Splintered Tragedy

Review of Guess and Check by Thaddeus Rutkowski (Gival Press, 2017)
by Cyril Wong

After Raymond Carver, every writer who attempts a style that is unembellished yet full of psychological revelation and existential foreboding is naturally compared to the master of evocative minimalism. In the case of Thaddeus Rutkowski's Guess and Check, the comparison is definitely warranted. Spare in its physical descriptions and subtle in its psychological revelations, the novel possesses a prose style that is so understated that it almost conveys a child-like manner of observing the world.

The book's title Guess and Check is drawn from the protagonist's boyhood. After a storm and his parents’ quarrel, the young boy looks to see what is on the other side of a hill. The unknown, always waiting to be discovered, is full of the hope of a happier future. The narrative reads like both a memoir and a bildungsroman, in which a first-person narrator from a Polish-Chinese family evolves, mostly painfully, from youth to adulthood. His life is unfolded through a sequence of sharply-drawn vignettes or short stories that slowly become more than the sum of its parts. Just like in any Carver story, the emphasis is on dialogue, actions, and sparse descriptions, and less on extensive elaborations of feeling or psychological revelation.

From the beginning, family life revolves around a Polish father and a Chinese mother (not just "Asian", as stereotypically described by James Robison in his back-cover blurb: Asia isn't a country). Father becomes a deluded Christian after his artistic ambitions and Socialist dreams are frustrated. Mother refers constantly to Confucius and the Monkey King, as if they are metonymic signifiers for her "roots,” in the forlorn hope of culturally conditioning their children. Like the protagonist, his siblings confront their growing-up years with emotional awkwardness and occasional insight.

Insects become objective correlatives that hint richly at the nature of the developing relationship between parent and child; they also point delicately and incrementally to a general sense of private dysfunction that both shocks and disturbs throughout the book. Catching insects together as a family may seem charming in most instances, but finding "painted lady butterflies" and placing a dead fritillary in a "killing jar" tell us plenty about the father's longing for autonomy and feeling of entrapment. The latter’s artistic and political ambitions remain unfulfilled to the end of his life, a fate that does not augur well for the narrator's own hopes and dreams. The alcoholic father, who keeps "an open bottle of whiskey" beside him, tells his son at one point: "I had a dream about chasing a butterfly.... If I were Nabokov, I would have caught it. If I didn't have a family, I would be Nabokov. He went into exile in Europe. I went into exile in Pennsylvania.... The problem was, I had kids.... Did Nabokov have kids?" As the vignettes move along, the characterization of the father is a slow, dramatic boil as he reveals a propensity for violence, mind games, and even sexual abuse. The reference to Nabokov foreshadows the father's incestuous pedophilia.

What is not said makes us question the father's sanity, especially when what is openly described is painfully banal. In a later episode, the father tries to shoot the brother. When the protagonist asks his sister "if a shot was really fired,” she says "no" indifferently and continues watching television, "comfortable...with her legs folded under her." In another instance, when the brother boasted of his drawings of bird-people (another telling reference to flight), the father paints over and so obliterates them. The son is understandably distraught and is comforted by the mother. The next morning, the father asks his wife, "Why were you in his room? Were you coddling him.... Were you fondling him?" These moments are so minimally conveyed that the overall effect is terribly disturbing: this is a family dealing with psychological distress and unspeakable trauma. If the butterfly first connoted the father's desire for freedom, as well as his gradual flight from sanity, it soon represents the family's tacit wish to be free of his madness.

In addition to insects, other living creatures acquire thematic significance and psychological overtones in the narrative. In one section, when the mother spots some gorillas and praises them as handsome, the narrator can only think of their "protruding brows, huge shoulders... they seemed to know what I was thinking. They studied me with hatred." The narrator's dramatic sense of disparateness vis-à-vis the gorillas echoes a deeper estrangement from his mother. This is shown when he disagrees with her and thinks that the primates "weren't handsome at all." The narrator’s encounters with animals are suffused with a sense of surrealism, and so suggest his inveterate detachment from other people in his life. A burgeoning sexuality, for example, is manifested in a manner that hints at constant disappointment. On a school field trip, his sister discovers a "penis" sticking up shockingly from a crater or "ore hole"; the narrator notes how the teacher simply assures her that the "whitish, erect object" is a mushroom. The natural world is a white screen on which the author projects his deeper frustrations. Such moments sometimes suggest that the narrator has a capacity for humour in dealing with failures, but he is keener to remind readers that such upheavals within the self almost always end in deflation.

After the narrator moves away from his family for college, when he attends art classes or travels abroad to Paris, the vignettes are full of misadventures with women. At one point a new female student runs out of a field and tells him she has spotted a reptile. The narrator sallies forth into the field: "I kicked at clumps of grass, hoping to dislodge a snake...but I couldn't scare up anything." The narrator's existence is repeatedly disappointing. His life is a painful cipher that produces little meaning and his actions are impotent in bringing about lasting satisfaction. In a comical homoerotic encounter, a systems-architect friend shoots photos of him "standing in a stream, looking like a nudist" and then asks him to move in together to share the New York rent. Alone in a room together, they can clearly see the World Trade Center. “The lights in the twin buildings sparkled. The towers were almost in our faces." For the post-9/11 reader, the view is a signal for the disastrous end of an affair that has never even taken off. Not surprisingly, the architect abandons the narrator and the latter is asked to move out. Soon he is randomly robbed at gunpoint by two strangers and a dog, forcing him to relocate again to "a different borough" as quickly as possible.

Constant, agonizing change and the lack of fulfillment in each change in a life that seems determined to sabotage itself at every turn is the unwavering theme of the narrator's existence. Not only do changing scenes mirror the narrator's existential plight, they could also be interpreted as quietly mocking him. The narrator doesn't even know, by a certain point, what fulfillment should look like. In a rare moment of self-expression and psychological analysis, he bemoans: "I'm looking for something... I'm not sure how to recognize it when I find it... will I come out with it, wear it on a chain looped through a soft part of my flesh, make it jingle as a tease?"

The narrator soon gets married and has a daughter, but even his new family life disappoints. Reading at night to his daughter, the child complains: "I can't recognize your voice. I can recognize only Mommy's.... Why don't you read to the turtle?" She means a pet reptile named Mystic, another signifier joining previous animal-signifiers to suggest a less-than-human state of being in the world. The narrator still feels fundamentally detached, rejected or lost, especially now with regard to his new family. Professionally, when he takes on a job “in a divided city,” he feels "cut off from the key people at the company." No matter what "other side" he arrives at, he never actually finds himself. The narrator never discovers a place where he belongs in any authentic and positive way.

Towards the end of the novel, the prose shifts gears slightly, into the present tense, signifying both a closer adherence to the here-and-now as well as a deeper longing for freedom from one's stultifying past. The narrator enters a dream-like state in which he envisions moving to another planet: "I look into the void and see clouds, like those of water vapor. Apparently, a human can float in them and breathe.... When we arrive on the planet, the landscape is alien.... I look across the empty land.... The animals are dark, bearded and large...unlike the monkeys on Earth." The planet may be new but the “bearded and large” animals are not different from the gorillas that his mother had once admired. This is another hint of the private hell that the narrator cannot seem to break free from, such that even in yearning for escape to a better existence, that surreally envisioned life has already been poisoned by the first. Any change in location ultimately fails to matter, even if one could move to another galaxy.

When alone with his family, he is instructed to tell a "boring story"; it is an ironically metaphysical and self-reflexive nod, perhaps, to the overall "story" of the narrator's life told thus far. But he is quickly forced to abandon his marital bed, where his daughter has squeezed in, for the couch. He describes the adjustment: "My body doesn't fit.... I'm not going to fall asleep. It's not the worst day, or night, of my life, but it's close." The final episode that follows is of the narrator spotting Venus in the sky: "I'm glad I've seen Venus...blotting out everything else...with unimaginable brightness." But the earlier description—“It’s not the worst day…but it’s close.”—is the existential chord that resounds most convincingly in the end, despite the narrator's last-ditched effort at conjuring up a sense of hopefulness. Guess and Check finally presents a splintered tragedy whose poetic and surreal elements make up for the absence of highs and lows in the protagonist's life. The book is a pyrrhic literary achievement for elegantly elevating a life that seems – or reads, for all intents and purposes, as if it were – not worth celebrating.


Cyril Wong is a poet and fictionist in Singapore. He may be found at cyrilwong.wordpress.com.