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Minimalism and beyond: A discussion on two postmodern works of American fiction.

(Part 2)

By Dilshan Boange

Leo Rache

Continuing from part one of this article, which looked at the strangeness of the unnamed faceless speaker
of “Hand to Bone”, the focus now moves to the story of an impulsive, bohemian self indulgent poet –
“Leo Rache” by Pablo D’Stair. The protagonist is Leo, about whom the story provides a ‘slice of life’
through a third person narrative with the postmodernist stylistic technique of minimalism being one of the
salient features. Like in “Hand to Bone” the absence of similes and overtly detectable metaphors to
conjure imagery is notable in Pablo’s work of fiction. Leo has a free spirited highly impulsive drive in
him and depicts an existential disposition. He has a penchant for petty theft, to be specific –notebooks,
which he shoplifts on numerous instances. Although a young man who has meager means of income he
does not thieve notebooks (in which he writes his poetry) for lack of money to pay for them. In fact once
when caught he agrees to pay double for the goods to avoid being handed over to the police. Rather it
seems that Leo steals out of impulse (possibly a mark of a kleptomaniac) and the sense of adventure it
gives in that spur of the moment. So therefore he doesn’t come out as a poetic Jean Valjean (protagonist
of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”) trying to feed his creative longings.

An existential attitude

The style adopted by Pablo is like reportage. The lack of adjectives and ornamental descriptivism presents
a very fact-like-narrative of the character, primarily from a point of his actions, traversing, and also
phenomena and events he encounters. One of the demonstrations of Leo’s impulsiveness comes out in a
scene where he throws over the bridge to the river beneath a book of Wallace Steven’s poetry lent him by
his flat mate Blake. The reason being simply that he didn’t like the book. And it is only after the
impulsive act has been performed that he wonders what he would say to Blake to explain the missing
book. This lack of regard for consequences and acting out the impulse resonates very strongly with
existential philosophy, which is exemplified in Albert Camus’s “The Outsider”. The idiosyncrasies of Leo
show him in a way as somewhat of an ‘outsider’ in the larger context of society and its norms.

The significant ‘woman’ factor

A turning point in the character of Leo seems to be where the character of Anna comes in to the narrative.
Anna who is a single mother appears to be very much an alluring figure of womanliness to the much
younger Leo who is attracted to her powerfully and in fact finds her sense of womanhood to be more
desirable than girls who are his peers with whom he has had romantic involvements. From a point of
bodily comparatives, Leo decides that the very physique of one such as Anna offers certain
‘developedness’ over the underdeveloped prospects of Vera, a girl who is attracted to Leo’s personality as
a self styled poet. The amorously physical relations he develops with Anna causes a significant turning
point that develops an inspiration in Leo that leads to what is arguably the apex of the story’s symbolisms.

The poetic of the female physique

In the aftermath of having sexual relations with Anna, Leo embarks on a journey to meet a female
character named Lea who is referred to in the narrative as someone who is supportive of Leo’s efforts in
poetry writing, and holds an endeared place in his thoughts. Leo sends Lea poetry he writes for her critical
reception and thus has a metaphysical bond with her, though she enters the story only at the very last
stage. Lea is presented as a distant persona that serves Leo’s inspirations by encouraging him in his
aspirations. And the purpose of the visit to Lea who lives considerably far from where Leo is, so that he
may realize another of his ‘impulse drive’ inspired thoughts –to write on her body. The story ends with
Leo performing this poetic act where Lea’s entire body is covered with his writings which she admires in
a mirror and asks him to copy it out for her on paper which he willingly does and then Lea washes off the
ink (writings) on her body and leaves the hotel room they occupy for this artistic endevour. The final part
of the story is produced as follows –“I feel like a bruise all over, she said, touching where he’d just dried.
Her phone rang. She looked at the number, let it ring, said she really needed to go, there was some
mandatory thing for her job. He smoked three cigarettes, naked, looking at the closed door, finished the
wine except what she’d left in her glass.” (p.57-58).

The artistic apex and its symbolisms

The writing on Lea’s body seems like an artistic culmination where Leo as the creator (artist/poet) crafts a
moment of oneness of his work/creation and his muse –Lea. The body of Lea (and she herself) could be
an apex symbolic of the artist realizing his moment of artistic vision in tangible form. It could seem that
Leo’s psychology drove him to seek unification between him, his muse, and the creative outpourings he
develops as his artistic visions, to take form as a living work, which holistically encapsulates his being as
a man whose life is the art of his poetry. The process that Pablo narrates to the reader where Leo’s
writings pour out on to the paper (like a canvas) that is Lea’s skin (body) shows a symbolic value of how
that moment marked a poetic ecstasy in the ‘creation process’ which perhaps brought cohesion and
meaning to Leo’s emptiness of a scattered bohemian life. It is very much an instance of ‘living a dream’,
an arty fantasy as the creator became one with his creation. I say this because Leo as an artist would be (at
that moment) ‘living in’ the creation that takes form which is physically on (the skin of) the muse who
inspired his inner poetic being, and this muse would also thereby hold a metaphysical aspect of him.

“Will to power”

Pablo’s work comes out as a powerful portrayal of the obdurate bohemian individual whose artistry drives
forth his will to exist and perpetuate his vision (work) on another and resonates with the famous belief of
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche –‘Will to power’. The power that Leo subconsciously seeks to
perpetuate seems to be artistic visions of a self indulgent poet who may cause unintended tyranny in the
coursing of his trajectory as an artist. And the indulgence in his own artistry may evoke another idea of
Nietzsche which Michael Ondaatje speaks of in his latest novel “Divisadero” –“We have art so that we
will not be destroyed y the truth.” It is this escape from oppressive ‘truths of the world’ that marks Leo as
a highly individualistically envisioned person in terms of his art. That may well be the reason that Pablo
does not provide the reader one single line of what Leo writes. However from the point of the reader there
could be a strong desire to know what exactly Leo may have written on the body of Lea to develop a
fuller picture of that scene. But then again the minimalism of the novel probably would not allow such
elements. It is for the reader to bring his active role in to the reading, to develop the image of that moment
which the author has presented with the postmodernist approach of minimalism.

Notions of identity

The idea of subjectivity rides very high in the narrative which depicts the outlooks of Leo and the matter
of identity which is not really presented as a dilemma in the traditional sense. And unlike the modernist
approach Pablo does not present a character who seeks ‘answers’, ‘solutions’ to the existential dilemma
which is somewhat underscored in the text as opposed to being the overt thematic definitive. Instead he
‘plays in it’, developing a portrait of an individual not from the institutionally orthodox grounding on
identity as the details on an ID card. No, it is the vision and actions of the character that draws a portrayal
of his identity, rather than answering question such –where is he from? What did his parents do? Is he a
church goer?

The fact that Leo sits in a hotel room naked smoking cigarettes at the closing of the story does not tell the
reader what ‘the rest of Leo’s life is going to be like’, is part of the very idea of presenting a selected facet
of the character’s life, the ‘slice of life’ that presents ‘a facet’ of his being and psychology rather than the
socially constructed life and definition of a person. And so the text leaves the reader in “Leo Rache”
where the protagonist, a self made poet, realizes his artistic meridian existing in a moment just after the
‘poetic process’ that manifested his visions to make his ‘life into art’ and vice versa.

Both the discussed novels “Leo Rache” and “Hand to Bone” present a strong ground to explore the
postmodern questions of identity through highly subjective character perpectives and have stylized the
narratives through minimalism. And both these works can be seen as dealing with the postmodern focus
of ‘the individual’ in the face of society, which is very much one of the thematic foci in postmodernist
literature as said by novelist Ian McEwan who says, of his perspective of what post modernist literature
looks at and presents –“The representation of states of mind and the society that forms them”.