By N. J. Campbell
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Steven Felicelli
In Found Audio we have a manuscript received by N.J. Campbell, composed of an illicit transcription of a recording sent to audio expert Dr. Amrapali Anna Singh, in which an American-sounding journalist details his bizarre adventures (from Ulaanbaatar to Capetown) for a panel of mysterious interrogators, who break in now and again with a medley of questions and comments in more than a dozen different languages. Got that? It is a variation on the 'found manuscript' framing device in which the reader gets a secondhand account of the story. In Found Audio, you'll lose track of how many times removed you are from the narrative's action (third, fourth, fifth hand accounts).
Designated 'American' by the audio expert, our interior narrator is an adventure journalist traveling the world in search of geographical oddities and eccentric characters. He is the romantic seeker (think T.E. Lawrence or Marco Polo) obsessed with novelty and mystery, forever seeking out what is Other. Like, for instance, the conspicuously named Otha, a bayou snake hunter who takes the American deep into the swampy interiors of the South, where time dissolves and daylight abides long into what the narrator presumes must be night. Flustered and fascinated, the American tries to probe his laconic guide, but Otha insists (in a dicey dialect), "you can't understand what happens in dis type a world witout livin' dis type a way."
These oracular interjections of a "blacker than coal" snake hunter will lay the groundwork (swamp-work) for our American's prohibitive path to the legendary City of Dreams. First adduced by fellow journalist, Julien, the American will hear tell of this mythical city from fellow seekers and interviewed eccentrics over the course of his travels. It is not so much a hidden geography as, "a state of being, a place that was neither becoming nor fading away." There (or perhaps then), the exotica will evanesce into a series of experiential koans, leading the narrator to question reality itself (à la Zhuangzi who is unable to say whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly or vice-versa).
He'll enter the walled city of Kowloon only to discover a cavernous nothing, which upon closer inspection contains piles of something cut with saffron he presumes to be an opiate of some kind. He takes this substance back to a lab, but the results are inconclusive. He'll be led up a bright white staircase by a Thai shaman, while a voice like a flight attendant keeps informing him, "You're almost there. You're already there. You're almost there. You're already there. You're almost there. You're already there."
The reader may hear an inner voice repeating something similar as the narrative progresses.
Enter "The Turk," a chess master the American has dreamt and then encountered in the waking(?) world. Descendant of a chess-playing machine, The Turk befriends the American and tells him his story, hinting at the elusive, long-sought City of Dreams. Finally, it seems, our protagonist has found his guide, this strange savant holding keys to the kingdom of an ever-receding elsewhere. As he watches him play in a secret-invite tournament, the American begins to fathom the greater game he has been participating in all along: "The type of game he played was, essentially, a game itself."
This Turk directs the American, sensei-like, down philosophical paths toward the City of Dreams, but he cannot lead him to its gates. So he places a door in the American's dreams, which when opened . . . ?
Fearing he has gone mad or is en route, the American checks himself into a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan. There the staff is incongruently matter-of-fact about his pathological misadventures and an ethereal veil seems to lift. He reassesses his former relationship with Bianca, who has been dating the American's metaphysical doppelgänger; a fellow seeker who cares more about unattainable mysteries than what is within his grasp. "Conquistador of Nowhere" Bianca calls the American and only after his obsessions have led him to that mythical non-site (Shangri-la, El Dorado, etc.) will he fully understand what she means by it.
The narrative is interspersed with enigmatic, out-of-context query and commentary by variously motivated, culturally diverse interrogators. The sound quality is occasionally called into question (by the exterior narrator) and there are evocative lacunae in the transcript generated by sonic interference and unexplained silences throughout. It is a literal hearsay novel in which every assertion is problematized by its unreliable narration.
My difficulty in doing justice to Found Audio is paralleled by the American's difficulty in relating his adventures: words. As he puts it, "all of this—everything—is an odd thing beyond explanation entirely."
I have perhaps made the book sound like a pop Zen, navel-gazing homage to Borges and to many readers, that's exactly what it will be. (Proponents of program fiction will have their patience tried by this work.) There is, however, another kind of reader co-emerging with another kind of writer in the twenty-first century; one more tolerant of big words and big ideas. We seem to be seeing a renaissance (/recidivism) of ultimate questions at the periphery of Big House publishing (mired in middlebrow journalism). It has always been so to a certain extent, but recently, there has been a vital surge of imaginative, philosophical fiction at small presses waxing into prominence all over the Anglophone world (Two Dollar Radio a case in point).
N.J. Campbell's Found Audio epitomizes a return of the Romantic imagination (traces its lineaments through Borges back to Byron and Blake), exploring the no-man's-land of reality as it investigates the ethno-existential Other and intimates questions begged (rather than demystified) by neuroscience and quantum physics. These are not, it should be said, questions which mutually exclude race, culture, identity, etc., but rather implicate them (not as if you could call writers like Evenson, Everett, Ozeki, Mat Johnson, Vollmann, Oloixarac, or Khakpour 'apolitical'.) But are these ultimate questions now as they have always been: pointless and unanswerable? Are literary style and virtuosity mere vanity? Perhaps, but what a work of literature is or does is inherently indeterminate. (A deficiency for which Plato banned poets from the Republic millennia ago and as yet, no one has made an actionable case for reinstatement.) In fact, I can't think of a better subheading for a good deal of literary history (from the Vedas to Murakami) than "Pointless, Unanswerable Questions."
This reviewer welcomes the grasp-exceeding return thereof, though I'm tempted to categorize my fondness for Found Audio and its ilk as a guilty pleasure. (Borges is bourgeois? Pessoa pretentious? Beckett "slept while others suffered"? As ever, arguable.)