The Secret Life of the Panda – Nick Jackson

I’m due shortly to start below on this page another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt.

And it is of ‘The Secret Life of the Panda’ a collection by Nick Jackson (Chômu Press 2011). A book I purchased from Amazon.

The Secret Life of the Panda by Nick Jackson

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years. Indeed, this is said with the knowledge that a busy Season is afoot and many people have calls upon my time. So I do not wish any of you interested in this review to keep returning to this page and finding nothing added. However, I do not know how to resolve this problem ….

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/

My previous Chômu Press reviews: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/my-chomu-press-real-time-reviews/

My previous review of a Nick Jackson book: (15 May 09): Visits To The Flea Circus – by Nick Jackson (Elastic Press 2005)

Nick Jackson has a story in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies (2011)

And the eponymous ‘The Secret Life of the Panda’ story in this collection was first published in Zencore! – Nemonymous Seven (2007)

This book as a nemonymous physical artifact – i.e. a cover completely without title or author”s name – works (particularly with its pictorial design) as an ornament along with other ornaments on an ornament shelf rather than as a book on a bookshelf. (15 Dec 11)

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Anton’s Discovery

“He was afraid that the thread of reason, once lost, would be gone forever,…”

Definition of a ‘Des’s Discovery’: that which can be unearthed by digging deep (or hawling) within the words (semantics, syntax, graphology, phonetics) – and finding the grown-up version of the self or the first beginnings when organs start working for the very first time, not only in  the body but in the mind and any Fowles-like collections attuned to the process. Here a boy’s gratuitous awakening by trapping a bird: i.e. by a good-evil oxymoron approach to both nature and to his bullying family (a nice description of fraternal-sororal / filial-paternal conflicts in boyhood surrounding an unearthing by an unearthling (?), an unearthing by the story itself not by someone like me reading the story(?). And gratuitously we wonder upon which part of our own body-mind spectrum the evil-good spectrum is coming to rest. Which the bully, which the bullied? You or me? The author or reader? The boy protagonist or the words that contain him? Nature or Nurture? A fine start to the book in a richly spare style – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Fine in both senses of that word. Viscerally forensic, that is. Visually, even. (15 Dec 11 – an hour later)

Lady with an Ermine

“Arriving early gives me time to adjust my buffering zones,…”

The art of a great story collection is in the stories’ separateness and (perhaps consciously unintended) togetherness, I feel. The first two stories in this book (including this one) are a brilliant case in point. New as well as reminiscent angles, new (tellingly more sympathetic?) interactions of past filial-paternal radiated boyhood reaching into adulthood – and, like drawing the dead bird previously, now we have an act of drawing his late mother by haunted memory of trace-palimpsests-by-gauche-artistry: a museum painting: but not just any ordinary museum but “an exhibition of curiosities” (I think that phrase is in the story but I’ve not checked back), a subject-matter that resonates strongly with the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer ‘The WEIRD’ (a massive book just ‘real-timed’ by myself) and creates buffer-zones as well as connections with the ‘fine’ print scientific-emotional body-mind and, from my point of view, incredibly, a strong (seemingly explicit and literal!) assonance with Cern Zoo and the Large Hadron Collider. Absolutely amazing material in that Jackson-trademark rich-spareness of style, simultaneously forensic and devastating and inspiring and alluding-eluding.  I feel as if I am in some strange way an ‘attendant’ for this story, its own gauche guide (perhaps entirely misguided). (16 Dec 11)

The City in Flames

“Jan should have sketched the expression on his wife’s face -“

This book’s ‘symphony’ of body/mind – good/evil – anatomisation / atomisation continues, here with a discrete compelling-in-itself story of 1535 Munster, city siege, mass book-burning and coinage debasing appropriate for our own world, anabaptists — with a protagonist who was the boy with a retrocausal hinterland of having become the man we see here today in 1535 – now with his wife (iconoclastic like Haydn’s wife who used his manuscripts as hair-curlers) and a down-to-earth maid servant – correspondence, across the land’s historical dangers, with his brother, correspondence that today would be email as the books would soon be nothing but ebooks – and his own scientific paperwork used as fuel for heating … then shockingly as it turns out he is asked by the authorities to ‘prove’ religion’s godhead by the use of the make-up of the human body itself. There is a tactile quality to reading Jackson as we flense the sentences to reach the sinews. There is a tic like a nerve jumping. A dependable rhythm that seems strangely comforting as well as disturbing. It’s like scrying still living entrails for premonitions echoing back from the rest of this book as yet unread… (16 Dec 11 – another two hours later)

I have already drawn attention here (i.e. another real-time review that I am simultaenously conducting) to some cross-references between the two books in question: so it seems sensible that I should do the same by giving the above link. (16 Dec 11 – another 90 minutes later)

NB: the double-headed calf and the double-headed lizard in stories above.

The Secret Life of the Panda

This was a story I chose to publish in early 2007 before it all started happening: “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). A ‘Zencore’ (check google for its viagran or Cerne Abbas properties) hard-on and in hindsight, Cern Zoo, pandas, lion’s den, hard-on-had-ron collider etc. etc. This story takes us in a new dimension, towards the deceptive-simply but also obliquely flensed zen-core, but also to the ordinary transcending of all manner of nightmares of waiting in line for cashing-in one’s tumour upon choking childhood (the only cure for cancer, dying before you get it). Save more in  one’s flexi-account, simple worries of debt not yet impinging, aspirations of furthering one’s seed, choosing colours for carpets, Cameron’s ‘problem families’ in the making, and Nick Jackson’s ultimate art of the poignant ‘dying fall’ with a soft landing of bathos or of simple escapism despite whatever cages you’ve been placed in. This book’s front cover is a cage of sorts, or a criss-cross quiz, I’ll have a ‘p’, ill have a pee, the holeness, holiness or bob-holness of Blockbuster. No quantatative easing here. A disarming story that grows on you, especially if you leave it five years before reading it again. Even more a classic today than it was then. (16 Dec 11 – another 3 hours later)

Paper Wraps Rock

“He tried to imagine what they were thinking, […] as impenetrable as if they were enclosed deep in the permafrost or carved out of polished malachite.”

This is a perfect gem that you will never forget, ending with another ‘dying fall’ via reservations of eschatology, connected with the earlier connections that the story builds up within itself as well as with previous stories in the book and, dare I say, with that other book I am randomly also real-time reviewing at the same time. Connections regarding a boy who has perceived behavioural problems at school: connections between adders (!) and his arithmetic lessons, myths and maths, rorschach and interpretation, mineral and animal, bullying and being bullied… “He fought the urge to turn and run; the need to pee was too strong.” This book so far seems to be a cross-section of ‘boy’, through time as well as via awareness-through-spirituality beyond any ‘cross-reference’! “The meadow was full of ragwort and poppies and lumpy with chunks of concrete.” (17 Dec 11)

For “awareness-through-spirituality” above please read “awareness-through-science-and-spirituality”.  Also, I mentioned Criss-Cross Quiz or Blockbuster in connection with the book’s cover. On second thoughts, it’s more like a nature-study form of Celebrity Squares!  This excellent cover artwork is by Suzanne Norris. Design and layout by Bigeyebrow and Chomu Press. (17 Dec 11 – an hour later)

Boy’s Games

I have just read the first sentence of this story, a sentence referring to “a line of three stars. Orion’s belt?”  Potentially noteworthy, as the book – that, a couple of hours ago, I happened to finish real-time reviewing – is entitled ALCYONE: a star in the Pleiades? (17 Dec 11 – another 4 hours later)

“‘Chino’s eating his lunch that I peed on!’ José shouted. ‘I peed on it and now he’s eating it!'”

There’s something biologeee and eartheee and vegetableee — and mineralleee (stars and a moon-path) — about Jackson’s work: here continuing the inter-threading of boys and the men they become, and vice versa, battling not only with enemies in a war (as well as with their own mixed motives) but also with a self-vulnerability: a Mother’s boy cuddling-need, even when alone with other men.  Frankly, this story needs re-reading to gather all its sticklebacks in my jar.   It simply sits where it sits so far in this book: perfectly. “Our orders are to shoot deserters from either side.”  Jackson’s artfully rich yet spare prose flays Nature to its fibrous sinews. Valiant and weak, by alternating mutual host/parasite symbiosis. “‘Chino doesn’t think,’ said Chino…” (17 Dec 11 – another 90 minutes later)

Cut Short

“…stories of patience and endurance, of the spirits of people reincarnated in trees and rocks and dolphins.”

A relatively brief, extremely clever, enormously poignant essay-as-fiction upon various forms of transience – an essay pondered upon as the imputed writer has a haircut in a barbers – mythology as a form of spiritualism, how, just as one of many examples in this story, digital things (like cameras – and, I suggest, ebooks) cannot retain durability or even a sense of reality like old-fashioned devices that preceded digital ones. Also, in tune with the earlier cross-section of boy and man in this book, I, too, when I visit the barber each month for my ‘number one’ haircut, I often look into the mirror and see my erstwhile Dad, not me. Truly. (18 Dec 11)

The Rabbit Keeper

“Alexander’s mother was wearing a dress that had a design of birds in ornamental cages.”

This story’s boy protagonist is as if conspired against by loved and detested alike: or is he conspiring himself as if he is the ‘Sredni Vashtar’ creature, not the rabbit with its vulnerable young? A blend of a Katherine Mansfield style with the growing boy-pains of realisation when faced with a leering ‘wide-boy’ character fresh from a Just William story but here preying upon sexual prey rather than just the a child’s pocket money.  And the story ends with another  jumping nerve – or four. (19 Dec 11)

Flaubert’s Poison

“He even thought he caught a whiff of nineteenth century adultery in the peppery smell of old paperbacks.”

This strikes me as the perfect telling mirror-image of the previous story with different circumstances but a similar growing-boy soul amid concupiscence and ‘wide-boy’ preying – it even ends with another jumping nerve (or twitch)!  A quest for Flaubert’s Parrot, but here a cod or poisson? A meticulous examination of the balance in the scales of love and life? (19 Dec 11 – another 90 minutes later)

The Island

For an hour, Judith struggled with her book. […] In the heat, the words trailed off like insects…”

To the background of a married couple’s holiday and their trip to a Mediterranean island close to their hotel – boated there by a ‘boy’-boatman or “attendant” (cf: the attendant in the earlier Ermine story) – we have now a theme and variation on the previous two stories of preying and being preyed-upon sexually – and the ‘slithy tove’ accoutrements of nature in counterpoint. Here we have, inter alia, a slanting flash of Forster’s ‘Passage to India’ and a general sense of the Collected Stories of DH Lawrence amid the counterpoint of host and parasite.  And Jackson’s trade-mark ‘dying-fall’ acceptance as a culmination that leaves the reader strangely sated as well as empty.  But sated with what? Empty of what? (19 Dec 11 – another hour later)

[As a reviewer’s self-indulgence, I drop two links here and here to just two of my own stories (retrocausally inspired?) from the 1990s. They are not in the same class as the stories in this book, of course, but honestly proffered nevertheless within this real-time review. A real-time review not only of a book, but of a singular self duly affected by that book.  A reading-journey in a book probably transfigured – as I have pointed out on more than one previous occasion – by the fact that I know I am publicly reporting the journey while still upon that journey. (For any interested, most of my early published stories are linked from the Weirdmonger Wheel although the first linked story above is not included on the Wheel as it was subsequently published in the collection ‘Weirdmonger’ (Prime 2003).)] (19 Dec 11 – another 30 minutes later)

Spadework

“Norfolk hedgerows, the majority of them, were dug up in the fifties or sixties, rooted out for intensive cultivation…”

This book’s boy-to-man ‘cross-section’ now in literal display: in various processes of extraction, i.e. fence posts, carrots (and sticks?), cancers, childhood accidents in earth’s ‘quicksand’, childhoods themselves: the nature of roots – rooted-within what?  And the ‘scientific-chemical’ symbiosis of the host (ground) and parasite (fence post)? The ‘spadework’ that digging beneath the surface of these stories entails – assuming that any reviewer worth his or her salt could indeed be tempted to dig deeper than the likes of me! (19 dec 11 – another 45 minutes later)

Shell Fire

“At these times it seemed that the world was made for him alone, and that these effects of nature were unobserved except by him.”

Although all stories in this book stand alone, they now all lead, for me, to this substantive work. Our spadework done (before ‘extraction’), we now watch a coloured school-caretaker (budgeted out into early-retirement) – linked to his boyhood by a sea-shell and seeing his father as if in that earlier barber’s mirror – as he roots into the ground not a fence-post (earlier rooted-out in the previous story) but what I would call eventually by the end of the story: a cone-zero – a magic-fiction: a symbol beyond mere magic-realism – beyond racial bullying, beyond tawdry sexual preying initiated by the socially-perceived victim rather than by the more likely socially-condemnable perpetrator. Here we “peel back the skin of thoughts” as tutored by Jackson’s forensic caringness as foster-author, while seeing the caretaker sweeping up leaves even though they blow away again (like the so-called leaves (as pages) of this book or, more tellingly, of an ebook?), unblocking drainpipes, “digging down through the layers of rubble”…. Snailshell mating snailshell and the sound of the sea from within the perfect white conch or that final clinch of fire? Another ‘dying fall’ of  understanding nothing as the cumulative culmination of understanding everything – but also, now, vice versa. “Other shells are parasitic, piercing the soft tissues of their host to drain out the life-blood in tiny sips.”  A symbol beyond meaning, too. (19 Dec 11 – another 90 minutes later)

Made of Glass

“But Daniel was hoiked to his feet. / We’re going to get you a haircut.”

The perfect coda to this symphony of stories. This book’s erstwhile Barber’s Mirror syndrome made into a cabinet of curiosities or an aquarium of creatures (or eye-balls).  Not only across one generation but two. Poignant and funny. “Cut it as short as you can; he’s got nits.”  And I am just one more nit who’ll now get out of the book’s hair. Let the book or boy roam on the “shining sand” fighting against the bully that is Life itself.  But is this book a passive shield or active weapon? Each reader will have a different answer to that question; but, whether shield or weapon, this wonderful tangible words’ worth of a text held today in your hand on 19 December 2011 can self-evidently never change…unless you try to destroy it, pulp it, electronicise it or drop it, at best, into the teeming ocean…  Like the Child who is, was, will be Father of the Man. (19 Dec 11 – another 3 hours later)

END

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Secret Life of the Panda – Nick Jackson

  1. nick Jackson

    Thanks for reading “The Secret Life of the Panda”, Des. I’m enjoying your analysis of the stories. You see things in them I didn’t know were there myself! Funnily enough, “Lady with an Ermine” was written precisely for ‘Cern Zoo’ after a visit to see the Large Hadron Collider with a quantum physicist who works there.

  2. Thanks, Nick. 🙂
    I look forward to reading and reviewing the rest of the stories.
    If I rejected the Ermine story for CERN ZOO in 2009 (as would seem to be the case based on what you say above), it came up completely fresh to me yesterday!
    des

  3. Today, 19 Dec 11, Breaking News: a new Barber’s Mirror Syndrome, another Child is Father of the Man;

    “The death of Kim Jong-il is the ultimate moment of truth for North Korea. This strangest of regimes has survived for 20 years after most forms of communism elsewhere either perished or morphed into something more sensible. So we had best not underestimate its staying power.
    Kim Jong-un inherits a poisoned chalice. This untried youth must now run a country both at odds with most of the world and oppressive of its long-suffering people – who may not obey forever, despite the remarkable scenes of publicly orchestrated grief which we are now witnessing.”

  4. nick Jackson

    I have appreciated your reading of my stories, Des. It’s a kind of psychoanalysis of the book and, strangely, of me. I feel as though I’ve been well and truly hung, drawn and quartered!

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