Old Frontiers Seen Anew

Samuel Bolin, Three Pioneers

After The Pause Press, 218pp, £11.23, ISBN 9781365881015

reviewed by Guy Stevenson

The press release for this complicated and blackly comic book pitches it somewhere between Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings and JM Coetzee’s 1974 debut Dusklands. Though less accessible than James’s Booker winner, Three Pioneers follows in its ambitious footsteps by updating postmodernist methods and ideas most current writers lack the patience, skill or inclination to go near. Through three bizarre, unconnected narratives – from a researcher of black sites in present-day America, a 19th-century explorer of Australia and a scientist preparing for cryogenic preservation in the ‘near future’ – Bolin resurrects and reanimates the questions about the nature of storytelling, memory and history that are a mainstay of Coetzee’s early fiction and of work by Coetzee’s influences Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges.

We begin in the deep end with Brian Casement, an academic whose marriage and mind have fallen apart and who finds himself driving through a desert he doesn’t recognise with two slumped bodies in the backseat. Over the next hundred or so pages, in a manuscript entitled ‘statement of the accused,’ Bolin has Casement piece together the ‘facts of [his] life’ to understand how he got there. From his bitter jealousy of a fellow researcher to daily struggles with a hard-working and long-suffering surgeon wife, we’re given the narrator’s delusional version of events alongside obvious clues as to the probable reality. Using footnotes that address the reader directly, and a second story that sneaks in below the footnotes and comes from an investigating FBI agent, Bolin supplies a convoluted transcription of the narrator’s descent into madness. So far, so pomo. The next two stories continue in the same vein: the ‘journal of Josiah Winfield’ pitting a colonial explorer’s delusions of virtue against the absurd and tragic suffering he inflicts by his vanity and ineptitude; and the ‘dying words of Dr. Vincent Pareil’ making fun of the futile desire for posterity through a former child prodigy attempting to reset the record on his life.

Three Pioneers follows self-consciously in a tradition of experimental fiction about delusional states of mind, but it does more than just rehearse the usual lines. Bolin’s disoriented and manipulating narrators are undisguised nods to Swift’s Gulliver, to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and – in the 20th century – Nabokov’s sinister but hapless Humbert Humbert. Like Nabokov, he is both darkly funny about his narrators’ delusions and eager to make the reader complicit in them. The speakers in Three Pioneers rally you to ridicule or convict their enemies and do so – like Nabokov’s eloquent pederast – through a cracked rationale that both entertains and renders them the butt of the joke. Fully aware we are being duped, we’re also compelled by the force of their neuroses to read on. Unlike Nabokov, however, Bolin announces the deception loudly, juxtaposing what is clearly happening in reality with his narrators’ ostentatious misreading of it. When Casement vilifies his wife as ‘totally unforgiving,’ for example, there’s no genuine effort to mask the fact that it is she who suffers from his erratic and emotionally draining behaviour. In this way, familiar meta-fictional tricks are repackaged for an age no longer susceptible to them. If, as David Lodge put it, postmodern fiction always relied on ‘device baring devices,’ here it’s not just the author but the narrator himself who shows his hand, leaving the reader under no illusion as to his reliability and grappling with fresh questions about the point of telling a truthful story in the first place.

As in work by David Foster Wallace – another clear influence – the footnotes and buried narratives make it difficult to keep track of what’s going on. At almost every turn we’re forced to choose between sticking to the path already taken and succumbing to the distraction of new leads. If we follow, we risk losing our way even further; if we carry on and return to the footnotes later, then it’s hard to shake the feeling we’ve missed a vital clue. All of this has the desired unsettling effect and makes for difficult reading. Like Wallace, Borges and other early masters of the same teasing method, Bolin requires patience from his reader and the willingness to forego pleasure for long stints at a time. The payoff comes from a sense that our confusion and frustration are very deliberately mirroring the experience of the book’s unhinged narrators.

On the same tip, Bolin makes good fun of intellectual efforts to understand and categorise reality. Like Borges and Beckett – about whom he has written elsewhere – he trots out scholarly language and form in order to deface it. The three absurd ‘pioneers’ deliver long, painstakingly referenced explanations of the human condition that either make no sense at all or could have been given in a couple of lines. He makes as quick (and funnier) work of therapy and the pious personalities who practise it. Brian Casement’s ordeal at the hands of the insufferable ‘Dr Jules’ – who wears a rubber mask and dons Mr Garrison-like finger puppets to extract a ‘confession’ from his patient’s ‘essential self’ – is a comic high point.

Happily, Bolin’s layers of protective irony are pierced occasionally by the emergence of sincere (and bracing) truths. Speaking through the explorer Josiah Winfield – whose futile quest for the interior is quixotic in the most literal sense of that word – he is repetitive in his savvy asides but instructive on the banal brutality beneath myths of collective progress. Looked at from above, Winfield says, his mission would reveal another example of ‘the human race as it disports itself on the face of the creation.’ Such profane nihilism, which all three narratives indulge in, is yet more evidence of the background in Beckett, a background that informs Bolin’s sense of language and physical appearance as treacherous signifiers of reality. The narrators consistently misinterpret not only the words people speak but their physical expressions too. Faces in Three Pioneers contort between ‘pain or extreme hilarity;’ bodies ‘broadcast fullness of health and contempt simultaneously.’ Likewise, Josiah Winfield – on the verge of transforming from Don Quixote to Hannibal Lector – misreads the appalling suffering of his men and animals for sarcastic mockery of his ambition.

A deliberately clichéd comment on the double vision of colonialism, Winfield’s warped observation sums Three Pioneers up neatly. Self-reflexive, meticulously and painfully aware of the literary greats he is following, Bolin challenges the reader to keep up with his stories and the larger questions he’s pondering. That challenge takes an effort that can itself be painful. Moreover, at first glance the book appears to deal in a difficult style with issues that have been worked through elsewhere. With perseverance, however, it becomes clear that Bolin has managed the rare feat of forming his own perspective on those issues and producing a work that is both referential to postmodernism and entertainingly new.
Guy Stevenson is a freelance literary critic and associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Times, the Financial Times and Toronto’s National Post.