Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Blind Swimmer: An Eibonvale Press Anthology

Offered the theme “creativity in isolation”, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the authors in this anthology have imagined solitary beachfront or wilderness retreats for their writer protagonists to escape to. One of the most interesting stories here, Nina Allen’s “Bellony”, tells the story of an aspiring writer’s growing obsession with the work of a children’s author. Allis Bennett had escaped Nazi Poland as a child, and then spent her life in seclusion in a dowdy seaside town, producing a series of peculiar books before disappearing without trace. Fond of these books from childhood, the young woman moves into the missing writer’s empty house to discover that Bennett’s official biography is riddled with omissions and deceptions.

It’s the sort of literary and metaphysical detective story that reminded me of Paul Auster. It doesn’t operate on the same level as a book like Oracle Nights: for one thing there is a tendency for minor characters to provide their life stories replete with the next piece in the story’s puzzle, and the author is a bit too keen on interpreting the story for us, rather than simply telling it. However, she gets the ramshackle, sun-bleached atmosphere of her seaside town just right, and the unravelling of the mystery is genuinely gripping. I did begin to think of Allis Bennett as a real author, and could almost visualise the faded paperback covers of her strange children’s novels.

Douglas Thompson also conjures a beachfront retreat, but his writer protagonist is already an enfant terrible whose first novel caused such ructions in society, and made him so much money, that he decides to live as a recluse for the next thirty years, to write more of his scabrous masterpieces and avoid the polluting touch of the book business and the fawning world of fans and critics. It’s a premise that raises interesting questions and gets to the heart of the book’s question: how far can any artist remove herself from the rest of the world and continue to produce relevant art? Is it necessarily the case that the further one withdraws into a shell of work and solitary reflection, the more navel-gazing the output? What kind of crazy stories would really get written (if any) by a novelist who spent thirty years without communicating with the rest of humanity, and would there be any point in reading them?

Coincidentally, on the 26th September on Radio 4’s “Americana” programme, the crime writer James Ellroy claimed:

I don’t read books. I fear stimulation: going to motion pictures … I ignore the world as it is today. I do not follow politics contemporaneously at all. I have no opinions. I am not on the internet. I do not watch television, have a cell phone or read newspapers. I feel no social obligation to keep up with the world today.

But is there a point when retreating from distractions means cutting oneself off from any source of real subject matter, or are the contents of a genius’s head enough to keep him going for a lifetime of masterpieces?
Frustratingly, having stated the question in the premise of “The Flowers of Uncertainty”, and set the thought experiment in motion, Douglas Thompson doesn’t seem too interested in answering it. Instead we have a clever recursive series of nested narratives, a range of alternate universes that the author might have found on his return to society.

Starting in a languid, poised style, the story becomes steadily more bombastic at each layer of the story, until the characters are waving guns and throwing silly Hollywood action-movie put-downs around. It’s an entertaining ride as the carpet is repeatedly pulled out from under the reader’s feet, but it feels like an opportunity wasted.

Somewhere further down the coast, in “The Book of Tides”, David Rix’s writer is using his beachcombing finds as inspiration for his magnum opus, a linked series of stories based on his “readings” of the tides. Like Derek Jarman’s garden, his beach hut is surrounded by driftwood sculptures that protect him from the world. He makes tentative connections between his found objects, like a tarot reader hoping that the vaguer his interpretation, the more likely it will contain some grain of truth. The arrival of a more unfathomable bit of jetsam in the shape of a fugitive girl complicates his meditative existence.

There is something tentative about the tone of the whole story that I found frustrating. A particular lump of driftwood is described as “Barkless and cracked, it seemed to reach out, though he wasn’t sure whether it was in agony or exultation. Maybe both”. There’s a reluctance to assert anything definite, to engage with the world, to make a simple decision. When the two characters find five human corpses washed up on the beach, there is no mention of alerting the authorities, or even of burying the dead. The writer is so caught up in his creative monologue that his response is to assemble another piece of sculpture on the beach.

There are problems with the pace of the dialogue: it lurches from stammering sentence fragments into unexpected outbursts of emotional anguish. Here and there the conversations had a lumpy quality that reminded me of soap operas where people invariably show their anger or distress by straightforward shouting. But the awkward, disjointed relationship between the two lonely characters is sensitively portrayed, and the whole story is attentive to the small, subtle clues in the way two strangers might relate to one another. It’s a serious piece of work, perhaps taking itself just a little too seriously.

Thankfully Rhys Hughes is on hand to provide a welcome slice of levity in “The Talkative Star”, a flurry of terse microfictions about the sun and his oblique conversations with various characters including the author himself. This is, I fancy, the same sun who appears in Aesop’s fable, although he is more eccentric and whimsical here, a less gormless cousin to the Mighty Boosh’s moon.

Like Nina Allen’s writer, Gerard Houarner’s Vietnam Vet in “The Flea Market” finds redemption by rummaging through crates of other people’s stuff, in this case, a stack of pretend, cardboard records drawn by school children which have the power to induce hallucinations and visions of his dead family. It’s a unique conceit, and the story undoubtedly creates a heavy, drugged atmosphere. But there are some bits of stylistic trickery that grated on my nerves, in as much as Houarner tries to wedge large chunks of backstory into a single metaphor:

“The sense of dislocation was as bad as coming home from war nursing a wound, a habit, and the title ‘baby-killer’ from a rich kid in poor drag at the airport.”

Andrew Coulthard’s “Lussi Natt” is an overlong supernatural horror in which the by now familiar solitary writer (this time in the Swedish wilderness) is alternately seduced and terrorised by a trio of birch-tree sprites among other evil presences. I think I could see what the author was aiming at here, and all the necessary ingredients to make a genuinely frightening story were in the mix. The author tries repeatedly to escape his predicament, but apparently mundane circumstances frustrate him over and again. There’s always the possibility that his weird experiences are merely the side-effect of forgetting to medicate for his bipolar disorder. One could imagine this as an effective and subtle psychological horror movie, but there is no snap to the storytelling. Every phone call home is laboriously played out in full, and rather than building to a crescendo of unease, the plot meanders back and forth between apparently unrelated encounters with the evil spirits of the woods.

Underworld clich├ęs abound again in Terry Grimwood’s “The Higgins Technique”, this time about the porn industry, and a desperate writer who tries to resurrect her flagging career by immersing herself in the dark world of rape fantasy porn, in order to write about it. The director is a sweaty, booze and cigarette soaked has-been, the male porn star is a vacuous puppet, and the money men are Eastern European and sinister. Of course the writer has her epiphany, where the hastily sketched backstory of her baby’s cot-death can be brought to closure. The story is almost saved by a disturbingly ambiguous ending – I wasn’t sure whether the protagonist was really going to survive to write her confession.

The story is told from several viewpoints, including that of the lonely, masturbating porn consumer, and I could see what slant Grimwood has taken on the “creativity in isolation” theme. All the characters are isolated from one another by an abusive industry, and all are struggling to create something: the director is still dreaming of being a real film-maker, the actress is trying to find a unmarketed niche to write herself into, even the porn addict is using his imagination. But the characters are for the most part so two-dimensional, and their motivations and hang-ups so off-the-peg that this potentially interesting take on the given theme doesn’t catch fire.

Then there is Alexander Zelenyj’s amusingly dreadful tale of sexual obsession that shouldn’t have been allowed to share the same binding as decent stories like Nina Allen’s “Bellony”. “Far Beneath Incomplete Constellations” is the grandiloquent tale of a university lecturer’s controlling, abusive sexual relationship with one of his female Japanese students. It’s a story that never uses one word when half a dozen will do, preferably Latinate and eldritch ones. Whenever the main character realises anything, he has “an epiphany”. There are absurdities such as “it had birthed anger in him” when something makes the protagonist angry.

The central motif, that of the protagonist riding his lover, who has transformed into a crimson (not red!) winged beast, as a metaphor for sex, reminded me of the animated sex scene in the movie “Anchorman”, when Ron Burgundy and his lover ride pink winged unicorns, and I found that reading the story was a lot less onerous when I imagined the protagonist’s dialogue read out in Burgundy’s voice. Later on my hunch was confirmed when I learned that lecturer’s office smelled of “rich mahogany”, which is of course, one of Burgundy’s least successful chat-up lines (“I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”)

Besides being at times laughable, the protagonist’s insane notion that his Japanese lover is inhuman, a lust-making shell designed to entrance him, is not seriously questioned anywhere in the story. The Japanese student is herself made too timid, pliable and inarticulate to effectively counter this violent dehumanizing idea. The story ends with the man riding an asteroid accompanied by one last injudicious metaphor: he fishes a drowned bluebird from a pond full of semen.

Despite editorial oversights such as “Far Beneath Incomplete Constellations”, a lot of care has gone into putting “Blind Swimmer” together. There’s a thought-provoking foreword by Joel Lane, who discusses withdrawal and engagement as two equally necessary modes for any writer, even one who professes to reject “the mainstream” (whatever that is). “How can this loneliness be shared and learned from without falsifying it?” he asks, concisely summing up the problem that seems to haunt many of the writer-protagonists in this collection.

“Radical and counter-cultural writers in the UK are branded irrelevant” he writes, and “any writer who does not buy into the ‘affirmative culture’ of forced optimism and competitive individualism is isolated by the indifference of the ‘market’ (a prescriptive myth shared by commercial publishers and booksellers).” I take issue with this: I don’t believe that there is a dominant ‘affirmative culture’ operating in the literary mainstream, and I can think of few recent successful novels that have celebrated competitive individualism or any kind of simplistic optimism. There is a danger of small-press and “genre” writers creating an insular victim culture: uncritically reading one another’s books and believing themselves an oppressed minority. To compare the small press market to “shanty towns…crowded with literary refugees” buys into this myth.

Lane wisely warns writers not to “withdraw into a narcissistic inner world of perpetual wound-licking”, but I can’t help wondering whether the term “weird fiction” panders to that very same adolescent instinct (“we’re different and special and nobody understands us”). Writers might fool themselves that they’re not getting published because they’re just too “out there” for the mainstream publishers, but it’s hardly a recipe for constructive self-criticism. “Nobody likes my writing but that’s just because they can’t handle it!” Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that it’s not good enough. And one doesn’t have to explore the mainstream canon of literature very far to discover that it has always been packed to the rafters with outcasts and misfits who never saw themselves as part of a separate, parallel tradition of “weird” literature. Joel Lane mentions Jean Genet, and there are of course dozens more canonized Great Authors who did not write “horror”, “fantasy” or “speculative” fiction, but who expressed horrifying, fantastical and speculative ideas that could invigorate and widen the scope of so-called “genre” fiction.

Blind Swimmer – An Eibonvale Press Anthology edited by David Rix. Eibonvale Press 2010. ISBN 978-0956214751 (paperback), 978-0956214744 (hardback).

2 comments:

  1. Great review of one of my favourite anthologies of the year! And you are absolutely right about my sun being the sun-equivalent of the 'alabaster retard' moon from the Boosh! Spot on! So cheers! Rhys!

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  2. Thanks Rhys, and thanks John, for taking the time to make such a very detailed analysis of the book. I might also be curious to find out sometime what you thought of the 3 stories you didn’t have space to mention…

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