Some stories are not so simply told, such as the thought-life of Eckhard Gerdes's narrator in Cistern Tawdry, a novel that refuses the confines of genre conventions. In their place, Futurist-esque layout, text collages, font-box mania, allegory, mythology, and straight-ahead prose spill from the page. A story does emerge from the digressions, fool's bells, and general car-wreck of language that make up the book: Cistern, a writer wanna-be, hates his dead-end job in his father-in-law's business. He drinks and cheats on his wife with his true love, the novel (Cistern Tawdry?) that he sneaks away to write. Convinced that his trysts are with another woman, his wife deserts him, leaving a note that explains she is going to abort the child she is carrying. The rest of the book is Cistern's attempt to find her before she can do so.
At first it might seem odd to see all these textual fireworks employed in the rehashing of a domestic squabble, a soap opera that is equally informed by modernist assumptions and aesthetics: e.g. misunderstood and hard-drinking art-hero is prevented from soaring above life by a petty wife who is named--think T.S. Eliot here--April. It soon becomes clear, though, that the real message of Cistern Tawdry resides more in its telling than in its story. The ransacking of literary history that drives the novel, its punning, alliterations, and other word games, are by turns funny ("It is dead is an oxymoron"), cornball ("digging the grease out of your eary canal"), tiring, and, at best, inspired ("Your heart is Black Sea and I am Baltic Sea and the weight of the Western World has come between us.")
Along the way the novel moves through other business: the recycling of the Osiris myth as a blues song; the question of whether God would ever ask parents to circumcise their children; and the lambasting of the kind of novel that fits happily on the shelves of Barnes & Noble (not this one), i.e. the novel that will let corporate editors "dictator it into literary Auschwitz" by forcing upon it conventions that will convey information as tidily as a TV commercial.
Ultimately, what is so enjoyable about Cistern Tawdry is its range, its freewheeling nature, its energy and willingness to let text be text: an art object in and of itself. It's a pleasure to witness a pianist play with all the keys rather than limit him or herself to the constraints of any one mode of play--all the more so if the pianist takes an axe to the keyboard. In this performance, what are a few sour notes? Maybe they, like the text collages, run-ons and all the rest, are a reminder that the novel still can be something large enough to include all the world--especially those messy parts that, when neatly expressed, are transformed into caricatures and lies.
--Steve Tomasula, Rain Taxi
In his sprawling fourth novel, Eckhard Gerdes, perhaps best known as the editor of The Journal of Experimental Fiction, asks us to think about reading as a kind of viewing and fiction's page as a possibility space on which anything can and should happen. To this extent, Cistern Tawdry answers Ronald Sukenick's call more than thirty years ago in "The New Tradition" (1972) for a "way of thinking about novels that acknowledges their technological reality," their existence as "concrete structure rather than allegory," while self-consciously locating itself inside a formally spirited conversation that includes such diverse works as Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing (1971), Kenneth Patchen's Sleepers Awake (1946), the Futurists' experiments with parole in liberta, Apollinaire's Calligrammes (1918), and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67), whose title Cistern Tawdry of course both honors and parodies. Add to this exploratory brew a Dadaist dose of playful irrationalism, and the upshot is a highly eccentric, arcane, abstract, digressive, appropriative, deliciously over-the-top textual extravaganza that exhibits the narratological equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Jittery with unbounded energy, Gerdes' book just refuses to settle down and behave.
Its core narrative is framed by a faux foreward and two authentic afterwards. The former is by a pedantic, unhinged editor claiming to have discovered the manuscript that follows in the attic of the house he and his wife recently bought in Carpentersville, Illinois; he is unsure whether the found manuscript is fiction, memoir, or something else entirely--or even whether it is in fact by someone named Cistern Tawdry, or only someone pretending to be Cistern Tawdry. The afterwords--one by James R. Hugunin, a theorist at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Gerdes earned his MFA, the other by Karl Jirgens, editor of Rampike, each interesting in its own animated right--emphasize Gerdes's novel's participation in various textual and theoretical traditions of disruption. The core narrative itself centers upon Cistern, a self-deluding, self-obsessed retail clerk who hates his work in the book section of a department store; hates his boss, who happens to be his father-in-law; and resents his wife, April, a marketing researcher, for having derailed his writing career. Feeling boxed in by his McJob, his marriage, and his two boys, Cistern heads down to the local bar one evening where he embarks on a serious drinking binge. He returns home to find April has fled with the kids. The note she leaves behind spells out her own frustration at Cistern's propensity to live in his mind and his inability to engage with the social world. It also announces her new pregnancy. Devastated, Cistern commits suicide by driving his car off a cliff and, in that moment, his soul, Osiris-like, splinters into seven parts. In the second, post-mortem half of the novel, those Tawdry pieces journey from the Midwest to the center of the galaxy and back again in order to reintegrate and save Cistern's unborn daughter, whom April has decided to abort.
Cistern's story, which thus morphs from domestic realism into patches of speculative fiction, slapstick philosophy, absurdist rant, and mythological quest for rebirth and wholeness, functions as the Antichrist of conventional fiction. In a sense, Cistern's story also stands in as metaphor for the technological reality of the text itself. That is, just as Cistern feels constained by the rules of communal interaction, from his work to his marriage to his role as father, so too does the text itself feel constrained by the rules of plot, character, language, and paginal configuration. And just as Cistern frees himself from the rules of communal interaction by a kind of transcendence through physical death, so too does the text free itself from the rules of plot, character, language, and paginal configuration by a kind of transcendence through an ongoing murder of the conventions associated with the traditional novel. In place of a well-made plot, we find a loose constellation of events (often little more than disembodied dialogue or rambling internal monologue) leading very nearly nowhere. In place of three-dimensional character, we find intangible verbal nexuses with names like Ellen of Troy, Purepuer, and Klepto Cat, that represent aspects of Cistern's personality more than unique psychologically resonant somatic entities. And, in place of limpid language and the steady, gray, paragraphic trace from upper left to lower right, we find doodles, line drawings, diagrams, scribbly handwriting, typographic experimentation, pages printed upside-down, rhymes, puns, portmanteau words, gibberish, ludic syntax, snippets of blues, poetry, massive alliteration, the use of various discursive registers from ornate to street, and blatant homages to and play with the likes of the Bible, Homer, Melville, Burgess, and Cage. Only after Cistern has been reconstituted far beond the grave does the text reconstitute itself into stable font, paragraphs, and something like scenes.
...Gerdes's is an experiment worthy of genuine admiration and respect. It stands as a continual reminder to fiction everywhere to push itself forward a little farther, keep outdoing its own mad, awesome dances. "It's not like anything," Cistern comments to himself at one point about Tristram Shandy: "It doesn't have much of a plot or stable characters. It doesn't climb to a climax and resolve in the denouement. It merely exists. Barely exists, actually. And I, for one, am glad that the rarest of works of its time which barely made it to us is idiosyncratic. God, how we have screwed up the novel since Sterne and Defoe. Why didn't other writers even try to go as far as they led?" Much the same could and should be said about Cistern Tawdry. It merely exists--in wonderfully idiosyncratic ways. That in itself is both an accomplishment and real reason for celebration. It is a nove that will provide you with a reading experience, in other words, that will make you glad again and again to know Eckhard Gerdes and his texts are in the world.
--Lance Olsen, American Book Review
"Language connects. To disconnect, language must be discarded. Freedom cannot result from socialization--only indebtedness can. If you learn a language." Except that the characters in Cistern Tawdry keep connecting, even as they die and split into other selves, even as their language appears to be unraveling: "you think you can refrain from meaningful communication? Impossible!" With multiple disruptions of continuity, Cistern Tawdry is a story that creates meaning through visuality, fragmentation, collage, witty wordplay, and humor, as well as narration. Although the text at first appears daunting, Gerdes provides encouragement to readers in the "Editor's Foreword," where he offers explanations and interpretations of the first several primary visual pages. Potential readers who continue on where the "Editor's Foreword" leaves off will find themselves pleasantly enmeshed in the story of Cistern Tawdry, a writer trapped in the midst of an unfulfilling job and failing marriage. After a night of drinking, he comes home to discover that his wife has left him and taken their children with her. Cistern commits suicide, and his soul splits into multiple pieces and personalities. The second half of the book follows these parts in their heroic quest to reunite and return to the earth. Any text requires the engagement of the reader in order to make meaning. Cistern Tawdry highlights this aspect of reader interaction by presenting a text refreshingly unlike those we are used to interpreting--it demands active engagement on the part of the reader. Sometimes this engagement requires effort as we attempt to decode unfamiliar signs, but it is always delightful and surprising.
--Lorraine Graham, Review of Contemporary Fiction
Eckhard Gerdes's Cistern Tawdry, like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, offers verbally explosive, energetic, hyperbolic language rich in typographic play and Futurist enunciations of words immediately losing themselves by means of implosion, cancellation, reversal, playback, reverb, dissonance, echo, discord, and overlap, as they dance the parole in liberta, or the page as field of action. Here, word, letter, diagram, picture, photo-collage and image inter-connect in what can be read as a deliberately post-modern, even McLuhanist-inspired style. Considering the form of Cistern Tawdry, it is unavoidable that the "medium is the message."
--Karl Jirgens, Rampike
A mysterious text is found in an attic. Who's its author? Cistern Tawdry. What is his aesthetic lineage? If one could take DNA samples of Tawdry's text, an examination would reveal Cistern-the-writer's grandparents as the Englishman Laurence Sterne and French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, his parents as the Zurich Dadaist Tristan Tzara and the Russian Futurist Ilia Zdanevich. Thus born of wit and ambiguité, irrationalism and sdvig, it tells the tale of one Cistern Tawdry.... Each typographical construct (cluttered with Brobdingnagian letters, minuscule letters, scrawled cursive, and amateurish sketching) is a highly marked text interspersed throughout the various pages of unmarked text. Add the text's penchant for all manner of wordplay, double-entendre, and neologisms, and we have a Pandora's Box from which escape all the potentialities of language, all the pleasures of the text.
--James R. Hugunin, Art Institute of Chicago