Book Review: In the Desert of Mute Squares by M Kitchell

Ben Arzate.

“Language is a trap. To deny the existence of whatever. A melancholy enticement. Like balloons. Language is a fucking disaster. I’m unsure of how to birth the participle. Underneath. No reason to ever go outside any more. The days choke in the darkness & supplicate to endless rest. There’s no question of what will happen in the future because there is no future. Life is a fatal attraction.”

M Kitchell’s In the Desert of Mute Squares is difficult to classify. Its publisher, Inside the Castle, describes it as a “text object,” which seems the most appropriate name for it. The form of the book, from its text placement, to its spacing, to its images, to the reader’s interactions with the book itself are just as essential as the text. As the excerpt above implies, this seems to be an attempt to transcend the frustrating limitations of language.

Even the title seems to be a self-deprecating acknowledgment of literature’s limitations, referring to itself as a wasteland of pages that can’t truly communicate. Slaughtered trees which can never truly convey the impossible. It includes the equally self-deprecating subtitle of or Errors; or, Dreams I Never Had; or, Late Capitalism.

The book’s structure gives it a sense of meticulously planned chaos. For example, there are no proper page numbers, but there are many pages that have one or more numbers at the top. Some of these are crossed out or have the word “Error” next to them, often both at once. The book is divided into 11 chapters/sections that are numbered normally, except for the last two, which are numbered 11 and 22. I can’t say I know what the purpose of these are, but an author’s note at the end says that divination played a role in creating the book, so maybe they have a numerological significance.

The text itself in the book consists of prose poems, short narratives, lists, and plays. They contain several reoccurring themes including rocks and minerals, homoeroticism, dreams, liminality, and spiritual experience. Those who have read Kitchell’s past work will recognize much of the imagery used here.

One of the most striking sections of the book to me is a description of a homoerotic magic show. The narrator (if Kitchell and the narration of the text can even be separated) is a magician who is thrown tied-up in a glowing tank of water with eels. As he escapes, he climaxes by cumming without touching his penis, a pill he’s taken turning his cum a bright blue color. The narrative ends by the magician admitting that he feels especially anxious at the beginning of a performance as he’s about to be thrown in. This is accompanied by pictures of a nude man in bondage, a blurry picture of an ocean, and a black square. Perhaps the magician didn’t make it this time.

Another section which sticks with me is one where the “narrator” pictures himself by a lake. Two bodies, one ugly and beautiful, emerge from the water and require him to make a decision to inhabit one and destroy the other. He finds the decision difficult. Inhabiting the ugly body will allow them the pleasure of destroying the beautiful one while making him ugly, inhabiting the beautiful one seems a given, but he will have to “allow the errant culpability that follows the destruction of something abhorrent.”

As experimental and formalist as this book is, Kitchell still has a knack for creating striking imagery with his words. Had this been released with a more conventional format, it would still be a solid collection. Kitchell’s already strong prose, however, is very much enhanced by the unique form and becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

I found myself reading the vast majority of this book during a slow day at work. Upon finishing it, I had a feeling similar to waking up from a short nap, like I just woke up from a dream and I was still tired. I also found myself anxious for reasons I couldn’t understand. I don’t believe I’ve ever had this kind of experience induced in me by a book before.

In the Desert of Mute Squares is a beautiful, disturbing, and exciting poetic labyrinth. The form is unique and a work of art in itself and the prose paints vivid, surreal images. M Kitchell remains, in my opinion, one of the best contemporary creators of experimental literature. I highly recommend this book.

Ben Arzate lives in Iowa. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have been published in various places in print and online. His first novel, Story of the Y, is forthcoming from Cabal Books. His first short story collection, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, is forthcoming from NihilismRevised. His first poetry collection, the sky is black and blue like a battered child, is available on Amazon. Click here to read his blog.

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