The Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W 

Spring  2002

Szmonhfu by Hertzan Chimera

Hertzan Chimera (Mike Philbin)
Fountain Hills: Eraserhead Press 
278 pp.  $16.95

Purchase information available at

In Szmonhfu, Hertzan Chimera (AKA Mike Philbin) has boldly attempted to revise the underpinnings of literary structure and convention. Layering his work with coat upon coat of intensely active metaphor, varying focal characters, a decidedly cheeky punctuation style and a nearly subterranean plot line, Chimera/Philbin has in effect painted a piece of dense abstract art on a picture window. We would perhaps not object to this at all if he had allowed the barest hint of light through to help us decipher the work. In literary/experimental fiction, it is hardly necessary for the writer to make things transparent for the reader, but a writer must allow some degree of translucency or risk accusations of literary onanism. Sadly, Chimera allows almost none. Much of the work’s frustrating opacity must be attributed to the fact that Szmonhfu was 13 years in the making. One can almost hear the throng of darlings from Chimera’s literary youth screaming to be slaughtered for the greater good of the work. A prudent slashing of a quarter to a third of the book would have helped it significantly. 

The story (if it can be called such) follows a woman named Jane Templeton Rice. Or Jane Reiman. Or Jane Louixis. And a rock star/god/alien named James and/or Crap Elvis. Or it follows Carl or Rich or Simon or Paul or Kenji. Occasionally. Perhaps. Or not at all. Jane and others may (or may not) be transmutational beings who may (or may not) be able to turn into strange otherworldly creatures when they have (or don’t have) sex, killing other people by accident (or while hypnotized or on purpose) because of some other-dimensional beings from a place/planet/dimension called Szmonhfu, who may (or may not) be destroying the Earth including Memphis, Nottingham, and Paris, France (which has mysteriously become a fascist state called Angers, Galimatia, where the king likes dolphins). Dizzy yet?

You get the picture, which is: there is no perceivable picture. And no clear language, no clear characters, no clear plot and no clear message. Mr. Chimera would doubtless say that clarity was not his aim, but in such defensiveness he would be missing the point. Fiction must have some level of clarity; otherwise, the writer is not communicating with the reader. Literature does not have to be perfectly obvious (in our opinion, it never should be) but it must communicate something. Trust us: William Burroughs would have been left scratching his after reading Szmonhfu.        

Even given the numerous missteps in this work, one should not hasten to dismiss Chimera/Philbin too lightly. His literary gifts are many and point to a bright future¾with a modicum of navel-gazing and craftwork. Chimera’s problem is not lack of talent, intelligence, or ambition but rather a surfeit of all three without the filter of literary common sense. By experimenting on too many fronts, he practically guaranteed a muddy result. Had he held focus on one character throughout, the work might have held together as some kind of surreal rollercoaster ride; had he suspended the gouts of free form imagery in favor of a more straightforward language use, we might have been able to follow the incomprehensible character and plot twists; had he followed a more linear narrative path, we would have been more disposed to enjoy the often brilliant excesses of his language; had he used a more standard punctuation style to set the dialogue apart and had he employed some painfully absent commas, question marks, and/or semi-colons, the work might still have allowed some basic level of comprehension. (SIDE NOTE: The copy editor for this work should be run out of town on a rail splattered with liquid nitrogen.) By failing to give the reader the barest lifeline to hang onto, the author has set the reader adrift in a choppy, incomprehensible sea, and I fear that few readers will be willing to make the arduous journey to its far side.  

While we admire Philbin/Chimera’s shoot-for-the-stars moxie, his product shows a fatal lack of editorial distance and acumen. Someone at some point should have stood up and mentioned that the emperor was wearing too many clothes in too many different styles, fabrics, colors and contexts. Having seen the promise of some of Chimera’s more recent work¾we were this close to accepting one of his shorts for this issue and can thus attest to an improved degree of salience¾when we say “Better luck next time,” we say it with a mix of disappointment and a significant sense of expectation.

– CAW –