The Hospital for Bad Poets, J.C. Hallman, Milkweed Editions
In the first story from J.C. Hallman’s terrific collection, The Hospital for Bad Poets, he drags the eponymous character from the Flemish morality play Everyman into the twenty-first century as “the average man.” “The average man is not what he used to be,” begins the story and the collection in typically understated tone. And Hallman examines the daily malais that afflicts “the average man” (so average he doesn’t merit capitalization of his generic appellation). The average man just doesn’t feel right. His malady is “not quite disease, not quite exhaustion, something more spectral and unaccountable.” It is this general spectrality that pervades Hallman’s collection. His stories exist always with some less-than-sinister unease at the periphery. His characters, in the tradition of Beckett and Barthelme, struggle against the germination of paranoia and despair as they face familiar themes of philosophical alienation and moral surreality.
Hallman’s previous books, The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest Game and The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe, were both works of nonfiction, yet give strong indication of the territory to expect to encounter in his fiction. There is a keen interest in games, literary and other, and that typically American conflict with plurality. Each of these finely tuned stories explores enduring philosophical quandaries with great humor and compassion.
The title story follows an epigraph attributed to Nietzsche: “In all things, however, you act too familiarly with the spirit, and you have often made wisdom into a poorhouse and a hospital for bad poets.” The unnamed narrator, a poet, is carted off to the hospital after a frightening collapse and administered to with “intimacy theory” in which a lead doctor espouses “poetry is the equivalent of ventilation.” Funny stuff, obviously, and the kind of humor anyone drawn to the title of the collection for that reason alone will be well satisfied. But Hallman is not content to mine self-reflexive tropes for humor, as sophisticated readers have long since played out those games and played them into our daily lives enough that they have germinated into full-blown feelings of alienation and anhedonia. If we are to accept the doctor’s diagnosis then we must also share the doctor’s alarm when yet another afflicted poet is brought into the hospital. “If every poet codes,” (just one example of the kind of wordplay to expect in Hallman’s collection), “who will understand them? Poetry is hard enough already. Who has time to unriddle the ordinary?” It is in these moments that Hallman’s work seems to take up the simultaneously funny and disheartening themes of the best George Saunders, or a more mundane Sam Lipsyte, where the quotidian details of our lives suddenly seem so patently ridiculous.
In perhaps the strongest story in the collection (a tough choice with so many excellent works), an uncle connects with his nephew through an eerily familiar video game with extreme graphic, violent content. This game, though, imports the players’ own kin into the game as potential victims and the uncle and nephew must then ferret out the implications of their violent digital acts on their real lives. Hallman sees the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the new ways in which we play and interact. Another terrific example of this is the last story in the collection, “The History of Riddles,” which concerns that hallmark of suburban social exchange, the latest, in- vogue board game. Near the end of that story the narrator is reading from the little rule book buried at the bottom of a new game: “There’s a powerful relationship between play and opiates in our brains, the little book said. They’re called neurotrophins. Play strengthens connections between neurons, and makes us more intelligent and fit – more successful adults.” This certainly seems true, like any of the salvo of news-ish snippets we tend to passively admit into our lives and eventually pass along as factual. But later in the story, near the end, the narrator laments that “Life has become a game of culture…The ritual form persists, but the religious spirit has flown.” Hallman recognizes this fear, that simple play in fiction as in all of our lives is merely the quick fix with a slow, deep come-down. His play, therefore, strives for philosophical purpose as it fans the embers of the spirit. This is one incredible book.