The restless traveler in an imaginary world: Invisible Countries by Sylvia Brownrigg

Each edition to the Cahier Series, the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions, is a short meditation that, like the gatefold illustrations within, opens up to encompass a larger, wider world of ideas, words, and meaning. Running to less than forty pages apiece, half typically given to specially selected images, these small volumes  invite the reader to slow down, take a little time, enjoy the journey. The reward is a story, fable, or essay that lingers in the imagination.

The latest Cahier, the thirtieth, is Invisible Countries by American novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, an author new to me. Evoking a mood reminiscent of Calvino’s guide to fantastic metropolises, this contemporary fable traces a female traveler’s visits to seven imaginary destinations. Each encounter is unsettling and unnerving in its own way; each locale hovers somewhere between the realistic and the impossible; and each country embodies a concern of our modern global existence. Samarkind, for example, is an island nation with boundaries that are shifting and threatened by rising ocean waters. It might seem counterintuitive, but the response to their shrinking land mass, has been to construct a tunnel under the waves to serve as a connection to the mainland, and that is how we see our traveler warily making her way to the island:

The train dips, a singsong announcement is made in a pair of languages – the distinctive Samarkind full of hiss-clicks and spirants spoken with native confidence; the other, romance-influenced but hesitant, uttered with deliberation, for profit – and then the visitor watches the world go dark. The moment gives an inkling of the planet’s approaching apocalypse; she shudders. She is in a lit moving bullet that penetrates the ground. Down, gradually, down; then level. Above the visitor’s head, though it hardly bears thinking about, is a tremendous body of water, alive with sea creatures, ocean vessels, corpses, aquatic plants, and debris – plastic bags, shipwrecks, messages in bottles that will never reach their intended shores.

We will learn that this far-seeing island state, once reticent about visitors, is planning to recreate themselves as a modern-day Atlantis in an inevitable underwater future.

Thanistan is, as its name implies, is a harsh, silent country that is likely more appealing to the dead (and philosophers seeking peaceful reflection), whereas Alluria, a land promoted with bright and inviting posters promising relaxation and fun in the sun, is but a façade, briefly enjoyed, of a dismal, impoverished world. The exact nature of the place is only hinted at. Lured there once, no one returns for a second visit. One can, of course, travel to a disadvantaged society and stay safely ensconced within the environment of an inclusive five-star resort. Isn’t that what “getting away from it all” promises?

These encounters with foreign spaces, fraught as they are with anticipation and disillusion, anxious border crossings, and concern about understanding and being understood communicating in foreign tongues within cultures with different mindsets (“as she mentally formulates her response, the visitor becomes uncertain whether the agent indeed said to her, ‘Don’t worry,’ or whether it might have been ‘You would worry, you could worry,’ or possibly even the command – ‘Worry!’”) are delivered with such a delicate touch that a strange, haunting beauty comes through. The allusions are offered and allowed to lie as they are, each trip only touches the surface of the visitor’s experience, leaving the reader to wonder how each adventure unfolds and reflect upon what these strange, evolving, troubled landscapes have to say to us now, travelers as we are, together on a finite planet.

Accompanying Brownrigg’s imaginary travelogue are a series of vivid chalk and charcoal illustrations by British artist Tacita Dean. Lush bright scenes alternate with grey, abstract, stormy images to reinforce a sense that this journey has taken us to places that, if nowhere, could be anywhere at all.

The beauty of bloody fists and broken bones: The Agonist by Shastra Deo

Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.

Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

But in the best way possible.

Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle

The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.

So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.

“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:

             You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.

Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:

He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…

In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:

. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
our mythology.

In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.

Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.

A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:

1413

In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.

With a multitude of voices: Star Struck by David McCooey

There is a line from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that has haunted me since I first encountered it about a month ago. Quoted at the opening of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss it reads: “For poems are not feelings, as people think (you have feelings early enough)—they are experiences.”

A simple statement, but one that instantly made sense. Poems are experiences. Rilke goes on to insist that everything the poet observes, everyone he or she encounters becomes part of the potential material for a poem. I have read a few highly praised poetry collections recently, typically by popular younger poets, that seemed to be exploiting emotional intensity without sufficient substance. By the end of a short book I tend to feel a little bludgeoned by the sameness and relentlessness of the imagery. I find myself wondering what the same poet might be like with just a little more life to draw from. Experience.

And so to my first review of the year, which happens to be the last book I finished in 2017. It is a collection of contemporary poetry and, once again, it’s Australian. David McCooey’s Star Struck is another book that came to my attention through a review and interview on Tony Messenger’s website. What initially drew my attention was a very immediate and personal connection. I was intrigued by the fact that one of the sections was inspired by his own encounter with a life-threatening medical event. Like McCooey, I have spent time on the cardiac ward and, whether the circumstances differ or not, there is nothing quite like heart trauma to upset your fragile equilibrium. To this date, I have not been able to write about my own experience, much of which is forever lost to my memory. And so I was curious to see where he would take his own explorations. Of course, I also found much more.

Star Struck is a lyrical collection, rich with musical and literary references, that relies on a wide range of voices and characters. Two poems, both titled “This Voice,” frame the work, reflecting the ambiguity and universality of speakers to be found within:

It goes without saying
that it sounds like your voice.
But is it yours? And if
not yours, then whose?

In his interview with Tony Messenger, McCooey admits that the second person “voice” here is intended “to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’.” This is an awareness that continues, in varying forms throughout the main body of the text. Divided into four sections, the first part, “Documents,” traces his hospital adventure, from presentation at Accident and Emergency through surgery to rehabilitation. The experience is recounted with a level restraint that is mediated by the use of the second-person perspective. Addressing himself at a distance has several advantages—it allows the poet to ensure that it is not entirely about himself, accommodates exploration of some of the oddity of the hospital environment, and, as I read it, captures the strange surreality of the patient experience itself, the temporary suspension of control required:

There had been an earlier
waking,
in the ICU,

a time you have
deeply forgotten,
when you had the worst

of it—the pain, the detubation,
the harrowing scenes
of your return to life…

– from “Intensive Care (ii)”

Literary references appear throughout this work, his cardiac patient turns to Calvino, Muriel Spark and Tomas Tranströmer, while Georges Perec-style constraints shape a simple domestic scene; but since McCooey is also a musician, it is no surprise that he delights in incorporating characters and themes drawn from popular music into the eighteen dramatic monologues that comprise the third section of Star Struck, “Pastorals.” Here he takes on the voices of artists like Joni Mitchell and James Morrison, imagines scenes involving rock stars, music fans, and even peers out of the eyes of a caged primate watching a curious tailless creature  in a poem with the Peter Gabriel-inspired title “Shock the Monkey.” There is a restrained  confidence in these resulting mini-portraits that shift effortlessly between male and female speakers, taking their cues from music, musicians, movies, along with classic poetic sources, to give voice to those moments in life marked by association with an artist or piece of pop culture.

Poems as experience.

What marks the reading of this collection for me, moving in and out of it for several weeks as I have, is the way that the simplest observations can be spun into narratives that hint at a larger story. This is not say that there are not pieces that take on grander themes—“Election,” for example takes direct aim at the detention centre on Manus Island—but it is in the ordinary that we see ourselves. However, being drawn to this book for its hospital poetics, if you will, the poems that struck closest to home for me were those that revolved around the experience of illness and recovery. The final poem (before the closing version of “This Voice”) is one of my highlights. The narrator of “La Notte: A Tale of the Uncanny” is a widowed sixty-two-year-old who is recovering from a recent illness and surgery. It is a extended meditation on aging, loneliness, and the strangeness of post-illness existence, every other stanza an aside in parentheses:

I put off the performance of dinner, deciding
instead to have a lie down. Perhaps I had, after all,
overdone things a little by going out that afternoon.

(Time takes on a different quality when one lives alone;
the hours I sometimes longed for thirty years ago
can now feel like a ghostly presence in the house.)

I went to the bedroom, which used to be my son’s,
about to lie down, when something caught my eye.
The small glass owl on the windowsill had been moved.

(I do not say ‘had moved’, since such objects can’t move
by themselves. This goes without saying, I know, but I
want to make it clear this is not a supernatural story.)

Sometimes serious, sometimes satirical, Star Struck offers much to enjoy. Unsentimental, but attentive to the nuances of character, McCooey highlights the passions, regrets, and familiar associations that bind us in this accomplished collection.

Star Struck by David McCooey is published by UWAP, the poetry series of UWA Publishing of the University of Western Australia.

One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns

A little more than a week ago I marked the solstice on a rather positive note after another difficult year. The holiday season has been, however, more painful than I had anticipated. The weather has been brutal—as I type this, the temperature is in the low minus twenties, think -28 or -29C with a wind chill factor approaching -37C, and we’ve received about 30cm of snow or more—which has contributed to a marked degree of cabin fever. But what has weighed on me most heavily is a peculiar loneliness, a very personal emptiness, and a measure of anxiety about some of the changes I thought I was looking forward to, like selling my house and moving into an apartment. I’m feeling a little conflicted now, oddly because if my son manages to stay sober, I think less of escaping a bad situation and think more about the advantages of having someone else around, at least until he is well stabilized and ready to move on. (Okay, there’s also the fact that he saved my life a few years ago…)

Taken this afternoon. Does it look cold? Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

However, now that the end of 2017 is upon us, I can distract myself for a moment by looking back over my year in blogging. Although I started this blog in mid-2014, I did not begin to seriously write about books, or venture into the realm of mini personal essays until the end of that year. In the three years since, my blog has grown steadily and, I hope, developed a bit of a reputation for being unclassifiable. This year I noticed a marked increase in traffic from Canada and Australia, a result, I suspect, of my increased engagement with readers and writers from both countries. Still the largest number of viewers came from the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India. My most popular review written this year was, by a wide margin, of Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. Mine must be one of the only reviews of this book online; it was even cited in an extensive overview of post-colonial African literature—the only blog review cited in the entire article. This book is a classic of early post-Apartheid South African black literature and I can’t understand why it hasn’t attracted more attention—clearly it was being studied extensively this year judging by the traffic generated. The second highest number of views for a 2017 review was for The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (tr. Jacob Siefring), the third, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie N’Diaye (tr. Jordan Stump) and the fourth for Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). The 50/50 split between new releases and older titles in this selection highlights one of the advantages of blogging—not being bound to focusing exclusively on recent releases as is so often the tendency in other literary venues you can read and write about whatever books catch your fancy. Or not. This year I read much more than I reviewed here or elsewhere.

My own occasional reflective posts, which always make me feel mildly self-conscious, tend to be very well received, generating more hits than the majority of my reviews. Considering that the reviews typically take me much longer to write, it never ceases to surprise me that people actually want to read my idle ramblings… something to hold on to as I start to finally (yes, finally) tackle my memoir project in the year ahead. I’ve been piddling around on this front, to be honest. But it’s so terrifying to put one’s own life on the page. However, I trust I’m not the only personal essayist to struggle with this conflict. As I’ve mentioned several times in recent months, the work of French poet, essayist and ethnologist Michel Leiris has occupied much of my attention this past year (with much to keep me going in 2018). I had expected I would write some kind of a “review” of Scratches, the first part of his four-part autobiographical project Rules of the Game, yet I can’t quite imagine how to write about this book. It has become embedded in my consciousness, and interwoven with my reading of his dream diary, Nights as Days and Days as Nights, and his massive travel journal, Phantom Africa.

Long before Knausgaard starting dissecting the minutiae of his experience, Leiris was reflecting, musing, analyzing, and agonizing over the stuff of his life and, more accurately, his emotional and intellectual engagement with the world as mediated by language and memory. Scratches begins with his earliest recognition that language held magic and secrets that he could unlock as he came to understand the meanings of words. Throughout the book his discourses, which range widely from childhood amusements to recent events and back again, hinge on the associations he has for certain words or phrases. (Lydia Davis’ remarkable translation seamlessly weaves the French words into the text so that the layers of sound and meaning ring through.) It can be quite wonderful to get swept up in his winding and circuitous streams of thought. However, what I love about Leiris is his idiosyncratic emotional volubility. He easily swings from being proud and confident, to wallowing in despair and self-doubt. If the contemporary “journey of self-discovery” model of the memoir enforces the notion that life has a narrative arc that leads to growth and improvement, Leiris is not the model. In fact, much of the time he simply seems to be travelling in wide sweeping circles without getting anywhere at all. Nor is he wretched enough to stand as a forerunner to the popular misery memoir. But he doesn’t hesitate to indulge in a little morbid excavation of his weaknesses and failures when his mood plummets. I well imagine this annoys some readers, but as someone who has struggled at length with mood regulation, I adore the honesty and the way he somehow manages to drag himself out to firmer ground. Toward the end of Scratches he very nearly gives up his entire autobiographic endeavour worrying that he has reduced himself to “a sort of aged child, a prisoner of a bygone period and henceforth shut off from all action—even thought—involving the future.” In his anxieties, I see reflected my own insecurities about committing to a long term project. He justifies his decision to break off work on his book saying:

Since the literary work to which I am devoting myself with such difficulty seems less and less uplifting and no longer necessary (since it gives me nothing beyond what I put into it myself more or less deliberately), it would be better to abandon it and wait for a more favourable time. And right now the most serious hope I have for recovery is to let everything lie dormant until the anecdotal illness ailing me… and my brain cleansed by this period of repose, I can shed my old skin. To come into a new skin after a long period of obliteration in blankness, like a drum one has beaten too persistently and which, even though its body may still seem in pretty good shape, absolutely must have its vibrating skin replaced by a fresh one.

Of course, he not only recovers his enthusiasm but will go on to produce three more volumes after this.

So, looking ahead to 2018, I have a small selection of books that I am especially keen to read, but I know better than to make any public lists. I do want to continue a steady diet of poetry, learning how to read it more deeply, and write some of my own. But writing and photography have to take centre stage. Most immediately, I am heading to India in February to spend a couple of weeks in Kolkata where I hope to be able to find some distance from home, a wealth of inspiration and a little quiet time to write.

Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Happy New Year to all. Here in my hometown, and in many cities across Canada it is so cold that outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. But if the meteorologists are right, we should start to climb out of the deep freeze tomorrow as 2018 rolls in.

Crazy in love with words: Attrib. by Eley Williams

Many year-end lists, especially those with an eye to the world of indie publishing, have been abuzz with praise for the linguistic gymnastics of Eley Williams and her debut collection Attrib. and Other Stories. And rightly so. Even those readers who might be strangers to experimental fiction have found themselves captivated by the slippery, dazzling wordplay on display. This book—which I read with this month’s Guardian Reading Group, a forum I’ve scarce had time for in recent years but where I probably first learned to analyze, articulate and defend my response to literary works—is certainly a highly entertaining, intelligent, tightly crafted foray into a slightly surreal space where words have a weight and reality that seems to hang in the air, creating the ground for an unusual assortment of narratives.

However, as one might expect, some stories are more effective than others, and though each reader is likely to measure impact differently, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole was somewhat more than the sum of its parts. This is a book well worth experiencing, but one might wonder where Williams could take this type of wordplay from here. Could it be expanded to novel length or does she have her sights on other literary visions? Fortunately, as Reading Group participants, we were able to pose our questions to her yesterday, and rather than rehash that discussion here, I would suggest anyone interested in getting a sense of the exuberance and energy that virtually bounces off the pages of Attrib., to have a glance at the webchat —the same spirit and charm comes through in her responses.

The stories that comprise Attrib. find their origins in the simplest ideas. In the most basic pieces, dictionary definitions and wordplay spark clever scenarios; in the more substantial offerings, her protagonists have odd occupations, want to express how they feel but lose themselves in microscopic self-inspection, or are beset by strange psychological afflictions. Somehow Williams manages to have fun and touch at real anxieties and emotions at the same time, even in the most curious tales.

Her gift for juggling words is evident from the opening entry, “The Alphabet,” artfully subtitled: “(or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)”. Here the narrator is dealing with a progressive form of aphasia, trying to hang on to her ability to use language as it erodes and, along with it, her relationship:

The plot, yes—the condition of its being lost. I have a great deal of nostalgia for having the plot and a full vocabulary. Both have been lost gradually along with the—what is it—marbles. My marbles, specifically. We have come to specific marbles. I have lost it, I have lost my marbles and I have lost the plot—the Holy Trinity of losing I have lost my faith in—wham bam thank you m’—ma—mate. Maybe the plot was connected with my marbles in some way. Maybe one plays marbles on a plot, plot being synonymous with pitch or field or court. I lost them all long ago is what’s important. Two weeks ago. You took my marbles and it with you and I appear to have mislaid the plot.

In my years working in brain injury, I encountered many people dealing with varying degrees of aphasia, and this bittersweet story captures beautifully, the spirit of losing one’s facility with language.

The title story, “Attrib.”, which, according to her Guardian Q&A was completed just before the manuscript of this collection was submitted, is a stand out—the magic of inspiration under pressure, perhaps? The narrator who has a hypersensitivity for sound, is Foley artist working to create incidental sounds for a soundtrack to accompany a gallery exhibition on Michelangelo which will feature reproductions of his major works. How exactly do you capture just the right sound to signify the Creation of Eve anyway? The theological and practical considerations that arise make for a most amusing dilemma.

While Williams shows herself capable of spinning the simplest idea into delightful yarn, one of my favourite pieces, “Bulk,” demonstrates her ability to orchestrate an eccentric cast to create a story with surprising depth of character. The narrator is a natural history museum employee who joins a collection of onlookers gathered around the carcass of a dead whale washed up on the shore. The protagonist, ostensibly the professional in the situation betrays a lack of confidence and unwillingness to take control that seems, more than anything, to reflect the smallness of humanity against the mass of the proud creature who has met such an unfortunate, undignified end:

‘I will touch it!’ declared the young woman suddenly with a renewed vigour and she slipped from her partner’s arm and ran in an arc out towards the head of the whale, picking out a route over the rocks with shoeless feet. There was an ungainliness about her small size next to the great bulk of the whale. There was an unbalance to the scene on the shoreline generally, as if a note was being sung off-key, or somewhere a pair of parentheses had been left unclosed.

Finally, the majority of the stories are first person narratives and in most cases, the gender of the narrator and, if relevant, the love interest is left unspecified. As a differently gendered reader I tend to be both gender sensitive and gender ambivalent. I like the openness that this approach allows in the reading, and I often prefer it to the awkwardness that sometimes comes through in cross-gendered narratives (authors writing from the opposite gender perspective), but whereas one can develop the personality of the narrator in a short space, the “you” addressed in the more romantically themed pieces can reduce the potential emotional depth of the situations. It is even more challenging when this kind of approach is extended over a longer format. This was the nature of the question I posed to Eley Williams in the chat (you can see it under my uncreative user name “jmschrei”). She responded that she left gender unspecified when she did not think it was crucial to the story but admitted:

I didn’t find writing ‘genderlessness’ a constraint, not wittingly anyway: I think for a reader confused acts of heroism don’t require specific or non-specific awareness of genitals.

Nice answer. I wish real life was more like that.

Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams is published by Influx Press.

“I’ve been left all alone”: Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić

On the day Grandma did not die, Mum had an unusual headache. Her eye began to run away to the left. My brother took her to Emergency. He came back without her.

The terminal illness of a loved one has centred many moving novels and memoirs, but there is something about Hair Everywhere, the debut novel of Croatian writer  Tea Tulić, that sets it apart. The construction is deceptively simple. Almost too simple at first blush. But what unfolds in a flow of very short chapters—some only a few lines, most less than a page—is a sad, gently surreal, fragmentary novel that follows the narrator’s awkward transition from adolescence to womanhood as her mother slowly dies of cancer. Reading like a series of micro fictions, each chapter tells a complete story or, rather, captures a complete memory and, although there is an overall arc to the narrative that evolves, the progression is not entirely linear. It is, in fact, at times rather scattered, mirroring the conflicted emotions of the narrator, and the uncanny suspension of reality that surrounds her family during this time of prolonged stress.

Mum
(Wants to Come Home Again)

When Mum is lying in bed with no make-up on, then she becomes fractious. When she talks to me, I stare at the tip of her tongue. It’s white. I tell her to write everything down on paper. Then she writes how she needs painkillers, which nurses are rude, or what she has eaten that day. When she asks me, writing on the paper, if she will be going home for the weekend, I am both happy and unhappy. But that decision is not mine to make, it is up to the white coats of Olympus who shake the neck of my faith.

They are still saving money on the lighting in the corridors.

The narrative voice is naked, spare, and unflinching. Deaths—accidental, random, and natural—are regularly recounted. Strangers, relatives, and an assortment of pets meet unfortunate ends. The dispassionate accounting feels like an attempt to diffuse the narrator’s anxiety about her mother’s health. There is also a matter-of-fact recording of bodily functions that speaks to the messiness of both adolescence and illness. Having found herself thrust into a caregiving role when she is still in need of support and guidance herself, the narrator seems to be trying to strike a balance between her childhood memories and the mature responsibilities she has been forced to take on. She visits her mother at the hospital daily and supports her when she is occasionally allowed to leave, comforts her through the chemotherapy and resulting hair loss. But back at home she has a younger sister and an ailing grandmother to look after. And although the male characters, her father and brother, tend to appear as peripheral presences, they are not absent. Rather, their silent pain weighs heavily on the household. Her father in particular, is out of work, and crushed with grief and financial fatigue. His daughter is well aware of this.

If this sounds like a dreary and morose read, fear not. There is a melancholy beauty to the prose, allusions echo throughout the course of the fragmented narrative and a measure of controlled sarcasm or mild black humour lightens the tone. This is an essential quality of the narrator’s effort to cope. However, nothing can hide the very real emotional and physical toll of the balancing act she is forced to play between her mother, grandmother, and younger sister. On the cusp of womanhood, she is almost suspended in a grey space where her past and future prospects, hopes and dreams, are bound by the obligations she has to the family members who depend on her. But she does not talk about that directly, what she alludes to is the snake in her stomach. Fear and anxiety are literally eating away at her.

While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.

Woven into the fabric of the story are continual appeals to the indifferent doctors and nurses, to the church, and to local superstitions, folk healers, and herbal medicines. The family fears that they cannot afford to fight the illness adequately, but the cancer is relentless and, as the narrator reminds her brother at one point, even rich celebrities have lost the battle. As her mother’s prognosis worsens, the grandmother, weakened and ill, but hanging on, grows increasingly bitter as she questions the God who refuses to take her after her husband and other children are all gone and now this last surviving daughter is dying. She seems destined to be “left alone” once more.

In the end, there are no miracle cures, no last minute reprieves. And for those left behind, life goes on, ever haunted by memories. What remains is this unusual and affecting novel of illness, loss and grief.

Tea Tulić was born in 1978 in Rijeka, Croatia. Hair Everywhere was originally published as Kosa posvuda in 2011 and has since been translated and published in Macedonia, Serbia and Italy. The English translation by Coral Petkovich was published by Istros Books in 2017. Further excerpts from the book can be found at B O D Y.