Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
E.M. Schorb, A Portable Chaos, Hill House New York, 2021. Review by Ricardo Nirenberg
Here is a deep rework of a book by the same title published in 2013, which was itself a revision of an earlier novel by the same title. You should keep it in mind, not only to avoid purchasing an older version if what you want to purchase is the present one, but also to help you understand how important this novel is for its author, as a part of his art if not as a record of his life. Schorb and I, as well as his main characters, Jimmy Whistler and his friend Marsayas, the Zoroastrian hippie, belong to the generation of men who were possible or actual cannon fodder during the U.S.A. war in Vietnam, the generation that witnessed the end of the dominant myth of American difference, or American innocence.
Schorb’s novel involves us in the ups and downs of a poet, Jimmy, who struggles to remain a poet in the slipshod whatever and what-for of our everyday life, a struggle made harder by Jimmy’s other talents, which open for him the way to tempting alternatives to poetry, such as writing for TV.
The death of a dominant myth is fraught with mortal dangers for a civilization, since it opens the field to polar-opposite, irreconcilable myths battling for dominion: in our specific case, the myths of an America whose history is a series of crimes against humanity versus an America that used to be great and ought to be made great again. To escape from the resulting chaos we may choose out of a variety of options on offer: from all sorts of nepenthes, opioids, and booze, to which last Jimmy is addicted, to recourse to antique and distant myths, like Marsayas who clings to the Zend-Avesta, or like many other hippies who prefer the Tripitaka, or the Tao te Ching, made to appear less distant in translation.
Jimmy is a poet, in touch with the source and the seed of myth. For that reason, and for the passion and intensity of its writing, this novel should be of great interest to the poets and readers of of(f)course.