Sleepwalkers – Marion Arnott
My 17th real-time review
posted Sunday, 12 April 2009
by Marion Arnott
(Elastic Press 2003)
Below is a ‘real time’ review by DFL of the above book, as generated by this discussion thread: http://www.ttapress.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=875
Most people will have already read this legendary story. I do not review this book to review this story, therefore, but I do hope to shed further light on it and the other stories in this book by seeing the book evolve into an eventual gestalt. Seeking leitmotifs where there may be none. Well, not intentionally.
This first story in the book is of mankind’s ordinary cruelty (when was cruelty among humans extraordinary?) as filtered through perceived primary-sources as filtered through extraordinary fiction, extraordinary narrators (or viewpoints) telling of other viewpoints. Which to believe? Which to discard? A mystery story of a crime.
We think we know history. And this is a story of history we all (think we) know. “Have you any idea how much effort it takes not to notice someone who isn’t here,” one of the story’s viewpoints asks. And there are overseers here: a 1984-type head-lease author plus pecking-orders of narrators plus lower-lease readers – all of them sharing the choreographed and unchoreographed dances that form mankind’s archetypal patterns. Which to praise? Which to condemn? Only fiction, perhaps, can tell us … from amid the circles of snowdrops. (12.4.09)
I’m now fully convinced, if the well-tried ‘Prussian Snowdrops’ weren’t enough proof already, that this is to become a special book for me. I don’t know how many have read it since it was published six years ago, but this second story has an exquisite Henry-Jamesian tenor – and the poignant sadness (not up front, but lurking subtly) in the racial diaspora towards bad or good luck (taking ‘shadow’ from ‘Prussian Snowdrops’ itself). “Even a visionary must recognise reality sometimes.” A Universal Language, too, pre-figuring the commercialism of today where we all think we should know each other’s business via all sorts of inter-convoluted media. It all melds beautifully … for me, horrifically harrowing, too.
A perfect period-piece snapshot of a trauma disguised as an excursion or a pleasurable treat into the arms of inscrutable Fate. Lightly sketched, but we do know these people to the hilt. From ‘Fortune’s Favourite’: “Everyone is a stranger until you know them.” (Cf Anita Brookner’s ‘Strangers’ 2009). (13.4.09)
A Small Miracle
I don’t want to exaggerate, but this ‘religious’ story is a sort of small miracle in itself. And I don’t say that lightly. I am a hardened Horror Fiction Genre reader but the ending of this non-Genre story horrified me more than most stories I’ve read. Well, not its ending exactly, but the last few paragraphs, excluding the last three lines. The last three lines eased my horror somewhat, and one has to ‘read between’ those three lines to realise why they saved me from being left horrified.
The first two stories were about a mass diaspora. This story is about its inverse – a single spiritually inexplicable diaspora of the soul where the universal language in ‘Fortune’s Favourite’ seems to flee or focus into a personal speaking of tongues that not even God understands or can explain….or especially Him.
The story even mentions New Labour! (13.4.09 – 3 hours later)
This story, however, is overtly the Horror Genre with Horror tropes cynically utilised and a Stephen King ‘stream of broken consciousness’ style exploited…conveying memories and fears in a music mix of true-spirituality-fed-by-the-supernatural-and-the-technological. A presumably dial-up Internet chatroom (chatting with Dollface) – this electronic chat echoing and summoning the protagonist’s childhood and his parents and his traumas … all culminating neatly in a crescendo of truth and death. This is where Art twines the various ‘hairs’ of chance nightmares into an integral ‘plait’. Beautifully done.
It is the rich spiritual reply to the spiritually barren ‘Small Miracle’, paradoxically managed and strengthened via the devices of the Internet! The spirituality in ‘Small Miracle’ was, by contrast, equally managed yet corrupted from within God’s place: a Convent!
The serendipity of words and ideas championing the afterlife by stimulating swans’-necks-as-a-hydra-head of memories into the thing-in-itself as made from those memories.
All languages used on the Internet are one, because they live off the same bytes and throbs of the wires, whether they be Chinese or English.
The TV ‘test card’ is mentioned in ‘Dollface’. In the Fifties, the Internet was the Test Card. And people stared at it as if it were Daytime TV because they were disconnected and lonely till Children’s Hour came on at 5 pm. Now we are bombarded with media (active and passive but still flesh-disconnected) – and little bits of us vanish along each channel towards the Final Solution in the dark waters of nothingness. Meanwhile, we chat, mix and match – and talk about others famous and infamous as they battle against a crueller Führer than any Führer fleshed out by mass memories.
But please read the story. What I’ve said above will not spoil the story, may not even reflect the story. But, having read it, you will know what I mean. (13.4.09 – another 2 hours later)
When I reviewed another ‘Elastic Press’ book: Somnambulists by Allen Ashley: I speculated about sleepwalking being “an unconscious suspension of disbelief grappling with words on the page as actual theatrical props”, this perhaps being “the perfect metaphor for experiencing fiction”.
Artificiality fleshed out into reality (and vice versa) by trance – side-stepping meaning but nonetheless absorbing it. An inferred puppet – like Dollface in the previous story – who sleepwalks the diary rooms and computer screens, indirectly mining truth from fiction.
This story (‘Sleepwalkers’) reads like a trance: an amoral shard of life: and I allow it to sleepwalk through my reading mind, hoping its reality will never touch me. I don’t want to be cut or have my head stepped on. Reading such a story may perhaps be the nearest I shall ever approach the tribal dangers of today’s society. Except I am part of it. I may step on your head.
It is also an effective tale of today’s young girl needing a male prop. A prop that is supportive as well as, more mutually, theatrical. However ‘unsteady’ this prop may be, it is still a prop. Meanwhile this female protagonist “gathers up memories”. What’s the use of memories when the strings are eventually abandoned by the puppeteer? The story ended as arbitrarily as it began. (14.4.09)
A companion to the previous story. Another amoral shard. A tale of dual negative props in a shocking symbiosis leading to an act of ‘innocent’ abuse…because the puppets here have side-stepped the deliberate control of the puppeteer. That’s what happens in fiction-writing sometimes. Characters gratuitously enter a writer’s ‘crucible’ or ‘gas oven’ without being pushed forcibly in there first. It’s only later the writer as well as reader shed tears for the implications of those characters’ actions, and implications that are coaxed to emerge autonomously are stronger than if they had been sharply and deliberately delineated up front.
“…the tragic downturn of a theatre mask.”
This is truly a shocking Horror story.
“She was a typical female, Raymond thought fondly. Now that someone else had taken charge of her problems, she had forgotten all about them.”
Inside Raymond’s own crucible is a dollface dabbed with sherbet. I shall now go on a chatroom to discuss the ‘morality’ of this story. It has more than one interpretation I’m sure. One of the interpretations will allow us to tread on Raymond’s head. (14.4.09 – 2 hours later)
All might have been so different if the Axis had won the War!
This story tells of a marital triangle of adultery and abandonment – resultant complications with kids – plus a busybody friend…
Like many such modern triangles, this one incubates undercurrents and simmerings and abrupt sexual needs and misunderstandings and possible theatrical role-playing and a final culmination that…
But that would be giving the end away. Suffice it to say that the story makes this stock situation from today’s society even more distasteful than normal – with pent up emotions that overflow the page…
None of them were Fortune’s Favourite. None of us ever are.
I foresaw the story’s end from miles away when I realised one of the triangle’s female participants had “no bust to speak of.” You see, in ‘Dollface’, someone asked: “why do clever females always have flat chests?” (14.4.09 – another 3 hours later)
I don’t really know what to say about this story. The first time I’ve been stumped in my latest bout of ‘real-time’ book reviews. It’s a sort of Benny Hill / Whitehall Theatre Farce with hints of soft pornography – including a dirty joke concerning c**ts I didn’t understand!
Plus “the biggest tits he’d ever seen on woman or cow.”
The crowded end of the story reminded me of the climax of the film of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.
An Amorality Tale. A Fable of Sexthnic Cleansing … to match the more serious diaspora in this book?
No, I shall never get to the bottom of it. It just is. (14.4.09 – another one and half Hoo-ers later)
Any words I write will not do justice to this substantial story. It is one I shall never forget. It is great in itself and it is great because I empathise with so much in it – particularly the marbles (my own childhood leitmotif). The nostalgia of childhood, so sharply evoked, and, in this story, then transmuted into something far more sinister than just nostalgia.
“People are like cloth: nothing in themselves, and before they know what’s happening, they’re folded and sheared and snipped into shape.”
This is about a neighbourhood as a perceived closed community (and I can now see the importance of the previous story ‘Yes’ as an overture to this one!) — the disparate people thrown together (or exiled together) in that ‘crucible or gas oven’? It is a parallel with a TV reality show and indeed the female protagonist in this story has an explicit ‘diary room’!!
It is about the growing fear of the outside world as one grows older. Here the fear is self-fulfilling in more ways than one! It is told in a Stephen King way (like ‘Dollface’) and Ligottian and Sylvia-Plathian and essentially what I’m finding to be Arnottian. It has its own internal logic and music of leitmotifs: herring-bone jackets, counting, sabotage, marbles, Anita-Brooknerian relationships, dolls (f**kdoll, looby loo),…
“Women whisper to themselves or to strangers on the phone. And sometimes to dolls.”
I felt so soooorry for Ken. (15.4.09)
I’ve now already read the next story: Underground: in quick succession, as a short, sharp shard – another Amorality Tale. Here the ‘crucible’ is an overcrowded Underground train … all the crushed bodies with lunch smells being taken … where…?
To an ending that made me understand the ‘c**t’ joke in “Yes”?
Well, that was a side-product. This is a gem, a gratuitous tranche of reality, where women are groping towards eliciting some meaning in men. Is the protagonist being economical with the truth? Framing a fellow passenger to take her mind off the journey? That is, after visualising Galway was spent.
A satire on the battle of the sexes? Or just another echo of the horrific monster in “Marbles”: Woman, Stanley. Woman. (15.4.09 – 30 minutes later)
There seems to be something neat about the whole book starting with Traudl (in ‘Prussian Snowdrops’) wanting her letters to be written on her behalf by someone else and ending with Madeleine writing her own letters here in the third person as if she is separate from herself about her perceived relationship with (Ziggy?) Long-Jelly.
These letters are another form of ‘diary room’ – and the whole ethos of this story seems to echo much of what is spoken about truth/fiction & reality/theatricality in relation to ‘Big Brother’ (on the TTA Interaction forum where this ‘Sleepwalkers’ review originated): http://www.ttapress.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=182
This story is, however, much more serious than that. About guilt from immorality or murder… The former sometimes seems to be more ‘criminous’. The ending makes me think Madeleine is not so innocent as she herself paints herself: another “Woman” Machiavellian? A very funny story. About hypocrisy and misjudged primary-sources of history. And thought-provoking.
‘Madeleine’ seems to give a good open-ended ending to the whole book that continues to swell in the mind after you’ve put it down. The book’s overall stylistick is beautifully meticulous and finely-honed. Its message, however, is delightfully splattier and waywardly silting into one’s future memory of it, I’m sure. Why are some of us so worthy of being Fortune’s Friend, while others to be sleepwalkers and puppet-dolls? But whichever, we end up recognising our lot in a hothouse controlled by a Führer called Nothingness – shipped there in a trundling train of ‘neighbourhoods’ or ‘Big Brother Houses’: partitioned by each fortuitous tumbrilful – dreaming of images and visions (like the lady on the ‘Underground’), to while away the time before we get there. Images and visions of an Arnottian book? Of a Ligottian book? I’m including both these in my book-cache on the still onward journey to my Desert Island. (15.4.09 – another two and half hours later)