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Tag Archives: Jorge Luis Borges

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

This is a remarkable collection of poems and I recommend all our readers to order a copy immediately from Tony Frazer in the hope that it may arrive for the New Year. In moments of Spicerian click and snap the word happens and a reader ‘would not choose to blink and go blind /After the instant’. The camera’s focus is on landscapes of mood, cinematic realisations, and the results are some of the most rewarding and accurate film criticism I have read.
‘Fragment of an Unpublished Memoir by a Cinematographer’s Assistant’ gives us a glimpse of that landscape of the Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men:

“…the riches of the world receding.
The desert was a landscape of mutability in a world of
immutability…”

Those receding riches do not merely refer to chance wealth acquired by a man who stumbles upon a drug exchange gone wrong but also include that throaty voice-over of the sheriff talking about ‘past-times’ and comparisons with the ‘oldtimers’. Within the eleven lines of the poem we hear that same nostalgic quietness in ‘I remember’ and ‘Mostly, I remember / the wide-open emptiness’.

With a similar sense of acute observation incorporating comment the Coen’s Fargo is presented to us initially as ‘Desire’:

In the flat uninhabited spaces, snow falls from an empty
sky. Here and there, the bare branches of an oak are
black against the steadily-falling flakes.

This blanketing of snow ‘accumulates like / loneliness’ with one snowfall ‘covering the last one, layering into / snowdrifts that become the landscape’. The plaintive musical score by Carter Burwell echoes behind Thompson’s lines as we recognise that everyone is ‘forced to forge new paths of exile through an unknown land.’

Walter Hill’s 1979 film of The Warriors is caught by the poet as we glimpse the ‘wheel purple against / the nothingness / behind it’ and yet feel the ‘awful urgency’ of that pace as the gangs of the city converge upon Pelham Bay Park.

Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle is the taxi-driver from the 1976 film whose monotony can be heard behind the lines

The days go on & on.
Night goes on & on.

Red neon signs
shimmer on wet streets.

Nightmare and surreal fantasy merge with the urban glare as you look in the film’s closing scene to see ‘your face with someone else’s eyes / in the mirror’.

As a last example of this tour-de-force of language moving at the speed of film we confront a whiteness different from that of the opening sequence of Fargo: a whiteness which is the ‘administration of days / which / will not suffer a whit of deviation / or allow more than a rectangle of sky’. This is the medication-time horror of Big Nurse’s ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

When I first started reading this book of poems I kept thinking of another book which hovered on the edge of my mind, just out of reach of both hand and eye. I now remember it: Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy with its starkly evocative landscape acting as a backdrop to ‘The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan’:

An image of the desert wilds of Arizona, first and foremost, an image of the desert wilds of Arizona and New Mexico—a country famous for its silver and gold camps, a country of breathtaking open spaces, a country of monumental mesas and soft colours, a country of bleached skeletons picked clean by buzzards.

Ian Brinton 20th December 2014

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