Thursday, January 29, 2015

in search of lost time: The St. Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires, by Eric Stener Carlson

Tartarus Press, 2009
233 pp


"Hobbes was is too short." 

Set in Buenos Aires, Miguel Ibaňez spends his days working as a civil servant, "the lowest-rung bureaucrat"  in the "most obscure" Ministry of Parks, Public Monuments and Green Areas. His boss, Gutierrez, has dumped a lose-lose assignment in his lap -- telling him that since he had been a student of "all that philosophy and shit at the University of Buenos Aires," maybe he could figure out how to keep everyone happy on both sides of the issue of gating all of the city's parks and then locking them at night to keep the homeless out.  Miguel knows that whatever he does will cause controversy, and matters are made even worse when he's told he'll be organizing a conference on the topic.  This wasn't the life Ibaňez had planned -- once he'd been a promising PhD student working diligently on his dissertation with the aim of being a professor, but as things so often happen, he had to set his future plans aside and take a job.   As an escape, he often returns to his favorite haunts, bookstores. Not the
"modern bookstores, with hip-hop blaring and cappucinos foaming and salesgirls in tight T-shirts offering self help books on everything from Zen Buddhism"
 but the old stores with "musty" smell, "dusty, isolated from the cares and troubles of the outside world. His favorite is Bernardo's, where the owner sat perpetually thumbing through his well-worn copy of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu.  And indeed time, or more specifically, the secret of  controlling time, is the subject of this fascinatingly strange book, which weaves its way through the streets, the subways and the old bookstores of Buenos Aires.

At Bernardo's one afternoon after a particularly difficult morning at work, Ibaňez is searching for a particular edition of Plato's Republic that he'd been eyeing for a very long time. Grabbing it from its usual spot on the shelves, he discovers to his surprise that he'd picked up a "rather battered edition" of Butler's Lives of the Saints. When he questions Bernardo about the Republic, the only answer the old man can give him is a cryptic "Tempus fugit," before sticking his nose back in the Proust.  He turns to Bernardo's wife Bernardina with the same question, and her response, trying to snatch it from his hand, piques Miguel's curiosity. As he notes,
"The binding was good, the leaves sturdy. But the more I looked at it, the more I felt there was something deeper. I didn't know what it was, but I felt Bernardina sensed it too."
He also had the feeling that this particular book "belonged" to him.  It had for some reason been priced ridiculously low, so Ibaňez decides to buy it. Despite the fact that the money should go toward baby formula for his infant son,  Miguel hands over the cash and claims the book for himself, while Bernardina begs him not to take it.  That night he begins to read, and when he gets to the section on St. Perpetuus, eighth Bishop of Tours, he finds "a series of annotations between the lines," in "beautiful, flowing cursive, the kind you find in old court documents from the 1800s." As he soon discovers, this "sort of malicious diary hidden between the lines and arranged in a series of books" is "anything but saintly."  He begins to lose himself in this secret book within a book, uncovering the writings of a man who claims to have the power to control time. As he follows this man's story, this book becomes Miguel's obsession while juggling work, a wife, and fatherhood; after all, who wouldn't want to know the secrets of how this is possible?  In searching for answers, his obsession slowly turns into a quest, even as he lets his wife and child slip away from him.

The hidden book turns out to have been written by someone who, like Miguel, was a civil servant himself. I won't go into his story, because it is so strange and so fascinating that it has to be experienced firsthand. What I will say is that this book explores the hidden treasures and secrets of a city, saying in effect that even when time is of the essence, there's much to be discovered in the "dark fissures," the history, and the public spaces of where one lives. As Miguel says as he's looking at the stories that are told on the murals of the city subways:
"Such fascinating stories on the subway walls, and yet I bet not one commuter in a hundred knows what the images mean. People are just too busy with their memos and their deadlines and all of the rest of their bullshit to pay attention."
 Beyond the obvious, though, there's the question of time itself -- what would a person do if he/she could go back in time and change things?   The answers are not as cut and dried as one might think.

There's is a LOT going on in this book, but it's all very tightly controlled in the hands of the author, who has woven several topics into one story: the nature of time, the nature of destiny, the hellish and often absurd world of bureaucracy and civil service, and the importance of history.  There are also some very funny moments in this book, including one where I actually recognized myself -- there's one scene where the lights go out in Miguel's apartment, and thinking about changing the fuses, he realizes he doesn't even know what to do -- that the fuse box was "an absolute mystery...Fucking humanities!" That's so me: booksmart but real-world things leave me scratching my head.  On the other hand, it's a very serious story that in my opinion, shouldn't be missed by anyone.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

about as dark as it gets, folks...Songs for the Lost, by Alexander Zelenyj

Eibonvale Press, 2014
510 pp


my copy provided by the publisher -- a very huge and very grateful thanks!

Once again Eibonvale has scored really big on the anthology scale, this time with its collection of short stories Songs for the Lost by author Alexander Zelenyj.  There is no way to pigeonhole these tales in terms of genre or style, so the term "dark fiction" or my new favorite phrase "literary darkness" (thank you, RD) will just have to do for the moment. David Rix, "who first launched the good ship Eibonvale,"  notes in the book's introduction no less than twenty genres, which "suggests a diverse range of styles" including "surrrealism", "weird western," "weird war fiction," "children's fiction," "urban fantasy," "weird erotica," "pulp," "noir," and then his final category, "as well as other less defined things." It is certainly one of the most diverse collections I've ever read -- one minute you're reading about the horrors found in the jungles of Vietnam or Laos and the next thing you know you're in the middle of a suicide cult's final moments -- but even with the wide range of styles on offer here, thematically they all tie together perfectly.  Turning once more to the book's introduction, Songs for the Lost deals with "Human pain on a level that is very real," the kind of pain that brings with it a "parallel need for escape, and with it a kind hope."

There are a total of 34 stories and poems in this collection so it is a huge, all but impossible task to talk about each one on an individual basis and to give each the detailed attention and it deserves.  This is a book inhabited by the lonely, the damaged, the lost, the emotionally tortured;  their collective pain an undercurrent that runs through the entire volume,  their collective desires for deliverance made manifest in several different forms.  For example: a soldier whose mind is broken because he carried out orders. A brother and sister standing on a beach waiting for the inevitable. Two adventurers who stumble into an unknown civilization, one of them guided by fame, the other by wonder. A rock group which rises to cult status and fame after they simply vanish  along with hundreds of fans in an "exodus" tied to the twin stars of Sirius.   And many, many more lost souls to be examined.

I have several favorites from this volume -- "The Dying Days of Treasure Spiders Everywhere," about a troubled boy and his grandfather; "Maria, Here Come the Death Angels," which made me want to cry; "Or the Loneliness of Another Million Years," about a man who meets up with a boy who hears about a special door on a toy radio; "On Tour With the Deathray Bradburys;" "Roaring Dream of the Weeping Spider-Men," which emotionally floored me solely because of its subject matter, and then there's "Far Beneath Incomplete Constellations," one of the best stories in this collection, about a man who uses and abuses a young girl he meets who somehow finds it within her to love him even though he admits her body is just a vehicle for him (to what I won't say).  This story alone, probably the best written in the entire book, combines erotica, fantasy, and magical realism to examine a man who is quite frankly dead inside.

 To unashamedly borrow from the book's foreword  written by Brian A. Dixon, once you step into Songs For the Lost  "you will find yourself among lost souls touring abandoned hopes and forbidden dreams at the edge of an impossible paradise."   And it is exactly the author's ability to place the reader at that edge that  is Zelenyj's special gift.   It is a dark place to be sure, and there were times while reading that I wanted out, but I was just not ready to pack up and leave until the last word appeared on the last page.

Songs for the Lost is that perfect, excellent blend of literary and dark that I am always looking for and in my opinion, it is an absolute must-read for anyone who loves dark fiction.  Highly recommended but not just for anyone. Prepare to be gut punched, and do not read this book while you're depressed. Once again, it's a small press that proves that literary and dark can indeed go hand in hand -- cheers.