Peter Markus, The Singing Fish, Calamari Press, 2005
Mud is mystical. Mud is creative. Mud is the primordial ooze, a primitive but generative mixture that signals language, love and violence. At least, this is what Peter Markus' The Singing Fish ultimately seems to suggest; and in the end, mud is the perfect symbol for this deeply odd yet compelling book of short fictions. "Us brothers, we love mud," Markus' narrator tells us (5). And the reason soon becomes clear:
When the rain stops drumming down, us brothers, we drop down, onto our hands and knees, down in the mud, and we begin to eat. We eat until our bellies are big with mud. We take what is left of the mud and we make Girl. We start at the bottom and make our way up. Girl's knees are especially muddy. They make us want to stay forever kneeling. (5-6)
Mud both creates and sustains life in The Singing Fish. It may be eaten, or it may be shaped into life, or rendered as language. Given the story's locale, this obsession with the mixture of dirt and water makes perfect sense. After all, Markus' curiously lyrical account of two brothers and one river is ultimately a story about the margin between land and river, that mixed-up liminal space where dirt becomes mud, boy becomes brother, girl becomes cave and father becomes fish.
The Singing Fish is a series of short fictions narrated by one of two "brothers" who live in a house next to a river. The action is in a way governed by the river's affiliation with life, family, violence and creation. In a sense, Markus' short vignettes form an overarching narrative not unlike the river that is at the book's center: always in motion, always in flux, and yet paradoxically static, always returning to the curiously sweet acts of violence that galvanize family relations, and compel the reader into a kind of voyeuristic complicity:
Brother, I said to Brother. You can go first. Brother, I told him, give me your hand. Hold your hand up against this pole. Brother did just what I told. We were brothers—we were each other's voice inside our own heads. This might sting, I warned. And then I raised back that hammer. I drove that rusty nail right through Brother's hand. Brother didn't wince, or flinch with his body, or make with his boy mouth the sound of a brother crying out. (4)
Markus calls on this motif numerous times, almost word for word—and it need hardly be mentioned that "nail through the hand" is a powerful image in the canon of Western culture—but nevertheless, Markus finds ways to grant a new energy to this metaphor, showing how the family relations created in this way can achieve and sustain a deep emotional energy. The two brothers who narrate this story have an emotional, almost telepathic connection that renders them indistinguishable from one another. In "Fish Heads," the brothers tell us that even they are unable to tell:
There was a time when our father, he used to call us brothers Fish Head One and Fish Head Two. Us brothers, we never really knew for sure which of us was which—who was Fish Head One and who was Fish Head Two? (17)
And indeed, this is a question that Markus invites us to consider, but it is ultimately resolved by the sinister yet curiously tender figure of the brothers' father, who in one of many repetitions of this theme, takes both brothers and nails their hands to the telephone pole together, ultimately signaling that there is no hierarchy, no differentiating among them. The pole, perhaps unsurprisingly, is dotted with the heads of fish that the brothers have caught, offering to us the first clue that the river is a margin more mixed-up than we have been led to believe. Later, when the father himself becomes a fish, the boys heave him into the river, where he swims into its depths as they casually cut the heads off his dozens of "fish" young.
Mud is the symbol of the mixed-up taxonomy of The Singing Fish, which resists the kinds of distinctions that conventional narrative insists upon. Man can become fish, and vice versa. People can walk on water and then drown, or drown and then walk on water. Violence has no permanent effect, because time itself seems paradoxically to be on a kind of loop. Each time we return to the moment at which one character "lines up that rusty nail" in preparation to drive it through the hand of another, we sense that The Singing Fish has abandoned the strictly temporal for an oneiric and elliptical repetition that denies that violence has consequences, or that love is impermanent, or that distinctions between land and water, mud and life, fish and man can hold any sway in this curious world. The syncretic potency of the images recalls William Carlos Williams, while the improvisatory and repetitive syntax, like that of Gertrude Stein, reveals that "repetition" is at once inevitable and impossible, like the constantly changing but nevertheless static river that draws the "Brothers" to its margin again and again.
It is true that to read The Singing Fish requires some intestinal fortitude. The graphic scenes of "gutting" fish are rendered curiously more disturbing by the fact that the fish seem to survive the process, able afterwards to escape and "swim across grass and mud" (49). Markus' reminder to the reader ("You, do not think that this is funny") is rendered unnecessary by the disturbing force of images like "the hammer in our father's fist," which reminds us that the violence which constitutes family relations in this book is ominous and disturbing as well as sweet. And the close, telepathic relation between the brothers cannot quite take the edge off of sequences like this one:
Boy, we told Boy. Go fish. Boy took to that muddy river water like he was part dog, part fish. Boy swam back to the river's muddied bank and flopped down dead right there on the shore. Yes, just like a fish. This boy here, Brother said. He is a keeper, Brother said. If you say so, I said to Brother. And then we chopped off this boy's head. (25)
The end result is that Markus has given violence a kind of lyrical energy that feeds on its ability to shock—and the images in this book have marvelously potent staying power as a result. At first glance, The Singing Fish looks intellectual, a kind of "artifice-as-art" postmodernism that distances the reader while engaging with the high-minded sensibilities of the aesthetic avant-garde. But Markus is up to something far more valuable and far more complicated. The Singing Fish is a throwback in the best sense of the word, a book in which symbolic energy and creative force are valued over the empty form and practiced ironic distance that has characterized so much avant-garde work over the past decade. Markus' book is violent, disturbing and at times off-putting. But it is also lovely and compelling, and reminds us that language, like mud, can both create life and sustain it.