Review of Carl Watson’s Idylls of Complicity

517wuU45OKLLet’s start with the elephant in the room. (Let’s also say that the last sentence contained an intentional India-related pun.) I know Carl Watson. We’re not friends, mind you. No, it’s better to say that we are friendly. We’ve had drinks a couple time. We’ve stood uncomfortably in a corner at a couple publishing parties over the years, but we don’t have each others phone number. We do not “connect” on social media. We merely run in the same circles. In fact, he was featured as recently as last month, and Sensitive Skin Press was the house behind his last novel.
I mention these facts for the simple reason that they do not matter. Watson is among the finest unsung American poet-novelists working today. He is all those things that the “mainstream” publishers does not understand. While we supposedly need more novels that reflect the globalizing and multicultural nature of the publishing industries need to diversify, it feels as if the majority of novels are still about upper middle class caucasians living with ennui in the suburbs. Watson instead wants to take use to the confusing underbelly of artist communities and extreme poverty while writing in the poetry of the soul. He is intertextual while maintaining a working chronology. Sensual and erotic without writing bad sex scene, really not writing sex scenes at all, Watson continues to provide the reader with taste and beauty while never shying away from the grotesque reality many of use we could forget. No better has he been at using these gift to fit this set of attributes than in his new novel, Idylls of Complicity.
Equal parts set-in a community of bubbling under artistic community in 1980s Chicago and during an extended and ill fated trip to India, Idylls of Complicity dares the reader to contemplate the similarities and differences in the virgin/whore myth through the personas of Maria Callas, the Virgin Mary and Shiva/Kali.

denzinger-mary19 callas kali
Watson know better than to enter into such a possibly antifeminist track without undercutting the whole affair. His narrator (stand-in?), Frank Payne, is completely clueless. When Frank admits to himself that he and his girlfriend are in the the death-throes of their relationship (all of his relationships die in strange and glorious ways), he dreams of the relationship’s end as an existential crises that they both engage in the same conspiracy. “Like Didi and Gogo from Godot, we often joked about the day we would break up[…I]t was easier to say, ‘Let’s go our separate ways,’ knowing we wouldn’t actually act on it.” It’s not giving too much to say that the joke is on him.
Digression #1: Watching TV on Saturday
One Saturday morning, not that long after finishing Idylls of Complicity, I decided to watch some TV. There was a travel program on, as I was searching for something interesting to watch. I stopped for a while. The clueless septuagenarian host was taking the viewer through the streets of Calcutta until he comes upon a temple of Kali.
The travel guy is visibly disturbed. Trampling on her lover with her multiple tongues flickering into the air. The show closes in on the the devout praying to the multifaceted goddess.
TV travel dude looked away from the devotees, and the camera, in disgust. This disgust does not even take into account other aspects of Kali. No multiple anuses; No multiple vaginas; No pails of feces, semen or menstrual blood for her to devour in order to make the world whole again. TV travel dude just did not have the guts. TV travel dude could not stand the tongues. TV travel dude did not stand a chance.
Watson on the other hand is ready for the totality , or at least Frank is ready for it. However, his quest for Kali begins well before he finds himself in India. We must believe, as readers, that Frank’s “adventure” in India is representative of the experiences he has with all women. Maybe he has that relationship with all of humanity. Frank’s life leaves the reader with a sense of loss, or imperfection. Look at his world. A murder leads to no type of conclusion. An art instillation dedicated to Maria Callas that really never gets off the ground. A visit to a statue of the Virgin Mary goes awry. A promise of “holy communion” with a teenage prostitute. All of these events enter and exit the narrative unresolved and in many ways having little effect on the character of Frank Payne. He has already reached his maximum threshold. The pun on his name reflects back on his inability to find spiritual relief.
Yet, while Frank can’t grasp his own culpability, he misunderstands how he is nothing more than the stories of his life.
Funny how the plot just sort of fizzles out[…]That fizzling out is really the resolution of the
one grand plot into thousands of subplots, new plots, newer better stories about less
important things-more complicated but less grand (201).
However, our stories might fizzle, or pop, it does not matter as it just breaks off into a multitude of stories. But, what about stories.
Digression #2: Video of Carl Watson on YouTube taken sometime in the early 90s.

Watson is inhabiting one of his creations for one of those only in New York public access series that was of the time. He pushes his way up to a bar stool in a Bukowskiesque fever dream. We can tell, even from a clip that Watson himself now would find ridiculous, he is a unique literary voice not just a Bukowski acolate but a student of the literature of all time and space. However, Frank Payne would find something in the character being depicted onscreen, Eddie Paris circa 1993. Well, Frank would find something to relate to, except the fedora. We can all relate to the words…. The words….
Part III of the novel finds the reader with Frank and his girlfriend, Sophia, in India. Watson’s India of the 80s is even more the picture of a nation of the cusp of economic development than the Indian we know today. Some of Watson’s most beautiful prose comes out of a country, cliched as it may now be, that is always in motion. For example, the notion of all the modes of travel that one encounters in India are all respected as if from a check list. Bicycle, walking, train, bus, talk of the building of a subway. These modes of transportation all make their way into the novel. There is no better place where this theme of motion and population is emotionally conveyed than on the tour de force of page 69.
When speaking to someone else about this page the person I was in conversation with want to focus on Watson’s eroticism. “69,” they intoned,”What an ironic page number to focus on.” I am more circumscribed about Watson’s writing. Sex is only one aspect of Watson’s writing. In fact, his way of dealing with sex in the novel is with an aplomb that incorporates it into the mass of humanity.
And so, page 69 shows one of the examples of Watson’s reflections on Frank’s place in the mass of humanity. “There were long hours in transit on trains so crowded you couldn’t use the toilet because someone was sleeping in there. Trains so crowded you had to climb through the windows to exist at your stop.” This sentence seems to establish a writing that will be nothing more than simple rapportage. From that pair of sentences, the rest of the section becomes one breathtaking sentence after another providing the reader with a familiar images in cockeyed ways. Here is just a selection of those phrases I could never write from page 69 alone: “those forces that could destroy the world by a simple dance or a random dream”;“Oceanside cities, radiated wave after wave of heat back to the hot sky”;’Half-naked truck drivers at roadhouse tea stalls engaged in degaged versions of the same heated conversations.”
Those phrases may seem nothing out of the ordinary to some readers and I can understand that Watson’s narrative provides readers with a travelogue in which they can live vicariously through. Yet, the reader also needs to realize that Frank is finding his way through a gynocentric universe of his own creation in which fantasies of kinky sex, murder and even kinkier sex cults led to nothing. But, in the end, what do those things mean to Frank? The same thing that a statue of the Virgin Mary or Maria Callas’ voice do. These deviant acts are nothing more than exploitation of last hope. Transcendance through a lack of transcendance.
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Digression #3: Out and About
Met up for drinks with a former New York member of my literary tribe who had moved to the MidWest. Carl Watson happens to be there. As always, he listens more than he speaks and acts as a voice of reason.
I mention something about my work on this review. Carl Watson happens to be there. As always, he listens more than he speaks and acts as a voice of reason. Someone also at the table mentions writing a competing review. We both wax on and on about the poetic quality of the work.
Watson sits stone faced. The tenor of his few interpolations into the conversation are, “I’m not a good writer. I’m just not that good of a writer.”
I’ll still challenge you on that thought, Carl.