Sunday 27 December 2009

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson

Alexander Stark is a university professor who goes missing; this book contains accounts of his life – or rather lives – from that point on. His – and sometimes her – stories take us all over the world and into the past, to ancient Greece and medieval Italy. Those he left behind try to piece things together from a trail of corpses. Where is he going? What is his purpose? Is he a serial killer or a serial suicide?

I should say up front that four of these stories were published in magazines I edited (two here in TQF, and two in Dark Horizons), so some bias in my review should be expected. But of course there was a reason I selected those stories for publication: I thought they were fantastic. So for whichever reason you choose, it’s no surprise that I loved the book too.

Let’s get my reservations out of the way first, since that leads directly to one of them: it’s perhaps because I read many of the stories in isolation that I saw the book’s overall linking structure as something of a flaw. In some places the linking material gives away too much about the stories which follow, but also the stories stood so well on their own that threading them along the skein of one man’s life lessened them slightly for me, losing a little of what made them unique by stressing their similarities. Production-wise, the book is afflicted by Eibonvale’s usual love of blank pages (fifty-four of them!) and enormous indents. There’s also an odd bit of spacing between each paragraph. Discreet is muddled with discrete throughout, punctuation is occasionally erratic and typos become slightly more frequent as the book goes on. On the other hand, each chapter announces itself with a bold, atmospheric illustration by publisher David Rix, and there are useful essays by Allen Ashley and Joy Hendry.

To new readers the book’s tiny flaws will be imperceptible, hidden by the glare of the originality and imagination on show here. Looking back at my email accepting “Telemura” for publication (in which spiders rearrange Margaret’s house while she sleeps), I said that it reminded me of Borges, or maybe a more dispassionate Lovecraft – if I’d read enough Ballard to be confident of my ground I’d probably have mentioned him too. Now I’ve read the rest of the book, it only reminds me of Douglas Thompson. It seems to me he’s a writer who doesn’t sit down to write a story unless he’s got an idea to justify it. As an example, consider “Anatomicasa”, in which a man slowly takes his house to pieces and rebuilds it in the strangest possible way, revealing its structure, becoming both its coroner and plastic surgeon. These stories are original in theme, in execution and in subject matter. Over the last few years I’ve read hundreds of short stories, and these have been among the very best and the most distinctive. The remarkable thing about this book is that despite the experimentation, the eccentricity, and the frequent changes in point of view, tense, location and time, it’s exceptionally readable, each carefully crafted sentence going down like hot chocolate laced with brandy.

In that sense Ultrameta reminded me of Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer, another book I very much enjoyed without ever really understanding. But like the ten-year-old in “Butterflies”, “I enjoy reading books that I do not understand, and revelling in that mystery, that blissful confusion” (p. 273). That sums up my feelings so exactly that I wondered at first if I was being quoted! Not knowing can be frightening (being lost in a strange city), but it can also be wonderful (being whirled in the air by a parent). With Ultrameta there’s a bit of each: it’s both frightening and exhilarating. By turns cynical and idealistic, liberating and claustrophobic, this book is entirely entertaining and highly recommended.

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson, Eibonvale Press, hb, 304pp.

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