Michael Cisco, The Divinity Student (Buzzcity Press, 1999)
Where to start with The Divinity Student? Michael Cisco’s dense, layered descriptions and vivid imagery grab you from page one. Cisco is an author in love with adjectives and metaphor. With this feeling as motivation he creates the perfect setting for a main character literally stuffed with words. Cisco writes with a dark hyper-sensuality, like Tanith Lee on Ecstasy. The magical and the unreal sit at the surface. With the dead shading more and more into the world of the living with each chapter, this brief 150-page book is a fever dream you won’t soon forget.
Imagery aside, The Divinity Student is about a search for knowledge. The main character, after an extremely unusual death and resurrection, is sent on a quest from his seminary to the city of San Venefico. It is only once he reaches the desert city and finds employment as a word-finder that he begins to understand his purpose. Wandering San Venefico in search of lost words that drop hidden from books and everyday conversation, the Divinity Student is gradually drawn into a search for certain words that have been the death of previous searchers. Words so strange that they can only be found in the minds of the dead, words potent enough to define the nature of creation. As his quest progresses, the Divinity Student begins to see the words of the dead more clearly than the bodies of the living. The line between life and death blurs the further you get into The Divinity Student. His formaldehyde-soaked visions propel the main character and the novel inexorably towards the world of the dead.
A masterly touch in The Divinity Student is Cisco’s use of detail to obscure. The vividness of his descriptions blinds the reader to the plot; you can’t see through what the eponymous main character experiences until Cisco deliberately reveals what is going on. The reader is left in darkness as the Divinity Student wanders the sun-drenched streets of San Venefico searching for lost words. Each chapter brings new experiences and sensations that threaten to drown the reader.
Cisco’s influences show clearly in The Divinity Student, where they are blended into the kaleidoscope of imagery that fills the novel. Bizarre rituals, obscure organizations, and strange creatures recall writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. More than a touch of William S. Burroughs can be seen in the main character's wild visions and flexible grasp of reality. As description is so crucial to the novel, powerfully descriptive writers such as these were clearly a vivid source of inspiration.
Serving up radical visions framed around a quest for strange knowledge, The Divinity Student is a mind-bending look at the bizarre. The main character’s search for the vocabulary of God leads him on a path of obscuring enlightenment. New dimensions of understanding separate him from his fellow man, and the Divinity Student becomes increasingly alien as his knowledge increases. The physical world then becomes less and less clear as his knowledge grows. Tapping dead men for their experience separates the Divinity Student from his own experiences; the dead word-finders draw him nearly completely into their world. In the end, the Divinity Student is overwhelmed by new knowledge and sensation. You will be as well.