Interdisciplinary artist, performer, and writer Jacob Wren’s newest book poses an interesting conundrum. It is less than 200 pages, making it more of a novella. The narrative is divided into nine sections or chapters, though they could easily serve as separate stories — in fact, sections of the book have been published elsewhere — which could then fuel an argument that the book is a loosely interconnected collection of stories. But the category or description we’re left with, according to the cover, is that Polyamorous Love Song is a novel. It is both more and less than this and that is the work’s best feature; it strives to be as interdisciplinary as its author.
Wren is obviously interested in the avant garde but he is also critical of it. A large portion of the narrative is set in motion by the artistic movement of new filmmaking, described as “those who choose to forgo the writing process altogether, simply living the film in real time, little by little, moment by moment, invisibly weaving it into their now considerably more compelling and immediate daily routines.” So in effect, the new filmmaking is not filmed at all, it’s just artists going about with their daily lives and passing it off as film. There is a valid criticism here, as the avant garde always tows a very fine line between new and thought-provoking ways of viewing art or just fluffy intellectual justifications that lack any real substance.
But the new filmmaking inspires another not-so-artistic movement of political radicalism called the Mascot Front. The members of the front are shrouded in mystery, their identities completely unknown because they wear furry mascot costumes at all times; one is a bear, another a blue popsicle. What exactly the Mascot Front wants or why they are met with such extreme violence by the authorities is never explained, though their movement proves to have an unstoppable allure for a particular artist, who serves as one of the narrators, who wishes to base some sort of art project around them. Once again, the particulars are never provided. He is caught by the Mascots and soon becomes something of a mascot for them, quite willingly chained to a radiator.
The narrative uses first person perspective, though the identity of the narrator shifts several times. The signals of such shifts are often subtle and could be easily missed by those reading too quickly. The narrator for the first few chapters is the artist interested in following the Mascot Front. In a later chapter a different narrator, still speaking in first person, describes seeing this artist chained to a radiator; this is the only clue that the identity of the narrator has changed.
The character who concocts the new filmmaking is only referred to as Filmmaker A. In the opening chapter, the narrator tells us he is a great admirer of a friend of his who doesn’t want to be written about, so he decides to call him Paul. One character is writing a novel about a group of left-wing activists who create a virus that only kills those affiliated with the political right, but large sections of Wren’s novel are actually portions of this fictionalized novel.
This blurring of narrative pieces and the removal of easy identifiers are well-established techniques of experimental literature and they have their pros and cons here. The weaving of different narrative threads directly reflects the thematic questions at the heart of the novel but it’s also confusing. Readers need to be prepared to wrestle the narrative into submission if they are going to get any sense out of it.
Those looking for a coherent narrative set in a believable world with identifiable character motivations won’t find it here. This is a surreal and unhinged examination of the nature of art and performance: are artistic performance and real life actually separate? The Mascot Front doesn’t feel at all realistic. The fact that mascots are generally a tool of marketing and advertising is completely sidestepped: these aren’t mascots for particular products or brands, they’re just goofy outfits. The image of someone in a furry bear suit with a machine gun is perhaps not as effective as Wren needs it to be. There are several scenes that erupt into full on orgies, some that seem to actually happen, others that are part of the aforementioned novel within the novel, but none of them feel as if they could actually happen. But they work well enough within the skewed boundaries the novel sets for itself.
In an early chapter, Filmmaker A defines her notion of new filmmaking for a group of university art students. There is a lone holdout, one student who doesn’t buy into her explanation: “These aren’t really films you’re making. You’re just living your life… you can’t just call things whatever you want.” The student and Filmmaker A argue about the definition of filmmaking and the student ends the confrontation by saying
“I believe that you’re sincere, that you’re living your fine, exciting life and really believe this great, dandy life you’re leading should be referred to as filmmaking. I don’t think you’re insincere… The problem is there is nothing more sad, more pathetic, than utter sincerity in the service of a lost cause.”
Wren is opening up his novel to this same kind of scrutiny and it is a brave thing to do. Does it push the boundaries enough to make readers re-evaluate their definitions of art, or does it push too far and become only an intellectual justification of fluff? Conclusions about whether or not Polyamorous Love Song stands up to this kind of scrutiny will likely vary from reader to reader. But that’s what makes it worth reading…
BookThug | 192 pages | $23.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1771660303