Great & Small at the Same Time: Sabra Embury on Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez


Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Robert Lopez, Dzanc Books, 2009

“The sound between words can be great or small or great and small at the same time.”

On a Saturday I went to a performance space in Park Slope called Barbes for a Blake Butler reading. This where Robert Lopez read the first few pages of his latest novel: Kamby Bolongo Mean River to a tight crowd of about fifty people.

The reading was energetic, and the story easy to follow, but what really impressed me into buying the book, and reading the rest for myself, was the poignant wit pouring from the voice of a debilitated, young narrator explaining simply the events encompassing a life infested with constant headaches and phone machine protocol:

I like it when the phone keeps ringing and you hope the answering machine answers and you say to yourself please don’t pick up the phone please don’t pick up the phone and then the machine finally answers and you know it is the machine by the way the machine pauses before saying thank you for calling I am not home right now I have a headache but if you leave your name and number I might call you back soon.

At first it’s easy to assume there’s something off about the character. Perhaps he’s Autistic or schizophrenic as more and more information is revealed about his early life as a sick child involving his relationship with his single mother and older brother the more compelling it is to compile the events that brought him to his current place of respite, which ultimately reveals itself to be a mental institution.

Alone in a room with self-drawn stick figure chalk drawings on walls to keep him company, and the faceless bodies coming and going and accused of watching him masturbate through a one way mirror. The only connection the narrator has to the outside world is a telephone which receives calls from ambiguous sources, but will not dial out,

Here is a room with four walls and one window and almost nothing else. Yes I have a table and chairs but there is no television or air conditioner in here. Yes I have a phone and it does ring sometimes but whose doesn’t is what I have to say.

What is noticeable in that last quote is a deliberate lack of punctuation, or more specifically commas. One way this is effective is that it adds a sense of urgency to the thoughts being assembled and shared by the speaker as well as a sing-song rhythm to the anecdotal flashbacks quilting the story together. Another explanation for the lack of commas is that it flattens out that sing-song rhythm creating a layered almost toneless voice undulating with bittersweet nostalgia.

Even before the reading, when I met Lopez and asked him what his novel was about, he said: Well, I could say it’s about 180 pages, but I won’t,

“God created answering machines the same way he created Alaska the same way he created dogs so that we as people wouldn’t have to do it ourselves. We as people don’t have the time to come up with something like an answering machine the same as Alaska.”

The story is a first person journey dipping present and past incidents into a hybrid of revelations which become more and more obvious through the use of repetition. With observations such as, “I think I have lived an entire life beside the point but even this is probably beside the point,” Kamby Bolongo Mean River is as much a complex and philosophical story about a skeptic within a life of complacency and limited communication as it about a boy whose a big brother, Charlie, used to give incredible soliloquies when he wasn’t drinking milk & raw eggs for breakfast.

As revelations unravel the narrator’s almost telepathic feeling confessions, mixed sharp delusions of reality are brought into a structure which serves a way to find an unshakable place within the introspective mindset. This makes it no surprise that blurbs for Kamby Bolongo compare Lopez to the likes of Samuel Beckett and Gordon Lish, as well as garnering praise for “joyful wit to be all his own.” Lopez has created something unique and humorous in his novel which is about…well, 180 pages. But the 180 pages read hot and swift only to expand with cooling thoughtful quips disguised by sparse and simple language as with the effect of a good poem, a funny country song about mom and her shot gun, or a quote from Plato swirled into a sad and captivating story.

Purchase Kamby Bolongo Mean River

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