The Afflictions

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The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar is described in its blurb as “a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopaedia of archaic medicine,” a claim that is slightly at odds with the brevity and fragmentariness of the book. The reader is treated not to an encyclopaedic experience, but to a series of excerpts from the 327 volumes of a fictional Encyclopaedia medicinae, linked by a framing narrative. Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I have nothing against brevity and fragmentariness per se (quite the opposite), but in The Afflictions there is a tension between those qualities and the way the book has been put together and presented to the public that I find unsatisfying. More of that later.

Paralkar’s prose is balanced, genial and articulate. It has an olde worlde quality that is difficult to pin down to a particular setting. Syntax and diction feel predominantly early Twentieth Century, while the story seems to be set in an unspecified feudal Catholic country (possibly Spain), in which writers use quills and the schism between science and superstition has yet to occur. Learning and enquiry are at the heart of the book, and the notion of empire is subtly present throughout; perhaps Paralkar has located his fictional world in the Sixteenth Century. But the intention is clearly not to provide the reader with an obvious milieu. I felt as if I had entered the archetypal world of a Calvino or a Borges, removed from mundane reality yet connected with history.

The escapism provided by The Afflictions is one of the chief attractions of the book. Another is the ingenuity of the author in defining and exemplifying his invented ailments. Paralkar is a writer of Twitterature, and in this book he shows his formidable talent for the creation of concise, witty, crystalline prose. Each affliction is neatly contained in a couple of pages, offering the reader a delightful promenade from one to the next, like a saunter through an art gallery. The tone is light and easy. Distinctions between the physical and the metaphysical don’t apply to the symptomatology of the diseases listed here: “the sufferer of Cursed Healer Syndrome… finds himself taking on the disfigurements of those around him”; victims of Oraculum terribile see the future damnation of everyone they look at; the Curse of Sisyphus keeps those afflicted in a cycle of development and regression, perhaps to keep them free from sin. Paralkar’s inventiveness in devising maladies is stunning.

The writing is complemented by some striking illustrations by Amanda Thomas, which provide an extra treat. The pictures are decorative and quietly fanciful, but they have the orderly stasis of textbook illustrations.

Despite all these excellent qualities, The Afflictions has one significant flaw, namely the framing device, in which an elderly librarian introduces a dwarf called Máximo to the Central Library, housing the Encyclopaedia medicinae. The device attempts to impose a narrative but proves insubstantial and disappointing; there are hints that Máximo is deformed and suffers from some sort of affliction (which might explain his interest in the encyclopaedia), but this plot strand is cursory and undeveloped. The book half promises (but doesn’t deliver) a labyrinthine narrative, in which Máximo’s life and story become intertwined with the grotesque vignettes of the encyclopaedia entries. This is just speculation on my part, but it looks to me as if Paralkar wrote his encyclopaedia entries first and then wondered how he could bring them together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps he should have resisted the urge to make his book resemble a novel; unlinked fragments from the encyclopaedia would have been enough, and might have made for a more satisfying read. He should have let the book be what it wanted to be, and not shoe-horn it into an established form.

But don’t let my little grumble about form put you off. The Afflictions is engaging, entertaining and enchanting, and Paralkar is a writer to watch.

You can buy the book here.

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The Inevitable June

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The Newer York is an online-and-print magazine that plants itself firmly in the tradition of the avant-garde, publishing left-field short stories accompanied by artwork and grandly declaring on its website, “We will end the triumvirate of novels, poems and short-stories.” It sells a range of merchandise, including paintings, mugs, t-shirts and books, one of which is a remarkable little volume written and illustrated by Bob Schofield called The Inevitable June.

In his book, Schofield strips the lexicon of narrative and illustration to their essentials. Each page is its own world. We start with a small square, which becomes a big square, then a box, then a frame around the book’s title. Over the page, the date “June 1” suggests the start of the story, and a first-person narrative begins:

This morning I am swollen in my mother’s belly. It creaks like a door in the lamp post. I imagine a coat rack built in an iceberg. There are clouds above it. A black octopus touching people’s hair.

The story is neither rational nor linear. Its mercurial instability recalls Benjamin Péret; Schofield, like the great surrealist, lets words and images wander down whatever pathways of association they like. It makes for a delightful read, in which the reader is constantly being surprised, yet is struck by the unaccountable rightness of the story’s shifts and changes. Every chapter is a day in June, beginning with the same two words: “This morning.” We experience a perpetual morning, in which everything is always new. Constant novelty could get boring very quickly, but Schofield presents us with threads, themes, motifs, running from chapter to chapter: the box, glass aeroplanes, baking, the sea, masks, identity, family.

Delight and surprise were not the only emotions I felt when reading The Inevitable June. The book is unsettling and thought-provoking. I am not sure why. One reason might be Schofield’s use of the first person; I felt as if I was reading an encrypted autobiography, a poetic transformation of lived experiences, similar in tone to Fernando Arrabal’s La Pierre de la Folie Take, for example, this passage from Arrabal’s livre panique:

Imprisoned in the glass bottle, all I could see were my mother’s huge hands, slamming the lid shut.

And now this, from The Inevitable June:

This morning I am thinking about my father, who jumped from a glass airplane at the precise moment I was born.

Like La Pierre de la Folie, the narrative of The Inevitable June is organised into brief episodes and proceeds by the accumulation of heterogeneous details, rather than by providing a logically coherent story. I would argue that, in this respect, both books resemble life as we actually experience it far more closely than most novels.

But I digress. The other source of The Inevitable June‘s power lies in its combination of stylish monochrome design and simple drawings. The pictures make their own story, one that runs parallel with Schofield’s word world, intersecting at times, diverging at others, reflecting, distorting, parodying. The book would be greatly diminished without them. Unfortunately, if you buy the Kindle version and read it on your iPad or iPhone, many of the pictures don’t display properly. In any case, there’s never a substitute for a physical book, and this one is a pleasure to handle.

There is a lot more I could write about Schofield’s book: the array of cultural allusions (such as Mary Poppins – check out June 24), the humour, the terrifying octopus. But I’ll wrap up this review by saying simply that I love The Inevitable June, and if you enjoyed silly stories as a toddler and haven’t entirely forgotten what it was like to be one, you will too.

You can buy the book here.

The JackPort Killer

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The Jackport Killer is the latest chronicle from Kneel Downe‘s ever-expanding Virulent Blurb universe. Best described as hardboiled poetic sci-fi, it’s one of the case files of Detective Kurt Lobo, a spliced man-wolf with lots of baggage and bags of attitude. Lobo investigates a ritualistic murder and finds himself embroiled in a story that dredges up his own past.

The novel is immensely entertaining. The author handles lots of potentially cumbersome exposition with a masterfully light touch, conveying in very few words the Blurb universe and some of its history, Lobo’s back story and the case in hand. Most of the paragraphs in the novel are single sentences, making James Ellroy seem prolix. Kneel writes and thinks in tweets, and here (as in his other books) the discipline of tweeting has translated into crystalline prose. Take this example, a description of a dog splice:

He’s Doberman spliced and just all kinda wrongs…
Kinda effeminate…
Like some sorta broken ballet dancer…
Precise but splintered….

Lobo’s first person narration is brutal, vivid and frequently very funny; Lobo has the blackest sense of humour, and will deflate a horrific description with a sardonic quip or a wry observation. Discovering a dismembered body in his apartment, he deadpans:

Judging by the splattered red on my sheets… Crotch level…
Something else must be missing…
I figure I won’t check my fridge…

It’s the protagonist’s strong personality that fuels the narrative, just as Kneel’s personality fuels his Twitter feeds. Lobo, like Kneel, is candid, sharp, sometimes grouchy and always likeable. It makes for an exhilarating read. And you don’t need to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy this book; for all its trippy outlandishness (clock the references to Noonian Spheres, DeadBoxes, DreamCages), the story is rooted in our humanity and what it is to live and love.

This is my favourite novel of 2014 so far. You can buy it here. Find out more about Kneel’s work here.

Wordless

As children, we read illustrated books all the time. Many of my most distinct memories of books read in childhood are of their pictures. Hercules in the blind rage of a bad dream, club in hand, running into the darkness of murder. The White Witch frog-marching Edmund through Narnia. Max cavorting with the Wild Things. In my young eyes the pictures were as important as the words, and I would gaze at them, taking in every detail. Their beautiful stasis was enchanting.

But there’s something in the adult psyche that is disdainful of pictures in books of fiction or poetry. A book containing illustrations is often considered less challenging a read than one without, as if words are puzzles and pictures their solutions. To look at pictures is to cheat at the reading test. Furthermore, novels for adults are usually published without illustrations, perhaps because words can convey places, characters and situations on their own. If a paragraph of description can create a London street, why commission an artist to draw it? Indeed, a line drawing might be reductive or so different from the vision of the mind’s eye as to diminish the reader’s enjoyment.

If literary works are better off without illustrations, they can be enhanced by non-illustrative pictures, images that offer something distinct from the sum total of the words next to which they are placed. Words and pictures can speak to each other and us simultaneously in their own languages. Or, to put it another way, the reader’s intellect and imagination are set free in the wide space between text and image. I could cite dozens of examples of books for adults in which this is the case: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive, Jindřich Heisler’s From the Strongholds of Sleep, Alex Garland’s The Coma, W G Sebald’s novels…

We must add Wordless to this list. It is an unassuming book, modest in dimensions and length, in which Kevin Reid’s photographs of a bowler hat and a white mask in various locations are accompanied by some laconic prose poems by George Szirtes. The collaborators take us into the flickering dreamworld of silent movies; the artfully degraded monochrome photographs are juxtaposed with texts printed in white on near-black with framing decorations, like captions. Indeed, much of the book’s charm lies in its deliberate quaintness, evident also in the image of the bowler hat and Szirtes’ occasionally old-fashioned turn-of-phrase:

One should always be astonished at such things.

Anyone familiar with Szirtes’ work on Twitter will recognise here the thoughtful, sometimes arch voice of his tweets. He delights in everyday language, finding elegant new possibilities in idioms and cliches:

We ate our hats and still we were hungry.

Szirtes wrote his miniatures in response to Reid’s subtly disquieting photographs; text illustrates or elaborates on image (rather than vice-versa) in a book that explores the polarities of male and female, sex and death, presence and absence. It’s interesting how a simple white mask and a bowler hat suggest characters and emotional states; Reid plays on our anthropomorphic imagination and our desire to find meaning in the strange. Like Szirtes, he has a sense of humour: in one picture the hat is placed on top of a toilet, transforming the object into a comical character. In another, a fork on one side and a knife on the other turn the hat into a plate. Through the simplest means, in a visual language as understated as the verbal language of his collaborator, Reid, like Szirtes, finds whimsy and poetry in the everyday.

Wordless began as an online project, and you can still see the whole sequence here. But I recommend you buy the book, which makes for a more satisfying reading experience. Holding the little paperback and poring over its pictures and words is a pleasure that will bring out the child in you. You can buy it here.

The Irreal Reader

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The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal, edited by GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg (Guide Dog Books, 2013).

The Kafka Effect
Although Franz Kafka died in 1924, having written fiction rooted in his life as a Jew in early Twentieth Century Prague, his influence continues. The nightmarish logic of stories such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis seems to spring from a source common to all humanity, and has made the Kafkaesque an easily identified and understood quality, in need of no further explanation. It is only to be expected, then, that numerous authors not lacking in individuality have nevertheless written in a Kafkaesque vein. The stories of Jacques Sternberg, Roland Topor’s Le locataire chimérique and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled typify a mode of writing, or rather an outlook, that I suspect would have come about anyway at some point in the last century, but which is described as Kafkaesque in recognition of the man who expressed it first.

GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg, editors of the handsome Irreal Reader, make no bones of the fact that the contemporary fiction they describe as “irrealist” belongs to a tradition traceable to Kafka. Borges is acknowledged too, as is Kobo Abe, but of the three Kafka is probably the writer whose work best exemplifies irrealism.

What is Irrealism?
The second section of the book comprises theoretical texts, explaining irrealism. Arguably, the notion of the ism is a quaint one; the Twentieth Century abounded with isms (with attendant theories and manifestos, the academic’s delight), but I wonder if we need a new one now. An ism generalises and divides, and often an author or artist’s idiosyncrasies are overlooked, to accommodate him or her in the school or movement. The fiction in The Irreal Reader is diverse in style and spirit, which perhaps explains the inclusion of the theoretical texts; without them, what would “irrealism” mean to the reader?

In his essay “What is Irrealism?” GS Evans writes:

In an irreal story… not only is the physics underlying the story impossible… but it is also fundamentally and essentially unpredictable… and unexplained.

Evans makes the useful distinction between irreal and fantasy fiction, stating that impossible events in the latter are explicable in terms of the physical laws of the setting. So a man might turn into an insect because of a spell or curse. But in The Metamorphosis there is no physical explanation for Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a dung beetle. Neither is there a metaphysical one; we might interpret the story in terms of castration anxiety or the effects of anti-Semitism, but an allegorical reading will feel inadequate and incomplete. The power of Kafka’s fiction lies in its elegant enigmas. By extension, contemporary irreal fiction is inscrutable and dream-like, taking as its starting point the threshold between the real and the unreal. In Evans’s words, irrealism is “a device that can… reveal and enlighten us in respect to reality (in this case, an absurd and ambiguous one.)”

Irrealism & Surrealism
Comparisons between irrealism and surrealism are inevitable, and it is here that I found the theoretical texts in The Irreal Reader unconvincing. In “Irrealism and the Visual Arts” Garrett Rowlan makes the case that Giorgio de Chirico was a painter who could be considered irrealist because his art depicts real objects in disquieting combinations, creating a sense of mystery. Exactly the same could be said of René Magritte, an artist who identified himself as a surrealist. So what’s the difference between the two isms? In “Irrealism Is Not Surrealism” GS Evans offers a distinction (namely that surrealists are researchers of the unconscious, whereas irrealists are self-conscious artists), but it’s based on a very narrow definition of surrealism, implicit in a statement made by the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists in 2002 and deriving ultimately from the theories of André Breton. Although Breton’s pronouncements on surrealism, its aims and practices have been useful to cultural historians, they don’t tell the whole story, and many of surrealism’s most interesting writers (for example, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Joyce Mansour and Leonora Carrington) don’t count as surrealists at all, if we apply Breton’s famous “pure psychic automatism” definition and assume, as Evans does, that the surrealists were less preoccupied with aesthetics and the activity of creating art than other writers and artists. And what would Evans make of the writings of Marcel Lecomte? My guess is that he’d see the spirit of irrealism in the work of the Belgian surrealist.

In short, I see no evidence that an irrealist text has characteristics that aren’t to be found in the writings of that most disparate of groups, the surrealists.

However, there is one crucial difference between irrealism and surrealism. The former, according to GS Evans, is concerned solely with art, while the latter (I, too, lapse into generalisation) was an attempt to change the world, through revolutions on both a social and a personal level. Surrealism was far more ambitious than irrealism.

So much for isms. Let’s move on.

Short Stories
The anthology’s strength lies in the quality of the short stories and prose poems it contains, some of which are by big names in the world of literature. Collected under the Borgesian heading “Fictions”, several of the pieces show a debt to the great Argentine writer (notably Emilio Martinez’s “News from Burgundia” and Michal Ajvaz’s “The City and Heaven”), but are deftly executed. All of the writers in the anthology deserve a mention, but I’ll touch on just a few, to give a flavour of the book.

Ana María Shua’s miniatures are witty and idiosyncratic, and constitute virtuoso exercises in prose poetry. Peter Cherches is equally impressive, the extracts from “Mr Deadman” recalling Michaux’s “Plume” sequence in their deadpan and often darkly humorous treatment of the unreal; anyone who has read my Bird King poems will not be surprised that as soon as I started reading Cherches I recognised in him a kindred spirit! The wonderful Ewald Murrer is represented too (in extracts from The Diary of Mr Pinke), as are Charles Simic (“Seven Prose Poems”) and (what a discovery!) Richard Kostelanetz, whose vertiginous “Openings” reads like a brilliant parody of an exercise undertaken by a student of creative writing. Kevin Sexton’s intoxicating piece, “The Spindler”, is at once delirious and controlled. Other authors whose work left a particularly strong impression on me were D Harlan Wilson, Lee Williams, Vít Erban and the mischievous Tomáš Pridal.

It would be interesting to know if all of the authors in The Irreal Reader consider themselves irrealists. The variety evident in the book suggests that they are linked by an interest in the unfettered imagination, rather than by a philosophy or programme. Not that it matters; this superb book offers the reader an experience of delightful, disturbing inner worlds, and, at times, sheds fresh light on that domineering but uncertain thing called “reality”. Highly recommended.

You can buy The Irreal Reader here (US) and here (UK). Visit the Cafe Irreal here.