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“A Strange, Fantastic Notion” A review of Seth Rogoff’s Thin Rising Vapors

November 5, 2018

 

At the beating heart of Seth Rogoff’s allusion-dense mystery Thin Rising Vapors is the intractable question: “why does man take his own life?” There are no witnesses to that determinative final act, just whispers from memories and, in this case, words left behind: a lot of words.

 

Paradoxically, there is a great deal going on in this novel of relative inaction. The movements are internal, however, and they cross religious, cultural, psychological, historical, philosophical, and literary lines. It is likely that a psychologist would be sitting with notebook in hand, taking in the words of the protagonist and narrator.

 

It is not necessary to issue a spoiler alert before noting that the novel’s protagonist Abel Prager dies. We learn this incontrovertible fact in the strange Foreword, purportedly written by the diegetic narrator character Ezra Stern. Prager’s death is the mystery and the act that moves the story in multiple directions, with the exception of forward. The Foreword, a structural element of Front Matter in non-fiction, becomes, rather, our end point in this brilliant and peculiar work of fiction. While there is no clear linear distinction to the narrative, there is a linear architecture to the chapter headings, which are given appellations of Day One, Day Two, up through Day Seven. This sequence is hardly coincidental, alluding to Biblical mythology of the number of days God created the earth and then rested. There is something godlike about creating a world of fiction, the author indirectly suggests, and it would be hard to dispute. If readers wish to follow this course, numerology figures into the tale of Abel Prager and his childhood friend Ezra. Stern drives seven hours to reach the cabin in Casco, Maine where Abel lived for a time, seven being a number of perfection.

 

Rogoff’s title Thin Rising Vapors is a direct allusion to Henry David Thoreau and his works Walden and his Journal, with the phrase a direct quotation. The dictionary definition of the word “vapors” is known well enough, but perhaps, less well-known are the archaic definitions of the word, in which “vapors” connote “mental depression” and “a strange, senseless, or fantastic notion.” Rogoff’s “strange and fantastic” tale of ideas and a man attempting to live a solitary life hew to the archaic definitions of “vapors.”

 

As in Rogoff’s first novel First, the Raven, A Preface, Thin Rising Vapors takes us into the worlds of other texts, Melville’s Moby Dick and the Bible figuring into both of Rogoff’s published novels. Following Prager’s written letters and notes, Stern offers commentary, often likely mistaking Prager’s intent. In Prager’s typed letters or journal entries—we’re told repeatedly, on a Remington—readers find the story within the story, a framing technique Rogoff has used to great effect in his first novel, as well. There are the eternal struggles and repeating story of fratricide. Cain and Abel rise up like “vapors” in Rogoff’s novel, time and again as the childhood friends from a Jewish religious, summer camp work with and against each other. Childhood is never left behind in this work, as Rogoff suggests, those pains and joys elementally with us.

 

The mesmerizing Klein sister characters, Juliet and Leah, come and go in dream-like passages in which they may or may not be sleeping with Prager, cruelly casting him aside, and returning to sleep with him time and again. The sensitive, perceptive Abel is ironically unable to really see and understand Leah’s pain. We have only the insertion of an obtuse line in a Prager note that Leah’s wrist is heavily bandaged, before she climbed into bed with him. 

 

The most heavily alluded to works in Thin Rising Vapors are H.D. Thoreau’s Walden and Journal, from which not only the title but a fair amount of the text itself emanates. If there is any fault in this beautiful and satisfyingly mysterious novel, it is in the inordinate number of quotations from Walden and Journal entries. Prager’s life-altering and, paradoxically, life-ending decision is to mirror Thoreau’s stated purpose in going to Walden Pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Thoreau ultimately chose to separate himself from society in an attempt to “find happiness and self-fulfillment.” Prager finds death. Rogoff seems not to trust his readers to be familiar with Thoreau’s works because he has inserted large passages of Thoreau’s text directly into his novel. Having Prager and, to a lesser extent, Stern react to the transcendentalist’s philosophy without the long passages from Thoreau would have seemed a more precise approach.

 

Still, this is a gorgeous work of fiction in which ideas, philosophy, Freudian psychology, and old Testament Biblical history are intermingled to give more than a feast for thought long after closing the last page of Thin Rising Vapors.

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