Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars is a difficult book, difficultly written. Ulysses. Samuel Beckett. Our literary tradition often revolves around authors of this sort, works of this type, the utter complexity of a book that demands attention, requires it, and makes for itself, in the process, a string of readers as enemies. This is not to say that Conn is Beckett (he isn’t) or that The Fixed Stars is Ulysses (it isn’t) but rather simply to head this review with a reminder to both the reader and myself: sometimes books are difficult.
The Fixed Stars, released by FC2 in 2010, is the story of a community diseased by an unknown plague that affects some but not all of its inhabitants. The book drives between descriptions of the spread of this mysterious illness and other less contagion-wracked moments where we are given the regularly brutal, sexual, and violent nature of the small township. In this, Brian Conn is not bringing us anything new – readers could see shades of David Ohle in the grotesque core of the town, signs of David Markson in the profound sense of loss in wide open spaces, and connections even to Cormac McCarthy and so many others in our contemporary literary era, when apocalypse seems forever on our lips.
But where Conn goes right in his creation of the plot and landscape of The Fixed Stars is giving his community of characters the pastoral landscape instead of the wrecked city-scape, making his cast one that includes spider-breeders and hemp-spinners, old school priests or holy men who wander from place to place giving advice and unrequested wisdom. This helps take The Fixed Stars away from these more obvious literary connections, helps us to see this novel as one that may rise above (or comfortably reside beside) the rest in a new vision of the old:
“Atop a faint rise in the meadow, between the arcade and the mouth of the trail, the yellow grass bore a teardrop-shaped stain of blood, of a size that an ox could comfortably have curled up in; from this stain, short trails of blood radiated outward like the arms of an octopus; and one longer trail, or perhaps two close by each other, zigzagged all the way across the meadow and terminated without further sign at the base of the second-largest cedar.”
And though The Fixed Stars is beautiful in its images of land and nature, the manner in which language is used to build the book is sometimes a detriment. Conn studied mathematics up until the time of this novel’s release, and The Fixed Stars seems, quite honestly, plagued by an overwhelming linguistic logic that makes some passages too heavy for their own good. The phrasing engulfs us, swallows us rather than swirling around or with us. At times, the vocabulary that Conn uses is poetic and sweeping, a force of words that is lovely and beautiful, that pushes us through the novel, but in other instances the language seems mathematically infected, leaning so heavily into the formal that it drives us away from the novel, makes of our reading a challenge and, even in some places, a chore:
“…the balcony gave onto the entrance: thick curtains of translucent cyclate, of a kind made, I think, from a cereal, and processed by a common cyclobacterium to about the consistency of horn. I’ve seen similar stuff elsewhere; it transmits light but not shapes, except roughly. So when one came to this structure at dark, and found it lit from within, the curtains would glow—sea-green, they glowed, when the beekeeper approached them that night—and if there was movement within, as, she said, there was, a darkness would undulate over the green, in articulately, like an angelophyte colony at rest.”
One might make the argument though that Conn knows this about his language, that it isn’t a battle he fights but a risk he takes, working the pastoral image to such an extent that the language itself becomes formal and archaic, pushes us linguistically into an apocalypse that looks more like a past than any future we’ve imagined. If it is a purposeful risk, it is a calculated one, and one that only sporadically pays off. But then there is Ulysses and Beckett, and we remember that our literary culture is perpetually adjusted and marked by the radicals of newness, and that perhaps Brian Conn is a fresh ripple in that water, a new tree sprouting in the vast openness of a savage pastoral landscape:
“The road runs beside the river, spangled with early fall leaves. The wind whisks up the leaves and the rushes catch them at the riverside. In the distance, tiny as a toy, the crossroads approaches. The women see it there. One of the great gate-cedars has fallen across the path where it starts up the mountain. The river churns sluggishly. The crossroads remain in the distance.”