Author: Armen Melikian

ISBN: 978-1-935097-51-8

Publisher: Two Harbors Press

Click Here To Purchase Journey to Virginland - Epistle 1

If you like to read experimental and avant garde works, your prose and poetic muse will suffer satisfactory shock and awe with this novel. It is orthogonal to that literary and commercial space where you might find a good, well-plotted story to accompany you, say, on that long and uncomfortable plane ride from New York to LA. I call it a novel even though the story becomes lost in philosophical soliloquies and I’m sure at least some of it is autobiographical.

Experimental writing shares a common problem with experimental music and experimental art: most people don’t give a damn. The academic composer composes so his fellow academics can admire his sheer brilliance and avant gardism. Unlike Mozart or Beethoven, they don’t have to please the public. Similarly for the avant garde painter and writer. All these tortured souls have to do is please the NEA or some other funding agency’s committee that is often formed from similar academic talents, the “committee of peers.” The whole process, in fact, is similar to how scientists obtain grants for their research.

I once attended a John Cage concert and felt outraged and swindled. A similar thing happened while visiting a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. I won’t dive into the controversy about whether such art works should be supported by taxpayers, but I will say that you might just feel the same way about Mr. Melikian’s work. Maybe there is something here to please academics, as Professor Paul McCarthy’s introductory letter implies, or those people into avant garde writing, but caveat emptor.

To be fair, Mr. Melikian probably didn’t have a sponsor. Most composers, painters, and writers don’t have one nowadays. It takes a bold individual to strike out into experimental art unless there is a day job to back him up. While POD and eBooks have democratized the publishing industry, new writers will have a difficult time until they land that first success. Marketing is largely unsuccessful for all but non-fiction books, even in the traditional fiction genres and even if the author pays for it up front to marketing gurus. It is even worse for experimental fiction in spite of good reviews and expert literary opinion. The public wants to be entertained, not receive sermons.

That said, I gave this book my best. I cinched down my reviewer’s pith helmet and waded into Mr. Melikian’s writing jungle. Happily I found similarities to Gargantua and Pantagruel (by Rabelais) and Gulliver’s Travels (by Swift), two of my favorites. The first (really a series) is satirical and often obscene (or declared to be so by the censors of the Sorbonne), characteristics shared by Journey. The second also shares these characteristics and scandalized English high society. All three are about journeys but are laden with philosophical interludes. Journey uses very raw if not obscene language, for the shock if not the awe, but both Rabelais’ and Swift’s novels, now classics, were also considered far out for their era.

I did not find any similarities with Orwell’s work, contrary to Professor McCarthy’s letter. Dystopia only exists in the eyes of the protagonist, Dog. But I did find similarities with the Bible’s Book of Revelations, a wild, allegorical tale that turns the forgiving and loving God of most of the New Testament back into the wrathful God of the Old, as Christ battles the monsters of hell, punishes sinners, and rewards the faithful. In Journey, Dog also represents this reversal (God  Dog). The difference is that some are saved in Revelations—not so in Journey. For Mr. Melikian, there is no salvation, as Dog loses himself in a dream as deep and profound as the opium dream of the writer of Revelations. As the adage goes, life is Hell, then you die.

So you have the hero of the novel, Dog (Mr. Melikian calls him an anti-hero), who begins his journeys with a trip through Virginland. (This is only Epistle I. The author says that II will be ready in a year—he can take his time since I’m still indigesting this one!) Dog is looking for identity and meaning but comes up against all the roadblocks our modern civilization provides. On his way, he analyzes what is wrong with nearly everything and everybody. These pseudo-sermons are often sexually oriented, containing misogynist diatribes that treat women only as sex objects on one hand, while defending men that are raped and abused by dominating women on the other. Perhaps the psychological attacks on Dog’s sexuality and his returning them in full throughout his journey is merely a reflection of the shallowness that we attach to relationships in our society…perhaps.

The philosophical spectrum runs from the ridiculous to the profound. For the first, consider the following example: ‘“If submission is bad,” asks Man, the No Man, “how can we state that submission to good is good?” “That is the whole point,” says Man, the Democrat. “We have to accept that even if submission is bad, submission to good is good.”’ This is hardly more than a play on words. For the second, consider: “…a mise en scene that impresses a question mark on Nietzsche’s forehead: Who is the privileged who can become a superman? . . . And how to achieve Schopenhauer’s state of painlessness when the whole gamut of social existence has conspired against you from birth to death? . . . And as long as there are oppressors in the world of men, the fake currency of saviors will be in high demand.”

If you tackle this novel, pay attention to the map at the beginning. It helps to know that Satanland is the U.S., more or less, while Virginland is the area around the Armenian homeland. There is, in fact, a lot of Armenian nationalism here. Consider the following:

Creative peoples of Europe, America,

For the love of life, for the love of the society of men,

For the love of death’s secret,

And the just Armenian race of Ararat,

Extend your hands,

Extend your hands so it shall flourish,

Without bloodshed, across its fields.

This is my supplication from behind the wall of death…

This is taken from Wave 2 (the Waves are prose or poetry which Dog presumably did not write). Other names from the map are Binladenland (for Saudi Arabia?) and Paradise (the Armenian homeland). This may seem just too cute to many readers and I wouldn’t have used the name changes, but artistic license is always right.

The reader can have fun panning for the gold nuggets among the fool’s gold in this book. Good luck with the former. I didn’t find enough nuggets to make it worth my while. I often have this problem with experimental writing and saw it quite often in excerpts on the now defunct website Edit Red. Experimental writing is just not for me. It is like a Jolt cola versus a nice cup of Colombian arabica. Nevertheless, Journey to Virginland is an avant garde tour de force (pardon the French), but is it literature or philosophy? You tell me. Or, is there any difference?

Click Here To Purchase Journey to Virginland - Epistle 1