Aaron Petrovich, The Session, Hotel St. George Press, 2007

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

Aaron Petrovich's The Session consists of a long, untagged dialogue between two puzzled detectives, Smith and Smith, as they seek to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the death of a mathematician, torn to pieces after a lecture during which he more or less inspired the crowd to do him in.
      Stop, start again:
      Aaron Petrovich's The Session records the dialogue of two detectives as they seek to unravel the events that led to the dismembering and consumption of a charismatic mathematician by his students. In the course of their dialogue, it is revealed that perhaps one of the detectives, Smith or Smith, took part in the crime. Or maybe both. And maybe they are at the mental institution not as investigators, but as patients. Not that being patients necessarily means they can't conduct an investigation, just that as readers we should be suspicious of their findings. And so it goes in Petrovich's novella, interleafed with monotypes, inky characters transferred from glass, by Vilem Benes.
      So, two detectives, both named Smith. The mathematician, preaching, after a fashion, about the failure of meaning, at least in the sense of meaning being determinable, durable. After which the students, perhaps including Smith, tear him apart and eat him, sacramentally. The story of the same, reconstructed in tandem by the detectives, sitting on the floor of the asylum where the suspects, all those student acolytes, sit, having seen what they've done. The two detectives ride their untagged dialogue like a bicycle built for two, sharing a language that doesn't seem quite capable of taking them where they need to go.
      That's ultimately what this is about, of course: language. If Codrescu's cover blurb mentioning Beckett weren't signal enough, sentences like this certainly would do the trick: "Your expectations of me, though dear to me, intimidate me." The book foregrounds its language and the detectives are left with no choice but to use it, however broken, in their investigation. Words, their status as tools not quite suited to the task, are something the book enacts; you can see it in the way the words get rearranged, redeployed in different contexts, never quite doing the job adequately. It's like trying to use the same 60-watt bulb in your kitchen, bathroom, and outside over the garage. It's not quite right for all of these locations, and the result is that you never see clearly what's in front of you.
Petrovich isn't simply aping Beckett, however (and why would he want to, since Beckett already wrote Beckett's work?). Plot in Petrovich hasn't quite been evacuated the way it is in, say, The Unnamable. There is an event, a murder, and a mystery that has an ontological existence (at least that's how I'm reading it). It's just that language isn't adequate to fix determinately what happened. Likewise, Petrovich's language is more a series of languages, or at least discourses. Some of his language echoes Beckett, a series of evidence tags for things in the world, plain as possible. But in other instances, Petrovich suggests other linguistic possibilities, other levels of abstraction. For example, he riffs on hard boiled dialects ("These whack-jobs are dependent on you") and more technical languages ("Having been granted definitive proof of a finite future with a particularly brutal projection of concentric and expanding," etc.) in a way that suggests that there are possibilities still in language, that one can perform it instead of being simply a product of it. This, to me, seems a major break with Beckett, one worth noting.
      The monotype images that Vilem Benes has made and which appear as illustrations of a sort are beautiful. They come close to the stripped-down language of the story in the way that you can easily find a reference to them, but it always feels like a diminishment—to say, oh, this image illustrates that event (an event that only exists, whatever kind of language being used, because of language). It's almost more interesting to look at the images in isolation from the text, or as a counter-text: when looked at in this way, the shapes, the lines and blobs, look themselves like characters, glyphs in some other figural language. They incarnate another alphabet, even if it's one that is no more successful at transcribing what it sees.
      It's a deeply satisfying book: small but really appealing as an artifact, with its textured cover, its yellowed pages and the monotypes facing pages of type. I don't know, ultimately, if it's much more than a lark: the final reveal that the detectives are inmates feels too obvious to be satisfying, and it undercuts the novella's critique of what we can do with language. But I don't think in the end it needs to hold together in quite that way; it's a quick read and fun to pick up and look at again. As an example of the kind of work that Hotel St. George Press, a new print outgrowth of Akashic, hopes to publish, I think it's an auspicious debut, and as their tag-line suggests, I'd gladly "book a room."