Recital Publishing is the print arm of the same team of Catskills authors that brings us the Strange Recital podcast, an audio anthology of short fiction devoted to “perceptions of reality that warp and fold in unexpected ways,” elsewhere generalized as fiction that “questions the nature of reality.” A wide, permissive umbrella to be sure, but that is by design. The Strange Recital consciously resists genre identifications, lest weird and warped be construed as the purview of science fiction, fantasy, horror and magical realism alone. And the stakeholders are conspicuously mum and noncommittal regarding that old literary-versus-popular thing as well.
The positioning is subtle and inviting. Any type of fiction can warp reality. One could even argue that, with the exception of the strictest imagistic minimalism that briefly held sway in the ’80s, in which people brush their teeth with the wrong brush, spit and argue a bit without saying much, fiction can’t help but warp reality. All Recital Publishing asks, really, is the willing recognition and encouragement of the crazy stuff that’s already there in potentia: a conscious heightening of the transformative worldmaking action that starts to happen, on its own, the moment you begin telling a story. Let fiction challenge reality. Let it alienate and estrange. Want that.
Consider as proof-of-concept Recital co-founder Brent Robison’s new novel Ponckhockie Union. Confined mostly to the riverfront neighborhood of Kingston from which is it takes its name, Ponckhockie Union is a local novel, a local history of sorts. Based on that description alone, you are probably hearing in your head a generally stable novel of place spiked, García-Márquez-style, with some magic or other. Not. Ponckhockie Union is a mad fireworks display of global conspiracy and paranoia, haunted synchronicities, shadow-world manipulations of history, tricksters and false guides and the sudden and irreparable rupture of everything normal and stable in one man’s life. It also posits a model of what a sturdy self might look like after such a rupture, after acute exposure to the things going on underground and overhead. And it takes place down by the Rondout.
Every name, date, number, address and routine fact of this novel is a trick, a play, a connective reference. You can see Ponckhockie Union’s dense, festering and occult substructure through every crack in the story – mainly because the author makes no attempt to conceal his meta-fictive webwork, going so far as to include Paul Auster, the great novelist of synchronicity and crumbling realities, as a major character. The fun begins in the very name of the narrator: Benedict Arnold “Ben” Rose, a struggling filmmaker who is in the early stages of producing a Howard Zinn-inspired documentary about the Burning of Kingston.
Ben Rose stumbles into a terrifying reality that will literally and figuratively hold him captive across the novel’s duration. A nameless nemesis is hiding in all the photographs and precipitating all the major plot developments – a shadowy manipulator of reality and of Ben Rose’s intimate life that Rose unwittingly engaged decades ago in a chance encounter with a Special Ops-type mercenary figure who was a bit loose with his stories of international conspiracy.
Robison plays with cabalism, codes, alternate histories, numerology and other staples of occult fiction. Some of the ever-popular Masonic myth finds its way in, as does a good deal of Eastern philosophy. But unlike conventional occult fiction, unknowing is Ponckhockie Union’s only secret knowledge, and negation is its mode of arriving to it. Everything Rose learns or thinks he learns – about the mercenary Jack Dunne, about his namesake Benedict Arnold, about the agendas and operatives of real power and the puppet show of history – is challenged, compromised or canceled by something else he learns, until there is only Ben Rose and his unknowing. The novel is a fugue of intensifying evidence and suspicion without resolution. All dots that won’t quite connect, Ponckhockie reminds me in this respect of Thomas Pynchon’s micro-classic of free-floating paranoia, The Crying of Lot 49.
The meat of Robison’s narrative, however, is not in its play of frustrated conspiracy, shapeshifting evil and altered histories, but rather in this seriously considered question: What happens in the psyche of the individual who experiences this reality-shattering exposure and the complete derailment of the normal and habitual? Ponckhockie Union is really a story of a fast-track enlightenment, a compulsory ascent to wisdom. The novel tracks the rapid undoing of a man, his flimsy and false securities and identity, and his replacement by one hard-earned certainty alone: I am. The entire middle of the story is given to this traumatic philosophical progression, first as Ben Rose is trained – in captivity and by his captor – in the consciousness techniques of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and later as he learns to live in hiding.
All of which makes Ponckhockie Union a bit of a puzzler stylistically, a fusion of conspiracy mystery and Eastern-tinged philosophical quest – part Eco, part Hesse – that flirts with and defies the conventions of each. As such, it rather perfectly exemplifies Recital Publishing’s genre-agnostic and tolerant position regarding batshit crazy.
Ponckhockie Union is published simultaneously with Recital co-founder Tom Newton’s reality-bending volume of short stories Seven Cries of Delight and Other Stories. Robison and Newton celebrate the twin publications with a reading at the Rosendale Café on Sunday, September 8.
Brent Robison/Tom Newton reading
Sunday, Sept. 8, 2 p.m.
434 Main St., Rosendale