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It may surprise you to learn that some people have never seen a single episode of The League of Gentlemen. But it’s true. I’m one. Which puts me in the happy position of being able to review Jeremy Dyson’s first book of short stories with the cool detachment it deserves (he’s a co-writer on the series, for those who are as uninitiated as I am).
Never Trust A Rabbit comprises twelve short stories, three of which have been published previously in other places; seven and a half were written specially for this collection. Each story is preceded by a wonderful unsettling, inky black and white illustration by James Hood. We get an introduction from the author, and, opposite the colophon page, a Hungarian proverb: Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy but they eat your crops. It’s the perfect taster for the stories to come. And, of course, Jeremy Dyson made it up. There is no such Hungarian proverb.
All twelve stories end unexpectedly. After the first couple, We Who Walk Through Walls and A Slate Roof In The Rain, you begin to expect the unexpected. Some stories finish more surprisingly than others. When the twist works it’s brilliant, but when it doesn’t it’s extremely frustrating because the stories are otherwise so well written. City Deep is the oldest here – dating back to 1989/1990. It’s about a tube-train-phobic man who is forced to go underground with catastrophic (but kind of predictable) results. And We Who Walk Through Walls (about the staging of an illusion that involves a world famous magician walking through a wall) ends unpredictably, but at the expense of its own narrative logic, making the ending read as if it were flown in from another story.
But when it works, ah when it works…
At the heart of the collection are two stories. The first is The Engine of Desire. It’s disgusting, improbable, nasty, and hilarious. Where some of the other stories are tightly focused miniatures (The Maze, All In The Telling), this is a story told in the literary equivalent of widescreen CinemaScope. It has a “hero” called Jack Sleighmaker (fer Chrissakes)!
Sleighmaker is an international adventurer-cum-mercenary who will do virtually anything for money. He is commissioned by Prince Bandar bin Turki (of some unspecified country) to find and acquire an incredibly rare automaton invented by an erotomaniac artist called Thomas Narcejac. The piece in question is a life-like replica of a girl called Aveline that can apparently perform unbelievably exquisite sexual acts. The quest to find the piece takes Sleighmaker from Egypt to Rippon in North Yorkshire and eventually on to a little piece of Kent in the middle of Zambia. The visceral, gory, insane, spectacular denouement reminded me of one of the Chapman Brothers’ sicker dioramas. And made me laugh out loud.
The second is the most recent story in the collection, A Last Look At The Sea. It’s a taut, unshowy dissection of a couple’s relationship, with a strange maritime effect as a backdrop. George and Tessa, who have been seeing each other for a year, visit Long Cross in Cornwall, just prior to Tessa going to live in America for a year. At Tessa’s insistence they go for a cliff walk that leads them to a fog-shrouded beach where the tide goes out and does not come back. There is a sumptuous bleakness to the story, rounded out by a deft ending that manages to be positive without being sickly or sentimental.
The remaining eight stories stand at points along the line that connects The Engine of Desire to A Last Look At The Sea. At the heart of each lies a believable relationship – even if it’s between a man and a cash machine (The Cashpoint Oracle) – and this lends the stories, no matter how absurd, their emotional power. It’s a fine balance between the deliciously sinister and the mundane and human that makes these stories so satisfying. Tasty!
Review originally published by The Roundtable Review (May/ June 2007)
This got packed away in the very bottom of a box when we moved four years ago. I had never read it; in fact had taken against it. No matter how many people told me it was a work of unparalleled genius I wouldn’t budge. How dare this upstart dazzle my friends, I thought. I taught myself to spit the words Donald and Barthelme.
Anyway, we moved. A new environment, somewhere bigger where we could stretch out and breathe. One whole year later, we decided to open up the boxes and rediscover some of our old books. There it was. Oh-ho, I said, the over-rated Barthelme and his forty stories. My copy’s a floppy American penguin Handbook edition, printed on very thin paper. I weighed it in my hand. This feels nice, I thought, wonder what it reads like.
It didn’t feel like a dipper, so I started reading from the beginning. Chablis, the first story was a domestic miniature told from the point of view of a man struggling to keep his wife happy – I could feel myself thawing. Can this be? The second, On The Deck, was abstract and allegorical seeming, but again ended with a surprisingly emotional pay-off. By the time I’d read The Genius, I was hooked. And every story was different in style from the one that preceded it. My favourite opening line is this one from The New Owner: “When he came to look at the building, with a real-estate agent man hissing and oozing beside him, we lowered the blinds, muted or extinguished lights, threw newspapers and dirty clothes on the floor in piles, burned rubber bands in ashtrays, and played Buxtehude on the hi-fi – shaking organ chords whose vibrations made the plaster falling from the ceiling fall faster,” but you might prefer: “Some of us have been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him,” from Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.
Over the last four years I have fallen in love with these forty stories. Particularly the one about Paul Klee (painter and teacher at the Bauhaus), losing an aircraft that he is supposed to be transporting during World War II, because he is too busy drawing to notice it being stolen. And the one about Bluebeard…
Manafon (2009) by David Sylvian
“Sculpture must always obstinately question the basic premises of the prevailing culture. This is the function of all art, which society is trying to suppress… “ – Joseph Beuys (quoted in Michael Archer’s Art Since The 60s, Thames & Hudson, 2002)
In 2009 David Sylvian reactivated his solo career. He was bearded, long-haired, and dangling a dead hare from one clenched fist (if you believe Manafon’s inner sleeve portrait by Atsushi Fukui). Ruud Van Empel’s disquieting forest scenes, Study in Green no. 1, 5, 8 (2003) and Study in Green no. 16 (2004) strangely lit, and skewed of perspective were the cover art. Contemporary interviews made mention of Sylvian’s retreat to a hermitage in the woods. The whole package seemed to suggest that in the time since 2003’s Blemish David Sylvian had become pop’s own Unabomber.
To the casual Sylvian-watcher, the bomb was about to go off; what was hidden in the grooves of the record was not standard pop fare. From Manafon’s opening moments: what sounded like a tabletop being scraped with an upturned cup it was obvious the comfortable dynamics of pop had been dispensed with.
Small Metal Gods begins with a collision of aural textures: acoustic bass lopes forward and occasionally rubs up against muted studio chatter, the crackle of old vinyl and what sounds like someone playing sheet aluminium with paint brushes. Then the vocal comes in. David is reaching for something – it’s almost a shout. “It’s the farthest place I’ve ever been; it’s a new frontier for me.” The voice is hoarse. Behind it, the bass continues its slow progress, and the other instruments do their fragmentary thing, finding a space for themselves in the mix. His voice is naked and vulnerable – the music not so much accompanying as undermining it. There’s no cohesion. This is not the attack of pop. There are no verses in Small Metal Gods, no choruses, just tiny incidents: nothings, voids, uncertainties. A chorus of voices humming oohs and ahs forms a melodic coda as the song fades out.
Back in 2009 Small Metal Gods was seen as the most commercial track on the album, and a video was shot to accompany it. David didn’t appear. Instead a host of miniature passenger jets etched slow flight paths around the interior of an apartment.
There is no precedent in pop for the material on Manafon. The instrumentation was entirely improvised in the studio, David later gently tweaking it and adding improvised vocals. The resulting music is fragmentary, like a rustic, malign hip-hop with no beats. There are snatches of sounds, notes that threaten to coalesce into melodies, but they hover forever on the brink – never taking that step.
In other moments, the strums, plucks, bleeps/ scrapes and voice knot together, only to unravel the next moment leaving nothing but a memory of their meeting.
If it wasn’t for the mix of players: Berkhard Stangl (guitar), Werner Dafeldecker (acoustic bass), Michael Moser (cello), Christian Fennesz (laptop, guitar), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixer), Otomo Yoshihide (turntables), John Tilbury (piano), Evan Parker (saxophone), Marcio Mattos (cello), Joel Ryan (live signal processing), Keith Rowe (guitar), Franz Hautzinger (trumpet), Tetuzi Akiyama (electric and acoustic guitar), and Sachiko M. (sine waves), and David Sylvian’s prominent vocals the album would maybe sound like straight jazz improvisation.
Instead, the tropes of pop song-writing and improvisatory music lie smashed on the floor of David’s cabin. More interesting as shards. David Sylvian describes Manafon as modern chamber music. I think it’s more like a form of sculpture, where the art is not in the composition, but in the act of bringing diverse elements together and allowing them simply to coexist. (When he was asked what he would be contributing to the early recording sessions, David said, “Nothing.”) In this, Manafon reminds me of the work of Joseph Beuys: his installations of fat, felt, lead or stone augmented with chosen objects like hats and dead flowers. Each element brings with it associations, references that reach beyond the work into the wider world. They create a two-way transmission: the associations enrich the work and the work enriches the world. Manafon works in the same way: the noises and notes standing in for Beuys’s physical materials.
There’s an open and ‘vulnerable‘ humanity to Beuys’s work that’s also present in Manafon. On Manafon, a sense of withdrawal informs the central aesthetic. This sense is made acute by the disconnect between voice and instrumentation and the fact that most of the songs are not “about” the singer; they’re third-person narratives. Both have a distancing effect. And yet the loneliness, the isolation seems all the more personal for the absence of autobiography. Perversely, by seemingly withdrawing from his work, David Sylvian has made his most intimate album to date.