The Alsiso Project

The Alsiso Project

posted Tuesday, 25 August 2009
  I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of the fiction stories in Elastic Press’s ‘the ALSISO project’ (2003) edited by Andrew Hook. As ever, I shall attempt to draw out all the stories’ leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt. The book seems just begging for this sort of treatment, I claim, bearing in mind all the stories are reputed, in literary legend, to derive from the same Marion Arnott typo for ‘IS ALSO’.

This review will be written here … slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back more than once every few days (even weeks) for additions. 

All my real-time reviews are linked from here:

  The Alsiso Project

 Not the Dharma Initiative, but something far more significant: the Alsiso Gestalt.

The stories are all entitled ALSISO and written (in the book’s order) by K.J. Bishop, Nick Jackson, Justina Robson, Kaaron Warren, Marie O’Regan, Christopher Kenworthy, Andrew Humphrey, Alasdair Stuart, Allen Ashley, Nicholas Royle, Antony Mann, Andrew Hook, Matt Dinniman, Tamar Yellin, Steve Savile, Kay Green, John Grant, Gary Couzens, David Allen Lambert, Brian Howell, Conrad Williams, Lisa Pearson, Marion Arnott.

All stories were to be entitled ‘Alsiso’ but otherwise written separately by the various authors in the normal independent way. Consequently, I say, there should be no connection between these stories (other than the same title) unless it is by the purely serendipitous strength of ‘The Synchronised Shards of Random Truth and Fiction’ or, to coin a new phrase from that old one of mine, ‘The Random Shards of Synchronised Truth and Fiction’! (DFL)

Part One

Alsiso – K.J. Bishop

A neat and evocative fantasy-flavour of a  story creating for real a figure called Alsiso whose name derived from an assassin who wrote it as his name in blood… A figure that becomes an abiding hero, a villain, a joker, a lover, a hater, a Legend For All Seasons.  Alsiso twines and bifurcates into both the trivial and the treasured, the pure and the mongrelised, with an exponential ending that leaves a cosmic taste in the mouth. Yet maybe agog for more…. (25 Aug 09)

Alsiso – Nick Jackson

A rite of passage by Boy’s literal soul-searching quest for his own name, a quest from out of nemonymity, via a test involving family and forest and impending savageness and a ‘widow’ whose husband still breathes and an intense empathy with nature. This is remarkable prose. Nick Jackson has been one of my favourite writers for a few years now. Why is he not published more? “Boy lets his gaze slip and his eyes drift out of focus so that his leaf divides into two and metamorphoses into a butterfly with reflecting wings. He can do this trick with his eyes. He lets the two halves shiver apart then drift together again; Boy’s leaf, whole again.”

The first two stories carry Alsiso through Time and Space pantheistically, but not without infiltration from other forces that envy such pantheism. Yet pantheism, by definition, surely must wield these forces from within itself … ? (25 Aug 09 – 4 hours later)

Alsiso – Justina Robson

This is a simply quite brilliant SF story of planetary exploration. Did it win awards in 2003? Serious question. Mimetic plague. Messiaen birdsong. Pantheism sublime. “I’ll see. So…” (25 Aug 09 – another 3 hours later)

The Robson story aliso has bowers or, in the terms of the story’s opening ‘Gaia Obasi Nsi’, ‘gaias’ of human forms in mimesis – physically (often perceived as mutation) and mentally / spiritually. 

Alsiso (or Al’s Iso Bar) – Kaaron Warren

“Metals only disturb me when I am not pregnant.”  The pantheism extends to an enigmatic process of the I-narrator woman with an impotent (dying?) husband (Cf the ‘widow’ in the Jackson story) or with several husbands in trial pregnancies, in a universe (a police state?) where metal corrupts the woman’s, if not the world’s, Gaia.  A birth process that is more ingestion than gestation (Cf. the Robson story). Very intriguing. Still trying to work it all out. Gaia mutated as Galena?  Reality on paper that can be scrunched up.  I need to catch the words before they slip away. Fix the leitmotifs while I can. Too late. (26 Aug 09)

Alsiso – Marie O’Regan

When in real-time creative processes – and reading fiction, let’s be honest, is more creative than it is passive – one sometimes comes across constituents in that process that one moderately enjoys – that one understands – sort of – and that one then places in the forgetting-drawer. Well, for me, I do not put this story in the forgetting-drawer but in a place of abeyance, waiting patiently to discover for itself if it turns out to be a key piece in a wider jigsaw, a jigsaw that is incomplete without it.  Or a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card…

This story is one such. Well written, it is a run-of-the-mill haunting of a shaky male / female relationship, by a pervasive sound or force – Alsiso. A Jungian Archetype that seems to underpin the story’s male protagonist. But, finally, I am left unsure who it is in the relationship that Alsiso underpins.  Underpins or undermines? This story is an intermission, a light (although dark) refreshment, after the mind-twisting tours-de-force presented by the previous stories. I wish it well for its period in abeyance. (26 Aug 09 – three hours later) 

Alsiso – Christopher Kenworthy 

“If you want to see what somebody’s really like, ask them what they think about when they’re going to sleep.” OMG, this story is the essence of serendipity and gaian magic.  We’ve now made pantheism subject to the spells embodied in Ted Hughes poems. No wonder everyone connected wih him killed themselves.  A stunning piece that treats of ‘waking dreams’ and the only-connectedness of things otherwise disconnected and of ‘Alsiso’ as I’m beginning to understand it. It even connects with my own novella ‘Klaxon City’ that’s hardly been read by anyone to my knowledge. I wonder who alsio dreams of the city or its destruction?  Major stuff. I wish I had read this book before. (27 Aug 09)

Alsiso – Andrew Humphrey

“Moments later I slept and my sleep was deep and unbroken and dreamless for the first time in too many years.”

This story is by the author of ‘Alison’, a novel I enjoyed a year or two ago. I shall make this a linear review of his story as it is a perfectly linear and limpidly wrought prose fiction of immense old-fashioned quality.

 It tells of a spiteful marrriage (Cf. the relationship in O’Regan) ended by cancer, an earlier spiteful purchase of a painting at a Norfolk car boot sale that ties a knot of destinies.  But it’s the least expected destiny that is the one we more often follow. Nevertheless, even one’s rogue destinies are connected in unknown ways with every action we take.  Not a ghost story, but it does have the ambiance of a modern ghost story.  I wonder if the female I-narrator ever reaches her own version of Alsiso?

Now, to try to connect this story with the rest of the book so far, in the same way as the painting in the story itself is connected with the rest of the story in which it exists?  I think there may be a clue in that this story ends Part One of this book.  Looking at the book’s contents list, there are three such parts, seven stories in the first one (just ended) and eight each in the other two. Are these arbitrary divisions? A question I shall put in my abeyance-drawer.

So far I sense leitmotifs pointing towards pantheism.  Or paintheism? (pain, paint…?). From the Redness of Robson to the forest Hues of Jackson via the Hughes of Kenworthy.  Not forgetting the Gouaches of Warren and Bishop.  (Re Gaia, in the Humphrey, the female protagonist’s brother’s boy friend when in Alsiso was called Guy, by the way). (27 Aug 09 – four hours later)


Part Two

Alsiso – Alasdair Stuart

“The word ‘Alsiso’ is scribbled in the margins next to a listing for an early Da Vinci sketch.”

Looking at the dates, this story was published simultaneously with (if not before) the famous Dan Brown book and, for me, it sensationally represents a far superior capsule variation of that very book … here with important ‘Alsiso’ accretions. A miniaturised lecture that has a number of original concepts in such a small space, with words as planets. (28 Aug 09)

Alsiso – Allen Ashley

I’ve never been disappointed by an Allen Ashley story and this is no exception. It is crammed with ingenious variations on the Alsiso gestalt, including multi-media, a rock band that goldfrapped its personnel, multiplex attention spans, Alsiso made acronymic or anagramatic as well as queuing behind crazy people.  By now, this story is at the head of that queue.  Premonitory and mind-blending. Both sides of a still spinning coin. (28 Aug 09 – two hours later)

Alsiso – Nicholas Royle

“There was a shop on the corner. There’s always a shop on the corner.”

Cheshire Semis are a fascinating concept of houses, each containing more or less than it portends.  Like this story.

It tells of someone returning home to Manchester with his wife and small daughter after living for some time in London. Nostalgia and remembered places loom large, including music he used to know via Peel and so forth.  And people and memories and haunted moments of guilt.  In Simon Strantzas, this return to a secret pool where someone may have once been abandoned would end up with a phenomenon as inchoate metaphor awaiting the protagonist’s return to this place.  In Nicholas Royle, it’s something even more inchoate than any metaphor.  A driver deciding which way to drive or a writer deciding how to end things…

Alsiso, like Glyphotech, is a label on a van or dustcart. I wonder if Councils sub-contract the dredging of secret pools….

A serious ‘genius loci’ and a truly felt, personal sense of past regret paradoxically created by the hope otherwise stirred by a change of life, a change provided by a return to the scenes of that regret.  I felt unaccountably sad. 

Part Two of this book so far remains intangible as a contribution to any gestalt that I was previously seeking.  Maybe that is what Part Two is all about, i.e. simply creating a pool of stories wherein the essential Alsiso is sensed to exist … yet lurking at unfishable depths? (28 Aug 09 – another seven hours later)

ALS 150 – Antony Mann

“…you could live your whole life in a place, build what amounted to your whole life there, and not know the first thing about it.”

With the driver at the end of the previous story not knowing which direction to turn, here we have another driver led by a dark serendipity rather than his own volition. A very effective sketch of urban life through the eyes of a curmudgeonly protagonist, except he is really a passive antagonist, not a protagonist. Overhearing phone-ins, listening to chance inexplicable conversations, being cut up by a car with undue care and attention, life not in the fast lane but in the rat run.  It all means something in the end, always leads somewhere.  And every time you take out your car, the vapid sat nav sits uninvented in your brain, plotting the future. Loved its back doubles. [Still fishing for leitmotifs.] (29 Aug 09)

Alsiso – Andrew Hook

“As he drove back onto the Expressway he cranked up the radio and let the improvised jazz make sense of everything in a way that Mozart always failed to do.”

A tantalising ‘film noir’ ambiance, the mystery of a gun, its bullet, its intended victim, and why.  A story of prostitution and rich men masquerading in bars as bums, some looser than others.  An atmosphere to sink in. The plot twice as long as the story’s length. 

I’m beginning to sense that Alsiso in Part Two is becoming a cruising whodunnit-to-whom rather than a myth-laden prose-fest to pick over as Part One was. (29 Aug 09 – two hours later)

Alsiso – Matt Dinniman

(or The Sociology of the Unpopped Masses)

“‘That word. Alsiso. Haven’t you heard it? People have been screaming it all day. It just pops in your mind, and you say it.'”

The previous story started with a Pop!  And now this story of Pops aptly follows. An onward driving plot from the initial head-bang – a disaster movie of a tale: not zombies but a Diploma in Group Compulsion. Frightening.  So routine it makes me feel it’s happenng – or about to happen. Where it sits in the Alsiso Gestalt is now beyond me. In fact, I dare not give that conundrum too much thought. I’ll just make a show of being an ordinary reader.  Blasé is the new watchword.  One cannot look too deeply … or make connections. On the other, being a loner, being a perceiver of things that no-one else perceives may stand me in good stead… (30 Aug 09)

AlSiSo – Tamar Yellin

“There I have said it. Written it, at least. And the difference is critical, though the word alone is such an object of terror, I am almost as afraid of writing as I am of saying it.”

This story is devastating enough as fiction goes, but coming straight after the previous story it’s almost devastating for real. Almost? There I’ve said it.  This teeters on the ‘almost’ brink of pure magic fiction – the nearest anyone can get without tumbling into it. It’s a horror story supreme.  A symphony of a single word.  Still, Tamar Yellin? In my book, she can do no wrong. See here. (30 Aug 09 – three hours later)

Alsiso – Steve Savile

(or The Pain, Heartbreak and Redemption of Owen Frost)

A substantial story that tells of its own subtitle.  It is a highly stylised evocation of textual ‘Biblicalness’ with veins of Matt Cardin, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Hieronymous Bosch and (making this an apt finale of this book’s Part Two when compared with Part Two’s opening story) the Da Vinci Code, but here it is the Michaelangelo Code.  It has a monkish studiousness – and a contaminatory depiction of sin-eating. 

Alsiso is a mighty Stone Golem that the Monks’ mission is to awaken by feeding with geared creativity and holy belief.  Exegesis made flesh-sensitive.  Soul-coring.  This story seems as if it was written even before it was written.  The author has craftily given the impression that others wrote through him. It has a self-belief as fiction. It is flawed, though, and over-long. Thankfully, it is flawed and over-long.  The focus is spread. And we can escape.

And so ends an intangible Part Two. Not really the Pa(i)ntheism of Part One where all is at least clear via an albeit clotted pervasiveness. Here, in Part Two, we have codes and conspiracies in contrast with ‘utter’ compulsions. Queuing behind the crazies to find the truth but never knowing which way to go when we eventually get to the door. To follow the sat nav or not.  Where metaphor has demetaphorized itself and left us naked … afraid … despite or because of the risky redemption from which we escaped as readers. (30 Aug 09 – another four hours later)

Part Three

Alsiso – Kay Green

A fable of the gods and men, of mortality and immortality, of Wordsworthian pantheism soon to turn Blakean…  Maybe a new beginning. A new realism, as in being realistic as opposed to being real.  The opposite of the previous story (the last in Part Two) but it alsiso the same.

I sense what I am learnng from this book is that an anthology’s gestalt (via literary leitmotifs within the stories) is paradoxically easier to establish when its stories by several different writers have no up-front steer. But more difficult when such a steer is present (eg in this case the word ‘Alsiso) because of the fault-lines of rebellion by the gods of fiction. But I have not given up hope of forging a gestalt from this book, an undiscovered ring that my Gollumic brooding over such rarefied matters may still elicit. Seven more stories to read.  And one of them may contain the key to something that I have yet to predict. (31 Aug 09)

AlsisO – John Grant

And this may indeed be that key.  A tale of an I-protagonist/narrator who was last night someone’s dream but cannot now die, i.e. a narrator who is an Alsis (acronym for which is spelt out in the story), eventually leading to that same dream’s Otherwise.  Serendipitously, I mentioned Realism being more associated with being Realistic rather than being Real, in connection with the previous story. This story now is a compulsive, brilliantly written narrative tussling with the spectrum of Realities and Proustian selfness and more.  Its author owes the Alsiso concept (a word accidentally provided by Marion Arnott) a great deal.  The story as a tangible text is his own Alsis.  It is his own Otherwise. Bravo!

“‘Assuming we ever get to Grand Central,’ I say, ‘there’s no way that you’d be able to forget’ – an inclusive wave of my hand – ‘all this.'”  My underlining, not the book’s. (31 Aug 09 – three hours later)

AlSiSo – Gary Couzens

“There were three of us: Alex, Simon and Sophie. Sophie was the one who came up with the word. AlexSimonSophie.”

Now on to another spectrum of realities and relativities, in mutual self-enhancement with the otherwise quite dissimilar previous story. One can only judge originality by what is original to you. Indeed, this story, for me, is an original first person singular / first person plural narrative whereby protagonists and antagonists interchange points-of-view as well as negotiate a spectrum of gender / orientation realities in relativity.  It is quite startling and graphic.  Alsiso, here, is a rite-of-passage archetype towards quieter older lives, lives that once cohered concupiscently but later separated out into generative-curds as life’s so-called maturity takes its toll. I now think I know why I kept the O’Regan story out of the forgetting-drawer but left it in the abeyance-drawer. See above what I wrote about the Alsiso archetype there. Underpins or undermines?  That story seems to be the requisite ignition for experiencing Couzens’ realistic, but less run-of the-mill, story about young peoples’ emotional lives to the full. And vice versa, for the benefit of the O’Regan, as well as of the Grant that in turn benefits the Couzens and so on.  But not all at the same time nor in the same way – a bit like AlexSimonSophie him- or herself. (31 Aug 09 – another three hours later)

Alsiso – David Allen Lambert

The first story I’ve ever read, I think, situated in Cromer, Norfolk!  Well, this is a bit like the Hook – but with even more revenge, gangstas … coffee with or without milk, a couple of Cuban cigars, Alsiso/Alison accompanying Mr Roadkill (with that name because of his tie)… the protagonist’s Mel, and his next door neighbour Natalie come home from the restaurant followed by vengeful Roadkill and Alsiso (but being so angry one wonders why they didn’t have the climax in the restaurant itself or just outside) – through the streets of Cromer! – a dog that is like a ghost emerging from the sea’s waves – to where the protagonist lives next door to Natalie and we have mayhem, shoot-outs, a Hitchcockian clamber out on the balconies, and late-arriving-police… and my late-arriving comprehension as a reader. I feel like Roadkill myself, splattered by words. Forgetting-drawer or abeyance-drawer? Guess.

“The person who used to thrive in the dynamics of desire feels more and more like a dream me.” (31 Aug 09 – another 4 hours later)

Alsiso – Brian Howell

“‘Far away is closer than you think, with Alsiso.'”

Here Alsiso – amid a Japanese ambiance that approaches a slight ‘manga’ feel at appropriate times – is a memorably haunting version or vision of an original concept of an alternate world that feeds off an advertising campaign featuring an ever-sought-for rainbow image of idyllic family life, but cast with sexual temptations that parallel graphically those in the Couzens story … and also parallels (quite incredibly) the Royle story with here a new duplex of houses (where the family lives) that takes on the weight and resonance of the ‘Cheshire Semis’. But, like the alternate world that the story conjures up, the story itself stands separate as a different story that brilliantly works on its side of things without those glimpses of its part in the Alsiso gestalt.  (The Japanese-looking couple in ‘Lost’, too, and the Dharma Initiative … but I could go on from my ‘side’ as a sort of ‘alternate reader’ with more and more glimpses of the tantalising rainbow….?)

A story that is strong when alone ….. and ‘differently’ strong when within the overall book’s Alsiso alternations, i.e. that spectrum again of realities and relativities that seems to mark out Part Three in particular. (1 Sep 09)

Alsiso – Conrad Williams

“‘Metal provides solid work. It’ll never go away. There’ll always be someone willing to sell it, or buy it. You’ve got a job for life there.'”

This is the Kaaron Warren story straight out of the abeyance-drawer and mutually complementarised with this Conrad Williams story, i.e. the corruption or non-corruption themes connected with metal. A SF story that has a touching common-touch of a father/son relationship and pervasive slivers of nano-malleability as a metal called Alsiso.  Not so much photographic plates but positive negatives of reality’s spectrum. Intriguing.  We’re ticking the boxes gradually. Ticking like time.

I have read the Horror fiction of Conrad Williams for many years, from his appearances in stapled Small Press mags of the nineteen-eighties to genuine international stardom now in 2009.  Good to see this subtle, thought-provoking Alsiso moment of his in 2003.  Not heavy metal at all. (1 Sep 09 – three hours later)

Alsiso – Lisa Pearson

“In Africa, everything as close as it is faraway.”

As earlier indicated by the Howell, ‘as close as it is faraway’ could indeed be the gestalt for the whole book. Meanwhile, alsiso, here in the Pearson, is just a single passing ingredient in a list of plant-life and thus has put itself in the abeyance-drawer, only to be pulled out again perhaps when we are ready to model or mould it from all the printed paper’s facets of pantheism, ‘utter’ horrors and reality-spectrums that we have gathered from the three Parts of the book respectively.  You see, the scrunched paper from the Warren and the metal ‘rizlas’ from the Williams have here become an origami zoo, with themes colliding from the Biblical to the African in a scintillatingly poetic extravaganza of sex and ritual – and the duplicitous sacrifice of love for selfish reasons.  (1 Sep 09 – another four hours later)

Alsiso – Marion Arnott

After the gestalt thus limned above, we have the opening line of this story-as-coda (“I cannot forget Alsiso…”), a SF Fantasy of War’s End told in a ‘swirl of silk’ by Lyra with a scarecrow face, wherein Alsiso is both a place and a person. Redolent of ‘The Warriors of Love’, this speaks of men and women who are at life’s edge, some temperamentally typical men and women, others not true to their sex at all.  Both cruel and charming.  Role-playing and real.  An essay of peace and recrimination, where wars live on in imagination or dream. Of Fear and of Names.  Loyalties strained and loves induced. A story-enclosed group where endings are rife, farewells at the brink.

“There is magic in names. To say mine is to bring me near, out of nightmare into daylight.”

I, too, cannot forget Alsiso. (2 Sep 09)


comments (1)

1. Weirdmonger left…

Saturday, 26 September 2009 9:02 am ::

Comment about this review by Alasdair Stuart at link immediately above.


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