Islington Crocodiles – Paul Meloy
by Paul Meloy
(TTA Press 2008)
There appears below a ‘real time’ review by DFL of the above book, as originating on the discussion thread here: http://www.ttapress.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=876
Unlike most of my previous real-time reviews (linked above), I have read many of this book’s stories before in various publications. However, I shall treat my thoughts on them from scratch – bearing in mind the Intentional Fallacy.
I do hope to shed further light on the stories by seeing the whole book develop ‘before my reading eyes’ into an eventual gestalt.
I hope to discover leitmotifs where there may be none.
The Last Great Paladin of Idle Conceit
The ultimate grin of the dark – one needs this story’s own “shark cage” to be able read it at all. A dream? No. A flesh-and-blood ghost (a la May Sinclair’s stories)? Seemingly not. In truth, this is a ‘magic fiction’ (as opposed to a ‘magic realism’), one disguised as a very effective, thoughtful, Beat-Poetic ‘Horror Story’ where our celebrity world is exhumed for real. Except you also have to be real to see its denizens. So get real. Magic yourself some real reality, via fiction.
This story has a great ending. I could also mention some other eye-opening images. But no spoilers.
Future hindsight will say, perhaps, that this book’s writer was writing it “because nobody else was.”
I suspect this is just the beginning. (16.4.09)
I am 61 years old and I don’t think this story was intentionally framed for the likes of me. But I loved it. Sick, snack, paddywhack, Burroughs and Alex Garland – and an almost alternate Seventease decade. A shoal of lager tins and things caught on tines. Trapped in speech-bubbles. The language is simply meant to be carbon-dated, each word picked, teased and worried at to see what lies underneath and how really old it is (be-wigged as each word is with modernity then denuded to its bottom bone of never-now). “Staring shark-eyed…”
As with the first story, there is a poignant melancholy waiting to burst out as comic anger or suicide. A rite-of-passage of comic-strip or comic-stand-up fame framed by slick design. But the rough edges are sufficient to comic-trip any reader up. Showing, not telling, that the book refuses to have leitmotifs or gestalts winkled out when none were intended. So be it. The gauntlet is thrown.
Now, into the Blackouts till we all come out the other end (in Islington?) (16.4.09 – 4 and half hours later)
Don’t Touch The Blackouts
I once abandoned this story in the past. But after reading it just now (and I think this would be true in or out of context of the book I’m now reviewing with this story in it), I feel like chastising myself for literary misjudgement. Well, if that charge sticks, the stigma would silt into my whole reputation as a trainee critic. And then what worth this review as a whole? A blind spot – a blackout? A parent abandoned by a child? A shopkeeper whose customer is an emblem of the very sadness that he is trying to sell back to that customer amid a time when everyone already has too much sadness not from singular depression but from a silting universal depression?
After the stand-up comics in this book’s first story and the comic strips of the second story, here we now truly enter the dark areas behind the eyes or beyond the cage-frames. Here the ‘sharks’ lurk in a new-framed machine that is represented by a whole bombsited world where one needs special levers and a compass to ignite or to open or to drive it. A ritual of ‘Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Eraserhead’ together. And an emblem of all modern horror I’ve been reading and reviewing in recent months: “There is a hiss and crackle of static like a hollow electronic exhalation…”
And there is that big unwieldy half-seen monstrousness which vanished into the caged railway station in ‘Raiders’ – it’s roaming about in this story, too! It’s probably an amorphous stigma that might stick its tongue out at any who dare to approach this book merely to read it rather than to experience it — or within which unframed amorphousness one needs ingress and egress levers or a compass to negotiate its serious or comic sub-darknesses.
This story has a far greater worth than for which I once gave it credit. It has now made me feel worthless. But that’s what it might be intended to do. Not just to me. But to you, too. So be it: it worked; it ignited. I wonder if my future hindsight supplied by the rest of the book will gainsay any such presuppositions? (17.4.09)
The Last Place on Earth For Snow
This is just two pages. The world-planet being driven in ‘Blackouts’ is now carbon-dated. It also follows an uncertain filial / (grand)paternal audit tral from that previous story within the nostalgia-angsts of real undigital photos in albums like old-fashioned frames from a Garth strip in the Daily Mirror. Barless cages of reality pulled through melting snow… Browsing the Barwise tools…. My words.
The new cage: the typewriter with a zipper of digital teeth?
But there is far more to this story than that, despite its size! (17.4.09 – 1 hour later)
“Elemental bismuth is one of very few substances of which the liquid phase is denser than its solid phase (water being the best-known example). Because bismuth expands on freezing, it was long an important component of low-melting typesetting alloys, which needed to expand to fill printing molds.” (17.4.09 – another 15 minutes later)
Running Away To Join The Town
[Caveat: ‘Nemonymous’ first published this story in 2005.]
This is a a very atmospheric tale of the sometimes seedy, sometimes exciting circus-type carnival (Rainscissor and Morgoder’s Autoscopic Cavalcade), complete with clowns and menageries etc. and many many cages (!) and bars, through which a bar-wise beast (akin to the bulky mysterious ‘monstrousness’ identified in earlier stories) ‘returns’ the protagonist boy (Marcel) along the same filial / (vanished father) paternal audit trail or typewriter-roller now identified in the previous stories. And with another boy who entices him under the tent’s flap into the apparently frightening cages…..
The above aspects are only a small part and are merely hints. The story needs to be read. It’s a ‘tour de force’ of sinister circuses. Better than I even remember it to have been. And now I realise that it needs to be read in the growing contexts of this book.
[There has always been one personal theory of mine regarding this story. There are, for me at least, strong links between Marcel himself, his relationship with his Mother and with his Mother’s cakes and Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ whose protagonist is also Marcel with an ‘interesting’ relationship with his Mother and with a certain Cake… Also, as a separate point, can anyone help me? What’s the ‘Town’ in the title?] (17.4.09 – another 1 hour later)
This is a wild story. Not static. It is quite mad – then suddenly buried in swarf. So, perhaps, static, after all, before it gets going again. Journeys of story-lines of abuse and revenge told in layers of Alice Wonderland, SF Steampunk and Ligottian Corporate Horror and Ligottian Puppet/Doll-Horror, that criss-cross in a genuinely experienced space or firmament that only Literature can create. And, really, has Literature created this sort of firmament before this story was written and, more importantly, read? Possibly not. This may be a first. And, after all, the flowing river is weirdly static between two of its bridges. That proves somehow that one can dead-stop this story simply to uncurl a few of its meanings and for the head-lease author to create decoy leitmotifs to fool someone like me. It’s a mad job reading this. Avoiding spoilers then creating false turnings for other reviewers to follow. But not me, boyo meloyo! The amorphous monstrousness comes again, this time as the devil-in-dreams. And another filial audit trail (yes ‘filial’ can mean son or daughter). “A bleak nostalgia“. More Bombsites and Blackouts and Instruments like the levers and compass in ‘Blackouts’ – and metal chemistry – and Doctor Mocking, Nurse Melt, crocuses with beaks…
But what about the vitreophim? The “steps that sound like yelps in the throats of wooden dogs”?
“There is something about slopes he dislikes. They draw you down.”
Well, I’m not defeated yet, boyo meloyo! (17.4.09 – another 3 and half hours later)
Dying In The Arms of Jean Harlow
This substantial story, I suspect, may prove to be the tipping-point of the whole book. It’s where Poetic/Stigmatic becomes Cinematic, where barely Acceptable becomes fully Reprehensible.
It begins with a cern-zoo scenario of Pandas amid a brilliantly depicted realistic vision of an East Anglian terrain that I readily recognise – of a lugubrious if saucy seaside town (like the one in which I myself live) and other towns with monotonous, soul-defeating benefit-fitted concrete vistas of abusive sex and chips: or bleak-nostalgia Housing Estates amid the Fens.
An aside: Today, I walked through a large Tesco supermarket in such a place, wondering in what pursuits each of the motley customers-with-trolleys engaged, and which one of them was building a fan website for Jean Harlow. Celebrities were celebrities in Jean Harlow’s day, long before Reality TV and Autoscopes.
The story’s stunning splatter-gun language scintillates, reaching an optimum of sharp edges and phlegm. Dig beneath it and seek the stand-up comic Paladins to disperse our sad Firmament Blues.
Much now comes together from the previous stories and I’d be guilty of spoilers to try to itemise or explain them. I mean, could anyone do this? The recurrent amorphous monstrousness now seems to have calved off into several monsters as in ‘Dead Set – Big Brother’ or a gun zombie gangland, but I feel I am now chasing decoy leitmotifs again (decoys that I am astonished to see explicitly receive an actual name in this story: i.e. “Dupes”). I sense that I’m in a battle with this book and with its pecking-order of author, publisher, characters, other readers, and the dupes – a battle about who can first unhand the hot potato that is Entropy’s Soul. There is also a further filial audit trail – between Alex and Rory – which, I humbly guess, is personal as well as touching.
My own humbly suggested subtitle for the story: ‘Alex and the Autoscopes’
With a reading compass and levers supplied by the previous stories, I, as reader and would-be reviewer, continue grappling from a teetering Gantry in an attempt to unlock the metal-chemical words for a hidden truth about existence that only wonderful fiction like this can incubate.
“…the stud in his tongue was in the form of a tiny little silver strawberry.”
[Another of my personal theories: There is a strong hint at the story’s end of the notorious M25 static motorway around London that passes close to some of those towns I mentioned earlier: explicitly Dartford and, yes, Harlow! I wonder if the rest of the book will unlock this embattled vicious circle I’ve been left in.] (18.4.09)
I had not read this story before reading it in the last hour or so. It actually answers a specific question I earlier asked in this review, before I knew the question would be made relevant by this story. Only real-time writing can make the reader live through your own rites-of-review. Also a Gantry takes on a new light. I had originally imagined a Gantry was a sort of metal pylon – and, indeed, metal pylons do appear in this story, as conduits for a fishing expedition from a swarm of blind sharks, one of which I fear is me seeking decoys.
I cannot possibly do justice to the increasingly jitterbugging language of these stories, or to the fantasy or dream genius-loci of this particular story reminding me of Angela Carter mixed with Salman Rushdie, John Carpenter’s ‘Thing’ and Christopher Priest, the fantasy landscape of deadly knives and forks, werewolves and Crusader Beer and this place’s contiguity with the bombsite of our own so-called real world and its sinkhole Estuary landscape (fore-shadowed by ‘Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow’ and not otherwise obvious to the reader without such fore-shadowing).
Meaning keeps coming in vague waves. I may be heading for defeat, after all the earlier hopes. Faith only comes in meagre tidal quanta. I pray for some sort of closure tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Where’s that ‘shark-cage’, now that I truly need one?
“What noise would a shark make if a shark could scream? It would be a terrible, mindless sound, unfathomable, like base metal coming alive, like oceans shattering.” (18.4.09 – 1 and half hours later)
I woke early today to read this story, almost novella-sized; it just needed to be faced up to without delay: the amorphous monstrousness itself travelling towards me along the filial audit trail or conduit or filter. Filters can work both ways. Or in a vicious circle? The Child is Father of the Man…
Spoilers and other boyo meloyos also swarm towards me along the conduit; I must continue to avoid them at all costs.
I’ve lived relatively close to Harwich jetty in recent years. Once, I used to work for many years in Cannon Street near the London Stone. Peter Ackroyd, eat your heart out – they’re going to use the Stone to defeat the Gantries. John Wyndham and HG Wells, eat your hearts out. No crocodiles, though? Perhaps, the only crocodiles this book contains are the earlier crocuses I mentioned – with beaks.
The book’s language continues to jitterbug. You can put it in a cloth and feel it wriggle.
There is much ‘roman à clef’ material within this vast, otherwise enjoyable SF extravaganza (seeded by a brilliantly evoked Pinteresque/Martin Amis enclave of ‘stoned’ clinical cases) that didactically inches our faith in faithlessness nearer faith itself as well as tying up any loose ends left by the previous stories. I must go. Spoilers crowd round me ready for Autoscopic exegesis…..
“Steve looked into his face, the great, bearded, suffering-eyed face, and felt a wave of compassion almost drown him.” (19.4.09)
An Ocean By Handfuls
I’ve now read this relatively short piece in quick succession. It is a poignant coda to the whole book. It is now snowing over the bombsites.
Don’t get me wrong. I hope I haven’t given the impression that this is a novel rather than a collection. No, the wonder of this book is that the stories work as separate stories just as well as they do as a gestalt. What is the gestalt? The beauty of the book is that it has defeated me. A chemical process that is as mysterious as that of the human brain. My brain is perhaps the missing crocodile.
A friend of mine – in the sixties and still a friend of mine – once wrote, in those very early days, a poem called ‘The Concrete Crocodile’. I wonder if he remembers doing so. Very recently he wrote (with punchy mock(?) disdain) on an internet forum — without knowing anything about Paul Meloy’s book other than its cover image I had posted on that forum — that he had never seen any crocodiles in Islington.
This book is wonderful. I choose books to review (as you may have seen in my previous real-time critiques) with an instinct that I shall enjoy them. That’s at least partly because I have specifically gone out of my way to buy them with good money. This book, I guess, will become a cultodile necessity for those who are growing towards old age gradually. I seriously think it is special.
It was a battle royal. And it won.
[I shall now read the book’s intros by Dave Mathew and Graham Joyce for the first time. More decoys?] (19.4.09 – 50 minutes later)
Friday, 17 April 2009 4:10 pm
Pete wrote: Quote: Des wrote:- What’s the ‘Town’ in the title?]
Not quite sure what you’re getting at Des. It’s been a while since I read the story, but way I recall it ‘town’ is just generic, so the title is a reversal of the old ‘running away to join the circus’ saying. The circus boy longs for the stability of a town and family life.
I had missed that irony! Thanks, Pete. des (blushing)
Sunday, 19 April 2009 10:45 am
Sunday, 19 April 2009 12:05 pm
Just one further last postmature thought. The ‘Stone’ in ‘Islington Crocodiles’ the story, seems to be in symbiotic relationship with the current Credit Crunch. Hence … but I sense another spoiler up my sleeve.
Sunday, 19 April 2009 4:15 pm
Monday, 20 April 2009 6:37 pm
“All Mouth” — Learnt a new word here: ‘stotious’ and looked it up on google: “irish term for a state of total Inebriation “. This is a Morality Tale about being thankful for small mercies in the shithole where you already are. It’s shitholier elsewhere. “The words were like bits of static”, it says. Don’t you believe it. The language jumps out at you and even if you trap it an old pair of trousers it will escape… Essential for the Meloy completist. Essential, too, for the Meloy eclectic.
Monday, 20 April 2009 7:25 pm :: http://www.ttapress.com/forum/viewtopic.
PAUL MELOY (at above link where this review originated): “Des, this has been an absolute pleasure! Delightful, unique, touching…an honour. I predict these stream-of-consciousness reviews will become the essential thing to have and be in great demand! Thanks for taking the time to do this, Des!”
Tuesday, 21 April 2009 3:57 pm