More than Interesting: The Tumours of Matthew Revert.
In the film ‘We Need to talk about Kevin’ a debate rages (following on from the book) about the nature of Kevin’s psychopathy and his relationship to his mother. Kevin is bad. His mother struggles with his ‘bad-ness’. I‘ve heard this book (and now film) described as the lamentations of the middle class housewife. Her son is a psychopath and her husband is hopeless. She has to deal with the guilt, the societal barbs, pick up the pieces and clean up the mess.
And so encompasses a reoccurring trend in contemporary literature and mass culture that portrays males as one of three things: The Hero, The Dope or the The Violent Bad man.
David Foster Wallace famously complained about Bret Easton Ellis books, particularly American Psycho thusly:
I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
I’ve heard David Foster Wallace’s male protagonists described as pathetic weak men by women – a comment I took exception to. If you remember, 60’s feminism was about freeing individuals from stereotypes, not just women. Women were supposed to be given choice, and the part we often forget is men were supposed to be offered that as well. A striving to be human is at the basis of what it means to be alive now. Texts, perspectives and history are being re-examined in light of alternate view points. This is all supposed to liberate us. Liberate us from the ‘female / male’ paradigm.
In light of this, David Foster Wallace is accurate. The call is for characters to become more complex, not less. We are all living with deep identity crises – indeed we always have been, however now no stereotype can hide our weaker moments. The local American Midwestern bake-outs are revealed as blood-thirsty tenants of ruthless competition where deep psychological damage occurs resulting in profound self medication, just as overpaid merchant bankers are seen as mammas boys desperate to be noticed by their parents. Post Freud (really to ‘blame’ more than feminism) removed our masks. We see each other as we never have before.
In light of this, ‘just plain bad’ male protagonists ARE thinly drawn characters and contribute nothing (despite Cormac McCarthy) to the world of literature. Drawing long bows like existential angst and ‘we live in dark times’ isn’t good enough anymore. A writer must find a voice speaking of an individual struggling with the notion of what it is to be an individual. We are all male and female now. We all know our mothers are good and bad and we all understand you have to ‘man up’ to survive.
This brings me to the central point of this review, and praise for Matthew Revert’s The Tumours Made Me Interesting.
Primarily Matthew Revert is an absurdist writer. In that, his writings (this novel and a book of short stories prior to this novel) examine characters who cannot find a purpose in life, represented by utterly meaningless actions and events. He employs satire, incongruity, and absence of reason, dark humour, and the philosophical ideals of nihilism. He gives his characters jobs like screaming at walls to see if the walls absorb the emotion, and has his characters replace missing body parts with sticky tape and glue and whatever they can find around the house.
However, this is not a modernist writer. Matthew Revert has his feet firmly in the post-modern world: In this way, he more of a Beckett than a Camus. There are strong similarities between post-modern writers such as David Forster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer and Matthew Revert. Yes the world is absurd, but this is not necessarily grounded in the realist, post war despair of modernism. It has more to do with post-modern introspection. Yes God is dead, now let’s stop looking at each other and look at ourselves, Revert seems to cry. And who wears the spotlight? Men of course.
Revert’s men, and in this particular instance we are talking about Bruce Miles, are all nervous in their own skin. Bruce is a typical post modern hero. Irony, playfulness and black humour are typical post modern techniques used to describe Bruce. Bruce’s mother has a strange disease about which nothing is known except there is no cure, that is slowly turning her into nothing but a giant arm. Bruce becomes sick himself, and his first visit to the doctor is results in squeamish revulsion from the doctor as he tries to solicit Bruce into listening to his appalling band. This comes to a humours absurd head with Bruce’s job, a paper pusher for a company called ‘The Nipple Blamers’ who exploit a loophole in the legal system that allows crime to be blamed on nipples.
This is the trademark humour of Matthew Revert, as seen in his previous book of short stories. The humour can get very dark indeed. Bruce loses control of his body’s desire to expel his disease and there are often scenes where he sits uncomfortably in his own vomit or are equally unpleasant results of his own illness. Like other great post modern novels, Revert gets accused of a boy-ish sense of humour (Catch-22 being the ultimate example, but Naked Lunch has been accused of this boyish-ness as well) but in The Tumours Made Me Interesting, this use of male-identified humour is results in a questioning of the very notion of masculinity:
An attack of nausea ravaged my stomach and
before I could get it under control, a spray of vomit flew from
my mouth, coating my shirt and keyboard.
I sat in my own cooling filth, completely still and feeling
the eyes of coworkers boring into my back. My only desire
was to run away and never look these people in the eye
again. Jerry Turnbull made this impossible. Jerry was the
only coworker who actively engaged me in conversation. You
certainly wouldn’t call what we had a friendship – he spoke
to everyone at least as much as spoke to me. He was just a
slightly odd guy you could depend upon. Someone who helped
you momentarily forget about your loneliness by virtue
his dependable presence. He had a reputation as a bit of a
maverick, which always made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Today his maverick nature had manifested in his extremely
confronting nudity. He slid up to me like a waterless surfer,
his penis sticking to his right thigh.
“How goes it, Brucey Ducey?
Revert will use boyish humour of public puking to move easily toward the male voice, then within the same paragraph, invert via a confrontation with male sexuality, or more to the point, the continual confrontation with male sexuality. Homoeroticism is a constant theme in The Tumours Made Me Interesting. Not because Bruce is homosexual, but because Bruce is male. Revert takes the typical male sexual gaze (the one used to indicate relationship with the female) and turns it against men. While Bruce is sitting cooling in his own vomit, Jerry approaches him – initially we are just grateful someone is caring for Bruce – but the clincher here is that Jerry is naked, forcing Bruce, and everyone else in the office, to confront his flaccid penis.
A major theme in all Matthew Revert’s work is the conflict with the male stereotype. Male sexuality is repeatedly called into question. Not through a direct attack on hetrosexuality – all Revert’s males are straight – but through the absurdist approach to life’s daily banalities. It is absurd that Jerry walks around the office naked. What is interesting is that Bruce’s observations never involve the female gaze or the female response, but the male response. Jerry is seen as “maverick”. He has a reputation for being “out there”. He likes to be thought of as a “player”. And yet Revert will never leave a male like that as a standalone character. He goes deeper; deeper than any writer I’ve known before him. Where other writers have used the female response to establish male power, Revert will invert it, and take the male effort at power for what it is. A pathetic attempt to establish oneself in terms of categorizing. (stereotype)
I don’t’ know of any other straight male writer who has ever done this. Matthew Revert calls into question the very definition of pop-masculinity, which is primarily, ‘not woman’. He answers psychoanalytical theory criticising Freud and Lacan for Phallocentricism, with a complete emersion in the male psyche that obliterates any success of the Id drive. ‘Masculinity’ is a failure in The Tumours Made Me Interesting. Any and every attempt to ground behaviours in the phallus is met with absurdly closed doors.
This moment is highlighted when Jerry and Bruce go ‘out on the town.’ Jerry is to give Bruce the night of his life. The intention is to fulfil the male Id drive – in other words, strut their stuff, and get females to respond positively. The night appears to be a success. Although very drunk, Bruce has a memory of going home with a woman he was attracted to. He remembers nothing other than being fed from her breast as if he were a baby, but it is still an important sexual moment in his recognition of himself as the response-driven male.
Toward the end of the novel, this evening is turned on its head:
“But I thought you left with those midgets,” I replied in
“There were no fucking midgets, dude. Fuck… I wish
there had’a been. The only person I left with that night was
you. Let’s just say, I’ve done better.”
I ran through the series of events in my mind, but the
intoxication of that night only allowed the vaguest imprint to
remain. One image that wouldn’t abate, no matter how much
reason I tried to apply, was that of me sucking on the breast.
That had to have happened.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “I’m sure I sucked a breast. I can
even feel the residual nipple in my mouth.”
Jerry shuffled uncomfortably before standing up. He began
pacing back and forward, stopping every so often to
check the bottles littering his carpet for signs of remaining
alcohol. After this proved unsuccessful, he stopped dead and
directed his eyes right at mine.
“Look, dude,” He lifted his shirt, “does this look familiar?”
I stared at his man breasts, paying attention to the thick
curls of hair circling his nipples.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“You sucked my tit, dude. You were one insistent fucker
about it too. You kept going for me during the whole taxi ride
“It’s true! I have no idea why you wanted to suck my tit
and I have no fucking idea why I let you. I kinda wasn’t planning
on telling you.”
Jerry and I stared at each other for some time. Awkward
silence smothered us both. I let my mind drift away from
Jerry, not wanting to linger any longer on his revelation.
Without distraction, my body started kicking up a violent
stink about the absence of nicotine. My body tensed and my
tumours howled at invisible moons.
“I’m going to see my mother,” I yelled.
Jerry is revealed to be no player at all, just another man desperate to fulfil on the stereotype. By the end of the novel, we are left with the impression; this ‘player’ doesn’t exist. The sexuality is transferable and ambiguous. Discomfort is seen as just another aspect of sexuality, as is unfulfilled desire. In this way, I see The Tumours Made Me Interesting more as a post post-modern novel. The human being (in this case the male human being) is inward focussed, and he is confused and unsettled, but he is still the everyman. Bruce is not trying to make sense of his existence in an absurdist world. He is trying to survive in an absurdist world. Survive himself and his collected responses to his own relationship with his sensory stimuli.
Egotistical drive is the primary theme of The Tumours Made Me Interesting. In a delightful ironic twist, Bruce finds the tumours killing him make his life worth living. When Bruce was healthy, he was stuck in ennui. The typical stasis of the post-modern hero. He was waiting for Godot. Once he discovers he has a life threatening illness and this illness makes him a celebrity, he abandons death in life for life in death. Bruce is confronting his desire for the superficial at the basest level here. He is defining within himself what it means to be human. What it means to be human is to be celebrated and applauded for your individuality. But surely, below this even, is that a human has to be alive in order to be a human? Maslow didn’t include actual life in the hierarchy of human need because it is a given. Bruce confronts this directly. He feeds and nurtures the tumours that will kill him because he grows more and more popular as they become fatter and more consuming.
Are our egotistical passions so important that its desire must be satisfied beyond our most basic of human needs? This is the central question of The Tumours made Me Interesting, and it is a question at the centre of the quest for what it is to be human. Like the monsters from the Id in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, Bruce is confronting the deepest darkest nightmare inside all of us – that we can be driven by our most base urges. The creature of The Forbidden Planet is a ‘condensation’ of different animal parts. It is a collected series of responses. Just as a crew member comments “anywhere in the universe this is a nightmare”, so Bruce enacts the consequences of a nightmarish flight into his basest drives. He wants to be popular, even if it will kill him. He sexually desires a woman who is cold, ruthless and can never satisfy him. He abandons his super-ego based rationality in the form of his mother for the vampiric attentions of a cold distant collective that convince him they think he is special.
In an absurdist twist of brilliant story-telling, as Bruce gives in more and more to his Id-based passions, his apartment inexplicably fills with water. Bruce is literally going to drown in his own passions and will do nothing to stop this. This is the biggest fear born of our own uneasy interaction with our baser selves. As the horror buff will watch and watch in an attempt to control and desensitise, so our ego-driven attempts at rationality will try to make a home for our basest drives. In moments of the bluntest horror, Bruce justifies the tumours that are killing him. That his apartment fills with water and the tumours are killing him doesn’t matter because people he doesn’t care about find him interesting.
Here, Matthew Revert is not just confronting the male drive to control passions through emersion. He is speaking for all of us. The Devil Inside, as INXS would call it. For me this steps beyond the political. The socio-political construct may differentiate between female and male expressions, but Reverts cry is that we are all the same. Bruce is removed from the tenants of pure masculinity because of his failures to succeed in his earlier attempts to co-opt the masculine forms of Id based expression. He can’t speak for women – he is not one – but he can speak for humans.
In another piece of brilliant story-telling, the tumours are found to have developed from a crucial moment in time; a crucial moment with time. Bruce inherits the disease that informs and satisfies only his basest self from his crucial moment of childhood separation, and it is in absurdist discussions with the tumours themselves Bruce discovers their genesis. It is in these moments Bruce recognises the fear living behind those base drives.
Eventually, Bruce’s Super-Ego will save him. It is in conversations with the tumours his blindness in the face of his darkest drives is revealed. The tumours provide Bruce with a kind of analysis. Bruce’s eyes are opened and he can see beyond the desire to be popular and attractive to the rationality that will improve life and provide him with his needs as well as his desires. It is through conversation with the darkest part inside, that Bruce will see there is more to him than a base drive. Bruce is offered choice – in the true sense and is rescued from the possibility of hopelessness. This is not a modernist rescue, offering answers. This is not a post modern rescue offering a settlement with circumstances. This is a post post-modern rescue informing Bruce there is beauty in life and beauty is worth living for, pursuing and engaging in.
My mother’s body was pressed tightly against mine and
for the first time, I felt as if I were in her care. Her giant hand,
firm and loving, rubbed my leg, filling me with re-assurance.
My past was evaporating, which terrified and excited me.
The guilt I had always been in response to was leaving. My
mother’s hand maintained its vigil, keeping me safe, assuring
me I was okay. Her skin, unaccustomed to life outside of bed
rest, was so soft. And it was this that stayed with me as I fell
asleep in her arm. So soft…
The days of traditional masculinised characterisations are over. We no longer need to talk about Kevin. There is more to our existence than a perpetual dark feeding of our basest drives. There is more to our existence than using art and literature to continually reinforce male and female as defined by what the other lack.
A Million Versions of Right told us Matthew Revert was a writer to watch. We had a sense of some of the themes he wanted to discuss: the absurdity of masculinity, the refusal to be defined by the ‘not-female’, ennui and stasis, beauty in life and meaning in beauty. However, with The Tumours Made Me Interesting, we see a new writer far exceeding the high expectations set up with the short story collection. As Matthew Revert continues in his career, expect these themes to develop and grow; and expect greatness.
To Purchase The Tumours Made Me Interesting, click on this link.
To Purchase A Million versions of Right, click on this link.
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Enjoy the trailer for The Tumours Made Me Interesting.