IT IS AN OLD SAW THAT GREAT writers are always where you are not, spatially and temporally. They seem to exist in other times, in other languages, in other regions. Bad writers, on the other hand, are always close to you. They lived next door when you were growing up, they shared a dorm room with you in college, they now live upstairs from your apartment, ceaselessly typing and smoking pot with the dismal expectation that the high will stimulate their plodding prose. Yes, the "human condition" is this: bad writers are everywhere you are; they exist like crows in a tree, always waiting, always ready to descend on you.
As this is the state of things on earth (maybe there is a planet out there with lots of great writers), it is easy to see why I find it extraordinary that my own sister-in-law happens to be a great writer. Her name is Monica Drake, she lives in Portland, Oregon and, like Kafka, she spends her days in the financial world and her nights producing great fiction. Though most of Monica's work has appeared in worthy literary journals like the Threepenny Review, it is her first novel, Silverfish in the Rete Mirabile, that will make her name. I, being her brother-in-law, had the opportunity to read this book before the rest of the world, and will now offer but a glimpse of its dazzling beauty.
Silverfish in the Rete Mirabile is, like all great books, set in a city, the inner city (both figuratively and physically), in those spaces policed and monitored by what the French philosopher Foucault once described as the "apparatus of the state." There is no official business or economy in this area, jobs are on the other side of town, and all that is left is surveillance and management by the state, whose constant eye on things, on the activities of the poor, increases the "inna city pressure."
The narrator, Nita, is poor; she is an artist who lives informally with a group of free thinkers and drug dealers in a house that is decaying and infested with mice. Her story is this: she has a boyfriend, Trout (Monica has a wonderful knack with names), in whom she invests great significance (he is the frequent subject of her art, the obsession of her eye). Nita wants to live with Trout, to be closer to him, but like all the things we desire in this world he is very slippery, indeed he is fish slippery. Trout--who is a musician, and makes numbers (for houses)--is never there when she needs him, he is either far away (in San Francisco), or shows up at the wrong times.
As Trout is the subject of Nita's eye, Nita (who may be described as a hypochondriac) is the subject of the hospital's eye: she lives under what Foucault has called the "medical gaze." Certainly, Nita has problems, but they are not the sort of problems a hospital can quantify or remedy. "I say now don't go to hospital unless your problem is as obvious as a bullet, or a broken leg," Nita recommends, because she's sick in ways that only frustrate the state, that confuse its systems of thought and knowledge. One social worker is so clueless she advises Nita to "get a new haircut or join a book club--it's important to socialize. People grow anxious when they spend too much time alone."
What the social worker and the state fail to understand is, Nita's sudden plunges into insanity, her vertiginous spells, her inexplicable heart attacks, represent the condition of art itself, which is an extreme sensitivity to the world of things. This is what lies at the center of Monica's book, and why Nita's sickness is the source of the best passages. "When the paramedics arrived," Nita says, during a moment of insanity, "I told them my name as many times as they asked--maybe six or seven--I held out my arm for the saline drip, that thin needle under the skin feeding salt water, a hospital-standard taste of the ocean to revive the pre-mammalian center, blood stream like an early memory."
Whether it's Proust in his bed or Mann on his Magic Mountain, sickness is what makes great art and great writing possible (this may very well function as a system of distinguishing high and low art: if the artist is well, it is low art; if he or she is sick, it is high art). Foucault once put it this way: "At the secret heart of madness, at the core of the errors, so many absurdities, so many words and gestures without consequence, we discover, finally, the hidden perfection of a language." Nita's dislocation from the order of society, her breakdowns, her spiraling spells into extreme discontinuity (in the sense Bataille spoke of), make the experience of the world vivid--or as Joyce called it, "funnaminal." Very few writers have access to this rare condition--the condition of constant awareness--and this is why Monica has a gift, a literary gift.