Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

"The Cusp of Something" by Jai Clare (Elastic Press, 2007)

190 pages containing 25 stories, amongst them 3 from London Magazine, 2 from Smokelong Quarterly and 1 from Agni. The characters are "waiting on the brink of discovery" says the blurb, though I don't feel that revelation's just round the corner for them. They don't seem to develop in the course of the texts. Because the stories share a pool of concerns, reading one helps when reading the others. It's tempting to seek the stories' epicentre, to analyse the author - or at least to build a dictionary of symbols - but I'll try to stick to the stories.

I like their tone - the lack of info-dumps, the wealth of inner voice. Information's delayed (sometimes forever), creating a tension that often replaces that of plot. Description is more atmospheric than symbolic. No families, old people, or illness. No confidantes. No career plans, routines or calculation. No world events or politics. Instead there are islands, empty cities, post-catastrophe emptiness of landscapes, missing lovers imagined or sought, serial lovers and female sexual frustration all depicted in episodic paragraphs. Here for example is part of "Islands of the Blessed"

Come, he calls, come, they are bombing the cities! We crowd like beetles around the TV set. Plasma, he says, plasma TV from the city.
The blankets flap; the wind has risen. I must tie down our exits

In the islands of the blessed a cruise boat is passing. Night quickens. Someone is crying, screaming. Today the feluccas are silent but at night I hear their stealth.

Some background is later given, though the ending doesn't give obvious closure -

If the islands go the obelisk crumbles, the birds vanish, and everyone will join the flow of busy striving that I see passing by, see their faces as they envy our singing, our sitting, our simplicity. Can the flow of striving take so many more? Is it never ending, this busy, they never sit and watch or feel the perfection of stillness? They never see the dragonfly humming, the river bears dancing and the sun-tipped water reapplying with pleasure.

"More Moments of Sheer Joy" features a woman who earns money by visiting islands for a year, finding lovers on the way, leaving her husband (and maybe a child) behind - "Islands are like moments ... We all need more moments of sheer joy"

I can smell the island. Smell its limits; sense its end and sheer joy of completion. An island, no matter its actual shape, is like a circle. It completes and surrenders itself. It is perfection composed of granite, earth and sand. I set foot on an island and am infused with joy like a religious ecstasy

Not all the stories use this style, but if you don't like that kind of writing, you'll struggle with this book. Here's part of another paragraph that keeps shifting its subject, this time from "Shallow Shore"

All birds are magpies. The sails are grimy. He can see his child crawling on the acid green grass. He can see the power station to the right heaving pouches of steam, the water rushes, a pebble lands carefully to his Wellingtons. The pebble is hot. Steam rising. He looks to the power station. The sails of the catamaran are full of mould and lichen. He tries to wipe away and leaves waves of stains along the canvas. A bell, not a chime, more an assault on the air, blasts. The power station. (p.48)

"Bone on bone" has a narrator whose selfdom is tied up with sex

  • I am from nowhere and everywhere. I lack history. I lack passports and pensions and things that tie me to the ground. I have a real name, I have a real life but it is hidden inside me. I am no longer me. (p.56)
  • I clench inwards. Tingle. Desire is a torturer. It stabs me. How can this longing be real, and if he touches me will I liquefy? Eyes closed, I touch him, I smell him. Each note he plays is tattooed into my flesh. I am in his fingers like bone. (p.58)
  • In cheap hotel rooms, finally I tell him my name. In cheap hotel rooms we dream and plan futures. I touch him and he is full of life. I take his fingers and make them sing. Bone on bone, flesh touching me. When he's inside me I touch music; I have stolen music

    I am in love with a pianist; without his piano what is he? (p.61)

And without sex, what is she? Sex can become a power-game - rape in the safety of one's flat; sex down alleys; open-air sex. The book's sexually explicit - in one of the online interviews it says that the publisher once classified it as erotica.

"Mad Angels" is rather different from the other pieces in that it's set in the clubbing scene. Gail's being battered by Phil. At the end she watches him being attacked in a dark alley while she's being taken advantage of - "smiling horrified coming smiling".

Twins/siblings or friends commonly become rivals. In "The Land is Lighting" 2 male friends drive away from the city with a girl friend. The countryside's sparsely populated in the time of the story. The girl likes visiting abandoned homes, is curious about the locals. She disappears, perhaps to stay with a woman - a tendency the narrator had already suspected. At the end "Sometimes we come back to this spot. Josh and I. Though we never leave the car. We just sit and watch the house on the brow of the hill, looking for Gissy. It is a risk leaving the city" - for them as well as her, I presume.

The Sweetest Skin" features another attractive male. He and a partner are in a Butterfly House. Children and butterflies are attracted to him. At the end he's covered in butterflies - "you say nothing. You see nothing. Red-winged Lustrous in your mouth, Great Mormon on your eyes like pennies for the Styx ferryman. I stand by the entrance door and watch you transforming, your skin hazy and golden where the wings don't cover, for once becoming solid and substantial within.// I turn away and a child begins to cry."

"Memory of Sky", little over a page, is a prose poem of sorts - "Loosening of body, a drift of acceptance against the comfort of darkness and the mesmer of light. She lifts, arms open, and the layers break down, upward, head into holes, the loosening of water. The ground bubbles into memory of sky. Water tumbles into the dried scraped waterway. A reunion". I wasn't so keen on these shorter pieces - they're not my sort of "poetry".

In "A Man of Shape" there's a clearer structure

  • a woman is visited by her male lover, who uses a scarf while making love outside.
  • in the tube Emily, a dance student, gives the woman her address
  • the woman visits Emily, who has an eye for closet bisexuals
  • the woman brings her lover to Emily. The 2 make love
  • next day the woman reads that Emily killed herself. She breaks up with her lover. The final paragraph is "My lover returns to the sea, to gritty sand and to creating patterns with strangers. The white blossoms emerge as usual the following year. I keep all the scarves buried in the earth beneath the white cherry tree. I travel the tube less and never catch anyone's eye"

In "Vanitas" (which has subtitled sections) a female cartoonist whose hobby is collecting erotic art mixes up work and play, introduces herself into the mix. She is curious about a nearby house, strays into it - "Music begins, from the left hand corridor - violins slicing through the dusty air. A dog races along here towards her smelling of rain and lemon shampoo. It rushes downstairs and out through the open door to the bright outside, flicking water, as it passes, onto her hands. cold water.// Then she nearly trips on a fatheaded sunflower taking up the space on the next step. It lies prone like a beheaded blonde darling - all curls and sun-flattered. The music gets louder, violins shouting with cellos for clarity. The sunflower lets loose all of its seeds. They tumble down the red carpet like little black eyes". She doesn't know whether the art works are real or fake. In what might be a dream sequence she acts out a submissive fantasy.

"The Cusp of Something" features a group on holiday in Japan. More sex in the open, hints of bisexuality and sexual frustration - "I touch myself. No pain in my touch on myself. It's the only true authentic feeling: the touch of your fingers on your own clit. The only pleasure you can truly rely on". The story ends with a hang-gliding expedition - "It's the only thing left, isn't it, to leap into the air, to leap into nothing, forget the world you leave behind, to do nothing but experience without thinking, and gulp air and live, take in huge fat breaths of air and float to the ground like a crazy leaf".

In "The Lightest Blue" the male narrator's on a Greek holiday (Athens, Mycenae, Cape Sounion) - "Aren't we tourists like parasites, following each other round the sites like stitches in a hem? But these things have to be seen. How else can you see them but as a tourist? You cannot live in every place you visit". He has 3 rolls of film that he's thinking of developing. Jude, his holiday partner has deserted him without warning. Her ex-lover, Richard, had done the same holiday a year before with someone else. He disappeared too. The narrator thinks that Jude may have gone looking for Richard, who excited her in ways other men (the narrator included) hadn't. Their plane leaves the next day. He goes out with friends. They drive to a happening. He finds Jude there, with Richard. He ends face down in the sea, the undeveloped film drifting away.

"The Hand of Fatima", set in North Africa has many of same ingredients though this time the contrasts are stated upfront - "Irlam likes to pat the necks of camels. He says they are beautiful creatures./ I say camels are ugly, and smell./ Irlam loves the desert./ I say the desert is just a patch of ground there to make you burn and starve". Perhaps this time dependency is mutual - "Without me what would Irlam do? He is so like a boy" (p.154); "I still like him. I wonder if my like is more survival dependency than real affection" (p.155); "Irlam needs me too. I cannot leave him" (p.156). This time the third person isn't a sexual partner - Ahmed is their sometime guide. She's led into a trap (a crowd of men) by Irlam, lost in a medina, but she escapes. Months later she finds Irlam again. At the end "I dream of blue skies and squatting pissing women and Irlam smiling. The men were surprised that I could run from them. My dreams are like detectives: they tell me what I could never know ... The dreams show Irlam as he was when I first met him ..."

In "With Phantoms Still" set in Greece the main character had a lover, Peter, a boatman in the village. Stefan, a husband-to-be, is planning to extend a house for them to live in. Symbolically, this sounds like the happiest news in the book. To clear space, he and his uncle try to burn an olive tree - at night, hoping she's asleep. But she's not. She puts the flames out. They try again. This time she's too late. She runs away, borrows a boat. At the end "The olive grove burns. The village is awake but uncaring. Light teases the edges of the waves lulling against the boat. Shadows murmur. I sleep until dawn, start up the engines and slowly, like a homecoming, head back to town". But back to which man?

In "Aftermath" a woman waits on moors (or something like that) in vain for a lover. There's a lot about crows as counterpoint to her mental state - "All the values she once believed in, everything she expected when people, men talked to her had changed. Nothing was what it seemed and so she could no longer be straight, geometric, knowable. She had to be hidden. And nihilistic in her pleasure. Tricksy and teasing and never serious, never real". At the end on the way home she fall in "the chill of nothingness".

In "The Summer of Follet and Lilim", police replace crows. They watch the narrator as she sits sweltering on a porch. They're interested in the vacant house opposite. Follet, a lover, is in her house. Lilim, his lover, visits. Lilim and the narrator each have half the house. With Limim around, the narrator's memories of life with Follet seem less real - "He is as real as the sky but as distant as air". Lilim says to her "he was never really yours". The narrator claims "He said you didn't mind. He hinted it was over". But the narrator and Follet still sleep together, making Limim cry. Perhaps they try threesomes, though Limim has second thoughts. The narrator feels as if she can't leave, trapped by them both. At the end she may have been abandoned. The police may be trying to release her.

I hadn't intended to describe the plots, but having finished the book I realised that I'd found several stories memorable. Partly this is because I've been in some of the story's locations (I would have liked to set a scene in Mycenae the way she had), partly because strong emotional topics are dealt with. I found some of the poetic material fluffily impressionistic though, and some not new enough - the Crows, and story endings like "though it was filled with zillions of stars, all she noticed was the enormity of the spaces between them". Of the longer pieces I liked "Ramblista" least (though I've been to Barcelona). I liked "The lightest blue", "Vanitas", and "The Hand of Fatima" most.

The publisher, Elastic Press, is no more - a shame because I like their books that I've read, which you can buy via Inpress.

Other reviews

  • goodreads
  • DF Lewis
  • Joel Willans (Short Review) (When Clare reverts to more traditional storytelling with protagonists that are challenged and changed, the result is usually a more satisfying read)
  • Kay Sexton (Her characters are often fragmented, sliding between real existence and a fantasy life in which they re-present or re-create their own reality through a variety of devices: vision, memory, fantasy. And it’s not that their own realities are particularly mundane: simply that they can see, on the horizon or cusp or fracture, an alternate reality which both calls to them and frightens them)
  • Jim Murdoch (Some of the stories are set in foreign locations which accentuate the alienation these individuals feel. They are all looking for something, a lost city, love, validation or answers to questions they hardly know how to answer; in that respect she has a lot in common with A L Kennedy)

No comments:

Post a Comment