Book: Sea of the Patchwork Cats
Author: Carlton Mellick III
Type of Book: Fiction, Bizarro, Novella
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Carlton Mellick III. Eraserhead Press. Bizarro. It should all be clear to you now.
Availability: Published in 2006 by Avant Punk, an imprint of Eraserhead Press, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I wasn’t real happy with the last CM3 book I read. Which surprised me because I generally find all of his works something to talk about, not something to rant about. I had read Sea of the Patchwork Cats a while back, but due to a cat-related emergency (my cat that looks like Hitler lost a leg to injection-site sarcoma and I sold around 2,000 books to finance the surgery), I sold my copy. I recently bought it again, and this book reminded me of how I became so enchanted with the bizarros.
CM3 at his best has an earthy, yet ethereal quality to his prose. This is such a contradiction that in a sense, all I can say is that once you read him, you will understand. The often outre subject matter is filtered through a poetic mind that finds beauty in ugliness, romance in horror, happiness in despair and doesn’t need to use ten words when one will do. His prose style often reminds me of Hemingway with its word conservation. Which for me is a good thing because simple phrases permit me to fill in the blanks, to create visions in my head. I am one of those people who could not care less what the characters in books look like because ultimately, I decide what they look like even when the author tries to tell me. If you are one to prefer lots of descriptives, you may disagree. As always mileage varies, etc.
I am also a fan of this sort of clipped sentence structure, because it harks back to one of the grandfathers of weird, Bukowski, a writer who defiantly refused to set scene. Many bizarros also refuse to set too much scene. The subject matter – an alcoholic, lonely man whose better nature has been masked by the drink – is also an homage, even if unintended. And think of it this way: It requires a boatload of talent to tell the story of a completely different world when practicing word conservation.
Sea of the Patchwork Cats is the story of a man who awakens from a drunken stupor to find that the entire world committed suicide while he was out cold. He takes up residence in a house that eventually is swept out to sea. After spending time adrift in a sinking house, he eventually comes to rest next to a stone house carved to resemble two women sitting back to back. He finds what he thinks are human women encased in ice inside the sinking ship of a house and manages to rescue three, only to find they were really victims of a bizarre porno scheme to breed human women with animals. Once inside the house, the house takes on qualities one would associate with a Danielewski novel. It shifts, it changes internally, but one constant are the calico cats who live inside the house. Eventually the man and one of the animal human hybrids have to come to an unsettling agreement with a spirit in the house to be able to live there.
And as always with a bizarro novel, a plot synopsis does so little good in describing what the book really is, what it is about and what it means. It is both an end of the world novel and a novel of new beginnings. It is a story of entrapment and of freedom. It is a story of horror and of beauty.
CM3 tells the tale of a complex man, a man who has the capacity for empathy but who is exhausted by life and his addiction. The narrator is an old man when the novel begins and a very drunk one. It is his inebriated state that saves him when the entire world decides to kill itself – he is unconscious when mankind is overwhelmed by the urge to die. After finding the world dead, he becomes ill and goes to a hotel where he recovers. As he mends from his illness, he realizes something dreadful:
In my sickness, I started to think about other people who might still be alive. The incapacitated. People in comas or in full body casts. People in hospitals. There are people who were unable to do themselves in. Who survived like I did.
Only, unlike myself, they’re still incapacitated. They weren’t able to sober up from their comas or their injuries. They are still there. With nobody around to care for them.
My heart felt like a rock in my chest. It had been days. Too many days. While I was drinking myself into oblivion people were in hospital beds slowly dying. It doesn’t take long to die of dehydration.
I killed them. I could have saved many but I chose to drink instead. I killed them.
I felt like such a horrid pile of shit. A pathetic old corpse rotting in his bed.
When he recovers, he sets out to save people, going to the hospital district to try to be heroic, to be the decent man he wants to be.
I tried to get myself to call out to the windows. To look for rooms that might have patients strapped down or plugged into walls.
“I’ve got to save them,” I repeated over and over. “Even if they are bedridden and I have to take care of them for the rest of my life, I’m still going to save them.”
My legs took two steps into the hospital, then turned me around and brought me to the nearest bar.
I didn’t look back.
The narrator is too in thrall to his sickness even at the end of the world to be able to change. God damn.
See, this is why I talk about the bizarros so much. Because in the midst of so much oddness, so much bizarro-ness, most of the novels present an intense look at the human condition. The purpose of these books may be to entertain rather than provoke thought or contemplation, but many of these writers do both far better than mainstream novelists who set out with those goals in mind. That there is no internal, at times interminable, dialogue wherein the narrator over-analyzes his failures makes it all the more real. You see it. The immediacy of his failure to act is visceral and you know the agony is there without it needing to be spelled out for you. You feel it with every drink the narrator takes after he flees the hospital district. The best part of bizarros is that of all the genres, this is the one where you will consistently find writers who genuinely know how to show and not tell.
But like all drunks, he sobers up when he is really in danger, and that sobriety and adrenaline in the face of fear makes him more competent, more desperate to save the women frozen in ice before the house he takes refuge in sinks into the Pacific Ocean
I turn around and go for the next one. Running. Need to get them out faster. The second one I throw out of the freezing mechanism and push it out of the house in only a few minutes. Adrenaline must have taken over me.
I do it again. I rip a block of ice out of the wall, but it crashes against the garage floor. It cracks. I pull on the block of ice and the crack widens, splits the ice into halves. Blood fills the saltwater floor.
“Shit!” I cry, punching myself in the face.
Again, we don’t need too many words to feel what the narrator feels when he fails.
The stone house in the middle of the sea holds many secrets and seeming miracles, but these miracles come at a cost revealed to them by a wraith in the home, a powerful spirit called the Queen of Cats. I will not spoil the ending, but the book ends strangely, as it should, an ending that has shades of Faust, Eden, and Dorian Gray.
The book is not all sadness and beauty, for there is some dark humor, as well. Jaji, one of the female hybrids, is part snake. She bonds with the narrator and they share a bed, with the occasional mishap:
When I wake up I’m covered with sweat and see that Jaji is trying to swallow me again. Her mouth is covering my ankles. She slides my feet out of her and lies down next to me, facing the other way, pretending she’s asleep.
I sit up. “What were you doing?”
She pretends she’s half asleep. “Huh.”
“You–” I begin.
“No, I wasn’t,” she says.
She sits up and tries to hold my hand. “I’m sorry,” she cries. “It’s my snake DNA kicking in.”
I liked this book muchly. I think you should read it. CM3 says it is based on dreams he had, but even with a lack of internal logic (and if you require all novels you read to have internal logic, you are barking up the wrong trees with bizarros, but whatever), the emotional ends are tied, which was necessary because this is a highly emotional novel.
My only quarrel with this book is one I see I am going to have with a lot of CM3 books. I am unsure why I did not see these issues the first time I read some of his books. But I see them now and things like this matter to me because in a novella with spare sentence structure, it shows a lack of polish that gives lie to the importance and entertainment value of the story.
The book is peppered with editorial problems, from outright misspellings to omitted words to inconsistent and questionable punctuation. From all the books I have read from Eraserhead Press and their imprints, I am unsure why this problem plagues CM3 the most. It is one thing to miss a small problem – it is another thing to have three typos within two back-to-back paragraphs. It’s upsetting enough that if I did not worry that it was a borderline condescending gesture, I would offer to proofread gratis all of CM3’s works before they go to press. Not change a single line – just make sure words are spelled correctly and usage is consistent.
I say all of this not to be the grammar police but because poorly edited works tell critics and readers that the content is not worth the cost of admission. Most of the time, CM3 is well worth it, but poor editing drags down the best book. CM3 is so much better than the errors one finds on his printed pages.