A Shiny, Unused Heart
(Black Coffee Press, 2011)
The unnamed protagonist of J. A. Tyler’s A Shiny, Unused Heart reaches the endpoint of his chosen demise in the novella’s opening sentence: “Everything had gone to burning, blood-colored skies, and he leapt or jumped, danced or waltzed, carried himself off the building ledge, eighty-seven stories up.” Yes, this man is dead. But the grotesque, nonlinear psychology of his personal annihilation, man as epically self-bruising piñata, is what propels the book toward a realm of rhythmic intensity and emotional desecration at a depth many of us have touched briefly, and where more than a few have drowned.
Eschewing narrative convention and temporal continuity, Tyler has crafted an exquisite study in self-destruction; and while the event that triggers the protagonist’s spiral, the announcement of his young wife’s pregnancy, is no small matter, the emotional havoc it elicits is extraordinary. Fearing the apocalyptic consequences of his child’s arrival, he morphs into a vile shell of a human, prone to floor-smacking bouts of drunkenness, misanthropy, and distaste for his fragile wife and her expanding womb. The birth of his daughter only serves to alternately enrage and collapse his already precarious mental state. Over the years, he slips further into a non-reality where “his life a white canvas with colors dragging his body down, the depths a black cavernous hole. A hole sucking him in.”
Initially spiteful toward his daughter for seemingly taking an irreplaceable part of himself, the protagonist reduces her to a nearly invisible specter, a vague nuisance on the periphery. And for his wife, immersed in her own cocoon of pill-popping destruction, a “haze of pharmacy,” he wishes nothing but the worst: “the couched woman, wishing she would slit her wrists, hang herself in their basement.” His only source of what might pass for happiness comes from a real or imagined affair with a girl in a black sweater, yet his obsession with this event inevitably veers quickly toward the psychotic. He is destroyed by love, just as he has destroyed everything else, including love.
The irresistibility of a book featuring such an unrelentingly contemptible central character lies in its delivery. Tyler’s prose is robust, yet brutal and exacting, possessed of an intensity that it demands the reader share. The dense block paragraphs are mesmerizingly syncopated by successions of commas, apt and provocative word repetitions, and sudden and jagged sentence constructions, a medley of surreal and varied imagery that would appear gorgeous standing alone, yet is frightening considering the deranged mind from which it has sprung. He imagines a poster of a beautiful girl comprised of and bursting with baby parts, watches the world decompose in the company of helpless stars, conjures the streets of countries never visited, and now melting into a burning sun he prays will spontaneously combust:
He will be the moon. He will become the moon and so the moon will be wilting and sad. The moon will look unshaven and depressing. The moon won’t be a place to reach anymore … They will see the stubble of blonde-brown hair and pock marks like craters. And standing on his face the astronauts will cry.
Yet perhaps the man’s mania is not so outlandish as it initially seems. After all, most of us have felt intense anger or acute disgust toward a significant other, have fantasized about or committed infidelities, have been mired in the could-haves and should-haves of our lives’ various failings. One of A Shiny, Unused Heart’s greatest successes lies in its language’s ability to identify and delve deeply into the boundary between primal yet rational emotion and systemic degradation, the brief rages with which we all wrestle that become surreal demons in the minds of an unlucky few. To humanize the monster.
The book’s unique, non-linear arc (comprised of short chapters designated simply as “beginning,” “middle,” or “end,” and in no clear pattern) might produce a much different, and possibly unwelcome, effect in the hands of a lesser writer. Noted for his large output of flash fictions—several of the chapters were originally published as such—Tyler skillfully shuns dialogue and all but the least discernable plot development in favor of pregnant, pause-worthy sentences that build upon a vitality that strives to equal the sum of the book’s parts. The absence of a strict chronology contributes to the consuming madness that knows nothing “but this hollow vibrant space. A hole on his insides and he can’t paint it out.” If the reader chooses to enter the insane solipsist’s head, it must be total assimilation; Tyler gives one little choice but to remain.