The Book of the Last Word by Jesi Bender
Whiskey Tit, May 2019
174 pages / buy from Whiskey Tit
a: capitalized: a fire-breathing she-monster in Greek mythology having a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail
b: an imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts
2: an illusion or fabrication of the mind
especially: an unrealizable dream
//a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer
— John Donne
//His utopia was a chimera.
3: an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution
//A hybrid created through fusion of a sperm and an egg from different species is a chimera.
A Google Image search of “chimera cat” reveals a feline with a face divided in color exactly down the nose: half black, half orange or gray. Jesi Bender’s The Book of the Last Word recalls this split image in Chimera Aoki, a destitute millennial trying to live an artist’s life in New York City who floats dreamlike through existential considerations of music, religion, philosophy, art, and death. Bender uses Chimera and her relationships to comment on trauma responses, the novel brimming with cerebral and creative examples of the ways upheaval can obscure the meaning mass culture makes. The narrator expresses at one point:
Some moments proceed without its participants being fully cognizant of themselves. More than lost in thought, a kind of temporary insanity, maybe, but more real – like the tangible tremble of rage, a sudden burst (passion as a violence concentrated). Insanity implies having lost something, these fits are of something misplaced.
Throughout The Book of the Last Word, which is Bender’s first novel, Chimera witnesses these acts of violence concentrated, both in herself–a kind of dissociative engagement–and in those around her, and struggles to make sense of them. Chimera’s purpose, and ultimately, the purpose of Bender’s work here, lies in her struggle, in highlighting the effect of culture, experience, intelligence, and trauma on the human psyche.
Chimera’s relationships bring her searching soul to the front of the novel thematically; when she pictures the embryo she aborted but has nonetheless named Gabriel, she thinks of “raccoons in a garbage dump.” Bender highlights the physical split: “[Chimera] then realized that you can mend a broken body but you can’t revive a part of you once it’s dead––a bone, though weakened, will heal, a scrape will dry, but you can’t remove something from a body and expect it to grow back.”
Through her girlfriend Dolores (who once hacked her own face to pieces with a steak knife and now bears the gruesome keloid scars) Chimera meets Arthur Noyes, adoptive father to a girl and boy and maybe the only person who can meet Chimera on an intellectual level. Arthur’s mind after an abusive childhood reads like that of a fanatic, pulsing in and out with religious scripture, music, numbers. Bender long obscures Arthur’s dark motivations relative to his children, building around him exactly the sort of terror and dissonance that seem to regularly find Chimera. Arthur’s ultimate but misguided desire to heal the sickness of the world, to purify life from sin (further complicating Chimera’s sense of humanity) manifests early in his childhood in a barn; after an abusive episode with his father, Arthur rips a sick kitten’s face in half (Chimera cat, anyone?) and spits “You fucking queer.” Bender adeptly shows that trauma responses can be both acute and lasting; dismemberment, too, is a recurring element of The Book of the Last Word.
Arthur’s lone-wolf style fanaticism may be limited in scope and comes as no surprise to the reader, given his upbringing, but Bender’s characterization of Arthur’s adulthood speaks to a broader and lately American theme, however recalling the famous and seemingly universal Yeats lines from the 1919 poem “The Second Coming”:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Chimera works back and forth throughout the novel in a meaning-making sea, living with Arthur and the children for a time, trying to make sense of his methods of love, trying to gain the love she needs. But even if Chimera never reaches the understanding she so desperately seeks, the reader, at last, is left to consider the possibility that no one does, not really, and then left to consider what purpose these beautiful yet destructive patterns actually serve.
M.B.F. Wedge wrote the collage memoir Knickpoint (Whisk(e)y Tit, 2018). Her work is also forthcoming from The Champagne Room.