FLIP TO THE third page of Brantly Martin’s first novel, Pillage. It’s blank. Except for one short sentence about snorting coke. See those blocks of text, with justified margins, on the next page? Stream-of-consciousness references to the directions found on a disposable syringe, 60 different jet-setting geographical destinations, drug terminology—all offered up without commentary.
By now, you might get a creeping sense that the first-time novelist has gleaned just enough from e.e. cummings, Jim Carroll and Bret Easton Ellis to make him dangerous. But focus in now; it gets better.The page’s final sentence announces that what seemed to be a laundry list of seedy signifiers is actually fuel for a certain type of louche vampire: “Sum it up, throw it in my ass. Allow me to regurgitate.”
And so, with that unlikely but compelling metaphor, the reader is catapulted into the small and insulated, but socially vicious, world of Cracula, an addict steeped in fuzzy-edged Soho circa 2000. With no visible means of support, and only the barest of characterization, Cracula and his amoral bros zip from one party to the next, ingesting hard drugs, bragging and fucking “sames,” their sneeringly ironic term for social-climbing women (in fact, the only women in their world). Cracula feels just enough existential pain—fading in and out of recognition of how empty his existence is—to wind up in the especially hellish 12-step rehab “Cult Camp.” “I think Cracula could remember vivid dreams,” Martin tells me over Cokes at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue. “And with all the substances thrown in, it starts blending into waking life.” After trailing off, Martin adds: “Maybe for me too.” Martin made a name for himself promoting clubs like once-hot Lotus, but he now lives in Rome.Tall and ageless, with chiseled features framed by straggly long hair, he’s sitting at an outdoor table nervously rolling a cigarette, his bright irises obscured by the rim of a black fedora.
He’s a little edgy because in an hour he’s reading from Pillage in front of his friends, out in Brooklyn, and a nightlife blog has just posted rumors tying certain characters in the novel to former colleagues of Martin in the club business.That the novel’s lack of realism should protect him from these hassles is a sentiment he agrees to with a ringing, “Exactly!” When Pillage’s poetic style works, the result reads like dispatches from a man trapped in a waking dream. But at times the free-associative form, perhaps a symptom of Martin’s creative process, bogs the book down. He describes his routine as “writing on the beach for five hours a day, just stream, stream, stream. I didn’t go back.” He adds with a laugh that he’s not hiding any arty secrets. “I didn’t edit 1,000 times to get it perfectly fucked-up.”
More than plot or characterization, what makes Pillage perfectly fucked-up is syntactical pyrotechnics—italics, rhythm, repetition and irregular spacing.The novel is the first foray into fiction by powerHouse, the Dumbo-based independent that specializes in photography and art books.
So the triumph of visual—over literary— technique, makes sense. “I left a lot of white on the page on purpose,” Martin says. “To give people a lot of room to throw things on it.” A reader familiar with Cracula’s New York milieu will yearn for descriptions to anchor the hero in a more recognizable reality. However, it’s hard to pin Martin down on the specifics of his own life. Like Cracula, he’s lived in Soho, traveled widely and had drug problems. He denies rumors that certain characters in the novel represent well-connected socialites.
“That wasn’t my scene at all, and it’s not Cracula’s scene,” he says with a laugh. Just what Martin’s scene was, it’s hard to know: He’s kind of a blank page.
By Brantly Martin (powerHouse Books), 207 pages