Somnambulists – by Allen Ashley
My 14th real-time review
I am starting here another of my on-going style reviews of books….as generated by the discussion thread here: http://s256537080.websitehome.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=1897.0
My previous reviews are linked from here, if anyone is interested: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
by Allen Ashley
Elastic Press 2004
Cover: Dean Harkness
A substantial story of the Great War and Prestidigitation (Cf. ‘The Happy Gang’ by Neil Williamson in another Elastic collection and ‘Like a Slow-Motion War’ (Allen’s story collaboration with Andrew Hook)) – a highly original and harrowining story that combines a Magic Realist vision with the awfulness of war. There are some neat phrases and conceits (eg “Clover in the path of a scythe“) – mercy-killing and a precariousness paralleled by life in general, the music halls, magic tricks, illusions, ventriloquism, an actual dream reality that the act of sleep-walking seems somehow to rationalise and reconcile in an effective way…leading to a suspension of disbelief regarding an astonishing Wellsian, Jules-Vernian music hall theatricality.
The trenches have “falling props“, though…. A telling phrase. And a Romance that almost buds like a flower (for me) among the waste of war.
One story is not enough. I cannot yet rush to judgment about the whole book… but I hope to catch its magic bullet in my critical grasp during my rite of passage through it.
“Maybe we’re never really cured of anything; perhaps all we can ever hope for is an extended period of remission.” (25.3.09)
A brief tale that constructively tests the reader. In effective if not intentional sequel to ‘Somme-Nambula’, we do have here a resonance-strain between an ancient SF B-Movie black and white world (a monochrome in which we were once conditioned to believe the Great War took place) and the real colour (but dream-like?) world paralleling (alternating with) it. A Peyton Place soap opera …. a hero who saves the world from aliens but cannot save himself? … the Van Allen torus streaming aggressively round the world from which it simultaneously tries to escape … and who was George Best?
Enjoyed it. Waiting to see where it all fits in. Did he really wake up? Or did he dream at all?
“It’s like reaching square 99 on the board and then being sent sliding down a huge snake back to square one.” (25.3.09 – 3 hours later)
From the mock B-Movie alien invasion in ‘Sequel’ we have here another story with B Movie disaster ‘props’ to punctuate modern reality in London. It is a story so artificially ‘storified’ that the reader is subsumed by means of its plot magically becoming more real than just mock-realism. You can’t fight against an upstart ‘I-know-what-I-am’ fiction as you equally can’t against the cheeky Red Riding Hood character within it…..for example.
The love-lorn protagonist receives parcel delivery-notes he needs to redeem at the sorting-office, eventually receiving in this way a whole dinosaur costume for him to wear (in a music hall?).
Comet Sharitsa (Sharitsa being, according to Google, a town in Russia?) is threatening Earth with human extinction.
A happy ending regarding his romance and the comet? But happiness is never story-shaped — with even light fiction essentially emerging from the Ominous Imagination that incubates within any who are capable of writing fiction — as one more delivery note silently arrives in his letterbox. “…his brief bubble of renewed happiness was being poked with a reality-stick.” Perhaps each story collapses into the one underneath? And I await my own delivery note. 😐
CODA: Halfway in the story it is written: “Would an impacting comet, global warming, returning glaciers or CIA microbes bring it [the end of the world] about? There were wagers aplenty but surely the main problem would be surviving the catastrophe in order to enjoy one’s winnings.” — Nobody realised that the wagers themselves (like betting increasingly on more and more invisible promissory notes in the credit crunch) would be the factor that led to catastrophe – and this, I feel, is an archetypal subtext within the various reactions to the comet described by this story. (25.3.09 – another 90 minutes later)
This story is only half a page long.
It is perhaps a fable of global warming by dint of Miss Haricot’s choice of abrasive. And of jealousy by dint of her implied spinsterly nature.
Whatever the word her abrasive removed, should there have been any word at all in that place to be removed? If not, this is also a fable of laziness on some authority’s part in letting the word stay there in the first place.
I wrote a story recently about a ‘carbon-dater of words’ and about how stories can be uncovered to the bone by literally digging below the words — and indeed you would need such a carbon-dater of words to see how long this story’s disputed word had been there – and whether a new word is ever the same as the old word it replaced, even if both words (old and new) could be placed on top of each other exactly, i.e. without any overlap – as when comparing an actual reality and a fabrication-with-props of that same reality
….with or without construing any didactic fables as a subtext of that reality. (25.3.09 – after another 4 hours)
I see that this story was originally published in 2001 but, astonishingly, is a well-crafted and prophetic treatment of today’s economic meltdown in exact and appropriate terms! (Fiscal illumination = fiscal stimulus? etc etc). [My ‘coda’ comment about ‘wagers’ therefore holds steady.]
I feel that the Ashley canon is fast becoming one that deploys ‘props’ physical or conceptual – not in a derogatory sense but true devices of effective theatrical or Swiftian reality. In this story, the ‘downsize’ metaphor is also treated literally with a firm’s ‘loyalty chair’ (akin to the magical equpiment in ‘Somme-Nambula’?), a device that supposedly provides employment security amid the credit crunch plus a nuggetting-down of childhood nostalgia (brilliantly envisioned) …. plus, separately, a return to the ‘dinosaur / comet’ trope of ‘The Saurian’.
Indeed, Dean Harkness’ cover design above seems to be a depiction of these very ‘props’ as literal props!
[I also note that there have been soccer references in all the stories so far except perhaps one.]
[A neat description of an office grapevine: “Apocryphal wind-ups“.]
Hey, I’m really digging this book. (26/3/09)
Life and Trials
It is interesting, in realising fiction, to ‘build a character’ in a deliberate explicit manner from scratch (as I have coincidentally been doing today as a homework exercise for a writer’s group!) and this story similarly builds Ben Grocott’s character … down a slippery slope of volitional and non-volitional destiny towards premature extinction. Indeed, Ben himself is said to be “continuallly ‘proving himself’…” as his part in a collaboration between (1) the omniscient author, (2) the random shards of scynchronised truth / fiction represented by a non-omniscient reportage (a mosaic of primary source documents from teachers, police etc as the building blocks of an unpolitically-correct audit-trail that wipes its own face) and (3) Ben himself who is fighting his own trench warfare against non-existence. Beautifullly done.
[I note this story’s ‘prop’ on the front cover is a photograph of Ben which shows a man that resembles the author himself whose image can be checked on the internet for comparison purposes. This strange case of ‘intentionality’ unsurprisingly intrigues the editor of ‘Nemonymous’ — which publication, incidentallly, in 2001, printed a story by this author, a story which is not included in this ‘Somnambulists’ collection.] (26.3.09 – 2 and half hours later)
Things Seen, Left
On the face of it, a workmanlike and sometimes trite stroll through time-travel and romance – and modern concerns and nostalgia.
A story made more special for me by references to a fairground-fabricated ethos (in which I was brought up as a toddler during a now perceptively fabricated Fifties England in a seaside resort of Ashley’s ‘dinosaur-like’ rides and amusements) and by the fact that the time-travel, in this story, was momentary or, rather, a fading – like the ‘dimmer-switch identities’ (cf Nemonymity) with which I have been creatively concerned in my own work for some time now. To have some of this extrapolated with the ‘now you see him, now you don’t’ analogy of a George Best-like footballer was a revelation!
[If a theatrical prop is tangible evidence of something solidly fabricated (or cynically introduced to cheat pure imagination), or something that thus paradoxically underpins a fiction to make it seem more like reality – then the ‘fading’ inferred from this story is the polar opposite procedure setting up contrastive strains between belief and disbelief – and if you then strobe between the two procedures, that is true belief – or true fairground or rollercoaster ‘suspension’ of disbelief?]
“Was it Heisenberg or someone else who talked about the observer necessarily influencing the event?” (26.3.09 – a further 1 hour 45 minutes later)
Life Under Water
An enjoyably capricious divertimento with our protagonist regretting the loss of his regression-seeking Ex who was, in a previous life, Noah’s Raven…a story also mixed with underwater images interspersed with a party where he eyes a trio of likely floosies. There is also a visit to a theatre which uses props for a submarine – and then he goes home and creates props from his kitchen for his own waking dream of an underwater craft.
There are now, too, the seeds of the aforementioned meltdown here in a story first published in 2000: “It was certainly a strange way of behaving: how banks and financial institutions forced you to borrow money purely so they could claim it back again wad by wad.”
[I just looked up Google to see how ‘somnambulism’ can be connected with ‘props’ — having decided to test out various of my theories about the thematic thrust or gestalt of this book now that I’m just past halfway through it — and I found a hit direct to this my review of it! That didn’t seem to help much. 😐 But it’s still early days. The main thing is I’m really enjoying it. Anyone out there got any interim comments or help to give me?]
“Give me a girl who understands the offside rule…” (26.3.09 – another 3 hours later)
Thinking further about this, somnambulism as an unconscious suspension of disbelief grappling with words on the page as actual theatrical props may be the perfect metaphor for experiencing fiction. (26.3.09 – another 2 hours later)
Re that last bit re ‘words as props’, cf: my earlier comments on “Oh Four“.
Also, the book’s front cover seems to be depicting the ‘theatre’ I mentioned in “Life Under Water“, a theatre that is named ‘Playbox Theatre’. (27.3.09)
The Pumpkin Coach
A satire of recent history (celebrity and papperazzi) paralleling Cinderella / Prince Charmig – a story that has the ultimate prop: a glass slipper.
It is a telling and chilling Swiftian theatricality of news reportage that not only reflects tales of UK Royalty and Media but reflects even more so the recent circumstances of and the reaction to the death of the reality TV star: Jade Goody (a matter I have studied), which can be fitted quite well into aspects of this ‘story’, eg “…the highly-sexed lower-class serving wench” etc etc
There is also this book’s stock soccer reference, here as a news report interspersing the Princess’s accident announcement from Paris! And also the stock ‘leitmotif’ of all books I’ve reviewed recently: “…like a badly-tuned picture on a monochrome television.” etc
We sleep-walk through history and we know not where and how it touches us for real. (27.3.09 – 2 hours later)
The Locust People
Having now read this story and assessed its cumulative thrust in synergy with the previous stories, I think I’m beginning to develop the ‘goal-keepng’ skills I’ll need to catch the magic bullet of this book as it speeds by … or hovers slowly by – either an instantaneous sharp-shoot or a lazy floating making it difficult to judge one’s own synchronous timing for the final lunge to snatch it from the air.
Here we have a Fortean conspiracy resonating with a parasitic apocalypse, words waiting to explode into meaning like grenades, Burroughsian / Swiftian / Sartrean / Kafkaesque visions of modern angst, the noise of paranoia, spiderman scalings across a real theatre of rooftops where the stars and planets themselves are tantamount to props.
I intend soon to burrow down into this book’s soft loam of meaningful syntax and wait out the dangerous times of meltdown within its cocoon …. until possibly when I can re-emerge and reclaim any post-holocaust, post-Ashley reality.
Now, I’m not saying every reader will feel this. But if you experience a book rather than simply read it, then you may, just may, feel the same way as I do. I am one of those pretentious readers who jump on any unpretentious writer’s back like the ‘old man of the sea’ that I am. 😐
“…it was someone trying to obtain a mortgage on his mortal soul.” (27/3/09 – another 3 hours later)
I am afraid I think this story was less engaging because it seemed to cross a borderline between a genuine story that includes philosophical speculation (or didacticism) as one of its props into something that was predominantly the philosophical speculation alone with only the excuse of a story framework.
Here the planets became more astrological forces than physical items of theatrical backdrop. An object can become a force-field much like a word has a semantic zone of power. But people themselves (the protagonist and his Ex) become the props here as walking symbols respectively of a soullessness and spirituality. Both are shallow exponents of these factors. For example, in life, a knife in the hand can only mean one thing in the context. These peoiple have no contexts, except a barren cold plain within a Lovecraftian quest for a meaningful god-creature in an ancient tomb… and we as rationalists (albeit seeking a form of magic or religion by reading fiction) know such an irrational impossibility can’t be there. Pulp which is all shell and no yolk.
This story is linked to the previous one by a dream image of the Locust People (?) in full winged regalia. However, the despair of knowing that even fiction dies in the end. And what are we left with then? ‘Apocryphal wind-ups’: “Lost Books of the Bible” from whch some seek to extrapolate a false religion. Actually this story may be more effective than I first thought…:| (27.3.09 – another 2 hours later)
In Search of Guy Fawkes
A splendid alternate world story that isn’t really an alternate world but a ‘reality rift’, but not really a single ‘reality rift’ because the process is continuous – as continuous as the plot of Elizabethan London (now and elsewhen mixed and unmixed), the language of the story itself cleverly strobing between ancient and modern…with all the trappings of various eras of English history and the disputes of religion and monarchy etc involving a factor that seems to be modern terrorism (microbe bombs etc). And an explicit theatre theme, a Bard and no doubt concomitant props – i.e. which words and the things represented by these words are props proper in the story and which real things are turned back into words? Only an Ashley story could make such a question even half-sensible to ask! 😐
Amid these switches of narrative prestidigitation, I really believed in the protagonist and the sacrifice of love he made for the sake of the Monarchist cause in which he as the I-narrator made us believe that he believed.
“Thoughts and suppositions chase each other like weevils in a granary.”
[I learnt two new words by reading this story: there is here an Eocene Park in London, and the ‘Eocene’ (from Wikipedia’) spans the time from the end of the Paleocene epoch to the beginning of the Oligocene epoch. The start of the Eocene is marked by the emergence of the first modern mammals. The end is set at a major extinction event called Grande Coupure (the “Great Break” in continuity), which may be related to the impact of one or more large bolides in Siberia and in what is now Chesapeake Bay. —- and regarding the mating-calls of the ‘diatryma’ which is a large flightless bird from the Eocene era – and perhaps the author will let us know one day if his famous dinosaurs lived also at that time?] [Siberia?] (27/3/09 – another 2 hours later)
“Underneath the characters’ brash, confident exteriors, however, he detects an embittered mood of doom and gloom which will debilitate them sooner or later.” – from this story copyright 1999.
It was normal in the Fifties, I recall, to have dark streets. And today we have another ‘downturn’ – this story being a truly brilliant evocation of a slowly strengthening twilight (paralleled by Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods). Here I repeat my own phrase of ‘dimmer-switch identities’ – Cf. the earlier ‘fading’ in this book – to denote here an unemployed man who seems to see his wife actually depleting before his very eyes. Thus, the twilight builds as the electricity dims. They live amid the litter of junk mail and other pointless props. He can’t even get “a crappy little office job. Whereas Wagner has hundreds of musicians studying and playing his meister-work even years after his death.”
This story should win prizes. Seriously. Let’s hope people will have light lasting long enough to read it.
[Glad to be reminded that they used to have regular S.O.S messages for the missing on the BBC Home Service in the good old days.]
“There is no archaeological evidence that the Vikings put cattle horns on the sides of their helmets. It’s just historical convention.” (27.3.09 – another 3 and half hours later)
I dreamt last night of ‘Twilight’ by constructively comparing it to ‘To Let’ in the 2008 anthology ‘Cone Zero’ – and of Wagner who was really the most famous exponent of the ‘leitmotif’.
And of ‘Eocene’ and ‘diatryma’, and the carbon-dating of words (see “Oh Four“)…
Today I hope to finish this incredible book and round up my thoughts on it. (28.3.09)
“Life on the surface sometimes seems staid by comparison.”
They keep on coming. I’m gob-smacked. I enjoyed this story not only because it’s a good story in itself but because it’s so fitting to my earlier thoughts about Allen Ashley’s book … [and about a sense of of my own creative development. I wrote THIS three weeks ago…and cf: the ‘song-lines’ in my own ‘From The Hearth’ included in Joel Lane’s ‘Beneath The Ground’ anthology].
A harmonic “symbiotic balance” as the story says itself.
The carbon-dating of words (words here extrapolated into musical notation as man-made stalagmites and stalactites in a cave system that our protagonists explore to destroy such notation!) is extended as a metaphor together with a sense of archaeological angst, the eocene and ‘surface’ philistinisms.
Plus another apocryphal “grapevine”. And believable human relationships within High Metaphor.
[This story for me, with its deceptively divertimento-ish ‘’Cabinet of Caligari’ cinematic images and its cavernous reverberative echoes of previous stories in this book, was very disturbing.]
“Often I wonder if the old gods are still powerful enough to toy with us mere mortals.” (28.3.09 – 1 hour later)
I will not give away the ingenious plot of this very brief piece (but longer than ‘Oh Four’!)…suffice it to say it’s another example of the apocryphal wind-up from the grapevine that is this book.
It is the “Pumpkin Coach” of Biblical exegesis as well as of what used to be the religion of ‘submitting stories to the Small Press’. 😐
[I learnt another new word from this story: “Baksheesh” is, according to Wikipedia, a term used to describe tipping, charitable giving, and certain forms of political corruption and bribery in the Middle East and South Asia.]
“…he decided to try to come to terms with the words that would hurt more surely than mere sticks and stones.” (28.3.09 – 30 minutes later)
State of the Ark
From an earlier reference in this book to Noah’s Raven as a capsule for future incarnation and this story of a ‘state of the art’ cruise ship, we are faced here with a true meltdown (described human-physically in the plot as well as figuratively), a meltdown of images and themes, new and already explored by this book. In many ways it made me yearn for the purity and simplicity of ‘twilight’. But, equally, I have ‘grown up’ with this book over the last few days and this meant the experience of this wild-firework display of a story (as opposed to merely the ‘reading’ of it) has been enhanced and justified. Not only a meltdown but a blending of ‘under water’ (“flooded London” and dynastic caves made of water instead of stone), ‘sleep-walking’ (as a dream?), somme-nambulatng ‘mimes’ of the ‘opening of the mouth’ …. cross-fertilization between wrought words and styles, between archaeological eras (sexual as well as intellectual), and between geographical (geomantic) ‘spirits of place’ (genii loci) … and much more that I could factor in from this particular story to the props proper and props improper of the book as a whole. “A whirl of cartouches.” In slow motion.
My own TV screen has given up the ghost. But just one sentence that adds a further magic and mightiness to this book, astrological as well as financial crunch-wise: “This was last year’s nightmare, a perturbation in the world’s precession (sic) that we’d somehow scraped through.”
It is fitting to end with Allen Ashley’s own words from the book’s “In Lieu of a Dedication”: “All The way around the world, up the down side and down the up side of the seesaw through the millennium, away and home again just to give up the avant-garde for songs with singable choruses.”
I don’t think I would have ever made a good goal-keeper.
END OF COMMENTS ON ‘SOMNAMBULISTS’
During a quiet moment of literary ‘post-coital’ repose, here is my review of another Allen Ashley story, one close to my heart, published in 2001 in the very first issue of ‘Nemonymous’:
The Quiet House
This is a beautifully inscrutable tale told from the viewpoint of one of two twin girls. Having just ‘experienced’ ‘Somnambulists’, I think I may have ‘grasped’ it for the very first time. It’s probably untypical Ashley, judging from today’s assessment. More Katherine Mansfield. More Proust. More something I can’t quite define. There are “twinkling ivories” and “Nordic Thunder”.
Now sadly I face the end of this journey of book reviews for at least a while, as I prepare the ninth ‘Nemonymous’ (Cern Zoo) – submissions close 31 March.
I face the end but, as in ‘The Quiet House’:
“I approach it slowly, walking not as through quicksand but dry bubbles and carpeted clouds.” (28.3.09 – another 105 minutes later)