A Spy in Amnesia, by Julian Semilian, Spuyten Duyvil/Open City (2002)
My mother and her sister have a system for judging books. On one end of the spectrum are "beach books," a.k.a. "airport books," terms that require no elaboration. On the other end are "chewy books." By chewy they mean the kind of books that only people who love to read can get through (in the publishing world, the tremendously depressing name given to these books is "literary").
A Spy in Amnesia is a chewy novel— if you can call it a novel. On the back of the Advance Reader’s Copy, the book is described as "fictional memoir." Meta-fiction (or metaphiction as Semilian’s narrator would appreciate, since the prolongation of the ph has to do with the prolongation of licking stockings— stay with me a moment) comes closer to the mark, as does philosophy, essay, political treatise, or literary criticism.
The book is made up of a set of letters from the narrator, Julian S., to his long-distance girlfriend, Imogen. Julian has moved to Lower Appalachia to teach at the university there while Imogen has remained in L.A. The letters vacillate between marathon fantasies involving, among other things, Imogen’s pantyhose (which get very boring after a while), and the banal observations of life in Lower Appalachia. It is unclear whether Imogen is real or not, and if she is real, it is unclear whether she reciprocates this attention— there are hints throughout that she definitely does not; she also suspiciously resembles the woman that Julian begins dating in Lower Appalachia, (whom he eventually drops Imogen for) perhaps indicating that Imogen has all along been a fantasy, finally realized.
Then there is the question of perversity. Julian fears that if someone were to get their hands on these letters, even if it were explained that they are nothing more than notes for a novel (to be called A Spy in Amnesia), he would be promptly arrested. (Though the letters are dated 1998 to 2001, there is a sort of "Patriot Act" anxiety throughout.) But in truth the fantasies are not that perverse, (except for the fantasy about everyone having miniature penises and vaginas on their fingertips— for some reason that’s really disgusting— though the idea of having anything on my fingertips is really disgusting) and Julian’s fleeting self-comparison to the Marquis de Sade is accurate only in regards to the anticlerical stance that they share.
There seems to be something so perplexing to the layman about fetishes, especially the kind that seem to have so little to do with sex and so much to do with the fetish-ized object. Where does Julian’s fetish come from? He veils the roots with philosophy but in the end it’s probably just Freudian, childhood late-night readings of comic books whose characters wore Renaissance clothing and subjugated each other, accompanied by masturbation.
What this book requires is patience, rather than a strong stomach: for example, you’ve got to be willing to get through a five-page catalog of the ailments that would no longer plague us if we were immortal (thrombosis? ictuses? neurasthenia? anoxia? ataxia? dropsy? phthisis? Enough to make a hypochondriac pass out!) or an entire letter that speculates on a puddle of something on the street which might be melting butter, or melting ice cream, or ice cream that was eaten by a dog and then thrown up, or ice cream that was eaten by a child and then… you get the idea. You also must have the patience for an overwrought, gothic language that employs words such as cruellery, oppugned, bayadere, fanfaronade, bedighted, panegyric, cambered. Semilian is on over-kill mode half the time, which can try the reader’s attention and in turn might allow some sharp observations to slip by unnoticed.
In a long, rather pathetic letter towards the end of the book, Julian tries to make right with his dead mother. Her worst crime seems to be a lack of affection, which, though a terrible thing, does not seem to warrant the scarring that Julian believes he has undergone. What’s interesting about this letter is the maturity that suddenly comes clear— Julian’s feelings for the woman he’s been dating, his plans to marry her, etc. Perhaps his endeavor for "closure" has been achieved.
The sections in this book that shine the most are the writings on God and religion; the "Appendix" that closes the book is really quite beautiful and thoughtful. Semilian writes a regular column for The Exquisite Corpse (Corpse.org), which must certainly be worth checking out, though the site itself can be rather daunting. Semilian's talent lies in his extremely intelligent exploration of literature, religion, and philosophy, not in his obsession with fetishes— but you weren't interested in that aspect anyway, were you?