MY SHADOW BOOK
edited by Jordan A. Rothacker
Spaceboy Books, 227 pages
reviewed by William Morris
In the summer of 2011, novelist and scholar Jordan A. Rothacker discovered a box containing the journals of a being known as Maawaam. Thus begins My Shadow Book—part literary manifesto, part metafictional frame narrative. The novel itself is credited to Maawaam, while Rothacker gives himself the title of editor. This framing device, the found manuscript, is used throughout literature as a way of creating verisimilitude in the reading experience. By claiming to have found and compiled Maawaam’s papers, Rothacker gives the novel legitimacy as a real, authentic document, while also absolving himself of any blame for the contents: he simply discovered these writings, and so is not responsible for their creation.
Despite Rothacker’s apparent effort to distance himself from the fiction, in Maawaam we have the character of a struggling writer. He calls himself a Shadow Man, a “double agent” writing in the darkness while presenting himself as a functioning member of society in the light. Is “Shadow Man” another way of saying “artist,” or is Maawaam otherworldly? Perhaps both. In his journals, Maawaam quotes William S. Burroughs, Anna Kavan, and Guy Debord; he writes about his love life and his deepest anxieties; and he includes excerpts of stories, poems, and novels he’s trying to write. He is deeply human. And yet all of this takes place in the shadows, where he convenes with other Shadow Men and Women. Maawaam refers to regular people as “the people of the sun.” He fragments his journals with a series of black stars, both to indicate section breaks and to remind readers that he lives by the light of a different, darker sun.
As in his previous novel And Wind Will Wash Away, Rothacker here displays his wisdom, subversive influences, and literary prowess. He crafts a character better read than most of us, but also greatly troubled by his own psyche. Maawaam’s ruminations read like a love letter to suffering artists everywhere:
There are those nights when you get up to go to the bathroom—she remains there asleep—and you catch your reflection and you can see he is dying and you feel like you’re dying and you can feel it, the dying slowly and you wonder, is this how everyone feels all the time?
That question—is this how everyone feels all the time?—is fundamental to why we read. Literature gives us the opportunity to glimpse other lives and understand how other people think and feel, and the more we read, the more we realize that our feelings can be found reproduced in countless others.
Maawaam is obsessed with the phrase “give up the ghost,” which he interprets as a Shadow Man giving everything to the people of the sun. This sounds like both an unburdening of the soul and also a form of death. He says: “I have tried in my own way to be free… I have tried in my own way to give up the ghost. So many ghosts to give up before the final ghost.” These ghosts are the innumerable lives he’s created in the shadows, through fiction and poetry. For Maawaam to give up the ghost he must share his work with the world—a monumental task requiring him to finish the stories, poems, and novels he’s begun, or show them to us in their rough, unfinished state.
In The Secret Name, one of the novels Maawaam is writing, the protagonist (named Landry Bread) is sent on a journey to discover his “secret name.” Landry is a hopeless guy living in Atlanta, and wants nothing more than to believe there’s something more to him, some secret other self waiting to be discovered. Instead, what Bread finds is a novel titled Amerika the Beautifuk by a mysterious and enigmatic author named Maawaam (a book within a book within a book). Here we have the character, Maawaam, discovering his own secret name inside the text he’s writing:
in finding that name, and writing that character, I was writing a role for myself. I could write the novel, The Secret Name, and I could stage it like I found it, a manuscript in a box somewhere, and I am just the editor of it, and the actual author is this MAAWAAM. He is the author of the inner and outer text. The story of Landry Bread just floats there in the middle.
The writer is essentially and irremediably tied to his work. Attempts to detach from the writing—through pseudonyms, frame narratives, and invented worlds—invariably lead the writer back to himself and his own anxieties and obsessions. But there is also pleasure in inhabiting this invented world. Maawaam’s mind is labyrinthine, and while it may contain some fictionalized elements of its creator, it is unique and compelling, and worthy of being explored in the closeness My Shadow Book achieves.
Rothacker’s novel, disguised as a journal containing a novel (and so on), is at times dizzying. The form is challenging in its unyielding metafictional twists. Identities are nested one within the other. What makes the novel so impressive is how, through all of these experiments in storytelling, Maawaam’s vulnerability and desire are thoughtfully articulated and reiterated in various aphorisms, quotations, and poems, in a feedback loop of loneliness and longing.
This is a strange and ambitious novel. To invent a writer whose work is as bizarre as Maawaam’s and then to lead the reader into those works, is no easy task. Rothacker writes from the heart, but disguises that heart in shadows. Or maybe he truly has discovered a heart in a box of papers in a shadowy closet, and he is illuminating it for us here. Either way, My Shadow Book is sharp and singular and full of mystery.
William Morris is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has appeared in print and online, most recently at Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Fiction Southeast, and Red Earth Review. He divides his time between St. Louis and Salt Lake City, and is always reading. He also works as an editor at Natural Bridge. His other areas of interest include cats, coffee, and cryptozoology.
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