Cover image: Dzanc Books.

For a certain kind of person, in this instance me, there are few compliments for a narrative more annoying than the assertion that it really had a beginning, middle, and an end. So, after all, do sandwiches. What the conveyer of the compliment seems to mean is not that the value of the narrative lies in its possession of a beginning, middle, and end but in its adherence to a legible parabolic plot architecture devised from the establishment of tension, the intensification of a problem, and its resolution; the story is good because the protocol is visible in the product. This criteria is not what makes Robert Lopez’s prose good, though it is, and very.

In fact, it is this rote plotting that a character known only as “the woman” in Lopez’s All Back Full speaks of when she complains that no films are about cleaning the bathroom for two hours. A bathroom-cleaning scene only exists as the foil to some action, the putative real action of the movie. “You can’t have her hair under a bandana, drinking gin and talking to her father-in-law for too long,” the woman says of the star. “People won’t stand for it and the movie star won’t stand for it either.” Nevertheless this, the everydayness that belies the shape of typical narratives—or at least the atypical shape of a narrative—is exactly how All Back Full proceeds.

“There is definitely a double meaning in all this,” the woman’s husband, known only as “the man,” says.

And, indeed, All Back Full does take seriously its doubling. The man can think of nothing simple, because simplicity is mysterious. Everything in the world is the same. And the conversation is about everything such that it seems to be about nothing. Even its genre happens twice.

The book is presented as a “novel in three acts,” but in its formal playfulness, it could just as easily be viewed as a novel in drama, a drama with novelistic gestures, or a parody of drama wrapped in novelistic discourse. Divided into three acts, the book opens with a mise-en-scène. The setting is a kitchen table. It will be the setting for the entirety of the book, with “the same tables and chairs and all the rest.” The characters are the woman, the man, and the man’s friend. Like most plays, there is little emphasis on physical description and much on dialogue. Unlike most plays, the language veers into the interior of characters, conveying what is thought but unsaid, and even includes encyclopedic paragraphs on various subjects, from the unfinished works of Aristophanes to dolphin fucking. Lopez careens beyond scene, which is to say he unmoors us from the specifications of a single time and place. Still, the plot is a day in a kitchen. What happens is that people talk three times at the same table.

If this premise seems thin, it’s worth considering Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist. In “Art As Device,” he wrote of the way experience is depleted of some essence through routinization: “A thing passes us as if packaged; we know of its existence by the space it takes up, but we only see its surface. Perceived in this way, the thing dries up, first in experience…. This is how life becomes nothing and disappears. Automatization eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife, and the fear of war,” he wrote. Art, then, is defined by its turn from the automatic; it recuperates the sensation of life through ostranenie, or defamiliarization. Accept this premise, and there is no way to view All Back Full as anything less than consummate art.

In Lopez’s hands, the ordinary is made strange; it reminds itself to us, fraught with inexplicability. Regular old life is creepy. Or, as Lopez writes, “It is apropos of something, but nothing specific and nothing anyone can identify.” The book is not quite a woman cleaning the bathroom for two hours, but it does double down on the conceit of the narrative spilled from its expected form, the smeared trajectory of it, and the unpinning of story from the resolution of a heroic problem.

Lopez has been compared to Beckett, but his humor carries more oddball buoyancy, so that play peeks through the atmosphere of existential confusion. The sentences, mostly declarative and austere, accumulate meaning as they orbit off-kilter through a subject in dialogue, picking up a momentum engineered by qualifications and inversions of wit. Just when it seems that an idea has been drawn out to its logical limit, its absolute gut punch, Lopez redoubles. Part of the pleasure of All Back Full lies in the question of how far it—whatever it is, and it is probably life—can go; how much longer, without a clue to its climax or significance. In the second act, the man, at times a self-conscious proxy for the author, asks:

“And you don’t get bored by this?

The friend says, “It’s the world we live in.”

Tracy O’Neill

Tracy O'Neill is the author of The Hopeful. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, and was a Narrative 30 Below Contest finalist. In 2012, she was awarded the Center for Fiction's Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, LitHub, BOMB, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian, New World Writing, Narrative, Scoundrel Time, Guernica, Bookforum, Electric Literature, Grantland, Vice, The Guardian, VQR, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column Body Language appears in Catapult. She currently teaches at the City College of New York and is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.

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