Book Forum, September, 2004 by Shelley Jackson
Motorman is the only book ever given to me photocopied in full. That's how hard to get it was, and how badly I wanted it.
David Ohle's legendary first novel was published some three decades ago, in 1972, and it has since been out of print. Ohle himself, while continuing to write and intermittently publish, has remained almost completely unknown. So this earlier book, reprinted to coincide with the release of his new novel, The Age of Sinatra, enters the world as something fresh that is also the secret ancestor of the most daring speculative fiction of our time.
Motorman tells the story of a hapless everyman named Moldenke, who gets by in the gray areas of a world that's almost all gray areas—a science fiction-tinged world with two suns, a number of "government moons," man-made humanoids called jellyheads, and mock wars where soldiers volunteer for injury. Moldenke receives some menacing phone calls from a man named Bunce, who claims to have tapes of everything everyone's ever said about him. To escape from Bunce, he sets out to find his old mentor, Dr. Burnheart.
Motorman is a quest narrative, of a sort. But you won't read this book for the plot. It does have a narrative thread, but one composed of snippets whose ends barely meet. The language, too, is not quite English as we know it. Attributes and effects coagulate into strange new objects—"a building with structural moans"—while familiar objects are defamiliarized. Here's Moldenke taking notes on some birds: "Rapid pecking followed by pauses." Got it. "Long, agile tongue coated with a jellylike substance." OK . . . "When the tongue is retracted it apparently wraps around the brain." What? That "apparently" is the kicker here. This is a world that does facts—we're not in the realm of pure poesy—but the rules have all been changed. Don't expect Ohle to spell them out for you, either. Like very few other writers—the Joseph McElroy of Plus, the Burroughs of Nova Express—Ohle maintains a high level of indeterminacy in both his fictional world and the language he uses to tell us about it. The result is disorienting, vertiginous, thrilling: "Roquette pierced the water with his stick. 'Good,' he said. 'It's thick enough to walk on.'"
It helps to be light on your feet. Like one of the novel's geographic oddities, the River Jelly, this book is only semi-solid. The tiny chapters (sometimes no more than a few lines long) appear adrift in white space, which starts to feel like a positive substance, something Ohle himself might invent in his fiction: a sort of viscous fog from which unrecognizable objects emerge. "He felt something without form, something edgeless, rushing at him from the direction of eastern light." But before you float away on this nebulous fare, Ohle gives you something solid: a name. "Is that you, Bunce? Mr. Bunce?"
Bunce. A goofy name, a bounce with just a little of the air let out of it. There is something clownish about Bunce and his threats. But clowns are scary, and all is not right in this world of incessant, pointless surveillance, petty bureaucratic meanness, decay and graft and moral inertia. All is not right inside Moldenke, either, and that's obvious not just from the arrhythmia in his four sheep hearts but from the arrhythmia in the narrative, its stutter and lurch. By the end of the book, we have lost track of time (easy to do in a world where six "technical months" can pass in a single day), and neither we nor Moldenke knows exactly what has been going on. Moldenke thinks he might have let the goo out of a pair of jellyheads with a letter opener. Or was it a screwdriver? It's dizzying but exhilarating for a reader to be given so much room to play. A typical mobile might seem too pretty an image to serve as a descriptive metaphor for a book by Ohle, but I have a different image in mind. A friend from high school once called me in tears: He was trying to make a mobile out of dead bugs but was having trouble bringing them into balance. If he had succeeded, that mobile might resemble this book: delicate and grotesque, tragic and hilarious, precarious but perfectly balanced.