Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer (2010)

David Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer. Eibonvale Press, 2010. Pp. 360. ISBN 9780956214751. £10.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Creativity in isolation. This, we are told in the forward by editor David Rix, is the theme upon which Blind Swimmer, the new collection from Eibonvale Press, is founded, and the deciding factor when choosing stories for inclusion. It might be well at this point just to consider what he means. Is it possible to be creative in complete isolation? What constitutes “isolation”? When a collection of stories comes from a collection of disparate authors, it can help to consider the whys and hows of the collection’s intent as a means to determining the relativity of the stories. The book is a wide and varied mix of strange, ordinary, fantastic and irreverent stories that seem anything but isolated, filled as they are with the immediacy of their plot and description. Sometimes the characters themselves have only a secondary connection to “creativity” as they stumble towards their denouements.

A forward by Joel Lane examines the premise in a succinct three pages, tracing variants of isolation from self-imposed exiles, through a consideration of critically-imposed “quality” in works that has set them above more mediocre material, elevating their authors onto adulatory pedestals, and on to the crippling, helpless isolation of incapacitating disease. He summarises that no creative idea is ‘pure’, calling the external obligations of the world the “web of social and economic forces” that will, and do, impinge on an author’s thinking. Thus Lane decides that an author is best placed by being able to both maintain human contact but also withdraw as an observer; a tricky act to pull off in the modern capitalist West where he claims the main message is “you’re on your own.” And, indeed, he thinks it imperative not to give in utterly to this, but to keep the social contact.

This is important to consider, as it provides more of a key to understanding the stories than reading Rix’s introduction. His own creativity in isolation came when the founding germ of an idea for Eibonvale Press and his first self-published book came from a winter spent mostly snowed in, in a small village in Slovenia some years ago. Ironically, the theme itself came out of a very social and boozy evening chewing the fat with two of Eibonvale’s stable of authors. He rejoins Lane’s idea somewhat by establishing that for him, the book is about exploring the various ways the creators touch the receiver; landing the overall experience of the stories and the meanings they may or may not contain firmly at the door of individual response of the reader. I find this a bit of a cop-out answer, although he is right when he says that anything made, once witnessed/read/seen/experienced by another, is no longer a thing in isolation. And since creative works are meant to be witnessed, then the work itself will, hopefully, not be an isolated event.

Utilising the eclectic mix of authorial voices from the various writers published by Eibonvale, Blind Swimmer also provides a unique taster of their work, and the type of creativity that the press is seeking to explore and promote. It is one that is speculative, sometimes outrageous, sometimes dark and sometimes just plain weird.

I said that Lane’s idea of the process of creativity being one of both connection and removal, and this is definitely the best line to pursue when reading the stories. Most of them are centred on creative or once-creative individuals—writers, musicians, artists—and follow them through a crisis period as they appear to struggle with their sense of loneliness and isolation. I think just about all of the stories are better termed as psychological dramas. Some are played out in a semi-fantastic reality, some that seem to take place mostly within the Id of the character, as they struggle their way through to some new plateau of existence; overcoming the crisis and therapeutically moving on from it.

It could perhaps be too easy to ascribe this to the mood of the authors as they created these tales. We are given brief biographies in the back, but nothing definitive on the state of mind of the writer at the time of their story. We are also after all only human, and no author is going to have smooth, unimpeded progress. Maturation in any field normally comes from a painful learning curve; the victory of the learning mind over confusion. Certainly the short story format (or mini novella, as some of these stories are quite long), is one best suited to such a ‘working through’ for both author and their characters. A continuous series of overly emotive events wears thin within a novel; indeed it is mostly the pulpy, populist side of the publishing world that tends to utilise such cheap tricks as regular cliff hangers after every second chapter. Most people will go through life messily; revelations and the attendant angst do not come in one tidy package. But when it comes to the conventions of writing, even speculative fiction is not going to be able to sustain a lengthy discourse on the minor quibbles and moderate disasters that go towards most real life learning journeys. Those books that do tend to over-egg the omelette, exhausting an unsuspecting reader, and tend to be in the teenage fiction section, where the energy of youthful readers (and possibly shorter modern attention spans) needs that quick-fix series of ever-escalating adventures before the crashing climax. Even McColl-Smith’s books on the everyday were written as a series of short vignettes and published in a mainstream paper, where the audience will be for the most part browsing the text.

Back to Blind Swimmer—a title that, we are told on the flyleaf page, comes from Max Ernst, who used a process the phrase describes: closing his mental eyes off from the world, then moving forward tentatively and allowing in a piece at a time, to see the normal afresh. That old chestnut about seeing the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

Frankly, I enjoyed, or did not enjoy, the stories on their own merit. I did find Lane’s forward the best path into understand why these stories were chosen, but they could well have been collated under a number of editorial themes and still stood or fallen on their own terms. I stated above that I considered these stories best understood in the context of psychological adventures or drama. I stand by that. If this is writerly examination of a particular concept, the peculiarities of isolation and creativity and the relationship between the two, then it could be said to be a subject close to authorial hearts. A semi-autobiographical discussion on how they operate. This being the case the most natural area is in the mind, where such decisions are made and where data; either social or apart, is processed. Likewise, speculative fiction or fantasy is flexible enough and big enough to allow the metaphors to have full reign.

I will dwell more completely on a few stories I felt did and did not work. Overall, the collection is solid. I found it, for the most part, a compelling and interesting read and I am glad I had the opportunity to do so. However, it nearly lost me with the first story, Nina Allen’s ‘Bellony’. The connections to the theme are obvious: a writer strikes out on her own away from her comfort zone to investigate the solitary life and mysterious disappearance of her childhood authorial heroine. Once alone, she starts to notice the strangely rarefying influence of being alone, and also she starts to discover cracks in the official biography of her heroine. This strikes her as the willing re-invention of self in order to escape a past; an emotional and psychological exile from memories too painful for the woman to have borne. Allen’s style is leisurely, gentle and not altogether challenging. There are some red herrings and small details not accounted for later; small dead-ends to surprise, perhaps. There is also a strong smell of ‘fantastic’: a mysterious extra key on the key-ring, a door under the stairs that inexplicably leads outside to the side passage, but has been pasted and painted over. I think we are meant to think that by the end, the writer is so bowled over by the deceptions of her heroine, by the isolating feel of the small house she has come to inhabit (aside from the small town nearby and the neighbour who is willing to chat), that when she exits the house through the small door, although nothing seems to have changed, something is not quite right, just like the magical door her heroine’s protagonist escaped through in her favourite novel. There is a whiff of perhaps-different, ooo-spooky-ness. But I was left unimpressed. The emotions of the main character, while spelled out, did not engage me; they felt too self-indulgent and muddled for me to empathise with. The pace of the story was undermining it, too. Was this going to be a fantasy switch-realities tale, or the story of one woman working herself into a tiz-waz through an over-active imagination? It left me feeling unsatisfied.

Still, I persevered, as I could not review a book on one story alone! ‘The Book of Tides’ by David Rix and ‘Flights of Fancy’ by Allen Ashley intrigued me more, as they were low-key telling of possible end of world scenarios, as seen through the eyes of people removed from mainstream society. In ‘Tides’ it is the empathic loner, living in self-exile on a lonesome Scottish beach, telling the stories of the tides via the detritus washed up. In a Biblical twist, it is the introduction of a young female that causes his doubt and anxiety to spiral upwards, his creative gifts ‘reading’ the detritus to leave him with images of destruction and death. For this man, solitary was safe. The introduction of another broke his pattern and possibly started the end of the world (implications of violence and disease decimating the rest of society). For ‘Flights’, the solitary voice is a prisoner in a bleak institution, again in the Scottish highlands. The connections here are rather more hammered home. Even among a prison population, sharing a cell, a man can feel alone. Our protagonist ‘escapes’ by writing fantasy fiction. Eventually the solitary nature of the prison is the saving grace for the inmates when a mutated bird flu virus ravages the world outside. Truly the writer is now doubly isolated, as one of a few handfuls of humans left alive. Told in a series of diary entries with days named for their events as time starts to slip beyond comprehension, it makes for a vivid and conventional read as the character slides into multiple layers of isolation, creativity and response. Both stories are strong, for they never deviate from their character’s POV. We are engrossed and captivated by the unfolding events. Most possibly because the narrative and background information is produced in a ripple effect. That is, one entry point (the start) from which the story moves outwards, expanding, explaining, until the ripples reach a natural obstruction and the tale is ended. Compared to the linear construction of ‘Bellony’, they are sophisticated and far more exciting.

I must note two other tales that stood out: Andrew Coulthard’s ‘Lussi Natt’, a tale set in the Swedish wilds, an author in a cabin seeks to rediscover his spark of creativity and interest, and ‘The Higgins Technique’ by Terry Grimwood, where a young female writer seeks to throw herself in at the deep end; to immerse herself with no backup in her material subject matter (pornography) in order to get a grip on it and herself. Both are cracked psyches, both venturing into the unknown. The ‘Lussi’ author meets a supernatural series of events that read as an extended fairy-tale metaphor for development of the self, while the ‘Higgins’ writer reaches her crisis while strapped into a leather bag as a form of crude sensory deprivation. Neither, we feel, will come out of the story entirely happily. The absolute removal of self from any known environment can’t help but leave further damage on two already-grieving souls, but through them we hope that we would feel as brave if we had to ‘take the plunge’. Cathartically, we can hang on for the ride without investing in the personal danger. Critically, too, these are also told in episodic format, like the ‘Flights’ diary, and as such the leaps in time provide a narrative tension; a gap of ignorance we seek to fill by sticking with the story.

Overall, I would have to say that while the book was interesting to read, some stories left me cold. ‘Bellony’ was not as clever as it wanted to be, and Douglas Thompson’s ‘The Flowers of Uncertainty’ tried to be too clever; I have encountered such multiple-reality peeling-back before, and better done, too. ‘The Talkative Star’ by Rhys Hughes was amusing, but smacked too much of an author just bowled over by his own wit. Sadly, this left a rather trite taste in my mouth, although the quick, ready puns and silly jokes were a welcome relief after the deep, horrendously emotive journey of self-discovery and self-healing of Gerard Houarner’s ‘The Flea Market’. Unfortunately, while it was a gripping read, it was also a subject matter (man comes to terms with tragic past and starts to move on) that has been tackled over and over again; unfortunately becoming cheapened by being the top subject on chat shows and daytime TV soap dramas.

In the end, I would have to ask: would I buy this book? The answer would have to be no. Would I take time to read it if it was provided, via library or on a coffee table in a hotel? Yes, I would. It entertained and amused, but it left no great lasting mark.

Small press books can be a gamble. They could be an amazing gem newly discovered; some genius offering that makes a genuine impact on one’s thinking. Or they can be self-published self-indulgent rambling. Unfortunately, Blind Swimmer sails closer to the latter end. It is laudable that someone made the effort to produce a forum for otherwise infrequently published talent, and there is talent here. But it does not leap off the page, grab one’s throat and yell, “ME! READ ME!” The title of the book refers to seeing the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Unfortunately, these stories are just not extraordinary enough and the themes and plots have been done before and with more pizzazz.

I would recommend this as a book for people who enjoy something a bit different from ‘mainstream’ but nothing too challenging. In the end, it was like watching a comfy TV show: it passed the time, it will have a following and become a small, cosy success, but it won’t win any BAFTAs.

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