When I was younger and my eyes were better, I loved long novels. I used to scorn anything less than 500 pages. Now, however, I appreciate the artistry and philosophy of the “less-is-more”school and am truly amazed when a novel less than 100 pages leaves me as sated as those epic journeys used to. Such is the case with Peter Dube’s latest book, Subtle Bodies.
Subtitled A Fantasia on Voice, History and Rene Crevel, this slim volume begins with the suicide of Surrealist poet Rene Crevel and looks back on his involvement with the French Surrealist movement in flashback. Ambitious, yes – but highly readable. This is no dry art school thesis. Dube finds the heart and soul of this historical figure and lays both bare, painting a marvelously detailed portrait of a man intoxicated by ideas and the myth that springs up around their proponents.
Indeed, the subtitle here might also be A Study in Inclusion and Exclusion, because Dube’s Crevel is inordinately preoccupied with both. One of the means Crevel uses to gain entrance into the group of writers and artists who would form the Surrealist movement is faking trances during séances, which were all the rage at the time. Pretending to fall into a state of unconsciousness, he spouts nonsense his audience considers brilliance from beyond. He lies for acceptance—and who has not, at one time or another? Having found inclusion, he is loathe to offend any of the movement’s luminaries for fear of finding himself on the outside of that circle. Dube handles this universal theme with deft shadings of right and wrong.
Dube’s prose is lush but not overwritten, evoking a time when ideas and their expression were more important than life itself. He reels from passionate fever dreams to stark confessional passages with the bold surety of an expert craftsman, hurtling us towards Crevel’s death but never letting go of our hand.
The skin around my eyes felt tight. I felt hot. What if I did not fall into a trance tonight? All of these people were here to hear me utter oracles. I had no idea if I could do so. I might fail. I might shatter this renewed friendship with Andre. I sweat. My breath grew ragged. Friendships evaporating. The chances of publication, of the solace of other writers with whom to linger over cups of coffee and plot the future of our collective dreams dwindled and grew transparent. I saw a great, dark gulf underneath the table we were seated at.
Despite the weight of its ideas, Subtle Bodies is a breathlessly quick read that will linger in your head and resonate in your heart long after its voice has faded. In fact, it just may be the best 90-page book you’ll ever read.
© 2010, Jerry L. Wheeler