I have been always faintly embarrassed by music journalism and one of the founding resolutions of this website was to avoid polluting the world with any more. Which record is the best? The inflated rhetoric and conceited posturing which weekly constitutes the answering of this question both conceals and exposes the music journalist’s desperation for substance. If the literary critic is a dashing fellow on a white horse, the music journalist is a pathetic figure who has tried to follow him by saddling and riding a dog.
Yet we will have to take the dog for a trot once again if we are to review Rennie Sparks’ Wilderness. Sparks is the brains behind the longstanding Gothic-Americana outfit The Handsome Family; she writes the lyrics whilst her husband Brett does the lion’s share of the singing. Since 1993, they have released over a dozen records. They should divorce, purely as an artistic experiment. What would it sound like if Brett hitched up with a corporate RnB songwriter and Rennie married a glam rock falsetto?
The Handsome Family’s latest release, Wilderness, initially appears to come with a promotional book of the same name. Many publications have reviewed only the LP (although the foremost indie reviewer Pitchfork Media has bizarrely overlooked both, rendering Wilderness in some respects stillborn). The danger for Sparks is that her writing comes to be regarded as a virtuous side-project, something admirable but inevitably secondary, rather like David Bowie’s paintings or Cherie Currie’s chainsaw sculptures. Yet this is not merely vanity publishing or the literary equivalent of a band t-shirt. Wilderness (that is, the book) is a complete and independent objet d’art and it should feel the full weight of literary criticism.
In Wilderness Sparks relates an odd anecdote which may capture something of the dislocation between her music and her writing. Whilst performing with the Handsome Family, Sparks became infuriated by the sight of another band who were apparently playing in the garden outside the venue. She eventually grasped that like a robin in a window pane, she was squaring up to her own reflection. Her audience were assuredly engrossed in the performance, whilst she remained detached from it, subsumed within a private experience which would later reappear in a completely separate work of art.
Sparks’ only previous book, Evil (2000), was a collection of short stories which were mostly set in Chicago. Between them, they offered a claustrophobic and vaguely satirical portrait of a dilapidated city. As a collection of “essays and art,” Wilderness not only abandons the city but the short story. None of the collection’s seventeen essays are detectably fictional, but neither do they seem entirely like essays, despite Sparks’ proviso that “To the best of my knowledge all the facts cited within these essays are correct.” The essays are too structurally elaborate and their imaginative caprices are often more memorable than their dazzling “facts.”
The internet is full of amazing facts about the animal kingdom and amazement is not the profoundest of conditions, being more suited to the circus than to the wilderness. At first Wilderness exhibits the design and glamour of a medieval bestiary, with each essay being apparently devoted to a different creature and with each creature being depicted in its own lavish illustration. Bestiaries typically extrapolated from every entry, telling their medieval readers what moral they should obtain from the eagle or the pelican. In Wilderness, however, Christian morality is defunct and its place is filled by a whimsical mélange of mysticism and cynicism.
These essays do not merely proceed from animals to morals, and their route is characteristically quirkier and more unpredictable. We may hop from some extraordinary feature of animal behaviour to the tenets of a minor world culture or the eccentricities of a historical figure or an autobiographical titbit about Sparks herself. At one point we teleport from sharks’ eyes to medieval alchemy to the Hadron Collider. It is like that parlour game in which contestants have to “unwind” their way back through a succession of randomly contributed suggestions.
At times the material wears a little thin, so that it resembles anybody describing their casual reading. Sparks breezes through the controversy of Freud’s “Wolf Man” study, discounting the entire discipline of psychoanalysis on the grounds that the great scientist “was more than a little off his rocker.” She readily accepts Sergei Pankejeff’s criticism that Freud’s analysis was “far-fetched,” when Freud himself might retort that the Wolf Man was so in denial that crocodiles were encircling him.
Perhaps we are in the process of concluding that Wilderness is at its most successful stylistically. Yet I am impatient to explain that like the woodpecker tapping away in the direction of a grub, we will find real wisdom somewhere within this book. Before we reach the protein, however, there is a lot to forgive; a great deal of hippyish claptrap obfuscating this book’s fundamental common sense.
Sparks appears to hold the soppy view that fierce creatures are really friendly and misunderstood. She in fact believes that the natural world is “dispassionately” bloodthirsty and she questions whether “the predator holds darkness in its heart that the leaping fawn is free of.” But she usually goes easy on creatures which are conventionally despised for being ugly or dangerous. There are a few embarrassing moments, such as when she gets starry-eyed about “the secret, starry night that only sharks can see.” We will learn more about the ingenuity of the octopus than that of the chimpanzee.
In the wrong hands, mysticism can be deadlier than a hunter’s bullet. Sparks is determined to debunk the wolf, wondering whether it has been “huffing and puffing all these centuries not to blow your house down, but simply to get you to come outside and look at the stars?” As with this, she is careful to phrase a lot of gibberish as questions rather than as statements. “If water can change from ice to steam is it also malleable enough to slide through into the hidden dimensions that string theorists claim are curled up inside our own?” “Do we store memories of an ancient dinosaur doomsday deep within our DNA?” “Are we all, right now, galloping in the midst of a great swarm without even knowing it?” “Are we like the wolves in the zoo circling round and round, willfully ignoring that we are on a race to nowhere?” Thankfully, the answer to all of these questions is “no.”
When Sparks follows her deliberations upon the wildebeest by reflecting “it’s sometimes this way for people, too,” it is a weakness of her writing that we have been waiting for this line. The idea of equivalence between humans and animals makes me bare my teeth, and Sparks at times seems to be surrendering too much when trying to negotiate an alliance between the two. She concedes that crows and prairie dogs have a “working language”; and whilst she is joking about “eel theology,” she leaves us with the impression that eels, like us, have their own culture. As a Humanist, my poor mind cannot cope with the idea that “your essence is no more or less important than that of the smallest of insects”; or that “sharks are far more alive than we can ever be.”
Practicality is certainly given a hearing: “When you identify with all that lives your world expands exponentially, but it can also bring trouble. If you begin to feel empathy with a head of lettuce, for example, you will find it suddenly much harder to make a salad.” One brightens when rereading a line about “the great tomes of understanding the flies have written across the clouds.” Perhaps everything was a joke all along. Sparks is ultimately more interested in entertaining the reader than in converting them to some agenda. Here and there one sometimes gets the sense that she is in a very fine, sophisticated way, pulling our leg. This is most apparent when she is trying to make us believe that she is or was an apotemnophiliac (somebody who longs to have their limbs severed).
By way of this informality and humour, Sparks’ writing acquires a keen exploratory streak. If she sets out to understand the worlds of animals, she will not be hindered by sentimentality or (my) Humanist bigotry. In consequence, her writing is often startlingly imaginative. She tries to access the mind of a four-brained box jellyfish via the nearest corresponding human condition: that of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. She explores our hatred of cockroaches by questioning why we find the conspirator Charles Manson more obnoxious than the actual murderer Charles “Tex” Watson. A domestic dog encountering a wolf is likened to a human “spotting a Neanderthal strolling through the supermarket.” Contemplating a “larvae” emerging from a tree trunk as a beetle, Sparks asks us to “imagine your own world suddenly made shining, weightless and stretching infinitely in all directions.”
Throughout this analysis, Nature emerges as wondrously perverse and paradoxical. Turtles will never see the shells which provide them with “invisible help”; the termites who are “so intent on building their intricate shrines to perfection are, for the most-part, totally blind.” Nature is indeed blindly and mindlessly organised, an intelligent design without any designer. Yet one of the sunnier passages in Wilderness portrays the “immortal gods” as being envious of humans due to “our little dreams and our ability to spin webs of eternity all about us using only the flimsiest of sparkling thread.” The human imagination hereby resembles a cocooned caterpillar, with its dream of rebirth shining through Nature’s devouring cycles.
Sparks brokers some reconciliation between humans and animals when entertaining the idea that we can replicate the innate order of swarming creatures through experiencing music. We can feel “a part of something akin to the grand galloping herd” via “the simple act of singing in harmony with another voice.” She marvels at the picture of Stephen Foster, the composer of “Oh! Susanna,” “at once fallen and alone, dying in a slum hotel and, at the same time, writing the words to a song that millions will sing.”