he had published his short stories in Salton Sea. Yet I had a sense back then that behind the mirth and mild manners that scotch-soda brings to some people, he was observing, collecting, listening: doing what writers do when they’re not writing. He had a seriousness and commitment of mind needed to be an artist. Not unlike JC.
From the descriptions of JC’s music to those of modern wastelands in IE, McCormick has captured what it is to give meaning to something without forcing it on you. In spite of the bold structural choice–no paragraph breaks (only section and chapter breaks) until pages 113-141 & 170-173 which, at first, make one think density, giving an initial sense of suffocation–, the narrative keeps you reading on, wanting to mull the next image or scene that comes flowing into view almost without notice. And that is exactly the point.
The risky structural choice also forces the reader to constantly ask the question: Why? Why did the writer make this choice? It’s the same question one must ask of any stylistic/structural choice made in (good) fiction, but the question is asked by the reader about so many other elements of this particular novel: why are we shown snippets of seemingly trivial actions in the desolate Oklahoma-Texas biome: a boy who crawls into a pipe below a daily train that rumbles over his head after receiving its load of undefined gray dust? why are we privy to the narrator’s conversation with a woman and her child while the husband is away doing soldier things? why are we given a scene of a boy with a bunny in the basket on a bike in which he does his tricks and terrifies the little girl who owns the bunny? why do we care about the narrator who took pictures of smog? how (and why) do we end up listening to a Vietnam vet (Pettibone) tell about his experience in Huế City, 1968? The answer to many of these questions may be in the somewhat obscure imagistic reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness upon Pettibone’s arrival in South Vietnam. But I’ll leave that for you to determine.
More generally, why does McCormick choose these settings, almost completely devoid of anything human except their abandoned artifacts, their hint at humanity, and a large dose of dust and heat? The narrator himself speaks of such a place: “…the name of the town had been effaced. This was a place that could no longer afford being America and had stopped being America and started being somewhere else.” What is that something else? what does that something else mean? If the land in fact has no discernible meaning, the narrator seems to wonder, why did Custer and his ilk even fight for these places, stealing the land from the natives, slaughtering them in the process, only to create such large amounts of seeming meaninglessness and absurdity…and only trace amounts of humanity?
I will stop here. I feel I have given away too much…but not really. Suffice it to say that I believe JC’s music is reflected in McCormick’s debut novel, as the narrator himself describes JC and his art, there is “a deep reverence…a reverence that was intermixed with anger and agitation…he sounded like a man teaching himself how to speak…repeating, revising…[and then] whatever [he] had been talking about before, now he was screaming it.”