Review by Rachel Newcombe
Death is a library with all the lights turned off.
–Valencia, James Nulick
An unnamed male protagonist is going to die. But before he dies, we follow him to Valencia, Spain, where he checks into the Hotel Valencia for one week. He brings just a few articles of clothing and some beloved paperback books: The Book of Disquiet edited by Richard Zenith; The Kerrigan/Bonner edition of Ficciones; Bartelby & Co. translated by Jonathan Dunne; and Kafka’s The Complete Stories edited by Nathan Glatzer.
In Valencia (Nine-Banded Books, Oct 2015), the protagonist brings sedatives and a small box of photographs (mostly childhood) that are “rubber-banded together and stored in a cigar box” that he keeps in the hotel nightstand. He has a plan. Commit suicide. But first, through a melancholic joy-tinted lens aided with photographs, he’ll remember his life.
Things come and go, people forget. Time passes over us like a cleansing wave. The beauty of time, if there is such a thing, is that it erases everything. Only when we are erased do we become fully complete. Annihilation is completion. Nothing that was alive truly ever dies. It changes shape, becomes something else. Traces of us remain in the fragments. This is called memory.
A few details are offered at the beginning of Valencia. After a violent, police involved break-up with his boyfriend R., Nulick’s narrator engages in a crack-fueled unprotected sex romp with a man named Jerome, who lives in an apartment complex called Valencia Gardens. Eight days later he receives the news he is HIV-positive. “I’m dying. Such a simple sentence, but it contains worlds.”
There’s a sensuality that embodies Nulick’s writing. Many of his sentences are simple, but not skimpy or hollow; Nulick’s modest sentences contain worlds that will leave you stunned by their beauty. You will go back two and three times and wonder how he arranges, with just a few words, entry into the protagonist’s world, internal and external. Nulick’s writing resists traditional linear narrative; in its place, memories, dreams, and random associations emerge unbound by chronology. Sentences appear like lines from a poem floating on the page, scatterings from the unconscious that linger.
The book is comprised of numerous small chapters accompanied by memorable titles, such as Gherkin, Boy with Gun, Art with a capital A, Milk of Amnesia, and Kafka and I. Each chapter introduces experiences and people, a revisiting of past events by a 42-year-old man about to kill himself. Language is uninhibited and sounds like a patient free associating during an analytic session; Nulick becomes both analyst and analysand, and the reader becomes implicated in his narrative.
Memories are evoked by photos randomly selected from the cigar box. Chapters weave back and forth in time depending on the thoughts stirred by the photo. An early chapter, “Larry Flynt Saved My Life,” charts a first encounter with his father’s 1970s pornography collection and the arousal of a ten-year-old as he looks at beautiful young male bodies. “The things the young men were doing spoke to me, broke open things inside me I didn’t understand.”
A chapter toward the end of the book, “Stanley Kubrick’s Typewriter” reveals background about the protagonist’s fragmented familial constellation, an example of Nulick’s resistance to chronological storytelling. After viewing pictures and remembering his life, the usefulness of photographs is challenged. If I had to select one chapter that was my favorite it’s “Elizabeth and Grand.” Here we glimpse the protagonist’s brief time in Manhattan, 1991, during his junior year of college. Outrageousness marks the alcohol and drug-fueled antics that unfolded during that spring semester. Even though the college has warned students to be on their best behavior, the protagonist fails miserably with this directive. “We were in the greatest city in the world. She opened her legs to us. We went inside and drank and drank some more.”
There are mismatched roommates, encounters with strangers, fellatio, women, and men, grappling with queerness, a Selectric flung out the fourteenth-floor window of an Upper West Side building, and a meeting with a favorite author William the Blind, (William T. Vollmann)—all the hijinks of a young man set loose in New York City. My hunch is this is the chapter where we see Nulick the writer living his protagonist’s questions. “Is it possible to learn how to write? I don’t think so. But I thought it was possible to relearn how to see.”
I try to imagine how Nulick pitched this book to his publisher. Part Dodie Bellamy, part Tom Spanbauer, part Mark Doty, and part Carole Maso. Then I imagined future writers pitching a book and saying, “It’s like James Nulick’s Valencia. Lyrical and genre-resistant, character and plot driven, unconscious storytelling that leads with internal dialogue and feels like narrative poetry. Valencia reads like a post-modern My Dinner with Andre, except this is not a movie and the narrator is talking to himself.
*Recommendation: Read Valencia with a pencil or pen. A third of the way into the book my marginalia included writing on both inside covers along with many index cards bookmarking pages that called for my return. You may also want to jot down the titles of books and authors the protagonist (and most likely Nulick) has read.