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The sky is harmlessly transformed into the underside of a table, and the clouds lengthen and thin into the wicked webs of spiders.

I am fairly certain that it was with this line that I fell completely in love with Pontypool Changes Everything.

To describe the plot feels like a Burroughsian exercise in futility, but sure I’ll give it a lash regardless. A peculiar disease begins to sweep across a regional township. The infected begin to suffer from an unusual form of glossolalia, unbeknownst to themselves as they babble to friends and colleagues. Shortly thereafter the infection progresses to the next stage and the afflicted become violently aggressive, fall into a fit and crack their own necks only to resurrect as ululating ghouls. The disease then explodes into multiple vectors, with those garbled phrases hooted and wailed by the creatures spreading it even further.

See what Tony Burgess has done? He’s gone and made memetic zombies.

The story warps and shifts its way through the perspectives of some few survivors and members of the infected enduring the horrifying process. Initially we are introduced to Les Reardon, a mentally ill drug addict, which neatly throws doubt on the depiction of events he passes on to the reader. For all we know these are the delusions of a madman. Even when Reardon slips out of the story, that suspicion remains. In part this is due to Burgess’ writing style, as exemplified above. Maddeningly elusive, hinting at possible meanings, elliptical in its descriptions of this pandemic – the book itself is clearly a vector of the very same disease. As the story opens it feels like a hybridisation of Joe Lansdale and José Saramago, but it quickly evolves into a far more cunning breed of book.

The film Pontypool was released a few years ago directed by Bruce McDonald. In the novel’s afterward Burgess, here seen interviewed on the film, goes on to explain the differences between the filmed work and his own novel. It seems entirely fitting that the story has mutated into a new form for its adaptation, dropping the storyline of a deranged father dubiously safe-guarding his infant from a pandemic in favour of Stephen McHattie playing a shock-jock DJ besieged by the infected. I have been a fan of the actor for many years – his performance in the execrable Watchmen is one of the few brief shining moments therein – and Burgess describes beautifully the moment when he visited the set and watched his words being spoken by the actors assembled.

Still the book is the original work and worthy of exploration by fans of the film, as well as curious bystanders. Among the many cruel jokes trotted out during its narrative, there is even the suggestion that Marcel Duchamp’s surrealistic urinal is somehow responsible for the chaos. The punchline that follows says it all “So, like, I guess this is one disease that you can catch off a toilet seat.”

This is mindbending, witty, bizarre stuff. Don’t bother reading it with the light on. It will warp your brain regardless.

Pontypool changes everything

For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

There are some cheeks that serve no purpose other than taking up space on a face. Sometimes cheeks are just palettes for makeup experiments. Often, cheeks are just things that ache, making it difficult to give pretend-smiles. But then, there are other cheeks. Cheeks that are put on the face on a human being to illuminate the mind-blowing concept of having cheeks. That must be pulled. She had such cheeks. And they asked to be pulled.

I must confess I have been prevaricating over reviewing this book for some time. I was actually intimidated by the prospect of reviewing a book that is only nine pages long. A book of short stories at that. It was only due to the efforts of Irish author Oran Ryan from Seven Towers books that I was convinced to sit down, shut up and read Inklings (Facebook fan page here).

Aparna Warrier‘s stories are examples of flash fiction, brief and to the point. The style really puts Polonius’ line about brevity being the soul of wit to the test. Of the selection of stories contained in Inklings, there are examples of romance, magic realism, even a poem of sorts based on the repetition of two words, ‘violence’ and ‘money’.

This is what intimidated me. How could I even begin to review something like this? As it happens, Warrier was an excellent guide to this style of writing, capturing my interest quickly and delivering a series of well-paced short narratives that still feel complete despite the length. Taking our Time opens the collection, describing a romantic infatuation with a sting in the tail. The reversal in the final line inverts the meaning of the entire piece. Immediately I began to see the advantages of flash fiction. Intoxicated by the Impossibility illustrates the insomnia-inducing extremes of obsession, followed by Who wrote The Rules? an unusual interrogation on the nature of society itself. So What? presents philosophical absurdity, while Oil on Canvas sets about explaining the capacity of art to compliment memory.

The longest story here Always, a whole page and a half long, is a seemingly simple story about a child bring a worm to show and tell in school. However, Warrier perfectly captures the lonely vulnerability of schoolroom isolation, young Priyanka finding a place among the other classmates thanks to ‘Greenie’. It is a telling preview of what the author is more capable of with a longer form.

Of course my favourite story of the bunch is The Revolt of the Coconut Trees magic realism by way of The Day of the Triffids. What I have always loved about John Wyndham’s novel is that it opens with such a funny line, proceeding to describe the invasion of earth by vegetable alien life-forms with a grim black humour. Warrier’s effort is more of an ecological fable, but also has a similar sense of humour.

Overall this is a surprisingly effective collection and a fascinating introduction to flash fiction.

My thanks to the author for my review copy.

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.

ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.

Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.

The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.

The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.

This particular passage struck me as interesting:

But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.

Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,

But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the

mist searching for its own awakening.

Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.

I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.

Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.

The Place of Dead Roads’ is a picaresque novel, the centrepiece of the ‘Cities of Red Night’ trilogy, and stands as an excellent introduction to William Burroughs’ thematic and stylistic concerns.

The novelist Peter Ackroyd characterised ‘Cities of Red Night’ – and by extension, its sequels – as “an obsessional landscape” and the choice of adjective is telling. Burroughs’ concerns are broad, cosmic, fundamental but the tent-pegs of the whole circus are, by necessity, ground-level: addiction, power, alienation, beauty and attraction, ugliness and repulsion. He is an existential writer and thinker, like Camus and hence the ‘naked lunch’ of his most infamous work: the moment when one sees “exactly what is at the end of one’s fork” without evasion or denial.

The Place of Dead Roads’ details the lot of one Kim Carsons; child of the Old West, outlaw gun-fighter, rogue shaman and Man with a Plan. His life charts the transition from a landscape dominated by the often savage realities of the Frontier to a 20th Century reality, tacitly preoccupied with the science fiction concerns of the Modern era and ruled over by “evil old men who play poker” and “are constitutionally immune to the effects of bourbon”.

Obstensibly a western, ‘Place of Dead Roads’ is one of Burroughs’ most conventionally novelistic works. It’s the book of his that I always recommend to people new to him,  along with ‘Junkie’ his first book, a fictionalised memoir of heroin addiction. Both books have an overt through-line running from beginning to end that functions in lieu of a ‘plotline’, both expand subjective vision into something world-encompassing, bizarre and bordering- often tipping over- into alien dreamscapes.

A word of supposed issues of ‘difficulty’: Burrough’s prose has a bristling, tense quality that he often allows to disintegrate into seemingly disjointed and agrammatical poetry. This doesn’t happen “without warning” but is a feature of style, used to convey the impressionistic agrammatical nature of Thought, Dream and Character. This shift from style to a deliberate sort of ‘anti-style’ is based the ‘Cut-Up Method’, the random rearrangement of words in a  text to create a collage without the thought-conditioning influence of ordinary grammar.

Dream was important to William Burroughs. He dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative often as abruptly as one’s dreaming mind will and with similar purpose- to communicate an urgent sense of a particular place, mentality or counter-intuitive connection, without the distancing affect of descriptive prose.

This aside, the writing is curt, concise and indeed precise. Burroughs picks his moment to go “experimental”,aiming to urgently communicate his concerns, concerns about the present, the forgotten past, concerns about an post-human future and above all the realities of CONTROL. You’ll also learn a lot about guns, shamanism and the occult and you’ll read about a lot of fine young men having sex with each other. Highly recommended for heads.

Review by Ruairi Conneely, Seven Towers Books.

Suppression is the road to harmony, the true way to us all getting along – myth-making the past, forgiving and loving and carrying on, sublimating the truth behind truth. Truth makes a soap opera of relations, manufacturing a hazy warm feeling of womb-like safety. It’s crucial. Truth is what we do to reality. We kill it. Truth is death. It is a prison from which there is no escape. Truth is the most addictive of narcotics. There is no cure from it. Once you are hooked, you die, with it or without it. Try fiction instead.

I remember once reading a, probably aprocryphal, quote attributed to James Joyce stating that all Irishmen secretly want to be the Messiah. I do not care if he never actually said that (he may have done – my google-fu is weak), I just love the notion of the Irish seeing Christ not as a moral example  to follow, but a position to aspire to. Catholicism is a large part of the Irish culture, its trickle-down effect one that Joyce in particular set about investigating and exposing in his work. Perhaps my recollection of this supposed quotation is a confusion of the scene from Ulysses when a group of drunken Irish ignore Bloom, who is of course a Jew, all the while loudly proclaiming that they are looking for the Messiah and would follow him anywhere.

Oran Ryan touches on Joyce in this novel, but thankfully does not feel beholden to him. There are aspects of Finnegans Wake to the proceedings, but cut with hints of Kafka as well.

We meet our principal narrator, Arthur Kruger, after his suicide in Heuston Station. This nonlife is a confusion of memories and identity, his past overlapping with alternate worlds. The ‘ten short novels’, of the title represent different levels of this existence. Arthur and his lover Aron reappear again and again throughout the novel, sometimes as ghosts haunting the other, sometimes never having lived at all. Arthur typically appears to be a frustrated writer, with Aron his muse, a free-spirited woman with a far greater degree of confidence. When Arthur discovers her sleeping in an abandoned hospital and insists that she is on top of a bomb he had previously left hidden there, she is more bemused than frightened by this evidently disturbed individual.

Each of the ten sections of the novel bear an individual title, either showing us events from a new perspective, or rewriting the lives of these two characters (think Jerry Cornelius running around inner-city Dublin). In Teaching Religion as a Foreign Language a still notdead Arthur engages in jesuitical debate about the existence of god. Policing the Dead Zone has Aron discover a rotting corpse – Arthur again – in her home that no one else can see. Genuinely Interesting People is a genuinely entertaining satire on the pompousness of the Dublin literary scene. Here Arthur in frustrated writer mode is left unimpressed by the success and pedigree of a vampiric academic.

It feels like a collection of short stories, but there is an overarching plot at work here, the theme of how fiction can sometimes be more real than life itself reoccuring again and again. Perhaps author Ryan is arguing that the Irish are haunted by a literary past difficult to live up to. The neologism ‘endbeginning’, that is used occasionally hints at the suspicion that life for authors begins after death. Much like in Alan Warner‘s Morvern Callar, Arthur’s novel is successful following his suicide. References to literature abound throughout, such as an insurance firm named Kafka & Kafka, or Arthur’s train station suicide blithely being described as an unfortunate Anna Karenin moment.

What emerges is a novel that is not afraid to adopt a quizzical tone, but also has a sense of humour about itself. Whimsy is intertwined with philosophical musings on life and death. Above all the author has pulled off the impressive feat of throwing Palahniuk, Joyce and Will Self into a blender and nevertheless producing something with a voice of its own. The prose carries the onrushing quality of free verse, which once again ties into the thoughtful style of the writing.

Intelligent, whimsically literate and definitively Irish, a fine novel.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for my review copy.

“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”

“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.

“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.

Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.

I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels  traditional and surprisingly unique.

Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.

Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given  in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.

What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.

The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.

Gently told with rich storytelling.

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