In a letter to a friend, Franz Kafka once wrote, “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song is such a book: surreal, transgressive, and unsettling. It has the capacity to not only deliver itself like a punch to the gut but also leave a lingering sting.
While the idea of such a physical reaction might be off-putting to some readers, it would be an injustice to downplay the disquieting experience of reading Wren’s fourth book. The characters in Polyamorous Love Song maintain a constant state of disconnection, from each other and from the reader, though this effect appears to be intentional. The book’s premise involves the way artists relate to and interact with the outside world, but no simple connections are offered, and the characters’ emotional distance is so great it’s almost clinical – the detachment a filmmaker might achieve with the lens of a camera.
“All you want is people to look at you and look at what you do and think you’re special and talented,” says the elusive Paul, near the start of the novel. “You want it so badly that you think there’s something wrong with those of us who don’t.” This comment sets up much of what follows, but offers nothing of the violence, sex, and terror that Wren weaves into interlocking narratives as his characters drive themselves harder and harder to not just create but live their art, even in the most unnerving situations. An artist is kept chained to a radiator; there is searing aggression at the hands of a violent subculture called the Mascot Front; and a radical leftist group infects right-wing thinkers with a sexually transmitted virus.
Polyamorous Love Song presents the fetishization of viciousness and brutality for the sake of art, but what if this fetishization results only in disillusionment? “When they had tried everything, what would be left to try?” While the question may be legitimate for these characters, it’s difficult to imagine an author as innovative as Wren ever needing to wrestle with that issue.