A Wild, Caustic Satire Packed With the Absurd
If you read “Finnegans Wake” for the off-color puns; if you take to Flann O’Brien’s satirical novels as happily as a pup going for a morning walk; if, like Aunt Ada Doom in Stella Gibbons’s “Cold Comfort Farm,” you suspect you saw something nasty in the woodshed; if, like J.P. Donleavy, you’d like to decompose when you die in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs of Dublin; if you sometimes wish you were an extra in John Gay’s raucous “The Beggar’s Opera,” then Guillermo Stitch’s new novel, “Lake of Urine,” is for you.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of ifs. Can’t I also have, one might ask, characters I can identify with, a tendon of plot and the consoling sense that I’m a moral and high-minded person? Not here, no. “Lake of Urine” offers instead strange harbingers, offbeat mental exfoliations, subterranean impulses, verbal ambuscades and warty, warty manifestations of joy, wit and lust.
Two main characters in Stitch’s novel are Urine and Noranbole Wakeling, sisters around whom young men lurk. Where is this novel set? It feels vaguely like Ireland. When is it set? That’s hard to say. People write with quills and drive stagecoaches and tramp through more mud than Warren Beatty does in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Yet they also have USB ports and Facebook.
One character learns about the internet and cries, “Why, this’ll be an end to tyranny! The technological embodiment of the democratic will of the people!”
Urine is sensitive and lovely — and of gladiatorial disposition. Woe to men who aim to woo her. One arrives for a date to find that she has erected a huge wicker structure on a hilltop that spells out his name alongside a snippet of language that can’t be printed here. Then she sets it, and his effigy, alight.
We learn about “the time she garroted Timothy Spencer’s pony because he had been sitting on it when he had glanced at the hem of her frock.” Urine destroys one suitor’s larder of winter pickles by slipping notes listing his flaws into each of the 400 jars, then resealing them with glue. This was unusually cruel, Stitch writes, “because everybody knows how poor Larry loves his winter pickles.”
When a fellow named Lance’s parents ask her to share a pitcher of lemonade with their son at the county fair, she sets the couple on fire.
We move from Urine — the novel always finds a way back her — to take in other vistas. One of Noranbole’s suitors, Bernard, discovers that he is so preternaturally talented at flipping meat patties that people weep openly when they witness him in action. Bernard enters a major patty-flipping competition. About Bernard’s signature move, one commentator says — here I imagine Howard Cosell’s voice — “Did you say the double helix overhand patty flex and dismount?” His press booth partner replies, “Yes, Phil, I did.” The first asks: “As a matter of fact, nobody’s ever survived the double helix overhand patty flex and dismount, have they?”
The competition gets better: “A beautifully executed helicoidal lunge!” After Bernard has won and is up on the dais, a woman shrieks, “That is not the leg hair of an ordinary man! See how it undulates!” It’s not hard to mentally summon Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat.
Stitch has more fun than a writer should be allowed to have. This is probably the place to say that Guillermo Stitch is a pseudonym. The author lives in Spain and has written a previous novel, “Literature” (2018), a dystopian narrative about a world in which literature is illegal. I tried to get into it but could not, quite — the action seemed forced — though I may well return.
Nothing about “Lake of Urine” seems forced. Every character who wanders though it is, to use Primo Levi’s words, “as disheveled and bristly as a cat returning from a rooftop jamboree.”
The characters include Mimi Tourette, Tilly Bumpus, Rose Flimsy, Mr. Flucker, Ms. Titterton and a mule named Lepidopter. Noranbole ends up running an international business concern in the big city. Her vision: the first Gothic conglomerate, with “an exorcist on the board, a healthy respect for white witchcraft at all levels, an annual séance.”
You can open this novel anywhere and find lines like: “He is so disgusting it makes you wonder about his poo”; “he considered the raccoon to be the least susceptible of all animals to moral instruction”; “Feeding off her elan vital like a yeast infection”; “in the space of a few months we got the ‘wheel,’ eggs and the Awkward Silence.”
At his dinner parties, one man makes the practice of always serving the angriest person first and the tallest second, “followed by the most frequently jilted, the freckliest, the rudest and so on. The most sarcastic dinner guest should be the last served and should make a remark. Ideally, there would then follow a devotional singalong.”
Stitch’s novel takes its title from a project to measure the depth of a lake. A long piece of string is involved. So is a boat. So is Urine, covered in goose fat and beaver skins. So is a big rock.
The man with the string is this novel’s first narrator. Here are his first words to us, and they comprise an opening as promising as any I’ve read this year:
If anybody tells you this story isn’t true they are lying. It is a true story; I am lying if it isn’t, and I don’t lie.
It’s the story of me and Ms. Emma Wakeling, and the winter I was holed up with her and her two girls, Noranbole and Urine.
What a winter! It was the deepest we had ever known, and I am uniquely qualified to say this because I know exactly how deep it was — I measured it with a piece of string and there hasn’t been as deep a winter since.
That winter was so bitingly cold and full of wolves that we could only get so far from the house without freezing or getting picked off. You see that house down there by the river? The Fleming house. That’s as far as any of us got.
Stitch flicks his blade around all the important things in life, isolating absurdities, nicking arteries. He deflates pretension at every turn. He throws images like tarot cards. He’s a caustic humorist with serious intent. His novel invites you to view the world as fundamentally absurd and usually awful, but also to recognize that laughter is a mighty, and cleansing, recompense.
As if made for our moment, “Lake of Urine” imparts a sense of old ways collapsing, and of men and women adjusting to brute new realities. One character says about a burning farmhouse, in lines that echo as if across a crevasse: “Take a good look, my dear. A historic moment — you can tell your grandchildren how you watched the old morality disappear one night.”
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