Tulpa Mea Culpa, the latest avant-garde novel by Garry Thomas Morse, tells the story of an unknowable poet, and two people—an academic chair and a police clerk—who seek to understand him.
While it’s also a brilliant work of meta-fiction that takes readers on a wild ride through multiple realities, Morse says, it is “partly about the struggles associated with novel writing” and “dedicates time to the continual reworking of certain story elements and themes.” It’s only fitting that almost every character is also writing something: poetry, fiction, diaries, reports, letters, and even a book called Tulpa Mea Culpa.
A tulpa is a conscious being brought to life through the power of the imagination. Morse describes this uncanny concept as being “like a projection, where thought can become manifest with real-world consequences.”
This concept has appeared in ancient Tibetan teachings, the world of the occult, and the television series Twin Peaks. In this novel, it seems tied to the ways authors create characters, or the ways we “create” our own versions of other people, by projecting our desires onto them.
Another figure haunting this book is the doppelgänger. As Morse explains, “The double, as a literary premise, sets up a mirror before the self.” Tulpa Mea Culpa incorporates twins, lookalikes, stunt doubles, ghost writers, pen names, and a car accident that causes amnesia, splitting one character’s consciousness in two. Selves double and multiply, throwing the notion of a stable identity into question.
Meanwhile, the recurrence of butterflies, and creatures in the instar stage, remind us of metamorphosis.
Morse says these images are related to “stages of a self, sloughing, casting off, renewing itself. These rapid cycles of evolution occur throughout the novel.”
As the characters move through different levels of fictional reality, shape-shifting and changing their names, the novel’s language shifts too. Alternately we find ourselves inside a Gothic novel, an epistolary romance, a work of picaresque erotica, or a David Lynch film. The effect is surreal and frequently very funny.
Traditional themes of longing and obsession also run strong, not only in the romantic and sexual sense, but also in the desire to possess another person by knowing them completely.
The characters of the Chair and the Clerk are both compelled to write about the Poet. Morse describes the nature of their pursuits: “The academic (The Chair) and the police clerk (Petra Quest) each behave like detectives in trying to assemble the story of their person of interest. With The Chair, there is a sad air as he laments the masterwork and characters that might have been, and with Ms. Quest, her facts are skewed by her sense of possessiveness. They are each susceptible to the world of ideas, and easily become distracted. Corrupted, even.”
While Tulpa Mea Culpa reveals the pitfalls of pinning down reality too tightly, it also shows us the pleasures of a free artistic imagination, shifting fluently through time and space, inventing and reinventing itself. It’s an exhilarating whirlwind of a read.