Cold to the Touch – by Simon Strantzas
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘Cold to the Touch’ a collection of short fiction by Simon Strantzas (Tartarus Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out the book’s leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt.
This review will be done slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back here more than once every few days for additions.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/.
Under the Overpass
“I heard the knock at my mother’s door just after I arranged my soldiers into formation, ready for battle.”
A powerful story, from the point of view of a protagonist who tells us the story unfolding in the past even as as we read it (but did he he tear it up before being able to put it into the print by which sole possible means we imagine him now telling it to us?), a story about a group of children venturing on their bikes beyond the wide pipe under the underpass towards a new-discovered area of their town’s environs containing a tree house. Accompanying this group of friends is a foundling child. And the rite of passage – stretching into the protagonist’s future – will haunt me forever, as the ‘Jamie Bulger’-type memory is rediscovered for real (in later adulthood when the protagonist returns beyond the pipe) in an unconstruable metaphor that works far better than if it had been construed. What is more construable, however, is the now derelict tree-house. For me, a tree-house is a straightforward metaphor for a book (Cf Gary Fry’s ‘The Tree House’): and here it is a book that was never written, let alone published. But what’s in my hands, then? (30 July 09)
The Other Village
“‘It’s a wonder, sometimes, we don’t get more passengers. I dislike having to poach them.'”
A well-characterised strange ‘holiday’ story to an island (Cf. ‘The Same In Any Language’ by Ramsey Campbell as both a complement and a compliment). A relationship rite. Here of friendship. Two women from Canada are on a Mediterranean holiday together. It has vibrations of ‘Picnic at Hanging-Rock’. And the only way I can grasp the essence of the fiction (for your own grasping of it), i.e. to grasp it simply by means of this review about it, is for the review itself to disappear into the annulled part of the actual story before I say too much. Before it bloats beyond the size of usefulness. Like the spoiler fungus from the previous story?
“Monica’s whole body felt flushed with anger, her skin so hot it was blistering. Even the stones around her neck had become like fiery coals…” (31 July 09)
The Uninvited Guest
A short fable of aspirational empathy with others when comparing their bad fortune with one’s own good fortune: a Christmas party where gate-crashers spoil the intended privacy of just a few friends. One female gate-crasher is noticeable for a dereliction that differentiates her from more ‘respectable’ gate-crashers. Resembling simultaneously the foundling child in ‘Under the Overpass’ and the lostling friend in ‘The Other Village’, the situation soon becomes an unconstruable catalyst for redemption. The scenario also seems to relate to contamination in crowded places, something currently in the forefront of our minds.
“…then his laugh became a cough. ‘Don’t get too close,’ he said,. ‘You don’t know where I’ve been.’ / ‘Go sit down and rest. You look like you need it. You’re sweating.’ / ‘Really?’ He put his hand on his forehead. ‘Funny. I still feel cold.'” (1 August 09)
A Seed on Barren Ground
“Amusement rides, the kind one might find at a gas-station carnival…”
The lostling from the previous stories, I sense, here, becomes another lostling if seen from the viewpoint of those she (Melissa) left behind when disappearing from her home following the loss of the baby within her. The only difference is that she is this story’s protagonist … but, eventually, she meets what I consider to be tantamount to another lostling later in the story, one who “smelled like musty earth and unwashed clothes…”
This is substantial Strantzaic stuff, while also describing an unashamedly explicit Ligottian scenario, mixed with a feel of ‘The Swords’ by Aickman …. but where instead of swords we have a form of fairground faith-healing. The end is gut-wrenching, in all senses of that phrase. But if thou hath faith, go findeth thy own lostling, I saith.
A barren seed that needs the mulch of readers to give it birth. (2 August 09)
Writing on the Wall
A Strantzaic male protagonist (that I recognise from the previous collection: ‘Beneath the Surface’) with personality weaknesses, one who both gives off and absorbs a sort of contamination of spirit, a contamination that is a filter that works both ways, a contamination (I infer) that is an intangible disease plus a blend of paranoia, lack of self-confidence, stress, a getting-there-on-time-angst, memory-instability, a fear that the contamination starts with him and pollutes others, rather than vice versa.
Here, we have a modern Polish Warsaw – to where he accompanies his boss on a busness-type conference and entrusted to take notes and keep secrets from his boss’s wife when she rings up. A literal Warsaw that still has this implosive heartache pervading the city-soul and its cobbles. The protagonist becomes another lostling within a city where secrets have flourished since the Resistance, and one wonders whether secrets are safer as whispers in pubs or when written down and thus more tangible to keep safe.
A person called Ryan from the protagonist’s past recognises him, but he doesn’t recognise Ryan other than from Ryan’s words and memories. One wonders whether multi-owned memories actually form a Venn diagram, partly overlapping, partly not. I could go on and on about this story. It is unsummarisable. Verities and archetypes, as well as particulars and close-ordered specimens. A bit like the open-ended nature of the present being (paradoxically) less open-ended than the nature of the past.
[Mene mene tekel upharsin. Daniel in the lion’s den. I was wondering whether there would be any mileage in pursuing this metaphor in the story?] (2 August 09 – 8 hours later)
A Chorus of Yesterdays
“‘I thought once I could get back what I lost. I tried the impossible. And when I succeeded I only lost it again anyway.'”
Probably the most enigmatic story so far. Of a middle-floor flat in something called a ‘brownstone’ from where not ‘Yesterday’ but an even more tantalisingly unfamiliar familiar song called ‘Lyra’ is played time and time again. The top floor tenant calls himself ‘I’ and wants to meet the tenant playing it, a tenant who turns out to be the song’s once famous composer. This story is a music piece in itself with a theme and variations on the nature of fame and also turning more dincopated than ‘Lyra’ by dint of nightmare: an ‘extraordinary rendition’: this time of another lostling: the ultimate lostling: oneself. No point in moping, though. There is no crying over spilled people. No mopping. (3 August 09)
The Sweetest Song
“His tiny bedroom barely fit what remained of his old life, a life he lost with Francine…”
Cecil, having spent fifty years with Francine, has been sadly widowed and now lives with nephew Thom in Thom’s bungalow (sometimes meaningfully called a ‘house’) and Thom, whose wife has recently left him, takes up with a woman called Vivian.
Who’d have the preciousness to call a small park a ‘parkette’ and, later, to describe a coat as laid out like a person, but then make a further obvious point it is less than a person? I can only ask pointless questions about this substantial story of incremental power, in case I get too near its real point. Perhaps that ‘parkette’ is a ‘parakeet’. indeed, Hitchcock’s birds are not a million miles away.
There is more contamination in this story; it gives you more than just a hacking cough. Could that be caught from this story, by getting too close it? There is another Uninvited Guest, from Cecil’s point of view, and she (Vivian) gets too close to him. A Joel Lane-like shaping up with wings. This is a massive story. I can only dwell on its smaller preciousnesses. It’s a sweetest song, Lyra’s song. Even if that’s not true, it’s better than to face this story’s real truth head on.
This is the only story I know so far in my reading career that actually is quite like it is. Also, in my copy of the book, there is, genuinely, a fingerprint-sized engrained woody stain on page 114 (towards the end of this story). This is not a fault. It is a good worry, although I hope I forget about it before I go to sleep tonight. It is a wood-knot in sliced relief. A knot from the tree upon which this story’s inferred (infeathered?) author roosts, preening itself at such a literary afterbirth. This is seriously great stuff. But I daren’t get too close to it, especially in this day and age. I’ll just concentrate on minor details. (3 August 09 – 3 hours later)
Pinholes in Black Muslin
Here we have another Strantzaic male protagonist not a million miles from this book’s earlier Warsaw visitor – and “because he had long ago lost many friends over the course of his life […] it would do him some good to be in the company of people rather than stars.”
From that you would be forgiven to think he was in his Sixties (like me), instead of someone seemingly quite young, working in a Toronto bookstore, here going on a ‘getaway’ of six young peope by a lake and a forest and beneath those very stars. In many ways a run-of-the-mill tale of the coldness of the universe, cataclysmic events of climate or reality itself, leading to a whole queue of lostlings leaving the ‘picnic’ for their own form of unconstruable, inconsolable ‘hanging-rock.’ However, with Strantzas, there is always something more nagging at the reader. This time there is not a sound of birds, let alone the birds themselves. A hole in the sky. Dreams as clouds. Sandstorms, relating to the slowly-cohering lens of an ancient pinhole camera built into the story’s title? A canoe with a hole in it, like the sky. A ‘display’ forest. The embracing of the stars, even though they are as empty as friends. At least contamination can only chew on its own teeth when there is nothing else to chew. I’m left strangely satisfied.
I’m hoping that the book’s reviewer does not become the next lostling into the chasms between its words. (4 August 09)
“There are good days and there are bad days and sometimes the bad line up one after the other until it feels like there is no end.”
I hope you realise from my reviews that I really love Simon Strantzas’ stories. And this is a particular gem. It has the most brilliant description of dog-walking I can imagine ever being written, a black bag rubbish collection and the stars. And friendship, its value and its loss. And those ‘close-ordered specimens’ again from an earlier story: a Stephen Poliakoff compelling quality. The search for lostlings by a precise cataloguing. And there can be no stronger compliment from me.
Here the potential stray story is tethered by its lead. And even mulching within rubbish can’t stop friendship from transcending death.
I tip my hat to its mad barking. (4 August 09 – 3 hours later)
“…seeds hidden inside like secrets…”
‘A Seed on Barren Ground’ theme now in oblique variation. A miniature dark prelude. A figure like the Russian in ‘The Centaur’ (from the novel of that name by Algernon Blackwood), the Uncle of the young girl Stephanie, comes to take her for a boat trip (a sea voyage?) by pre-arrangement and collusion of the story protagonist (partner of the girl’s temporarily absent mother) and reported secession of the girl’s real father…
I was left with something very sad going on: a new lostling in the making? The garden knew little about it, except its collateral blight. Gaia in internal contamination? (6 August 09)
Like Falling Snow
“I don’t need to know any more sick people. I know me…”
I found this story quite unbearable, in a deeply poignant way. It seems a culmination of the lostling theme, that has been prepared for us along the way. (Goodness knows what the remaining two stories in the book after this one have in store!)
This story should be read by everyone who is terminally ill. And we all are. I made the ‘mistake’ of reading it while listening to Mahler’s Adagio from his 5th symphony. I shall never be the same…genuinely. The story is like a symphony in itself, alternating between the sick person’s diary and a straightforward narration. That we are all part of each other – part of our history and future as self and unself. Even when those we loved we may not have loved enough because of inbuilt negative as well as positive symbiosis.
To think the ghost child within me may live on gives some sort of comfort. As does the story’s ending. But deep down, we know that ghost is a snowdust bunny.
Literature like this can give you inspirational remissions along the way, but it is never forever. Old is only one letter short of cold. Esche one letter short of Escher.
“She coughed in a fit […] until her eyes were full of stars.” (7 August 09)
Here’s to the Good Life
“…I don’t think it’s wise to ignore something your whole body is telling you is true, despite how fantastic it might sound or how much you’d like to suppress the memory.”
A Strantzaic protagonist, this time female, whose lack of ability to conduct small talk makes her (with presumable uncharacteristicity) ‘chat up’, at a party, an ostensible Strantzaic male who takes over the story’s protagonism from her with the most amazing small talk (that I myself often called ‘pub talk’ in my own Toilet Mythos stories) concerning the most obnoxious public gents toilet I’ve ever visited or heard described – leading, later, to foul metabolic exchanges between (1) pub-goers (in the male sub-protagonist’s small talk description of an earlier occasion to the female protagonist) and (2) party-goers (in a party where the small talk is being made)…
Shall I go on? This is perhaps the book’s sole out-and-out clunker. I can’t fathom its part in the book’s gestalt. So, I’ll just mention here, while I have the opportunity, that the actual physical book ‘Cold to the Touch’ published by Tartarus Press is seriously of the most remarkable quality: tall, yellow and aesthetic, making us feel as if we are reading High Literature even when reading (as we do in this story) about passing a filthy bloodclot from mouth to mouth.
Thinking about it, this story somehow shows that the gestalt itself that I so conscientiously sought in earlier stories has now become another lostling. But there is one more story yet to read… (7 August 09 – 6 hours later)
I’ve been giving the previous story more thought. It certainly has staying power. I forgot to mention that the strange nasty toilet effects seem to be generated by alcohol: and, as we know, the task of small talk can be eased by alcohol. I sense that the male protagonist (who says he has given up alcohol because of the nightmarish experiences he describes to the female protagonist) literally vanishes into his own small talk at the end, i.e. becomes the ‘loss of the gab’ rather than its ‘gift’ (the story’s lostling?) — all (or just) mouth-and-trousers? (7 August 09 – another hour later)
And contaminaton through inchoate metaphor – another leitmotif within the gestalt. (8 August 09)
Cold to the Touch
“…he felt the shape of the small book pressed into his ribs.”
A compelling tale of a scientist (with a Bible) in a expedition to the Arctic realms with inscrutable companion Luis (atheist by his own admission) and an Inuit man. They encounter unsnowed-upon standing stones (which reminded me of the film 2001) and huge cracking noises as the ice shifted and a final snowstorm after Luis had been injured pick-axing one of the stones to see more clealy the writing upon it. Much incident and religious angst throughout. We are surely at the Mountains of Madness, I say, and there is no gestalt in madness. Yet these are hanging-rocks, hanging above or amid a shifting insecurity of land. Heaven perhaps can only be found through the insecurity of previously secure ideas. This may be the outcome. But as in any author’s own (or authorially leased characters’) monologues — a monologue which this whole book can be seen to be — outcomes are still in play when the author himself becomes a lostling at the book’s end, even while his leased protagonists still stand upon the brink of discovering their own outcomes. And my provisional outcome, before the unknown final outcome, is that this book is highly satisfying, thought-provoking, frightening and different, but one I surely can’t recommend to the weak-hearted.
The inchoate metaphor has at last permeated the death contamination….a sign of hope? But as I wrote somewhere above, when between walking the ‘display’ forest or the streets of Warsaw or through falling snow, “I’m hoping that the book’s reviewer does not become the next lostling into the chasms between its words.” My new italics. (8 August 09 – 2 hours later)