I don’t usually put much stock in blurbs on the back of the book, but those on the back of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs caught my eye. They are two quotes, one from Anthony Burgess and the other is from Joan Didion and neither one is about The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. They’re about the work of William Burroughs, except “Burroughs” is crossed out and “Marvin” and “Mooney” are written in. At first glance this is presumptuous at best and tacky at worst, but remember Burroughs pioneered the cut up, taking existing works, cutting them up and rearranging them into something completely different. Burroughs is the perfect author to “cut up” for pseudo-blurbs on the back.
The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney is filled with that kind of intelligent literary play, making cut ups of genres, formats, styles, quotes, and story-telling, while at the same time it seeks to break down the barriers between the imagination of the reader and the imagination expressed in the book. Metafiction has been exploring this barrier for decades, but Higgs takes it a step further, not only talking directly to the reader but demanding the reader talk back to the book; one point the narrator demands you “say out loud the words ‘I am not alone,’” giving the whole exercise a poignancy not usually found in this type of writing.
The novel is anchored by two stories dispersed throughout the work; one about a screenwriter (who may be Mooney) whose lover is a beautiful actress and the other about the death of Mooney’s (I’m assuming) mother. If pulled together into conventional short stories these would be exactly the kind of emotive and complex stories winning prizes and praise, but Higgs' dispersal of them gives them a reality and a power that conventional stories lack. When your mother dies, you don’t deal with it in one linear narrative, you deal with it over the course of the rest of your life as different happenings trigger memories. When a relationship comes to an end it almost never comes to an end in one moment or one sequence of events, but slowly, over time, with other things happening around it.
The experimental format might be off-putting to some, who were probably put off of House of Leaves, Raw Shark Text, and Important Artifacts and Personal Property, but there is more to it than typographical gymnastics. Our minds work like big disorganized anthologies of narrative with memories, knowledge, ideas, dreams, and wild guesses churning around the stuff that’s happening to us, and The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, and others like it, capture that lucid but idiosyncratic anthology of narrative that is human consciousness.
Despite the format, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney is very traditional in the best sense of the word. It’s a tender, funny, philosophical, beautifully written story of Marvin K. Mooney’s struggle to understand himself, of our struggle to understand him, and through those efforts, our struggle to understand ourselves.