REVIEW: Basal Ganglia by Matthew Revert

The partitions of the brain, and the demarcations that separate the boundaries of influence, can often appear as arbitrary as phrenology due to the interconnectedness of the brain’s neutral functions. Much in the same way,

within Matthew Revert’s <em>Basal Ganglia</em>, we discover that love lacks true description and our attempts at charting its topography are nebulously linked in countless directions

. This is a book that can be read in multiple ways — allegory, parable, or confession being just a few.

As Iain M. Banks once wrote: “Memories are interpretations, not truths,” remembrance itself is suspect as we navigate the ill-fated love of Basal Ganglia’s main characters, Rollo and Ingrid. Rollo, whose name is inspired by the founder of the first Viking principality, stakes out a claim inside a pillow fortress of cerebral bulwarks, even though he’s the lost memory of his own name. He wanders the maze Rollo and Ingrid constructed, an Eden titled by brain functions such as the Occipital Lobes and Medulla Shaft. Like Adam, he is lonely. Unfortunately for him, his Eve is a strange one. “Unlike Rollo, Ingrid remembers her name. Although unvoiced, its memory survives in writing… The death of memory within Rollo calls toward what little memory Ingrid still has, wishing to consume her morsels of identity, rendering both he and she empty.” Their relationship has suffered the alkaline of familiarity. They are slaves to routine; Rollo stuffs pillows daily and Ingrid writes unsent letters to Rollo. The dissonance of their experience, rooted in their inability to communicate, intimates at the chasm that separates them from each other,

Revert blurs the lines between emotion and biochemistry, linguistics and desire, to weave a diction unnervingly arcane and empathetic.

“She wants to explore every possible sequence of words. She wants to know how words relate to one another. If words exist in conflict, she wants to observe the conflict. Most of Ingrid’s words, in one way or another, find their way toward Rollo… She seeks honesty with her words and often feels guilt at the contempt they reveal.” In their bastion, a rot has poisoned their connection. By severing themselves from the external world, they’ve both escaped definition and been defined by the thing they sought to flee.

“This was more than a structure that Rollo sought refuge in. This was a manifestation of all Rollo was. He had erected his own heart and invited her inside.” Only, his ‘heart’ provides little solace for Ingrid, a Xanadu of Solitude without any superpowers or long-lost extraterrestrial Fathers inside. Instead, she finds herself isolated and unable to express her alienation. They both know something is wrong and are suffering from something akin to a Parkinson’s of love, feeling the hunger, unable to act on it. Their emotional pallidums release too many inhibitory signals. “Unless they are eating or sleeping, Rollo and Ingrid never occupy the same place. The fort has dictated the two should exist in separation, as though unified presence will invite discord… Both share the same birthday. Neither remembers when that is.”

The pacing throughout is chaotically methodic and frenetically contemplative. In terms of action, most of it is internal, a stream of thoughts as convoluted and intricate as any married/warring couple.

Revert builds mini-fortresses of personality within both Rollo and Ingrid as they rail against each other, frayed and wrought by insecurities.

Ingrid drowns herself in a fascination with “concentric circles” which leads her to explore the possibility of surgically fixing their decrepit bond. She decides to have a baby, stitched together from “material of the highest quality… used in the fort’s construction and maintenance.” She tells Rollo she “will knit them into a baby. Our baby,” and she names him, “A red circle within a red circle within a red circle.” This is not just the meeting of sperm and ovule, but a metaphysical epiphany. She wants to give the baby a “name that fights verbalization, but a name that encapsulates everything a name seeks.”

Unfortunately, a circle is as far as you can get from a bridge, and both find themselves on orbits that never quite meet until a catastrophic collision sunders their realities. Ingrid’s maternal fears cause her to hide the child from Rollo lest he hurt him, while Rollo in turns acts with maniacal abandon in his desire to see the baby. They’re consumed by a murderous zeal, a “detuned instrument Ingrid does not want to hear.” Love demands nothing less than total sacrifice, a decimation of the self, a destruction of everything one holds dear. “Rollo is prepared to undo his life’s work if it means finding something which represents unity between he and Ingrid. He will, if the situation requires it, tear away every blanket, stripping the fort bare of its illusion, exposing whatever resides at its core.”

The core of the brain is arguably the basal ganglia. But what is the basal ganglia of love?

Is love, in fact, a neurological disorder paralyzing motion? Matthew Revert’s Basal Ganglia shares many of the themes of another classic, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both are about domestic illusions, stitched babies, and the symptomatically terrible acts committed in the name of love. Both cry for impossible redemption. They are fascinating treatises and expressions of an inquiry that has escaped explication for as long as people have chased one another in an attempt at “home-making.” Revert’s unique narrative projects the nuclei of brain cells onto the canvas of an ontological parturition. We’d like to think we’re watching a pregnancy gone awry until we realize our own basal ganglias are tingling and our bellies are swelling.

It’s then we realize that Revert has built a fortress around us and we are all lost within the circles and circles and circles of his making.

Basal Ganglia

by Matthew Revert

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