A Review of Arbitrary Tales
by Daniel Borzutzky
Reviewed by Norman Lock

History, we are taught, is arbitrary, if there is any enjoyment to be derived from it, it is in the playfulness of its constant revision.
Daniel Borzutzky

In his Arbitrary Tales, Daniel Borzutzky does not withhold from us the pleasures of narrative; for he does relate, in many of his texts -- perhaps most of them -- stories that have anecdotal intention, in addition to temporal and spatial extension. The tales are crowded with incidents and characters set against contemporary or medieval landscapes (or their cunning admixture), which receive from their creator sufficient specificity to make them real; i.e. they have the weight of fictitious place. Even in the case of

Little villages made entirely of dust and lint

Borzutzky's places have a Max Ernst-like strange familiarity, or familiar strangeness.
Incidents and characters are caused to proliferate to an astonishing degree and in an amazing diversity of forms. One is led to the inescapable conclusion that Borzutzky has elevated the notion of mutation and its corollary, morphology, to the principal theme of this work. (Are they not, in themselves, the essence of narrative art -- of all art and of architecture, details of which latter discipline Borzutzky frequently imports into his fictions?) Borzutzky appropriates non-narrative forms, like the dramatic or operatic, for some of his tales, which have an enlarging and expansive effect, within the context of the whole. The identification and transmutation of form -- social, with its insistence on ceremony (also significant to this writer), entomological and zoological organisms -- these activities lie at the heart of Borzutzky's fiction.

He kissed her lips. She turned into a rat, then a flowerpot, then a story.

Like Raymond Roussel and Harry Mathews, Borzutzky claims for his at once spacious and cramped stories more freedom than readers of conventional fiction may be willing to allow. Like those two antecedent makers of writings, and like others we may admire, such as Donald Barthelme, Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Henri Michaux, and Kenneth Koch, Borzutzky is a fabulist, who constructs often brilliant machines, whose sole purpose seems, to us, to be to confound expectations of psychological or sociological depth; indeed, the tales avoid anything that might be called subtext. They are without metaphor. They are shallow in the Modernist sense that they adore the surface possibilities of art. Borzutzky's texts propose colorful inventions whose purpose is delight. This delight is abundantly ours in "An Arbitrary Tale," "Bed Time with William James," "The Lonely Man," or "How We Celebrate the Arrival of Spring," in which we are given a line that might well serve as statement of a theme concerning all the Arbitrary Tales:

. . . it becomes increasingly obvious that the room is not one room but several rooms, that the world is not one world but several worlds, and that geometry and physics, though helpful, in the long run, can do little more than confuse us.

Not that each text is successful. The final two pieces in the collection, "War" and "Uncle Alberto in Exile," to our mind misfire in their implacable unspooling of narrative thread and, in the case of the second text, an experiment in sound that finally proves tedious.
At his best, Borzutzky composes fictions that are ravishing in the immaculate sentences with which they are constructed, in their verbal legerdemain, their rhythmic certainty, and in their primordial and human wish to elaborate a universe created entirely of words that is at least as bewildering and bewitching as that which is called real. Ultimately, we turn away from the contemplation of life and Borzutzky's art, knowing that:

We understood that we could not understand, and that this was the appeal of the wilderness.

For readers who wish to enter an inimitable wilderness of stories in order to pleasure in fiction's capacity to transfix and transfigure a man's experience, I recommend Arbitrary Tales.

Arbitrary Tales is published by Triple Press, an associate of elimae, and can be ordered at the Triple Press site.