Tag Archives: summer 2006

HALF-REAL: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds

Half-real by Jasper JuulJesper Juul
The MIT Press ($35)

by James Ervin

Film became accepted as an object of academic study in the 1960s, approximately 70 years after the first public screenings. In contrast, video games are being studied in universities only a few decades after the 1970 release of Computer Space, the first commercial game. The rapid assimilation of video games into academia is a response to their increasingly dominant presence in Western popular culture; such games now command more of the American leisure dollar than motion pictures do. Jesper Juul’s Half-Real, the latest in a flurry of video game theory titles, is an ambitious attempt to validate and define this field.

Unlike students of science, students of culture often feel obliged to justify their object of study, and Juul is no exception. He admits that video games are perceived as a “lowbrow category of geek and adolescent male culture” (20); consequently, they received little academic attention during their formative years. Until recently, the literature consisted mainly of the self-publications of enthusiasts, design tutorials, professional journalistic histories of the industry, and a few anthologies of academic essays. Existing full-length academic works typically have a narratological (Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck) or sociological (Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self) slant. Juul eschews these approaches in favor of a strict focus on the study of games, which he views as a combination of “real rules and fictional worlds.”

As in any discipline, video game theorists struggle over appropriate definitions of their field. Juul’s book sidesteps the methodological rift between ludology, the study of games, and narratology, the study of how games tell stories. The latter approach derives from literary studies and treats games as objects of interpretation; the former believes games deserve new interpretive and aesthetic standards. Juul reconciles these approaches by proposing a “classic game model” consisting of characteristics that all games share:

A game is a rule based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.

Juul’s model is a formal theory of games which describes the relationship between the rules of the game, the player, and the outside world. This broad definition encompasses games ranging from the ancient Egyptian game of senet, a precursor of modern backgammon, to the latest open-ended games such as Rockstar’s notorious Grand Theft Auto III. For Juul, games are medium-independent: a game of chess can take place on a board, on a computer screen, or entirely in the mind. However, some media are more suited to some sorts of games than others.

Though Juul’s main argument is that games are “rules and fiction,” Half-Real’s most productive insights concern rules alone. Rather than refuting the perception that video games are immature, Juul notes that the lack of complex characterization in most games is partly “because emotions are hard to implement in rules.” Juul also distinguishes emergence games such as chess, in which a small rule set generates endless possibilities, from the historically newer category of progression games such as 1993’s Myst, in which consecutive predefined challenges must be overcome.

Juul’s key insights on fiction are that progression games typically rely upon fictional worlds to maintain interest, and that these worlds function as both rules and narrative by manipulating space. When a bridge in Grand Theft Auto III is being repaired, the bridge closing is a narrative event, but also enacts a rule by restricting access to an area of the game which is reserved for later play. Juul is clearly more comfortable discussing rules than fiction, though, and the discussion of how fiction works in games is less than satisfactory. For instance, he severely underestimates the player’s imagination when he states that “the goal in the fictional world [must be] emotionally positive… it is hard to imagine an Anna Karenina game.” In fact, depressing conclusions are common in horror games. It would be more provocative to say that since narratives are sequences of conflicts, all narratives can be imagined as progression games; this would contribute to an understanding of military simulations, which have lent a surreal game-like aspect to real war.

Juul freely admits that his “bare-bones description of the field of games” is limited and meant as an invitation to further discussion. For that to happen, game studies will have to place video games in context and move beyond formal systems, which tend to favor continuity over discontinuity. If progression games are “historically newer” as Juul claims, what caused their emergence? If fiction is “not universal to games,” why did the incorporation of fiction increase their appeal? By paying attention to social and historical detail, historians of early cinema discovered that there was nothing inevitable about the later predominance of narrative film. Game studies should be differentiated from literature and film studies, but it ignores the lessons of those fields at its peril.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country by Etel AdnanEtel Adnan
City Lights Books ($14.95)

by Kim Jensen

Etel Adnan, perhaps the most significant Arab-American writer since Gibran Khalil Gibran, is the author of many important works, including The Arab Apocalypse, The Indian Never Had a Horse, and a haunting portrayal of the Lebanese Civil War, Sitt Marie Rose. Ever the itinerant poet/artist, she has, for five decades, divided her life between three cities—Paris, Sausalito, and Beirut. With her fractured yet attentive adherence to the particulars of place, Adnan’s writing encompasses a complex investigation of a migratory and hybrid consciousness. This hybridity is widely referenced in contemporary culture but rarely so thoroughly explored and defined as in these pages.

In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is a gorgeously, multi-layered prose poem/poetic essay which represents a journey through the 20th century. Adnan, who has been consciously present for most of the historical disasters of that century as well as its many experimental literary movements, has tuned her language to an indelible pitch that is by turns lyrical, quizzical, wistful, and wise.

The book cover itself is a masterpiece of evocation, transmitting the content and themes of the book in a heartbreakingly organic way. The black and white cover photo taken by landmark California photographer Pirkle Jones, depicts a sort of overgrown, woodsy back garden pathway from the older, more bohemian days of San Francisco, which Adnan discovered and loved at first sight in the 1950s. With its unhinged and foggy windows and doors, and the sense of beautiful decay, the cover image anchors the text and evokes an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and mystery and sadness.

This garden scene of lush abandon and exquisite defeat is bordered by a tessellated Arabic design—as if to say that one never strays far from one’s core identity no matter how far one travels. The back cover is graced by another black and white photo of an old Beirut wall covered with graffiti that’s been worn away by time and the elements. Both the faded scrawl on the wall (which reads “The Arab Revolutionary”) and the old street address—written in both French and Arabic—seem to point to the impossibility of hopeful retrieval. What unfolds between these melancholic representations of California and Beirut is Adnan’s vision of the human heart, when that heart is oscillating between painful poles.

The structure of the book is something of a palimpsest itself, bringing together, in seven separate sections, work that spans from the 1970s to present. The first section of the collection was written upon Adnan’s return to Beirut from California in 1972. Inspired by William H. Gass’s collection of short stories by a similar name, Adnan uses prompt words and phrases—People, Place, Wires, Weather, The Same Person, Another Person, Church, Final Vital Data, Politics—to trigger a series of automatic writings. The passages following the cues encompass a variety of tonalities: lyrical fragments, aphoristic paradoxes, journalistic observations, philosophical inquiries, and surreal encounters.

Twenty-five years later, Etel Adnan returned to these same prompts and reflected on the themes of the work; she then added several more pieces in the same vein. The book also includes a groundbreaking meditation on the meaning of the figure of Lawrence of Arabia, “At Both Ends,” as well as a stream-of-consciousness reflection entitled “To Be in a Time of War,” written during the U.S. assault on Baghdad in 2003. The result of this cross-generational compilation is a poetic memoir that reveals an elegiac progression and the evolution of a distinct literary voice.

The opening sequence, written at the time of the Lebanese Civil war, is marked by searing contradiction and impossibility. “Like a salmon I came back here to die,” Adnan writes. “But this place is not a place. I am unable to die”—words that call to mind the poem “Abduction” by Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef written much later, after the first Gulf War. “That was not a country,” Youssef insists with the same tragic denial as Adnan here. This feeling of aporia and paradox seem to be the hallmarks of much post-colonial war literature.

War is only one of many themes that emerge across these pages. As in much of her writing, Adnan returns to meditations on the nature of perception, the dynamic interplay between the solipsism emblematic of Western experience vs. Eastern collectivism, and explorations of the skittery dislocations of contemporary identity. Adnan also offers affectionate odes to the things and people she loves: the architecture of windows and doors, the sea, weather, food, and the great Egyptian diva, Um Kalthoum: “I heard her when I was twelve in the Grand Theatre of Beirut. It was a beneficial trauma.”

Oscillating between daily pleasure (“If the business of life is happiness, I will describe for you my linen sheet”) and cognition of horror (“The human body is one’s capital. Savage capitalism creates savage pornography”), Adnan often returns to the idea that humans at times seem nothing more than a series of electrical impulses, pure motion or pure pain. “Pain is both the journey and the traveler, a traveler who doesn’t live side by side with you, but within you.”

The repetition of the original cues— People, Place, Wires, Weather, etc.— throughout this book create both a sense of continuity and permutation. One of the most memorable series of reflections is centered on the word “wire.” In the early section, Adnan writes “The thread of this century is made of wire. . . People’s mouths sewn with wires and Che Guevara’s body bandaged with them and dragged from one place to another. A Viet Cong hanged not by rope but by iron. . . Each one of us is a dog attached by steel threads to a purpose, waiting for lightning to strike.”

This image of death by wire is reincarnated through later discussions of telephone wires in California: “anyone who deals with paradise knows that something always casts a shadow on our bliss: in my case it’s the wires that cross my immediate horizon.” Later Adnan describes fenced ranches as a symbol of our times; further on the wires become the bars of a bird cage, and then a nightmarish electric chair. Some of the transformations of the other images in the book seem to reflect a cold war/post-cold war dichotomy that is never overtly referenced, but nevertheless provides a strong undercurrent.

Whenever the “I” enters the language, the essay takes on its most intimate tones: “I have the sadness of a meteor. I count one sunset after another. I become the stem of a new tree battered with wounds on which birds come to hold their tribal encounters.” In the passages entitled “Household Apples,” Adnan offers autobiographical memories of eating pungent “Zabadani” apples on the train to Damascus and in her uncle’s orchard in a Syrian village, Bassimeh. These sentimental scenes in the orchard by a river lovingly root the text in a body and a place. One gets the sense that every adult debacle is being judged against such scenes of original paradise.

Much more than a personal excursion, however, this work represents an encounter with insurmountable paradoxes. On the one hand there is the yearning for an end to tragic contradiction; on the other, there is the obvious delight in the language of contradiction, which makes for interesting literature. Adnan is acutely aware that this is a luxury too.

Adnan’s use of uncanny juxtapositions and a formal language of inquiry result in the creation of a vast interior space of freedom. Yet, the writing reveals just how small this interior space is when faced with political realities of war and imperialism. The claustrophobia yet warmth of such a vulnerable space is suggested by the “heart” of the title—it becomes something of a bunker, a grotto, an underground cave, a place to bide one’s time and wait out the worst; it is not the place to stage a revolt or act for change.

Perhaps the overall wistful tone in this work, which swings the text further toward the Arab side of the identity equation, arises from dual urgencies— a justified anger that is modulated by a sense of powerlessness. In this way the essay is a poignant excavation of a century of Arab loss and despair. But this text, like Adnan, is always traveling, and in the windy wake of these voyages it brings, through our dusty windows, deserts, music, and the sea.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


The Yage Letters ReduxWilliam Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
City Lights Books ($13.95)

By Mark Terrill

After three years of self-imposed exile in Mexico City, culminating in the accidental shooting of his wife in the notorious “William Tell” incident, William Burroughs—strung out on junk and at the end of a long streak of bad luck—skipped bail and left the country. With brief stopovers in Palm Beach, Florida, and Panama City, Burroughs arrived in Bogotá, Colombia, in January of 1953, ostensibly in search of yagé, a strong hallucinatory drug used by the Indians. During the course of the next seven months, Burroughs documented his quest for “the final fix” in a series of letters to Allen Ginsberg, as well as journal entries and photographs. From this material Burroughs eventually began to put together a longer narrative of his adventures, in the form of letters, articles, “routines,” and cut-ups, which first appeared piecemeal in various literary magazines. Ten years later, after extensive reworking and editing along with Ginsberg, The Yage Letters was published by City Lights Books. In addition to narrating Burroughs' adventures, the book also contained letters by Ginsberg and other additional texts. Two revised editions were published in 1975 and 1988, and now, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of City Lights, we have The Yage Letters Redux, expanded with much previously unpublished material and with an in-depth introduction by Oliver Harris.

Despite Burroughs’s “qualifications” (graduate studies in anthropology at Harvard in 1938, and, later, at Columbia and Mexico City College), he was in no way prepared for a true scientific or botanical expedition when he arrived in South America. His quest was more of a romantic one in nature, a search for a kind of visionary grail, the “derangement of the senses” referred to by Rimbaud, which might enable Burroughs to transcend to new levels of perception and creativity, or, as he said in a letter to Ginsberg, to “change fact.” Junky, his only published book at that point, ended with its hero setting off for Colombia in search of yagé: “Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.”

An occurrence of typical Burroughsian synchronicity resulted in a chance meeting in Bogotá with Richard Evans Schultes, a fellow Harvard graduate and a world authority on hallucinogenic plants. Schultes gave Burroughs much of the background information he needed concerning yagé and directed him south to the Putumayo River, where allegedly the medicine men were still actively using yagé. For the next seven months Burroughs followed a peripatetic itinerary through the remote villages and jungles of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, meeting various shamen and medicine men, some more legitimate than others, and ingested a diverse variety of concoctions and infusions of yagé combined with other hallucinogenic plants, commonly referred to as ayahuasca. The identification of Palicourea Sp. Rubiaceae as one of the key ingredients of ayahuasca, “essential for full hallucinating effect,” would have been Burroughs’s one claim to botanical fame, had this fact not been subsequently omitted from the original “Yage” manuscript. As it was, Burroughs returned to New York City in August of 1953 with little more than his dwindling funds, battered health, and jumbled notes, correspondence, and photos.

Together with Ginsberg, Burroughs began putting the material into shape, and by the time he left for Tangier in December, the manuscript had taken on its epistolary form. During the next ten years, sections of the work appeared in literary magazines such as Big TableKulchurBlack Mountain ReviewFloating Bear, and City Lights Journal, and gradually more material was added to the manuscript. Meanwhile Ginsberg acted as an agent on behalf of Burroughs in an attempt to get the book published as a whole, applying what he referred to as “golden pressure” on Lawrence Ferlinghetti in particular. The original manuscript was lost in 1956, eventually pieced together again, and finally, in 1963, four years after the appearance of Naked Lunch, the time seemed right for publication. City Lights had just published Miserable Miracle, the translation of Henri Michaux’s mescaline experiences; Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert had been booted from Harvard for their LSD experiments; Aldous Huxley had just died. Six months later Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters would set off across America, opening up the way for all things psychedelic and consciousness-expanding.

The impact of The Yage Letters was minor at best, receiving little critical attention and gradually becoming cloaked in a sort of minor cult status, doomed to languish on the shelves among other obscure literary psychedelia of the early '60s. So why the need for an expanded Redux edition some 43 years later? While not contributing significantly to the greater canon of scientific or botanical knowledge, The Yage Letters documents important stations of development in the careers of both Burroughs and Ginsberg. Preceding Hunter S. Thompson’s “Gonzo Journalism” as well as Terry Southern’s earlier “Subjective Journalism,” The Yage Letters is a unique hybrid of the comic picaresque tradition, travel writing, the ethnobotanical field report, political satire, psychedelic literature, and epistolary narrative. Burroughs was obviously deeply affected by his yagé experiences, which profoundly affected his thinking:

I must give up the attempt to explain, to seek any answer in terms of cause and effect and prediction, leave behind the entire structure of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western thought. I must change my whole method of conceiving fact.

The third edition of The Yage Letters added “Roosevelt after Inauguration,” which is allegedly the first of Burroughs’s “routines,” a form he went on to develop which eventually became the basis of Naked Lunch. Also included is one of Burroughs’s first cut-up texts “I am Dying, Meester?” which carries over Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” from the visionary to the literary. Both of these forms became the sort of “space-time travel writing” out of which Burroughs developed the mainstay of his unique oeuvre.

Ginsberg’s letters, though notably fewer, are of equal importance, vividly portraying how deeply affected he was by his subsequent trip to South America and experiences with yagé some seven years later. Ginsberg’s understanding of the far-reaching implications of the psychedelic experience are both astute and poetic:

I am only a busybody meddling in human affairs vainly trying to assert the Supremacy of the Soul—which can take care of itself without me & my egoistic assumption of the Divine, my presumptions that the Eternal needs my assistance to exist & preserve itself in the world. All my worry’s as much of a Joke as the equal worry of the police. We are all trapped in the Divine Honey, like flies, struggling in different ways to accommodate ourselves.

The Yage Letters shows Burroughs and Ginsberg at critical junctures in their lives, making clear their determination and the degree of their commitment to breaching the confining norms of Western thought and culture. Traveling in post-colonial, mid-’50s South America was fraught with political overtones as well, as Che Guevara noted in his Motorcycle Diaries just one year earlier; the Cold War and the geopolitical scramble for dominance, the U.S. Point Four aid program, the search for new rubber and oil resources, and potential revolutions in the making provided a volatile and shifting exterior for what was essentially a journey to the interior. Simultaneously the CIA had recently begun their notorious drug research program in America, MKUltra, in a desperate bid to monopolize mind-control drugs. As such, The Yage Letters is a complex text intertwining several different levels of anthropology, ethnology, biochemistry, history, politics, and “shamanic alchemy.”

Extensive appendices and notes further map out the long and complex genesis of The Yage Letters, and the wide-ranging introduction by Oliver Harris does well to place this seminal, genre-bending text in the larger context of its historical and cultural significance. A timely and fitting literary event to mark the 50th anniversary of City Lights, longtime independent publisher of the unorthodox and the alternative.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


In the Forest of ForgettingTheodora Goss
Prime Books ($24.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

With any non-realist fiction, there’s an interpretive temptation to read fantasy elements as masks which simultaneously represent and disguise some psychological or political apparatus, masks behind which the story’s “real meaning” hides. The best of the newer fantasists, like Kelly Link or Jeff VanderMeer, are adept at creating rich literary fictions whose fantastic elements resonate with and reflect aspects of the real world without being locked into a strict this-stands-for-that allegorical algebra. Whatever correspondences we find for Link’s zombies and magic handbags or VanderMeer’s imaginary cities and genetically engineered meerkats, these creations are not exhausted by such equivalences—there’s always a considerable surfeit, an extravagance of imagination, that keeps the fiction from being reducible to a scheme of coded meanings.

In her first short story collection, Theodora Goss shows that she shares this ability. Writing in a voice that’s assured, finely modulated, and frequently beautiful, Goss has no trouble evoking wonder, but the stories that make up In the Forest of Forgetting don’t simply revel in the magical—they enmesh the fantastic in the real, and the relationship between the two is often at the heart of her fiction. When fantastic and realistic are juxtaposed, one easy approach would be to present the fantastic as escape, or further valorize it into transcendence. And, although several of the stories do turn on moments of transcendence, the situations Goss creates, and the emotions that they call up, are seldom simple.

Several of the most impressive stories, such as “Lily, with Clouds,” “Pip and the Fairies,” and “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold,” build toward endings in which characters encounter the possibility of passing beyond the confines of the lives they’ve been leading. None of these, however, gives the impression that the characters are being offered an easy way out, or that life on either side of the choice will be uncomplicated. Some stories, like the quietly tense “Conrad,” the comic “Sleeping with Bears,” or the allegory-shaded “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” intermix real and fantastic with less clear divisions and carry the reader on more subdued trajectories. In others, the relationship between the two is thrown into particularly sharp relief by overt reference to the most openly fantastic of genres, the fairy tale. While the opening story in the collection, “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” directly re-presents a specific fairy tale, it’s also the most adventurous in structure. Offering a dozen vignettes from the point of view of different characters in and around the story, from The Witch and The Princess to minor characters like The Hound and even inanimate objects like The Spinning Wheel, it moves simultaneously in expected and unexpected directions. “The Belt” opens with the line “My story has the contours of a fairy tale,” but it goes on simultaneously to fulfill and frustrate expectations of what a fairy tale should do and be.

Calibrating the language of fantasy is tricky—gild everything with a lyrical voice, the wondrous quickly seems commonplace. When in full flight, Goss’s prose can be as numinous as anyone’s, but she also has a fine sense of how to build up a convincing texture of normalcy against which the fantastic can be seen to best advantage. Her stories may lead up to ringing lines like, “I am waiting, like you, for the canary to lift its head from under its wing, for the Empress Josephine to open in the garden, for a sound that will tell us someone, somewhere, is awake,” but they travel through much plainer territory en route, such as “She would make mashed potatoes and peas, and she would ask Jane about school, and Jane would look superior, and maybe afterward they would all play monopoly.” Whether the story’s setting is a castle in an imagined kingdom, a small town in North Carolina, or a café in communist-era Budapest, the storyteller’s voice bridges the gap between the familiar world of reality and the unexpected world of the imagined.

Throughout the collection, Goss shows a variety of ways that the border between magical and mundane can be contoured. Within any particular story, the fantastic can be freeing, confining, or neutral; it can exalt, but it can also devastate. Although Goss is, in these ways, complex, hers isn’t a cynical complexity. Where her stories lead to moments of transcendence, that transcendence might come at a terrible price, it might be long delayed, it might be refused, it might turn out to be just an earthbound glimpse of someone else’s transcendence, or it might lead to worse rather than to better. Even as her narrators acknowledge that the bleaker outcomes may be more likely than the upbeat ones, however, they reaffirm that the happier endings are those we truly desire.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Wide Eyed by Trinie DaltonTrinie Dalton
Akashic ($13.95)

by Ed Taylor

Penned by the likes of Jill McCorkle and Ben Marcus, blurbs for Trinie Dalton’s first book, Wide Eyed, feature phrases such as “wonderfully eccentric” and “wholly unique and memorable.” However, as with many books, there appears to be a “blurb gap” between the content and its characterization on the cover. Wide Eyed’s stories are loose and open forms, but their unorthodoxy is not deep or transgressive. For the most part they are loose collections of anecdotes and observations from what seems to be the same first-person narrator: a young woman in contemporary Los Angeles living a mildly bohemian life. The voice is innocent and jaded, sincere and arch, a pastiche blending The Beatles and Pavement with unicorns, video games, heroin, and slumber parties.

In general the stories don’t follow a particular dramatic arc and often just stop rather than formally conclude. Similar to riff-based jazz, the pieces frequently take a short motif, such as a love of cats or an interest in horror movies, and explore it from several perspectives, weaving in thoughts and images inspired by the motif, until a sort of organic stopping point is reached.

There is humor and energy here, but in the flat tone of someone young and not tremendously reflective, someone who travels in the ocean of pop culture like an Olympic swimmer; the first seven short paragraphs of “Decrepit,” for example, include references to King Kong and Godzilla, Xanax, the New Wave (as in the 1980s), Kruschev, Craftsman style, and the Carter Family. Still, amidst the pop-culture detritus, moments of real pathos and power shine through, especially in the understated scenes involving young girls’ coming of age. Even in the settings most hostile to sentiment, there exists clarity and even an elliptical wisdom: “I think of a reverse chrysalis,” the young female narrator of “Chrysalis” says of watching slasher movies in which teen girls are victims, “like they’re kids who come out of a paradisiacal state only to enter their own personal hell.”

Dalton’s informal prose is interpolated at times with slightly elevated language, along with slang, spoken idioms, shorthand cultural references (that is, references taken for granted as understood), unresolved comparatives (“We were so relieved to see the giant red heart”), indefinite use of definite pronouns, and occasionally, simply infelicitous phrases. At times the writing is like the faux portentous language of many rock and roll lyrics; the first story in the collection features an epigram from the band Pavement: “I’d want a range life / If I could settle down. / If I could settle down, / Then I would settle down.”

The narrator escapes into dreams, and into nature, as frequently as possible. Virtually all of the stories contain items from a stock collection of tropes and images: unicorns, elves, fairies, Santa Claus, mermaids, chivalric legends, cats, dogs, mushrooms, fish, salamanders. Birds and flowers adorn every background, and scenes frequently include the narrator’s musings on fantastic human-animal interactions. Yet at the same time that she ascribes a kind of holiness to creatures great and small, she loves ham and pot roast too, and as a young girl killed her treasured pet hamster in the course of forcing the poor animal to pretend she was a character from a Beatrix Potter story; this last act is described by the adult narrator with more of a sense of surprise than regret. Her love of nature seems, at the least, incompletely considered.

Themes here include male-female relations, pop culture’s role in constructing a world view, female friendships and female coming of age, and, poignantly at times, being alone. For the most part, ideas and themes arise indirectly and elliptically, almost by accident, as the narrator relates anecdote after anecdote and ghostly ideas rise over the scenes and action.

These stories often feel like miniatures or even dioramas. At the same time, the narrator on occasion gets oracular, making pronouncements that can seem unearned in someone so young and skittish about absolutes. Discussing an aunt who kept the secret of the narrator’s late father’s terminal illness at his request, while the narrator and her mother didn’t know about his sickness, the narrator says “she secretly knew he was dying and didn’t do a thing to change it. That’s pretty close to murder.” Such pronouncements typically, as here, end paragraphs or sections like a punch line.

Whether the author is being ironic or this is meant to be taken at face value, Wide Eyed often reads like diary or journal writing, perhaps a reflection of the author’s journalism background. The narrator possesses an unusual voice and sensibility that is infectiously charming, making the book as entertaining—and as potentially ephemeral—as candy. Sorry, blurbers.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


You, Me, and the Insects by Barbara HenningBarbara Henning
Spuyten Duyvil ($14.95)

by Kris Lawson

You’re sitting in a train station or an airport, waiting. Uninterested in the reading material in your hands, you instead spend your time gazing at the people around you in tiny, furtive glances. Why does that man wear sweatpants and dress shoes? Where is the eerily silent family of four traveling with so little carry-on luggage? You wonder, you eavesdrop, and if you have enough energy after the soul-sucking enervation of waiting rooms, you speculate.

Poet Barbara Henning’s novel You, Me, and the Insects is eerily similar to the experience you might have if that traveler’s dream came true and presented you with a stream-of-consciousness answer to this question: why is that woman of a certain age dressed as a hippie and reading a yoga book, and why is she going to India alone?

Our narrator, Gina, is a widow with two grown children. An artist with a profound interest in yoga as a life-changing philosophy, she travels annually to Mysore to study with different gurus. This year, she hopes she has found the one who will fulfill her expectations.

Still grieving for her husband Lenny—his body wrecked by years of drug and alcohol abuse, their marriage wrecked long before by the growing distance between them—Gina conceals her secrets under layers of piffle. The book is structured as Gina’s diary and into it she pours the most mundane details of her everyday life as a temporary resident of India. It overwhelms at first, with more details about yoga than the casual reader could possibly need, although aficionados may enjoy the students’ comparisons of their teachers’ methods and the reading material cited.

But the smothering waterfall of yoga information quickly fades into the background as Gina first annoys, then fascinates us. What is she looking for, and why can’t she take a direct line to it? Instead she hops from one friendship to another, from one yoga practice to another, and, in between, occasionally confides a memory that illuminates her guarded existence.

Reading Gina’s diary is hypnotizing, and the reader is caught up in her quest for a new apartment, a cure for her back injury, and the amiability of her new teacher. That easy mood comes to a crashing halt in the latter part of the book, when Gina transcribes lengthy segments from the guru’s lessons; these indigestible sermon blocks might have been more effective if they had been curtailed somewhat. But apart from that, You, Me and the Insects is an enjoyable, thoughtful book, with enough detail to please the readers who come to it for yoga and philosophy, and enough character and action to please the rest.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Now You See It... Stories from Cokesville PABathsheba Monk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($22)

by William Bush

The fictional town of Cokesville, Pennsylvania, is the real main character of Bathsheba Monk’s first book, and such a portrayal seems overdue. Most people who haven’t had the pleasure of the state’s long, winding, constantly under-construction turnpike tend to think of the stretch between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as something vaguely rural, but it’s not. Each in their time, the lumber, coal, steel, and railroad industries had all disassembled and reassembled the place by 1949, the chronological setting for the earliest of Monk’s stories, and in their wake they’ve left a dense scattering of places like Cokesville—small, tightly knit towns that themselves cluster around only slightly larger cities, a rusted-out belt of humanity that spans a distance significant enough that the two cities on either end have two different regional accents. Cokesville has everything that’s been needed for a long time to evoke that certain, elusive, small-town Pennsylvanian-ness required by fiction: a coal mine, a steel mill, an eclectic cast of old Polish and Ukranian ladies with their stern, borderline-abusive husbands—and, most importantly of all, a generation of youngsters who can’t wait to get out. No surprise why, given that Cokesville seems to its children to be transforming itself into a grisly, literal ghost town. As we learn in “Last Call (1982),” “It was becoming almost routine for the fifty-five-year-old men of Cokesville Forge to look at their newly idle fingers, start fiddling with this or that, until they finally found their way to the hunting rifle in the garage.”

The wonderful—if cumbersomely titled—Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA, is a 240-page temporal odyssey of sorts—seventeen stories spanning almost fifty years and chronicling the lives of what feels like about twenty of the town’s residents. Each one comes with a timestamp, which creates an eerie, fade-in, fade-out sort of feeling as you read, as though by the time the empty space at the end of a story yields once again to Monk’s quietly confident prose, you may have very well have missed something—a marriage or a divorce, the death of someone’s uncle or someone else’s dream. At the heart of things are the Gojuk and Kusiak families and their two prodigal daughters—Theresa Gojuk, who goes to Hollywood as the mediocre-movie-star-turned-magnate-producer “Tess Randall,” and Annie Kusiak, who cycles through a series of bad marriages and struggles to find her voice as a writer. The two girls maintain a kind of psychic friendship, occasionally meeting in California or some other distant place that is, significantly, neither Annie’s current home nor Cokesville.

The eight stories mostly about Annie are the only ones told in the first person. That she’s trying to make it as a writer seems like a too-practical conceit, at first. Putting a writer in charge of a piece of first-person fiction causes a unique brand of trouble, and forces us to wonder how self-consciously constructed the narrative really is: with every story Annie tells, we have to wonder whether we’re reading one of her stories or a story about her struggle to write stories. Plus, the Annie stories don’t have the cultural texture of the third-person pieces—though they possess a compelling energy enhanced by our growing familiarity with their narrator, the contemporary feel makes it seem as though Annie is groping, herself, for something less rich than what we’re able to take ourselves from what (it ultimately turns out) are likely her own stories about Cokesville’s past. Eventually, the context of Annie’s revelation to turn away from her previous writing pursuits—to turn towards the home she has been fleeing for thirty years—redeems not only her character but also those stories of her struggle to run, giving them the air of a confession the young, Cokesville-bound Annie was never able to make in Father Novakowski’s church.

“Now you see it. Poof. Now you don’t”— the titular phrase and its inevitable answer turn up from time to time in Monk’s stories, in the voices of several of Cokesville’s characters, creating an additional level of sorrowful, ironic, and ultimately resigning connection between the people of a town who dislike each other as often as the opposite. By the time Annie extends her magical metaphor (“We’re like rabbits that were pulled out of a magician’s hat, coming out of nowhere for the show. Disappearing before anyone thinks to miss us”), she could be talking about herself and Theresa, or the people of Cokesville in general. Annie isn’t in the final story, about another Cokesville expatriate and her bohemian Russian lover, a man who makes art of sperm donation and can’t find poetry in the rush of Boston. By this time, Annie Kusiak is at rest with Theresa, as well as the other Gojuks and Szewzcaks, the Szilborskis and Herbinkos—all are phantoms, dancing on the dirty breeze of the past.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Arbitrary Tales by Daniel BorzutzkyDaniel Borzutzky
Triple Press ($15.28)

by Christian TeBordo

It’s hard to say just how “arbitrary” the tales in Daniel Borzutzky’s first collection really are—the title begs to be taken ironically, and the first piece, “The History of Rights,” obliges. In it, the characters, all “brutal ruffians,” rough one another up, chanting “My lord is a big, brutal ruffian and his Godmen are bigger than your Godmen.” It’s a parable about the relationship between human aggression, imperialism, and organized religion that reads like something Daniil Kharms might have written if he hadn’t had Stalin to worry about.

As soon as we adjust to the idea of reading a volume of clever allegories, however, we come across the first of two stories entitled “An Arbitrary Tale,” in which a “genetically engineered dark-haired golden girl” encounters “a green mMrtian with a dead squirrel around her neck.” From there the collection runs playfully amok, confronting ideology and the lack thereof, and appropriating, sometimes demolishing, received literary forms. In one story, William James “mowed the lawn each night wearing long pants, knee-high boots, a football helmet, and a pair of goggles”; in another, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s operas, a wax bust of Napoleon sings a litany of historical figures who “never meant shit to me”; and the final story, “Uncle Alberto in Exile,” crams as much narrative tension into 13 pages as you’re likely to find in some whole novels.

All of this experimentation might seem intimidating, or even tiresome, but Borzutzky’s prose is clean and often deadpan, and behind all of the calculation, there is a tenderness that allows one character to declare that he is “unable to deal with the pain of discovering that people hurt each other” and another to tell his lover “how nice it is to have someone to tell my stories to” without sentimentality—perhaps because the former is immediately snapped in the crotch and the latter subsequently renames God “Gork.”

“Arbitrary” indeed, then, though “Tales” is another issue altogether. The reader looking for an easy moral or a tidy denouement is likely to be disappointed by “Eight Unfinished Narratives,” not just because the narratives are incomplete, but because they’re juxtaposed in a list of 20 without indication of where one begins and another ends, leaving us to wonder whether Mother Earth’s etymology of the word “copulate” has anything to do with the man who “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams and found himself transformed into a cash register.”

There is one perspective, however, from which the term “tales” is undeniably appropriate — they’re nearly all told, as opposed to shown. And while there are times when the telling becomes tedious, as in “How We Celebrate the Arrival of Spring” and “War,” a pair of stories which document the quasi-religious civic celebrations of imaginary villages in such minute detail that they risk banality, it’s refreshing to see a young writer reject the first workshop commandment without fanfare and succeed so often.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Paraspheresedited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan
Omnidawn ($19.95)

by Alan DeNiro

This anthology, as its subtitle “Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction” suggests, attempts to map a peculiar space in its pages. A gigantic tome over 600 pages long, it seeks to bring together all sorts of non-realistic literature under one roof. Perhaps more than anything, the book makes an argument regarding how perceptions about fiction are cultivated, how we seek to categorize literature before we even start reading it. ParaSpheres is full of superb stories, but the results in regards to its argument are not clear-cut—even though the anthology is probably stronger because of that. Just as the individual stories risk a great deal in their linguistic and structural play, the overarching conceits of the collection provide a reading experience that is not easy to categorize.

This partly comes about because the editors have largely abdicated offering any structural guidance, instead offering a looser organization that revels in “sampling” the many fruits that “Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist” fiction can offer. Because it is so large and wide-ranging, there are times when this “sampling” impulse might bewilder the uninitiated reader, and threatens to overwhelm the sight-lines that the editors establish in the essays that begin and end the volume. Adding to the disorientation is the fact that novel excerpts aren’t telegraphed as such until the biographical note at the end of each work. And while the mixing of reprinted material and original work adds to the overall quality, context in this book is sometimes a difficult quarry. For example, Alasdair Gray’s incandescent “Five Letters from an Eastern Empire,” originally published in 1979, was a work that I first thought was contemporary, in that it dealt so keenly with creating art in a time of imperial power, and how that power creates the conditions from which one interprets works of art—issues that have a particular cast in 2006. Though I was thrilled to learn of this story, I had whiplash upon realizing that it was published 27 years ago. This in itself didn’t detract from the reading of the story, or its unsettling after-effects, but it did cause the mind to do a little time traveling, a disorientation akin to landing in an airport halfway around the world the day before you left.

This push-pull exhibits itself in other ways throughout the anthology. At the end of the final story, Michael Moorcock’s “Cake,” there appears this note: “The editors have placed the above work of narrative realist literary fiction, ‘Cake,’ at the end of this anthology in order to assist readers in their return to reality.” This makes the assumption that the reader is going to read the collection in order, although the sheer size of ParaSpheres and the multiplicity of authors and narrative styles therein otherwise invites a non-linear reading, moving around in various directions and orders. And there’s a more substantial “assist” to reality after “Cake,” in fact—a long exegesis by editor Ken Keegan about the “third way” between genre and literary fiction that ParaSpheres wants to travel. “Writers who want to write artistic work are discouraged from starting out with and later experimenting with a style that will be classified as genre fiction,” the essay states at one point. However, writers ranging from James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon), Gene Wolfe, Cordwainer Smith, R. A. Lafferty, David Bunch, and Carol Emshwiller, among others not represented in this book, have all managed to carve out an experimental—or at least boundary-pushing—space within the science fiction and fantasy genre. Their work hasn’t always been the most popular (and Bunch, sadly, is all but forgotten), but the genre—despite its often conservative tugs—has been a surprisingly accommodating place for more experimental work having at least a place at the table. And it’s hard to parse what’s really at stake in sentences like “as fabulist fiction becomes more fantastic it becomes fantasy fiction, or if more metaphysical it becomes horror or new-age fiction, or if futuristic it becomes science fiction.”

Still, it’s hard to fault an anthology of strange stories for having a strange reason for being, and if “New Wave Fabulism” is difficult to pin down, then the book can exist as a “cabinet of curiosities” rather than an attempt at canon-making. This harkens back, interestingly, to earlier presentations of literature in America and England, in which literary specialization was less of an issue; as Heather Haveman describes it in “Antebellum literary culture and the evolution of American magazines,”

The first recorded use of the word “magazine” to describe a collection of printed material was in the title of Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in London in 1731 as “a Monthly Collection, to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces on the Subjects above-mentioned, or at least impartial Abridgements thereof” (Gentleman’s Magazine, 1 (1): 48, January 1731).

Similarly, ParaSpheres is setting forth its own almost prelapsarian idea of genre; when the writers within are trying and uncovering new aspects of stories, it’s often with the same abandonment as Poe and Hawthorne had exercised. Thus, Paraspheres, or any anthology that explores a boundary-less netherworld of genre, is going to have a looseness to it, an Articles of Confederation governing its spirit rather than a Constitution, and the challenge becomes to turn that into a strength.

ParaSpheres most often rises to the challenge via the stories themselves, which often inhabit that same netherworld; it is filled with stories making their way into fabulist territory from the necessity of awkward and strenuous political conditions. In Shelley Jackson’s “Short-Term Memorial Park,” a man is the groundskeeper to a bevy of war memorials. The story begins with a list of 30 memorials to wars such as “War of Combat Chat” and “War of Authorized Retailers”; we learn that “Each monument has a rating (7, 4, 9, 7.2, 5, etc.), and you will find these numbers in small print on our map, so that if you are not troubled by back pain you can pitch in and show appropriate degrees of respect for each monument.” Brian Evenson’s “An Accounting” depicts the unintended consequences of an apocalyptic journey into the nation’s heartland in the future, where the narrator unwittingly becomes a “Jesus” to wastelanders who have little else to live for. Stepan Chapman’s “Losing the War,” a short reprint, stuns in its audacity, imagining War as a character who ends up being not threatening, but pitiable.

So, for the most part, the book’s quirks of organization don’t impinge on the often breathtaking impact of the stories themselves. In fact, its failure to organize according to known paradigms gives ParaSpheresa jagged, unpredictable atmosphere that aligns well with the content and linguistic strategies of many of its stories. And how this unpredictability relates to literary genres is the central issue of the anthology itself, with much of the work therein attempting to move beyond genre considerations. ParaSpheres thus creates a kind of “tumbling” effect, disrupting conventional quantities (the inherent pauses and closures that one expects an anthology to provide, for example) in favor of discovering shared qualities.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note how many of the stories in ParaSpheres juggle multiple narrative strategies. Robin Caton’s “B, Longing” (an excerpt from a longer work) is a fine example of this, deftly balancing a contemporary story and a fairy tale—both of longing and rejected identity—as well as an exegesis on the nature of language. Similarly, Anna Tambour’s “The Beginnings, Endings, and Middles Ball” is a devilish romp through abstractions-as-characters, having the sharpness and playfulness of metaphysical poetry. (Here it’s worth noting that Omnidawn, a relative newcomer to the field, has made a name for itself publishing challenging contemporary poetry by the likes of Lyn Hejinian, Norma Cole, and Martha Ronk.)

The existence in ParaSpheres of multiple stories by some authors also points toward a super-annuated excess—belying once again the standard operating procedure of most recent anthologies. The editors aren’t afraid to over-tip the apple cart with a one story/one author policy, and the multiple stories by the authors therein usually live up to the billing. Justin Courter’s “Skunk” (excerpted from a novel to be published by Omnidawn) is, well, about a man’s love affair with a skunk. The most amazing aspect of the story is that it actually turns out to veer, by the end, from the creepy to the sweet. The same author’s short story “The Town News” is a deeply affecting work that has more conventional touchstones (e.g., a man who can see into the future), but is written with a strange poignancy that binds these elements together into a seamless whole.

If genre, in all of its incarnations, is posited in this book as an open question, then the reader is certainly going to get more than one answer. It takes more than saying that the prose in this anthology is “poetic”—such a qualifier risks being misread for rococo floridity (just as when a novel is described as “lyrical,” it’s usually the pre-Raphaelites that come to mind, not Lorine Niedecker). Rather, taxonomic rigidity is the least of our concerns. It’s hard to point at what’s going on in literature in the middle of it occurring—what is important is that, whatever we call it, work that pushes the boundaries of genre produces a rich ecosystem. And this is amply demonstrated by so many stories in this anthology: from Laird Hunt’s one-paragraph zinger “Three Tales,” to the peppering of bizarre novel excerpts by Finnish writer Leena Krohn, to the dreamland sibling rivalry of Karen Heuler’s “Jubilee Dreams,” and on and on. In a society where illusion is the new mimesis, an anthology like ParaSpheres doesn’t point toward other worlds as much as point toward ours, and how we have let our public and private spheres become, alternately, reverie and nightmare. The chaos in this book is ours.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


The London Novels by Colin MacInnesColin MacInnes
Allison & Busby (£10.99)

by Douglas Messerli

Montgomery Pew, an innocent underling in the government bureaucracy, is suddenly named assistant-welfare officer of the colonial department. No one, including himself, knows how he has gotten the job, but taking his new position seriously, he “sallies forth” to inspect the welfare hostel—after meeting Johnny Macdonald Fortune, a new emigrant from Nigeria and the hero of Colin MacInnes’s 1957 novel City of Spades. The colonial department hostel has “the odor of good intentions,” but no longer houses Montgomery’s new “friend”—with whom, moreover, the Trinidadian “Spades” (the word with which Johnny has described himself and other blacks, as opposed to “Jumbles” like Montgomery) want no association because he is an African of “primitive barbarity.” With his girlfriend, BBC executive Theodora Pace, Montgomery sets out to discover the whereabouts of the likeable Johnny and uncovers in the process an entire London underworld of sex, drugs, violence, and other vices.

In the hands of writers less talented than the Australian-educated MacInnes, this tale would become a story of innocence vs. evil in which, depending upon one’s political position, the inevitable consequences would be either entirely deserved or the result of the hatefully bigoted white society. MacInnes and his heroes, however, make no such easy judgments. This author is interested far less in the causes of this underworld of joyful corruption than in its uncontained and exuberant existence. MacInnes is seldom condescending and truly cares about his characters through his pitch-perfect presentment of them through language: this is not a book dominated by dialects as much as a prose-poem made from the differently modulated rhythms in which his figures intelligently speak.

Montgomery and Theodora, in turn, are satiric innocents, who in their absolute wonderment of the previously undiscovered “planets” hidden away in tiny hotels and grand apartments, encounter this “brave new world” without much judgment. Early in the novel, Montgomery attends a “mixed” dance at the Cosmopolitan Dance Hall where “English Jumbles” and “African Spades” try to out-dance one another in a manner reminiscent of the dance between the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story—which opened on Broadway the same year, 1957, in which MacInnes published this novel. But in City of Spades the dance ends, more predictably perhaps, with no cross-over relationship, but with a police raid. Montgomery soon after loses his job, and other than his and Theodora’s continued involvement in this black underworld, the rest of this work contains few Jumble characters who are not enforcing British “law.” In other words, the reader of MacInnes’s book must recognize quite early on that there is nothing for blacks to do in London except to hide.

It is almost a shame that MacInnes’s fiction has to have a plot, for the excitement of this book lies not in its series of upheavals, such as the financial ruin of Johnny Fortune, his ultimate charge of living with a prostitute as a pimp (what the British call “ponces”), and the courtroom drama in which Theodora temporarily “saves” Johnny by announcing that she is pregnant with his baby. Rather, the book entertains its reader with its ongoing kaleidoscope of human beings one cannot simply “summarize.” In each of MacInnes’s three novels under discussion here, the innocent visitors to the underground London in which the author revels attempt to comprehend differences between the “types” encountered. Montgomery, for example, explains his theories to a West Indian friend who has just taunted him:

“What! You recognize some difference? Ain’t we all just coal-black coloured skins to you?”

“Don’t be offensive, Mr. Tamberlaine. Like so many West Indians I’ve met, you seem to have, if I may say so, a large chip sitting on your shoulder.”

“Not like your African friends? They have less chip, you say?”

“Much less. Africans seem much more self-assured, more self-sufficient. They don’t seem to fear we’re going to take liberties with them, or patronize them, as you people do.”

“Do we now!”

“Yes, you do. Africans don’t seem to care what anyone thinks of them. So even though they’re more clannish and secretive, they’re easier to talk to.”

Mr. Tamberlaine considered this. “Listen to me, man,” he said. “If we’s more sensitive like you say, there’s reasons for it. Our islands is colonies of great antiquity, and our mother tongue is English, like your own, and not some dialects. So naturally we expect you treat us like we’re British as yourself, and when you don’t, we suffer and go sour. Why should we not? But Africans—what they care of British? For African, his passport just don’t mean nothing, except for travel, but for us it’s loyalty.”

. . .

“I think…it’s easier for them than it is for you. They know what they are, and you’re not sure. They belong much more deeply to Africa than you do to the Caribbean.”

Montgomery’s assessment of these “differences,” however, ultimately comes to nothing, as the West Indian turns the tables so to speak: “Thank you for the compliment to our patriotism. So many of our boy who serve in R.A.F. would gladly hear your words.” MacInnes puts forward the ideas, in other words, without losing sight of the complexities of the human beings he presents—and for that reason this author’s frail humans seem almost invincible. Warned of his possible murder on his voyage home, Johnny Fortune remains a forceful figure taunting the very culture he is about to leave: “No one will kill me, countryman!...This is my city, look at it now! Look at it there—it has not killed me! There is my ship that takes me home to Africa: it will not kill me either! No! Nobody in the world will kill me ever until I die!”

If City of Spades ventures into a London unknown by most of the gray-garbed, post-war adults of the city, Absolute Beginners, published two years later, celebrates the new dominance of the British teen scene. The work’s hero—a 19-year-old unnamed narrator whom I shall call Colin as a nod to the later film1—experiences the last year of his teens with such zest and belief in the future that the reader is nearly swept away by the vibrant energy of youth. Colin has left his Pimlico home and family—a sex-crazed mother, a near-retarded lug of a step-brother, and a beloved and belittled Dad—to celebrate the joy of life. No matter that his employment is often involved with pornographic photography, Colin is in love with the times; he is, as American writer James Purdy put it in his novel Malcolm of the same year, a “contemporary,” a young man absolutely in love with the city—its gloriously posh mews, raunchy dives, and dilapidated neighborhoods such as his own Napoli. He and his teenage generation are suddenly in control, and his rapturous descriptions of London make one suddenly want to return to the metropolis of 1959:

So I went out of the Dubious to catch the summer evening breeze. The night was glorious, out there. The air was sweet as a cool bath, the stars were peeping nosily beyond the neons, and the citizens of the Queendom, in their jeans and separates, were floating down the Shaftesbury avenue canals, like gondolas. Everyone had loot to spend, everyone a bath with verbena salts behind them, and nobody had broken hearts, because they all were all ripe for the easy summer evening.

MacInnes adds to this heady mélange of youth a large lesbian urban-dweller, Big Jill, a black jazz musician named, what else, Cool, and various other characters who nearly blind the reader with their larger-than-life personalities. But as we know from having just read City of Spades, there are many other layers of existence in this palpitating wonderland. Colin gets a sense of something going amiss when his beloved girlfriend Suze (his Crêpe Suzette) heads off to the alter with the slimy bisexual Henley; the “absolute beginner” 14-year-old Laurie London becomes the hot pop singer of the moment; and he himself is assaulted near the river by a former schoolmate, Edward the Ted (“Ted” being British slang for a hooligan). A later night visit to his Napoli apartment by Ed also ends in violence, and with Ed’s warning that a local gang leader, Flickker, “wants Cool aht ov ear.” Colin can hardly believe his ears and seeks out Cool for confirmation, who explains to him that “Something’s cooking… Excuse me, but you wouldn’t notice, son, not being coloured,” continuing “Up till now, it’s been white Teds against whites, all their baby gangs. If they start on coloured, there’s only a few thousand of us in this area, but I don’t think you’ll see there’s many cowards.”

Suddenly we recognize that this young, savvy teenager, when it comes to race relations, is also a complete innocent; like the hero of his favorite childhood book, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Colin is a visitor to a world never before imagined. His joy in the city, his belief in his nation begins to crumble:

I couldn’t take all this nightmare. I cried out, “Cool, this is London, not some hick city in the provinces! This is London, man, a capital, a great city where every kind of race has lived ever since the Romans!”

Cool said, “Oh yeah. I believe you.”

“They’d never allow it!” I exclaimed.

“Who wouldn’t?”

“The adults! The men! The women! All the authorities! Law and order is the one great English thing!”

With his outraged cry, we recognize that Colin will now be forced to come of age. If he has previously scorned the “absolute beginners,” he must recognize himself as having been one of them. The race riots—based on the actual Notting Dale and Notting Hill “race riots” of August and September 19582—break out, loosing chaos upon Colin’s beloved city. He saves a young black man, is witness to underground plots by West Indians blacks, and is nearly himself arrested after being attacked by white thugs, before order is restored. At the airport, from where he plans to escape to Oslo—a scene, along with Fortune’s departure in City of Spades, which reminds me of another unnamed narrator’s escape at the end of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—he witnesses what one recognizes is a transformative vision, a vision that the true future of any great city lies in its people, in their respect for one another:

…in taxied a plane, quite close to where I was standing, and up went the staircase in the downpour, and out came a score or so of Spades from Africa, holding hand luggage over their heads against the rain. Some had on robes, and some had on tropical suits, and most of them were young like me, maybe kiddos coming here to study, and they came down grinning and chattering, and all looked so dam pleased to be in England, at the end of their long journey, that I was heartbroken at all the disappointments that were in store for them. And I ran up to them through the water, and shouted out above the engines, “Welcome to London! Greetings from England! Meet your first teenager! We’re all going up to Napoli to have a ball!”…and suddenly they all burst out laughing in the storm.

How I wish such a vision might manifest itself to more of my countryman today.

Given the stunning achievements of his first two novels, Mr. Love and Justice, the third volume of MacInnes’s London Novels published in 1960, cannot quite compare. The author’s themes are similar here, as he explores, this time around, the intertwined roles of policemen and criminals. A former seaman, out of work and unable to find a “land” job, Frankie Love takes up with a local hooker and, with some righteous hesitation, finally becomes her ponce. Edward Justice, meanwhile, has just been promoted from street cop to undercover detective, and will soon discover himself in a threatening position with regard to his girlfriend as he begins to take bribes.3

The reader immediately grasps that the two men are destined to be involved with each other. But here, again, MacInnes refuses to take sides, as he develops his characters so deftly that it comes as no big surprise when, as both men’s lives are turned upside down, Love plans to head a detective agency, and Justice may turn the clothes shop he envisions into a “little high-grade brothel.” Once again these two men come to their professions and the world that surrounds them in complete innocence, discovering in the process both the horrors and the marvels of the new worlds they find themselves inhabiting. In that sense, all of MacInnes’s characters are travelers in search of new lives, inevitably both blessed and cursed by the voyages they’ve undertaken. Finally, one might recall that during these “fictional” events, what Colin might have described as a “hick provincial” group called the Beatles were fomenting radical cultural changes in Liverpool, which would spill over into the international scene only two years after Mr. Love and Justice. In 1964 that group would make their own screen voyage to London, with Paul’s randy grandfather in tow, in A Hard Day’s Night4. Truth actually followed MacInnes’s marvelous fictions.

1 Richard Burridge, Terry Johnson, Don MacPherson and Christopher Wicking (writers), Julien Temple (director), released in 1986, and based—quite loosely—on the MacInnes novel. Upon reading Absolute Beginners, I ordered the DVD to discover that, although there are wonderful moments in this “jazz and rock” musical—in particular scenes clearly inspired by the great Jerome Robbins choreography of West Side Story—the movie, in its garish overstatement and simplification of heroes and villains, entirely misses the point of MacInnes’s loving tribute to London teenage life. Perhaps the very fact that the film was produced nearly 30 years after the novel, in an era in which it was much more difficult to maintain the faith and dreams of the original, were against it from the start. I should mention, however, that the casting of Eddie O’Dowell as Colin and David Bowie as the “evil” developer Vendice (not so clearly evil in MacInnes’s book), along with the cameo role of Colin’s mother played by the famed call-girl witness of the 1963 Profumo Affair trials, Mandy Rice-Davies, was brilliant.

2 The so-called “Notting Hill Riots” began on Saturday, August 1958, when a crowd of white men attacked a white Swedish woman married to a West Indian. After she was pelted with stones, glass, and wood, the police escorted her back to her Notting Hill apartment. This incident was the catalyst for daily attacks throughout West London. Mobs of angry white men, sometimes in packs numbering a hundred, chased down and beat any vulnerable blacks they could find. Most West Indians attempted to remain indoors during these weeks, but others fought back. Calm was finally restored, but the shock-waves of these events are felt still today as the reaction, based on the transition of an almost totally white population to a multi-ethnic one, altered many notions of “British” identity.

3 The “Profumo Affair” might almost have been an incident out of MacInnes’s Mr. Love and Mr. Justice. Well-educated and high-ranking Conservative cabinet minister, John Profumo was married to actress Valerie Hobson. In 1961 he met a showgirl named Christine Keeler and developed a short-lived relationship with her. Keeler also had had a previous affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London, the fact of which meant that Profumo’s connection with the woman might have endangered British intelligence. When questioned about the affair, Profumo lied to the House of Commons, claiming that there was “no impropriety whatever” in his relationship, but the truth came out later in the trial of Stephen Ward, a wealthy London osteopath through whom Profumo had met Keeler. Ward, the son of the Canon of Rochester Cathedral, had treated such illustrious patients as Sir Winston Churchill, Paul Getty, Douglas Fairbanks, and Elizabeth Taylor. Brought to trial for living on the “earnings of prostitution,” Ward took an overdose of sleeping pills on the last day of the proceedings. One of the most humorous moments of the trial was provided by another call-girl client of Ward’s, Mandy Rice-Davies; reminded by the prosecuting counsel that Lord Astor had denied having an affair with her or having even met her, she replied “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned soon after the official report on the affair. Profumo died last month, March 9, 2006.

4 Alun Owen (writer), Richard Lester (director).

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006