By Reb Livingston
Reviewed by Marie Curran
Beyond logic and linear thinking, manners and order, humor and horror, there is Bombyonder. Not exactly a physical location, but more than a passing thought, Bombyonder echoes poetry of mythic proportions. It smells of decaying flesh, drips with bodily fluids, and brims with the anger of a Medusa. It is a subconscious space of both apocalyptic absurdity and astonishing lucidity, where zombie sex jokes can morph into profound commentaries on social media, and vague memories hilariously allude to Ancient Greek literary characters. Poet Reb Livingston's debut novel, appropriately titled Bombyonder, explores this confusing realm in lyrical prose that, while often overwhelming and disgusting, is searing and unforgettable.
Bombyonder is a disjointed tale made up of fragments: diary entries, memories, text messages, letters, forums from the future, and other indirect narrative forms. The book, however, opens as legend—like so many myths, a passionate patricide leads to an impossible quest—and it is important to remember this classic grounding because as the story continues, it dives into sensuous, often outrageous obscurity.
An unnamed protagonist bombs herself with her prideful professor-father's invention, the "kind bomb." The pill will not kill, but instead opens up the mind to recreate memories by turning the psyche into a sort of bomb site. As she meditates on the destructive dysfunction of her family, she slits her father's throat and begins her muddled, chaotic, involuntary journey into her subconscious. On this ride, there is an emblematic barfed up bird, another murder, fake men she creates to save her from her problems, and a confrontation with her estranged mother. The protagonist's situation is dire as she works out problems of heritage, legacy, love, sex, and feminism, and what it means just to be in a very complicated world.
Though the overarching narrative—scant as it is—is dramatic and thematically lofty, there is much joy to be found in Bombyonder's tiny slices. Whether it's a text message to the protagonist's only friend Lily, a pained letter to her unconceived, nonexistent, feminine brother Rauan, a nod to an event called the "One Million Angry Penis March," or even an outlier chapter called something like "Fluffy Monster," the novel's short fragments speak complex magic, and they should be relished for their rich language and philosophical prowess.
Several threads resound throughout Bombyonder. One relates to the collective psyche's multifaceted relationship with food. "Doom is the new sexy, my love," the protagonist writes in a love letter to her disappointing corpse lover, TH (short for Terrifyingly Handsome). She continues in apt cultural criticism:
The legacy of KFCs in this area doomed to repeat itself. How our health now suffers for what we didn't know then and won't acknowledge now. How we filled our bellies with poisoned love. Battered, deep-fried bombs of doom placed so gently in your mouth.
And later, in a section entitled "Farewell to Diary Entries," she offers a succinct comment on the role of food aesthetics in social media, with:
Comparing my life on Facebook to Rauan's, watching it unfold through a steam, the daily parade of obituaries and plates of pretty food, the many legacies of meals, the memory of plate presentation outliving the memory of its heartiness or the memory of most humans.
Yet Bombyonder refuses to become preachy, and within this same food thread, the writing also gives way to sinister silliness. In a recovered memory, the protagonist explains that because of the bird flu, people stopped eating chicken. "For the first time chickens were calm as doves. For them, it was finally safe to hatch babies." When it seems the prose is headed into a discussion on meat eating or reproductive rights, in a delightful twist, the memory continues on far more abstractly. "Chicken suits became fashionable but fashion never kept anyone safe and you don't get on the cover of Vogue all buttoned up so once again feathers were shed for appearances."
Though graphic and memorable, Bombyonder, with its experimental, fragmented style, incessant allusions to both the ancient and pop, is not, at least now, a timeless novel. It requires a perfect reader: young enough to know contemporary song lyrics and the subtleties of Twitter, but educated enough to catch references to the classics and literary theory. Even then, if this perfect reader does not read with all her might, much can be lost. There are many ways to evoke Medusa, some more obvious than others.
Yet Bombyonder actively resists this criticism by openly inviting it in several instances of self-aware dialogue. After all, the search for legacy is central to the protagonist's quest. "Will I be remembered as having value?" she questions before deciding, "To be remembered is to lose control of yourself." What is more important, she ascertains, is to fight for a voice in the moment, and it is this sentiment that teems from Bombyonder's sometimes cryptic but honest pages.
To engage with Bombyonder, both the novel and its fictional but familiar space, a person, as the text suggests, must leave behind what is linear and evidence-based and wade into life's layers, where complicated feelings do not need to be explained and there are "14 senses beginning with Medusa." While Bombyonder is an example of classical drama worked out with current problems, it is more than a mere rewrite of myth. What exactly it is, while unclear, is not inconsequential for those who will read it, and Livingston has given her novel the poet's subversive touch by protecting it from tidy explanations. Bombyonder expertly declines greatness, legacy, and timelessness before it's ever even asked about them, but this intuitive and lingering book will never worm its way out of anyone who dares to pick it up.