Notes from the New Orleans Underground: Michael Zell’s ERRATA
By Michael Zell
Lavender Ink Press
Reviewed by Erik Vande Stouwe
The notion of a New Orleans underground might seem redundant—perhaps even tongue-in-cheek—bringing forth the fact that the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground was, after all, really still well above sea level. In his debut novel, Errata, Michael Zell does not take any pains to disguise the superterranean moral dirt of 1984 New Orleans, saturated as it was with sadistically brutal law enforcement, ostentatious bribery, and rapacious real estate development. The narrator, a taxi driver named Raymond Russell whose journal entries comprise the book, elucidates sinister machinations of urban power with the barroom eagerness of a very lonely man, and then, as if to underscore that such historicizing is not at all the point, the reader is cast back into arid cogitation.
No doubt the tone of Russell’s thoughts has infected my own. Errata is a short novel, but in the manner that certain trees will glow for nights after collapse, fired by the bacterial metabolism of their erstwhile flesh, so too does Errata cast an eerie pallor over the reader’s quotidian affairs for days to follow. It is red flame of the Pequod’s try-works, and Zell’s novel, aptly titled Errata, may be read as an attempt to digest a whale of a corpus.
Indeed, there is a ghastly sacrifice beneath Errata, a tome that justifies the endnotes. In the manner of Kinbote’s relationship with the ill-fated John Shade, Louisiana citizens profess on their flag a parasitical relationship to the blood of a great Pelican. Ornithology has intersected theology for millennia, but the sacrificial blood of Errata is hardly innocent. Raymond Russell finds the very letters of his writing writhing as bacteria under the lens, bent on purgatorial somersaults from their malcharistic inspiration.
The guilty contortions of Errata’s language are not blasted pluperfect sculptures (however plutonically pluvian). Instead, they are a continual (perhaps infinite) process of blood-letting and alimentation by dint of which the text transmutes. “The act of rereading (what with harsh critiquing and thoughts of mortification while trying to wrestle loose tangled disciples on the page) appears to cause literal wounds to the text itself, mortal cuts that lay the groundwork for regeneration,” Zell/Russell writes.
I recently had the rare opportunity to discuss this fancy of mine with the writer himself. I found Mr. Zell a long way from home in a city that has thus far escaped the plagues of orthography. Though an urban mover-and-shaker, Zell has been known also for his Pynchonesque reclusivity, and my encounter with him in this latter state certainly diminished his famous loquacity. After several unsuccessful attempts at an interview, I trapped the writer on the sort of flimsy elevated throne used by Andean shoe-shiners. The limpiabotas was habitually efficient, but I had given him in advance to understand that an uncharacteristically slow session would earn him a better propina than the writer’s usual centimos. Zell travels under the pseudonym Chichikov, a rather unsubtle homage to a master of subtlety, though many local señoritas, perhaps crippled by regional phonetics, refer to him as Chicha Chicharra.
We talked of Gogol and his influence on Errata, and I was surprised to learn that the peripatetic historicizing I had begun this review by criticizing was inspired by the cut dry-ice narration of Dead Souls, which manages to be simultaneously expansive and spare, chatty and tight-lipped. Such is the work of a writer who has mastered the chiseled boundaries of the human soul and filed them down to his liking.
Zell convinced me to turn my review’s focus away from grotesque ruminations, and closer to the “beating of a loving heart … the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to.” Zell did not quote Vladimir Nabokov, but he did send me looking in that direction, referring to him repeatedly and cryptically as Vivian Bloodmark. Throughout this discussion, though he is neither fat nor skinny, he produced small to medium-large trozos of meat from the folds of his incongruous shapka, and, just as his novel is written “in the pause of chimes,” spoke sparingly between chews. I left satisfied with the glow of a traveler on his journey’s start, ready to change direction and chase the novel’s core of sentimentality, which I had hitherto so scrupulously avoided noticing. As Zell/Chichikov mounted his grey horse, one half of one boot still unshined, he told me to think about the women of Errata, neglected as they have been by traditional scholarship.
Eve and Hannah, the book’s doomed heroines, perhaps mirror one another. “All their blacklashes bitewashed,” as one discerning reader observed, the two are sidelined by the brash narrator into a sad, desperate story. Nevertheless, Zell allows us to see with a painfully muted clarity la bailarina que da vueltas sobre la punta de un grito. As Lolita flees Humbert Humbert to Alaska, so, in New Orleanian fashion, Hannah (perhaps) flees to Cuba, though we are not sure which man is her Humbert. It is for these characters that Raymond Russell has stuffed his notebooks full of “sentimental weeds,” perhaps a reminder of Humbert’s story with its “bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright green flies.” I choose Nabokov for demonstration because he shares with Zell a similarly brutal approach to sentimentality. Though heretically critical of “old Dusty” for his “wastelands of literary platitudes,” he takes no pains to avoid the most painfully “novelistic” developments in his own work.
Zell takes Nabokov’s guilty peddling and brings it to the genre of noir. The result is of course insomniacal ravings, haunted women in cocktail dresses, and precipitous coincidences that the plot rides like worn carousel horses. I believe, however, that his purpose is as Nabokov’s. Errata shows us a house of books, literally, as a projected dream of Eve, and as the actual state of Raymond Russell’s dilapidated abode, collapsing into the New Orleans swamp. I quote Umberto Eco on the cliché:
Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés moves us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion . . . Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.
Zell’s house of literature is no sprawling Borgesian nightmare, but instead a space “small & human” within which the writer-reader can handle genuine emotion with the skepticism, adoration, and disgust with which a seasoned miner handles gold. As the novel’s fourth sentence, “We spring back and forth between two seeming poles, or at least eavesdrop on the one while basking in the other.” Whatever the case, there is a gentle heart beating under the moist floorboards of Errata, whatever our good Raymond Russell screams to drown out the sound.
Michael Zell will be out and about throughout the fall and winter in promotion of his book. Here’s a complete schedule of his appearances:
Oct. 16: Octavia Books
Oct. 17 : Maple St. Books–Healing Center
Oct. 19: Maple St. Books–Esplanade/Bayou St. John
Oct. 22: East Bank Regional Library-Metairie
Oct. 28: Maple Leaf Bar
Nov. 3: Faubourg Marigny Bookshop
Nov. 9: McKeown’s Books (w/ Carolyn Hembree, Ben Kopel, Brad Richard, Anne Marie Rooney, and Geoff Wyss)
Nov. 13: Barrister’s Gallery
Dec. 2: Staple Goods Gallery (w/ Carolyn Hembree, Geoff Munsterman, Niyi Osundare)
Dec. 6: Gold Mine Saloon
Dec. 14: NOMA for Where Y’Art (w/ David Lummis)
 “The ballerina that pirouettes on the point of a scream,” as Octavio Paz would say.