Our associate Matthew Landrum editor caught up with Eva Milner, the lead singer of the German band Hundreds, in the middle of their summer tour. They talked singing in second languages, Bob Dylan, and nuclear apocalypse.
Matthew: What is the relationship between German and English in your life? Where do you use which?
Eva: I watch movies in English, I read a lot in English. But I don’t talk that much in English. So, it is like a language for storytelling to me. I would never write lyrics for songs in German, it would feel wrong. I listen to a lot of German bands whose lyrics are great and poetic. But I could not be on stage and sing the same stuff I sing in English translated in German. I would feel naked. The English language is a playground for me. Also, I like the sound better, especially if you have to sing it. German is quite harsh sounding. English feels like a peppermint soft candy to me.
Matthew: What language do you dream in?
Eva: German. But when I spent some weeks only speaking English, while travelling, I started dreaming in English.
Matthew: In which does a song begin?
Eva: Usually, when I start writing lyrics, I have a feeling about the mood and the topic. And then I start searching for a word to start, sometimes in books, sometimes in other songs. I love reading lyrics from other artists. Also, I like experimenting with the sounds of the words. So, I sing and write at the same time, to try if it works.
Matthew: There’s a lovely strangeness in your songs. In “Let’s Write the Streets,” you sing, “Could you sit with me under the icicles? Give me your trembling hands. I don’t wear kid gloves.” Could you talk about the mood and word experimentation that that song grew out of?
Eva: “Let’s Write the Streets” was our first hit. But only in Berlin. It is a song we still play a lot and people are always wooing when the Philipp plays the first chords. It is meant to be an uplifting, motivational song. I first had the picture in my mind: We draw our own map and find new paths, we are pure and innocent, so let’s discover the world with new eyes. I wrote it to a friend of mine, who was afraid take control over his life. He was always waiting for something great to happen. But nothing ever happens, if you only react. He was kind of depressed and I deeply care about him. I thought a lot about his problems. So, this is where the song came from.
The first picture I found was: “We are whitest sheets, let’s write the streets”. This is also the chorus. Could you sit with me under the icicles? means: We are in a dangerous place, it is cold and an icicle could fall down anytime. But I stay here with you. I will take care of you and also, I will speak the truth. That’s why I don’t wear kid gloves. In German, there is the expression of wearing velvet gloves. It means you have to be very careful with someone because that person is highly sensitive. And when you don’t wear them you are just honest.
Matthew: Your last two albums are Aftermath and Wilderness. Are those words your experimenting with for the vision of the album? Do you have a working title or word you’re experimenting with for your next album?
Eva: Aftermath is a word I really liked for a long time. The first time I heard it was in a beautiful song of the Danish band Kashmir. It is called “The Aftermath”. The song is from 2003, I think. Then I met the word again in 2010 in a song called “Foamborn,” which was played by our supporting act Touchy Mob on our shared tour. We made a cover of this song. I really love the lyrics: “Lukewarm, you promised. I burned my foot in the bath. Who’d ever mind the aftermath.” (The whole song’s lyrics are unbelievably good in my opinion. Bob Dylanesque). So, the word was around for a long time. It really fits into the mood of the album. And also, it was our second album. It was kind of an “aftermath state” we were in.
Wilderness was the first song we wrote for the new album. And for us, it was such a different sound and approach. It doesn’t have a normal song structure. It just builds up and builds up until it explodes in a thunderstorm. This felt really liberating. Also, the lyrics are the guideline for the rest of the album, which examines the apocalypse. Sounds strange, but I really had to get this subject out of my system.
We’re just about to start with the next album. So, no. We don’t have a word, but I hope it will find me soon.
Matthew: You had the apocalypse in your system. Could you explain more on that?
Eva: When I was a little girl I read a book from a german youth book’s author called Gudrun Pausewang. The Book is called ” Die Kinder von Schewenborn”. It is a novel about three young children, who are losing their parents, because of a catastrophic nuclear accident, happening right in the middle of Germany. Her descriptions were full of details about the bodily changes, like hair loss caused by radiation sickness, the children are going through. Everything is poisonous, animals are dying, you can’t trust anyone, because the surviving population goes crazy. I guess Pausewang’s intention was to educate even young children about the risks of having nuclear power plants standing around. For me it was purest horror. I couldn’t understand, why in the world would mankind invent such a horrible thing! Something got broken inside of me. I was afraid and that’s when my thoughts about apocalypse, caused by stupid humans, began to develop. I have a deep incomprehension for all that kind of stuff. Atom bombs. Bombs at all. Waste in the oceans. So, I am kind of a pessimist, when it comes to mankind.
Matthew: And music helps you process all this.
Eva: I love good lyrics, in particular, when they come accompanied by great music, sung by a special voice. So, that’s why I started writing them in the first place (my all-time favourite writer when it comes to song lyrics: Joni Mitchells “Ladies of the Canyon”). But of course, the main part is the music, not the lyrics. I tried to bring solace on the first album. On the second album, I talked about my inner fears and things that I miss, like childhood friendships, being a child in general. The third album was about the apocalypse, a topic that followed me for a long time.
Matthew: Speaking of Bob Dylan, what are your thoughts on his controversial Noble Prize in Literature?
Eva: I adore his lyrics and songs. Especially his early stuff. So, I think it is well earned. Even if he is not a poet or author in the classical sense.
Matthew: What are some all-time favourite books and what are you reading right now?
Eva: My Little Helper, when I am writing: John Burnside. His poems are always with me. In English.
I love Siri Hustvedt. I think all of her books are my favourite, especially What I Loved. But, it is hard to decide.
I love American literature: Paul Auster, Jonathan Frantzen, T.C. Boyle, Joey Goebbel … I also love older stuff like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Silvia Plath, Katherine Mansfield. My all-time favourite is Virginia Woolfe.
The list could go on and on and on.
Dystopias have never been more popular. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the appearance of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ there has been renewed interest in George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (aided by a well-received televised series) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, among others.
Perhaps readers are seeking meaning, understanding or even solace in times where the old standards no longer seem to be relevant and truth can be whatever the teller says it is.
2084 is a collection of short stories by writers notable mostly for their work in science fiction and alternative fiction. The editor, George Sandison, notes that this is not a book about the future as ‘dystopias are about today.’ In 1984, readers found truths about their world and we continue to do so 70 years later. Sandison notes that we can find truths in dystopias even if their predictions are proved incorrect. A prediction that has not yet come to pass is very different to one that has been proved wrong, but nevertheless the central premise of ‘truth from despair’ rings true.
Despite the title, 2084 is not meant to be a reworking, or a sci-fi re-imagining, of 1984. Instead, the writers attempt to capture some of the ‘truth’ that has made 1984 so enduring. Like Orwell, most of the authors in this collection look at worrying trends in today’s world and extrapolate this into the future unchecked.
‘Babylon’ by Dave Hutchison tells the story of Da’uud, a refugee on a mission across the Aegean Sea, which is covered by European surveillance devices. The story has a lovely, but very strange, idea of a toxic seed from North Korea being planted in the ground to give future refugees hope. Hope and compassion are the defining messages, a juxtaposition to the abandonment of hope by Orwell.
‘Here Comes the Flood’ by Desirina Boskovich tells the story of four generations of one family living together in a small apartment in a city block where access to the natural world is provided through simulated parks. The overpopulated city-block as prison/haven in is reminiscent of Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. The outside world has been ruined by catastrophic climate change and the population are kept calm with show trials on different channels that compete for viewers. The interactions between the family members are funny and the cantankerous, unapologetic grandmother is particularly amusing. As well as the more obvious and real fears about climate change, the story touches on intergenerational strife and refugees. ‘Uniquo’ by Unsung regular Aliya Whiteley looks at themes of aging, the dreams of the young and the fears of the old.
‘Fly Away Peter’ by Ian Hocking is possibly the most chilling tale in the collection, telling of a future in which children are brutalised, hardened and killed. This seemed closest to the shock and despair that readers experience on first reading 1984.
‘A Good Citizen’ by Anne Charnock is a first-person narrative. The narrator is a fitness instructor in a state where it is compulsory to take fitness classes. The population is distracted and made to feel included by weekly referenda.
Control by distraction rather than brutality is a theme that many of the stories share. Aldous Huxley argued that rulers would find it more effective to stay in power by keeping the population in a comforting state of ‘narco-hypnosis’ rather than by brute force. ‘March, April, May’ by Malcolm Devlin also considers how social media can act, without State control, as ‘big brother’ to force herding behaviour and impose social control.
‘The Endling Market’ by E J Swift looks at wildlife conservation. Not a new message by any means but the writing was absorbing and captures the wonder of the Snow Leopard.
‘Degrees of Ellision’ by Cassandra Khaw is cinematic and very well written. The story revolves around and editor of the past (much as Winston Smith edited history in 1984) as he comes to terms with his own past, which it is impossible to hide.
Many of the themes chosen would be familiar to George Orwell and, indeed, he wrote about many including the subordination of the individual to the collective, censorship, compulsory exercise, the encouragement to betray those not sufficiently enthusiastic about the regime and the sedation of the population with alcohol, porn and gambling. This collection of short stories is a successful re-examination of the historical fears that have made the dystopia popular again, as well as some new ones that we may hope never come to pass, even if they may not be proven wrong by 2084.
2084 / George Sandison (ed.) / Unsung Stories / 18 September 2017
Richard Bryant’s desk-jockeying skills pay the bills, but he’d sooner be reading. More of his book reviews can be found at mishnory.wordpress.com
In Not a Place on Any Map, an experimental memoir published in 2016 by Vine Leaves Press, Alexis Paige recounts her life up to the present through a series of what might be termed, depending on whom you ask, prose vignettes, flash lyric essays, or short pieces of nonfiction: brief, stand-alone scenes that focus on significant and often traumatic moments set in the many places she has lived. Any element that might be considered artificial or secondary (exposition, plot development, characterization) has been minimized or discarded; to steal a sentence from Reality Hunger that David Shields himself steals from Nietzsche, Paige’s formal goal seems to be “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book.” Unfortunately, the result often feels hollow, less like a fully-realized project than a sheaf of notes.
The cycle of five pieces that depict the years Paige lives in San Francisco exemplifies this. We have known since the introductory essay that her spiral into substance abuse and one-night stands picks up in San Francisco: that city will be “all [hers] to fuck up,” she prophecies. However, when we arrive in San Francisco, the fucking-up seems in short supply. “San Francisco Muse, 2002” strikes a happy note (she’s with a guy who makes her “laugh for what seemed like forever”), while “Soliloquy, Tiburon Ferry, San Francisco Bay, 2001” and “Vermont Letter, 1998–2001” mix yearning and nostalgia. Only “Not-Quite One-Night Stand in San Francisco” somewhat describes what she means by “fuck up.” She has fallen from living with her boyfriend to living with “a friend from the bar,” and from buying drugs from “a petite white woman…with fake tits” to buying the cocaine she needs “to get out of bed” from a “black man, as big as a nightclub bouncer.”
Nonetheless, the conclusion to this cycle, “Skyline, Rapt, 2004,” acts as though it wraps up a longer, more harrowing work. The scene places Paige on the heights, that ancient space of epiphany, and in a modern variation on the millennia-old scene, lays the polluted city at her feet. She “[climbs] to the top of Russian Hill,” and as she “[looks] down upon the dark bay and North Beach,” she hears, not the still, small voice of some divinity, but the voice of her therapist, advising her “to practice breathing.” So she practices breathing, and her epiphany duly arrives: “To be so excruciatingly alive is what hurts, the mystery of inertia, and the waiting around to get better. I think of Seurat and the way you have to pull back to see the shape of the thing. I am a million dots of light and dark shaping, pulling back in surprise on my body, tight as a fist.”
This is the kind of “insight” that (to invoke Shields again) “you [would have had] to read seven hundred pages to get” were Paige working in a more traditional form. Yet because this realization derives from three years of experiences she has muted, it does not resonate. How has Paige been “excruciatingly alive”? How has being alive “hurt”? What does she mean by “the mystery of inertia”? And how has she been “waiting around to get better”? Narrative development, for all its padding, would have at least provided “the shape of the thing.” As it is, the scene feels unearned.
A similar sense pervades the cycle that treats the time she spends in jail after causing a three-car pile-up while driving under the influence, but here what elsewhere might be a minor problem becomes genuinely problematic.
Paige has written about this experience before in a more traditional form. “The Right to Remain,” a full-length essay first published in The Rumpus, focuses on the hours Paige spends in jail immediately afterward, examining the ways, both large and small, that her racial and economic privilege distinguishes her from the other “mostly black and brown” inmates. She is “so white” because she wants the other inmates to quiet down instead of protest when the guards tell them the blankets are “at laundry,” and she is bailed out the next morning instead of being taken to “county” because, as someone she identifies as “Big Bird” points out, she “[has] people.”
When Paige treats similar material in the shorter forms of Not a Place on Any Map, however, she replaces these complicated interactions with meditations on the special emotional bond they forged. At one point, she remembers the women she met in jail as her “mislaid sisters”; at another, when she develops the habit of crying in the middle of the night for reasons not entirely clear to herself, she wonders if she is “thinking of Yolanda….Or the other inmates.” In both cases, we are forced to infer the existence of relationships we have barely seen develop and of people we have scarcely met, and we are left asking questions that range from basic to complicated. Who is Yolanda, besides being Paige’s “Bunkie”? Who are the “other inmates,” these “sisters” of hers? And how has she earned this “sisterhood” despite the “having-people” racial and economic differences that separate her from them? Without any specific support, these proclamations seem at worst a presumptuous recapitulation of uncomplicated notions of race relations, and at best a provoking I-know-something-you-don’t-know response to the fraught question of the constraints on interracial friendship in a systemically-racist society.
All told, Not a Place on Any Map demonstrates certain risks inherent in the form it essays. Many serious readers find recapitulations of nineteenth-century techniques played out and untrue; most readers no longer want to read “seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights [a] book was written.” But reading Not a Place on Any Map, I wonder if cutting everything but those “handful of insights,” as Paige seems to do, actually solves the problem. Perhaps literature, like life, needs some boredom to develop. In any case, this particular form does not seem entirely suited to capture a life as complex as Paige’s, and I, for one, leave the book wishing she had treated her material as she had in “The Right to Remain,” and hoping that the memoir-in-progress mentioned on her website either takes a similar approach, or develops the genre in a different direction.
Not a Place on Any Map / Alexis Paige / Vine Leaves Press / 5 December 2016
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.
Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.
The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.
Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.
The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.
Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.
The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.
The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.
Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017
This is Structo 18. It features 96 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, including by the winner of the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize and Translation Prize, photography by Meredith Heuer and an interview with
Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler.
For the third year in a row, we have a story shortlisted for the Stack Award for Best Original Fiction. ‘I Dreamt That You Died’ by Madeline Cross is a quiet story of a shared internal world, and of growing up and old alongside another. We’re delighted it resonated with the judges. You can read the Issue 17 story, in full, here.
The Stack Awards was founded three years ago to celebrate independent magazines and the 2017 ceremony takes place in London on Monday 20 November, where we’re up against stiff competition from the likes of Zoetrope, Somesuch Stories and 212. Fingers crossed.
In other awards news, we have three Issue 15 stories in this year’s Write Well Awards anthology from Silver Pen: ‘3 For 2’ by Paula Hunter, ‘All the Rest is Silence’ by Colette Coen and ‘Limehouse Blues’ by Jude Cook. The anthology is available on Amazon.
My problem is the question of why we experience anything. My problem is the question of why our bodies, with their intricate perspective and processing apparatus, in addition to all that perception and processing, also produce something like an oh, so this is what it’s like to be here and now and doing this specific thing, or not.
Existential angst in its various manifestations is both the underlying and overlying preoccupation of German writer Heinz Helle’s perfunctory and rather daringly experimental novella Superabundance – a work that is as much marked out by its acute brevity and biting directness as by its ongoing polar juxtaposition of the internal world of the psyche and the metaphysical and the external world, a world characterised by action and physicality which the anonymous first person narrator subconsciously loathes and which may also loathe him back. Helle’s work – originally published in German by Suhrkamp in 2014 under the rather more cumbersome title of Der beruhigende Klang von explodierem Kerosin (The Unsettling Noise of Exploding Kerosine) and here nimbly translated by Kári Driscoll – depicts a unnamed narrator who has moved to New York from Germany to teach philosophy and who finds himself questioning the nature of his life, his relationship with his girlfriend and indeed the very purpose of his existence.
The novella is comparatively rare in English-language fiction. In the case of Superabundance, and given its New York setting, one might think of the novella as a sort of brunch – an unmarked territory between the breakfast of the short story and the full lunch of the novel.
The first-person narration strives hard, but inevitably becomes tedious and annoying. Judging by the opening scene, that features the narrator as a schoolboy footballer, there is disappointment from the outset at the path that his life as an erstwhile intellectual has taken. What follows is an overly verbose, overly melodramatic and often tedious recounting of the narrator’s stay in New York where every incident, every fragment of conversation and every glance is over-analysed and pondered upon. It is not really until page 30 that the reader is invited to share in the narrator’s real dilemma:
My problem is the question of what a scientific theory to explain our consciousness what have to look like. My problem is the fact that it sounds cool to say I’m a philosopher so I study philosophy. My problem is that I’m drunk and I want to fuck, but I’m a philosopher and so really problems like consciousness and experience should be more important to me than women. My problem is that I love a woman but I think that I will at some point stop loving her and I renounce a world in which that is possible.
A writer perpetually on the precipice of crisis/breakdown/self-destruction and feeling themselves to be a prisoner of the overpowering and dispiriting urban environment that entraps them is hardly new. Nor is the all-pervasive sense of self-absorption and navel-gazing. Knut Hamsun’s classic work Hunger similarly charts the disenchantment and excruciating self-pity of a young intellectual manqué adrift in an urban landscape – in this case nineteenth century Oslo rather than twenty-first century New York. Although it has to be conceded that Helle’s narrator does seek romantic and sexual union with his erstwhile girlfriend and connection with others through football and philosophy,
Superabundance does demonstrate considerable intellectual bravura with its episodic nature and the density and surprisingly dexterity of its narrative prose, but these do not really make up for the all-pervasive vacuity that runs throughout. There are incidents and moments of insight in the course of the narrative – especially when the narrator embarks upon a relationship with a 21-year-old woman and the ‘I’ voice becomes for some time a hopeful ‘we’ voice – but there is little of interest in the descriptions of visits to a karaoke bar and the mountains to make the reader care about where the relationship is heading. Inevitably, it will end in failure like so much else that the narrator tries to believe in.
When his former lover tells the narrator, “I don’t think you even know what love is”, his reaction is as much a form of self-deceit as it is of trying to hoodwink the reader into believing that he is really capable of loving another.
By sheer coincidence, and on a personal note, this reviewer read Superabundance within the space of a few hours after returning from his first ever visit to New York. A trip of four or five days can be long enough to learn at least something of the character of the city expressed simply through its sheer physical presence. The mystique and power of New York, and Manhattan in particular, compels one to walk everywhere and everywhere one goes there are always vast crowds of people. As imagined by Elias Canetti in his classic work Crowds and Power, the urban masses become a means by which the urban space terrifies and intimidates the individual, and one can certainly feel a sense of one’s own vulnerability as an individual in a crowd of unimaginable size when one is walking through Times Square or down Broadway. In Superabundance it is more like the physical structure of the city which defines the individual narrator in all his powerless futility and his isolation. If the book has one valuable quality, then it lies in its exploration of the uncomfortable spatial relationship between individuals and the urban landscapes they inhabit.
Superabundance seeks to be a novella about how the multiplicity of choice and the complexity of existence can defeat individuals, but ends up becoming a prolonged and overly long examination of terminal boredom and meaninglessness, and one man’s seemingly endless capacity for self-pity. The first-person narration serves to alienate rather than endear, and the reader feels largely dissatisfied in spite of the relentless confessions of the central character, since little of value is said in spite of the narrator’s verbosity. The overall impression is of tedium and frustration. It’s not the tedium or frustration of the narrator which lingers, rather that of the reader finding themselves yearning for less self-absorption and urban concrete and rather more of a connection.
Superabundance / Heinz Helle / Kári Driscoll (translator) / Serpent’s Tail / 25 February 2016
Brian Gourley‘s poetry has appeared in a wide variety of magazines including Anon, Acumen, The Interpreter’s House and The Irish Literary Review. He is currently working on his debut poetry collection and the publication of his PhD thesis in Reformation writing.
Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is an intoxicating mix of language, nature, and sound, made all the more complex by its translation into English from Korean. Translated by Deborah Smith, the novel reads somewhat like a dream. It follows an unnamed narrator’s journey through the trials and tribulations of love, life, and the inevitability of death. It is a deceptively simple story, involving the narrator, her (ex)-boyfriend, and another character, M, whose full name is never revealed.
Echoes of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body come to mind when reading Suah’s novel, with its exploration of what it means to love, to be in love, and all the nuances in between. There is the naiveté of love, and the difference between love and infatuation. There are understandings, or misunderstandings, facilitated and influenced by family and friends. Suah does not provide an immediate context for her characters, choosing instead to let them develop organically in our heads.
The novel’s fractured timeline is part of this. Disorienting at first, in hindsight it adds volumes. Memories, by their very nature, are fleeting, can be unreliable, and are often recalled in illogical order, yet still seem to make sense when pieced together. Our lives are shaped by the ways in which we make and recollect these memories, whether in a positive or negative light. The novel’s non-linear trajectory also allows it to tackle issues like death in a sensitive, insightful manner, bringing to light this important aspect of life that is too often ignored, or considered taboo.
There are many threads woven throughout the novel, with water being one of the strongest. From the narrator’s near-drowning, to the seemingly constant rain, water is almost ever-present. It serves as an apt metaphor for the ebb and flow of life, its stagnation, and its terrible unpredictability. Water is essential for life, but it can just as easily take it away; it can be temperamental, and even uncontrollable, but also a thing of exquisite beauty.
English is a foreign language in Suah’s narrative – a strange concept for those of us to whom English comes naturally. It is slightly uncanny to see phrases like “the English-language versions of the Harry Potter Series and American Psycho” – works which we know in the original. We are also guided through the narrator’s mind as she attempts to learn German, her ‘relatively’ poor grasp of the language simply emphasising the importance of translation in a world that is becoming increasingly Anglophonic.
Aside from English, Korean, and German, music is another language that looms large in the novel. Music is a way in which the narrator understands and seeks solace from those around her. Even though the amalgamation of literature and classical music may seem natural, it can be difficult to combine the two in a way that does not alienate those who are unfamiliar with the names and specific terminology. But Suah and Smith do just fine. Of course, those with some knowledge of classical music may glean extra meaning from these references, but their inclusion does not detract from enjoyment of the novel, or indeed, an understanding of its messages.
In A Greater Music, Suah and Smith have crafted a timeless piece of writing and, as is appropriate, there is no definite conclusion. Life goes on, after all. We meet people, and we lose them. It is what we do with them that is important, and how we remember those events in years to come.
A Greater Music / Bae Suah / translated by Deborah Smith / Open Letter Books / 11 October 2016
About the reviewer
Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of mostly non-fiction, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by Asian Australian artists. She can be found on Twitter or at her website.
When I happened to mention to a friend that I was reading this book, he told me that he had experimented with nitrous oxide himself. He then proceeded to try to explain to me what this experience was like. The ensuing ten minutes were pretty much a condensed version of my experience of reading Oh Excellent Air Bag: my friend ‘hummed and hawed a lot whilst gesturing frantically with his hands; gave fairly lengthy yet disappointingly mundane descriptions; occasionally came up with some truly startlingly and beautiful similes for how his body felt whilst under the gas’s influence; before eventually conceding that the subjective effect of nitrous oxide is, essentially, unrelatable in the language that we currently possess. In short, I was frequently frustrated and bored, occasionally amazed, and, at the end, not sure I was any clearer than when I was in the beginning.
That slightly harsh summary is in direct contrast to the heartfelt endorsement and admiration I have for what The Public Domain Review Press (the book’s publishers, a branch of Public Domain Review) does both online and in print. PDR is an online journal which goes out into the field of the public domain, gathers oddities and wonders from across the arts and humanities, and then arranges them into cabinets of curiosities which it displays to the world. Thus Oh Excellent Air Bag is a collection of various primary sources which in some way relate to nitrous oxide gas. These range from the testimony of Humphry Davy, future president of the Royal Society of Physicians, who first discovered the strange effects of the gas and verified them by repeatedly experimenting on himself and his colleagues, to a one-act play by Theodore Dreiser in which nitrous oxide appears as a character.
It’s the testimony of Davy and his circle that takes up a significant part of the book. His intrepidness is either brave or foolish, depending on your perspective; one of the unnerving aspects of his reports is the way the reader sees something approaching a drug addiction developing, with Davy appearing uncharacteristically oblivious to the danger. On the lighter side, it is amusing to see a psychedelic experience rendered in fairly stiff and old-fashioned language. Consider the testimony of Mr J. W. Tobin, one of Davy’s circle:
‘(I) suddenly started from the chair, and vociferating with pleasure, I made towards those present, as I wished that they should participate in my feelings. I struck gently at Mr. Davy and a stranger entering the room at the moment, I made towards him, and I gave him several blows, but more in the spirit of good humour than of anger.’
The book lends itself well to picking amusing and astonishing quotes (indeed there’s an Index of Exclamations and Similes at the end of the primary sources) but for every epigram there are several pages of tedium. I lost count of the number of times that 19th-century gas-huffers reported ‘increased muscular power’, and whilst such reportage may have helped to build up a more objective picture of nitrous oxide’s effects, it didn’t make for particularly interesting reading. And for every psychonaut who claimed they became ‘an inhabitant of the Elysium of Rousseau, or the islands of Calypso,’ there were those (such as Davy) left with a slightly more prosaic sensation ‘as while hearing cheerful music, or after good news, or a moderate quantity of wine.’
There is an excellent introductory essay by the science writer Mike Jay, which provides a history of laughing gas from Davy’s first investigation into its effects (1799) to its place inside the Grateful Dead’s tour-bus (the 1960s). The essay proceeds through the chronology of the primary texts, contextualising them, summarising them, and pulling out some choice quotes. In fact, Jay’s essay does each of these things so well that I after reading it I wasn’t really sure that I needed the primary texts at all. And certainly, once I’d finished the various reports/satirical magazine articles/one-act plays, I was left with that feeling you sometimes get upon leaving the cinema: that the trailer for the film you’d gone to see had basically cherry-picked the exciting bits of a film in which not very much happens.
I know it isn’t what PDR are going for, but I would have enjoyed Air Bag more had it been a traditional non-fiction book in which I’m taken through the subject by an author who has read the primary sources and then selected and presented the passages which are relevant to his or her theme. For me (and I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a preference/failing on my part) the collated texts were simply not interesting enough to stand alone.
All that said, I’d like to end this review by saying that I’m fairly sure I missed out on some of the pleasures of Air Bag as a result of the format in which I read it. A quick trip to The PDR Press’ online store informs any potential buyer that the volume contains ‘an extensive selection of images, including instructional material from early anaesthetic handbooks, and satirical prints from the likes of James Gilray and George Cruikshank. All printed on a lovely-to-handle 70lb/105gsm paper.’ My review copy was only available as an e-book, which I’m only able to access through a very ancient Kindle, but I assume that a printed version of this book would be a very beautiful thing indeed.
 A notable exception to this would be the extract from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences in which James reports that a bagful of the magic gas confirmed for him a Hegelian worldview where truth is arrived at by accepting both a proposition and its antithesis. This, as you can imagine, made for some seriously interesting reading. Again, however, the primary source is well summarised and judiciously quoted in the introduction, and it’s only James’s engaging and consistently beautiful prose that makes reading the entire thing more rewarding than making do with Mike Jay’s précis.
 This Kindle has a real touch button keypad similar to a Blackberry mobile phone. If you use this keypad to access the menu screen, you can select the intriguing option: ‘Experimental Features.’ Selecting this will take you to a sub-menu where you’ll be presented with three further options: “Web Browser”, “Play MP3”, and “Text-to-Speech.” This should give you an idea of how unsuitable such a device is for a reader hoping to appreciate the detail of James Gilray and George Cruickshank’s satirical prints.
Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide, 1799-1920 / Adam Green (ed.) / The PDR Press / 11 July 2016
About the reviewer
Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently working on his first collection.
“When God came to Noah and told him a great flood would come and cover the earth, Noah had forewarning according to tort law, […] Did Noah take any actions to prevent the flood? […] He never prayed for the wicked as Abraham did. He never warned his neighbors or business partners that if they didn’t amend their immoral, depraved conduct a deluge was imminent. He took no precautions to ensure the welfare of anyone else but himself and his own and his animals. Tort law is the calculus of negligence.”
How secure are we in our carefully structured lives? What would it take to break down the barriers that separate us from the ranks of the dispossessed, the homeless or the refugee? Who is responsible should the worst happen, and how would we cope if – in spite of our social security, our good credit scores and low insurance premiums – we suddenly joined them?
Such are the questions facing the women of Jill Ciment’s suspenseful tragi-comedy. The women have been evacuated from their homes as a phosphorescent fungus spreads through Brooklyn. The four are drawn closer together as the mold, spreading further and further afield, begins to engulf their lives.
“Here’s the rub: some molds are covered by your policy while others are considered acts of God,’ which essentially means your insurance company will refuse to pay.”
Despite its tight and occasionally witty prose, my enjoyment was stunted by the novel’s relatively slow progression and its rather lifeless characters. While Ciment is careful to treat each with the sympathy they deserve, other than a few stand-out set pieces, I found little in the characters to capture and hold my imagination. It would be easy – as claustrophobic hyper-real dystopian titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, It Can’t Happen Here and The Road find acclaim in a seemingly near-apocalyptic framework – to praise to Act of God, but the four ladies here feel more like stock characters selected only to provide a better panorama of life in a big city: one artsy lady of society, one failed Woodstock hippie, one spinster and one exotic ‘European’. It all feels a little contrived: Sex in the City but with a deadly mushroom contamination instead of margaritas.
That might well be your thing [I’d watch it – Ed.], but the novel is also not helped by its dialogue. Contrary to the tightness of the prose, the conversation at times feels stunted and caricatured. This is especially true in the case of the Russian au pair Ashley. An example:
She pressed all thirty buttons. “In Russia, you press all or you go nowhere.”
Or such stereotypically pronoun-free exchanges as:
“You look skinny, Ashley. Where have you been?”
“God punish me big-time. I eat only ketchup and garbage. I live under boardwalk, like rat.”
“You lived on the beach?”
“First time see ocean.”
Perhaps I came to the book with the wrong expectations. It failed to live up to the promise of a work of literary science fiction exploring two of the great fears of modern urban life: contagion and the loss of a home. It’s less Station Eleven, more The Love Song of Miss Queenie Henessy. Despite a lofty premise, there is little here to remind us that even the luckiest amongst us is only an act of God away from claiming refuge.
She returned to the factory-sized living room, determined to learn how Americans experience stormy black nights. They sit comfortably on their deep, soft sofas, dry and safe, enjoying the rain’s music. They don’t cower like mice fearing unseen hawks overhead. Darkness isn’t a hole you hide in; it’s the cosmos.
Act of God / Jill Ciment / Vintage / 22 March 2016
Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He has contributed to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found here.
Posts pre-April 2014 are here.