No Chaser by Zĕna Kōan
I do not write reviews. Not cinema, not art, not music . . . and certainly not books! This one exception exists primarily to promote an extremely rare and exceptional work of meta-fiction, and I suspect it will also serve to demonstrate why I do not apply my wordsmithery towards the inspection and appraisal of others’ work.
When I am done with a book that truly touches my mind and heart I am so excited to share the experience that I get tongue-tied—the ability to articulate my thoughts gets flambéed by my passion. I’m like that little kid dancing in place because he needs to pee while at the same time pointing to an escaped balloon overhead—emitting an urgency-laced unending stream of Wows!
This novella made its way into my hands at a used book stand on West 4th Street. The cover caught my eye—the subway station pictured happened to be 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, on the F line. Not only was this a stop I had frequently used when I lived in Park Slope, but I thought I had a recollection of using that very same public telephone. It felt serendipitous.
There was no picture of the author, only a short blurb.
Zĕna Kōan is not who you think she is. Her first novel, ‘Shoegum Gumption’, received honorable lack of mention when it was published in 2001. Her stories, initially rejected by numerous literary publications, have also never been reprinted in any anthologies.
That description—and the one dollar price—were the clinchers.
As it turned out, I read all 138 pages that very day.
I found very little reference to the volume online. The listed publisher, Anomaly Works Press NYC, had no reference to the book or author on its webpage. The one very brief review I found, on Kirkus Reviews, had been deleted and I had to travel back through time via the Internet Archives to access it. The unnamed reviewer referred to it simply as a “mystery novella”.
I dare say this slim volume is far more than a mere mystery. It is also a geographic puzzle, a literary collage, a word riddle—and significantly, a mathematical memory game.
(The labyrinthian works of Jorge Luis Borges do come to mind—but they exit as quickly as they arrive.)
The Prologue quickly sets a cinematic film noir atmosphere—rainy street reflections, venetian blind shadows, silhouettes in windows, a man leaning against a building smoking a cigarette.
A character named Zĕna Kōan (yep) is a secretary in Detective Hanguer’s office in Lower Manhattan. She is sitting back in her chair, legs up on the desk, crossed, sexy, reading Washington Irving’s “A History In New York.” Her eyes catch on the phrase It Was A Dark And Stormy Night when the phone rings.
Apparently one of the remaining prop sleds used in the film “Citizen Kane” has been stolen from Sotheby’s.
Lieutenant Bradshaw of the NYPD needs street level info and knows that Detective Hanguer always has his finger on that urban pulse.
“When he gets back to the office please have Cliff give me a call, okay Zee-Kay? We’ve codenamed it Operation Rosepetal.”
“Sure Lieutenant. You know we always do what we can to help you NYPDs”. (pronounced nigh-pids)
The Prologue ends with a conversation in which Detective Hanguer explains to Zĕna that a quick check with the underworld grapevine has yielded the information that the stolen item is hidden in one of twelve bars somewhere in Manhattan.
The remainder of the book is split into 12 chapters, each named after a drinking establishment.
Admiral Benbow Inn, The Bang Bang Bar, The Broken Stool, El Rancho, The Hog’s Head, Korova, Moe’s Tavern, The Prancing Pony, Rick’s Café Américain, Vardi’s, The Golden Perch, Mullberry Street Bar.
Amidst intricately detailed descriptions of the decors we are privy to the questions Detective Hanguer addresses to one person in each bar—before he moves on to the next. However brief these episodes are, they feel heavy with latent possible clues—and by the end you have an uncanny sense that somewhere among the pages you have traveled you have actually been in the very presence of the sled.
[A musicologist friend to whom I lent the book pointed out that Thelonious Monk’s composition “Straight, No Chaser” is a 12-bar blues.]
The Epilogue arrives on a dark and stormy night, with Detective Hanguer in possession of a cryptogrammic Key to a labyrinth which has 12 possible exits. This phantasmagoric finale drops all the previous chapters into a shaker and presents us with an intoxicatingly original literary cocktail.
Among the ingredients are numerous broken Fourth Walls, the apocalyptic dreams of a hydrophobic bartender on board a hydrogen airship named the Incontinence, a rock band named Excellent Fancy, and a quail in a ginko tree.
It bubbles over with verbal acrobatics—and satisfies like a potent stimulant infused with a salty rim of word play and puns.
I believe this book can boldly pull open the windows of perception—a heady brew that can help the reader unravel greater truths about the world, and themselves. No chaser.
And, as I expected, here I am—dancing in place and pointing at this book that joins the other incredible ones on my shelf—emitting an urgency-laced unending stream of Wows!
© AleXander Hirka 2020. All Rights Reserved.