- Civil War Surrealism
The titular Abraham of Robert Kloss’s first novel is a surreal version of Abraham Lincoln painted with the red extremes of a moral panic tinged with something like hallucinogens. I don’t say this as a criticism: Lincoln is an extreme character under most circumstances, more myth than man in most representations, and Kloss has simply carried this to an extreme. We have an Abraham pushed by circumstance into abolishing a slavery he doesn’t necessarily oppose (which isn’t necessarily inaccurate) eventually driven mad by horror, an Abraham who had once whipped and beat the same people he would later free, an Abraham who loses his son and nearly his wife to madness. He apprises citizens of the status of the war through loudspeakers raised on every street corner, until these are destroyed by rebels. After his death, bits of his body and clothes are sold as relics. Grieving citizens can’t stand the loss and break him from his mausoleum just to see him again. His body is placed in a glass case and toured around the country.
But this Civil War, likewise, isn’t one we always recognize. Kloss’s focus isn’t on the nobility of the struggle of man against his brother, or even the fragility of life; it’s on the blood and death, corpses clogging the rivers and feeding the alligators of the title. The slaves of Kloss’s novel are called “The Unpaid.” They litter the woods and hollows of the north as runaways, and many characters see them as a more immediate threat than the rebels (and argue about whether to pay them or ship them to some far-off cold place). And so what is the reason for going to war? It’s hinted at as a kind of social imperative that isn’t thoroughly examined by the people doing the fighting, which, I’m sure, is part of Kloss’s point.
The world of this novel is nightmarish and cold. Kloss writes in second person, narrating the life of the son of an unnamed Union general who had previously fought in the American Indian Wars and is called out of retirement to fight the Confederate rebels. Called only the General, this father will eventually lose his first wife and first-born son, which will color his actions for the rest of his life. He remarries and bears more sons, leading to the also unnamed one whose point of view is given for the reader, but he will never care for any of them to the depths he mourns his first. As for the society at home, it’s one centered on fear and paranoia. There are rumors of rebels everywhere; someone’s voice appears to have a Southern twang, and the next day, that person may have disappeared. While the General is at war, his new wife collects the names of the dead from newspapers and attends all the funerals she possibly can, pretending to have known the dead through some obscure relationship, and when the newspaper offices are ransacked and publications cease, she retreats to her couch and hardly rises.
From the war, there are several changes one might not immediately suspect. One is the advent of new technologies building on the war machines. The General himself becomes entranced with internal combustion engines and, after much experimentation, becomes a dealer in lawnmowers, though his own lawn is often devastated from his many experiments. Because of the bloodiness of the war, new medicines and new medical techniques flourish when the battlefield doctors return home, and because of the tremendous loss of life, embalming techniques improve dramatically, “In those times embalming surgeons advertised in newspapers and ladies magazines, and embalming surgeons agreed to follow the sons of wealthy families at a ‘discreet distance’ waiting for the death of those they agreed to ‘handle.’” These embalmers preyed upon widows and grieving parents desperate for a means to hold on to those they’d lost. But the General becomes enthralled with these techniques and spends much of his...