Book Review: Darker With The Lights On

Darker With The Lights On, by David Hayden, is a collection of twenty short stories written in captivating, modernist prose. The language is lyrical, in places magical, the plot progression often surreal. There is a dreamlike quality to many of the tales which explore loneliness and reactions to lived experience. The agitation in the telling adds intensity to even the mundane.

The collection opens with Egress, narrated by a man sharing his observations after he steps off a ledge outside his office, high above street level. Whatever his consciousness may be travelling in has not yet hit the ground after several years.

In Hay an engineer is called to solve a problem in a mine being flooded by workers’ tears. His solution turns into a capitalist triumph, for which I constructed my own interpretation. The continuing presence of the giant haystack added to the deviance of this tale.

There follow several stories exploring disconnection: a man coming to terms with the woman in his life leaving by selling their belongings; a house where each physical object is a memory, although it is not clear whose; a man buried in sand as the tide comes in while others dance on the beach; a dinner party where nobody mentions the presence of a charred corpse ceremonially laid on the table.

A number of the tales take enjoyable events and inject them with a quiet malignance. In others there is sudden violence, barely acknowledged in plot progression.

An Apple In The Library has a customer borrowing the eponymous fruit which he consumes and then returns, his hunger sated. At face value this could be a simple metaphor for books, but I consider it unlikely this is all the author intended. In reading prose of such perspicacity I wonder how clever I am expected to be.

Much is left for the reader to ponder; the opacity can be disquieting and sometimes weird. Morbidity and the tarnishing of innocence since childhood is ruminated, although it is not a depressing book.

Dark themes may pervade but attention is drawn by the stunning imagery. Whatever my considerations on each story, I appreciated the author’s weaving of words.

This anthology would, I suspect, offer further insights on repeated readings. It is challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.

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Book Review: Extravagant Stranger

Extravagant Stranger, by Daniel Roy Connelly, is a memoir told in the form of prose poetry. It offers the reader a collection of personal snapshots to peruse covering several decades of the author’s life. The depictions are grungy in places but searingly candid. Cultural references are made which I did not always recognise, resulting in certain pictures remaining opaque. The majority however are presented with razor sharp clarity, the subjects dissected with wit and precision.

The collection opens with musings on conception, birth, memories from childhood and then coming of age. On Getting Laid For The Third Time offers a droll account of inexperienced sex.

The author recounts moments in his life from various countries where he has travelled, worked and resided. His ongoing battle with depression adds poignancy, a shadow that never quite disappears.

Look Left, 2001 packs a powerful punch from New York City. Five People And One Animal I’ve Sat Next To On Planes is exactly what the title says, the entertaining list capturing a depth of meaning from the simplest of observations.

Poetry requires a degree of focused concentration but with a collection that resonates like this the endeavour is more than repaid. Each work is flavoursome, bold and substantial yet never cloying or heavy. There is a strong sense of place alongside reactions to being there.

The later poems suggest greater mordancy but are also drenched in fatherly love. No matter how tired from the effort of living, time spent with the author’s young son is relished. There is sadness when the child grows old enough to be constricted by timetabled living. Mardi Gras, 2014  – father and son on the set of a Marvel movie – offers relief after more serious contemplation.

The book concludes with an imagining of the author’s death and the reflections wished for. Thoughts are with cushioning the son from lasting sadness, a request that the child believe in his father still.

This is an accessible, unpretentious collection despite its impressive reach and intensity. A reflective, subtly powerful, rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.

Book Review: White Plains

“Every utterance in this book has been coddled, eggs in a pan.

It’s all been bent, deformed, calculated, a swindle. You can trust it a little but only, as admitted, a little. In the end the end is for me to have my way with you, get the better of you”

The author of White Plains, Gordon Lish, taught fiction writing at a number of universities in America. In reading about him elsewhere, his students have variously described their experiences of his classes as:

“I understood what he was offering—the special chance to become hugely conscious of how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects. So often, in our naturally powerful speech, we only understand dimly how we are doing it, so that we are deprived of the good fortune of being in charge of it, rather than the other way around.”

and of him:

“an unbelievably crazy, manipulative, egomaniacal person”

This, Lish’s latest book, is subtitled Pieces & Witherlings. Divided into twenty-five distinct chapters, the bones of the narrative are based on his life, although it is defined as fiction. Presented in the form of conversations and monologues, the loquacious style can appear rambling with whatever point being made only vaguely. There is a constant meandering off topic, although this is obviously deliberate. The words used have seemingly been chosen to obfuscate and challenge. The author is playing with these words and with repetition.

“an incomparable compilation of words as to the meanings thereof, or a vast compilation of incomparable meanings as thereof to words”

Some of this circumlocution is presented as what is typical of conversation, where points can be lost as speakers vie for the attention of those supposedly listening. Some digressions can be difficult to follow, and there is a degree of literary pretention. What appears to be desired is an appreciation of the language used.

“I would have for you the right answer reposing in the right words”

This circular, introspective prose offers insights aplenty. There is anger at aging, poignancy when recalling the lingering death of a beloved wife. The recollections of family, friends and neighbours that have had decades to develop. The narrator describes himself as old and can appear crotchety as he struggles with failing faculties and unwelcome intrusions into his current existence.

In Begging the Question Lish is railing at the demands of his neighbours. On either side of his apartment are elderly residents who have also been widowed. There is a dispute over the sorting of recycling, a request to view tiles in a bathroom that Lish regards as an invasion that will potentially damage a carpet. This simple premise is woven into pages that bring out the aged’s feelings of entitlement, their resentment at what they regard as interference, their forgetfulness, angry demands, and the poignancy of living longer than those they have loved. This latter subject is also explored in What’s Wrong With This Book. Lish’s back pain is exacerbated by working from an uncomfortable chair. The chair, one of a pair, was purchased by his late wife. This furniture reminds the narrator of a time of happiness which he values, despite the discomforts that it costs.

No matter how carefully selected, words, when put in a certain order, can have their meaning, their implication, misunderstood. Each reader makes assumptions based on their own experiences, about the words and also their creator. Words have synonyms, nuances and varied interpretations.

“A fella turns around and the next thing he knows, they went ahead and took away one word and put a different one in its place”

The book itself is aesthetically pleasing. The cover is appealingly minimalist and contains attractive end pages. The print throughout is uncluttered and on quality paper. The meanings behind the text may play the reader from all angles but it does so in a manner that will entertain the discerning.

I needed a dictionary for certain words employed, a few were obviously invented. Likewise conventional spelling is occasionally abandoned providing a workout for the brain. Although experimental in places, White Plains offers a satisfying reading experience.

I was made to consider the point of fiction. The straight road may get the traveller to their destination quickly but when the journey is from birth to death this may not be desired. Most will welcome distractions, such as is offered by literature. This book provides a diversion that should not be rushed, one that is worth taking.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.