Of Higher Ed and the Adventurous Dead

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Underworld Lit
By Srikanth Reddy
(Seattle / New York: Wave Books, 210 pp., $35, hardcover)

If one can be certain of anything in these days of global uncertainty and profound distress it is that for the past twelve thousand years or so since the Magdalenian Period, the life of the human species has been defined substantively by its conceptions of the underworld. Concerns with subtending meaning become heightened at such times as ours. Before the Neolithic complexes of stone circles and passage graves tuned to the solar calendar, our earliest ancestors ventured into caves when they wanted to commune with the otherworldly powers —to Dordogne, Altamira, Makapan, and hundreds of others known and probably unknown. In those subterranean cathedrals, they spit-painted negatives of their own hands on bosses, traced mammoths, ibexes, and birdmen, and accomplished the feat of at least one hall of bulls dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.” While these familiars of the first underworlds appear as mirrors reflecting the lives and needs of the world above, they also necessarily serve as lamps to the vast, perhaps infinite interiors of human imagining. Fast forward a scant few thousand years and one encounters Gilgamesh and The Egyptian Book of the Dead, to which over time and cultures one can add The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol, the Mayan Popol Vuh, the Chinese Zuohuan and Chuci, as well as the Western traditionally trodden paths of Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy. These are barely sufficient to suggest the iterative universality of the obsession. Suffice it to say, the after-life is not only populated but it is also popular, especially when the underworld journey takes on stirringly vital form, replete with strange, bracingly disorienting encounters that nonetheless assume an archetypal urgency. Such is the ambition, and fun, of Srikanth Reddy’s Underworld Lit.

The title of Reddy’s multifarious satura of a book suggests the self-reflexive posture of its conception and structure. In Reddy’s own account, Underworld Lit is “a long narrative poem cast in the form of lecture notes for an imaginary course in the humanities—incorporating elements of academic satire, a survivor’s memoir, translations from obscure works of world literature, and a Borgesian journey through the underworlds of various cultures.” The fact that this self-description appears on the University of Chicago’s webpage, and not in a preamble to the book itself, suggests that the work’s compositional, multiplicative bricolage directs the reader beyond the artifact of the book to the genre—if there is such a thing—of the academic faculty biography. This claim may seem farfetched, or whimsical, but the genre of Underworld Lit announced in the title and amplified on the aforementioned webpage is the fiction of an academic course curriculum.  The title, moreover, constitutes a double-entendre.  Underworld Lit does not merely imprint the fiction of a curriculum, or overlay that fiction satirically on various iterations of the underworld story, it also suggestively purports to illuminate the reality signified in the title. It claims, implicitly, to shine a light on the underworld, and to do so definitively. Of course, the intention is ironic because to do so is impossible. That does not prevent Reddy from playing with the genre, however, through the curricular fiction of his “lecture notes.” And one must likewise acknowledge that all such underworld journeys assert as their supreme fiction the actuality of the passage.

This is no less true for Dante: “In the middle of my life I found myself / in a dark wood for the straightway was lost.” The echo is unmistakable at the outset of Reddy’s initial vignette:

In the inky, dismal, and unprofitable research of a recent leave
Of absence from my life, I happened upon a historical prism
Of Assurbanipal that I found to be somewhat disquieting.

Reddy’s reference in this opening gambit to a Mesopotamian king is couched in an elaborated riff on the great Florentine poet’s first lines to the Inferno. The Dantean leitmotif is taken up again in the second vignette, which begins: “I lost in a dark would” in which the word “would” is slashed through as in a professor’s correction to a student’s paper. And that is exactly the fiction that follows: “Good effort, Aom, I scribble in red.  Please visit ESL lab asap.”  The conditionality of Reddy’s Dantean echo through the homonym would / wood highlights the prismatic play Underworld Lit intends for the reader, though one might also observe that various narrative colorations of Reddy’s underworld journey—or perhaps one should say journeys—refract off one another often quite comically as they develop.

While other references to Dante appear throughout, as do references to the Antigone, less-typically-known underworld journeys come to the fore in Reddy’s adventure. One of these, the post-life / past-life / future life reincarnation story of a magistrate’s assistant, Chen, and its variations and elaborations, constitutes the primary of four dominant through-lines to Reddy’s book. The second is Reddy’s “notes” to the course itself, as well as his fractured recounting of a journey through the baroque and insidious underworld of academic life, especially fraught politicized encounters with colleagues, committees, and that greatest and most stress-inducing of all gauntlets, the tenure process.  In Reddy’s orchestration, academia is also an underworld that calls one to venture a warren of arcane passageways. Beyond this overarching inference, the curricular notes include, among a variety of sub-genres, several quizzes and exams that prompt the “student” reader to answer relevant questions about underworld texts referenced directly, or indirectly, in the book.  Some of these involve visuals—photographs and drawings as in the seventh section of the “Spring Term,” where the text instructs us to “Circle the correct companion species to escort the dead through their underworlds.” What we find under the first heading, Late Classic Mesoamerica, is an Aztec hieroglyphic, a photograph of a screaming chimpanzee, and a child’s drawing of some imaginary creature. The remaining three headings include the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Inuit / Aleut / Inupiat / and Yupik, and finally the Yangzi River Valley of the 5th Millennium AD. Other visual texts appear in the book as well, among them his daughter Mira’s abstract drawings, Rorschach configurations used as psychological prompts, and at least one photograph of a potentially malignant melanoma.  All of these appear to look suspiciously alike, as do the paired photographs of Herman Rorschach and Brad Pitt in the Winter Term’s twenty-eighth section.

Just these few examples should suffice to communicate the assertively playful hybrid intentions of Reddy’s composition. These visuals, in fact, might be read as a meta-commentary on the intertextual nature of Reddy’s book itself, a kind of self-refracting prism or fractured hall of mirrors in which all underworlds are one, in true analogical fashion, precisely by being different. In turn, the third narrative direction in Underworld Lit, interleaved as it is with the others, is Reddy’s memoir of family, potential illness, and, yes, academic life.  In addition to Mira and the author’s wife, the allegorically denominated Dr. Song appears in this thread, variously bearing disturbing and reassuring news, depending on the vignette. As in the parallel post-life story of Chen, the life story of the author however partially or sporadically told betray [intended?] converging lines of narration despite all appearances of digression and extravagance. As such, Underworld Lit calls us to read the two, like the various permutations of underworld stories, in responsion.

The last major thread is more leitmotif than narrative, though, as with everything in Reddy’s book, categories blur, shift, displace, and transition to metaphor. From the outset, translation is one of the dominant threads of Underworld Lit, for it is through translation from various linguistic sources that the author “enters” his various underworlds, and composes his main narrative lines, especially that of Chen’s adventures through a variety of post-life experiences. On the very first page Reddy gives us the source of Assurbanipal’s “prism,” and the textual foregrounding of such notes for the sources of translation and research thereby become evident components and not “footnotes” to be regarded as marginal to the events. In fact, since the final section of Underworld Lit brings together the original tale of Chen in Chinese, French, and in English translation, it is clear that the consistent but seemingly minimal orchestration of translator’s notes throughout the book intends to pay off structurally when the actual, “original” story of Chen arrives at the end. Placed there rather than at the beginning, the apparent “original” draws together elements of all the primary narrative lines. The actual story of Chen rendered in three languages has the ultimate effect of converging parallel narrative lines and a variety of elements of the text—quizzes, photographs—into a common point, if such were possible.  To translate, etymologically speaking, is to “carry over,” and as such the motif of translation functions as a metaphor for the entire enterprise—both the book’s structure and the tales it tells, such that the book’s composition and what it narrates are simultaneously vehicle and tenor, figure and concept.

Moreover, structurally Underworld Lit is sectioned into four “terms” like the academic year—Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The original Chen story in Chinese, French and English, constitutes the final Summer term in three linguistic iterations. Fall, Winter, and Spring terms are each comprised of thirty-three sections, which is the same number of cantos in Dante’s Inferno and PurgatorioParadiso has thirty-four cantos, bringing the total to one hundred, the same as Reddy’s book. In section twenty-seven of the Spring Term, a patient report indicates that the patient is a “33year old male” with a “history of melanoma (smoker).” Needless to say, such numerological detailing is not accidental, and points up once again a pervasive meta-textual and inter-textual impetus, and playfulness, on Reddy’s part. His figures tend to ramify by implication, like the staircase that recurs conveying Chen and company from one underworld with its various denizens to the next. Does it imply a wealth of literary allusion, or something out of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or is it a wry figural inversion of the Led Zeppelin standard of druggy mystical ascent—a stairway to the underworld instead of heaven? All of the above, or below, I suspect.

Finally, if the basic fiction of Srikanth Reddy’s Underworld Lit is that it is a “curriculum,” it is worth noting the word curriculum derives from the Latin currere, “a course,” from PIE kers, which means “to run.”  One might think of Reddy’s book as a mixture of various currents forming a single curriculum in which the currents double back, interfere with each other, become diverted, swirl in apparent stagnancy, but continually run on ahead albeit, apparently, from below, and on to a final confluence in which the various streams keep their individual flows but nonetheless contribute to the larger, coherent motion of the whole course.  In its running, Underworld Lit is not a poem in the conventional sense—no verse, there is no strategic “turning” of lines. Nor is Underworld Lit a prose poem, one off, of the kind one finds collections of prose poems. The book’s wily, hybrid intentions are emphatic. It most definitely is a poem, however, in the foundational sense of being a composition, in this case richly allusive, provocative, and entertaining—a composition that embraces in ways large, small, and multifarious what John Barth called “the principle of metaphoric means,” that is, “the writer’s investiture in as many aspects of the text as possible with emblematic significance.”* To meet that end, Reddy’s initial insight in Underworld Lit, contra tradition—that you do not visit the underworld, the underworld visits you—resonates with his equally pregnant and resolute final words: “When the waters fall, the stones appear; thus everything is revealed in time.”

* from John Barth, “4 1/2 Lectures” in Further Fridays: Essays Lectures and Other Nonfiction, 1984-1994 (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1996) 341.