Zachary Schomburg will insist, if you ask, that his novel is "very traditional."
But it's a strange tradition, if so. Mammother (Featherproof Books, 345 pages, $17.95) is at once a surrealist comedy about death and a deeply human tragedy about love, set in a town called Pie Time whose factory makes nothing but beer and cigarettes.
Its people are beset by a terrible plague: Without warning, God's Finger descends from the sky to leave murderous holes in Pie Timers' chests. In each corpse, a little memento is left behind—a telephone, say, or a radio.
"Your hearts are too small," says the radio left behind in the "death hole" of the town's former preacher, whose name is Father Mothers.
Schomburg, a Nebraska-raised Portlander prone to rumpled sweaters, has many stories for how the novel came to exist. The simplest is that he got a residency in France in 2015 that allowed him to do nothing but write. Schomburg has published four books of poetry in the past decade, but novels were foreign to him—not only in format but also because of their brute length.
"Maybe poetry is the thing I've studied, but it's also something I could do in a single sitting," Schomburg tells WW. "You can do it in an evening, put it out, put it away. A novel is a lot of work."
The seed for Mammother was planted in Portland five years ago, however, while waiting for a Red Fang show to start.
"I was writing a poem with a friend," says Schomburg. "The very first word was 'mammother.' I put the m down, she put the a down. We got 'mammoth.' And then she wrote e, which was frustrating because Mammoth would have been a great title."
So he finished the word by writing "mammother." Schomburg's obsession with this word formed the eventual structure of the novel—and also the story of its main character, Mano Medium.
"After that moment, I kept thinking about that word—it started an entire plot, mostly to think about it as a noun: What does a mammother do? He hunts mammoths. But also it means to get larger and larger."
Mano Medium is the hero of the book, if there is one. After taking over the roles of both barber and butcher, he also becomes a repository for the Pie Time dead, holding each of the items found in their death holes. He also holds "Death Lessons" for the town's children, letting them play with animals he eventually butchers in front of them.
Schomburg wrote the novel's first paragraph at Mother Foucault's Bookshop on Southeast Morrison Street, where he sat at a typewriter and tapped out what would become the book's first sentence: "If you felt ready to die, wanted death bad enough and had little enough to live for, The Reckoner would grant your wish and fall on you."
For a time, the first paragraph was all he had. An attempt at a graphic novel with artist Gregor Holtz also ran aground. The only surviving image is of a monster luridly eating a woman from the middle of her legs up.
Mammother can read as if an alien had learned the concept of a novel from outer space, and set about writing one. To learn the novel's form, Schomburg solicited advice from local novelist Patrick deWitt—whose Undermajordomo Minor, another fable without a moral, is a sort of spiritual cousin to Mammother—and steeped himself in the magical narratives of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Marquez, and the cruelties of Shirley Jackson.
As in a García Marquez village, the cast of characters surrounding Mano is limitlessly vast. But if the book is best represented by any one of its parts, it is perhaps the epic journey of Enid Pine, who travels so slowly in her monthslong journey down a garden path to Mano's house that she's treated as furniture.
Schomburg says he wanted to create a form of storytelling that's the opposite of A Game of Thrones, in which long journeys are always skipped over. In what might be a metaphor for creation itself, Pine finally gives painful birth to the tusks of a mammoth that did not yet exist—a mammoth she then triumphantly rides. As Mano's mother once said of the mammoth hunter she loved, "Only a great hunter can find something that doesn't exist."
The journey is long and strange, and it follows a path that can at times be difficult to see. But in the end, there are wonders. Mammothing is, perhaps, the wholehearted work of the book. "When Enid finally gets there and these tusks are pulled out of her vagina," Schomburg says, "it's pretty satisfying."