DEKALB, IL—November 25, 2015—The 2016 winner of the Kenneth Patchen Award for the Innovative Novel is Charles Hood, of Palmdale, California, for his novel Mouth, illustrated by painter and printmaker Christine Mugnolo.
In his encomium for the award, contest judge Derek Pell stated,
Having never been invited to judge a literary award, I am humbled by this opportunity—especially since it honors the name of one of my favorite writers. Indeed, I’ve admired Kenneth Patchen since I first read his novel THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT as a teenager. The nominated manuscripts were all of high caliber, and my choice does not reflect negatively on the other entries. But this year’s selection – MOUTH – resonated deeply. Please note, I do not come from an academic background so I will not indulge in theoretical mumbo-jumbo here, just the subjective facts as best I can report them. Briefly, my criterion for judging the manuscripts was to ask myself a series of simple questions: Does the work seem familiar, something I’ve encountered before? (No.) Is the writer’s voice unique and does it carry the reader through to the end. (Yes.) Is the text experimental in the best sense of that word, i.e. is it readable, yet never predictable. (Yes.) Does the text contain a story at its core (Yes.) Was I compelled to highlight passages and share them with others? (Yes.) Was there anything in the manuscript I’d have edited out? (No.) And finally…Is this a text I will want to read again? (Yes.) The writer (whose name at this writing is still unknown to me) has a unique voice and style. Sentences are sometimes fragmented on edge of abstraction, then sharp, staccato, poetic and lyrical. It is clear from the opening passages that the writer is at the wheel and in total control. I did not know where I was being taken, but I was excited to be going on this ride. The story is absorbing on several levels. It’s a tale told in the voices of two women, Chica and Bela. The former is the main narrative voice -- her text appearing at the top of each page, while Bela’s appears at the bottom (usually only a sentence or two.) Bela is also credited as the illustrator whose portraits of Chica appear interspersed throughout. Pages contain a large white space separating the two voices. For me, this area represents what is alluded to but not revealed in the text, either backstory or undescribed events in the present narrative. The reader is invited to fill this space, imagining all that is hidden. Bela, a museum curator, asks Chica to accompany her on a trip from London to the Soviet Union – Siberia -- in search of buried mammoth tusks and bones. We discover that the women are lovers poised at the entrance to a fragile relationship. The narrative reveals enigmatic snippets of Chica’s broken past, her physical (and psychic) injuries (a broken jaw); her relationship with her father; and gnawing feelings of inadequacy, of being ugly and undesirable. The prehistoric bones are metaphoric talismans as Chica is searching within herself and exploring the connection to her own injuries: Deep inside, the bones hurt, benthic connections of ache and groan. On the outside, though, the skin is numb but supple and yet you still can’t smile—the muscles have been cut, plus nothing connects up anymore. Your brain sends messages in English but your lips, chin, sides of your face, they speak Urdu. They are singing their own song and not listening. They don’t need you anymore. The writer manages to uncover raw, visceral emotions, digging below the surface of the relationship and, ultimately, reaches the marrow. MOUTH is an unconventional love story -- at turns surreal, dreamlike, and extraordinarily moving. I can’t wait to see it in print and to read it again.
MOUTH was chosen as the winner of the Kenneth Patchen Award for the Innovative Novel over many other worthy candidates for the exceptional craft and originality with which it is written as well as for its deep sympathy for the human condition, both qualities epitomized by Kenneth Patchen himself.
CHARLES HOOD teaches English in the Mojave Desert and is a Research Fellow at the Center for Art and Environment in Reno.
His honors include a National Endowment of the Humanities award, a Fulbright in Ethnopoetics, and artist-in-residencies with the Annenberg Center in Santa Monica, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the Playa Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. His book about Antarctica, South x South, won the Hollis Summers prize from Ohio University Press. Mouth is his tenth book.
He has been a dishwasher, a factory worker, and a nature guide in Africa. In a brief and intense descent into the addiction of birding, Hood reached 5,000 species on his world list before he took the cure and stopped counting. Current book projects include a people’s guide to architecture of Los Angeles, a survey of urban nature, poetry about all the moons of the Solar System, and a field guide to mammals.
Painter and printmaker CHRISTINE MUGLOLO is a doctoral candidate in Visual Studies at UC Irvine. Her previous art degrees are from Princeton, the University of Connecticut, Indiana University, and the Courtauld Institute, London. The plates for Mouth come from a series of pastel self-portraits based on recovery from surgery; they were the initial inspiration for this story. Christine Mugnolo’s art explores relationships and the ever-fascinating rituals of human behavior, from nerds to toddlers to the strange schools of people swimming past the viewing portals of an aquarium. At present she is working on a large, multi-panel watercolor map tracing the flow of water in California. Mouth will be her third published book.
After a hiatus, THE KENNETH PATCHEN AWARD was revived in 2012. In the 1990s, The Kenneth Patchen Prize for Literature was a much-coveted prize administered by Pig Iron Press of Youngstown, Ohio, in honor of famous experimental fiction author, proletarian poet, and Ohio native Kenneth Patchen. Beginning in 2012, the Award was reinstituted as the Kenneth Patchen Award for the Innovative Novel, and it honors the most innovative novel submitted during the previous calendar year. Kenneth Patchen is celebrated for being among the greatest innovators of American fiction, incorporating strategies of concretism, asemic writing, digression, and verbal juxtaposition into his writing long before such strategies were popularized during the height of American postmodernist experimentation in the 1970s. His three great innovative novels, Sleepers Awake, The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer and The Journal of Albion Moonlight, have long been benchmarks for beats, postmodernists and innovators of all ilks, inspiring younger writers to greater significance and innovation in their own work.