A Shiny, Unused Heart by J.A. Tyler (A Review by David Atkinson)

Black Coffee Press

110 pgs, $12.95

I could start out this review by telling you what A Shiny, Unused Heart by J.A. Tyler is about.  Perhaps I would mention that the book is the story of a man who learns he is going to be a father and then cracks.  I think that would certainly be accurate. However, I don’t think a description in that vein would do the book justice.  Merely detailing the narrative subject seems inadequate for conveying any real sense for what it feels like to read this book.

What I mean by this is that the actual narrative subject seems to be such a small portion of what reading A Shiny, Unused Heart actually entails.  It is true that the main character learns his wife is pregnant and then mentally loses it.  After all, one passage reads:

Yesterday, she said I am pregnant.  And he couldn’t respond, exclamation point face, question mark eyebrows, comma curve lip.  She couldn’t stop smiling, yesterday, and he couldn’t do anything except the constant winking at a whiskey bottle, inexcusable and ill, transparent.

However, this passage, as well as the rest of the book, is much more than the information contained therein.  The story is so more than just the story.

From the above quote, it should be evident that the reader is within this character’s mind.  The prose is his thoughts.  Further, these are his thoughts as he thinks them contrasted with how he would recite them, rehearsed, to some hypothetical person in his head.  Consider this passage:

And the back of his mind moved forwards, dissident.  Thoughts pestered back again by the tips of bayonets, the hang of straight gallows, crows strung feet-wise from barbed wire, unflapping wings.  Seeing himself smoking, burning in the rain, dead leaves and no shining.  No bursts of yellow, instead cement and tracks and rivulets and rivers, final places.  Him, knowing, I will, I will, I will.

I typically hesitate to use the term “stream of consciousness” because I rarely feel that I have a grip on what it means, and even more rarely, feel that someone else will understand what I mean, but A Shiny, Unused Heart appears to me to fit.

Falling somewhere between the omniscient narrator explanation of character’s mental states of Virginia Woolf and the almost completely unstructured and incomprehensible outpourings of James Joyce’s characters, the reader can understand what Tyler’s protagonist is thinking but is nowhere near distant enough for even the minor amount of reflection and disassociation from feeling inherent in arranging thoughts for explanation.  As a result of the psychic distance level at which Tyler puts the reader in the protagonist’s head, the reader can follow the line of thought but finds the line is still non-linear, poetic, and filled with emotionally-charged images.  The effect is similar to one the protagonist himself experiences in the passage:

Because on the way down, jumping as he did, things were flashing one, two, three, four in his head.  The movie of him, playing, burning with the heat and reel.  Reeling.  Flutters of photographs, dropping down, leaflets, impetus dwindling until gone, this the last time he would remember, see, watch, linger.

Because the reader experiences these formed (but not yet completely organized) thoughts of the protagonist, the reader effectively thinks along with him.  The reader vicariously lives this portion of the protagonist’s life in a way that seems much more real than most stories.  Reading A Shiny, Unused Heart is not just listening to the story of this man, it is experiencing it.

And the experience is moving, if frequently not completely pleasant.  I do not mean that the book is not enjoyable, but that these leaping and powerful images and emotions are often dark places.  After all, this is a man breaking, not taking a nice stroll in the park.  Pleasantness would actually be a bit odd.  There is, just by way of one example, the passage that reads:

Inside the noise he heard people talking, the beating of a heart, crowds shouting, screaming.  He couldn’t understand.  He heard his entire body as a mob exploding, a strain of virus, a disease, a speck of toxin.  He heard toppling from inside, the crashing sounds of crumpling bones, steady and monotonous.  Inside of it a million voices telling him insipid and grotesque things, how he was going to die, how he was going to fail, how he was going to cease.  And her eyes were closed as she listened.  Him, staring at a picture on the wall, a watercolor of ducks on a lake.

Hence, this experiencing is why I conclude that merely describing the narrative events of the book is so inadequate for getting a real feel of A Shiny, Unused Heart.  I don’t mean to suggest that these are not important, or even that they are not interesting and entertaining.  What I mean to suggest is that reciting the basic facts and happenstances of the book fall short of the experiencing of this man’s crisis that the book itself conveys.  Anything less is just less.

The only way to get the experience is to read the book, so that is what I would recommend doing.