Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gardner, The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon (2009)

Catherine J Gardner, The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon. Bucket O’ Guts Press, 2009. Pp. 23. $6.00 US/$7.50 International.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

This is the ‘first chapbook’ from the wonderfully named Bucket O’ Guts press; a short tale at twenty-three pages start to finish, Gardner's tale is the perfect length to while away a short commute or pass a lunch break. Folded and stapled, it’s unashamed in claiming to be ‘Designed and Printed in a Garage Somewhere in the USA.’ And why shouldn’t it be? The cover artwork by Stephen Blundell is as good as any, and the print within decently sized and legible. I’ve seen supposedly professionally produced works that don’t look half as good.

The publisher’s website states: “We want fiction that cannot be classified or pigeonholed. The only contingency is that your story must leave us all scratching our heads.” So, not being a fan of “bizarro” fiction, which is what I assumed the publishers are hinting at above, I wondered what to expect from The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon. I needn’t have worried. The story is conventional in that it has a beginning, middle and end, and there’s an adherence to logic and cause and effect throughout. The result is a delightfully off-kilter dark fantasy that's a pleasure to read.

In many ways I’m reluctant to summarise the tale. The fact that the story is so short makes it almost impossible not to add spoilers should I do so. I’ll say only that the tale is a journey through Olive Lemon’s dark and troubled mind. Her world is a town populated with colourful neighbourhoods and strange characters; with a mayor, for example, who imposes some odd rules indeed: "The use of ladders was restricted…" and "Puzzles were banned—both cryptic and Jigsaw". But, of course, infringing such restriction is normal behaviour for Olive Lemon.

The story is a good one. Gardner skilfully weaves the narrative along at a sidestep to reality. And she’s careful to provide enough subtle foreshadowing to keep the reader guessing what’s going on yet still lead that reader to a believable conclusion. It makes for a satisfying read indeed.

My only criticism is that The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon was over too quickly; I'd have liked another couple of stories from Gardner thrown in to follow, to beef it out a little. Still, it left me wanting to read more from this author. I’ll watch out for her, and for Bucket O’ Guts press, with interest.

Purchase this title from Bucket O’ Guts Press

Monday, September 07, 2009

Rix, What the Giants are Saying (2009)

David Rix, What the Giants are Saying. Eibonvale Press, 2008. Pp. 200. ISBN 9780955526862. £9.95.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

When on a weekend break in Yorkshire a year or so ago I took a walk through a valley filled with giants. They were impassive, impressive, inscrutable and very intimidating. They were, of course, those love-'em or hate-'em wind turbines. I am one of those who finds the things graceful. They are strange beasts, there is a near-life feel about them and, as David Rix shows us in his novella, What The Giants Are Saying, they are far from silent. Their song is, indeed, the voice of giants.

In the novella, Rix introduces us to Don, a landscape painter, disillusioned by the mediocrity of his work and in the process of splitting up with a girlfriend he blames for the dissolution of his artistic inspiration. He is depressed, angry and self-destructive. Dangerous enough, in fact, to crash his car out on a lonely moor watched over by countless, whispering wind turbines.

That’s where he meets an enigmatic woman named Feather. Otherworldly and seemingly impervious to the bitter cold, she first haunts his thoughts then draws him into a bizarre, destructive relationship. She too is an artist, but the landscapes Feather creates are far more physical and bloody than anything Don has so far dreamed of. And watching over it all, their whispering song a haunting soundtrack, are the giants, hallucinatory and thrumming with a strange and threatening life of their own.

Following the novella is a short story called 'Red Fire', a prequel where we first meet Feather, this time the relationship reversed, she the canvas, her lover Cal, the artist. The result is just as brutal and unsettling.

What the Giants Are Saying is an unnerving, edgy work. It asks the inevitable question, what is art? And then explores the issue in a supremely visceral and unflinching manner. Yes, it has become acceptable (though controversial still) to manipulate inanimate tissue, such as Damian Hurst’s sharks and sheep, or Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ corpse sculptures, but to carve and stitch your art onto living flesh, to mutilate the breathing, that is another matter, or is it? After all, who owns our flesh? We accept the tattoo, the piercing, gender change (whether medically necessary or simply a need), even genital mutilation—weren’t the Castratos of a bygone age mutilated in the name of musical art—so who is to say where it ends, what is acceptable and what is extreme, if not even criminal?

Don’s ex-girlfriend sees Don’s new and bloody art as somehow a personal affront, it repulses her, is, in her mind, a crime. The irony of her role in the story is that she is seen by Don as the destructive influence in his life, the reason for his breakdown because she is “normal”, conventional, actually cares about his health and physical well-being But what right has she to judge? Whose body is it anyway? What are our responsibilities, to ourselves and to those around us, those who depend on us?

Don is a typical independent press character, self-centred, self-obsessed and far from easy to get on with. It makes a change from the taciturn square-jawed hero of course and is much more realistic, but it can be annoying, there are times you want to shout at him, shake him, tell him to pull himself together, but he is an artist, and, traditionally, the artist stands outside the mainstream, so much art flows out of suffering. These outsiders exist, have given us so much music and writing. .

What the Giants Are Saying is a bold work, it eschews story-telling conventions, it is readable, but difficult. It gives no easy answers or comfortable conclusions. It asks mote questions than it answers. It is horror, and then it isn’t, not in the conventional sense anyway, it is that rare and wonderful thing, an unclassifiable work. Even the beautiful, striking and disturbing cover is ostensibly horror, but then, on closer examination probably not. In fact the cover art has the same edgy, bold and savage imagery examined in the story itself.

David Rix is, as I understand it, the man behind the remarkable and adventurous Eibonvale Press, publishers of the off-beat and different. With his own book he has certainly flown the Eibonvale flag and all power to him for stepping off the main road into wilder, more difficult country.

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