The Ephemera – by Neil Williamson
I am starting here another of my on-going style reviews of books – this one generated by the following discussion thread: http://ttapress.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=849
My previous reviews are linked from here, if anyone is interested: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
by Neil Williamson
Elastic Press 2006
There may be unavoidable spoilers in all my reviews.
Shine, Alone After The Setting Of The Sun
Perhaps, generally, two women are naturally far more suited to each other in friendship and love than any man/woman couple can be – but do women together feel too deep, too dangerously, too idealistically? Here, one woman handicrafts string people — then a mosaic for her unborn baby (a baby conceived with an unknown man – or unknown to us). The other woman a guitarist. They have care and tenderness for each other. This is a beautifully poignant constructively unfathomable story where the idealistic tenderness becomes unsustainable like the mosaic’s splinters, pixels and strips of glass are ultimately ‘unjigsawable’. Yet in another sense contentment survives separately even if together it didn’t. And the guitar’s strains waft me to sleep, content, too, even though I am a man. (20/3/09)
In this book’s previous story: “Had she named her child already? That would be just like her. Shaping it before it was even born.”
The second story now concerns the eponymous namer-of-things (an activity he does for a living) and reading it lifted my heart this morning. It is an ingenious and Scottish-humourous story regarding homeliness and the politics of naming — involving the sudden appearance in the family’s garden of a (dangerous?) euonymus plant (lexicon implants are also mentioned) that needs the protagonist’s careful choice of neologism. Universes hang on it. I shall not give away the essence of this delightful story and I assure you it does not lead you through a scunner darkly.
[I’m an euonymist of sorts being a nemonymist!] (21/3/09)
The Bone Farmer
From the string people in an earlier story we come now to a bone doll. An apocalyptic tale of a man and his daughter. This is an enormously powerful write-up of Survivors whose ephemera become fixed but ever-calving sculptures that also interact cancerously with the help of human intervention. As in the ‘Euonymist’, we have the seeking of the mot juste and here it is ‘natural’ as the naming of ‘unnatural’.
Guilt and grief. But at least such sad emotions are ever ephemeral.
The reader is as if on a hang-glider above a landscape of words from which it would be wrong to wring out more meaning than is (less than) obvious without landing among them.
I can hear the ‘complex, atonal fugues’, however, even from up here. (21.3.09 – 2 and half hours later)
The Happy Gang
A mind-burrowing monologue by a participant in the First World War. Credit to the author, I could hear the public school voice for real in my head. Could feel the ‘clumsy wounds’ and shell shock. The trenches. The tipping-point of Fate. The crazy cruelty. The crazy gang in what I imagined to be a sort of trench orchestra-pit with their conductor ‘out of action’.
Somehow, this story (and the resultant landscapes of death) made me think of the graveyard in ‘The Bone Farmer’. And of Debussy’s Cathédrale Engloutie.
The loosening of time’s bony grip. The black subtractor in the brain. (21.3.09 – another 2 hours later)
The ‘Rose of Jericho’ is the Resurrection Plant and can be found on The Canary Islands.
A tale of decaying tower blocks by the ‘gluttonous Thames’ … of an old man … of his canary and the seeds it needs … the good will that still resides in humanity … and the lottery of resurrection that harkens back explicitly to the mosaic in the first story. One envisions beauty flickering about like golden phoenixes amid the decay. We just need an euonymist to nail the meaning down with just one word. It will come… (22.3.09)
The canary seeds in ‘Cages’ were baked into a cake. Now they have become amber marbles. Also there seems to be some parallel between ‘Cages’ and ‘Amber Rain’ concerning a musical scale.
“She knew what she liked, and if she liked it, she loved it.” A wonderful insight.
A photographer’s girl friend returns after five years – changed. Subtly or more significantly? I did wonder if she had a bone doll with her? Alongside a highly leveraged underivative metaphor for the credit meltdown: i.e. an invasion by aliens that seems gradually to subsume belief in promisory notes for invisible stocks: “Even if the world wasn’t being visited, it was gripped by the idea of such an invasion. A quiet, nervous paralysis. Markets were down… […] How could any credit card company seriously offer him a free couple of grand and trust that he’d pay it back, plus interest?”
Outside the book and its few imponderables, the word for which the euonymist was looking he thought he found in ‘Amber Rain’. Having stared into the ‘sheet blue lightning’ of the TV screen he saw the word etched on his brain if not on his retina. He won’t tell me. I just know that the word ‘phare’ (the French for lighthouse and an acronym for East Europe’s attempts to join the EU now scotched by the credit crunch) appears in the letters of the book’s overall title.
This story has some beautiful moments. Particularly its ending. Very impressive as is also the still evolving gestalt of the whole book for me. (22/3/09 – 2 hours later)
A wonderful story. From the Rose of Jericho to another Rose: i.e. this story protagonist’s girl friend who is lost-in-Italy (a city akin to Venice?) . On receipt (from her) of intermittent video ‘postcards’ (with sound), he has long been following her progress to her new job in a Gallery where blurred forces seem to threaten her – and mysterious distant spires betoken churches – and other half-glimpsed, half-heard scenes – and in one last video in particular almost a strobing of different scenes interspersed by flash and ‘static’. He is now in that very Italian City reviewing those videos. Until he sees scenes himself interspersed by flash … as he nears where Rose may actually be. I, too, as the reader of this story, feel my view of the words interspersed by flash almost as if I am the protagonist and the protagonist is what he seeks.
Flash. “When sleep comes I dream in freeze frame.” Flash. “…a bird to which I cannot put a name, but is of such exquisite beauty…” Flash. “…a life-sized statue of a boy…” Flash. “Up close the tiles are dazzling, beautiful and garish, simplistic, each conveying its own definitive message; and in concert an overall feeling of vital translucency.” Flash. “Stick men.” Flash. “…the moon in a hundred phases.” Flash. “Static.” (22.3.09 – another 2 hours later)
Softly Under Glass
From Rose in the Gallery here we have Grace in the Gallery: a female painter with a mysterious process of art that becomes clear by remaining tantalisingly unclear. And the gallery owner (mercenary businessman) who suffers his own meltdown for the sake of art.
With hints or flashes of meaning we enter again the aura of the previous story (‘Postcards’) whereby the protagonist has now reached ‘Rose’: a sylph-like figure on a mattress. Later there is a ‘painting’ of a gallery-worker that gave me the aura of a tall naked figure representing a pre-Raphaelite lighthouse.
The meticulousness of the artist’s approach reminds me of the mosaic making in the first story of the book. Almost SF-like or magical. This book itself is fast becoming a similar mosaic.
“…the wall-screen began to flicker and images started to ghost in and out of the static.” (23/3/09)
A highly honed splinter of fiction. Here we have another Rose(mary)– plus her daughter January (who calls a daughter January!) who has a piano tutor called Linke come to tune her playing. (“His suit was dark as night and immaculately tailored. His shirt, white as egrets’ feathers and stiff as sailcloth under the wind, was bisected by a silk tie that had the exact subtle colouring of the tails of magpies.”)
Echoing the earlier string people, “his arms hung down like ropes.” More than just a name called Linke.
A musical scale that resonates with the earlier ones in this book.
Meanwhile, all these separate stories subsist as entities to be admired separately, continuing to sparkle on their own. But perhaps they were only ephemera till put in this book – now tuned together even if their original published words within discrete sculptures haven’t changed at all. An uncanny art by this book’s bone farmer. (23/3//09 – one and half hours later)
A much longer story – in a manor house with an impressive library and its inferred carrels – an MR-Jamesian extrapolation rather than pastiche, one that started in merely a workmanlike fashion but developed into an astonishing vision of a ship’s whole drowned population (as boneless water) haunting the house. A population that evidently (after losing bearings) found its lighthouse, but a generation or two too late!
Also a dream of ‘amber rain’ at one point.
This story presents a counterpoint to the previous tuning. Who knows? Maybe the next group of stories (yet to be read) has a different tenor from the earlier group, starting with ‘Harrowfield’. Like movements in a symphony. (23/3/09 – another 2 hours later)
From ‘Harrowfield’, a more sprawling traditional ghost story, to a succinct and carefully faceted gem of a ghost story. A truly ingenious one.
“What else would you call that apparatus?” I won’t give anything away by euonymising it here in our rarefied world outside the story.
This tale harkens back to the aftermath of the Great War (Cf. ‘The Happy Gang’) and the need for spiritualism by the many who had lost menfolk in the trenches.
I’d just mention the ‘cashmere mittens’ – and ‘the hiss of heavy rain’ that seems generally in this book to be associated with some form of spectral activity. (23.3.09 – after another 4 hours)
The Bennie and The Bonobo
Here we have another post-era of the Great War, but one with its own skein-relation of different futures and commodities as inventions.
A delightfully wrought SF vision …. including the muff that hides the long-fingered hands of a ‘lady’ …. another choice seeking (as in testing the futures themselves) of the ‘mot juste’ or euonym to name the ‘lady’ …. the dream “worn down to a hard nugget” ….. the noise like “rice grains being dropped onto a skillet” …. the ‘apparatus’ of the ‘lady’ vaguely akin to the art process described in the story “Softly Under Glass.”
I somehow sense that the author has set up an effective scenario here that says, OK, one spends a whole lifetime making the best of the worst, but on the rare occasions when it is available one must never forget to make the best of the best. The Optimum rather that the Pessimum. That’s not my philosophy, but I felt my heart lift again upon reading this story even against my own will to let it lift!
[Personally, I also imagined Linke the Tuner inspecting the timbre-integrity of the Bennie railtrack lines with his long hammer.] (24/3/09)
A Horse In Drifting Light
An effective glimpse of life beyond the modern trench of time.
Life is too convenient, too insulated against ill-health or danger, too mobile-communicative, too ordered by fridge … plus a friend called Des from Seattle who talks of the freedom of the road…
… then during a rare un-sat-nav’d excursion, the heavy rain comes upon the protagonist from a suddenly perceived 3-dimensional sky…
and then the proximity of a real horse: “the sky mirrored in its flanks, the sun dazzling from chinks in the clouds which passed across its hide like time.”
A lighthorse? (24/3/09 – 45 minutes later)
Sins of the Father
a collaboration with Mark Roberts
A sort of hybrid of Indiana Jones and the ‘Lost’ TV series and Conrad”s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and a Rider Haggard novel, this is a father’s quest to find his lost environmentalist son in the jungle, a son who stole a stone torus or woggle from the father’s collection or inferred ‘mosaic’ of valuable artefacts…….leading eventually to a drug induced vision of a “dark-lit tower” in the jungle (a lighthouse?)……maybe the ‘phare’ I was somehow expecting! There were also some references to recent Eastern European history….!
The story started with a ‘bottle of rain’ as a clue to the son’s whereabouts, ‘with a tint of amber’.
There were a few infelicities of prose and I did not understand everything that was going on but it didn’t seem to matter. An inscrutable ending: “Somewhere, I heard rain falling.” (24/3/09 – a further 70 minutes later)
Hard To Do
I sense this is the core story of the book (but I haven’t read the last story yet – so who knows?).
This story is in symbiotic relationship with the first one in the book. Also it tells of another woman/woman poignancy of separation (I think it makes this clear but I would need to re-read it to make sure). Meticulously built up like a mosaic. In fact it tells of two rituals of meticulousness (as I sense many other of the other stories do, in hindsight, eg. about rituals of art processes and other activities and feelings). Here the precise rituals concern tea-making and tea-drinking (and what colour is tea, I ask you!) and smoking cigarettes. “The colour orange is a miracle.”
Also “cold water flooding” linked by tuning into the frequency of the waterfall in “Sins of the Father”, the many instances of heavy rain in other stories and, above all, the ghosts-of-seawater in “Harrowfield”.
This story mentions Gorecki, but it reminds me more of a Prelude by Debussy (or maybe his “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”!) or a John Field Nocturne.
“I can’t remember your name. My own was never important, but losing yours is tragic.” (24/3/09 – another 3 hours later)
I choose books to review in my own personal way from my own collection – and the books I choose are ones which I have a good instinct about… and my instinct was right about this book.
In many ways the symphony that is this book ends with ‘Hard To Do’ – representing an organic whole of ‘ephemera’ (or movements if this were music which I sometimes believe it to be) … blending and shifting even as I now try to recall them. These ‘ephemera’ need to be read in bookprint as otherwise they would fly off. Only the pages keep the words in their cages. Bravo! Encore!
The Codsman and His Willing Shag
So this last story is a sort of encore at the end of the concert. Or a palate-cleansing coda. And it is indeed magnifico – a hilarious, touching and visionary young man’s rite-of-passage (literally a passage at one point) in Robin Hood’s Bay (near Whitby) – a smuggler’s town (and I am sure a lighthouse is situated nearby based on my own visit there a number of years ago!)
There is ‘a fistful of rain’. And here also we discover the real amber liquid that appeals to pub-goers!
And there is a shanty-singing group called Smuggler’s Knot (cf the monkeys in ‘Sins of the Father’ and the bonobo elsewhere) – and activities concerning this group lead to our young protagonist melding an astonishing vision on the moonlit beach beyond the secret passage (a vision perhaps ignited by Wilson’s and Jericho’s fluttering phoenixes)….
This vision, too, like the passage, must remain a secret. It is is extremely memorable and meticulous. It needs a book to read it in. Read it in other than a book and the vision will fly off and never come back, never be remembered.
I shall take a gulp of euonymistic ‘scouridge’ and now sign off. (24/3/09 – a further 90 minutes later)
All things were connected in a framework above and beyond and behind our normal perception.
–from ‘Sins of the Father’
1. Weirdmonger left…
Jim Steel: It’s a stunning collection, Des, and some of my favourite Williamson stories aren’t even in it. The man’s got much more than his fair share of talent. Elastic press has sold out of it, but BBR still has it in stock.
DFL: Thanks, Jim. Before I forget, I have observed in some of my other reviews that there is an enduring ‘leitmotif’ (from much of the evidence I have read recently by young/youngish authors in our field), i.e. a ‘leitmotif’ of the TV screen without a signal and I noted in Neil’s first story above this sentence below!
“That was the impression it gave, a blankness, like the static on an untuned TV.”
2. Weirdmonger left…
DFL: In the last two stories there were these words: ‘stoor’ and ‘steamie’. Any clues, anyone?
Jim Steel: Ha! ‘Stoor’ is Scots for dust, and a steamie was a sort of communal laundrette with minimal technology. It was an outbuilding that would be found behind tenements
3. Weirdmonger left…
DFL: Thanks, Benedict. Yes, I’m a great fan of Paul Auster.
4. Weirdmonger left…
Neilw: Des – just wanted to thank you publicly for this review. I found the accumulation of your impressions as you progressed through the book really fascinating. Real-time reviewing rocks! Cheers Neil
DFL: Thanks, Neil. As I hope you can tell – I very much enjoyed reviewing the book as well as reading the book itself. It is a sort of book (with its cover and all) that has to be among anyone’s favourite once they’ve experienced as well as read it. It’s got my pencil marks all over it now. It is lived-in! Like some people used to carry around ‘Catcher In The Rye’.
BTW, I have already started my next real-time review here: http://s256537080.websitehome.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=1897.0
5. Weirdmonger left…