Polyamorous Love Song by Jacob Wren
The credits have rolled, the lights have come on, the janitor is vacuuming the popcorn, but it’s slushy outside, and you might have stepped in chewing gum. Don’t worry. The Town Crier is proud to present its first double feature review! This week, we’ll be posting two reviews of Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song (BookThug). In today’s review, André Forget tackles Wren’s avant-garde vision and the problem of propaganda. Please remain seated. Domenica Martinello adds her take on Thursday.
Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song, published earlier this year by BookThug, is a truly exciting novel. This is partially because its 185 pages are chock full of sex, guns, revolutionary orgies, secret societies, and terrorist cell groups dressed in mascot costumes, but it is also because it is a boldly experimental novel that does not sacrifice clarity in its pursuit of intelligence or earnestness, despite its irony. And yet, it is also a novel that does not follow through on some of its own best insights, which is especially disappointing given how penetrating those insights can be. The novel is propelled by the heady conviction that art can shape and condition our experience of the world, and that by grabbing hold of this power the artist can open up new horizons of possibility that allow us to move past the static categories we have inherited; unfortunately, it fails to adequately grapple with the shadow side of this capability, and so compromises its utopian impulse.
The novel’s central preoccupation is a familiar one: the relationship between art and life. It is a testament to Wren’s skill as a writer that his exploration of this theme rarely feels hackneyed or derivative even as he covers territory that is, by now, well-trod. This is in part because he confronts the philosophical problems with which he is dealing head-on and lets the narrative spin out from there, rather than embedding them in a traditional realist narrative. At the very beginning of the novel, before we see any action, we are confronted with a problem: “And my theory about professional artists was as follows: Artists are not necessarily the most creative or inspired individuals in any community. Instead they are those individuals most willing to exploit their own creativity and inspiration.”
Wren’s willingness to set up the novel not as a story but as the exploration of a “theory” is one of the things that makes Polyamorous Love Song such a remarkable piece of work. Love Song is an experimental novel that actually functions as a kind of experiment, insofar as it is quite self-consciously invested in trying to imagine a kind of story that would open up new ways of living. Starting with the idea that artists exploit their own lives to create art, and that this art in turn becomes a kind of model or paradigm for understanding life, Wren arrives at the liberating conclusion that changing the kinds of stories we tell can change how we experience life. This is a conclusion with ethical implications: if narratives empower or disempower certain ways of living and imagining, does the creation of narratives therefore come with an implicit moral imperative?
To his credit, Wren does not shy away from these implications, but his response to them is not entirely coherent. Polyamorous Love Song contains a series of disjointed narratives which move forward elliptically to a kind of resolution that addresses all of them without tying them neatly together. The bulk of the novel follows two connected groups: the New Filmmakers and the Mascot Front. The New Filmmakers have rejected traditional filmmaking practices in favour of a kind of scripted living. Instead of imagining a story in which, for example, two young men have a lover’s quarrel fuelled by jealousy that ends with one of them being punched in the face, the New Filmmakers act out the scene without recording it, and by doing so attempt to make all of life a matter of performance. The Mascot Front, for their part, are a group of political dissidents who dress in mascot costumes and subsume themselves into the identities of their costumes, viewing these identities, indeed, to be their true selves. For reasons that are not entirely apparent, this puts them at violent odds with the structures of ordinary society, to the extent that they operate an armed resistance in underground cell groups.
These two groups allow Wren to explore some delightfully paradoxical themes. While the New Filmmakers attempt to deconstruct the boundary between art and life by directly making life into art, they eventually start to realize that making life one long piece of performance art removes them from it. Doing so puts a screen between themselves and their experiences. The Mascot Front, on the other hand, have taken up their costumes and their politics because of the meaning that struggle gives to their lives. As one Mascot puts it, “To fight for a cause, to risk one’s life in support of a cause one truly believes in, is the only way to give one’s life actual content and meaning. Everything else is just for show.” Of course, as the story progresses some of the Mascots come to realize that, although the allure of their cause is precisely the absolute demands it places on them, they can always leave it behind at any moment should they so choose, making it is just as much a show as anything else.
At the heart of these conundrums is the question of how artifice can be used to give shape and meaning to life, and the answer (such as it is) arrived at by Wren’s narrator is spelled out in the novel’s final chapter, in a meditation on pop music:
Love songs attempt to describe how we feel when we’re in love. But as they’re describing, they are also telling us how we should feel, creating norms we can compare to our own experiences, giving us language that helps us describe a realm of emotion that in some sense is always beyond language. Many of these songs are written in about five minutes and yet we can listen to them over and over again for years. Love songs are about desire, but they are also, often, about loyalty. In some ways romantic love is the passage from desire towards loyalty. But maybe the polyamorous love songs that I dream might some day exists will complicate such dualities, generating nuances closer to our daily reality in which, if we are open to life, conflicting thoughts, questions and desires continuously surprise us.
Here Wren captures both the scripted and creative nature of art, its ability to mimic experience, to explain experience, and to imagine new experiences. But notice how the passage progresses from the concrete to the general to the vague: Wren’s problem is that he wants art to do specific things, liberating things, but like a good artist he doesn’t want to try to detail what those things will look like. He doesn’t want to tell us how the polyamorous love song will sound.
A casualty from Polyamorous Love Song’s Mascot Front
This utopian energy is problematized in the eighth chapter; in many ways, one of the novel’s weakest. The chapter consists largely of an extended meditation on the purpose of art against the background of the second Iraq war and the increasingly draconian actions of democratic governments in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is one of the few places where Wren seems to acknowledge the limitations of art, or the fact that art can move people but leave them unchanged. Within the convoluted, non-linear story of the narrative, this is, indeed, what leads to the new filmmaking—an attempt, in the face of the apparent powerlessness of art to actually effect large-scale change, to at least “make life more interesting.”
The key problem here (and it is a problem that just about every novel that dabbles in politics comes up against) is that art created to affect clear political change has a name: propaganda. For all of its insight, Wren’s investigation into how art can shape the world in which we live does not consider how massively successful propaganda has been, historically and currently, as a way of mobilizing political change. While a novel about art does not necessarily need to talk about politics, the fact that Wren’s does—and that it is specifically anxious about totalitarian politics—means that this question is conspicuous in its absence. Instead of acknowledging the way in which art can be a profoundly dangerous thing, Love Song flirts with the vaguely ethical violence of the Mascot Front and the facile politics of sexual transgression.
Wren holds out for the possibility that things will not so much resolve into harmony as produce a generative and magnificent polyphony. Indeed, Love Song ends with the memory of a beautiful song and a “single, perfect moment in time,” a transient thing that stands in contrast to the obsession of Western cultures with permanence and eternity. But how art relates to politics—and specifically to totalitarian politics—is a question touched on and retreated from, rather than engaged, and so while Love Song’s vision of art is tender, beautiful, and ultimately very moving, it is also incomplete.