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Review: The Wolf by Tom Neely

The Wolf by Tom Neely. 228 pp. I Will Destroy You, 2011, $25.00.

William S. Burroughs remarked in My Education: A Book of Dreams how the content of wet dreams need not be explicitly sexual—a dream about luggage could still end in ejaculation. This might cause problems for some folk. After all, we humans make stories of our lives, seeking always to link disparate events into some sort of cohesive narrative, and the apparent subconscious conjunction of Samsonite and semen could rather incite an identity crisis, especially since Freud and Jung have taught us to see so much meaning in our dreams. Part of the power of the surrealist movement of the early twentieth century lay in the attempt to break these narrative habits, and thus artists and writers produced unexpected combinations of elements for purposes of accessing the hidden recesses of our minds and laying reality naked before us.

Good surrealism exhibits the open-ended quality of a dream combined with the revelations of a mystic—that is, it seems potentially enlightening, even uplifting, if you could just figure it out. Tom Neely’s “painted novel,” The Wolf, is by that mark an exemplar of surrealism, intertwining elements erotic and horrific in a storyline about transformation and devotion. Like Dave McKean’s Celluloid, Neely’s The Wolf employs no dialogue between the characters but rather delivers the story though a series of paintings rendered in the style of woodblock prints. The story, such as it is, begins with a man waking up in the middle of the night, leaving his lover as he walks nakedly to the bathroom. In a space of pages, he undergoes a metamorphosis, developing a wolf-like head, and subsequently burns down his house. Then there crawls from his mouth a man-shaped creature comprised of muscle and sinew strewn over a set of bones. After being chased by a mob of these creatures, our main character finds refuge in a manor house beyond the dark woods, as well as in the arms of the mistress of the home, apparently undeterred by his lupine features (or perhaps attracted by one feature in specific).

That’s a brief summary of the first half of the book. The second half contains elements similarly oblique and meaningful, including a tree dressed in a monk’s robe, more nightmarish creatures, a sort of Eucharistic ceremony, and an amazing sequence of personal transformations. The Wolf avoids the conceit of most werewolf stories—that tired exploration of desires or urges which cannot be suppressed—exhibiting more elements of Kafka than of Freud (though the center pages do constitute an amazing portrayal of conjugal bliss, one almost exalted by the angularity and attenuation with which Neely portrays this pair of human—or mostly human—bodies.) Good novels are sometimes described as machines for the manufacture of interpretations, and by that standard, The Wolf makes the cut, for these two hundred and twenty-eight pages will certainly generate much debate, discussion, and joy among those intrepid enough to crack it open.

Mirrored from Circlet Press: Welcome to Circlet 2.0.

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