Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black

Gentle reader, a quick test of reading preferences.

Vladimir Nabokov
James Joyce
T.S. Eliot
Ezra Pound
Flann O'Brien
Alasdair Gray

If you don't really like any or all of the above, this is not the review for you. Move along now, nothing to see, etcetera. If, on the other hand, you like all that playful modernist stuff, you may enjoy this new collection from Brendan Connell, an author new to me. He sent me a pdf of TMAoDB, and I read and enjoyed it. I didn't understand all of it, but for me that's part of the pleasure.

In his introduction, Jeff VanderMeer rightly observes that Connell is playful and witty, and that he offers his reader great chunks of erudition. To some, this is a repellent trait in an author, perhaps because they feel the writer is holding forth like a prize bore at the dinner table. I feel differently - given the amount of clich├ęd tripe out there, something a bit out of the ordinary is very welcome.

All very well, but what's it about? Well, Dr. Black is, we are told, 'taller than a midget' (something he and I have in common) at 4 feet 11 inches. He has an impressive bearded countenance, a mighty brain, a splendid torso, and thin legs. He seems to be reasonably wealthy as well as highly erudite, and dedicates much of his time to the pursuit of arcane knowledge. But, like most of us, he can fall victim to animal passions - especially when it comes to the not-unrelated areas of food and lust.

Thus the first story, 'A Season with Dr. Black', finds out meta-hero at home with his domestic retainers, enjoying tomato soup and generally living the good life. A destabilising factor arrives n the form of a young woman called Tandy, whose car breaks down outside the Black residence. The course of true(?) love does not run smooth. This sort of thing seldom bodes well:
“Place your foot upon me, your slave,” she whispered, and let the sound dissipate in the still air, while the quivering of her lips by no means cut short the rose that blossomed within her, a dark maroon, with glistening thorns.
Some might find this prose overdone, too arch, a style that is self-consciously stylish. But it's not as if Connell is asking the reader to accept something new - modernism is a centenarian, at the very least. And it makes a refreshing change from the sub-Hemingway 'realism' that has long been the default setting for most writers.

On matters of content, things are more complicated. Some of the stories here don't qualify as supernatural fiction, but at least one does. The last tale, 'Dr. Black and the Red Demon Temple', contains a Japanese ghost story that recalls Lafcadio Hearn's reworking of classic folk tales, and is very good by any standard. But the traditionally eerie is a small part of the banquet of oddness on offer here.

Thus in one story we find a supposedly authentic account by Archimedes, no less, of his creation of a female android, It's a brilliant example of genre-spanning fiction, merging as it does the legends of Talos (the metal giant created by Daedalus) and Pygmalion to create a kind of classical Frankenstein. In another tale we enter something approaching William Burroughs country, as Dr. Black ventures into a Latin American republic on the verge of revolution, a process in which native hallucinogens and a mysterious cave system play a significant role. There are also odd interludes in which (among other things) the good doctor goes undercover at a convent, a comic touch that reminded me of 'Sister Josephine' by Jake Thackray.

Then there are what some clever folk call the paratextual elements - references, footnotes, the general paraphernalia of old-fashioned scholarship, mostly fake and often amusing. Flann O'Brien's 'great de Selby' was not so well served. There's also a questionnaire which asks (along with 'How much will you say under interrogation?') how satisfied the reader is with the book. Overall, I would plump for Very Satisfied.

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