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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 13122
ISSN: 02760045
Journal code: PRCF

Robert Ashley. Quicksand. Burning Books, 2011. 152 pp. Paper: $10.00.

New Mexico press Burning Books has blazed back into sight with a most peculiar, and most toothsome, series of "debut novels by seasoned writers." Called "Quadrants," the series does indeed consist of four books (plus one collection of short pieces, Q+l) by artists and authors without a novel to their name. Except, of course, that anyone familiar with the operas of Robert Ashley (Perfect Lives, Atalanta, Improvement, and many others) knows that long-form narralive has always played a primary role therein: narrative fragmented, narrative deformed, narrative tricked into Poundian culs-de-sac . . . but narrative nonetheless. Nor is it surprising that Ashley- long a vocal fan of John le Carréwould, turning his hand to prose fiction, find himself "composing" a thriller: a tale of international intrigue, dingy hotel rooms, clandestine rendezvous, congee, and murder. ("I called room service and shot the guy." And yet, save for the murder bit, what touring musician doesn't know his or her share about living "on the run"?) Quicksand, being neither memoir nor fabrication ("Everything in the novel is true, except for a lot of the facts"), is as full of tiny reveries on the very edge of irrelevance - imagine a cosmopolitan Midwesterner essaying his own version of the work of Jean-Philippe Toussaint - as it is moments of legitimate anxiety or Chandleresque bluff. (The quintessential Ashleyian response to everything from certain death to rudeness: "Oh boy") One is also reminded of Harry Mathews, particularly his own self-effacing "docufictional" memoir My Life in CIA. But how dull to waste one's precious reading time (Quicksand is slim) trying to sift the probable from the fantastic, the Ie Carré from the Ned Rorem: best to accept that Ashley is no more unlikely a continental op than Mathews or Marlowe (Christopher, that is), and immerse oneself in his choppy, twangy, paradoxical sentences and ever-present sense of fun- joy in narrative, joy in the word ("The horizon was suspicious"), joy in cognition, and joy, naturally, in the gag: what better cover could an agent ask for than globe-trotting avant-garde composer? Let's hope further adventures are to come. [Jeremy M. Davies]

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