D.M. Fraser Ignorant Armies: a consideration
Here, I offer, my consideration of D.M. Fraser’s Ignorant Armies (out of print alas, but Pulp Press originally). It was suggested the piece needs to be more friendly to readers, therefore if you are confused you can ask questions in the comments section. (since the piece has yet to be published in print, link/attribute pls). And a nod to Helen Potrebenko, Brian Kaufman, Jeff Derksen, Michael Turner for reading/comments/discussion.
Buried Treasures: Ignorant Armies. D.M. Fraser
D.M. Fraser is a footnote in Vancouver literature where he should be the headliner. Attracted by the title of his first collection — Class Warfare — I discovered his work last year, but it was his posthumously published book Ignorant Armies that spared my sanity during the recent 5 ring bling, all out flattening invasion of our city.
Ignorant Armies, published in 1990, by Pulp Press (out of print) emerged as a stand alone volume, during the attempt to create two complete collections of Fraser’s work. Fraser began work on the novel in 1978 and was still working on it when he died suddenly in 1985. The book was put together over three years, with input from close colleagues. In a note entitled You aren’t supposed to be reading this, Ignorant Armies editor Bryan Carson reflects on Fraser’s interminable, perfectionist approach: “He couldn’t tolerate a mistake on a page, would tear one out for nothing more serious than a typo and start the page over…”
This very process and happenstance of how the book formed itself, both by it’s author’s generation and subsequent external collation provides us with a lively reading experience, which we can wonder about, delight in each paragraph and choose how and where to darn them together overall. Knowing as we do that whatever Fraser intended finally for his book remains to be seen. While he left “structured units”, he did not indicate a conclusive map according to which they might sit.
The despot thruline of narrative is bid adieu in Ignorant Armies and instead we revel in a fragmented repository of chunking. Fraser’s sentences are long, lifting, yet single word succinct. His resplendent prose owes something to music: looping phrases that riff and repeat (Johnny Girardi came into town singing), phrases also delineate new events (May all our sins be forgiven). A lead in and a lead out and always in his sentences, an elevation. Therefore, identical to a piece of music the reader could chose, non-fatally, (any) where to join this prose.
The overall shape of the text reflects what’s happening in it. A Venn diagram of loops within loops that perhaps reflect the tad loopy nature of his characters. Characters, sufficient in number to form a small circle, thus rotate the tale, weave their lives, intricately around each other and bounce off each other like a game of rounders: They recall, rotate, remember and recoil. Gus Asher, (who is the main man) “if he recalls Johnny it’s to recall that was the winter Joan went crazy, and I too perhaps…”
While Johnny Girardi concludes on Asher: “A tour of his personal history yields little insight: it is an official visit to an exploded coal-mine or any industrial disaster, where the object of the ceremony is not to see what is there, but to be recorded as having been seen seeing it and weeping.”
Cut to Asher on Joan: “Asher broaching the notion with what he hoped was the suitable level of candor, I’m gonna fuck off out of this stinking house, felt a messianic exaltation that so amply irrigated his arid spirit that he began to weep almost immediately, loudly, thereby missing Joan’s murmured answer, Why don’t you do that very thing, tonight for example?”
Asher has handed the reins to Johnny Girardi to complete his tale. Johnny Girardi (sometimes Giraardi) plows through the book swinging his arm, like a marching band, as he bears agreed witness to Asher’s life. As noted in the text “The story is over by now and this is the epilogue”
Even Fraser’s point of view resembles the gliss of string instruments. It merges, and dissolves in the same paragraph to the extent I reached the last sentence of the book startled to discover Johnny Girardi had been talking to me, where I assumed Asher was. With not a bother on me, I read the book again.
Essentially the tale, if we must entertain such a bland notion, is a man sorting events (“an accounting”) in his life and allowing external points of view to consider the same situations. Some of the most poignant reflecting is Asher on his lust and love of manipulative Devon (who has murdered or knifed someone I think), his accounting affords an honest representation of the fluid nature of sexuality. This, while, still married to Joan from whom he is certainly, latterly in the book, separating. Devon concurrently has stolen Asher’s writing to create the “most notoriously unperformable opera in the world”.
As Devon is literally running circles around him, within his stagnant marriage lies Asher’s tranquillity and while he’s consuming both, it is at the stake of his wife’s sanity. Joan quietly commits suicide.
Gus Asher may be a self-centred, panicking, drunk, yet his rigorous honesty and pondering offer us the contradictory nature of human behaviour. Much seems to pain Asher, yet he adheres to his honest appraising. When Devon seeks to comfort him after Joan’s death he’s having none of it.
“I let him (Devon) hold me and pat me like a wounded puppy, saying obviously unbelievable things like It’s not your fault, she didn’t know what she was doing, but it was I who hadn’t known, hadn’t seen, love was a lie, as it may indeed be, and I summoned from impoverished memory everything mean and gross and ungiving in all of us, I charged all of us with every crime I could name (and god knows the list was long enough to occupy a night) I beseeched Devon to beat me until I bled from nose and mouth, to fuck me in the ass because I’d always hated that and feared him in his moods to do it…”
Separation or unfolding is a constant mode in this text. Even as readers we are embroiled: what is Asher’s actual truth? Is Johnny Girardi reliable? Blimey who on earth is Eli? Petrov would you stop being a pain in the hole.
It’s rare as a reader to bounce up a set of stairs with material that could be construed as likely to bring one down. Get blasted on Fraser’s pneumatic prose. He transforms the most vicious of maladies.