James Lewelling's Tortoise
reviewed by James Lough

The paradox of Absurdist art or writing is that the very project of making art is the project of making meaning. Artworks always signify -- they can't help but make meaning -- even if the meaning happens to be meaninglessness. Even stranger, much of absurdist writing -- Kafka, Beckett, and Ionesco -- begs to be read as allegory, a form of storytelling whose purpose is instructive, to deliver very distinct meanings.
The result of this Absurdist paradox is struggle, and James Lewelling's new novel, Tortoise (Calamari Press) portrays the struggle between the futile, frightening mess of life and our attempt to use storytelling to extract some meaning out of it.
The narrator of Tortoise is an unnamed American family man, husband of Nancy, father of Missy and Lulu, all living somewhere in the Middle East. Our narrator has gotten a phone call from his father, Ray, back home in Arizona. Ray has something very important to tell him but insists on telling it in person. Ray is old, possibly near death, so the narrator catches a flight and goes.
Most of the story takes place with our narrator sitting on the jetliner flying -- tellingly -- from one desert to another. Little happens on the long flight, so most of the action takes place in our narrator's thoughts. He speculates about Ray's important message. He recalls his own boyhood adventures, his dreadful allergic reactions, his travels in the Middle East, his parents' painful childhoods, his daughter's broken leg.
In other words, our narrator tells us stories. Tortoise is chock-full of little anecdotes that make up our narrator's history, that comprise his life. Each story is a try at making some meaning out of his life, at somehow explaining all the chaos and pain that seem to signify nothing.
Especially fetching in Tortoise is the ingenuous humor of the narrator's storytelling voice. It's deadpan funny: part Beckett, part Steven Wright. Our narrator thinks in the voice of a world-weary naïf, like a precocious child explaining the world in a keen but unsophisticated way. A paradoxical voice attempts a hard task, telling stories that shed light into the vast, seething void of ever sliding signifiers.
Such a paradoxical, understated voice requires a tight, clipped prose style. Lewelling's writing is sharp, spare, and imagistic, keeping the hilarity barely suppressed, for most of the novel. But by the end, it all explodes.
Memory, suppression, and forgetting are central to Tortoise. Our narrator spins tales out of his memories while fearing that Ray, possibly a victim of Alzheimer's, is losing his own. Losing memories means losing stories. Since life is comprised of stories, his father could lose whole swaths of his life.
Often as not, our narrator's memories are painful ones, such as that of his grandfather's violent death, "half his body crushed under the machine," or his wife Nancy's being twisted by her impoverished past. "Being poor can make you prickly," he concludes. "Other people, rich or poor, are constantly trying to push your face in it or take advantage." Just beneath the narrator's naïve, world-weary, and disassociated storytelling voice run currents and currents of pain.
Lillian, his mother, staves off pain by repressing and denying her memories. In one of our narrator's stories, we watch Lillian as the pain rushes up and her by surprise. Sobbing, she holds a photo of herself as a child who "had a lot of plans and schemes but none of those plans or schemes had come to fruition." She laments, "Where is that girl?"
The novel asks, How do we deal with our pain? Or how don't we? We remember our stories to make meaning -- we forget our painful stories and preserve only the happier ones, which are precious and few. Like soil-tamping machines, we pack down our pain. Our narrator ponders: "Memories are buried all over the place," our narrator says. "We walk all over them all the time, but we don't have a clue because there's nothing there to mark the ground." Avoiding and forgetting our pain, we drift like sleepwalkers, caroming off others with their own pain, all of us prisoners of our past.
Stuck on the plane, our narrator is also stuck in his pain, shell-shocked and emotionally paralyzed. His charm is that he takes ordinary life's inexplicable madness for granted -- matters like Alzheimer's, alcoholism, and his own frank admission that he hasn't a clue as to who he is. As he recalls these stories, his childlike innocence only adds to the novel's grim poignancy. Unlike some Absurdist works, Tortoise possesses a rich, humane sympathy beneath the deadpan humor. The narrator's undiluted anguish is foreign to him, but to the reader, its roots are obvious.
My only reservation with this otherwise sad and funny novel comes toward the end, when the narrator finally arrives home to hear his father's message. The climactic moment, which I won't reveal, breaks the tone of ordinary madness, succumbing to a cartoonish rendering that reduces its emotional impact.
I will say, however, that Ray's message to his son is one of cutting wisdom, the sort of bone-deep understanding that Absurdism deals in, similar to the wisdom doled out in one of our oldest Absurdist works, the Bible's "Ecclesiastes," but a lot funnier. Tortoise is a quietly hilarious novel roiling with paradoxes. It's a story both futile and meaningful, jaded and innocent, a story about how stories don't cut the muster. And in its telling, it digs down against our deepest, most unsettling truths.