Book Review: Krakow Melt
I've always like writers with three names. Especially when you can make something of it, then make that into a nickname. DFW is okay, but JCO is better if you pretend there's a vowel between J and C (for example U for JuCO). But then DAC is better than all of them.
DAC is Daniel Allen Cox. The Allen part makes me think of Allan from EAP, but as a whole, DAC is more fun to say.
DAC is also fun to read. Nominated in 2008 for a Lammy for his novel Shuck, Cox's Krakow Melt is his sophomoric novel (if you don't include his novella and chapbook), but it doesn't suffer from the much feared sophomore slump. It is strong like anything he's ever written (he's a columnist for Canada's Gay and Lesbian newspaper Xtra!), with lots of personality. I have always seen him as the gay Chuck Palaniuk (they're often compared). But he's "gay" because his writing has a certain queer consciousness to it: Palaniuk is popular because he hides his queerness; Cox is who he is because he's an activist, as he shows in his book.
Krakow Melt is a hodgepodge of a novel. It's about Poland, it's about fire, it's about queers, it's about art, it's about dragons (yep!); it's metafiction told in letters, and time diaries. But to clarify: it's a beautiful hodgepodge.
What makes it beautiful is Cox's poetically concise prose and his ability to tell a story from pieces: each chapter can be read by itself, but the sum of the pieces are much greater.
The entire piece is the story of Radek, a fire artist (for lack of better wording), who builds scale sized models of cities only to set them on fire. It's part art, part social theory. To Radek, fire is both beautiful and necessary: "...you have to destroy in order to create." With that idea, he goes about Krakow in an effort to the subvert its homophobic system. He lectures an art class, only to fuck up the students' idea of art; he parkours around the city even though he can't jump anything past three feet in height; he has sex with men in boiler rooms. It is only after he meets Dorota that he becomes serious in his pursuit.
Dorota, a quiet arts type, mysterious when we first meet her, is also an activist. But instead of fire, she has literature. Yet she becomes the flame to Radek's wick, and what follows is havoc across the city and sex on the beach.
But as we learn, it's only a quiet havoc. Polad is a country of tradition, and we see them struggle for their voice in a society that denies their very existence. Despite being activists, they can only communicate through silences:"Dorota has been cooking all day, filling the house with the fragrance of one comforting hint after another. She bangs her wooden spoon hard on the side of a pot. We've developed many wordless forms of communication like this, because Krakow has become too drowned in words, endles spoken noise about the Pope's funeral..." As artists, they struggle with their faith in art: "I used to believe we could change the world through literature, no matter what. We would till hearts slowly, a page at a time. But I've learned that books are useless in times of war: nobody has time to read them."
Throughout the book, this question of art and activism is continually raised, talked about, and argued about. In fact, Radek and Dorota might be seen as symbols in current activst circles. In that way, Krakow's Melt can be seen as Cox's realization, on paper, of a community talking to itself, or at least, a call for the queer community to talk activism. Krakow Melt is indeed a novel for queers by a queer.
Yet such novels are always disappointing and easily didatic. Authors always put politics before the art of writing and the story falls apart. Yet Cox is a skilled writer with the poetics and humor of Amy Hempel (or maybe Gordon Lish) and the absurdity of Chuck Palaniuk. Out of that Cox carves out a distinct voice, and as he shows in this second novel: he can break your heart and tape it back together, he'll even staple it next to your brain--no additional charge!
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