“Book Review: Newer Testaments”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
An innovative existential novel told through hallucinatory poetics
Philip Brunetti’s first novel, Newer Testaments, is a risk-taking, nonlinear narrative that reads like a prose poem. It is about exploring the limits of disorder in one’s consciousness while still hanging on to a sense of self. And it does it well.
The narrator spends time in a place he calls the Facility, ostensibly to treat his mental illness, though the term “mental illness” is never used, nor does he discuss diagnoses or treatments. After he leaves the Facility, he does not return to his former life; his wife leaves him and he continues on a floridly unbalanced path.
The first step? Go out on a mission to find twelve disciples. “I didn’t know why I had to do this exactly. It was some transmission I was receiving or had received from Simon,” he claims. Later, though, it seems that this Simon will keep the identities of the 12 disciples secret and that the narrator may never have the opportunity to know them all. “I didn’t even know for sure if I was one of the 12,” he admits.
The characters we encounter—John Baptist, Jesus Girl—do not often have clearly stated goals, so it is hard to say that their activities are proper “pursuits.” But despite all of their aimlessness, they are quite active.
Many of their activities could be loosely described as primarily Christian, especially in the Gnostic sense, insofar as the characters are depicted as trapped in a hellish, disorienting world and as seeking to liberate themselves through esoteric knowledge. Sometimes a person goes “into the demonic on purpose” for the sake of “finding the lost, the forsaken, and the fallen.” Here, blasphemy may not intend to express a literal truth but instead to provide a way of entering “the carcass of a dead society” and to explore it through “hypnotic lyricism and cadence.” The advanced oddities combined with this lyrical prose really make this novel memorable and affecting.
Occasionally, the narrator makes vaguely political complaints like “the Walmarts were a cancer,” but far more commonly, the narrative centers on the journey of individual consciousness: deliberately provoking altered states and reestablishing a sense of reality. We human travelers can “agree to disagree” because each of us knows “death for a different reason…life for a different reason.”
Will the reader glean spiritual insights from Newer Testaments? It depends how much effort they put in. There may not be any fixed meanings by which a reader can reach the “correct” or “incorrect” interpretation, but if they’re willing to work, our answers can be found. The author doesn’t convey simple formulas or principles, and there are many intentionally confusing statements. (The main character is an “unreliable narrator” if ever there was one.)
Instead, insofar as this is a type of prose poetry, various meanings emerge slowly and intelligently. Meanings emerge from passages in which the narrator contemplates, “the drastic images of life against death, death against life. The usual rigmarole that needed to be exploded and re-exploded into bent stanzas of chance and determinism.” Only a “holy noble savage-savant of instinct and illumination” could reconcile these opposites, “according in the discord, up on the mountaintop that is the gutter.”
What kind of expedition is this? Weird, fearless, intuitive and counterintuitive slipstream. A preface by Dave Weber claims tongue-in-cheek that he has not read the book, that “no one else will either,” and that no one will read his preface, which he therefore calls an “antiface.” In Weber’s view, the power of this type of writing lies not in its anticipated level of popularity but in its “necessary and mysterious dark-matter magic for the world.”
If you seek language that achieves something alchemical—understanding that the result is designed to be more provocative than pleasing—Newer Testaments could be an eye-opening experience for you.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Category: Literary fiction
Paperback: 204 pages
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