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Book Review: Inferno

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel
Written by Eileen Myles
O/R Books, 2010
ISBN 978193528034

Inferno Cover 1Eileen Myles’ Inferno is a fictionalized memoir, chronicling the author’s life as a poet.  Rather than simply plotting the high points in her poetic career, the novel’s arc tracks existential developments within Myles’ life and interrelated literary work. She begins with the initial hell of her structured, young life, dampening her creative intuitions.  The novel progresses into a purgatory of uncertainty as she first begins writing and sharing her work.  Finally, heaven appears during blips in her life when she comes out as a lesbian, and her poetry is infused with a sense of purpose and love.  These events unfold without regard to chronological order, and the reader quickly realizes that this particular poet’s life is wrought with constant flux.  Myles’ life includes events ranging from reading tours through Europe, to picking apples in rural upstate New York for beer money, and everything in between.  The prose reflects this fragmentary existentialist journey.  Portions of the novel utilize traditional grammatical conventions, but Myles often abandons proper syntax to generate a particular dramatic impact on the reader.  Stylistically, there is a reason she calls this “a poet’s novel.”  The story has a distinctive arc, but the inventive prose itself is sometimes the star of Myles’ book—especially in the purgatory chapters, as there is less forward momentum to push the story along during this section.

Eileen Myles

Throughout some of the novel, the reader is presented with run-on sentences iconic of modernist stream of consciousness writing.  While this style of writing gives a sense of the busy, multi-faceted way the human mind works, Myles augments her long sentences with fragmented chunks.  These chunks are used sparingly, and have tremendous dramatic effect on the reader.  After reading countless pages awash in lengthy digressions, the sudden advent of short fragments offers weighty pauses at key moments in the book.  Instances of this style are indeed the primary points of interest during the purgatory passages, which make up a huge chunk of the book. Purgatory drags, and part of it reads like pages from a bland encyclopedic entry—the sentences become longer and the action is diminished to a few spikes of interest amid diatribes about the struggles of poetry.  Though, this may be by design, since purgatory is supposed to be a bittersweet zone—neither heaven nor hell, endless in its banality.  The effect is interesting, though it becomes frustrating for the reader at times.
Inferno Cover 2This isn’t to say that most of the story is frustrating, or that well-crafted language and interesting syntax are the only reason to grab this book.  Myles’ Inferno delves into a number of deep issues embedded in the playfully poetic prose.  Even if you’re unfamiliar with Myles’ work, the story resonates on deeper levels than mere autobiography.  She discusses situations and emotions universal to the human experience.  Though her own hellish forays, dragging purgatory, and eventual heaven do not highlight events germane to every single reader, the underlying struggle to adapt, learn, and attain bliss are something we all recognize.

I met Myles at a reading in in late 2011, and she explained that the original manuscript didn’t place hell, purgatory, and heaven in linear succession—partially because she wanted to do something different and unexpected.  She later realized that this progression suited the story better and made for more interesting readership.  While the progression through the Divine Comedy is classic and perhaps “expected,” it’s well-worn for a reason.  In its final, edited format, with the parts moving from agony to bliss, the flow is seamless and the final page a relief.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll just note that the happy ending isn’t trite, and a few notes of wonder and grief help the malcontents among us find equal relief in the concluding pages.  A few passages are tough to push through, but most of this novel is a delight.  It’s well-crafted, and the distinctive voice shifts to complement the mood of each section.  Whether you prefer poetry or fiction, you’ll find something good in Eileen Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel.

Review by James R. Gapinski
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