The Cusp of Something – by Jai Clare
My 21st real-time review
posted Wednesday, 6 May 2009
The Cusp of Something
by Jai Clare
Elastic Press 2007
Another ‘real-time’ book review by DF Lewis. Previous ‘real-time’ reviews are linked from here:-
“When people change and dreams fade and vanish into walls like last season’s wallpaper, we should move on.”
And in this way a ‘you’ story becomes a ‘we’ one – following that unenduring love of a balloon-alighting world told so memorably and hauntingly in this prose-poetic overture. I now hope to draw all the balloons’ strings together to pioneer discovering the hidden gestalt that is this book … not only by finding ‘leit-motifs’ in the stories where there are indeed these ‘leit-motifs’ to find – but also, more importantly, I feel, to find other ‘leit-motifs’ unnoticed by previous readers or by the author herself or even to find ‘leit-motifs’ where there are no ‘leit-motifs’ to find at all. (6 May.09)
A cleverly angled, beautifully evoked story of a man interviewing (by tape) two close lady cousins in Barcelona who wish to outdo each other (in a supposed friendly but vital manner) even beyond their deaths when neither would know the outcome.
I too have seen one of those execrable dancing-fountain shows (with classical music) abroad – but I’ve never had ice-cream eaten off my naked body. There are likely to be many dubious turnings, if I should interview this story – but I feel the nub (which may turn out to be another lost balloon pointlessly bobbing in a tree somewhere) is that there is as much pleasure in small things as big. But one never knows who believes that and who is playing a game. Even one’s own motives are hidden in the fictionalest fiction of all (one’s perception of self).
This story contains the best put-down by a wife to a husband that even I have ever experienced: “…you wouldn’t be able to research your own name, unless it was sewn inside your socks.” Fountains, like balloons, collapse eventually. And some new socks are never worn. And one cannot be certain if there is anyone in the world who’s out to get you because of what important things you don’t know that you know. (6 May.09 – 3 hours later)
The Ruins of Lutz
This story itself seems to be on the “cusp of something”. I mean that both negatively and positively. And at one point, the story explicitly says so.
A tale of two dissimilar (yet strictly identical?) twins (male and female) – and of their relationships (he with her, and also her with other men he often gets for her). It takes place in a wonderfully storified ‘genius loci’ called Lutz, prone to Earthquakes, bells and ‘things’ that gather in at night…. I sense the story reaches the cusp of a Quake. One must not take stones from Lutz, but what if one does so accidentally? Or because of divine intervention, I ask, like a Quake? Stones could not be more different from balloons, I also muse without explicit cause, chancing my critical arm…
I think this story only works in a certain context. And I’m not sure, at this stage in the book, I’ve yet been given the context.
“Does spirituality need to be protected from the masses?”. Or vice versa, I ask. I don’t trust Inga (the female twin), I really don’t. But would a female reader think differently? (6 May.09 – another 2.5 hours later)
Eyes like water, like ice
A character in ‘Ramblista’ considered taking a view with him as a gift. Not a photograph of the view, but the view itself. And I see this very brief story as the gift of a view in this sense. I can’t find it now, but I think there was a ‘beige sky’ in one of the three previous stories. Here we have a beige man. The story was first published in ‘Nemonymous’ in 2002. It is inexplicably sad, this story of another foreign spirituality – but true spirituality crosses borders towards us all….whoever or whatever we think we are and from whomever and whatever it comes? (7 May 09)
Islands of the Blessed
Splendid incantatory prose – of a river-edged island and the imputed life of its natives who commute to a city – and have plasma screens with news of modern bombings – river bears dancing – a symphony of words that is another ‘view’ for me to take as a gift, it seems. I wonder if I’m meant to be the Grump. But, of course, the author didn’t know that her readers might be curmudgeons like me or balloons with faces painted on them… Eyes like water, like ice, like saffron rice… Blessed like communal bread.
“…my mother like all women were in competition about who made the best loaves.” (7 May 09 – 2 hours later)
“He is a man who could blow up diamonds.”
Here, I saw somehow the shallow shores of the Estuary waters of Essex not far from where I live. And beautifully evoked, too: the man and his imaginatively empathic son in a sort of McCarthy ‘Road’ symbiosis – but it is a relationship darkened by potential personal-holocausts (from the boy’s simply drowning in two inches of water or from the explicit power station and its accoutrements or from something like Lutz’s earthquake or the funeral fire of ‘Eyes like…’). King’s ‘Duma Key’, somehow, too. And another premonition this book has already revealed makes me want to quote: “Bubbles in the sky like talismans, around his head” from this story which, for me, poignantly gets right down to the boots. (7 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
Bone on Bone
“…it’s like mixing with butterflies and angels, swooning with colours deep inside my head.”
For me, today, this is as perfect a story as can be. I don’t say that often. This is not to say this is the best story of all time, because sometimes perfection itself can be off-putting. Yet it is special, combining a ‘view’ of music and sexual desire: linking the protagonist and a jazz pianist. Perfection can however contain negativity, sadness, even draining away like music expended on the empty air or into a metaphorical vampire? Love it, simply love it.
But it won’t be perfect for all readers. It might even be better than perfect for some readers. Indifferent to others. Like personal music taste itself.
“I could be a social worker, a banker, a balloonist or a trapeze artist. His smile has wiped my name from within me.” (8 May 09)
More Moments of Sheer Joy
A vibrant sensual woman’s first-person race for islanding each moment, this a breathless quest for the fullness of life, an archipelago of open-hearted sex, an abandonment to wanton existence – but, ‘in media res’, a bathroom’s ‘flaking yellow wallpaper’ perhaps foreshadows the end. Meanwhile, it will leave any reader breathless from Antilles to Zanzibar. Lovely, lovely piece, with words as moments piled on moments like Islands of the Blessed. Live each moment, until finally falling asleep from sheer joy, with “the aroma of cumin on my pillow”. (8 May 09 – 5 hours later)
A Joycean “Molly Bloom” monologue in a modern setting. Very strong stuff. Probably well done, but not really my cup of tea. I hope a lot of balloons suddenly descend from the sky to distract the soliloquy’s participants. But I make a quick ‘bog sortie’ and leave before the story itself can grab me from behind. (9 May 09)
Delaney Wears A Hat
“I am here, I am there, I am a clown, buffoon, I exist.”
I have read this short piece twice, once bare of head and once wearing a hat. Neither reading had the gift of sufficient insight to plumb the text’s density. Something about coming into existence for sex, but logically one needs sex first to come into existence? Much else of poetic stripe and of an African purple landscape, inter alios.
I’ve not given up hope. If the text becomes clearer (while I continue to read the rest of the book), I shall share any conclusions with your good self. Meanwhile, I assume we should merely speculate about what it says of itself: “a story pushed deep buried well?” (9 May 09 – 3 hours later)
The Land is Lighting
It is a risk leaving this story. A Dhalgrenesque pilgrimage … seeking a female Messiah? Piquant prose. City versus what is left behind by the City … left outside it. Moody echoes of modernity surrounded by rustic wildness, and characters that have been formed by the terrains that they cross or that they think they remember — the “gangplanks to God”. Terrains not formed by the author herself who simply lets the terrains have their own will of what crossed them or remembered them. Characters seeded by previous characters in this book. Author and vision in symbiosis, but neither creating the other.
“Beige brick like huge molars, half-formed-rooms.”
The book itself is now half-formed. (10 May 09)
The Sweetest Skin
Cross-references do not need to be meaningful to be satisfying to those who wish to ‘only connect’. Alexander the Great in ‘Shallow Shore’ and Alexander the Great in this story. A link for its own sake – unless someone can offer me a more meaningful reason for these two stories to be each end of a tether. Which the hand, which the balloon?
Balloons in the first story now become butterflies and children and more balloons, smothering in sweetness those of us who simply need the experience of prose like this at its best. Meaning is in the quest for meaning, perhaps. I wave my critic’s butterfly-net through the story’s texture of words to gather meaning from amid the swarms. Another soliloquy, more ‘Mad Angels’? I hope not. (10 May 09 – after 6 hours)
Memory of Sky
A recurring-readable prose poem-texture – a meaning-pot stirred by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Tim Nickels and the lady-of-the-islands-and-moments – where memory of sky is that of an unburied balloon being sent with a message over the oceans…
I wonder if such messages are better sent in bottles of “mesmer light”. (11 May 09)
A Man of Shapes
Anita Brookner writes of strangers when they are old. This story is Brookneresque but with sensuality and youth, carrying the theme of intense love that often underpins this book. In twos or threes. And death. But instead of dying gradually after living pointlessly in Brookner’s books, here a sudden new shape is found squashed on the road by a car accident. Humanity is a shallow shore.
Clare has style. Crisp and succulent, but with dark bruises. (12 May 09)
“She always feels partly scared.”
Passive cinematic directions for a sensual woman artist who seems to enjoy such passiveness – very haunting and between-the legs touching – exiting and entering from rooms and houses and offices with views of various art-works from Manga to Hals via Bridget Riley towards TS Eliot’s ‘rose garden’. A kindred spirit of ‘the man in beige’ in the story “Eyes like…”? And she finally enters a geometrically abstract artwork and one wonders if this is a sad or happy ending? It would have been sad to know the answer. This is a mood piece played by the jazz pianist in ‘Bone on Bone’? Excellent. (13 May 09)
“He’s got to be a saft bugger, just standing there.”
A very brief and effective piece as two strangers appear to be dancing when fighting for territory. Another man of shape? For reasons that can’t be substantiated. Space to be space can never be substantiated, and if it is public space never stood in as if it is your eternal right to occupy. Pitiful to observe this sporadic waltz of very English colloquialisms with inferred despair.
Another very brief piece. And Jai Clare is the true inheritor of Anita Brookner. Brookner with self-pleasuring sensuality now built in. Possibly no greater compliment I can give in the context of the sort of prose in this book. And the slow-burning fuse of any life towards death needs meaningless boxes where to stow one’s meaningless possessions as an interim measure. Life itself, perhaps, is a meaningless possession.
“…the in-between sky and, though it was filled with zillions of stars, all she noticed was the enormity of the spaces between them.”
The Cusp of Something
“…the squeal of bubbles…”
A longer story now. Diverse tourists in Japan, some with sexual history – and ricochets of involvement within Clare’s succulent prose as well as meticulous cuspness. Looking for the Buddha’s face in the surface of rock – reminds me of my real-time reviewing of books over the last few months – and sometimes the face is my face and sometimes I find strangers’ faces galore in authors’ works, some possibly intended, others not. I ever feel, myself, on the cusp of something else. Men of shape and men of no shape. Women of all shapes.
Then “…a beige padded jacket” and exotic comestibles. The finale’s daring parachutes and the need to divert attention from the true goal of dare’s dire fulfilment.
“We are alive with senses on this trip…” – some real, some fabricated. The story’s protagonist resorts to self-stimulation rather than risk disappointment from others. Is self-harm just the next step? A question that I believe is here posited in the audience arena. Just another contiguity for the cusp.
“But the fish is looking at me, it’s not flat on the plate, but upturned in motion as if just lifted from the river and embalmed for eating.” (13 May 09 – 4 hours later)
The Lightest Blue
“On my stilts I am powerful.”
I sense this is an important story. Its I-narrator is male. It has the crisp cuspness and succulence and balloon-light colours that I now associate with Clare’s work, the sensuality and loss. The happiness – those islanded moments – before one falls off those stilts or topples to a doom from a punctured parachute. A holiday in Greece and the protagonist has lost his companion – but other amusements divert him: and he does not seem to mind the loss and, when she is rediscovered, the even deeper loss. But actions speak louder than words – or softer, more insidiously. We read into – and we may all read different things from and then into again – and again and again. A holiday partying spirit as one also seeks Byron’s signature in the gorgeous skies.
Half dreamlike – plus a memory that is better than the real experience itself, a memory that is better than any dream of that experience, too. But suddenly a new backdrop that merely – as it turns out – acts as an intermission for that memory of crispness and brightness: “The colours of the day were beige and grey. Beige the ground, beige the weeds cut and torn by the wind, darker beige the earth and grey the sky, littered with black clouds.”
And in the context of the whole book so far: “I filled up gradually like a balloon with her words.” Whether they are beige or the lightest blue. (14 May 09)
Flash fiction regarding moths as a horror subject. Very well done. It’s as if the earlier invasion of balloons has turned nasty and (left unsaid by the story) we can only pray with our hands like moth-wings at rest.
“Every moth in the vicinity must have been there – beige, orange, grey, always floury, shaking dust from their wings…” (15 May 09)
The Hand of Fatima
Another innocent female abroad – here in the desert, non-geometric Medina, with questionable Mona Lisa smile accompanying a man who she trusts but who purposefully(?) loses her (in a ‘Passage-to-India’ style) after she enters the initial geometry of Sousse in the tradition of the protagonist of ‘Vanitas’ entering a Riley print and, as a result, we now learn, this means that she enters a nightmare, large pissing women, darknesses, foreignesses and abandonment. And motives are never pinned down. Intention, when a shallow shore in the world of Jai Clare, is oblique, if not opaque. And if motives are deep, full of transparency. Benefit of the doubt – and gullibility. Man of inscrutable shape. Gide reference possibly indicates that the protagonist may have been a victim of anti-colonialism…
“…a chaotic mass of beige/white and eggshell blue doorways disappearing into the horizon.” (15 May 09 – 2 hours later)
A Song of Need
A brief bitty tale of three women, one of whom at least has sexuality on a hair-trigger. Some nice images like ‘a hum of rock’, but I’m afraid I didn’t get much as a whole from this one. (15 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
Well, now in hindsight, this story perhaps sheds some light on the previous one. “The rock is shaped like a table […] This is where she hums…”
An effective Ted Hughes-like nature scene with crows – and eventually (Fortean?) holes, then subsidence in the terrain. And a woman in relationship with a man … and with lies – his lies and, eventually, her own. The connection between people shown to be tenuous when compared with the organic interaction of Nature. One assumes that, following the subsidence, she is herself subsumed, scribbled over with configurations of crowflight. Intriguing and on the cusp of meaning and non-meaning. (15 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
With Phantoms Still
Friends say I’m my own worst enemy, that I ask for it. That I ask for trouble. I embrace trouble, they say, like it is your best friend. / Yeah, well, maybe, I get bored with hum-drum.”
Wild horse running for girls. We have the archetypal Clarean woman vibrant with love and within nature, its rocks and buzzards, colours and other senses – a woman deliciously passive to touching and opening – a woman here torn between two men or between men in general and a sense of self-destruction through the sheer ecstasy of living. Beautiful language but one still seeks a core of meaning or intent upon which to gnaw. So, yes, ever teetering upon the cusp of an indefinable something, the book is only ironically beige as it succulently crepitates, swarms with balloons and bubbles and islands and moments and fingerings – and we still have one story to read! I sense I may stay this side of the cusp tonight and leave finishing the book in suspenseful abeyance for a bit longer… (15 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
The Summer of Follet and Lilim
Incredible as it may seem, today I discover that the best is indeed left to last. A story that does stand on its own, but is simply the best because it has been left as the climax of the previous context that the book provides.
Intense heat here as we reach the tipping-point and self-theatricality of the female protagonist – another phantom or a fictitious character – or, more likely, a real character configured by her own imaginary characters to whom she lays herself open so as to summon that very reality from their fingerings. And the “cops circling” around the Tennessee Williams hot-tin-roofs are akin to the Fortean (crop-circled?) holes in ‘Aftermath’. Her own female ‘hole’ or sex (an ostensibly cruder word is used in the story) has a “beautiful geometry” (cf: ‘Vanitas’ and ‘The Hand of Fatima’) … an inwardly paranoiac, ‘cop-investigated’ nightmare that copes with all the leit-motifs (touched on above) that the book can cram into her body. The book is crisp fruit, paradoxically bruised, too. And it all comes together in this wonderfully worded story. Bone on bone.
“To be ignored – isn’t that the worst thing in the world?” says this final story. I hope this book is not ignored … but, thinking about it, by only reading a book will this enable you to then ignore it properly (you can’t ignore something gratuitously).
You can’t take responsibility upon your literary shoulders, Des, for every book you read, even books upon the cusp of something. Ignore it, I say. Delete your review.
But its barely bearable final paragraph begins: “They will come back for me, won’t they?” (16 May 09)
Jai Clare to me about review of ‘The Cusp of Something’, quoted with permission: “Your comments were very insightful and I particularly loved that you got the placing of the last story and all it contained and meant for the collection.”