by James Pate on Jul.26, 2014
One of the strangest, most original books I’ve read so far this summer is Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights — strange because of its mixture of whimsy and horror, the quotidian (neighborhoods, tree-lined streets) and the sublime (a mountain that holds up the universe, a giant flower). The story is so simple it could be from a children’s book. A narrator moves through a mysterious series of scenarios (a neighborhood, red rooms with bizarre sculptures, parking lots that spread out for miles) in his effort to “talk about color.” He encounters a villain (an old man whose “soul is like a pitcher with all the water poured out of it”), a sort of love interest (E, who constantly appears from the upper branches of trees), and an incredibly unlucky friend (M, who seems to be on a quest, but we never know for what exactly). The narrator himself is young, curious, and amiable for the most part — except when he gets a job “carrying a flamethrower around the neighborhood, melting people.” But even that brief moment is so Dali-esque — “melting people” made me think of melted watches — that it’s hard to hold it against him. He’s continually good-natured, often using the word “nice” to describe the more fun things that happen to him. But his seeming innocence is never cloying. He’s too alert to the world around him, too aware of its dangers — as when the old man kidnaps E — to become overly cute.
One of the best qualities about Green Lights, I think, is the power of the imagery: it often borders on the psychedelic, but not in a clichéd way. More like the dreams and visions of Rimbaud (especially Illuminations), Angela Carter, Jack Smith, Harry Darger. As the narrator describes one bacchanal: “All of us were wearing masks. Mine was white with narrow eyes and red paint on the front. The music of us glowed like something better than sound. It was breaking through boundaries. This is the greatest thing, to be in each of us.” Only a few pages earlier, there is a giant flower “at least a hundred feet tall.” The narrator winds up swimming in a lake he finds inside of it. Muntz’s spectrum is often in cartoon colors, forming in cartoon shapes, and like some cartoons, the images have their own screwy logic — scenes leap acrobatically from other scenes.
A few years ago, I remember reading a book review — I can’t remember of what book — but the reviewer said it was a children’s book written for adults. It was meant as a compliment, and it could apply to Green Light as well. It’s filled with lines like “E was looking at a flower. Then she held it up to the sun for a second, until it caught on fire.” It’s a book that tries to lure us to some fresher, less hidebound, less “adult” was of thinking, perceiving. It’s a book of radical, subversive innocence.