Upon death, many interesting things happen to bodies. For one, the illusion of a unified organism shatters, and the many colonies of microbial and fungal life inside of us spiral out of control, consuming the very host form as much as possible while other living organisms of one sort or another also engage in consumption. Truly, the body in death, is a vibrant, living, and life-affirming thing for everyone but other humans. Also, whatever spirit forms that may arise, whatever eternity of us that might, possibly, endure, regardless of religious belief, the cosmos is mostly indifferent to us, and it will happen in good time when it happens and there is little point rising to meet it.
Imagine, if you have a moment, a man who meets all the different versions of himself as his material body and living essence will transform through various forms to become, eventually, a terrible, spooky god of doom and ill portent. More to the point, the man, driven by his own will to chase the dream of a hidden and higher reality, abandons his life to pursue the transformation that he feels is imminent. All the while, and in nearly every form of his reality, he does not realize the face of his own daughter, her name, or anything about her. He travels forward and backward in time, and he is always failing to see everything that he will become, even as he encounters all the versions of self.
There is lovely, grotesque set-dressing, absolutely, with natural robots that are gods without seeming to be aware of that distinction, like giant embodiments of single-cellular life forms playing out their natural processes on a large scale, surrounded by worshippers. There are children abandoned who transform into rabbit girls and pigeon girls – verminous beggars of the urban landscape who run wild and fight and steal and receive the alms and protection of the city’s holy supplicants. The city, Votu, exists in a kind of in-between time state. There are passageways backwards and forwards, and ways of erasing memories, and characters and narration run up and down these pathways, learning what they learn and meeting whom they meet. Early in the text, a visual chart is sketched out explaining how time works during the novel, and I found myself flipping back to the chart to understand the text, which was so rich and lovely and dense, it was easy to get lost without a map. Our point of view characters were mostly lost, and few guideposts seemed present; thank imp for a chart!
The different transformed versions of a single life exist as what is called “sarkoforms” on the path of incarnation of the flesh, as the celebrant will transform over time through all versions of himself, until reaching his final form: The Bird of Ill Omen.
With work this dense, and this rich, it takes some thought to narrow down what I think about when I think about the book. The Bird of Ill Omen, a god of doom and decay, soars over the text like a vulture, ruination following the flutter of his wings. Eventually, the hero of the novel will be transformed piece by piece into this ominous god. The god gazes on curiously throughout the novel, guiding his ancient self into his immortal self, perhaps, or perhaps only observing from afar, having accidentally “met” himself in a prior incarnation. You see, if it is already part of the timeless reality, there is no reason to chase the rabbit girls or pigeon girls or hurry or scurry to such a gloomy transformation. It will come, regardless. The god is mostly indifferent of explanations, operating like a spectral ghost of doom that clouds the beauty and imaginative world-building and wordplay.
There is always so much happening inside a Cisco novel; truly, experience is the only way to appreciate what I mean. I find this is not my favorite of his books, but even a lesser Cisco novel is worthy of deep consideration and study. I wonder, at times, if I am reading a meta-text about not only life and death and the rushing towards a spiritual transformation that is ultimately futile, but if I am reading about reading and writing and language, which is to say that the end will come and racing towards it loses all the beauty and brash clanging and sexual frenzy of Votu, itself, where words even seem to transform from one stage of meaning to another, and life is a series of transformations and even death is a series of transformations. Celebrate this, perhaps, and do not scurry along to the finish. It will come when it comes. Lay a while in the temple of the natural robot, where life’s oldest impulses of sensuality and music and dance spill out in waves, where the bodies, themselves, transform in death through sarkoforms towards a higher purpose that is not only beyond our understanding, but it doesn’t really matter if we understand the higher purpose for it will be there in good time.
Dense, rich, evocative prose with layers upon layers of meaning, like Cisco novels, require close study, and in this book, I feel I need another read through in a while, and perhaps another, until I see the writing on the page as what it is meant to be. I have read only the first iteration of the text. I have not reached the sarkoforms of the text. I have seen the God and felt it peeking through the lines, but I, a celebrant of this text, have only just begun to comprehend the mystery of all the read throughs. Perhaps in another read-through, I will be dancing to the music of the language. Perhaps in another I will be uninspired, robotic and methodical, but cultivating that sound in the living plant of the text. Perhaps, in the end, I will see the Bird of Ill Omen, in the face, and I will know that without me, who is eternal beyond the text, the iteration and exasperations of DeKlend are impossible, for his journey requires the breath of me to complete.
Beautiful images, though, and do read this book. I believe my favorite fabulist image was the garden of living sound plants, which vibrate to remain alive. If touched and stilled, then dead in an instant. They were tended by a peaceful giant robot more grotesque than anything Miyazaki-inspired. A frightening image, but a fascinating scene that does not frighten even the pigeon girl that finds it. The vibration is the living matter. The activity and race of the runners through the orchards of the temples, there. Life as a kind of hum in the blood, a microscopic flowering hum, that demi-gods must tend at the halls of time.