Mount Fugue, by JI Daniels. KERNPUNKT Press, November 2016. 220 pages. $14.99, paper.
As a pianist who has played many a fugue in my time, I’m sometimes annoyed at the default the corollary many critiques draw between difficult works of literature and the fugue. The “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, for example, is not fugal. It’s more of a bloated overture with the opening section representing the instrumentalists warming up passages of music before the tap of the baton. Early in his novel, Mount Fugue, J.I. Daniels makes this jump explicit: “The fugue is a work of musical vanity, it is spinning the simple into the magnificent, but it seems to me perfectly applicable to this tale and to all of the information at hand.” The tale is that of a doomed expedition to climb the eponymous mountain, and the information at hand is a polyphonic mess of sources ranging from author interviews to choose-your-own-adventures to a list of all the equipment the group brought on the expedition. Daniels goes all-in with the musical comparison, even transposing the mountaineering narrative onto actual staff paper via Glenn Gould’s comic composition for four voices, “So You Want To Write A Fugue.”
The corollary between musical form, diegetic event, and novel itself is stronger in Mount Fugue than in other works that have the comparison thrust upon them. For one thing, like a fugue, Daniels’s novel obsesses over one single theme. Purposefully repetitive, it throws news and speculations about the climbing disaster from one voice to another, even exposing heteroglot variation in the voices of single characters. For example, the resident misogynist of the climbing team, Wolfgang Kor, reveals his bigotry and then immediately attempts to conceal it beneath a veneer of public acceptability, a moment that is itself filtered through the “bleats” of an outdoor writer named Nick Weathers: “Kor: ‘Women shouldn’t be in charge of anything. Especially not on a mountain.’ looks at recorder: ‘Of course I respect women climbers.’” Weathers’s bleats themselves, reproduced on the page backwards in time from most recent to least, thereby mimic a common variation of the fugal subject, retrograde movement. Weathers’s bleats, blog entry, and ultimate magazine article, “The Mountain that Laughs at Everest,” likewise show the subject treated in three different voices: the fragmented, the slightly-less off-the-cuff, the official. In that these three voices/forms affect the momentum of the presented theme, they can be seen as performing yet another fugal variation, augmentation and diminution of the subject. We even see the disaster (grossly) distorted by a screenplay for its primetime original movie adaptation, The Curse of the Savage Summit: The True Story of the Tragic Ortiz Expedition.
In fugues, a countersubject bickers with the subject throughout. If the disaster itself is the subject of Mount Fugue, the obvious countersubject is the resultant discussion of identity politics triggered by the tragedy. Tara Ortiz’s status as a woman of Latina and African American heritage unleashes a paranoid cacophony, characters questioning or defending her entire gender’s leadership capacities, her author waxing neurotic about the hazardous expedition that is the representation race and gender as a white male. To avoid depicting the climber/author comparison as simple, mountaineering must be symbolically considered less in its capacity for triumph and more as an act of colonization. It is significant that the eponymous mountain is located in a fictional country newly democratized and open to foreigners. “It was said that the mountain was the might of the country,” Nick Weathers’s article provides a history lesson, “the power base of its ruling class, and that all who would betray the rulers, like those that would set foot upon the sacred mountain, would die a painful, agonizing death.” While Ortiz’s crew might be mostly interested in the experience itself and perhaps the fame, they can’t help but become involved in a history of colonial obsession with the conquering of both local and foreign peaks. (Just one example would be the Third Reich’s rush to summit Switzerland’s Eiger North Face and Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, which they called Unserberg—our mountain.)
Mountaineering does not serve as a means for Daniels to show his triumph over the hazards of cultural appropriation, but rather as objective correlative for the difficulty that white male writers are rightfully being forced to confront these less terrible days. None of our options are great. We can protect ourselves against problematic colonizations of the Other by having our all-white characters walk through whitewashed cities—but at the risk of ignoring the socio-economic problems that we or someone who looks like us has caused. We can leave race, gender, religion, etc. ambiguous—but then if issues of race arise in the narrative, we’ll come across as manipulative and cowardly. We can try to claim that we’re post-identity, but the world we’re writing about keeps proving it isn’t. Or, yes, we can stop writing.
Daniels prefers to take an unswerving approach to the issue. Through a polyphony of voices that range from outright misogynist to purity-gotcha, Daniels turns the novelistic mirror on the reader. Polyphonic construction and a multicursoral reading path serve to implicate all of us in larger media-fueled assumptions about race and gender. Partly to avoid the self-righteousness that can accompany works of art eager to implicate, Daniels inserts a shape-shifting version of himself into the story. He is the compiler of media miscellany, the one doomed to try and fail to present the climbing disaster as a coherent story. The mountain’s home country is equally amorphous, its borders slipping from a map of South America in the novel’s final pages. The shifting dimensions of place are mocked by Nick Weathers, the character in the novel least interested in post-modernism’s distrust of absolute truths and stable identities: “The mountain is in this tiny little hole of a country that can’t even get its name straight, though the two (of many!) that come up most often are Marazinha and Panalau.” The novel’s treatment of Weathers’s artifacts is post-modern through and through, but Daniels positions the character’s desire for stability as antithetical to the project as a whole.
“Daniels” divulges his personal history with Ortiz, his inability to shake his essential dislike of the woman despite her having saved his life on a climb. A dislike, he insists—simultaneously defending and damning himself—predicated not on race or gender, but on her machinelike efficiency, her air of remoteness bordering on condescension. He’s a climber of spirituality, he claims, whereas “Tara was a technician, a climbing accountant complete with her calculations and probabilities.” In the first few pages, Daniels has thus added more mines to the minefield—not only risking the consequences of making Tara Ortiz his protagonist, but also depicting her as a character who is dislikable exactly for traits that in walks of life outside his conception of mountain climbing would be virtues.
“What does it add up to?” he asks readers at the end. “I don’t know,” is his own confession. “I have striven, throughout this entire process, to cull this data so that it could be summed up and understood, but as more time went by, as more was taken in, less was known and less was able to be sorted out.” And here is where Mount Fugue differs most from its musical namesake. Although fugues are complicated and difficult, they are not symbols for unknowability. They are not chaos, but rather ultimate control, an infinity made of materials that are reducible to comic simplicity. Ultimately what’s irreducible in Mount Fugue is human experience, even when—especially when—thoroughly penetrated and dissected by the media.
Joe Sacksteder is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he’s Managing Editor of Quarterly West. You can find his work online at Sleepingfish, Passages North, Florida Review, Hobart, Booth, Dreginald, and elsewhere.