Tsim Tsum derives its title from an idea in Kabbalah that a being cannot truly exist unless the creator departs from his creation. This must refer to the fact that the two main characters, Walter B. and Beatrice, seem like abandoned children left to find their way through a fairy-tale landscape of allegorical friends and props. Rather, the spirit must have left them and their world midway through creation, as both characters have just enough intelligence to be confused. This is the central dilemma of Tsim Tsum.
One feature central to many of these prose poems is a misunderstanding or redefinition of a basic word, such as “housekeeping.” Often, the characters conspicuously attempt to use a mangled phrase, ending up in a circular conversation about its meaning and consequences. A charitable analysis would determine that this is simultaneously whimsical, clever, and surprising. There is also a tantalizing sensation that this is very much roman à clef: if we could just find the code, it will make so much sense. But more critical reading would liken this to taking a dinner table conversation and randomly replacing nouns, rolling the dice and praying for midnight.
Interesting effects are sometimes achieved, moments that seem worth capturing or constructing. But in a long enough collection, whether due to vision or statistical randomness, this is inevitable. And in the end, it is difficult to see past the conscious application of this “replacement” technique, regardless of one's evaluation of its merit.
One poem that has both some interest and an emotional flourish is, “The Reality Testing Booth”:
They brought with them four things to test: hat, love, day, and the delectable . . . It was strange to choose, but It seemed only right to first test an object, so they held the hat up first and waited for the printout . . . Beatrice listened. She listened carefully, and as she listened she began to grow very fond of Walter B. As if it was actually he who was the love that made each of her days delectable.
An admirable achievement Mark maintains throughout is that the characters' genuine goodness shines through the random, distracting language. Whether with romantic overtones or sibling affection, the childlike, plodding utterances and ruminations have at their heart an ineluctable innocence. Take for example, “Forgiveness”:
Walter B. had an idea. He would arrive at the door in a white linen suit with scarlet cuffs and beg for Beatrice's forgiveness. Should he bring for her a fork or a spoon? He could not decide. He would ask the horse.
Mark's rhythms are very deliberate, and here is where the art most shines. The hesitant pacing and robotic grammar give the sense of characters who must use the utmost brain power just to wash their hands. It also lends to the fairy-tale effect. Like Hansel and Gretel, there needs to be a pause before every decision, every utterance, as consequences vague and grave abound.
One such example that captures much of the above comes from “Long Ago and Far Away”:
“To the ramparts!” shouted Walter B. “Yes, dear,” said Beatrice, snapping him in, “to the ramparts.” And off they went to look for the Walter B. Walter B. once was before the terrible mistake of the carousel ride.
Tsim Tsum will certainly appeal to those who enjoy whimsical story and non sequitor, and once there, Mark's crafting can begin to be appreciated.