Art of Darkness: A Critical Review
by M.S. Céannan
“This, too, was once one of the world’s dark places.”
Mueller sat on the deck of a pleasure barge at the mouth of the Potomac. Now, at sunset, only his chiseled outline could be seen, the face like some genius folk art statue, rough- carved from scrap wood. The failing light refracted red from the sharp angle of his martini glass.
We knew we were going to get another of his oblique stories of intrigue and cover-up, investigation and not quite reaching into the heart of collusion.
“Oh, bull____!” a partisan on the poop deck was heard to have reacted. But Mueller’s speech was as inevitable as the news cycle, the continual churning that blurred the distinction between night and day. (Canard 1)
Thus opens Josef “Smokin’ Joe” Canard’s new novella Art of Darkness, a barely fictionalized account of his time as a political “fixer” for a well-known southern congressman during the heady days leading up to the Mueller Report. The book casts Robert Mueller as a storyteller, a man whose narrative is indistinguishable from his public service, an adventurer in the dark jungle of falsehood. His latest mission is to retrieve the Truth, which has “gone native” in the thick marsh of Washington.
The rest of the story you know, how the body of Truth was retrieved dying, was dead by the time the report was written, and how Mueller himself felt the need to lie to us afterward.
In Canard’s account, Mueller’s journey itself is the focus, his witness to the cover-ups and petty rivalries, “the rhythm of the tweets of reporters from The Intercept, at once manifest and opaque, a million screaming voices, their darts aimed squarely at the tiny skiff of an office we clung to” (50). We read here of the Truth’s “Russian bride,” her “almond eyes and keen, knowing looks—savage and superb, wild-haired and magnificent” (51). There was something stately in her deliberate progress, whose meeting with “Junior” led to a “hush that had fallen suddenly upon the sorrowful lady . . . as if she had been looking at the image of her own tenebrous and passionate soul” (53). Canard’s intention, it appears, is to explain the fate of The Truth in the narrative of the search itself, filling his tale with these characters we think we know in an attempt to sketch the form of the moribund figure at its core.
That figure does not appear, of course, until the end.
Intentions form the very structure of storytelling, as if in narrative we can say what the plain facts cannot, the proof, so to speak, in the putting. Mueller intends to save the Truth from its disappearance into darkness; Truth itself intends great things. Among them is the conversion of what is brutal in us into the civilized via enlightenment: “He desired to have kings meet him at railway stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, places he intended to accomplish great things: schools, highways, parliaments. Of course you must take care of the motives—right motives, always” (68). But in bringing the search for the Truth framed in this way, Canard does little more than obscure it. The tale is secondhand, based on Canard’s own interactions with Mueller’s aides, cribbed from leaked memos, breathed in from the miasma of the DC swamp. His tale is rarely rooted in the words, and, yes, the intentions, of those involved, to the degree they may be known, and of the man himself. Canard’s is a tale within a tale, nested narratives relying, as they do, on what a public man knows about himself: that even unprintable cocktail talk is fodder for the next day’s headlines.
Narrative, too, is one of the world’s dark places; its ebb and flow covers its facts within a constant current. The muddying silt carries along its substance. Canard’s Mueller tells it thus: “[t]he shade of the original frequented the bedside of the hollow sham whose fate it was to be buried presently” (68). Canard both commits and recognizes his own inability to bring the facts forth, within the story of the story of the place(s) the Truth goes to die. Further obscured is the report itself, the words that so comprise the Truth lost in the tale of its attempted rescue. We get merely that the Truth felt the terror of its passing before it died, and that this is “[w]hy I affirm it is remarkable. It had something to say. It said it.” (70).
In the end, we know only that the report did not bank “upon the problem of collusion and conspiracy” but upon the problems of science, the “Suppression of Truthless Customs,” and that The People “sniffling at it with an air of contempt declared ‘This is not what we had a right to expect.’” (71). And, indeed, we should expect nothing else. Surrounded as we are by all the apparatus of truth-telling—news outlets and television, radio, the internet in all its splendor, the instantaeities of Twitter—we should expect truth-telling to be inevitable, that despite all of the dis- and misinformation the (small “t”) truth will, eventually appear. The words gathered through brutal revelations, those patsies indicted or the monsters set free, should, at some point, correspond to something real, begin to speak the form of what really occurred.
Yet humans can get themselves to believe anything: that institutions work, that elections matter, that investigations will hold the guilty to account. But we know, too, that the sunlight can be made to lie as well, through mirages and reflections, shades of sharp contrast that obscure the subtleties and depths of the trees and roads and buildings we think we know. We know, even now, that the Truth can be buried in tales told straight, in the words you read right now.
Like Canard’s Mueller, I “hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie . . . . [It has] a taint of death, a flavor of mortality about it” (27). But as we see the story and we lose the report, we might note that, somewhere, locked away, the body of Truth waits to be revived, that “’[its words at least have not died’” (76), and, yet, perhaps, the great saving illusion is the horror that reigns when we pronounce, however cold, its name.
Canard, Josef. Art of Darkness. Lighthouse, 2019.