Friday, 24 February 2012

The Prodigal: The Graveyard

"How will I know it" Electra wondered as she wandered through the cemetary with its rotting gravestones and ivy paths. She had arrived here as though by accident, but in retrospect it had been a kind of treasure hunt. First there had been the mirror reflecting a reclaimed wilderness, foxgloves and clover in reverse. It had intrigued her, and she had pushed past the broken pink chair and stepped right in. The cold air settled between her shoulderblades like the chill palm of a hand. Then she had seen the necklace hanging from the warped apple tree. It looked astonishing from a distance, a necklace of moon clippings. But when she reached for it, she withdrew her hand quickly, repelled. It was made entirely of broken fingernails.
She had felt then a kind of giddyness which, combined with the icy dazzle of the day, had made her blink and breathe. "Blink" she had said. "And breathe."

Last of all she had seen the body, and it was not at all what she had been expecting. It was the body of a boy, beautiful. Maybe an almost man. He was printed with letters, as though someone had written poetry all over him and sealed it in in salt tears and amber oils. His flank was a blue tattoo: your mouth here and here and here, in the blue of very good dark plums. Along his jawline she read I smile my feral smile. She reached out and turned up his palms. There are two words. Pity and Love. And she heard a faraway voice in her head ask "Why are you telling me this?"

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Prodigal: The Precise Geometry of the Circus

"From now on, I'm only allowed one thought a day" Alisha declares.

While she has been working on the white painting the house has been quietly garnering its grime, has grown darker, chameleon-like, in an attempt to absorb more heat. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are snowed under. The white painting has dominated their days for weeks. As always, Alisha is absorbed in the act of seeing. She carefully layers the different whites in interesecting orbs and globes. A sweeping arc of chalk-white over emulsion; less simple and less popular are the lethal heavy metals: lead white, zinc, titanium. The kremnitz shrinks from the emulsion and will not dry.

"Today my thought is about circles and circuses, such as the fact that all circles share a happy similarity but every unhappy circus is unhappy in its own way."

Electra, standing on the circumference of this expressed thought, simply folds herself in two. She folds herself gently, softly, like she might have folded sugar into beaten egg whites so as not to knock out the air. She thinks of the folding as resistance work, flexing her curves against Alisha's overarching theories of irrationality and transcendence.

Head down, she can taste something mineral and derelict upon the air, as though the house has iced over in Rafael's absence, as though they are all skating full-blown moons upon the surface of the day.

"I wonder" Alisha asks, breaking her own rules of anti-flamboyance, "Why it is so very hard to look at him?"

As always her gaze has circled back to Rafael. It is like a mathematical constant, like pi, which implies, amongst other things, that there is no end to it.

"I wonder why it is that so often the searching gaze conceals the very thing it is looking for?"

Alisha has a frame by its outer edge and is squinting through it at the room, trying to sqaure the empty circle, sectioning us all off.

"Would love have looked different if we'd have done it differently? If we'd taken a different view of geometry say, or some other form of mathematics. Might it all have added up differently in the end?"

"Yes" Rex chips in, "and I could have worked for the King, collecting and inventorying scrap metal."

"Is inventorying a real word? Electra asks, straightening up. And there and then, in the small hours, at last, Alisha's smile breaks.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Reading List: The Book of Revelation: Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson is a master storyteller. The Book of Revelation makes for a grim but mesmerising read. It tells the story of a young male dancer who is abducted from the street one day by three women who mortify him for their own sexual gratification for eighteen days before releasing him back into a world that can no longer provide any security. The erotic tension between distancing and empathy saves the novel from slipping into the murky realm of pornography or cheap titillation. And the muscular elegance of Thomson's prose ensures that the dancer’s predicament, although graphically described, is always more powerfully disturbing than it is arousing.

The work of the dancer is work that both reveals and conceals the self. Audiences must be prepared to interpret and witness the body. Thomson uses this to haunting effect in this novel,  which is all about uncovering in one way or another. Uncovering the truth about what has happened; uncovering the body; uncovering the motivations for art and self-expression. There is a dark, dream-like quality to the novel, but it is a cogent dream, a dream full of narrative satisfaction. The novel is beautifully written and utterly compelling, but it does leave you feeling rather ashen. The revelations it uncovers are insights we flinch from, as though we cannot deserve what is truly beautiful.

The novel is constructed in three parts, with the middle section which details the imprisonment written in the third person, a technique which exemplifies the emotional reality of the dancer, a man profoundly and increasingly psychologically distanced from himself. This is an intriguing artistic decison which places the reader at a slight distance, so that we are encouraged to see the dancer as his captors do, as an object to be used. The dancer is no longer a person with agency and direction. For this section of the novel  he is at the mercy of someone else's vision. He perceives the world, and himself, in fragments. His challenge for the rest of the novel, will be to reassemble a version of wholeness that will work.

In A Book of Revelation, Thomson prompts some profoundly unsettling questions about the nature of power, identity and society, and these are concerns that fuel all his novels.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Reading List: A Summer of Drowning: John Burnside

John Burnside's novel A Summer of Drowning is mesmeric in its intensity. Set in a dream-like artic landscape of  Norway the novel bristles with gothic imagery: ghosts, malevolent spirits from Norse mythology, spectrally cool houses with corridors leading nowhere. Burnside takes us to the furthest realm of beyond the pale, this is a novel which is luminescent with icy light, and which sheds that light on some of Burnside's enduring themes: being an outsider, art, disappearance and belonging.
The Summer of Drowning begins with the drowning of two brothers and ends with another even more troubling disappearance, but the title also alludes to the deluged interior life of its main character, Liv, whose perception of things becomes so submerged that she appears to be living in a kind of bathysphere.
Perception, and its moral twin, witness, are at the heart of this novel. Liv's observations of the world are largely Burnside's own: she sees the deeply astonishing beauty of the smallest particular. Our attention is drawn to the silvery light of the lichens on the wall, the changing light of the sea, a summer where everything is lit with the paradoxical light of the midnight sun. But for all this unremitting light, we still cannot bring into focus quite what it is we are seeing. With Liv, we see, or perhaps we just just miss seeing,  the uncanny disappearances of two men. With Liv, we see, or think we see, the Huldra, the bewitching Norse Goddess for the seductress she is, but might we revise that to see an isolated misfit, almost the mirror image of Liv herself? The conclusions we are invited to draw are disturbingly fleeting, almost grasped, before they unravel into the unbelievable truth. We are left with the feeling of having experienced rather than read this novel. And the reason for that is that this is a novel which makes it its business to identify the gaping flaws in the fabric of rationality. There may well be a rational explanation for all the events of the novel but, Burnside suggests, it would devastatingly fail to account for the things which this novel values: inspiration, beauty, love and art.