The Unyielding Sea: Genoa by Paul Metcalf
Though first published fifty years ago, Paul Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders can fit easily into a genre conversation that feels very current. If we’re going by traditional genre constraints and definitions, it is one of those experimental texts that’s both everything and nothing — called a novel, written with the first person voice of a fictional narrator, yet hardly telling a story at all; instead, it wrestles with a constant barrage of references and quotes, a Montagnian display of a mind searching on the page. Through the first couple of chapters, I was content to read it as a genre exercise, analyzing it’s hybridity, trying to trace the moments where the narrator’s back story shifts into a riff on a literary quote, decipher the ratio of imagined to autobiographical to researched. What’s the game here? Thankfully, the desire to define or quantify what was happening on the page soon slipped away.
Any great book — and yes, Genoa is emphatically great — transcends the tricks in how it was made. It’s hard to explain the unique power of what Metcalf has written; better, perhaps, to simply acknowledge that something powerful is happening. Case in point: I seem to have settled on writing whoa in the margins of many pages. And then, once: this is like Gilead on bad acid. Truth be told, though it wears its influences proudly, Genoa is unlike anything I’ve ever read, Metcalf was the great-grandson of Herman Melville, and that lineage, the weight of Melville’s ghost, is all over the narrative, along with many other literary and historical references, until the book becomes something of a modern Greek chorus.
Almost all of the present-tense action of the story takes place in the attic of an old house in Indianapolis where Michael Mills, the narrator, sits at his desk, reads, paces, remembers. That’s it. His children are downstairs. At a certain point his wife comes home. The narrative builds through fragmented memories to tell the story of Michael’s deeply troubled brother Carl. But as much as it is about Carl’s life and Michael’s relationship to it, it’s about Herman Melville’s life and writing, the diaries and letters of Columbus, and what it all means to Michael. It is also about the wonders, pleasures, and terrors of the human body, Michael often quoting from an anatomy textbook. How do these strands relate? Only in that Metcalf smashes them together. They are all born from one mind attempting to understand something about what it means to be alive in this world. Above all, Genoa is a reckoning.
Metcalf doesn’t lean on one central metaphor. Instead, everything is metaphor; each image in each book Michael’s reads can be a portal to new meaning. A quote from Moby Dick about the anatomy of a sperm whale — “Oh man! Admire and model thyself after the whale!” — transitions without explanation into a memory of Carl’s body — “Carl the wrestler fades, and his huge head approaches, blocking the sun” — and so Carl becomes Michael’s white whale: taunting, giant, submerged. Pages later, Michael’s act of thinking in his attic becomes a ship’s voyage, becomes an ejaculation as described in a textbook:
“I step back from the desk, gaining my sea-legs. I am braced, with one hand on the chimney. The house arches and shudders — an inverted hull, with kelson aloft against the weather. and the human sperm enters a reservoir, low in oxygen — an thence to the vas deferens, in the lowest, coolest scrotal area…”
At first, it’s difficult to find steady footing in Michael’s story when Metcalf will up and leave it, sometimes mid-sentence, to drop into a comparison of Melville and Columbus as fathers, or a riff on cannibalism and the nature of torture. I don’t think it’s an accident that a book so obsessed with voyages and storms, a book so tied to a customs inspector who remembered his own journeys and conjured up a character like Ahab, mimics a crashing, unyielding sea. As Metcalf himself would put it, the reader needs to get her sea-legs. But once you reconcile yourself to the waves, there is magic to be found. It’s a story about everything — life, death, fear, danger, fatherhood, legacy, the margins of America and the heart of it, too. A man in an old house in Indianapolis thinking, reading and remembering his way through a storm, can take us back centuries, to the lives of voyagers both historical and fictional, while also honing in on the significance of every tiniest motion, every bone in a body.
Early in the book, Metcalf writes:
“…for Melville, space and time are one. Later, he writes: Fusing with the amnion, becoming the amnion, turning all to gray and white, I am no longer Michael, but everyone — a particle in an explosion — all time and space — and therefore nothing.”
As much as any, these two sentences stick out as potential fragments of mission statement, giving a nod toward how to read the book without being prescriptive. This is a place where beginnings and endings are permeable, where what is read, what is imagined, and what is lived weave into a writer’s consciousness and can be channeled into something ineffable yet undeniably greater than the sum of its parts. Genoa is, indeed, a world of wonder.
by Paul Metcalf