Beautifully erudite, ornate, and appalling, The Inquisitor’s Tongue’s doublehelixed narrative explores the intricate ligatures among brutality, art, artifice, taste, bliss, and the disease of consciousness called selfhood, proving once again that Alan Singer is the virtuoso of avant-decadence.
The Inquisitor’s Tongue
Alan Singer’s riveting new novel, The Inquisitor’s Tongue, reimagines the Spanish Inquisition as a world in which spiritual horrors and acts of violence are the birth pangs of otherwise unimaginable identities.
The novel is the intersection of two narratives. The confession of Osvaldo Alonzo de Zamora, a miraculously gifted converso wine taster, is read aloud by a duplicitous priest of the Inquisition as an admonitory lesson to a suspected sinner. The competing narrative is the story of that sinner, another guilt-driven character, referred to only as the “Samaritan,” who curiously is held in the thrall of Osvaldo’s confession. The Samaritan bears the scars of his own history of violence and hidden identity.
In the wake of a final apocalypse the two narratives converge, bringing all of the characters together and eliciting the most damning revelation about the identity of the Inquisitor. Set amidst the religious and courtly spectacles of sixteenth-century Spain, The Inquisitor’s Tongue is linguistically adventurous, richly philosophical, deeply visceral, tantalizingly sensuous, and wickedly comic. It is a Goyaesque capricho on the follies of the will to identity.
… Singer’s voices here are weighty as earth and as the crimes they have committed, the sentences as substantial and as carefully articulated as preserved bodies. Dirtmouth is a compelling and perfectly rendered meditation on the dark struggle between memory and forgetting.
A mystery in two voices, Dirtmouth recounts the grisly murder of a young woman on Blackman’s Heath, an ancient execution site in the Irish bogs. A pair of archaeologists, the obese and decadent Kraft Dundeed and his furious protégé Roscoe Taste, each contest the other’s self-justifying account of the crime while professing passionate love for the victim. Two silences frame their quarrel: Cinna McDermond, the brutalized subject of her lovers’ confessions, and a nameless Investigator, whose invisible presence embodies the reader’s. Against this backdrop of subterranean savagery, the competing monologues struggle to unearth a violence neither can fully remember or forget.
Dirtmouth is the third in a triad of novels by Alan Singer which investigate the entanglements of memory, self, and duplicitous will. As in Singer’s Memory Wax and the tour de force The Charnel Imp, Dirtmouth’s luxuriant prose enacts its narrators’ labyrinthine rationalizations, entangling action in grotesque imagery and dark insinuation, much as Blackman’s Heath engulfs its Bronze Age victims. Singer’s writing recalls the stylistic virtuosity of John Hawkes and Djuna Barnes and the obsessive ruminations of Beckett’s and Poe’s narrators. Drawing readers into an interrogation room as vast and constricted as the mind, Dirtmouth explores the archaeology of passion, exhuming crimes that mirror our own.
Like William Goyen’s The House of Breath or Beckett’s Play, Singer’s Dirtmouth’s voices flutter purgatorially somewhere between life and death. But while Goyen offers the ghostly and weightless consolation of both memory and air, Singer’s voices here are weighty as earth and as the crimes they have committed, the sentences as substantial and as carefully articulated as preserved bodies. Dirtmouth is a compelling and perfectly rendered meditation on the dark struggle between memory and forgetting.
Here is an archaeology of the dismembered and reawakened body, a tale, a tongue, that unearths love and thought and makes you breathe mortality itself.
An arresting convolution of strange rhythms … Alan Singer’s prose has a … cadence and originality, as though he were writing in a tongue he had just invented.
In Memory Wax a husband’s unfaithfulness unleashes the quasi-mythic violence of his wife’s bloodiest imaginings. Somewhere between her thoughts and her deeds the reader stands witness to the knowledge that doing justice to one’s own experience entails the most grotesque transfigurations. Delta Tells, the eloquent protagonist of Singer’s novel, testifies to this belief in a riveting succession of scenes which pit her against the intimidations of an intractable physical world: the sexual indifference of her husband, the physical jealousness and recalcitrant organs of the women to who she ministers as midwife, the gravity of her own troubled motherhood, and the authorities who suspect her of committing an unimaginable crime against Nature. Delta’s telling of this crime is meant to be the unraveling of anyone who might believe it. And so the husband’s desperation to test the truthfulness of his wife’s vengeful tale begins to loom as a portentous question about how we gauge the limits of our experience — sexual, intellectual, emotional — or whether any such limits apply.
Written in a baroque prose that animates the most visceral knowledge of psychological extremis, Memory Wax is that rare thing, a philosophical novel sustained by sensuous excitements. It invites comparison with the novels of James and Faulkner. But no comparison can capture the quality of a reading experience which in the end challenges the reader’s own security about the dangerous line dividing the body from the mind, the body from the book.
… extraordinary … a continual exhibition of linguistic and technical pyrotechnics … a vision reminiscent of John Hawkes and Faulkner before him … hard work on the reader’s part, which will pay him or her back with a wide, wondrous wealth.
Singer substitutes structure for plot and an intensely charged language for the convention of character, [yet] retains all the mystery and psychological depth of the novels in the great tradition.
The Charnel Imp
“I am a ventriloquist for love,” declares the narrator of The Charnel Imp, as he dares the reader to locate his voice in all the familiar places of human affection. Yet the narrative of Alan Singer’s innovative novel is a vast remapping of that terrain.
A desiccated prairie town, whose landmarks are a slaughterhouse of phantasmagoric proportions and a burlesque opera house, is the scene of this metamorphosis. Out of the din of destruction, the narrator precipitates a dubious array of voices: Moertle, who leads the cattle to slaughter; the local doctor, whose preoccupation with disease and contamination becomes a demonic prophecy; Dinah, the opera-star-cum-burlesque-artist, who performs a mimicry of domestic love both on and off the stage; and, most ominously, the wooden ventriloquist’s dummy, which threatens to swallow them all into the mysterious depths of its own darkly-inflected speech.
Each of their stories converges upon an obsessive, authoritarian demand for the gratification of memory and desire. In action hallucinated against the backdrop of the seething corrals and brutal slaughterhouse, in a series of surreal episodes climaxing in flood, famine, and fire, the narrative is propelled toward a reckoning with paradox and loss, and portends the characters’ apocalyptic encounter with the limits of human will.
In the ambiguity of its poetically charged language, the complex architecture of its form, and the resonance of its plot, The Charnel Imp rings with a portent for the reader as well. It is an intricate paradox, posing the question of what the novel can tell us, in the guise of its telling. Like the French recit to which it pays homage, The Charnel Imp exposes the infinite frailty of the mind that seeks to encompass its own knowing.