I’m writing this quite literally a few minutes after finishing “The Doloriad” and it’s a puzzling thing. There’s a part of this book that insists it’s about something greater; it’s filled with allusions, and references and dense, sometimes overly dense language. On the other hand, it also perpetually has itself in the gutter. Endless grotesqueries, both in the characters and their actions abound, and the world it presents to the reader is violent, hopeless, and has a kind of relentless… relentless ickiness? I can’t think of a better word; the world it presents is one in which everything perpetually needs a shower. I’ve written about edgy shit before, and I don’t think this is it– but I don’t think it’s not either.
In broad strokes: “The Doloriad” takes place in a ruined Prague after some apocalyptic event. The exact nature of the event, like nearly everything in the novel, is vaguely defined. Ruling over a small city block is “The Matriarch” who is the incestuous mother of the inhabitants. Inbreeding, or the cataclysm has rendered a lot of the inhabitants deformed in some fashion; there are a number of characters without legs, some of whom have wheelchairs, some of whom are transported to and fro by others, and some who crawl. The Matriarch orders Dolores (the Dolores whom the title refers to), a legless and (it’s strongly implied) developmentally disabled woman, to be abandoned in the woods. She returns, and for (sigh) reasons which are not clear, this is seen as a bad omen.
And here I note that as I continue to describe the plot, “reasons that are not clear” pops up a lot in my head. The book in no way seeks to clarify anything. It’s written in lengthy paragraphs and run-on sentences I have seen compared to Faulkner, and that’s not entirely inaccurate; but there’s also some core element missing. There’s a mishmash of elements– the world is our own, but rendered unrecognizable; there are lengthy segments involving a television show which the Matriarch watches with her children called “Get Aquinas in Here” which is both a thing watched and a sort of a device borne out of magical realism which acts as commentary on the rest of the book. At one point there’s a lengthy shaggy dog story about a brother’s sexual obsession with his sister that ends with “If only somebody would get Aquinas in here!” which reminded me of nothing less than “The Aristocrats!” joke, but also may be a reflection of the decision The Matriarch and her brother make to repopulate the world, reflected through a slightly different lens and I am giving myself a headache with this.
I haven’t even mentioned The Schoolmaster, who is allegedly teaching the children; who is also legless, and building a gigantic cocoon like structure in hopes of transforming himself when a “moth god” arrives. There are endless descriptions of people crawling, worms, rotting fabric, and other things designed to create a kind of low grade nausea. There’s no one and nothing to like here; Dolores is a passive victim for much of the book, The Matriarch isn’t acting out of love for her children, and the children are universally awful to themselves and each other. They interact in increasingly terrible ways.
In other words, it’s really beyond my capabilities (and likely anyone’s capabilities) to sum this up. It’s sort of like “Naked Lunch”, in that it’s plotless, but not like it at all, in that it has a central axis: “Naked Lunch” spins all over wherever the hell it wants to go, “The Doloriad” has a narrow, grotesque focus. For a while, I thought of it as a series of connected vignettes; but that’s not entirely accurate. It has a greater arc, but I’d argue that the inciting incident doesn’t occur until the book is nearly 1/3 over. I don’t know that describing that arc or incident will help unpack things further, either. It all runs on until the colony begins to collapse; both through it’s own internal violence and external forces, and the book makes this observation:
“All the humans were dead, save for the few who clung on at the edges of cities they had once owned, and at last the world was full of love!”
It’s as close as the book comes to a central thesis.
A number of years ago, I was obsessed with the movie “Ghost World”. The film is about two girls who finish high school and decide to just… work rather than going on to school or anything. They’re aimless hipster drifters, though one of them, Enid, is more aimless than the other. Throughout the film, the girls pass by a man an out of service bus stop, where he appears to be waiting for a bus. Enid tells the man that the bus stop is no longer in service, and he tells her she doesn’t know anything. Near the end of the movie, she witnesses him get on the bus, despite it not being in service, and at the very end of the film, she boards a bus at the same stop. The last shot of the film is the bus leaving town.
At the time, I was also very much against ‘interpreting’ things– if Enid gets on a bus that’s no longer in service, then that’s what happens. But of course, that’s kind of dumb and overly reductive. It’s obviously meant to mean… something. But it’s not going to tell you what that is; I’ve read explanations from ‘the bus is a metaphor for death, and Enid kills herself’ to ‘she leaves town and never contacts anyone again, and the bus is shorthand for that’ to ‘in the graphic novel, the bus is put back in service, but for some reason they leave that out in the movie; in other words, it’s kind of a fuck up’. I have no idea if any of those is right, and it may be beside the point.
The entirety of “The Doloriad” feels like that; it’s a set of nested metaphors that do not want you to know what they are; that kind of ambiguity can be interesting, but it’s so overwhelming here that I honestly am not certain that it’s worth it. I think it wants you to feel more strongly about it than I ended up doing, either because I am numb to the kind of shocks it offers, or because I spent a lot of time deciphering the actual sentences. It’s a grand experiment, in its own way, and I will say that it is a fairly unique experience. I’m not entirely certain, however, that alone carries any work of art.