Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew (Jim Powell)

That we do not, or cannot, know everything of those we suppose we know, or that we might be variations of ourselves when around different people, are the essential building blocks of Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew (Picador, 2018). Set in an unnamed small American town, Powell’s similarly unnamed narrator owns a bar out at the very periphery of the place: the back-drop hub to a whole plethora of gossip and amateur sleuthing on the comings and goings, by the locals, of their fellow denizens. Powell explores his themes via a handful of these characters, of various shades of depth or passings-by. His writing, as befitting the vocation of his main narrator character, is conversational in tone, easy to read, dotted with bar psychology, though nothing too profound threatens to endanger the flow of the read.

That said, Powell does manage to touch on small moments such as is the everydayness of most bar-goers’ lives: a little on politics, small diversions into loss, excursions into the meanings of things. If this is a conscious effort to relate the life of the bar to the style of the writing, then Powell has achieved this well. Not having yet read any of his other works, this reflection shall need to be returned to in due course. There is a limit to how many characters an author can reasonably expect to maintain within any given piece, and so necessarily this author only details a few (there are nods to how the bar has its flow of other trade, but mostly we see the bar as sparsely populated).

The catalyst for the narrator’s reflections and the locals’ changing lives takes place one winter when Arlene, a late thirties-something mystery woman, enters the bar. She’s looking for a man called Jack, though, as we’re told, there are plenty of those around, potentially. Arlene has no surname to go on and very little other information. No-one knows why she wants to find him because she won’t tell, and neither does she say anything to the locals about herself. They are curious to find out about her. Arlene becomes a sporadic regular and sets the narrative in motion.

Along the way, we meet other locals: Davy, who we’re told is more intelligent than his chosen work positions suggest he is, who has some anger issues, who has his secrets, and who very soon starts a relationship with Arlene; Nelson, a failed politician, a corporate crook who likes the sound of his own voice; Mike, a quiet and unassuming man who Powell does not choose to colour in in any great detail. The bar owner-narrator’s wife, Marcie, is a rational, level-headed woman, depicted as someone who encapsulates the comfortable knowledge of a thirty year marriage, who supports and is supported, but who also has her secrets. To this mix, Powell adds Franky Albertino: Franky is the Fonz character, come back to town after thirty years away, still playing the slippery wide-boy, still not totally trusted, but still exerting the same gravitational pull that he always did. In Powell’s writing here, practically everyone has their history, their skeletons in the closet, and as Arlene suggests early on (whilst she, Davy, the bar owner and his wife go on a short break to the bleak scenes of Coney Island out of season), everyone presents a different version of themselves according to who they’re with.

Before long we’re embroiled in the gossip of the handful of locals and bar owners who variously ask one another (or the reader asks of the writer) who Arlene is, where she’s from, why she’s looking for someone called Jack and who he is, why Franky’s back in town and what he wants, why Franky wants to take over the abandoned mansion next to the bar, who the reclusive Mr Hammond who purportedly lives or lived there is, what might be happening in the slow-spiralling relationship between Davy and Arlene, who the money was stolen by, what happened to Marcie thirty years ago, what the cause of sadness for Marcie and her husband is, and so on. In writing a review, it’s difficult not to accidentally create spoilers but, suffice is to say, progeny and identity and versions of presentations of characters are strongly alluded to. What was particularly pleasing to read in Powell’s writing was that he does not always go the whole way in his explanations: he leaves the reader to piece things together, giving enough clues so that the risk of too much ambiguity is reduced.

It isn’t clear where the bar owner-narrator’s town is in America, but it takes him, Marcie, Davy and Arlene the best part of a day to drive from there to Coney Island on the coast. In some respects it doesn’t matter that the author has chosen not to specify a location: this could be an everyday story of any group of locals anywhere. Powell has just chosen to set his story in Anyplace, America. He mostly succeeds in this, referencing American phraseology and cultural practices. However, the pedantic reviewer will often root out the odd slip-up. Towards the end of the book, Franky sends the narrator a cheque: Powell writes it this way (‘cheque’; in British English, rather than the American ‘check’). It is a small detail but something that causes the moment of a temporary stepping out of the fictive flow. It is a small criticism, but one that this reader feels is worth expressing.

How does an author end any given novel? That is, at what point does the wind-down begin? In some ways, endings could be seen to be even more important than beginnings. It isn’t clear at what stage Powell starts to wind down towards the final pages, and this is testament to his writing, but there is a feel in this reader’s perception that some final scenes are not given such due attention as earlier ones. In the narrator’s discussions with another bartender, in a town some fifty miles away, there is the feel of a stilted wrapping up taking place: the other bartender is depicted as distracted or uncaring (the anti-bartender, as it were, in the previously written thinking that there is a certain pastoral duty to undertake in the role), and the narrator quizzes him, receiving an unlikely staccato flow of responses. The suspicion is that such an exchange is disingenuous to the reality of people who have only just met like this, irrespective of their shared vocation.

These small criticisms aside, Powell offers a novel that flows easily with sub-plots and a little subtlety. Some characters are a little thin in the fleshing out, but other relationships depicted are graceful, caring, curious or open to debate: an interwoven gossiping, though without the negative connotation of the word. Ultimately, what we can come away with is that Things We Nearly Knew gently questions us on the various versions of ourselves.
 
 

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Book Review: The Children (Carolina Sanín)

Quite what the Colombian writer Carolina Sanín’s message is in The Children (MacLehose Press, English translation, from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2017; originally published as Los Niños, 2014) is entirely unclear. What we are presented with is, initially, the mystery of why a six year old boy has suddenly turned up at her main character’s door, apparently without family or history. What transpires is a slow descent into a muddle of potential main character neurosis, possible allegory, and an attempted blur of realities and fantasies.

The ideas in Sanín’s work might well have proved worthy of consideration had they not been so confused by such deliberate obfuscation, such convoluted execution and, frankly, such poor technique in the writing. She briefly touches on thinking such as ‘ghosts within ghosts’ and the construct of mentally ‘keeping’ those who have been met in the past on a distant imaginary island, neither dead or alive, but overall her writing is amateurish at best: she describes her main character’s appearance as if she were writing as her secondary character himself (the six year old Elvis, who the main character Laura Romero prefers to refer to as Fidel); on the first page she writes that: ‘Laura used to leave the Renault in the car park outside the Olímpica, which was the name of the supermarket.’ The sleeve notes inform us that Sanín obtained a PhD in Hispanic Literature. This, unfortunately, does not correlate with the style of her fiction writing, as presented in The Children.

Laura Romero is a somewhat needy woman of indeterminate age, fortunate enough to receive an income from a family salt industry, but who undertakes a cleaning job three times per week nonetheless. This position changes when, after a meeting with one of the beggars who operate a protection racket at the supermarket, watching out for cars in exchange for money, Laura attributes something said to her as meaning that she is being offered a child. A child duly arrives outside her apartment, looking dishevelled and in need of care. There follows a slow descent into the possibility of magic realist terrain, Sanín being in good local company such as Márquez, for example, as she is. The frustrating, baffling and sometimes potentially bizarre but apparently ordinary machinations of bureaucratic procedures manifest in Laura’s attempts at finding the boy again after she has done the right thing in reporting the case of the unknown child to the authorities and then losing him in the system. What is more at odds though is the apparent ease with which Laura has taken to the child in the first place and the equally strange idea that the boy could be so easily given away to any fostering or adopting suitor.

Laura Romero is portrayed as a woman with a possible painful past as regards a child, of an early age, who was lost. Sanín is not specific and, presumably, this deliberate obfuscation is intended as just one of the blurrings of the piece as a whole. Blurring, as a device, is entirely acceptable; however, whatever device is in operation, a basic plausibility must also thread through the whole. Sanín’s writing suffers from just this deficit: a boy appears in the street and Laura alters her life around him, the authorities act with distant greyness but with surprising benevolence towards her claims on the child, and the boy himself does not act in the manner we might expect (by the time she traces him again) of a seven year old. There are other characters who stake claims on the child, and he duly goes along with their visits. Elvis (or Fidel, we never find out why Sanín chooses to have Laura prefer this name she has invented) is a strange child, but potentially in the construct of the story and also in the reading perception, he’s not akin to a real child. Perhaps this is a point Sanín has tried to explore; perhaps this is an entirely misconstrued interpretation.

Laura’s mental health is an undertow within the narrative, though this is never so explicit. Whether in a magic realist manner or otherwise, Sanín has her wondering if Elvis wasn’t conceived, as such, on a bus journey she takes in her home city of Bogotá, when she is also accosted by a pressuring bread selling beggar. The allusion is towards the unknown nature and appearance of the child but the execution of the ideas is clumsily overlaid. The motif of a whale recurs throughout the pages, linking to the occasional note that Laura is reading Moby Dick. What the purpose of this is, is unclear. Elvis becomes attached to Laura’s dog, Brus, equally without such explicit purpose, with the confusion at one point that Elvis is Brus.

In the final stages, Laura visits a fortune teller, with whom she has had dealings some years before and who had revealed to her that she would have a child. The pages of this short book are running out at this point and it is, with some hope and expectation, that Sanín might now present the purpose of her fictional thesis. However, after some quantity of fortune telling nonsensical rambling, Laura Romero is depicted back in her apartment again and the boy effectively vandalises his room, and the book ends. It is an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion.

In the final reckoning, a work of ideas, a story of something, should have its plausibility, even if the fantastical elements are an important strand (that is, after all, the art and the skill that should be inherent in the technique of the writer); the writing should have its internal structure, even if that structure is amorphous, and it should have an elegance that it can call its own. Sanín’s writing here, unfortunately, has little of any of these and this is a great shame because, with better application of the written word, the story of how and why Laura Romero and Elvis/Fidel came to cross life paths might well have become something more than just a few garnered snapshots of unfulfilled ideas such as ghosts within ghosts, possible children and lost lives.
 
 

Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Simon Kinch)

Simon Kinch’s Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Salt Publishing, 2017) is described in its blurb as being a ‘daring, experimental novel’: in a sense, perhaps every novel can be described as experimental because a writer cannot hope to know exactly every eventuality of every page before they’ve sat down to write. Kinch’s writing here is, presumably, described thus because of its playing with two parallel time lines in the main character’s life. It’s an intriguing device, for sure; it’s experimental, yes maybe, but daring, no: unless this attribute of the work can be bestowed upon the author’s ability to invest little to no passion or zest, at all, into the main character.

It is difficult to know the author’s intentions in this respect. What we’re able to work with, as readers, is that his main character is given the name of Granville: a dull and dreary, old-fashioned name, not becoming of the twenty-three year old summer traveller who reaches a point of decision making following a text message from his girlfriend, Alyson — return home to Madison, Wisconsin, or ignore his European visa expiration and travel back south from the French-Spanish border, via Barcelona, and on to Sevilla. Granville throws the phone into the sea and chooses the latter. En route south he has his bag stolen (though fortuitously the author has had the foresight to ensure that Granville tucks his credit card into his shirt pocket beforehand). Small details matter, and herein lies an issue with the set up of Kinch’s novel: Granville has his bag stolen and all that it holds, including his passport. Kinch writes as much early on: ‘No satchel, no wallet, no laptop, no passport.’ (p.11). Yet, the set up of the novel relies on one version of Granville travelling back north, after this, via Paris and London to the U.S. (presumably needing his stolen passport) and the other version of him staying on in Sevilla. Small details matter, and this reader was distracted by the author’s oversight for a good portion of the rest of the book.

Kinch writes his chapters in very short form: just a few pages each. By the time we quickly reach Chapter 7, Granville has an epiphany whilst sitting at a river jetty in the district of Triana in Sevilla: he feels the sun heat the hairs on his skin and this is the moment of small rupture. From the next chapters on we settle into the knowledge that alternating chapters are going to document the parallel lives of Granville: one version of him returns home to pick up a dull life of being an office temp, sorting invoices for an accountancy firm; the other version of him takes up a position working for a local property owner, Señora Rosales, organising her diary and liaising with foreign holiday-makers for her, as a native English speaker. Both versions of Granville are administrators. Both versions of his life begin to intersect: situations that occur in one version start to mirror themselves in his other life. The construct is fine enough, but the lack of character in Granville begins to aggravate.

Along both versions of his lives, he interacts with various women he meets (whilst resisting the thought of making contact again with his erstwhile girlfriend, Alyson). Granville meets Jess, a young woman from Newcastle, in Sevilla, and drinks with her. He meets Clara, who works at the local hostel, and he drinks with her. He eats and drinks with Señora Rosales at the apartment she’s lent him. In his other life, Granville develops a relationship of sorts with Laura, who also works at the accountancy office, and with whom he has lunch, and the occasional Friday evening drinks. In one life or the other, Granville drinks plenty of coffee or beers, he smokes, he drinks more coffee, he smokes more. (Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, without the colour, briefly crosses the mind). Granville wonders why Alyson had sent him a text message implying that they were breaking up (‘. . . we need to talk’): the matter is obvious to the reader — dishwater is less boring than Granville. He fails to act on Clara’s advances, leaves Jess to herself, and doesn’t get excited by his relations with Laura. The reader is left to wonder if Granville’s dullness is intentional, or if this is a fault of the author and his technique.

On a similar note, writing as an American, Kinch sprinkles in various Americanisations of word or phrase use or of cultural reference, yet the feel of the writing is that of a British English writer: the syntax plays into this hand and there are words that are spelt this way too (e.g. centre), which would imply that either there has been an editorial slip in this respect or that the author has mixed his versions of English. Small details matter.

There is an attempt at such small detailings throughout; however, many of these are lost on this reader. For example, whilst the idea of the ‘flâneur’ is explicitly introduced (Granville observes the almost theatrical aspects of street life taking place around, and almost for, him), Kinch attaches weighty importance to Granville’s brief eye contact with a man with a moustache at the guest house he stays at in Sevilla. Later, Granville sees this man again at a street bar. The man engages in a fraught conversation with a woman and Granville is intrigued, hooked in, but he doesn’t know why and he can only really try to grasp their body language, not being proficient in Spanish. The small detail of the importance of the man with the moustache is not apparent.

Towards this last portion of the book, Kinch’s narrative begins to unravel. A few chapters earlier, his tight construct of alternating lives breaks down, as does his use of present tense for the U.S. Granville version and the past tense for his Sevilla life. The final two chapters are (somewhat pretentiously) actually just one. The idea is to blur the time lines back together again, but Kinch has attached importance to various aspects of the story where no great significance can be perceived by this reader. It is, perhaps, a question of reader engagement.

The title of Kinch’s novel suggests a form of contentedness with the lots that have been dealt to Granville and his, albeit ‘disjointed’, happinesses. However, Granville lacks sufficient wit to perceive the relationships potentially forming around him, let alone understand the potential of relations he’s engaging in himself, so it is a stretch to believe that there is some form of contentedness, albeit flavoured with existential concern, at play. Ultimately, Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness is an artistic attempt at a simple construct, weighed with importances that only the author might well see, foregoing some simple, small but important, details in the process.
 
 

Book Review: Ghost Light (Joseph O’Connor)

‘Ghost light,’ writes O’Connor, deep into the last few dozen pages of his offering of studied Irish dialect and Edwardian sensibility, is an ‘ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.’ The main characters, based loosely on a historical playwright and his somewhat younger actress fiancée, are impressed here in time.

Ghost Light (Vintage, 2011) opens at a sad scene in a lonely lodging-house in London in 1952. We observe the beginnings of a day in the life of the ageing actress Molly Allgood, sometimes known as Molly O’Neill or by the stage name of Maire O’Neill. In her heyday and in her youth, Molly became the rising star, the darling of the stage. It twisted the innocence and expressionate nature of herself, in the interpretation, and Molly became drunk on it all. Three versions of Molly are recounted, though not in linear narrative, as we progress. The beginnings of Molly’s day in question, in late October 1952, see her navigate the London streets towards an appointment at the BBC: hungry and desperately in need of the work, though too proud to admit her circumstances, her journey is interspliced with reverie.

We are transported to the Dublin of 1908. Molly is an actress at a theatre company whose leading playwright is the acclaimed John Millington Synge (pronounced ‘Sing’). O’Connor documents the playwright’s sometimes difficult relationship with Molly Allgood/O’Neill: Synge struggles to explain how it is, exactly, he wishes his actors to say his lines (to which Molly bristles, earthily); the two lead characters take stilted walks in the depths of the Irish landscape together; they find themselves engaged in a deeper relationship, where the edges of both characters begin to soften; they become engaged to marry, though Synge is grievously ill, and his early death will later prove to haunt Molly.

There is a ghost light left on in her, for sure, forty years into the future, past the war years and into the shifting social landscape that ensues. In the continual toggling of time and times, Synge’s relationships are explored: with his friend, the poet, Yeats; with his patron, Lady Gregory; with his stiffly unforgiving mother, with whom he lives. Molly must also contend with these characters, as well as with the spectre of her sister, Sara/Sally’s, reputation, she also being an actress of some repute, making her way in the brave new world of America. A strand of O’Connor’s writing focuses on Irish emigration, on the matter of making new. In the final reckoning, however, it is the ghost light of the past that pervades in Molly.

In his notes, O’Connor makes reference to his study and interest in authentic Irish dialect and dialogue, and this aspect does come through in the writing very clearly. In places, the text is bright with such particularity and the reader might easily find the nuance of the accent tripping through the mind and from the pages. At other times, however, the text is thick and too opaque to fully comprehend. In a chapter entitled ‘Scene from a half-imagined stage play’ (written as if it were such a concoction of life as acted), O’Connor offers the following bewildering dialogue, for example:

A root up their holes for them and God send they get another. Ah me dear dark Erin and the bould Fenian men. I’d rain bombs on every cur and bitch of them for a pack of huer’s melts.

Thankfully, these instances are rare. Where the writing does stand out more, and favourably, is in O’Connor’s somewhat beautiful evocation of the scenescape. He writes, of Synge and Molly’s walking in County Wicklow:

Crushed butterwort and heather and the odour of mountain chives. Sheep-shit, honeysuckle, bog myrtle and rose-root; the sweetness of wet wild strawberries. In the distance, breasting the coast, the southbound train from Dublin leaves an after-thought of smoke in its wake. The trundling of its engine is borne faintly to them on a breeze that smells of the peat and the dulse. A shrieked, mournful hoot as it chugs into a tunnel gouged years ago through the groin of Eagle Mountain.

O’Connor’s literary constructions, however, sometimes only serve to frustrate or confuse: the back and forth in time is not an issue, it being a device that prompts the reflective narrative, but the author’s choice of tense and points of view switches is beyond the exactness of knowing. There may be rhyme and reason, in the analysis, but it is an unnecessary distraction which, in the greater scheme of things, must be tolerated.

What also needs entrusting to faith is the difficulty in perceiving the incarnations of Molly Allgood/O’Neill as potentially relating to the same character throughout. In her youth, in her spiky, vocal and volatile self, we meet a young woman caught up in the possibility of love in starched sensibilities of pre-First World War Edwardian tours and in Ireland. Later, after Synge’s death, and much later in the non-linear narrative, Molly has transformed into something of a diva character, touring America with her stony dresser and assistant, Moody. In between it all, Molly is her sixty-five year-old lonely self in 1952, hungry and heading for the BBC in the very twilight of her fading days. Molly does not resonate so easily throughout.

There is repeated reference to the differences between her upbringing in the poorer part (‘the slums’) of Dublin and, in contrast, to Synge’s life in the affluent suburb of Kingstown. This, and their age difference of nearly twenty years, the differences of their religious upbringings, and their initial outlooks on life and professional positions, is all sewn into the starchy socio-political complexities of early twentieth century life. This all said, Molly never really truly seems to adjust after Synge’s untimely and early death, diseased and suffering though he is. She carries his ghost light within her till the end.

The relationship between the two main characters cannot be said, by this reader, to be in any way passionate. Perhaps it is a testament to the times portrayed, but even the love letter touch of the dialogue and the physical words written (as fictionalised) by the two fail to really affect the reading senses. Where O’Connor does seem to touch a nerve of love and compassion, however, is in a scene at the BBC, late on, shortly before Molly performs in a live radio play: a young and aspiring actress, a devoted fan, is introduced to the older woman, by the younger woman’s mother, and Molly offers advice and a gift. It is simple and beautiful, in its own way.

Ghost Light has an oscillation, a never-stillness, at its heart (in its narrative devices of tenses and points of view; in the author’s predilection for name shifts — which can cause confusion: Sara/Sally, Allgood/O’Neill; in time and times). It has beauty in its descriptions and it has a certain authority, as assumed, albeit sometimes bewildering, in its dialects portrayed. Despite its occasional difficulties in the connections of characters and the correlation of the present to the past, Joseph O’Connor has created a work that may prove to shine a light through the sheets of future time.
 
 

A Writer in Time: Multiplicity and Process

Art takes time. As painters can keep and harbour many canvasses in a state of benign neglect for years, so too of course can writers have many pieces scattered along the skirtings of the walls and laid out upon the easels of the mind. All are pieces in the decadence of recline. Or, in the swirl of metaphors, a twist to something else, a writer’s spawnings can be restless, though they sit and brood. Others are gathered in the dusty corners, misanthropes mired in the cobwebs of darkened notebook pages. They peer out sullenly and silently, on being rediscovered in their aged reverie.

Are the very many scraps, vignettes, cut-and-discardeds, notes on ideas, first drafts, drafts set adrift, beached drafts and dead drafts, workings and weavings, the bonsai’d and the brutalised, the retouched and the dust-heavy, the waiting and the slowly breathing all slivers of the artist as was? Perhaps we can trace a route through time and times, processes of thinking and relating, seeing and reading and the myriad affectors of any given period of any given colour or lightness or cloudedness.

Art takes time. A brief paddle in the stream of others’ ideas and research offers up the ten years of writing of Junot Diaz; the daily painting and repainting of a mural by the street artist, Blu; Christian Marclay’s three year labour of editing thousands of film clips (Hagen, undated).

In Norway, ‘[Artist] Katie Anderson has planted 100 saplings,’ writes Jason Farago (2015).

. . . they will grow for 100 years, and then be chopped down, pulped and turned into books. Not just any books, either. These books are to be written over the coming century, one per year, but may not be read until the trees come down and the books are published. Margaret Atwood is contributing the first book for 2015, but you’ll have to live another 99 years if you want to read it.

Anderson’s Future Library is a 100-year artwork: a vision of the future that will only be fully visible long after our deaths.

As our books grow, so too do we; as we grow, so too do they. If we come to be embarrassed by our background workings of our outpourings, should we sink them in the depths of our notes or the caves of our screens, or should we embrace them as us, an us that has been? If there’s no accounting for taste, is there no accounting too for quality? Though each reader has their own cliché, has their own poison of particularity, and though much mud must be thrown in order for some of it to stick, there are far too many offerings of thin and greyness masquerading as mastery of words. Much of it, really, in truth, is the content of others’ caves.

Maybe all our darkened things should reside in darkened spaces, though loved as us there. We have many. We work on them daily, weekly, monthly or hardly at all. Yet, they persist, weakly or insistently. Some day, they may spawn their tawdry others who, in turn, may bring forth more who evolve into creatures of the day. All our offerings can only ever be a process of the now (though the now has absorbed the flavours of all that has been); we can only ever be a process of the now; some day, the now will shift.

All our offerings, all our slivers of the self, are necessary. Da Vinci, Picasso, Michelangelo all, no doubt, had their pieces and their processes, their notes, their workings, their discarded and their left-to-broods. Even those whose art is more in keeping with the modesty of human scale, those not of the higher echelons of a Michelangelo, especially those of such everydayness of art, have a multitude of themselves to nurture, to wait for, to leave in the corners of the dark: artists ever of becomingness.

Art takes time, as we do; we, and words, are myriad mirrors, slivers, fragments. We are immanent.

(Addendum: it is as if to prove a point, engineered by the universal play of synchronicity, when all the constituent elements of this electronic writing system malfunction, rendering inactivity for several hours, at the exact moment of attempting to deliver these words to the web. Art, and other powers, take time).
 
 
References:

Farago, J. (2015), Taking it slow: art that’s in it for the long haul. BBC Culture [Online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150107-can-this-art-bend-time (Accessed Mar 26, 2018).

Hagen, C. (undated), In praise of slow mastery: ten achievements that took time. 99u [Online]. Available from: http://99u.adobe.com/articles/7168/in-praise-of-slow-mastery-10-great-achievements-that-took-time (Accessed Mar 26, 2018).
 
 

In Search of Astounding Grace

Simplicity is complexity with grace.

— from Without Shields (Nora Bateson, 2017)

Longshadows of mid-day lie quietly on the grass. They’re waiting. There might be words beneath or sodden into them. The city is small, chinking with the peripheral pebbling of sounds that no-one tall and would-be-mighty hears. ‘What’s that?’ says a girl of maybe three, in croaky asymmetric voice, wrapped up warm and close to the ground, where the distant ghost of a siren echoes around. Her mother listens and explains what might just have been lifted up to her. There are words and other quietnesses, which harbour them.

Listen, but see. The city is a tumble of static blocks. Words slide in the light, down the smooth clean walls, like fingers on prickled skin (and so, close up, there are secrets to be seen). There are angles we have known a thousand thousand times before, but not this time, this day, now. When we walk at the resonant speed of our thoughts, we are in tune with the shift-scape, delicate or dense: a river hisses over weirs, under the bridge and road, and words bubble and froth and disappear downstream. Earlier, beneath the thin-watered veneer of the unparked-in bay, beneath the red- and silver-leaf peel of road-signage, reflected under the winter white-blue sky, how deep down does the puddle go?

There are words in all the right places, waiting to be found.

Wisdom begins in wonder.

— Socrates

There are days when even light is heavy, when all we may breathe is dark, when words are all the tenebrous stuff of undergrowth, night forests, unlit tunnels, hospitals or hostels. There is no search to be had: beauty is another’s game. Yet, and yet, what lies invisible is always there, still, and still. What lies beneath, lies around, waiting to be found: it’s ‘finders, keepers’, this slow soluble swill of this play of the day, of this bringing home all the marvellous marble and agate of the sensible world.

The material of the world is not in the materialism of it all. There is no bottom line: the words go all the way down. Words hide in plain sight, in plainsong without the aid of strings, not because of duplicity, as the complicit narrow-hearted ‘leaders’ hide, but because their purpose is in the being looked for, found. The material depth of this world, and beyond, is in its quietness, even in its sounds, not in the illusions of its glare and noise.

Simplicity should not be identified with bareness.

— Felix Adler

Longshadows of mid-day lie quietly on the grass. They’re waiting. There are words here and around, on and within the sodden ground; in and within the distant sounds of siren streets; the blocks of buildings known and unknown; the shift of time and space, stirring rivers; the hidden secret depths of waters standing on the empty surfaces of roads.

Slow your step,
so the ground where you are
can be washed by your tears.

— from Close (These Are Not My Words: Rachel Holstead, 2013)

Somewhere, there are little lines of perfect words . . .
 
 

The Improbable and the Analogous of Innocent Eréndira

. . . there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

— Gabriel García Márquez, quoted by Emma Welton, The Guardian, (2014)

. . . a surreal quality, a rendering of the improbable and impossible as real, pervades [Márquez’s] work.

— William Kennedy (1973)

For Gabriel García Márquez, there was, as can be surmised from direct quoted material from the author himself, from others’ analysis of interview material, and from analysis of his fiction, more than one way of looking at reality. Our cultural grounding necessarily colours our perceptions of what occurs around us in our lives. If Márquez was witness to all manner of improbability being commonplace in his native South American surroundings, what separates that improbability from the analogous?

Kennedy (1973) refers to the abrupt response of Márquez regarding his questioning of the trail of blood scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez dismisses both the question and the meaning of the blood with the brief statement that it was ‘an umbilical cord’ between mother and son, and nothing more. There are, perhaps, differentiations and comparisons to be made between the symbolic and the stance that everything that Márquez wrote had its basis in reality. The author is being disingenuous, of course: he’s playing with ideas, even if the origin of those ideas was something witnessed, felt or perceived.

Analogy sends the eponymous Eréndira, of Márquez’s The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1972), on her narrative way. The ‘wind of misfortune’ skulks within the tale throughout, affecting Eréndira’s shifting fortunes at certain key moments. At what point, though, in its register of imagery does the analogy give way to the possibility of improbability, to the magical realism of a different perception of reality? There is no easy delineation. The blur of imprecision presides.

Early on in Eréndira’s story, we see that she has no need to wind the clocks (which, ordinarily, consumes a large part of her servitude): Márquez seems to be making the suggestion that time operates in its own ways because the clocks don’t require her assistance, making a misfortune of her life (she goes on to burn the mansion down with a candle). It is as if time, not needing the clocks to be wound, has to rechannel, to repurpose itself.

Eréndira is so tired that she works as she sleeps. We often know this feeling ourselves, in our own lives, but Eréndira has to be abruptly and literally woken. She drops the tureen onto the rug as a result. Much later, her grandmother eats ‘enough arsenic to exterminate a whole generation of rats’, hidden in the mixture of a cake, and yet she still lives. These events are improbable but, in the manner of there being other ways of perceiving reality, still possible.

What though of the goats who commit ‘suicide from desolation’? What of the ingrained sounds embedded deep within the storm . . .?

Over the whistle of the storm and the lash of the water one could hear distant shouts, the howling of far-off animals, the cries of a shipwreck.

The settlement that surrounds the mansion where this scene takes place is ‘lost in the solitude of the desert’. Is it with the symbol of the conceivable or the sense of the perceivable that the cries of the shipwreck can be heard? Where do the analogy and the witness start and end?

In seeking to free Eréndira after her capture, or after her saving, by missionaries, her grandmother seeks the help of the local mayor. He’s found ‘shooting with an army rifle at a dark and solitary cloud in the burning sky . . . trying to perforate it to bring on rain.’ It is his sincere role, the ‘official duties’ by which he has purpose. We may have met people in our own lives blessed or hindered by such purpose and such ludicrousies of job description. Perhaps the end justifies the means in the fiction; perhaps Márquez once met this man.

Has Márquez, however, seen ‘oily blood, shiny and green, just like mint honey’, which he specifies a further three times in quick succession in describing the murder of the grandmother and the issue of her death? Could it be a trick of the light, an illusion of the perception, or does Eréndira’s grandmother represent something more, something else, something other? There is purpose in the green repetition.

There is purpose infused in the changing of the colour of glass, bottle and pitcher as Ulises, besotted with Eréndira, touches them. It is, his mother tells him, ‘because of love’: though the blur of perceived reality, infused with cultural belief, and the symbolic or the analogous, still readily merge here, we still have some semblance of an understanding. The improbable yet still faintly possible lingers, just, in reading that Eréndira (prostituted by her grandmother) is patiently waited for by ‘the endless wavy line composed of men [snaking through the city]’.

What, though, can we make of diamonds grown inside living oranges by Ulises’ father, ready to be smuggled over the border, or the woman in the city ‘who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents, who would let herself be touched for fifty cents so that people would see there was no trick’?

Perhaps we need comfort back in our own perceptions, in our own cultural worldviews. Contrary to some opinion, there is magical reasoning on the opposite side of the Atlantic, in the islands and heartlands of European thought: Márquez writes that Eréndira’s grandmother can find things out by dreaming them, and we can understand this from a position of faith and sometimes from direct experience. Similarly, it isn’t too beyond our beliefs to comprehend that Eréndira calls Ulises with her inner voice and how, in a distant place, on his orange plantation, Ulises has ‘heard’ that voice ‘so clearly that he was looking for her in the shadows of the room’.

So it is, or so it must be, that nothing is as set as sometimes it may seem. If we can be seen to comprehend, in part, in the magical reasoning of own cultural heritage, the possibility of the improbable, what then if anything separates that improbability from the analogous in Márquez’s writing?
 
 
References:

Kennedy, W. (1973), The yellow trolley car in Barcelona, and other visions, The Atlantic [Online]. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1973/01/the-yellow-trolley-car-in-barcelona-and-other-visions/360848/ (Accessed December 24, 2017)

Welton, E. (2014), Gabriel García Márquez in quotes, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/18/gabriel-garcia-marquez-in-quotes (Accessed December 24, 2017)
 
 

Book Review: The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Kim Leine)

Opening with a character — fallaciously known as ‘the widow’ — being kicked from a cliff at a remote Danish colony in western Greenland in 1793, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Atlantic Books, 2016, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken; originally published by Gyldendal as Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden, 2012) proceeds to become as immersive as such a fall might be. The lead character, the Norwegian-born Magister Morten Falck, missionary and would-be physician, is steadily drawn downwards, run down and weighed upon by the claustrophobic relations of the colony at Sukkertoppen, by the misfortunes that befall him, and by the vagaries of his own decisions, faith and morality. The author, Kim Leine, spins the chronicles of Falck’s mission in Greenland, and his studies, formative years and his later more worldly-weary self in Copenhagen, in a to and fro of time.

At well over 500 pages in length, Leine has given himself plenty of space in which to explore the deeds and further demise of Morten Falck. The Magister-to-be does not begin his journey entirely in innocence. From his home in Lier, Norway, Falck travels to Copenhagen, for theological study, in the early 1780s and Leine soon has him indulging in sexual debauchery in the most squalid parts of town, as well as undertaking the liberation of corpses from the canals for the purpose of the medical enquiry he also partakes of. Leine does not shy away from the stench of the place. Indeed, it is this attention to the very many sensory affectors in the late 18th century urbanscape, at sea, and on the harsh, hostile coast of Greenland that is a particular strength of the writing. Leine has no qualms in rendering the sensory seediness of subversive sexual encounter, of Falck’s defecations over the long drop of a cliff, of his attempted abortion of the unwanted pregnancy of the colony master’s wife by way of oil soaked rags and gunpowder.

A recurring motif is reference to a quote by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, namely: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. It is to this concept of liberation that Leine draws attention, not only in terms of the itinerant Falck and his seemingly unplanned-out life but also in terms of Greenland itself and its natives. Under the Danish crown, the Greenlanders are subjects obliged towards Christianity from their native ‘heathenism’, obliged towards the commerce and ‘civilisation’ of European ways. The events in Paris during the late 18th century French Revolution coincide neatly in terms of the idea of liberty and the ruling classes.

Agreeing to a position replacing the previous unfortunate incumbent in Sukkertoppen, Greenland, offered by the Mission, Morten Falck must do political battle with the colony master, otherwise known as the Trader Kragstedt. He finds himself necessarily obsequient to the officious Overseer Dahl. He must sidestep the dangerous and brusque smith who rapes Madame Kragstedt, and he must maintain the sullen relationship with his catechist Bertel Jensen. These are, in some respects, the least of his problems: he has his missionary work to fulfil amongst the natives, some of whom live in what he sees as hot, naked squalor in an encampment on the edges of the settlement. Falck is drawn to the Greenlanders, some of whom are euphemistically referred to as ‘mixtures’: half native and half Dane. The vile Missionary Oxbøl, up the coast at Holsteinsborg, is father of many such progeny. He is also not beyond spawning grandchildren via his own children.

So it is we come to Lydia, incongruously named, who is known for the most part as ‘the widow’. It is she who occupies Falck’s thinking processes: first in life, as she nurses him in his convalescence following his farcical destruction of the colony house in his attempts at stealing provisions, and in marriage as they escape the settlement and go to join the eponymous prophets up coast, and then in death as she trails his travels as a ghost. Her latter presence seems to persuade Falck to return to the colony from the ruins of the great fire of Copenhagen in 1795, some years after her death and after his unseemly departure from Greenland. There is a reading that can be made into this: that is, regarding the Rousseau motif, and regarding Leine’s explicit attention towards the conjunction that is ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ (Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains), Lydia, the widow, the ghost, necessarily enchains Falck in his freedom.

The prophets at Eternal Fjord are merely bit players in the set of the novel. It is true that they represent the liberation of the native Greenlanders in their attempts at eschewing the Danish mission, and thus largely the European culture, but it is rendered as a cult, albeit subtly so, and Falck falls into this for a while. Leine portrays Maria Magdalene, who dreams her visions and relays them to Habakuk, her husband, who preaches to their assembled followers, as charismatic enough, but their presence does not last long (neither directly on the page or in the background light of the book). Habakuk is a philanderer, as seems to be tolerated in the isolated fjord settlement of Igdlut, and he runs off with Lydia, the fallacious widow, Falck’s wife. When the Trader Kragstedt attacks the settlement, no doubt concerned more about the effects of congregations of people on the economic viability of his whaling plans than on those people’s spiritual well-being, Falck is obliged to return to Sukkertoppen.

It is the widow Lydia’s dis-ease and desire for salvation that drives her to seek her own death. With her young daughter dead and with a need to atone for atrocious but justifiable sins, she knows suicide will not deliver her. She seeks collusion. It is this act with which Leine begins his narrative before delving back and then forwards again in time. There is a thread of forgiveness that the author follows throughout the novel’s pages: Falck seeks forgiveness for leaving the woman he was about to marry in his early stint in Copenhagen, Abelone Schultz, departing to take up post for the Mission as he does; there is the tone of forgiveness desired in Falck’s acceptance of the ghost’s occasional appearances in the latter pages; the smith is briefly seen as trying to atone for his sins. The author seems to need to tie up the loose ends of his writing as he goes: we’re told that Bertel, the catechist, leaves the colony on the death of his son (under the medically naive stewardship of Falck and his attempted surgery) and the departure of his pregnant wife — Leine writes several pages of digression to explain Bertel’s months away; Falck takes a long trek by foot across Norway, from Bergen to Lier, so that he may speak to his father again; the Magister seeks out Abelone in Copenhagen, during his second stint, in search of her forgiveness. The author chooses to close with an account of forgiveness-seeking at graves on the fells above Igdlut.

So it is that The Prophets of Eternal Fjord starts and ends on the heights of western Greenland’s sparsely populated, harsh terrain. Kim Leine has produced a narrative that weaves historical events with the fictional intensity of his characters, in sensory landscapes of coasts and urban squalor, in the religious and socio-political claustrophobia of the late 18th century Danish crown. Its occasional digressions sometimes fail to drive the narrative onwards and, as such, it is overly long, but the whole is represented by an immersion, nonetheless, leaving the reader with an after-image of significant depth, sense, and consideration on time, place, journey, and liberty.
 
 

Disintegration and Other Stories: Ebook Cover Re-Design

Eventually, the re-designed new cover for Disintegration and Other Stories, in ebook format, has worked its way through the channels at KDP.

The old placeholder version was a little too rough and ready, and this suits the bill much better. Is anything ever finished, or should we just move on?

All books are available at the bookshop.
 
 
 
 

El Funcionario Fantasma: a Montage

Joaquín Garcia, a civil servant of Cadiz, it was reported, ‘failed to turn up for work for at least six years’ having been ‘caught after becoming eligible for a long service award.’ Señor Garcia, who was worried at sixty-nine, was employed ‘to supervise the building of a waste water treatment plant’, claiming later that he had been ‘moved to a post where there was no work to do.’

‘The newspapers called me El Funcionario Fantasma: that is, the phantom official to you,’ Garcia said. It was noted that the boss of the water company had not seen Señor Garcia for ‘years despite occupying an office opposite his.’ The water company thought he was supervised by the local authorities and vice versa. The deputy mayor noticed his absence when Señor Garcia became eligible to receive a plaque for twenty years’ service. Señor Garcia, it transpired, did go to the office ‘although not for full business hours every day,’ dedicating himself to ‘reading philosophy.’

‘The truth of the matter,’ said Garcia, ‘was that El Funcionario Fantasma was employed in the construction of part of a whole city that was fake.’ Some way outside Cadiz, they built a ghost town. This new city would be, it was said, ‘when finished, a to-scale fabricated town, built to code, complete with schools, roads — basically everything you would consider the necessary components of a functional city. Except, of course, no residents.’ There would be ‘separate districts in which it will be possible to test distinct products: Energy District, Development District, Water District, Agricultural District, and a downtown area. And each will be connected by an underground nervous system of sensors, water, and sewer systems.’

‘The ghost town,’ said Garcia, ‘was going to be a giant petri dish for city planning.’

He scratched his head.

‘Well, I grew bored with little to do. When the water plant had been built, it needed overseeing. There is no waste water in a waste water plant for no people. My mind began to ponder what I heard others saying about other aspects of the city: there could be trash or vandalism manufactured for the sake of a specific test, but what about stuff that becomes less essential when you don’t have, you know, actual residents? Stuff like public art? A call for projects was announced and entries came in from across the country. Well, philosophy and art are not so far apart . . .’

Garcia conceived of a zoo as art piece: what could be more of a thought-piece as a zoo-full of animals for no-one to look on? He had time to spare and, he reasoned, a man unnoticed as missing from his desk for six years could easily expect to gather a zoo-full of creatures without being interrupted. Unfortunately, Garcia mused, there was a tremendous flood. ‘It was almost Biblical,’ he said. The cages released the animals amidst the downpour. ‘Lions roamed the streets, a hippopotamus grazed from a tree in a central square and a bear was left crouching on a first-floor window sill.’

Señor Garcia, not rendered completely fazed, though only shortly before becoming eligible for a long service award, devised a further philosophical-art piece.

‘I conceived of the Kingdom of Enclava,’ he announced. It was, he explained, ‘a thousand square foot patch of land’. It was billed as ‘the smallest country in Europe’, Garcia went on, suggesting that he had situated his new country strip of land within the city of no people. He smiled a little, weakly. ‘Enclava has no citizens as yet.’

Señor Joaquín Garcia, artist, philosopher, El Funcionario Fantasma, did not receive the long service award he was due. Instead, he was ordered to pay a year’s salary and was quietly retired. He can be found, telling stories for beers, in the little back street bars of Cadiz, some way out from a ghost town that no longer contains a zoo or a small country.
 
 
Note: this story is a montage of the extraordinary/ordinary reported text from real events with fictional original linking narrative, written for the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2016 (details below references).
 
 
References:

BBC (2016), Spanish civil servant off work unnoticed for six years [Online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35557725 (Accessed July 25, 2016).

Beauchamp, S. (2015), A giant, fake city in the middle of the desert. Washington DC: The Atlantic [Online]. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/05/a-giant-fake-city-in-the-middle-of-the-desert/391652/ (Accessed July 25, 2016).

Parfitt, T. (2015), Hippopotamus on loose in Tblisi shot with tranquilliser — but tigers, lions and wolves still free. London: Telegraph

Squires, N. (2015), Welcome to the world’s newest country — the kingdom of Enclava. London: Telegraph.
 
 
 
Magic Realism Blop-Hop Logo 2016This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (July 29-31, 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Click on the blue frog button below to get the links of all the blogs.