Tuesday, 24 March 2009

I've Just Finished Reading...

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand.

This is a collection of four longer stories and four shorter ones. The latter are gathered under the subheading The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations.
Hand is familiar to me from novels such as Waking the Moon, The Glimmering and Black Light. These tend to mix the heady atmospheres of the late nineteenth century decadent writers with plots which see the rites and mythic patterns of classical and other pre-Christian cults re-emerge in modern, usually American settings. The protagonists tend to be young people in artistic or bohemian milieux. The stories in this recent collection (it was published in 2006) don’t stray too far from these pre-occupations, but there are significant variations.

Cleopatra Brimstone, the opening story, features a young woman whose life revolves around the entomological studies which she is wholly absorbed by. She holds herself aloof from human relationships, partly because her beauty and the attentions which it draws are an unwanted distraction for her. She tries to ignore the strange growths which she finds above her eyebrows. One evening she suffers a rape and as a result retreats further from life, finally travelling to London, living in Camden by the canal and volunteering for work at the local zoo. Here she re-invents herself and takes on the name and attendant persona which gives the story its title. She picks up boys and finds out that by bringing them to orgasm she can transform them into insects, which she then takes to her killing jar and mounts on a personal display. It is a disturbing symbolic transferral of the self-disgust that comes from abuse, and the perpetuation of a cycle of destructive sexuality. An uncomfortable story to read, with deliberate echoes of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and John Fowles’ The Collector. The evocation of the Grand Union Canal around Camden as seen through an outsider’s perspective brought it vividly into my minds eye, as its a city byway which I have often walked.

Pavane for a Prince of the Air is a moving story of the wake and unorthodox death rites of Cal, an arch 60s hippy, a sort of Wavy Gravy figure. The telling details and very specificity of this tale of seeing someone towards a sudden and unanticipated death, and of the un-stated routines into which such a situation sees people swiftly falling, gives it the feeling of having been drawn from personal experience. Whether this is actually the case I don’t know. The narrator is clearly a writer, however, and there is a bit of self-effacing auto-criticism when she remembers Cal telling her of her books that ‘the last one was really good, Carrie. But it’s sort of the same, isn’t it? You have the plucky heroine and her cynical best friend sidekick and the blood sacrifice’. He also tells her that her characters are always so young and that she should write about grown ups. The proximity of death creates an atmosphere of strange enchantment and heightened emotion and means that the subsequent appearance of a bird which may or may not hold out the possibility of re-incarnation is less absurd than it might have been.

The Least Trumps features the daughter of two bohemian artistic women who isolates herself on an island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island. Any attempt to stray too far from her retreat results in debilitating panic attacks. She picks up a deck of blank cards from a rummage sale (that’s a jumble sale to you and me – nice to see it’s a tradition that spans the Atlantic) and which appear to have been owned by a writer who has had a huge influence on her life. A picture appears one of the cards which seemingly links it to one of the writer’s books, and she decides one night to tattoo it onto her own skin (she is a tatoo artist). This brings about unforeseen consequences, with an old friend long thought dead returning, possibly resurrected. Further changes are affected, as her contained world is subtly redrawn, and the hope for rebirth is offered in the ambiguously transcendent denouement. It is a story which engages with the dangers of becoming too engaged in fantasies, whether fictional or romantic. As such, it bears certain resemblances to some of M.John Harrison’s short stories.

Wonderwall, which possibly refers more to the oddball sixties film of the same name than the busker’s Oasis favourite , is a story of youthful artistic aspirations, of the decadent’s dedication to following through on William Blake’s dictum that ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. The young woman and her gay friend flatmate who determinedly pursue the derangement of the senses in the name of high art could be Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe or any number of other archetypically earnest bohemians. The wall of the title is the final barrier through which the narrator sees beyond the surfaces of things, and where she finds a sardonically ascerbic character who may be the spirit of Rimbaud. The story is ultimately about the need to grow up, to find your own self rather than retread paths already well-worn. The vision of maturity which shows you that ‘there were other ways to bring down a wall: that you could dismantle it, brick by brick, stone by stone, over years and years and years’. A lifetime’s project rather than the crash and burn assault of youth.

The final four stories are short vignettes of communication thwarted, relationships dislocated and truncated by time, distance and disaster. In an afterword, Hand explains how these were inspired by an epistolary friendship (which we can assume is with the collection’s dedicatee, the critic and author John Clute) which was interrupted by the events of 9/11, which made her temporarily fear for his life. The stories are elusive and shot through with an unlocated sense of unease. Their elliptical nature could place them with ease in the pages of the 60s New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship (incidentally one of the first homes of Clute’s criticism). The quote from Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a film composed almost entirely of still, is also an apposite reference point. This comes at the start of Kronia, the shortest of these stories, which appears to offer a shifting kaleidoscope of memories concerning a similarly fractured relationship. Calypso in Berlin features another artist who is also a near-immortal nymph. It is a strange fantasy on the influence, both good and bad, of muses and of the influence of place on creativity. Echo is narrated by a translator of the classics who is isolated on an island, the world outside possibly having been engulfed in some cataclysmic event. The Saffron Gatherers sees a tentative commitment to a relationship sundered by a vaguely apprehended catastrophe, whether natural or man-made is not made clear.

All of these stories are haunted by the awareness of the fragility of relationships, of the spectres of disaster waiting in the wings and of the temporality of all civilisations, of the knowledge that everything must pass. As such, they are evocative tales of our times, aware of the cyclical nature of stories and lives and empires. If there is a linking theme which draws the collection together into a whole, it is that of people emerging from isolation to reconnect with the world, with the past, with the continuum of life. They are fables of painful maturity.

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