My rating: 4 of 5 stars
–But us brothers, we knew what it meant to be better than dead. We knew that when things die they sometimes just then begin to live.–
It is moments like this within Peter Markus’ We Make Mud that make you read and reread sentences over and over. So simple and so understated, but, in many ways, those two sentences are at the very heart of this novel in stories.
Told in plural first person with the occasional transition to singular, a story about two brothers who call each other Brother, not Jimmy or John, which, as we’re told by them, are their names. There are a few other characters, but mostly it is the brothers. The most noticeable thing about this book, these stories, is the prose. It is not the kind of prose that shimmers ecstatically. It is deliberate and in such a way that it changes what you thought fiction writing could be. Not because it’s maybe somehow the way everyone should’ve always been writing, but because, for the first time, you realise that writing can look like this, can feel like this. There’s a distinct rhythm to the words and the syntax and grammar of the sentences should be awkward, but somehow manage to never be. Repetition is usually seen as a bad thing in prose, but these stories delight in repetition, and it works to a dizzying degree. And the book is built on this repetition of phrases, of scenes, of revisiting variations of already told stories. And that’s part of it, too, not only to repeat, but to vary, in the way that jazz uses variations on a theme to expand upon the initial melody.
And it turns this novel into rituals and prayer. It is a prayer. It is a collection of fairytales in the most serious of ways. There is violence, but it is never for the sake of violence: it becomes ritual. And the repetition is part of this. It is a prayer about childhood and what it means to have a single place, a river, be the entire world. Told by brothers who are children, reality bends and blurs and the impossible becomes common, either as daydream and fancy or actuality, the reader never knows for certain. It is a book that surprises and delights even as it becomes ugly and course but more so as it shimmers and grows, glowing.
–We are brothers. We are each other’s voice inside our own heads. This might sting, us brothers will say to each other brother. Us brothers, we will raise back the hammer in our hand. We will drive that rusty, bent-back nail right through Brother’s hand. Neither of us brothers will wince, or flinch, or make with our mouth the sound of a brother crying out. Good, Brother, Brother will say. Brother will be hammering in a second nail into us brothers’ other hand when the father of us brothers will step out into the back of our backyard. Sons, our father will call this word out. Both of us brothers will turn back our boy heads toward the sound of our father to hear whatever it is that this father is going to say to us brothers next. It will be a long few seconds. The sky above the river where the steel mill sits shipwrecked in the river’s mud, it will be dark and quiet. Somewhere, though, the sun will be shining. You boys be sure to clean up back here before you come back in, the father of us will say. This father will turn back with his voice and go back away into the inside of this house. Us brothers, we will turn back to face back with each other. Us brothers will raise back with our hammer, will line up that rusted nail.–
There are so many more moments I wish I could put in this review as I found myself highlighting almost whole pages. Because it is not the sentences themselves that hit hard, but the images that Markus builds over the course of five or ten or forty sentences: surreal, surprising, dark, beautiful, grotesque, magical.
A great and short book.