Ether by Ben Ehrenreich. City Lights Books, 144pp, $13.95.
Ben Ehrenreich’s Ether is a contemporary passion play in the shape of a novel. An unnamed protagonist—a stand-in for Ehrenreich himself— re-animates the Christian God in order to give him the business, doling blows alongside Nazi skinheads, angry barflies, and natural disasters. Neither Ehrenreich’s stand-in nor the God character are named (although we are clearly intended to note resemblances to both the Yahweh of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New), and the fourth wall is nonexistent, with the author repeatedly asserting that he is sole creator of his world, tacitly reminding us that he too is a fiction.
And what’s the landscape of this world? It’s awful. The homeless hope blindly, thugs wander savagely, and human affections are thin as film. There are cameras everywhere (who’s watching?) and disorder is omnipresent:
Things were in a crisis. The sun still shone. Daily it rose. Daily it set. The moon worked its circuit and also the stars. If you squinted your eyes, everything seemed alright. But things did not fit themselves. . . . The textures seemed false, the smells manufactured. The colors were off. Things appeared to mock themselves. Every single thing seemed an imperfect parody of its own essence.
It is a polluted landscape, made up of underpasses, vacant lots, half-dead bars, and abandoned shacks, recreated with great care; the shadows on each piece of trash are traced, from the “sand pits and truck yards” to the falling-down warehouses that line the edges of the city. Here, unnamed or generically monikered characters (e.g. “The Old Man,” “The Bag Man”) wander though the wilderness of the world in search of a homeless, apathetic god. That god is a wanderer from nowhere; he is angry and impotent, save for a science-fiction weapon that changes shape when necessary and eventually starts a fire that consumes, depending on one’s reading, either most of a city or most of creation. The world has moved past him. He has trouble creating anything, even death (like Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, he believes in mercy through execution). And only violence awaits him.
The author character is not much better off than the bedraggled apostles he’s whistled up. He has a bungalow and a companion (we never see her awake), but he doesn’t have any money and he isn’t happy. His own chapters take place in a 4:00 am world of cold, dew, and blues where he is sometimes visited by his creation, the unnamed creator-of-all. When they meet, god asks the author why he’s been written, why he’s being tortured, and what it all means. But the author speaks in parables and will say no more.
To summarize such action is to make it sound more involuted and self-consciously metaphysical than it reads. There is a petulant poetry in Ehrenreich’s landscape, an oddly loving care in the categorization of its detritus. A homeless wanderer doesn’t just carry bags around, he carries bags filled with “an unrolled condom, dried to the consistency of beachstrewn kelp; a fez; a pair of mittens; a yellow legal pad; a purple bandanna; a maple leaf; a plastic owl.” When characters tell jokes, they are unimaginably filthy, like the one about the blind priest seduced by his own colostomy bag.
Fine attention is paid to language throughout Ether. The world that god made is disintegrating rapidly, but the world the author makes is written with precision. A security camera is mounted “in the groin of the overpass’s concrete buttresses.” Wind goes “sissing” through the grass. A bird’s plumage “shimmered from green to red to gold and seemed to be all of those colors at once.” The bird is dying, of course.The very things we edit out of our walks through the littered world are the things Ehrenreich presents for our consideration. All creation is equally detailed and, should we deign to honor its creator, equally worthy. Real people make their lives in this place, and their souls do not weigh less than ours.
The characters are all angry, all creators too, writing rage into the world. Even the least of their actions call in catastrophe:
They skirted the sand pits and the truck yards. They passed the dog track and the old man fell silent. Without noticing it, the old man stepped on a praying mantis and smashed the only thorax its creator had thought to give it. The preacher’s black sneaker crushed an anthill, killing or crippling two dozen scrambling insects and undoing the labor of a thousand more. A mosquito drained blood from the folds of flesh beneath the bagman’s ankle. A toad at the mosquito and grew fat off the bagman’s blood.
Attention to the savage and constant drama of creation is one of two remarkable achievements in Ether. The other is Ehrenreich’s revivification of the story of Jesus Christ. Just as we read the gospels into Ether, so we read Ether back into the gospels. Christ’s first followers were the lowest and homeliest, and because we’re so much better able to understand contemporary suffering than what those first followers went through, we’re more moved: we’re able to think about what poverty meant in first century Palestine and how impossible the hopes of the poor had to be just to exist as hope at all. Christ’s suffering is made more sympathetic by being so base and contemporary—he’s kicked and bloodied by skinheads, and a dead, wet mouse is stuffed into his mouth, and that’s only prelude.
Ether is a book made from rage. Like Beckett’s engraver who “alone had been spared” because he saw only ashes, Ehrenreich is furious at the fallen world, where “rain falls on the fields of the rich” but drowns the poor, and where compassion and understanding are futile when they aren’t impossible. Rage, as we all know, is easy, but care and daring in the shaping of that rage is the stuff of remarkable art. There’s rage all the way up: we rage at god just as god himself rages back at his anthropomorphic creator. Ehrenreich has made his passion moving by abstracting it, nursing his readers’ sympathies not simply with god-as-man, but with god-as-god and with man-as-man. Crucifixion, like any species of torture, is an act of creative frustration. Ehrenreich puts his reader in place of both torturer and tortured, and the pain inflicted comes back at us in both directions, and sonorously.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly.
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