Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Robert Lopez. Dzanc Books. 177pp, $16.95.
I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.
—Clov, from Endgame by Samuel Beckett
In his second novel, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Robert Lopez once again taps a deeply comedic voice to record a character’s gradual estrangement and withdrawal from the world in which he’s ensnared. Whereas in Lopez’s first novel, Part of the World, the protagonist’s struggle takes place in the world at large, in Kamby Bolongo Mean River our protagonist is confined in an observation cell containing only a bed and a telephone. Behind the two-way glass, white coated doctors observe the incarcerated narrator as he chooses to answer or not answer incoming calls. The sudden ringing of the phone occasionally terrorizes the man whose frequent masturbation spells may or may not be a subject of interest to whoever these observational authorities are.
In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator describes the method he has developed for communicating with the wrong numbers and probable impersonators calling on his phone. Implicit in his method is a primer for the reader on how to read this book:
The trouble is when I listen I don’t listen for the words. I listen for what is between the words and behind them. The way you do this is to listen to how the voice sounds. If you concentrate on the words you lose the voice and the voice is always too important to lose. How the voice pronounces each word is probably the most important thing.
This opening establishes the novel’s ongoing textual conflict while introducing the story to be told: a voice sheds itself of all the words that have been perpetrated upon it. Words, our narrator tells us, are double-coded and not reliable at face value, and though he seems to have no particular grievance with this reality, he’s aware that this precondition always impinges on him: “What you have to do is understand how people use words and go from there.”
From there we accompany our narrator’s glibly droll voice through a long “conversation with himself” in which he traces back through his remembered life even as he describes the peculiar and perverse routine of his incarceration. It seems he entered into the custody of his observers sometime during adolescence, although he has no idea how long ago that was, perhaps years. He remembers growing up in Injury, Alaska, where he lived with his mother and his older brother, Charlie. The narrator and Charlie were constant companions, boxing partners, actors, mischievous youths. They were underprivileged, and their mother lost job after job for refusing the sexual advances of her bosses:
She said she had a long day at work fending off her cruel and unusual boss who was a pervert. She said he showed her his situation right there in the middle of the office. She said he said what do you think about that and Mother said I think I’m fired again.
Even as the narrator recounts his past, the double-coding of language is always at the heart of this novel, and it’s a source of its constant humor:
How we knew mother was thinking about her day is I asked her once. I said what are you doing Mother and this is when she said I am thinking about my day. The way she said it was please stop talking and play your stupid fucking tac-tac-toe game.
When the narrator and Charlie misbehave, their mother punishes them by making them read the dictionary. When they are expelled from school, their mother sits them in front of an educational video about an African slave who runs away from his captors, is caught, and has his foot caught off. What they are supposed to learn from this video and how they should identify with it is not explained to them, but the mother is doing to her best to reconcile to the boys to the “cruel and unusual” concept of worldly authority, the order of which she seems to find in language. Consequently, our narrator identifies with security guards and military policemen, affecting their language when answering the incoming calls in his observation cell.
Lopez’ ability to create an authentic, consistent voice from the narrator’s cobbled lexicon of euphemisms and clichés (often set within the parroting of various authority figures) is remarkable. Lopez combs together exhausted and meaningless phrases to create a comic tapestry of cliché that reads completely new and true. It is a deceptively simple voice that beguiles the reader with its awkward usages, and it quickly engenders sympathy with the narrator for having such a limited descriptor set. Often this language feels wholly out of the narrator’s control, as in the sentence “I had curly hair when I played baseball but now I am bald like a baby’s bottom like an eagle”; the double simile at the end reads like an automatic reflex, as if the language is preset and self-articulating.
As the novel progresses, the narrator takes a distanced and precocious stance to the language of his situation. More and more he focuses on the voices of his interlocutors, choosing to disregard the literal operation of language. “How the voice pronounces each word is probably the most important thing.” Language is reduced to a medium not composed of words with specific meanings but of phonetic moments. It’s as if he has chosen to ignore the grammatical and focus solely on the phonological, like a foreigner inferring meaning completely off the tone and pitch of a conversation that is otherwise incomprehensible.
At the same time, the narrator is aware of his linguistic limitations and understands that they are part and parcel with language itself. This awareness means that our narrator isn’t a complete victim: he is driven to find his own place within this prison of language, and with time he grows increasingly rebellious and indignant in the face of his interlocutors. We see the shift from his identification with guards and military police to his identification with the runaway slave, and as that happens a grammatical shift takes root. In the title sentence, “Kamby Bolongo mean river,” a reversion occurs: the language of the slave predicates meaning over the master’s language. Within his cell our narrator begins to recount the stories of his life in chalk drawings on the walls and floor. A narrative within the narrative takes shape, a prelinguistic one reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings. He is tracing back toward the origin of his voice. He has a plan, and as the brilliant pacing and rhythm of the narrative drive toward its conclusion, this excellent novel forces a reconsideration of the very concept of a native language.
M. T. Fallon is a writer and editor in Boulder, Colorado.
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