"The Unyielding" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Eraserhead Press
Written by Gary J. Shipley
2017, 100 pages, Fiction
Released on December 1st, 2017
When authors talk about transcending narrative, they’re bullshitting 99% of the time. At the top of the other 1% is an author who just does it without talking about it: Gary J. Shipley. Brave, unique, new, extremely bizarre; call it what you will, no one else is producing the type of uncanny, poetic, philosophical, extreme fiction that Shipley keeps delivering. His latest novel, The Unyielding, is a narrative that manages to be all of that while also approximating a standard novel in terms of characters battling/experiencing something and possessing a somewhat linear/chronological progression. Aside from that, it’s a hardcore body horror novella unlike anything you’ve ever read.
“When I tried to move her I couldn’t. It was like she was glued to the floor, or impaled on something, or some things, multiple impalements, because no part of her would move. And I worked on these premises for longer than felt right. I pulled at her feet, both bare and more discoloured than usual, black in places, purplish in others, dirtied from the floor. I tried each arm, pulling hard enough to risk them popping their sockets. But still there was no movement. She stayed there, secured to the spot.”
Welcome to the strange world of The Unyielding. The narrator’s wife is dead, but she’s not decomposing. And she can’t be moved. Her skin is coated in a translucent slime and her blood supply seems endless. Oh, and that’s just the beginning of everything. What follows is a nasty, surreal tale of family as they learn to deal with life in the presence of an immovable, an entity that is simultaneously a corpse, a hope, an impossibility, and even a source of nutrition. The information they have comes from their own daily experiences and those shared on a website for folks across the world who are facing the same situation with a loved one. Unfortunately, figuring things out is almost impossible because change is the only constant when it comes to the immovables.
Shipley has delivered a novella that works not only on a multiplicity of layers but also one whose layers constantly expand in a rhizomatic way. Because this is a book review and not an academic paper, I’ll try to just cover the basics, even if there are no “basics” when it comes to Shipley’s work.
The first thing readers should know about this strange novella is that it starts after the death of the mother/wife and then quickly familiarizes the reader with the new, bizarre occurrences going on inside the narrator’s house. The second is that poetry and philosophy share a spotlight when it comes to the way the author presents the narrative. Shipley loves to play with language, and he does it here in a way that allows him to explore the nature of death as well as the nature of the (un)death he has created:
“We’d wanted to die before we knew what death was. We thought the wife-mother was dead. We wanted to be like her. We still think of her as dead, because immovables are dead: it is the standard definition given by The Unyielding. And we were becoming like her without dying, or else we were dying like her without being dead. Every time we moved felt more like death than anything we’d ever understood as death. If she was dead, and we were following, we were taking life with us as a carrier for the death that was more than any previous human expungement.”
Another important element of this book is the author’s penchant for ideas so powerful that they merit existence outside the story. When reading a Shipley story, readers should know that each individual part is as important as their sum, and that sometimes a single paragraph can contain a poem, a cypher, or an invitation to look at what’s being read through a new lens:
A mosaic constructed from shards of broken mirrors was nestled into the softness of her back. Each piece embedded into the slime leaving no space even for a finger to get through. And I saw myself looking so many times at once. Me looking at myself looking at myself with no forewarning of what was seen. The sight of the dumb animal slippage of my mistake. The duped penumbral swamp of myself. I stopped looking as soon as I could. As soon as I realized that what I was seeing was my own seeing built directly into her, in place of her.
Lastly, The Unyielding is the kind of novel that can be enjoyed on a plethora of levels. At the ends of that spectrum stand very different things. For fans of hardcore horror fiction, this is a book about body horror where a family lives in the presence of a body that’s changing. They touch it, feed off of it, explode because of it, mutate because of it, try to become one with it, and experience a wide array of strange, horrible things because of it. On the opposite side of that spectrum, readers who enjoy deconstructing texts will quickly notice that everything in this book, much like the unmoving body at its epicenter, possesses a double life. For example, the body itself is a vehicle through which the author explores our relationship to loss and the discovery of new things. Furthermore, the digitalized/mediated connection to others undergoing the same kind of experiences and the way the family members eventually turn into hermits whose world revolves around the immovable mother and the online world. This is one of the smartest commentaries of the omnipresence of the digital inside the home and the way even familial relationships are now mediated. Shipley speaks eloquently about that never-ending cycle:
I watched my son watch videos of videos being watched by someone else. I watched his eyes dismantling all the many receding layers of recreational surveillance, and via his cam- feed watched what he watched.
Whether you’re looking for a, extremely gory, fun, fast read or a profound, smart novella exploring various themes while people become full of worms, then this is for you.