“The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats
Reviewed in this column:
Love Among the Particles and Other Stories by Norman Lock (Bellevue Literary Press, 2013)
The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla; trans. Mitch Ginsburg (Tor Books, 2013)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013)
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain; trans. Gallic Books (Gallic Books, 2013)
Bitter Orange by Marshall Moore (Signal 8 Press, 2013)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2013)
Selecting short story collections for this column is fraught with difficulty. I’ve lost count of the number of books sent to me on the basis that they have a weird story in them. But one weird short story does not a collection make, and insofar as I make any rules for this column beyond exercising personal taste, for a collection to earn its place I want the bulk of the stories to show that they participate in an aesthetic of the weird.
For an example of the kind of short story collection that does pass my test, let us turn to Love Among the Particles and Other Stories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2013), the latest collection from Norman Lock. I was initially a little put off by the title, which carried with it strong overtones of the scientific rather than the fantastic, and by the first story in the collection, ‘The Monster in Winter’ which, while undoubtedly well-written, seemed to lean rather heavily on Robert L Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for its effect. Indeed, at times, I wondered if Lock wasn’t relying on Stevenson’s original to do his work for him. However, as I read on it became clear that I was doing Lock a disservice. He is not engaged in either homage or pastiche but in an intense dialogue with a number of past writers about the process of writing, and the nature of fiction itself, often with a first-person protagonist, who may or may not be called Norman. At its most obvious, it surfaces in stories like ‘The Monster in Winter’ which picks up where Stevenson left off and imagines an afterlife for Edward Hyde, in which an unscrupulous young American called Drayton attempts to exploit Hyde through a dramatic recitation of his own confession, only to find himself in turn exploited. Except that Lock seems to have turned Stevenson’s story inside out.
Lock takes a similar approach with Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, in ‘Each According to His Sentence’. ‘The Captain is Sleeping’ and ‘A Theory of Time’ both seem to me to resonate with Bruno Schulz’s ‘At the Sign of the Hourglass Sanatorium, and in particular with that peculiar railway journey that precedes the narrator’s strange experiences in the sanatorium itself. First, we have a narrator roaming an enormous ship, searching for a young woman whose name seems to be constantly transforming itself into something new, almost but not quite like the previous name, and meeting people who seem to have no idea where they are, how long they’ve been on board or indeed, where the rest of the ship goes. The ship is apparently laying a cable but when the narrator finally reaches the cable-laying apparatus, it is to discover the captain’s mother knitting a cable from black wool. What does this mean? One thinks in part of the child’s knitting dolly, endlessly spewing out a cable that has no real use. One thinks also of an unholy engagement between modernity and futility, symbolised by this vast ship that seems to encompass the entire world but for no obvious reason – where is the cable being laid to? And from where? There is no answer other than that the narrator must take up the task rather, one suspects, as others have done before him, a task stretching out to infinity, rather like that cable.
‘A Theory of Time’ actually takes us onto a railway train – again, it appears to be a motif of sorts for the world itself, travelling onwards, ever onwards, meeting people coming the other way. ‘I begin to suspect we are travelling to no purpose’ says the narrator near the story’s opening. It is perhaps an obvious thought – the purposelessness of his journey set against everything we know about the nature of railways, ordered, running to timetable, their destinations and intermediate stopping places laid out – yet there is something wonderfully strange about this journey that offsets any sense we might have of ‘yes, of course, been done before’. And Lock does this time and again, taking a trope that seems familiar to readers of the weird but analysing it in the fiercest detail.
‘From what I have heard of dreaming,’ says one character in ‘Ideas of Space’, ‘it is a lawless and absurd place’ and the same could well be said of these stories. While they possess an internal logic of sorts, their grip on what we might know as reality is more than a little tenuous. We might easily float away if we did not concentrate on the tale being told, but the manner of the tale’s telling demands that we pay very close attention. ‘I noticed how he attributed a space to dreaming and I thought this justifiable now that my own dreams were becoming more spacious’ says another character in the same story. And the dreams in these stories are indeed spacious, yet underlying their spaciousness is a densely knotted critical fabric; Lock constantly interrogates the business of writing fiction, confusing the role of writer and participant. When Roland Barthes spoke of the death of the author it was only to propose that everyone was in part author of the story she was reading, endlessly reformulating it, and this is something that Lock almost insists on, so open is he about pointing out the fictionality of everything we look at.
While Norman Lock addresses the artificiality of fiction, Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End; trans. Mitch Ginsburg (Tor Books, 2013) might be said to address the fictionality of life. The World of the End was Gafla’s first novel, originally published in Israel in 2004. As the English title might hint, it is intended as a playful novel. In particular, it plays with a certain trope of the fantast, one familiar to fans of Peter S Beagle’s A Fine And Private Place, that of a functioning afterlife. If you’ve not read Beagle’s novel (and really, if you haven’t, you ought to do yourself a favour and get on with it), it concerns Jonathan Rebeck, who has been living in the Yorkchester cemetery for nearly twenty years, because, well, it seems better than anything else on offer. Rebeck is fed by a raven who steals food for him, as ravens are wont to do. Rebeck befriends two new ghosts, Michael Morgan, who strongly suspects his wife poisoned him, and Laura Durand, a victim of a traffic accident. As they fall in love, so Rebeck finds himself befriended by the newly widowed Gertrude Klapper, though he hasn’t realised it yet. This charming posthumous idyll is interrupted when Michael’s body is to be exhumed, because his wife has been charged with his murder.
It is a trope that can be traced through goodness knows how many other novels, including Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which is very much an homage to Beagle. But whereas Beagle and Gaiman incline to the whimsical (not that there is anything wrong with whimsy, and they both do it very well) Gafla’s novel reminds me rather more of Kevin Brockmeier’s bleaker The Brief History of the Dead (although Brockmeier’s novel was published in 2006) where the dead enjoy an afterlife in the City only so long as there are people alive to remember them. Gafla’s characters do not vanish with memory; instead, the question is, why do the living suppose the dead will remember them?
Gafla’s protagonist is Ben Mendelssohn, an epilogist by trade; that is, a man who specialises in endings, supplying them for writers who don’t know how to end their scripts or novels. He also describes himself as a ‘righter’ rather than a writer; insofar as he is known, he is known for being unknown. This already hints that we are in a setting that is perhaps more fabulistic than realistic, focusing on the world as a teleological artefact. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Ben’s beloved wife, Marian, has lost her life in what are described initially as ‘bizarre aeronautical circumstances’, and that fifteen months after her death, he has decided to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Their friends are delighted, seeing this as a sign of a new beginning for Ben, and are consequently taken aback when, during the culminating firework display, Ben shoots himself, his intention being to join his wife in the afterlife he presumes must exist, and where he is certain he will be reunited with Marian.
The more one looks at it, the more the idea of an afterlife seems so odd, and I say that not just because, philosophically speaking, I don’t believe in survival beyond death. According to some religious traditions, we will meet our ‘loved ones’ in the life that is presumed to come after, while other religious traditions suggest we will be reincarnated, going through many lives before we are somehow perfected. The assumption, though, is that this is not it, this is not all there is. There is something else we move on to, or else we experience some sort of release, some moment of ineffable certainty.
Ben, driven by an apparently simple desire to be reunited with Marian (though pausing long enough to spend a year working out so that he gives her the surprise of his brand new, well honed body, after she commented on his bagginess) pulls the trigger and waits to see what happens next. What happens is that Ben finds himself in a reception centre, along with all the others who died on the same day as him. The world of the end, it turns out, is akin to a slickly managed retirement community, or maybe a cruise ship, somewhere where your every whim and desire can be catered to, within firmly delineated parameters. Everyone who dies on the same day is assigned their own room in the same building, easily locatable. Their new existence is marked by all sorts of ‘benefits’ and yet, looking at the lists of things no longer permissible, one begins to wonder if this shiny afterlife isn’t just a little bit restrictive. There is the mandatory nudity, to take one example, and the emphatic insistence that one shouldn’t move house, because it’s tidier for the bureaucrats (though people do – there is a thriving economy of rule subversion). Most startling of all, for Ben at least, Marian is not, as he’d imagined, waiting for him. Although the names of new arrivals are read out, he learns that no one ever comes to meet them. And even when couples are reunited elsewhere, it’s very different to how Ben imagined it. Undeterred, given he cannot envisage his life without Marian, Ben embarks on a search for her, aided by the afterlife’s very own private investigator, the Mad Hop.
Ben’s journey through this glossy afterlife is a novel in itself, a guided tour round death, orchestrated by the Mad Hop, whose skills as a PI are somewhat doubtful, but who clearly sees what Ben does not, that Ben simply cannot bear to let go. Ben is so engaged in the drama of his own life that it has never occurred to him that people have lives when they are not under his gaze and that, with the best will in the world, even he cannot know what his wife is really thinking. In part, his search seems to be orchestrated by others to show him the truth he cannot yet accept, moving back and forth across the border that death represents, challenging our assumptions about what it means in terms of absence and separation. Death as a kind of endless cruise, so relentlessly overflowing with opportunity it’s almost unbearable, says a lot about the way so many people live by convincing themselves that death will be better. Yet, as Gafla seems to suggest, all of this relies very heavily on the dead accepting death for what it is, and indeed the living accepting that beyond death things must inevitably be different.
‘Not to know yourself’, Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby (2013), ‘is dangerous, to that self and to others. Those who destroy, who cause great suffering, kill off some portion of themselves first, or hide from the knowledge of their acts and from their own emotions’, and this is certainly true of Ben. His profession brings with it a deliberate self-effacement and he has compensated by placing himself firmly at the centre of his own emotional drama, to the point where he can see nothing but himself. But he is by no means the only one. The reader is also privy to a broader web of connections that Ben for the most part cannot access. Galfa seems to delight in exploring the ways in which lives intersect without people being aware of what’s going on, or indeed the stories they tell themselves about one another. Take Ann, a small, unassuming woman, who watches Ben every day as he works out, falls in love with him, is surprised to receive a bunch of flowers from him … except that another man at the gym has assumed she is watching him … and in turn it seems that his brother might have been responsible for Marian’s death. Except that Marian appears to be still alive. And Ann herself is not entirely what she might seem to be. To herself she is a creature of infinite mercy, easing the terminally ill and those too badly injured to recover into death by persuading their relations to agree to euthanasia. To at least one person who encounters her, Ann is a monster, intruding on private relationships.
Gafla delights in teasing our imaginations and our narrative expectations with such revelations, and clearly loves intense narrative complications. His novel overflows with the improbable, and he is not at all afraid to experiment with different kinds of literary convention under the one narrative roof. On the one hand, The World of the End may be a kind of moral tale, in which Ben, the arch-executor of endings has to come to terms with his own endings; on the other, it is a truly chaotic journey through the complications of human life. And it is that absurd, surrealist sense that pushes this novel into the ‘weird’ for me, in particular because it is, ironically, so seemingly straightforward on the surface. It is the effect of the accumulation of detail that prompts the reader to start thinking ‘hang on …’. It is a rich and involving read.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Reagan ArthurBooks, 2013) may, to some, sit oddly in a column on weird fiction. To all intents and purposes it is a realist narrative, concerning the lives of the Todd family, Hugh and Sylvie, and their children, in particular, Ursula, ‘little she-bear’, born in a snowstorm in 1910. However, as will quickly become apparent, this novel is not quite what it purports to be. How to account, for example, for the way in which the narrative revisits the circumstances of Ursula’s birth, over and over. She dies, strangled at birth by her umbilical cord; she survives, thanks to the doctor’s quick thinking and a pair of surgical scissors; she survives, thanks to her mother’s foresightedness and a pair of surgical scissors, and so on and so on. Time and again, and I use that phrase quite advisedly, the novel comes back to this first moment of Ursula’s life, trying out variations on the theme of her presence in the world. But this is not the only point in Ursula’s life that is open to negotiation. As a teenager, she is raped, avoids being raped, is kissed but not attacked, becomes pregnant, avoids becoming pregnant. A little later, we see her exploring the various options open to a girl of her class during the interwar years – university education, much to her mother’s disgust; secretarial work, marriage – and then looping back round to begin again. Yet each time the story begins again, so to speak, more and more is stripped away, with the focus more and more on the differences in the details, or some detail, irrelevant in one time, suddenly comes into sharper focus in another version.
Ursula’s progress through life is choppy, with some moments more likely than others to dissolve into a series of possibilities – the Second World War is particularly notable for this, not surprisingly, but nothing happens between 1947 and 1967. There are versions of her life in which Ursula seems to be entirely unaware that there have been alternatives, and others in which she is seen as possessing some sort of second sight, or displays a sense of déjà vu, and one in which she is all too acutely aware of what has gone before, and in which she directly acts to prevent what she believes will happen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Life after Life has received a mixed response in the critical press; my favourite is still the three commentators on a radio arts programme literally unable to get to grips with the novel’s structure, whereas any reader familiar with the fantastic will have immediately worked out what is going on. My first thought, when I began reading this novel, was that it obviously had some sort of relationship to J.B. Priestley’s time plays, Time and the Conways in particular, moving back and forth in time, accompanied by an apprehension, which can’t be fully articulated, that there is something else going on, and the briefest of glimpses of other possibilities. Priestley was influenced by J W Dunne’s An Experiment With Time, in which Dunne theorised that all moments in time are taking place simultaneously; it is only human consciousness that means we perceive time at a fixed rate. Only through dreams are we able to perceive the various possibilities. This in turn throws open all sorts of possibilities as to what’s happening in Life after Life. Ursula, sensible, methodical, alert to everything around her, stands like a quietly mythic figure, the pivot of a kaleidoscope of potentialities.
Life After Life is not an overtly ‘weird’ novel; indeed, it is, if one is so minded, possible to read it simply as a commentary on the position of women in the early twentieth century, and how young women attempted to subvert the strictures placed on them by earlier generations. Yet, having said that, it’s also an interesting example of how writers who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves as ‘genre’ writers, or whatever term we’re using this week, can take certain ideas and tropes and use them in subtle and interesting ways. In which case, Life after Life is certainly of interest to readers of this column, rather as J.B. Priestley should be. And even if you remain unconvinced by that argument, it is still an exquisitely well-written novel and worth your attention for that.
Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat; trans. Gallic Books (Gallic Books, 2013) is delightfully quirky, another of those novels that could be read, just about, as a realist narrative, except that, to my mind at least, there is a discernible thread of strangeness in it. This depends on whether you believe that an article of clothing can be somehow imbued with mysterious powers. Most of us, I think, have an article of clothing that feels somehow special, or different. It might be lucky socks or a jacket that makes us feel particularly good when we wear it, or a much loved shirt or a sweater … there’s a pair of ankle boots I still miss. It’s probably superstitious nonsense, but suppose, just suppose it wasn’t.
One night, Daniel Mercier, a frustrated middle-ranking executive in Paris, decides to treat himself to a meal. His wife and child are away, he’s despondent about his work, he needs some kind of fillip in his life. Settled in an expensive restaurant, worrying a little about the likely size of his bill, he is amazed when Francois Mitterrand and a couple of aides are seated at the next table. Mercier spends the evening in a daze, feeling as though he has somehow been touched, even briefly and tangentially, by greatness. After Mitterrand’s group leaves, Daniel discovers that the President has left behind his black Homburg. In a moment of … insanity? who knows … Daniel keeps the hat for himself.
Who knows what strange powers might permeate the hat but for Daniel the transformation is sudden and miraculous. In a meeting he finds the confidence to disagree with his manager which brings him to the attention of the departmental head, and suddenly Daniel finds himself promoted beyond his wildest dreams, heading his own department in Rouen. On the day he and his family travel to Rouen, Daniel leaves the hat on the train.
Thus the hat passes from one person to another, and a series of remarkable transformations that occur: a young woman has the courage to finally dump her married lover and pursue other dreams, a famous perfume-maker emerges from years of depression, inspired to devise a new fragrance, while yet another temporary owner of the hat decides suddenly to start collecting modern art. All through this, Daniel is trying to retrieve the hat … and so is someone else.
This is a delightful piece of whimsy (and as I said, there is always a place for whimsy) but there is something more to it. We might wonder whether the hat itself does possess mysterious properties. Has Mitterrand’s power somehow permeated the hat, to the extent that it can influence subsequent wearers? Or is it merely that the hat is a particularly satisfying item of clothing? Or is there something peculiarly transformative about headgear in general – the old slogan runs, ‘if you want to get ahead, get a hat?’ Is it the act of appropriation in unusual circumstances that enables people, having made the first step, to free themselves sufficiently to utter a truth or recognise something they’ve hitherto concealed in themselves. Is the hat just possibly a magical item? That’s for the novel to answer, or not, but it is well worth the reading to find out. As weird fiction goes, it’s very low-key but utterly irresistible.
Marshall Moore’s Bitter Orange (Signal 8 Press, 2013) is a much darker prospect than The President’s Hat but for a good part of the novel it exhibits a similar low-key approach to its weirdness. The novel begins with an almost farcical encounter in a small convenience store in San Francisco. As he tries to avoid dropping a bottle of wine, Seth Harrington manages to knock several other bottles off the shelf. The woman serving in the store goes berserk with rage as Seth and his flatmate, Sang-hee, try to clear up the mess. In exasperation, Seth stashes a bottle of wine in his rucksack and leaves without paying. Incredibly, given that she suddenly appeared at his elbow while he was doing this, the woman didn’t notice.
About two-thirds of the novel is devoted to Seth’s coming to terms with the notion that something odd is going on. He can somehow convince people he’s given them a high-denomination bill when he’s given them a dollar He can somehow make himself simply not be there but only in very specific circumstances, many of which involve acts of violence at odds with Seth’s usual demeanour. Somehow, an element of illegality is always involved. Seth sees it in terms of becoming invisible but that’s too unsubtle a description of what’s going on, if indeed anything is going on.
Having convinced himself that he possesses this peculiar ability Seth attempts to verify it, and then enlists Sang-hee’s help to document it. The results, as they so often are in such circumstances, are mixed. Sang-hee simply doesn’t see what happens, although he cannot deny that, for example, Seth has managed to acquire a new iPod for him with very little outlay. When Seth beays a man unconscious with a chair, defending Sang-hee, or so he believes, Sang-hee simply doesn’t see it happen. Is it Seth’s imagination? Is it merely coincidence? Is it that Seth is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of 9/11. Or is it something else? “He theorized time had sped up, compressing the episode into a flash of existence too brief to perceive. This theory frightened Seth more than anything else had.”
What is at issue for Seth is that his mysterious invisibility comes upon him in moments of moral ambiguity, the points at which he is most likely to be able to get away with something that is wrong, be it passing a dollar bill as a hundred-dollar bill, a voucher as a cinema ticket, or at moments when he can get away with something like stealing a bottle of wine or any number of other things.
Having said that, what is most interesting to me is the way in which Seth struggles to come to terms with possessing this weird skill, and trying to figure out what he should do with it. Is he condemned to a life of crime, should he decide to exercise the ability some more, or is it possible to direct it in a morally responsible way? What starts as a way of mildly amusing himself by freaking people out becomes a moral burden when he sets out to test what he is capable of doing, and wins himself a fortune on the gambling tables of Las Vegas, a fortune he can’t realistically claim. His life is governed by an inexplicable ability. He has no way of accounting for it, can’t get rid of it even assuming he could explain it. It dominates him and he has no idea what to do. “The horror of his situation struck him: if he could turn imperfectly invisible in morally grey moments, what were other people capable of doing?”
And here, I have to say that the novel’s resolution is, to my mind, rather less than the build-up to the moment of revelation. Others may find the ending less unsatisfactory than I did, but to me it felt rushed, as though Moore, having got this far, didn’t know where to go next, and transformed a slow-moving meditative piece into something faintly preposterous by suddenly inserting a wham-bam denouement. It feels too as though there may be a sequel in the offing, something I don’t think the novel really needs. And yet, I still find Bitter Orange sufficiently fascinating, up to that point, to recommend it, with reservations.
Having begun the column with a short-story collection, I shall end with another, Vampires in the Lemon Grove; Stories by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2013). Her earlier collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves attracted many favourable reviews, while Swamplandia! is a wonderful novel for lovers of the weird. Nor does this new collection disappoint.
I’ve been trying to think how best to characterise the stories. Lately, I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds (2011), and though my disagreements with her perceptions about science fiction and fantasy must wait for another time and place, I find that her brief observations on horror useful here. Plain, ordinary horror, to paraphrase Atwood, is something you might meet in the streets. The problem here is that in certain lights, Karen Russell might be regarded as a horror writer. Some stories, such as ‘The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis’, about an unearthly child and an even more unearthly scarecrow, press up very close to something I understand as horror, as does ‘The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach’. ‘Reeling For the Empire’ reminds me more of something like William Sansom’s ‘The Long Sheet’ while ‘Proving Up’ is a strangely mesmerising account of frontier homesteaders who seem to have moved far beyond the American West. Russell’s subject matter may vary – ‘The Barn At the End of Our Term’ features American presidents reincarnated as horses (no, really), while the eponymous ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is about precisely that but is also a very sharp meditation on the representation of vampirism, and ‘The New Veterans’ concerns a masseuse who finds herself tapping into her clients’ experiences through contact with their skin – but what particularly marks Russell’s work, I think, is an intense interest in people, how they respond to a situation rather than the situation itself, although there is no doubt that Russell also has an eye for the quirky and unusual story. At times I feel we’re heading into Kelly Link territory, in terms of topic, though Russell’s telling of each story is more conventional than Link’s would be.
These are people with very human dilemmas, yes, even Clyde the vampire. For all he is struggling with a desire to drink human blood (though Magreb, his wife, repeatedly tells him that vampires don’t actually need to drink blood), this is a story about struggling with the nature of desire and addiction rather than a story about blood-sucking. Similarly, ‘Reeling for the Empire’ can be read, on the one hand, as an horrific tale in which women are transformed into human silkworms, but on the other, one might think of it too as a commentary on the total factory culture that exists in certain countries. ‘The New Veterans’ deals with Beverley, a trained masseuse who treats Iraqi war veterans, and finds herself embroiled in the strange world of Derek, who apparently has the death of a comrade tattooed across his back. But strange as that scenario might seem, it’s only the beginning of a story which draws a comparison between the malleability of flesh and of memory.
This is a rare collection too in that I find it hard to pick a favourite. ‘Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating’ is perhaps a little weaker than the others, though the title more than makes up for that. Otherwise, the sheer variety of the stories makes every one a winner. Russell has a distinctive storytelling ‘voice’ but draws her ideas from all over. I like her way of somehow domesticating the ideas without taming them, rendering them in such a way that one can accept the story without immediately thinking ‘what?’, only to realise a moment or two later that actually, this really is the most peculiar thing you’ve read lately, until you move onto the next one.
Looking back over this selection of novels and short-story collections, I’m struck yet again at how capricious the weird can be, how it manifests itself in the most unexpected ways, how it is both disturbing and yet transformative, and most particularly, how it is always lurking, waiting to irrupt when you least expect it … ideally, when you least expect it.