The Resurrectionist, Jack O’Connell, Algonquin Books
I have been a twenty-year fan and student of the related 20th-century art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, since first getting exposed to them as an undergraduate in the ’80s. In fact, these art movements are the closest I arguably come to being legitimately “scholarly” on any topic in terms of the amount of knowledge I have about the movements. One of the things I’ve learned through such study is that these days what the general culture thinks of as ‘surrealist’ is a far cry from how the original Surrealists defined it and themselves. When these original cutting-edge artists of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s (the ones being equally defined by the new fields of Modernism and Freudian psychoanalysis) declared that they were trying to “capture the essence of a dream” in their artistic work, they actually meant that they were trying to capture the elusive pattern and rhythm of a dream itself—that simultaneous logic/illogic within dream we so easily accept, but is so hard to accept when conscious. As the decades have progressed with early-Modernism turning into late-Modernism, Pop Art, and, finally, Postmodernism, the entire concept of Surrealism has been co-opted by the advertising industry and Hollywood to now mostly mean, “Hey, look! Weird shit!”
What this means, then, is that there’s actually two kinds of Surrealism out now with discerning fans being able to tell the difference immediately. There is the pure, old-school Surrealism of the original movement, embodied by contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell who construct elaborate experiments in actually reproducing the logic and emotions of a dream-like state. Then there is the cartoonish, Hollywoodized version of Surrealism, where an author simply writes about strange crap hoping that the distraction of the crap itself will hide the fact that there’s nothing really compelling behind it. Which of these, I hear you asking, best describes the book under review today, the 2008 cult hit and so-called contemporary Surrealist tale The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense anymore—it’s the second. The second, oh Lord it’s the second, an infinitely frustrating collection of random, unexplained, weird horseshit whipped at the reader’s face at breakneck speed with none of it making any sense and none of it connecting to the other weird, random parts. O’Connell’s novel is basically the equivalent of handing a person a box full of Christmas ornaments and yelling, “Shake it! It’s pretty! Shake it! It’s pretty!” And so it may be, but such a fact certainly doesn’t make it good literature nor does it make it an accurate reflection of what a dream is actually like. And that’s the difference between someone like O’Connell and an actual Surrealist, O’Connell ultimately hopes that you’ll be distracted by the shiny ornaments being shaken about and not notice that there’s no actual tree.
In fact, O’Connell starts throwing out the random crap early and quick in The Resurrectionist; it is the story of sad-sack pharmacist Sweeney, caretaker of a son named Danny who is in a persistent coma, through an accident he still silently blames on his ex-wife. His life a shambles, dealing unsuccessfully with anger issues, Sweeney has been lured to a little town called Quinsigamond in order to work for the mysterious private Peck Clinic, mostly as a way of getting his son accepted into their secretive yet widely admired coma-care program. But see, right here is where O’Connell already starts going wrong with this story by making even the details of the clinic itself inconsistent. Although our story is set in the modern world, for some reason the nurses all have old-fashioned ’50s uniforms out there at the forbidding Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere that serves as the clinic’s campus. Plus, for this being a bizarre, private, family-funded organization that doesn’t share its results or even have a clear mission, the entire rest of the contemporary medical community seems to be big fans. This is what took Sweeney out there in the first place, after all, having his boring ol’ “real-world” doctors in Ohio recommend the clinic to him, despite the clinic itself literally being like something ripped out of an old Frankenstein movie.
Now, fans will say that this is exactly how it should be, that The Resurrectionist is supposed to be filled with weird crap that makes no sense because that’s what Surrealism is; but that’s not what Surrealism is. Actual Surrealism is supposed to make sense, just the kind of twisted, illogical sense that we can only accept while in a dream state. The details of the environment are supposed to actually relate to each other within a Surrealist tale, not just exist in their own hermetically weird states alongside all the other bizarre details. O’Connell’s book feels, especially the further you get into it, like he has simply written down a bunch of random stuff that popped into his head and sounded “weird” to him, without bothering to relate any of it to each other or even adhere to the most basic precepts of those concepts.
One of the running ideas in The Ressurectionist is that Danny had been a big fan of this giant children’s media empire called “Limbo,” consisting of a hit TV show, action figures, merchandise and a long-running comic book. O’Connell even includes a number of issues of the comic in the actual manuscript of the book; but why call it a comic, I wonder, when they’re actually fully narrative short stories? What hit children’s TV show in the 2000s is possibly going to be about a group of eastern European circus freaks in the 1920s wandering aimlessly through a fictional foreign land named after the Yiddish word for Hell, living a bleak and torture-filled life and spouting existentialist dialogue more appropriate for a Beckett play than any Japanimation children’s show in existence?
Sure, it’s weird and random, I’ll give you that; but if all I want is weird and random, I can sit at home flipping through television channels watching two seconds at a time of each for two or three hours in a row. Like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is weird and random; and like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is not nearly what I’d call an entertaining artistic experience. What I want from a Surrealist project is a world that almost makes complete sense, but with just a whiff of strangeness around its corners, a fleeting glimpse of something moving just on the edge of my vision. What I want from a Surrealist project is something that makes me feel the way I do when I’m actually dreaming, a moment for example where a friend flaps his arms in the middle of a conversation and flies away, and I don’t even think twice about it; what I don’t want is a collection of random details that all draw undue attention to themselves, each of them standing in the corner of the room and waving their arms and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’M WEIRD!” And unfortunately, that’s mostly what The Resurrectionist consists of, with certainly there not being a compelling story holding it all together, nor compelling characters, nor even a consistent personal style.
In fact, here’s the simple insulting truth of the matter—by the time I had reached the end, I cared about the story and was invested in the characters so little that I didn’t even bother reading the last ten pages. I could no longer even follow whatever the hell was going on with the castle and the devil and the chicken-boy or whatever the fuck it all was. This is that’s a terrible, terrible thing to say about a novel—that after reading 300 pages of it, you didn’t care enough to bother with what’s supposed to be the most important ten pages of all. And this says more about this book than probably anything else I might be tempted to write.
This review first appeared at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com).