Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For reasons unknown to me (or hidden from me? Once can never be sure.) this past year or so has been chock full of existentialist texts. From philosophical surveys to plays to role-playing supplements to novels to novels that were later turned into movies, I seem to be crawling my way up a mountain of stark realizations, worrisome revelations brought forth by prophets of . . . not gloom per-se, at least not in the sense of utter nihilism and hopelessness, but soothsayers of "facing that which you dare not face in order to be enlightened about the severe limitations placed on you because of the cycle of life and death" (and possibly doing something with the limited time you realize you have).
And just as "gloom" doesn't capture the essence of existentialism (though it is a window), "horror" does not do justice to the work of Thomas Ligotti. Not even close. The adjective "horrific" is accurate, but not sufficient. It is merely one contributory factor to the ouvre that Ligotti creates.
"Philosophy" doesn't quite catch it, either, though thought experiments are always in the wings and sometimes right out front in the stories contained in Teatro Grottesco.
No, these are stories. Their plots are sometimes skeletal (no pun intended), as in the story "Our Temporary Supervisor," an unsettling take on the workplace that will cause you to carefully consider who it is you work for and the nature of the relationship between your "personal" life and "personal" time, and that of the company for which you work. Sometimes, the plots are more rigorous, a vital part of the tale. This is the case with "Bungalow House," a deep delve into performance art and madness, with a side swipe at the nature of market economy.
From these two plot assessments, you might think that Ligotti's work is overtly political. Not so! Only insofar as individuals are, at times, at the mercy of the larger social order of which they are a part. His characters are often at the limnal zone between psychology and sociology, the decision point (if one can make a decision) between being utterly alone and being utterly overwhelmed by the tyranny of the masses. This place is uncomfortable, and some of these stories will make the inner pre-teen squirm in the remembered angst and shame of that age. Ligotti is in touch with the inner you, whether you want him to be or not!
But with this discomfort comes a sense of awe, reverence for that-which-is-bigger-than-you. The sense of hopelessness is humbling, putting the reader in a state of mind, a trance-like state, that suddenly sees beauty in ugliness. Ligotti's prose is gorgeous, not baroque for the sake of baroque - Ligotti is very much in control of his language (and I have now begun to be able to see how he does what he does, which is a fascinating thing to a writer) - but his prose is elegant, with a stately cadence behind it that makes chaos feel ordered and makes order feel chaotic, creating a disconcerting sort of music in the reader's brain.
There are many passages that I might use to show what it is I am trying to express. I have settled on a section from the final story, "The Shadow, The Darkness". In this scene, the narrator is speaking with an un-named companion who is, supposedly, the writer of the unpublished book An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race. The two are discussing the artist Grossvogel, who has brought them (and other companions - art snobs, to be precise) to a dilapidated town to reveal his masterpiece, one in a long series of sculptures entitled "Tsalal 1," "Tsalal 2," etc. The author has just spoken to the narrator, explaining how these works of art have proven so successful in the marketplace, despite their crude workmanship and nonsensical representations:
"The mind and all that, the self and all that, are only a cover-up, only a fabrication, as Grossvogel says. They are that which cannot be seen with the body, which cannot be sensed by any organ of physical sensation. This is because they are actually non-existent cover-ups, masks, disguises for the thing that is activating our bodies in the way Grossvogel explained - activating them and using them for what it needs to thrive upon. They are the work, the artworks in fact, of the Tlalal itself. Oh, it's impossible to simply tell you. I wish you could read my Investigation. It would have explained everything, it would have revealed everything. But how could you read what was never written in the first place?"
"Never written?" I inquired. "Why was it never written?"
"Why?" he said, pausing for a moment and grimacing in pain. "the answer to that is exactly what Grossvogel has been preaching in both his pamphlets and his public appearances. His entire doctrine, if it can even be called that, if there could ever be such a thing in any sense whatever, is based on the non-existence, the imaginary nature of everything we believe ourselves to be. Despite his efforts to express what has happened to him, he must know very well that there are no words that are able to explain such a thing. Words are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, the very conspiracy against the human race that my treatise might have illuminated. Grossvogel has experienced the essence of this conspiracy first-hand, or at least has claimed to have experienced it. Words are simply a cover-up for this conspiracy. They are the ultimate means for the cover-up, the ultimate artwork of the shadow, the darkness - its ultimate artistic cover-up. Because of the existence of words, we think that there exists a mind, that some kind of soul or self exists. This is just another of the infinite layers of the cover-up. There is no mind that could have written An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race - no mind that could write such a book and no mind that could read such a book. There is no one at all who can say anything about this most basic fact of existence, no one who can betray this reality. And there is no one to whom it could ever be conveyed."
"That all seems impossible to comprehend," I objected.
"It just might be, if only there actually were anything to comprehend, or anyone to comprehend it. But there are no such beings."
"If that's the case," I said, wincing with abdominal discomfort, "then who is having this conversation?"
"Who indeed?" he answered.
As you can probably tell from this passage, Ligotti is also a master of breaking through the fourth wall, not in such a way as to bring the reader and the false construct of the book itself face-to-face, but in such a way as to bring the reader face-to-face with the idea of reality itself. Ligotti breaks through the fourth metaphysical wall, leaving readers to question their own sanity, their own senses, their own interpretation of the world and people around them. You'll never be frightened outright by Ligotti's work, but his fiction will claw your brain in a way that you will never forget. You may not be scared by Teatro Grottesco, but you will be scarred by it.
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