Quill and Quire

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Her Smoke Rose up

by James R. Wallen

If Her Smoke Rose Up were a face, it would be pierced; if it were a film (rather than a novel about one), it would feature gratuitous sex and glamourized violence. So what is there not to like, you ask?

Plenty, if you are easily offended. James R. Wallen’s second novel goes out of its way to repulse: “I am a stranger in your midst, a guest at your expense, a fly in your ointment,” it begins. It’s a slow start.

Her Smoke Rose Up (a phrase from the Bible) tells the story of Walker Johnson, an experimental filmmaker, survivor of multiple failed marriages, and inheritor of Swift’s barbed quill (as he tells us). The novel ping-pongs between Johnson’s first-person retelling of his life and the plot of his film. For a dark, rebellious novel, however, Wallen’s organizational conceit seems slavishly applied: almost throughout, the reader bounces predictably back and forth between Walker’s life and that of his film’s main characters. The structuring device is not inherently flawed but strange in a novel that strives to be unconventional: “Anybody can write a novel. Excuse me, a modern novel. It’s the easiest writing form of all. No discipline required. Let’s see, what happened today? I washed my hair, cleaned my toenails, fucked my students. Write it down.” And Wallen does. For all its postmodern feints, Her Smoke Rose Up is actually a realist fable of one character’s life, intercut with a fairly straight ahead moralistic film.

Brand names and current events are cleverly applied at all levels of narrative, and the writing is generally quick and clean. Glimpses of emotion lend sporadic depth. The most interesting moments interrupt the hypnotic structure, as when Walker falls asleep during the film’s screening. Walker calls irony and cynicism the dual plagues of our times, yet it is these very plagues that keep the book’s feet in the gutter, even as its smoke rises up for the stars.