Every now and again, a novel refreshes the form. In 1972 a wild new construction by Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities,” excited some writers so much that they had to try their own version. A few cases, like “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman, proved delightful. Thus as I look over “Reinhardt’s Garden,” Mark Haber’s fascinating debut novel, it’s no knock to say I recognize the model.
That would be Thomas Bernhard. This Austrian produced fictions like “The Loser,” a major prizewinner — and a single block of prose. Bernhard kept his texts brief, but he allowed no rest, and Haber rolls with the same unceasing flow. More than that, just as Bernhard wrote of older cultural celebrities like Wittgenstein and Glenn Gould, Haber’s major players are the hothouse flowers of Eastern Europe, at the start of the 20th century.
These people include an unnamed narrator, “enchanted and dumbfounded” by the title character. Jacov Reinhardt has charisma to burn — indeed, his fortune comes from tobacco — and the sort of messianic notions, more than half mad, that drove the flamboyant figures of the day. He’s composing a great “treatise on melancholy,” meanwhile dictating his biography, in all its cracked grandiosity, to his schmo of a sidekick.
One or two of Jacov’s ruminations, importantly, have the ring of wisdom: “Philosophers have labeled melancholy a disease ... yet I was certain it was the sadness of reason. When one is melancholic, one sees reality with complete lucidity.” Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to steady themselves, in a tale that otherwise tumbles through a riotous carnival of obsessions.
Most recall other cracked schemes of the era. There’s a labyrinthine castle worthy of Bavaria’s Ludwig II; there’s the cult around the aging Tolstoy (who gets a cameo). And didn’t Freud, like Jacov, need his daily fix of cocaine? Doesn’t the novel’s setup raise the same threat as “Heart of Darkness”? At the start, Jacov and his crew are adrift in the Uruguayan jungle, on a woefully unprepared quest to find the man he believes came closest to understanding melancholy.
Their trek generates continuing suspense, and the conclusion feels right, but it’s the carnival beforehand that really sustains Haber’s project. The hairpin turns, the manic acrobatics, the thousand clowns that burst from the book’s confines — the effect goes well beyond anything I can convey in a thumbnail. Subtleties include the shadows of world war and Holocaust, casting a chill even at moments when “Reinhardt’s Garden” sets us laughing out loud.
Better yet, the text’s lack of white space doesn’t make for a clotted style. Even the sentences that trace the knots of Jacov’s logic surge along powerfully; they clarify via repetition, skillfully. Long and short, this novel may look like something new, but it reads like that timeless treat, a rollicking good yarn.
John Domini is the author of four novels, including 2019’s “The Color Inside a Melon.”
By: Mark Haber.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 154 pages, $16.95.