Visits To The Flea Circus – by Nick Jackson
My 22nd real-time review
posted Friday, 15 May 2009
Visits To The Flea Circus
by Nick Jackson
Elastic Press 2005
Another ‘real-time’ book review by DF Lewis. Previous ‘real-time’ reviews are linked from here:-
Early in 2005, I wrote: “Just wanted to say that ‘Visits To The Flea Circus’ is superb. For me, the stories are wonderfully in the tradition of VS Pritchett, AE Coppard, HE Bates… and more. All carrying a special something which stays in the mind.” – on the message board HERE.
Having recently become practised in the art of discovering leit-motifs and gestalts through real-time reviewing, I intend to re-read this book and here give it the DFL treatment story by story – to see if it lives up to my memory of it! (15 May 09)
The Brick Pits
I know exactly the era in the UK this takes place – 1961. How do I know? The pop music references. I personally remember the ‘genius loci’ of that era. And this story conveys it perfectly. I used to collect sticklebacks in jamjars. Here the boy captures newts at the Brick Pits, newts with an unnatural aura of amphibian mobility that perhaps magically empowers the ‘genius loci’ even beyond what has already been artfully captured by the words. And there are (I infer) the working-class people, the spiv uncle and his girl friend – and the spiv’s friend called Stanley. Absolutely perfect. An ironic alembic. Ending with a sense of knowing that we have just entered a writer’s world that will continue to make us surely shudder as well as smile. Walking back to happiness, woopah oh yeah yeah.
“…a polka-dot dress with straps that came over the shoulder and fastened at the front with large black buttons like glistening eyes and I wondered if they undid or were just for show.” (16 May 09)
The Black House
We are in Norfolk (early sixties again?). Birthday Club on black and white Anglia TV, if so. The “Country Matters” depiction from Granada TV, if the seventies. A.E. Coppard. The cruelty of nature, the even greater cruelty of children against nature and against each other. More newts trapped in jamjars, no doubt. Chinese burns. Jeering. Daring. The Black House is no doubt one such dare to enter. Iconoclasm in the country church. Lash out at misery; the gauche boy in the story has a slow brain with only impulses to solve his problems. The main boy protagonist, meanwhile, follows his own cute grapplings with nature. A wonderful evocation of all these things with a rich yet paradoxically economical style of language (a Nick Jackson hallmark, I think). The Black House looms subtly large as does our pity for those with only impulses and no finer thoughts. But I can’t tell a shrew from a vole…
“The windows were blind, milky with cataracts formed by fine-spun cobwebs, for the Black House was empty.” (16 May 09 – 4 hours later)
On The Beach
Having started the engine and moving up the gears in the previous stories, Jackson now evidently has the confidence to go into overdrive. A very strong description of a vast bay (and a wreck) and the receding and later returning tides, the ribbed surface I remember so well from such scenarios. Again the loner gauche child, a girl with down-to-the-boots impulses and the mindless care from her simple house-proud mother and the contempt from her less simple (but still impulsive) and self-unknowingly cruel cousins. Multifarious sealife curded and abrim with some of the ‘magic’ power of now unseen amphibians hinted at in an earlier story. Jackson now carries the paradox of his style (rich yet economical) to the subject-matter (simple yet wriggling with implications).
“On the outside she scooped out a moat and inside she arranged concentric circles of scallop and cockleshells decorated with tiny pieces of crimson weed.” (17 May 09)
High Cliff, Cool Sea
A relatively brief story where we are now transported evocatively beyond UK to a hot foreign coast (Spanish?) and a gullible English traveller who meets a stranger. We sense the stranger is not being straightforward with his friendship. Ulterior motives. The stories so far have a sense of ulterior motive themselves, leaving conclusions unclinched … hanging in the air. And here we have another cliff-hanger (in that sense rather the suspense sense) – a fishing-line for meanings. We wonder if the stranger’s presumably incriminating wine stains (as perceived by the protagonist) are indeed wine stains. Or salty juices from the sea-life (lizardy and otherwise) that is again touched on in this story … evidence of more amphibians nuzzling beyond the margins of the book? Whether that is the case or not, this story gains reality from its inconclusivity and an element of ah-well-shrugging truth from our impression of a half-serious laid-back stranger who really hasn’t got the get-up-and-go to be as villainous as we expected.
“Then with an arrogant flick of the tail and a rasping of claws on rock they would disappear into a crevice and emerge yards away to continue lolling.” (17 May 09 – 6 hours later)
Alas, Lonely Heart
This is a genuine classic worthy of any anthology anywhere. And it takes on even more power from the context of the book so far. A description of a blind date in the National Gallery (describing the female half as protagonist of the meeting), with references to being on a diving-board above ‘a dark pool of possibilities’ and the eating of an olive (like a lizard?) and inhaling tea through nostrils and the memory of a tea-towel depicting wild-life left on a draining-board and looking out of a green pool in Monet and a painting of a frog on a table like a ‘turd’ and, above all, a faulty tap. You need to read the story to see how all these images (and others) and the meeting between two lonely hearts are so perfectly yet precariously balanced. Unforgettable. Although I had forgotten the full power of my earlier reading of this story, it came back to me as I re-read it today, however.
“The foyer was full of fluttering syllables and stray phrases, the ebb and flow of strangers communicating in the hoarse museum whisper that shuffled through the galleries and filled the archways.” (18 May 09)
The Legend of Mr Fox
A very effective re-telling of a legend in a fairy-tale form like Red Riding Hood – that will honestly haunt you forever. It has me. Except ‘forever’ could never be tested till now?
I loved the startling viewpoint of jumped-upon conclusion at the very start. And a corpse is amphibious, the ending hints weirly … in pursuance of a hand’s discretion.
As before, strangers can appear friendly one moment, not the next, especially to gauche protagonists.
“My name sounded strangely on his lips, almost as if he had taken it and reshaped it for some secret purpose of his own.” (18 May 09 – 3 hours later)
Here the main protagonist (Beano by name) is the stranger himself, one who proves cynical and untrustworthy towards a gauche dutiful individual whose name is Ana (cf. Aefa in the previous story). And one is invited to speculate upon this girl’s wedding to someone else as sent to Beano in a months-old newspaper cutting and upon the eventual nature of the magnified dots or pixels of newsprint that form her “carnival grin”. The Beano was a comic magazine I was brought up on as a small child in the Fifties, full of characters of anthropomorphised animals (as I originally thought Mr Fox too be), all no doubt with carnival grins. The mention of this comic is as prestidigitative as the shawl itself, the only apparent importance of which is that it actually became the story’s title. I love stories that set meaningful traps with falsely laid symbols! And this is a lovely inscrutable tale that I think I have grasped each time that it slips out again like a wild frog. But, to be fair, I think that, with this story, we have now left the realm of amphibians and entered that of fleas?
“At night he tossed and moaned in his bed like a great black dog tormented by fleas.” (18 May 09 – another 4 hours later)
Quickly judging by the contents list, this is the longest story in the book by a long way. I am not strong on history, but it seems to be a historic setting in Spain / Portugal / Mexico in the time of Cortés. It is very powerful – depicting a man’s memories of his life (his family, his travels) in front of a Priest and an old needle-clicking Nurse, concluding with his conviction of war crimes, seen by him in hindsight as necessary evils but tinged by a greed for gold. (Cf ‘Nostromo’ and silver). With poignant eventuality, he finds gold in sunlight.
Mixed judgements and mixed motives, complexly dealt with in a deceptively simple way for matters to be weighed in each reader’s balance of justice. But it is not a ‘roman à clef’; it is beautiful fiction for fiction’s sake – but I may have misinterpreted some of its goals. Good fiction can work at several levels, as this does. It needs a large reading circle, perhaps, to enter all its levels at once. One reader or reviewer can’t do it. All expressed in Jackson’s hallmark style. Plus startling images (eg. sucking an old woman’s nipple) … and visions such as that of the Virgin Mary all crowd in on me as if many religions swarm to corner me with demands for attention… And one who is not religious like me, it’s most frightening!
It is as if God (comprising various gods and anthropomorphised totems and talismans and the act of sin-eating) is the Stranger and mankind is the Gauche Individual as paralleled by the previous context of the book.
Much rain. Movement like fleas. Viscidity. Much perceptiveness regarding the human condition.
“The endless rain seeped into the seams of his imagination.”
“The priest was eating a pomegranate with a sharp knife. He picked out the glutinous seeds which glistened like disembodied fish eyes and scooped them into his mouth.”
“It was the frenetic swarming of thousands of people for the moment oblivious to the presence of a hostile army.”
“Like a line of insects they journeyed across the vast landscape…”
“Perhaps this was how one died, he thought: piecemeal – losing memories, feelings, thoughts, until one day the capacity to act was no longer there.” (19 May 09)
Visits to the Flea Circus
This story is central eponymously as well as half-way positionally – and, unless I’m mistaken, central thematically, judging by the leit-motifs it captures from the first half of the book and deploys for its own use. It is, more importantly, also a very good story, crammed with intriguingly ‘laid’ symbols, false and real. I will leave you to differentiate the false from the real, when you read it – as read it you must. Nick Jackson, I have reminded myself, by this re-reading of the book so far, is a greatly underrated author. This story tells of a sort of arranged marriage in Mexico in 1899 between a young Mexican girl and an American – with a death (an accident or dive?) as a premature spoiler-climax at the story’s start, a scorpion, plankton, a lizard, a jellyfish, microscopic ticks on a bird’s wing, and a ‘circus’ of “flea-sized creatures” one of which wields an erection (I infer), a zoo, a Mr Eagle (Cf. Mr Fox), a sudden unexpected wedding by a widow in this case (cf: the stories concerning Ana and Aefa and the surprise marriages therein) … apparent motivelessness – and random shards of synchronised truth and fiction including an-eye-for-an-eye death and birth. It is not so much Magic Reality as Magic Fiction. The style is precise needlepoint, an embroidery of images – literally so, within the plot, too. Meanwhile, the words themselves move around in your memory like the ‘flea-creatures’. You do feel, however, as if the author has given you all the tools to be the story’s God. You make the decisions of meaning for the best outcome to suit you. SPOILER: But you, as gauche reader (an innocent abroad in the story), like me, will always choose the outcome that the story’s author-stranger (‘the intentional fallacy’ demands the ‘stranger’ bit) wanted from the start. You only think you have control. It is an arranged story of author and reader, as well as an arranged marriage. (19 May 09 – 4 hours later)
Interior with Green Glass
“She felt a sensation close to shame relieving herself into that elegant porcelain bowl that was so like a little pool…”
Truly exquisite replay of the ‘Alas, Lonely Heart’ scenario. I am sucked along the channels of this literature like a shoal of silver-fish, myself. Each bit of me a discrete entity. It’s that easy – that difficult – to imagine.
But who, in this OCD scenario, is gauche, who not? The further we delve into this book, the less easy that question becomes, and more difficult to know which side, which sex, which impulse, which jumped conclusion, reflects you, as the reader, best. The setting is over-clean, but we imagine tinier and tinier mites unseen. [Last night lying awake, when dwelling on this book, I thought of A.S. Byatt’s work – and if that comparison is to be made, then very few greater compliments, in my book, can be given.]
“His penis was lithe and reminded her of an albino cave amphibian with bluish gills…” (20 May 09)
A simple tale of a gauche one’s revenge. A piece with its own in-built implosion which takes the breath away as an unpretentiously obvious symbol. It is a meticulously told ‘marital’ of simple people. An old-fashioned DIY tinkerer of impulsive self-belief and his non-assertive wife … until the ground literally caves in. She remains non-decisive, but by so remaining makes the biggest decision of her life. As in ‘Little Gods’, a necessary evil. Tinkerings of innocent cruelty that started in childhood (cf. ‘The Black House’) extends into adulthood…
The concept of the garden that is subsumed makes me think, in the context of the whole book so far, of all the creatures small and smaller that live in its holistic living shape as a separable entity and within its several layers now misaligned by some shifting of far-off tectonic plates, lending a new precarious depth to an otherwise inferentially straightforward story.
“The drawer smelt of ancient lipstick, sickly sweet, an old woman’s smell.” (20 May 09 – 2 hours later)
Echoing the ‘accident or dive’ in the story entitled ‘Visits to the Flea Circus’, here we have a story that is often a philosophically contrived ‘roman à clef’ (like the journal itself of one of the characters!), a story with “thematic flaws” of attempted ‘flight or fall’ upon thermals, entropy, personal subsidence, Ligottian ‘Pessimism’, Natural Selection and being subsumed by the living Sun with its tongue flicking you from the sky … considerations stemming from the non-symbiotic relationship of a man and a woman who gauchely encounter each other from time to time. We are left at the end with the knowledge that there may be patterns to our behaviour beyond empiricism. Perhaps fiction can be the only truth when logic or science eventually fails.
“The air was filled with their shrill whistling. A language of urgent guttural shrieks to find a mate, to locate a nest site, to indicate the abundance of insects.” (21 May 09)
Another gauche innocent abroad, due to hitch-hike through America to Mexico after getting off the plane at Kennedy Airport; Joe first sees on the subway: “a painted juggler threw flaming knives.” That seems in telling symbiosis with the actual loose end of the story…
Plus someone who mimics passers-by and a series of drivers picking him up, including a plug-ugly who forces a subsuming kiss on him…. Also “…a man , as slim and brown as a lizard” and a “flame wavered in its little glass globe like a blue and yellow fish swimming nose down.”
My review of ‘The Kiss’ meets its own loose end, too … other than to report this story is effectively and neatly nested within the book’s ever-growing context. (21 May 09 – 2 hours later)
Some stories work and one never knows why. ‘Sea Monsters’ is one such. It is inextricably hilarious and poignant. I am a sucker for stories with seaside type entertainment and atmosphere (I live among a similar ambiance myself). Here make-up and the act itself of thinking/imagining are both props. Props do make theatricality more believable. And here we have theatricality within a proscenium arch literally and within the story’s own proscenium arch of marginalised reality and within a proscenium arch of open air, autumnalising trees, and the sea with metaphor/props magicking forth as monsters. A turn of a leaf and a thousand destinies decided. How many more motes are turning, even as I write this? This story has an Aickman-like, Reggie-Oliveresque scenario – and a stage character who takes us with him. A story that is wonderful alone, and even more wonderful perhaps because of the book’s surrounding setting of other stories. I only choose books to buy and then review that I somehow know I will instinctively think this good. That is why all my real-time reviews have my positive enthusiasm as a conscientious reviewer in common. My instinct is rarely wrong about what I personally am going to find this good.
“He watched a child that stood alone at the water’s edge. It seemed suddenly to realise its isolation and sat in the sand like a frog, legs bending up at its sides.” (22 May 09)
“Ah the whirling crocodiles! The whirling woman, slim as a viper in that red dress.”
I forgot to mention above that ‘Subsidence’ ends with a faulty tap to match that of ‘Alas, Lonely Hearts’. Music, too, can have faulty taps and parallels with modern existences, as our aging protagonist ventures out from the cocoon of art (and from his seedy living conditions) into the different sort of seediness: the fast life of the streets. This story is the cross-subsidence of music and life as meticulously adumbrated by a composer of meagre personality. Another one of those gauche-crashes for rubber-necking readers like us. Indeed the music is everything: the teasing and worrying out of its insect-seeds and notes towards a texture to carry many of the anthropomorphised metaphor-creatures, indeed the whole book’s menagerie of amphibians, reptiles and insects. And reminds me of my own process of real-time reviewing itself, fastidiously picking at constructs to wring out leit-motifs and gestalt from the music of words and plot.
“The dance gave them the appearance of gigantic insects, coupling and uncoupling.” (22 May 09 – 3 hours later)
Another ‘surprise’ marriage at the end to a “rich fockin’ lawyer” as come-uppance for a thief called Phoebus (the sun in ‘Crimson Cliff’?) who – in this story’s sensory vision of a country such as Mexico – clumsily catches not swine ‘flu but a spoiler tumour from this sentence: “In the folds of the veil there is a sensation of something blind and feeble, but alive, against the dead shrouded corpse.”
When hearing the “throbbing courtship of frogs” or during the “slow, insect-clicking, afternoon heat”, I sometimes feel that I am a thief as I creep about all these stories filching what gems I can find by picking each word-lock with “a nauseous pleasure in the click of the defeated mechanism”!
A vibrant sweating atmosphere of foodstuffs and festivals – and crimes not of but for passion. Magnífico!
“In the last inch of water there is a squirming of tiny fish and amphibians, struggling to breed in the remaining slime.” (22 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
In many ways, this is the most powerful story in the book so far, absorbing literary strength in an active symbiosis with each one of the previous stories – in fact gradually taking on its own structure quite beyond language and “the inadequacy of words”.
Indeed, anything I say in words about the story or further quote from it will be a spoiler. It is a true classic. The story is full of things I could quote in perfect tune with the thematic impression I’ve given about the book so far but I sense it is far more powerful for me to make that simple point and then withdraw so as to allow other readers to capture it and erect its chitinous display more effectively. Still, there are two more stories to read and review…
[This review is nothing if not pretentious. On this personal note, too, I would like to draw a comparison between ‘The Entomolgist’ and my ‘Wild Honey’ in the ‘Weirdmonger’ book, although my story, when push comes to shove, is essentially different, if not gauche, as well as patently inferior. But, thereupon, I reject any charge of false modesty as well as pretentiousness!] (23 May 09)
This book is clever at stories with loose or oblique endings – yet such endings that swell with an enormous meaning or many such meanings garnered from the rest of the story. Here we have a museum quite in keeping with the themes of the whole book adumbrated above – and an extremely gauche relationship between two human beings (both gauche but one more a stranger to us than the other), a relationship that may either be objectively labelled abuse or the beginnings of future love. A friendly wink or the deadly flash of a tongue. Plus more cruelty between children and the Earth’s Natural History that is a palimpsest. A seedy flat and cold baked beans. This story made me want to cry.
“He had to write ten pages of lines: ‘I must not play with the science exhibits’. He eventually handed in five pages with a note from his mother: ‘Gordon has very small writing as you can see. I think five pages of lines quite sufficient.’” (23 May 09 – 2 hours later)
“Looking from the window high in the tower of Brno Cathedral down onto the roofs of the old town, Mr Pinch was assailed by sudden vertigo, by the frightening sense of all the fragments of lives being played out below as much as by the minuteness of the bobbing black heads he saw progressing along the narrow lanes.”
I can easily empathise with the characters after having been on many coach tours in Europe with Wallace Arnold in recent years. The passenger politics, the courier’s angst at a passenger being ill. This story is a very telling coda to the whole book whereby the stoicism of growing old is pointillistically painted with enormous poignancy. Each person with a lifetime of secret sorrows and lost loves. Mr Pinch – marine-biologist manqué – falls sick and wets himself, with two other passengers (a married couple) then caring for him. Later, a past echo of the dive-or-fall from a height in the story entitled ‘Visits to the Flea Circus’ with regard to this couple’s son of whom they had previously spoken as if he were still alive.
This whole book has more than lived up to my 2005 memory of it. That is not said lightly. It is a major book of some rarity. I report without comment that one image originally stuck with me more than any other image in that first reading, one I’ve been expecting during this second reading but was unsure where it would turn up and it was from this last story entitled ‘Paper Boats’:
“There was a silence that he did not like. A silence that crept into the room like an insidious mist. The door had been left open, and as he waited he was sure that a shadow crept past the door – a shadow that knew he was there.” (23 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
END OF MY REVIEW ON ‘VISITS TO THE FLEA CIRCUS’ by Nick Jackson (Elastic Press 2005)
“Looking up into the sky blue dome was like gazing up into heaven. It was possible to imagine the bank managers peering down from their offices like minor saints.”
from ‘The Secret Life of the Panda’ by Nick Jackson (published in “Zencore! – Scriptus Innominatus”: 2007)