"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 pretends 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.
"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 Weekly Reader
A LEOPARD-SPOTTED STEER heaved its grazing head from a pile of blue rocks and drooled the only moisture that was not piped across the land.
One fell panting across the azure depth of the highway.
With its horn struck in the yellowing flank of an abandoned farm building, another stood still under the stroking hand of the sun.
A man could not walk between these carcasses to record the deaths unless he stopped each time, while his feet were still planted in rootless terrain, and, sucking his own mouth out of the torrid windstream, wrung another drop from his canteen.
It might flow from anyone's lips. But they are mine.