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Surreal States of Mind

David Ohle’s 1972 cult novel Motorman has been acknowledged as an underground primer by such experimental authors as Ben Marcus, who wrote the introduction to the new 2004 reprint, and Shelley Jackson. The exuberantly surreal narrative defies synopsis. Introduced with an epigraph from the vertiginous artist M.C. Escher, the novel is set in a dystopian netherworld distinguished by multiple, sometimes government-commissioned, suns and moons, but it does reflect on pressing questions of surveillance, violence and alienation resonant throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The astonishing, amusing and disturbing language evokes the prose of William Burroughs, an author whom Ohle (who teaches at the University of Kansas) both studied and befriended.

In the long-awaited Motorman sequel, The Age of Sinatra, protagonist Moldenke, a veteran of “the mock War” who has four additional sheep’s hearts but just one lung, finds himself aboard the Titanic with only the most rudimentary memories after a recent “Forgetting.” Within this alternate version of the sinking ship, he encounters artists, inventors, mutant amphibian “neutrodynes” and even his own mother, famous as the creator of edible money. Ohle’s futuristic fantasia alters every anatomic, historic and gastronomic anchor of our reality. Bodies are wildly deformed, and corpses known as “necronauts” or “stinkers” are reanimated. Rather than chew stone picks as in Motorman, Sinatra’s characters get high by smoking human hair. They ingest human glands, along with other equally nauseating victuals. Nostalgic stories of President “Kenny” and his infamous gunman, known only by his obscured middle name “Arvey,” cast strange shadows over many of the characters. The sitting President Ratt uses a manifesto to manipulate the law and maintain order. As fears circulate of another impending “Forgetting,” one political faction implicates the president’s radio broadcasts in the collective amnesia. Moldenke undergoes a strange physical transformation and becomes involved in a political assassination.

Opening with quotations from Plato and Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, Age of Sinatra is far more consumed with catastrophe than Motorman. The novel advances an anxious investigation into how changes to memories and bodies can affect the state of a mind or the mind of a state. Although much has changed from the age of Nixon to the age of Bush the Younger, Age of Sinatra demonstrates that Ohle continues to construct an intoxicatingly vivid and demented world that is both reflective and revolutionary.

MOTORMAN | By DAVID OHLE | 3rd Bed | 138 pages | $12 softcover

THE AGE OF SINATRA | By DAVID OHLE | Soft Skull Press | 169 pages | $12 softcover

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