Sunshine In The Valley, CCM (Civil Coping Mechanisms) Press, by Kyle Muntz. Reviewed by Elynn Alexander for Full Of Crow Press.
“We were here and we were really here. It kept us breathing.” (7)
It strikes me that they gather beneath the full sun, seeming to celebrate time’s passage rather than indulging in lamentation.
“...always to glorious burning.” (7) This is in contrast to the typical themes of the so-called human condition, creatures tethered to dread, in constant fear of our own mortality and with an often painful awareness of our insignificance. Living with the spectre brings a certain pressure to bear, beings set out to live in ways that maximize perceived “significance”: progeny, legacy, endurance of the corporeal made manifest through enduring actions and accomplishments. How to make one’s mark? How to distinguish one’s small life from an expansive tribe, exponential, a pool that consists of others with the same preoccupations, both present and ancestral? We compete with history. We want to BE something in our own right. We want to be enduring, somehow, different perhaps in the way that Muntz makes a distinction between a story and a legend. We want to be more than a story, we want to be embellished and etched into permanence, to linger.
But what is permanent, what is transient? What is real? Philosophers consider the “brain in the vat”, stimulated by electrodes, an artificial sensorium, a manufactured reality. What’s the difference, as far as that brain is concerned? What does it mean to be present, corporeal? As there is the myth of endurance, there is also the myth of objective reality. Do we know what exists, and where?
“To be, one violates nonexistence, becoming solid. I’m not sure what that means but by necessity it affects me, whole pressurized oceans of the invisible.” (87)
Kyle Muntz, I think, wants us to consider this because this novel presents the reader with beings and anti-beings, physically present and those that are ghost-like, who neither occupy space nor make claims on physical experience in the “traditional” sense- that is, they do not experience being alive as those that hunger, breathe, sleep. What does it mean to be alive, really? The fulfillment of criteria, the connection between a mind, body, environment- how do we know what is real? Muntz ignores known science. He ignores our laws. He creates from a place of wild indulgence that I envy.
There is a physical liberation at play in these pages, but also one of a more existential sort, beings that have somehow transcended physicality in a linear, narrow sense and who are somehow experiencing something that resembles being alive but on another plane. These realms will be a challenge to the rigid reader, a delight to the type that can kick back and let their minds just go with it all, immersed in what Muntz has accomplished. This book is beautiful, and strange.
I don’t want to review it, I want to honor it.
But getting back to physicality and mortality, it is difficult to wrap one’s head around “liberated” beings, beings that have cast this pressure, this drive aside. Who are these people that gather at the highest point in the valley, to welcome the burning of their moments, the passing of their own lives, their footsteps-eager- toward oblivion?
We know that these characters are strange, alien, they do not see things the way we do. It is said that the mind can only dwell on tragedy for so long, and then it shuts off- lest we go mad. Some cannot seem to shut it off and do seem to go a bit mad. How were these people able to get to a place of freedom?
We need to learn about them, and do so in the context of the environment Muntz has created. His is not only a work of experimental fiction but of experimental sociology.
“Memory binds them to smallness”
This society has been rendered over time, a freedom has evolved, but they are still connected to the past and to a time when “smallness” perhaps drove them, as it drives us. What drives them now?
Are they a society at peace with the transient nature of existence?
“He had no answer, ‘all things are transient’.(97)
“All that exists diffuses, all that is created comes, in some way, from that which exists already.” (97)
“…all existence is just a story that hasn’t ended yet; or without beginning.” (67)
The reader will notice that it becomes very difficult to ascertain WHAT kind of society we are dealing with. Consider the market with various stalls, five, two selling more than one item and one not selling anything. Consider the theme of followers, who may or may not have been present, they don’t remember. Are these people, have they passed through a gate or are they waiting? The village centers around children, ‘disgustingly naive’, is that because of legacy? Who maintains a legend perpetuates permanence to some extent. The teller must not only live, but keep living lest the legend also be buried.
What kind of society, what kind of world? What is their gravity, their sense of solid, what burns, what moves? Things resemble other things, or else they resemble themselves but look nothing like what is familiar. What is familiar becomes foreign, perception intermittent, things are at once known and strange, accepted and suspect. Even spaces shift their shapes.
“Life had new singular patterns. Waking, she rose into that same alien landscape, except it was just her alien room, distant and unreachable. A honeycomb fallout, tessellation in rhomboid chambers.” (71)
“I left no marks in it, soon I came to a place that wasn’t a place.” (85)
“For a long time Gidian became a sphere curling in on itself.” (121)
The river, or rather, the behavior of a river, seems to embody the idea of moving energy and takes on something galactic- the osmosis like the diffusion of particles, the linear path, speed- perceptible like time but regulated by arbitrary measurements and anthrocentric law. Jacob dreams of the river, the shaking of the world and the stones unanimously gray.
“An edge formed, and fathoms, and thunder, and he ran through a deep scarred field, through the rim of giants rising- and stood at the edge of a plateau jutting past the edge of the world, onto an endless torrential waterfall, where distance had no boundaries, and oceans fell into ransacked eternity, bypassing galaxies and cosmic formation… an emptiness entirely without sound, shape, or feeling.” (130)
Why is there something instead of nothing? Humans have asked this for as far back as they could ask things. Is this the nothing, the ultimate reduction of all, that he has attempted to construct here? A river has a beginning, it can be traced, and we assume the path to be linear and with characteristics that we can discern and follow. But is life really this way, something that goes back to a square one? And what would it look like?
“It is impossible to know the valley without having been there.” (198)
“Most trails end at the wasteland. Very few take them, but in a sense there is only one trail, all connected by filament and web. Some say it is possible to travel them all without ever overlapping, but this statement remains unproven.” (199)
I can’t say for sure what directions you will be moved toward by the work of Kyle Muntz, I can only describe where he takes me and somehow I end up in outer space, my imagination grasping at the vastness, wondering about physicality and particles, things that flow whether in water or solar winds, being here and having never been, and something in his writing opens up a chasm between my body and my mind. “Sunshine In The Valley” is indeed trippy, and unlike anything I have seen in quite some time. If he has a formula, you won’t find it.
I don’t usually mention personal details about an author, but Kyle Muntz happens to be young and bright and he should know that behind his back, many of us are stunned by what he has already accomplished and are excited because he is starting his writing career with work that already bears the sophisticated complexity that so many writers want but can only approximate. I don’t think one can develop into a writer like Kyle Muntz, I think there is something to his thinking that is a manifestation of his unique way of seeing, and he has been able to align perception and imagination and translate it through metaphors. Despite his obvious language skills, I get the sense that he has a strong visual side because I can so easily envision a visual adaptation, can see sparse dialogue with images rooted in his descriptions. I would not be surprised at all to see him exploring media and growing in his creative work toward the use of audio,visual art, photography, animation, and their various modern combinations.
Kyle Muntz is also the author of “Voices” from Enigmatic Ink, and the forthcoming “VII”, also from Enigmatic Ink. “Sunshine In The Valley” was published in 2011 by Civil Coping Mechanisms.
Lynn Alexander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (website)