Monday, February 1, 2016

Nothing is Strange, by Mike Russell: Out there in a good way

Strange Books, 2014
144 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

"We all already occupy the same space...It is just our centres that are at different points."

Small presses are a godsend to someone like me who seriously craves something beyond the ordinary, and I definitely got that in Mike Russell's Nothing is Strange.  While I was reading this little gem of a collection, for some reason René Magritte (whose work I absolutely love)  popped into my brain, but I could only remember part of a quotation of his, something to do with things being hidden and having an interest in wanting to see them.  It bugged me most of the evening, until finally I was so exasperated with my memory that I had to go look it up and voilà:
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.  There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us."
If I had to concisely summarize these little stories, I seriously couldn't think of a better way to do it than via Magritte's words.

There are twenty stories in this small book, obviously very short but definitely powerful.  What I discovered is that while reading, I could actually visualize his bizarre characters and settings in my head and it was sort of like walking through a gallery of surrealist paintings.  That's the best way I can describe it -- I wasn't  blessed with the gift of eloquence in my writing (as I'm so fond of saying, I'm a reader, not a writer and I'm a reader, not a reviewer),  so that image will just have to do.

As just one example - one of my favorite stories in this book is his "Extraordinary Elsie,"  a very short tale but one that speaks volumes. It begins like this:
"The words 'Extraordinary Elsie' are written in yellow light-bulbs on the front of the theatre... Yesterday, when the audience read about Extraordinary Elsie on the poster pasted to the front door of the theatre, they could hardly believe it, but believe it they did."
Inside, the theatre is filled with people who have come to see her, "a small, disheveled elderly woman" who steps inside a wooden crate on the stage. The crate is locked, and at the theater owner's nod, a young boy "begins a drum roll," which over time "continues...and continues...and continues..." but the crate stays locked.  Time goes by -- first, three minutes, then three hours, at which point "the drum roll has slowed to an occasional, exhausted tap," yet all the while, the audience "remains as positive and excited as they were when Elsie first appeared."  More time goes by -- three days, three years, nine years, and still the audience waits.  And then we're told that (without giving much away):
"Nine years ago, Elsie entered the theater through the back door. She had been on her way home from the supermarket when she had noticed the words written in yellow light-bulbs on the back of the theatre. The words read 'The Extraordinary Audience.' When Elsie read about the audience on the poster pasted to the back door of the theatre, she could hardly believe it, but believe it she did." 
I won't reveal what happens to either Elsie or the audience, but suffice it to say that images were just flying around in my head while reading this story and I was totally caught up in how extraordinary it is.
The thing is, most of the stories in this little book have this strange power that allows a reader to fully visualize what's happening, which helps bring about that aha moment when the brain cogs whir and meaning materializes.

Not everyone is going to love this book -- it probably won't appeal to a lot of readers who have to have things spelled out, explained, etc., since that doesn't really happen here. This is a book for people who enjoy a good think,  and who "... want to see what is hidden by what we see."  Its elegance lies in its simplicity, and its simplicity belies its complexity.

It is dark, definitely designed for people who want something different in their reading; it's also one of those books I appreciate for its ability to go outside the box and push my own reading boundaries outside of the norm. It is beyond cool, well beyond ordinary, and just so what I needed right now.

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