Next Salon Discussion
Tuesday 2nd May: First Tuesday Current Affairs discussion
Discussing First topical issue (Simon Belt) and Second topical issue (Mark Iddon)
|Manchester book reviews|
Pages: 84, available from Italic Eyeball Shop
Reviewed by Denis Joe July 2012
There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.
There is a long tradition of surrealism in Britain, the works of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear being prime examples. One could also include the last two novels of James Joyce. In the twentieth century, surrealism gained a wider audience through radio and TV shows such as The Goon Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Whereas one can detect an element of snobbery, knowingness, in much of this type of entertainment, in later years a more Absurdist take would develop, with the popularity of Vic Reeves or The League of Gentlemen and a near rejection of rationalism, where we respond because we are made to feel unsure about what it is we are experiencing.
Yet in such an approach, as Albert Camus suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus: "my appetite for the absolute and for unity" meets "the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle". In other words it is not the human mind or even the world that is absurd when reason meets with unreasonableness. In our times when even those charged with the management of the state can see nothing absurd about treating the Olympic games as a trigger to put the country on war alert, one can appreciate the attractiveness of absurd entertainment or even the philosophy itself.
Fat Roland’s collection of 20 short stories fits well with these times. One could almost read them as believably biographical. The opening story, Friction, is an excellent example of absurdity. On the one hand we can laugh at the story: it is comic because it arises out of our inability to make sense of what is actually happening. It is an anecdote, yet one that has no connotation nor moral to it. Neither is there a punch line to anchor to. It is the sort of humour that we either sink or swim in. As such our approach confuses us because there is something rather supernaturally dangerous in its presumption: a character (‘Creepy Geoff’) who could be a family pet (as it rubs itself on objects) or a poltergeist. But it is nothing of the sort and our inability to label ‘Creepy Geoff’ is at once frightening and comical - though we wonder whether it is our inability to make sense of it that makes it comical.
In his Essay On The Meaning of The Comic, Henri Bergson makes a similar point when discussing Don Quixote: where Quixote sees dragons instead of windmills Bergson points to:
. . . a very special inversion of common sense. It consists in seeking to mould things on an idea of one’s own, instead of moulding one’s ideas on things – in seeing before us what we are thinking of, instead of thinking of what we see.
And this is what Fat Roland does in his stories. He is not imposing any meaning to the reader, and as such, this is not literature as there is nothing ‘literal’ to be heard from these stories. The great thing about this is that there is also a lack of formula. The variation in the form of each story is only restricted by the imagination of Roland and, thus, the reader.
Phil Carter, Film Director, has a certain ‘believability’ to it in that it contains one form of behaviour that might well be familiar to us: deceit. And this is almost a relief from the absurdity of the situation in which Phil seems to convince Steven Spielberg that he never won an Oscar for Schindler’s List. Introducing something real into the stories can make for greater absurdity. Richard Whiteley has the dead TV presenter in heaven awaiting a delivery of a lorry load of butter. Diary Of Pabla Bunto concerns itself with meeting Frank Carson outside Blackpool railway station, whilst another, of the same title, pictures a terrorist attack on a Royal Variety performance, foiled by Tom O’ Connor dressed as Tony The Tiger.
Sometimes Roland hits on the absurdity of the absurd itself. Lady Gaga Extends Her Telescope can be read as an allegory for stardom and the desperation to create a unique identity in a world where even the stars are nondescript.
Lists Of Occurrences in The First Married Days Of Robert And Susan Furniss is the nearest that the stories get to surrealism, proper. We are offered a portrayal of a couple whose marriage, rather than bringing them together, sends them off into different orbits.
Stories such as Politician Wishlist and The Doctor Who Thing are downright unsettling, whereas sandra sue is darkly comical in the extreme (containing one of my favourite lines: “she stabbed me later that day, killing my appetite for the rest of the week”).
The nearest to a recognisable short story structure is the title story. Yet although it contains a beginning and an end, it makes very little sense. As with the best absurdist art these stories act as a protest against reality and the nearest equivalent approach I can think of to these works are those of the OBERIU that sprang up in the Soviet Union, the first real avant-garde movement, that emerged in post-revolutionary Russia around the late 1920s. Unlike their predecessors, the Futurists, they were not interested in setting protocol. The intent seemed to be the destruction of the conventions of semantic coherence and linguistic realism (see Oberiu: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism). Under Stalin the movement was short-lived and its members – the most famous of whom was Daniil Kharms – imprisoned as social hooligans.
Yet Fat Roland’s collection can be seen as being in the spirit of OBERIU. It was Leon Trotsky who recognised that “protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion” (see Art and Revolution: Writings on Literature, Politics and Culture). Roland’s work certainly appears to be a protest against reality, but one that seems to be holding a mirror up to the face of that reality. It is the uncertainty of daily life and an attempt to respond to the apparent inexplicability of periods of social turmoil that give rise to art movements that question not just the world around them but its very existence.
Absurdism and surrealism are the offspring of Modernism, the first art movement to attempt to make sense of the world. But like the rebellious youth, these movements shunned the search for meaning and turned the absurdity of life on the world itself.