Book Review: Revelations, Barry N. Malzberg (1972)

August 27, 2012 § 10 Comments

(Michael Presley’s cover for the 1977 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

Revelations (1972) is the second in a thematically linked group of Malzberg’s novels — published in between its siblings, The Falling Astronauts (1971) and Beyond Apollo (1972) (from now on BA).  Each deals with insane astronauts, and in Malzberg’s own words, “sexual dysfunction as representing the necessary loss of energy of the machine age,” and each contains a character desperately attempting to speak out.  But, as with most of Malzberg’s novels, it is unclear whether there is truth in these cries.

Revelations is less rigorously structured than BA, which was characterized by 67 short tellings/retellings/scenes/dream moments all from the perspective of a single insane character.  As with BA, our anti-hero is an unreliable narrator, but due to the variety of diaristic, epistolary, and interrogatory fragments that comprise the narrative, at least some portions can be understood as truthful.  But, whether or not our anti-hero is sane, is up for debate.  At the very least, his character evolves over the course of the novel while the novel of BA‘s protagonist Harry Evans (i.e. BA itself) is cyclical in structure.

It is unfortunate that this novel isn’t as well known as BA – Malzberg’s most critically acclaimed and financially successful non tie-in work (the 1973 novelization of the 1974 film Phase IV probably garnered him the most money).  Beyond Apollo might be the superior novel, its concise structure is a crystalline and terrifying manifestation Malzberg’s central themes, but Revelations, with its variegated structure, fascinating characters, and brutal TV program (the perfect vehicle for Malzberg’s thematic obsessions) is my personal favorite so far.

Revelations should definitely be considered up there with the best, or the best, of the late 60s and early 70s corpus of works concerning potential dark manifestations of TV and radio: for example, D. G. Compton’s masterpiece The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1973).

Highly recommended for fans of literary science fiction who do not shy away from post-modern experimentation, explicit sexuality, and scathing condemnation of the American space program.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (some spoilers)

“Revelations is a new concept in the media.

Revelations is a stunning look into ourselves.

Through the refinement of the interview-format, brought to a new level through the brilliance of its intensity, Americans of all walks of life, great and small, powerful and oppressed, will expose themselves through a series of searing insights, to their utmost depths” (9).*

Revelations is a TV show run by Marvin Martin (a more abrasive and disturbed Jerry Springer).  Although the show’s aim is to provide a “stunning look into ourselves”, this generally entails questions of this nature, “Are you wearing falsies underneath that sweater of yours, Doris?  Or are we supposed to believe that that angle is real?” (22).

The show is a horrific and all too prescient manifestation of one of Malzberg’s primary themes: the quest for truth.  The show churns through a gamut of victims who are either seduced by the show’s message or desperate for notoriety and/or cash: for example, a brother of a onetime senator is verbally abused by Martin who dredges up all the contestant’s secrets in order to construct outlandish Freudian speculations including his supposedly incestuous relationship with his brother and his pro-Nazi sympathies.

Martin, the show’s creator, is himself deluded into believing that his creation is sacred in its aim to uncover the truth, of whatever nature it might be: “I can do anything I want.  Anything that I want to do is permitted [...].  This is Revelations and here at last the mystery is made flesh, the lies fall away from us as the driven snow and we confront the naked, raving face of the truth [...].  The truth is sacred: it is high, it is deadly, it is concealed and it is often uglier than darkness…” (64).  The show spawned from Marvin’s attempt to butt against “institutions, massive institutions, repressing humanity, driving everything down to mechanicalness and dread, the individual idiosyncratic act squeezed out forever” (86).   However, the so-called uncovered “truth” is, by the very nature of Marvin’s forcible extraction and re-interpretation, no more than a mechanized artifice pandering to our obsession with dark spectacle.

Michael Hurwitz, our main character, is the Director of Procurement for Revelations.  He oversees the screening process of Revelations‘ volunteers.  The entire novel is collected from the contents of his desk drawer: diaristic fragments, selections from the interviews on Revelations, and various letters he receives.  Hurwitz recounts how he forsook his wife, his future as an academic, seduced by the idealistic kernels of Martin’s philosophy.  As with BA‘s Harry Evan’s Hurwitz throughout the work he refers to himself in the third person, “In the meantime, however, I, Hurwitz, Michael Hurwitz that is to say, Michael Hurwitz must produce” (20).  It is never clear whether Hurwitz is sane.  For example, he obsesses at length that a government agent might have been transformed into a small elf that can peer into his very being:

“There he is, deep in Hurwitz pants pocket miniaturized of course (for better security; there is absolutely no describing the technological advance the government) has made, a tiny elf, peering with bright mad eyes at the goings on.  At one end there is a small shaft of light, pure office fluorescence beaming in to the Hurwitz lining.  At the other, through a tiny hole perceptible only to Hurwitz and small coins which dribble through are the Hurwitz genitals themselves, dark swinging meat covered by material thin as lint, a pendulum to Hurwitz’s purpose, stalking him through the rooms of his life” (78).

Or, he has simply succumbed to an America-wide paranoia, a product of a post-Kennedy assassination society…

At Hurwitz’s desk arrives a letter from Walter Monaghan, who proclaims to be a one-time employ of the space agency, the twenty-ninth man on the Moon.  Monaghan is desperate to appear on Revelations, which he declares “the only remaining hope, the only outlet now through which I might be able to tell my story” (11).  The exact nature of his story (and again, his sanity) is unclear — at one point he claims that man never went into space, at other points some of the space missions were fakes, at other points that all the missions were real: “what does consistency matter?  Why are you so concerned about consistency: don’t you understand that nothing makes sense?” (57).  Initially Hurwitz, still believing in the pursuit of objective truth, refuses to put him on the show.  However, after a lengthy vision (a Revelation!) he discovers how deluded he’s become and that he can still change lives in this society dominated by machinery and instituitions — by allowing Walter Monaghan on the program — he casts aside applications submitted by a circus freak show juggler castrati, a small town midwestern prostitute, three deformed brothers, a bastard actress, a general who receive messages through his teeth, steroid-wrecked football players, and places Monaghan’s name at the top of the list (95).

Hurwitz also carries on a desperate (and often abusive) relationship with Doris Jensen (he doesn’t know her actual name).  Doris Jensen was one of the volunteers for the program — Hurwitz is convinced that she’s an agent by a rival organization seeking to destroy Revelations. In a sad attempt to recreate the feelings he felt for his wife, he proposes marriage but is rebuffed.  But Doris sees his unbearable, corrupt nature (115).

And then Monaghan appears at Hurwitz’s door before his scheduled appearance on the show, the true extent of Revelations‘ horrors are exposed.

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

The true impact of the work isn’t felt until the last passages unfold.  Monaghan’s appearance on the program is so terrifying, so challenging to the ideals that Martin has convinced himself are sacred, that Martin, literally, cannot bear the burden of revelation.  But, there are more and more layers of artifice, simulation, implantation, interpretation.

“Monaghan, who accompanies these documents, has been debriefed in the customary manner and bears no memory whatsoever of these events.  His disposition is entirely up to you and I make no recommendations.  He has been a loyal employee and this should count in his behalf [...]. When the block is removed he will still retain the implantation, still think he is an ex-astronaut and you will take it from there.”

Questions remain: was there something in Martin’s philosophical kernel that generated Revelations?  In its idealistic naivete did it indeed suture the lost of individualism wrought by an increasingly institutionalized, mechanized society?  Was there also a shard of truth in Monaghan’s government-implanted delusions?  Or are both transformed into such elaborate artifice that all is obscured?

*page numbers are from the 1977 edition.

(Uncredited cover for the 1972 edition)

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§ 10 Responses to Book Review: Revelations, Barry N. Malzberg (1972)

  • sjhigbee says:

    My goodness! This has to be one of the most disturbing book covers I’ve seen…

  • I’m seriously starting to wish Malzberg had written less, the list of novels by him I need to read is getting longer and longer…

    I’m actually currently reading one of his non Science Fiction novels, something called Everything Happened to Susan which is… interesting. So far (I’m only about 20-30 pages in) it appears to be a biting satire on artsy pretensions in late sixties / early seventies porn movies. Note quite as weighty a subject as man’s attempt to conquer space and deal with the world, but quite funny, I can just imagine Malzberg having a blast writing it.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      Definitely sounds like his strange cup of tea!

      Apparently he did write some erotic novels… right?

      I love that there’s so much left to read!

      • Indeed, he did, and two of them are even available as cheap e-books, as are all fourteen novels of the crime fiction series he wrote as Mike Barry. I’ve been hunting down his non-SciFi stuff recently, and some of it actually looks very interesting.
        And yeah, I’m not really complaining, but if you already have huge piles of unread books lying around you can’t help but get a bit weary about new additions to it at times, especially when you’re at an age where you’re starting to realize that it’s getting very unlikely that you’ll ever manage to actually read all of them.

  • guysalvidge says:

    Interesting review. The Falling Astronauts deals with pretty much the same material, but I suppose it does it in more ‘straight’ fashion (about the downfall of the US space program). I’m definitely keen to read this one at last.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      A critique of the program is part of the novel but not the main theme: the quest for truth, in this case through the means of media (and thus, an astronaut who wants to be on the program) is more central. Beyond Apollo (although more experimental in structure) seems more similar to The Falling Astronauts than Revelations… But I haven’t read The Falling Astronauts yet…

      • 2theD says:

        You’ll get your Falling Astronauts in October, friend. I’m throwing in Bob Shaw’s Vertigo as a one-time bonus. Malzberg isn’t my bag, baby – so any gems I come across will be forwarded to you (unless there’s a Malzberg that actually appeals to me?).

  • Sad news: I got very interested in Malzberg after reading this blog post. I decided to see what was available on MarxBooks, my favorite web store. But then, I remembered that some recent orders had never been filled. So I filled out a message form on the site and got a response from John Marx’s son, who informs me that John passed away last month and the store is no longer operational. The website will soon be taken down, but it still appears to be functional for the time being, even though no orders will be taken.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      Very sad news. Another blog friend of mine tried to order some books as well without any success so I found out about his death a few weeks back. He ran great store and was very talkative and kind and had a few email conversations — and his personal collections must have been massive.

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