Genoa: A Telling of Wonders by Paul Metcalf

Who is Paul Metcalf?

I wondered the same when I first saw his name, about nine years ago, listed in my absolute favorite top 100 novels list: Larry McCaffery's The 20th Century's Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction, a list focused primarily on the most innovative of modernist works, as well as every novelistic niche under that little read (and perhaps lesser understood) literary umbrella known as "postmodernism".

my copy: 1991 reprint, Univ. of N.M.
McCaffery features on his list modernistic innovative writers (James Joyce, William Gaddis); the avant gardish types (Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Kathy Acker); the poster-boys of postmodernity (Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace); the magical realists (Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez); the metafictiony masters (John Barth, Raymond Federman); the poetic linguists (Gertrude Stein, William H. Gass) who replaced plot with language; all of them (and too many more to itemize by name) digressive loopty-loopters who pushed the limits of the novel structurally, narratively, point of view-wise, in ways previously unimagined in literature, assuming we disregard Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy contribution, as well as Rabelais a couple centuries even earlier, or Shakespeare, even, writers and a playwright who were essentially writing postmodernist literature in the 1700s and 1500s, respectively.

But Sterne and Rabelais are the rare exceptions to what exploded in the 1960s: Narrative that shed the modernist trappings of its more orthodox forebears and embraced instead, in (simplistic) sum, loose linguistics, loose allusions, loose plots (if any), loose connections and non-linearity. Trading obvious meaning, in other words, for secret meanings if not meaninglessness altogether. Fiction that was so experimental it was next to impossible to read at times, like Finnegans Wake or The Making of Americans or Gravity's Rainbow or, the ironically titled, The Recognitions; but fiction, nevertheless, in its oft-purple prose you could not possibly read aloud without pausing often to take a breath (or pausing for your oxygen mask), that was, despite its difficulties, typically fun to read for the sheer flamboyance of it's riffing prose, as if the language itself were shot up with steroids and pranced around in the ring flexing its obscenely large muscles (to the boos of most in the old guard and to the delirious cheers of a hyper, younger minority); literature so loathed (and yet so loved), that it left no middle ground among its audience: You were either in to it all out, or you couldn't stand any of it, no doubt!  There was no middle ground.

Jargon 109: The Jargon Society
Paul Metcalf, essayist, poet, under-appreciated postmodern novelist, ranked in the 43rd slot of McCaffery's cult classic list, was definitely in to it. He wrote some weird, and at times, indecipherable shit, to put it bluntly -- try making heads or tails of his Araminta and the Coyotes (1991) sometime -- and found no fame or wealth for his lifelong efforts. Just like his great-grandfather before him  ... Herman Melville.

Paul Metcalf indeed had some big shoes to fill as a writer, didn't he? The pressure was on. He admitted as much to feeling it. He found being the great-grandson of Herman Melville burdensome, and so went mainstream a bit (for him) when he wrote Genoa: A Telling of Wonders in 1965, his most accessible, and mostly unknown masterpiece.

Genoa was the novel he had to write in order to get the Melville monkey off his back. No surprise, then, that Melville infiltrates this short, but dense, novel. Though calling it a novel may be inaccurate in describing what Metcalf accomplishes here, as he skillfully weaves together throughout the complex, shifting narrative of Genoa, chunks of quotations from both the works of Melville and the man who influenced him, Christopher Columbus, the latter through his letters and diaries. What Metcalf does with these two legendary oceanic adventurers' writings is not all that dissimilar in concept to what William S. Burroughs did with his "cut-up" technique: chopping up parallel themes and motifs (rather than sentences a la Burroughs) and inserting them in just the right spots to advance the narrative of his novel. A haunting novel of the story of one soul searching man, Michael Mills, presumably Metcalf’s alter ego, desperate for answers, and Carl Mills, his brother, who suffers, we soon learn, from a progressively debilitating, ultimately incapacitating, unspecified mental illness.

The novel opens with Michael Mills in the attic of his home, rummaging through old copies of Melville texts, reminiscing when he and his brother, Carl, discovered old Melville artifacts in the attic of their childhood home in Pittsfield, MA. His reminiscing takes us back to the beginnings for not only he and his brother, but to the nautical and novelistic beginnings of Melville and Columbus. We learn of Melville’s first visits to Polynesia, the setting for his first novel, Typee, and of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic. We read of ensuing voyages, and how those experiences for both affected their psychological and philosophical worldviews. Weaved between the quotations of the two icons, we witness the lives of the Mill's brothers drifting irreparably apart as Carl flounders out -- unreachable -- upon some raging sea inside him, carried farther and farther out to sea by the constant currents of his unhealable madness. The story of Carl’s demise into madness recalls that of the Pequod’s -- and it's captain -- in Moby Dick (and Metcalf makes the connection clear), while Michael’s repeated attempts to reach across to Carl, over what amounted to a very un-Pacific Ocean of storming insanity, echoed Columbus’ failed attempts to regain the favor, recognition, and support of the Spanish Monarchy for his "blasphemous" expeditions. The Catholic Church was certain the World was flat back then, you might recall, and Columbus proved the proud Church wrong, a dangerous (if not fatal) de-mythologizing endeavor in those days.

1st printing, 1965
Metcalf likewise de-mythologizes, or, rather, humanizes the legend of Melville. Melville had a son commit suicide. Melville's own father died of a mania related madness. Melville suffered, like we all suffer, and he might've been, if we're to believe Metcalf's inside-familial-information gleaned from Genoa, just a tad mad himself. And mad, that is, much like the madness of Carl's -- the veritable, familial white whale -- that Michael Mills must confront, and maybe make some personal peace with.

Metcalf worked his melding storytelling magic to perfection, intermingling Melville's and Columbus' complicated lives, legends, de-mythologizings, and quotations, along with Michael Mills' first person storyline, into one seamless narrative triumphantly: Three voices, in effect, simultaneously speaking, but sounding (and reading) like a single coherent voice, written by one author. A single voice tossed often into its respective troughs of individual despair, yes, but lifted inevitably, despite the melancholy and suffering taking their indefatigable tolls on every person, into individual and collective peace. Acceptance. Again, each individual strand comprising the rope of narrative: Melville's, Columbus', Michael's, Carl's, and toward the conclusion, even a bit of Theodore Dreiser's and the Lewis and Clark expeditions'; no matter their individual outcomes good or bad, collectively attained varying levels of peace with their lives, once the narrator, Michael Mill's, reconciled himself with his own past, and with the present plight of his doomed brother. In so doing, Metcalf, vicariously, reconciled himself to the shadow he'd lived under, that brilliant, but daunting, legacy of his great-grandfather, Herman Melville. Sounds like Metcalf experienced a catharsis of Pequodian proportions, I'd say!

Genoa: A Telling of Wonders is a wonderful, complex and profound read. I fear I've not quite done Metcalf's accomplishment (and his genius in accomplishing it) the justice it deserves. So do yourself a favor and read Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, and discover why Larry McCaffery included it in the upper half of his list, The 20th Century's Greatest Hits. I doubt you'll be disappointed.