Sometimes it’s good to read a book that does things a little differently and shakes up the reading experience. Scottish writer, Janice Galloway, is an author with an exceptionally dry wit, a poet’s use of words and a tendency to use white space on the page with great innovation. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, inhabited the inside of a young teacher’s head as she spiralled into breakdown, which might not sound awfully tempting, but is actually so well done and so witty and perceptive that the synopsis is misleading. If you wanted to try her, though, I might suggest beginning with her two volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me, and All Made Up. They are straight narratives, wonderfully written, about the sort of crazy childhood that is a gift to a talented writer. I wrote a profile of her for Numero Cinq, the new (to me) literary journal I mentioned, if you’d like to know more.
I also recently finished Hotel Andromeda, by the outstanding Gabriel Josipovici. This short novel revolves around Helena, an art critic struggling to write a book about the odd, reclusive American artist, Joseph Cornell. Cornell created a series of artworks, slim boxes containing a collage of writing paper from seedy French hotels with glamourous names (Hotel Andromeda, Hotel de l’Univers, etc) and images from classical mythology, that are evocative but defy clear meaning. Does the mythology elevate the seediness of the French hotels, or do the hotels corrupt the mythology? With art this undecidable, it’s not surprising that Helena wants a new form to discuss it, not a conventional critique or biography. The action in the foreground of the novel concerns Ed, a photo journalist recently made to leave Chechnya where he was covering the conflict. He turns up on Helena’s doorstep, saying he is a friend of her sister, Alice, who is out in Chechnya as an aid worker, helping to run an orphanage. Helena is hungry for details of her sister who never writes, and who she believes despises her work for its seemingly useless abstraction. Ed assures her this isn’t so, that her sister admires her, and feels her own work to be hopeless, an insufficient drop in an ocean of human suffering.
So this is a novel which, in the simplest of ways possible, starts to play with irreconcilable extremes – what kind of a life has meaning? One in which we turn to the best in humanity, its creativity and art, or one that deals with the worst, its brutality and violence? Is Western civilisation an aberration that is bound to revert, over time, to the tyrannies that dominate the rest of the world? How are we even to understand a world that can contain such extremes of beauty and evil? I do love the way that Josipovici writes such lucid, easy stories, based on very natural dialogue, that blossom out into powerful, provocative ideas.
Finally, I’ve been reading my friend, Jeff Bursey’s, latest novel, Mirrors On Which Dust Has Fallen. You may remember a few years back I reviewed his first book, Verbatim; A Novel, which took the form of written reports from a fictitious Canadian parliament. This new novel creates a panorama of the fictional province itself, exploring the lives of a cross-section of inhabitants as they unfold against one another in the mid 1990s. There are a number of featured locations – the local radio station, Johnny’s Bar, the Catholic churches, the art gallery, the offices of a clothing warehouse, and numerous family sitting rooms. It’s a really tricky book to describe, because everything I might say about it is not entirely accurate. It’s a highly realistic novel in many ways, the voices that weave it together are all exactly the kind you’d hear if you stood in the middle of a bar and listened to everything going on around you, but then we often hop in and out of the characters’ heads, too. In the opening chapter, we’re following disgruntled employee, Loyola, as he packs suits for distribution, but when he turns the radio on to listen to the lunchtime news, it becomes a portal that shoots us down into the studios of the radio station. So we readers move about the world of Bowmount in an unusually fluid and dynamic way.
That being said, most of the chapters sink down deep into the characters and their preoccupations. The action arises out of everyday concerns, and yet it also has that edge of satire to it. Whilst a lot of the interest revolves around uncongenial work places, subject to ever more ruthless management directives, there’s also a notable and extensive debate around the place of the Catholic faith at the dog end of the 20th century, fraught as it is in Bowmount with a shameful number of sexual scandals involving children. And equally prominent is the place of art, as explored through a painter creating a very unusual tryptich and a photographer of graphic sexual images. Characters have their fervent opinions, which they impress upon others, and discussions, as they often do in reality, are a mass of interruptions, declarations and exclamations.
The reading experience was, for me, a highly unusual one. Sometimes, I felt like I was looking at swarming bacteria in a petri dish, everything felt so up close and I was so deep into it. I had to put the book down in order to gain sufficient distance to see the relationships of everyone intertwined in this microcosm, to feel the outlines of the story again. There were parts (mostly in bars) where I felt very entangled in the dialogue, but then there were other places when the head-hopping was fluid and lovely, as in a wedding service near the end of the book where we shift between a number of storylines that have been developing over the course of the narrative, each unfolding inside a different character’s head. Which is to say that you are taken through a number of experiences that are oddly akin to the experience of reality, whilst being at the same time clearly artificial and only possible in the realm of storytelling.
I had to look up the title, which seems to come from Bahá’í teaching and talks of children as being mirrors on which no dust has fallen, clear receptors of their world. As opposed, then, to the characters in this novel, whose perceptions are all cloudy from experience, disappointment and desire. It’s a really unique and unusual novel, quite unlike anything else I’ve read, I think.