Drowning in Time: The Work of Eric Basso

"His work...shows a concern with the dizzying depths of history."

Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books.

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” — James Joyce, Ulysses

Stephen Daedalus’s statement, a quintessentially modern lament, could serve as a fitting epigraph for a number of Eric Basso’s pieces. His work, whether in dramatic (The Golem Triptych), novelistic (Bartholomew Fair), analytic (Decompositions) or short (The Beak Doctor) form, shows a concern with the dizzying depths of history. However, the surreal and often dark style of his stories indicates his fascination with that abyss.

Basso has been compared with many authors, a trend this review will not escape, but his voice is unique. Even the forms his tales take are sui generis: though their generic lineages may be visible at times, they emerge as something strange and new. This evasion of easy categorization may help explain why his work has yet to receive more widespread attention, but there is more to this story than genre prejudice. Basso’s oeuvre is a challenging one, filled with odd states of consciousness and mutable, disorienting realities, as well as a referential, grimly poetic style. These pieces reward careful attention and a willingness to temporarily surrender some of one’s expectations. I hope that new trends in critical theory and genre tastes will bring his work the broader readership it deserves. Those who delve into it will come away with an enhanced sense of what is possible in fiction as well as the sensation of having briefly visited a strange new, yet oddly familiar, world.

His Golem Triptych, a series of plays which combine elements of the Gothic, Noir and Absurdism, enacts a vertiginous plunge through history and identity. Renaissance intrigue, the Holocaust and, naturally, the legend of the Prague Golem[1] serve as the backdrop for one character’s search for elusive self-understanding. This figure, Joseph, in despair, describes his journey through the past:

It’s like having to feel your way through the dark with thick woolen gloves. You take that pair off and there’s another pair beneath… you finally come to the skin, and it’s just another glove. You come to the muscle, another glove. To the bone. Then nothing. You’re in the dark.

Beneath every situation in this play lies a new story. A new plot sometimes erupts into the middle of a scene. Basso puts his characters through sudden metamorphoses, shifts of identity similar to those David Lynch uses in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (though Basso published his play a few years before Lynch released these films). The result is an eerie, dreamlike progress through guilt, lust and a perpetually receding answer to Joseph’s questions. This answer may be embodied, perhaps, by an apparition of erotic beauty named Luba, or perhaps within the presence of a mysterious monster. This search culminates in a story of magic and betrayal set in 16th century Prague, but this may be an “otherspace” and not, strictly speaking, the past. Readers may find themselves bewildered, at times, by the protean nature of this drama, but Basso sets up a series of echoes and correspondences which unify the work. Each transformation, of character or situation, retains traces of that which preceded it, resulting in a complex, almost musical structure. Allusions to the Biblical legend of Joseph, psychoanalytic theory and Modernist literature provide clues and hidden treasures for the attentive reader. Basso mines territory first explored by Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello and Eugène Ionesco, but his use of genre elements borrowed from Gothicism and Film Noir transforms his material into something all his own. I can only imagine what a strange effect a performance of these plays would produce.

Basso’s novel Bartholomew Fair is similarly haunted by history, though this story’s structure is tighter. The book concerns the most recent (and possibly final) manifestation of a fair which has its roots in healing miracles performed by a saint. Alternating between a modern troupe of entertainers and the bizarre, sometimes sordid history of the fair, Basso tells a story of how human “abnormalities” have been treated throughout time. This piece reads as if Ingmar Bergman penned a novelization of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization[2], with physical oddity replacing mental deviation. Basso, though, draws his own conclusions about the ways in which succeeding eras have viewed those born with “defects”: as recipients for God’s healing power, as medical cases, as the poor and the wretched, or, possibly, as beings more sympathetic and human than those able bodied creatures who come to gawk at them. These strange people, with their own little traveling community, exert a fascination upon the “normal” citizens of London. The troupe stages miniature plays, some of which Basso inserts into the novel. These farcical interludes emotionally lighten the gloomy narrative, while simultaneously lending it allusive heft. Falstaff makes a cameo (under the clever pseudonym Hardcastle) and the novel reaches a climax of sorts during an anarchic court-room drama. Here, Basso’s experiments with genre threaten to spin out of control, but their playfulness highlights the humanity of his lonely actors. The literary and theatrical references also reinforce how haunted this modern narrative is by preceding texts, adding the anxieties of belatedness to those of belonging. Interwoven with the story of these performers is a vision of the changing sense of the sacred, a procession from squabbling monks to mystic orgies to dark observances in dusty catacombs.

Basso’s interest in theological speculation is not unique to Bartholomew Fair. The Golem Triptych is suffused with an atmosphere of hermetic secrets. The final play in this sequence, The Fall of Prague, revolves around early Modern attempts at distinguishing science from magic, as well as those practitioners who were eager to profit from both. Bartholomew Fair, in addition to the sexual rites presided over by a mysterious figure named Anatol, also features a shape-shifting outcast, a lost soul who may even, at times, lose himself in the faces he can mimic.

Basso’s collection of critical essays, Decompositions, demonstrates this interest more analytically, but proves to be creative as well, particularly in the way it juxtaposes texts. Decompositions features a brilliant meditation, “The Finnegan Talmud,” on Joyce’s difficult baby which draws together Modernist experimentation and Jewish Kabbalah. “The only difference,” argues Basso, “between the Mishnah, the Torah and Finnegan’s Wake is that the surface text of the Wake is largely incomprehensible.” He makes a case for open text as holy writ, invitations to endless investigation and exegesis, and “like them a vast humbug, as Joyce well knew.” Making one’s way through this thicket of potential meanings and dreamlike panoramas is itself the point: a transformative experience which is also, as Basso does not hesitate to assert, endlessly fun[3]. Another essay from the same collection, “Annihilation,” examines the profound depths of Nothingness through the lenses of Kafka, Mallarmé and a Hungarian novelist, Lajos Zilahy. Is nothing something or the absence of everything? Basso recognizes that what may sound like a bit of philosophical navel-gazing is a question which drives much spiritual speculation. In this encounter with the void, Basso examines the quest “to observe, to maintain, at whatever cost, some shred of attention as consciousness drifts toward the moment of syncope and death,” a quest which usually ends in either failure or delusion. However, captured in brilliant literary form, such as Kafka’s The Castle, this gaze into the abyss can yield a testimony of inexhaustible depth.

That these artistic experiments often result in self-annihilating complexities does not mean they are useless. Basso’s studies of these Quixotic attempts suggest they may help us, at least, to see some of the limitations of our sight. “Factifications of a Godless Mystic,” a study of the great Paul Valéry’s attempt at synthesizing all knowledge, reveals the chasm which opens up beneath any such logocentric enterprise. Basso writes it is an example “of disparate contents seeking justification within a wholly inadequate form.” He does not, anymore than did Valéry, fall back on religious consolations, but rather works within the métier of an atheistic seeker. In many of these essays, as well as within a few of his short stories, his style resembles that of Thomas Ligotti’s, particularly in his recent The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, though Basso’s work is a bit less pessimistic. This similarity does not end with their “metaphysical” orientations. Basso’s interest in mysticism, particularly that of a non-religious sort, may be thought of as a fascination with failed attempts at awakening from the nightmare of history.

Basso, though clearly resistant to generic categorization, makes abundant use of horrific and fantastic tropes. This may be another reason his work has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Up until the last decade, the American critical establishment has largely frowned on work deemed too close to “genre” fiction. Basso, though, does not hesitate to engage with the fantastic, the mysterious, the horrific or the bizarre. Basso’s literary portraits, within Decompositions, show an interest in weird stories. In particular, he singles out bizarre pieces by Alfred Jarry and the marvelously (self-)named Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam for praise. Their strange conceits (a mechanized audience meant to ease the minds of anxious writers, the projection of advertisements onto clouds, a “Disembraining” machine) are both described and given philosophical context. For drawing attention to such neglected works, Basso deserves our thanks, but he has not stopped at appreciation of weird forms of literature.

Basso’s novella “The Beak Doctor” exudes a nightmarish miasma familiar to readers of the strange stories of Ligotti or Robert Aickman. Narrated by a masked figure, “The Beak Doctor” concerns a sleeping disease which is leaving the inhabitants of a city comatose. This doctor wanders through a fog both literal and metaphoric, describing visions of quiet devastation and nihilistic revelry. One scene, set in a body-strewn roundhouse, is a masterful, dismaying set-piece. The notion of spiritual malaise becoming a visible catastrophe saturates this piece without trapping it within the realm of simple allegory. Bartholomew Fair, in addition to shape-shifters and subterranean orgies, contains smaller visions of the weird. One such story, an anecdote about the Amazing Prosthetic Man and his attempt at true intimacy, burns its way into one’s internal retina through the use of precise, gruesome details. This little tale packs the melancholy strangeness of an Aickman piece into five pages.

Basso’s subconscious teems with bizarre fragments, as he reveals in his Revagations, a collection of his dreams over an eight year period. Many of these pieces work as surreal, horrific vignettes[4]. One, “Mutants,” describes a school on an island populated by strange, half-human beasts. In these, and some of the other longer chapters, Basso’s dreams come close to being complete short stories, though they retain the non sequiturs and disjointed logic of our night lives. The “Prolegomenon” which begins the collection is itself a thought-provoking essay/miniature anthology on dreams in literature. His efforts throughout every one of these books offer further evidence (if such is still needed) that “realism” is by far not the only genre out of which literature can be crafted.

Though he was born in Baltimore, Eric Basso writes in a style deeply informed by European authors. An examination of his literary progenitors points toward this facet of his work. The essays of Decompositions focus on the poets of the fin de siècle, the pantheon of late Romantics, and modernist authors such as James Joyce and Franz Kafka. Basso takes a moment during one essay (“The Finnegan Talmud”) to call out his fellow American authors on their hesitation to engage with Joyce’s work. “One suspects that most American writers of note, having turned a blind eye to Ulysses and the Wake, would heave an audible sigh of relief if all evidence of Joyce’s transit were conveniently to vanish.” Much has changed in the thirty years since this essay was first published, though Basso’s critical acumen endures. I hope that the current crop of American authors and readers, who are less insular in their tastes, who are arguably more inclined toward Joyce and Borges than to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, may find Basso’s work more to their taste as well. His work is soaked with a grim, history-haunted ambiance and populated by vivid, lost souls groping their way through an inexplicable world.


[3] This piece is bookended with discussions of two stories by Jorge Luis Borges. This elucidation of one giant by use of another made me want to tackle the Wake for the first time, to reread Borges’ Collected Stories, and, of course, to read more of Basso’s peculiar (and powerful) criticism.

[4] They also feature a parade of personalities (Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Rimbaud, Liv Ullmann, and, fittingly, Sigmund Freud) which gives one a brief, but fascinating, peak into the workings of Basso’s mind.

Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books.