Jason Schwartz’s second book arrives more than a decade after Knopf published his first—the short story collection A German Picturesque—in 1998. Like A German Picturesque, John the Posthumous is experimental fiction and it is similar in style to Schwartz’s earlier work. Readers who admired those stories will certainly appreciate John the Posthumous, and may have already read sections of the book that were previously published in print and online literary journals.

But what to say about Schwartz’s latest? Well, it’s a novella—sort of. It is certainly strange and bewildering. Paragraphs contain declarative sentences that state arcane facts. Sometimes those facts turn out to be fabricated. (“The word adultery does not, in fact, derive from cry—just as you had suspected—and the town, I will concede, suitably antique, and quiet now, stands in lieu of another town.”) Only on occasion does the first-person narrator insert himself into the text. Old-fashioned words and jargon are frequently used but rarely interfere with the rhythm or direction—such as it is—of this dark, peculiar novella.

Schwartz’s prose is obsessive and repetitive, often with in-sentence contradictions or qualifications. His language can be poetic, sometimes hypnotic. Elsewhere the writing is taut, which when combined with macabre subject matter creates a perceivable tension and anxiety. Schwartz, meanwhile, seamlessly combines the real and the invented. To wit, readers might be interested to know that John the Posthumous — he of the excellent title to this book — was indeed an actual person. He was a French king who lived for a mere five days in November 1316.

Throughout the novella Schwartz centers on several specific subjects, e.g. architecture, etymology, entomology, and ornithology. He writes in detail about geographical names, folklore, household fires, war history, tableware, weapons, beds, coffins, embalming, and biblical text. In experimental writing like Schwartz’s, sentences are the paramount element. Yet digression and assemblage might be the important artistic techniques here. Schwartz’s words have the precision of a poet’s, but his prose is the compositional work of an accomplished collagist. As such, Schwartz is able to collate in John the Posthumous a fine baroque art piece on domesticity, marriage, and betrayal.

Read the full review at The Rumpus.

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