Genoa by Paul Metcalf

Metcalf, Paul. Genoa (1965). In Collected Works 1956-1976. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996.

I first learned of Paul Metcalf when I was searching for a Poe quote and found it in an interview with Metcalf on the Center for Book Culture site. What I read was enough to interest me, so I put his name onto my list of author’s to look out for. I finally got a copy of the first volume of Coffee House Press’ Collected Works (3 volumes) and read his second novel Genoa.

What interested me in Metcalf is his use of quotation and collage. In the case of Genoa, the story is told by a former doctor across the course of a night. He comes home from the factory where he works. His wife has already left to work at the same factory’s night shift. He dines with his children and retires to the attic where his desk and books are found. What constitutes the majority of the novel are: his memories of his brother Carl, who lead a troubled life: mysterious illness, psychological troubles, very disturbing time served as a p.o.w. with the Japanese in WWII; and quotations: the majority are by or about Herman Melville (incidentally, Paul Metcalf’s great-grandfather) and by or about Christopher Columbus, along with a number of medical texts.

Metcalf skillfully intertwines the narratives of his narrator, Melville, and Columbus. What comes from this is unremittingly dark, but in the case of Melville and Columbus we have history to see the great things they accomplished, but the narrator’s story, or rather that of his brother, has no such achievement.

The writing that encloses the mass of quotations is neither ornamental nor sparse. Metcalf writes clearly and skillfully. He has a tendency to use lists and series (of phrases) in various ways that provides a pleasant rhythm to his sentences.

I enjoyed the education aspect of this novel. I learned more about Melville and Columbus in the reading and became interested in reading more Melville (The Confidence Man awaits on my shelf).

I’m surprised there aren’t more literary works like this (maybe there are and I don’t know about them). In a world where the idea that “there’s nothing new under the sun” has been so often taken to heart and pastiche and quotation are so common, the incorporation of other’s texts directly into a new work seems a logical praxis for literary work (and one that I think has been more common in other arts). In relation to this, Raphael Rubinstein wrote an article listing a number of works he labels “appropriative writing”, including a few I’ve posted about: the Oulipo, Mathews, Markson, Abish.