canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Stan Rogal
Insomniac Press, 2000

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

From the introductory quote prologue in Stan Rogal's bafflegab one realizes what's in store: a fragmented, dark, antiheroic ramble of a novel - akin to Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, replete with a similar brilliant, mad, distasteful man mumbling half-crazed in his monologue to the world, though there are no sentences like this in Notes, for better or worse: "These are my opinions and you may feel they have no more importance or interest than a speck of fly shit sucked up in a tornado."

Where Dostoevsky was disingenuous Rogal is disingenuous: from the first sentence there is an attempt to deflect attention and defuse Rogal's writing: "This is all patter baby, and can be construed as meaningless. Meaningless patter." Patter is an important word-choice, typically referring to a speaking voice, and in this regard I agree - but rant would be more accurate. This book begs to be yelled aloud, and it isn't any wonder that most of it has been already on a Toronto FM station. 

In concept and execution what we have here is a psycho CBC radio play, not a novel with needless text stressings coming in the form of capital letters and slavic phonetic renderings, PUH-LEEZE editor. "(R)unning off at the mouth in all directions", this book goes nowhere and everywhere all at once, demanding attention and then turning its back. Rogal writes, "If you're along for the ride, you might as well sit back & enjoy the view 'cause getting there is all the fun," introducing a poet-cum-novelist's consciousness road trip with many sights to be seen, as well as trips to the bathroom.

This novel attempts something grand and doesn't achieve it. Rogal's bon mots about society and culture are muzak philosophy, lite brand Camus/Sartre mixed by a MuchMusic veejay. It's too easy to skewer the masses , much more difficult to prod them into metamorphosis - and that's what Rogal is trying to do in this novel. "You've got to do it - choose between what you want to do to maintain your freedom & what you should do as society's slave." Well, one mental midget in "the impenetrable city" can't top Kafka, Neitzche, or Plato - all invoked in bafflegab - if they muse about belly button lint and turn it into print. 

This song of myself is tiresome, but luckily there's a musicality to Rogal's writing , making occasional passages great, like this one: 

The end is the same except for attitude: finally, you drive your skull into a tree or into the auto dash & just before or at the same instant you regret that the end will be dull & heavy like the split & crumble of concrete; that you'd rather (& wish to!) explode and flame like the volatile-floating Hindenberg - roaring, spectacular, and beautiful.

This strong sense of rhythm turns up when he's not circomlocuting, and is used in conjuction with a poet's minimalist language to cut deeply, as is done repeatedly with an unnamed narrator's humdrum existence. 

Yet great passages aren't enough to rescue Rogal's second "novel". In the end there's just too much boredom, too many punny meditations on dirty dishes, filled sinks, dusty apartments and whattem I gonna cook fer supper, man? Wickedly funny moments where the lone narrator throws neglected humour a welcome bone can't act as life raft either: "We need new words, new phrases for lovers, like, 'I snubbled in and bopped her wimpy. She bartled, 'Berrypie me sugarnose.' I did. She kissed my pottle..." This is real fun - coochiecoo language biting satirical.

bafflegab fails in the ranting, not in the writing. With lines like "I am speaking my mind. Plainly." Rogal gives literal voice to cliché, going solo with: 

We encase ourselves in work jargon & jingoism at the expense & exclusion of other individuals and groups. The m ore specific & job-related the jargon, the more the isolation... we must be aware & prepared to step outside these fabricated walls in order to question & communicate in the broadest sense... As much as artists & writers strive to discover a more universal & common language, society strives for the opposite - happy so long as the machinery continues to run, deathly afraid of anything that might impede or halt that most fictitious of fat-cat terms, PROGRESS.

This is pap, best left to stump anarchist speech, not meant for reading but preaching to the converted, orator shouting the caps.

Entire swaths of this book contain banal boredom. For example:

The first trick to becoming human is to drop your humanity. I mean drop it! Without a second thought or a tear, drop it to your feet like it was a paper bag full of yesterday's stinking garbage. I mean, rid yourself of it! I mean, kick it down the stairs & turn your back! I mean, really leave it behind & forget about it. I mean forget it. FOR-GET-IT.

And so on. You get the point. I mean, you get the point. I mean, this parody is too easy. I mea n, do you get it? Do you get it? DO-YOU-GET-IT? If not, read the following, not without its own misplaced energy: 

I've moved my bed within arm's reach of a door. & that's not all. A door stands like a sentry beside the kitchen table, while another door crouches like a sniper behind the captain's bench. I have numerous doors. I have doors of all shapes and sizes: rectangular doors, triangular doors, square doors, octagonal doors, circular doors, doors shaped like stars, doors shaped like keys, doors shaped like the e yes of cats. Some doors are hidden like spies & many are sore-thumb obvious. I have doors big enough to swallow me & all my possessions while others are so tiny I have to squeeze through oiled and naked. Doors sit on either arm of the sofa like carved lions & a door broods below the coffee t able like a clam. There is a door, bold as brass, adjacent to the television & another door disguised as The Last Supper alongside the fireplace. 

Hey everybody, this guy has doors. It's a metaphor, you stupid doorknob! If you still don't GET-IT, then read the next paragraph for a novel - punnery is communicable - use of the word door, appearing seventeen times. A formula becomes grotesquely apparent: take an idea and push it to annoying lengths.

Note to Rogal: no whatevers belong in novels. Whatever is an italicized admission of failure: you as novelist have no powers of expression, so you use that hated Valley Girl vintage word. Stop it. STOP it. No matter how ironic or existentialist the usage or context, it is still whatever, mouthed by idiots everywhere as a substitute for saying something or nothing. This is true also for etcetera and ad infinitum, ad nauseum, though they deal in italics themselves. I need not mention blah blah blah.

bafflegab wears three hats. It is a contradictory how-to journal for the writing of poetry, in which Rogal prescribes his personal method and views: 

A poem is dead without an audience. It lies in bed [funny, that's where much of bafflegab takes place: SN] ... with its maker and they are the same. They can't even talk to each other , never mind get aroused...This is why a poet should never say, 'See how clever, clever I am’' when an audience responds to a poem. It is the audience which deserves congratulating. The poet provides some X and Y, while it is the audience that colours in the remainder of the picture with various A to Z & their relations. & if the poem is judged genius or criminal, or genius & criminal, there is nothing for the poet to do except use the information and advance. 

The reader needs only one manifesto such as this, but there are several long, recurring dissertations on poetry that exist in ignorance of a crucial point: poetry is a subtle, slippery thing defying definition. To attempt to define it is to analogize, (ahem) to become a conductor directing an absent orchestra.

It also is a parody of an introductory-level university philosophy course, using a-man-in-a-desert premises to further Rogal's scatological ramble like "On a sand dune in the middle of the desert, a large wooden ship rocks uneasily under the influence of whirling winds...Two men on camels face each other, face the ship. 'How?' 'How?'" The next fragment in bafflegab begins, "There is a person balanced on ledge." And by now it's clear: a toilet-obsessed philosopher is setting us up again.

And finally, bafflegab is a bunch of good, ridiculous, and bad poems strung together and made to fit. Rogal's novel should be more than, by his own admission, the product of 

carry(ing) my journal with me at all times... Returning home from a restaurant, nightclub, or bar, my pockets are stuffed with napkins & receipts containing words, phrases, ideas, silly drawings and scribbles in every available space. I put them in a manila folder to ferment & breed... Deciphering comes later, & the job of cutting & pasting the bits together into some cohesive whole.

The trick of a novel is a difficult one to sustain: the writer has to make things cohesive and interesting, write one paragraph after another that somehow add up to more than their constituent parts. This book is purposely fractured, with certain poetic turns of phrase wonderful amongst a sea of chaff fragments that aren't complementary, aren't pieces of a greater structure, are bare poems that should stand alone and not together. Quote invocation of Donald Barthelme's "Fragments are the only form I trust" plays like an excuse, it's bafflegab, no it's not true that "to complete something is to destroy it". 

To write a novel is to write a novel, that's all. To pull it off - that's something else, a sleight of hand that requires more than the writing of extended sentences, however beautiful. A successful book based on the premise of fragments is a writer's theoretical holy grail, and I don't recognize it here. Readers needs resonance, words building to a long frequency that sets something off within them, not random prose interrupted by a larger amount of white space.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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