Monday, June 08, 2015

Thompson, Rhymer (2014)

Douglas Thompson, The Rhymer: an Heredyssey. Elsewhen Press, 2014. Pp. 192. ISBN 978-1-9081-6841-2. £9.99 pb/ £2.99 e.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The Rhymer is the eighth novel by Scottish weird and speculative author and editor Douglas Thompson, published by British small press Elsewhen. This novel is one of the more surreal and absurdist tales Thompson has written, parts of which were previously published in serial or standalone form in other fantastic magazines. It is entirely written in a style somewhere between free-association, free-verse, and comic semi-rhyme, which sounds like it would be hard to read, but actually isn’t, although the story does veer wildly and apparently out of control between satire, grotesque, bizarre, mystical and pseudo-scientific allegory. While I felt this novel sometimes sacrifices plot continuity and character consistency in name of moving the story forwards, it is a bit hard to tell to what degree this is the result of lazy writing, and how much a symptom of the rapidly changing realities in the story itself. I confess to not particularly liking any of the characters, or indeed the narrative voice, but I did find it pleasant to read, challenging in the way that literature should be, and sometimes startlingly original.

I should say a few words about that subtitle: “An Heredyssey.” Apart from the deliberately archaic article, I spent most of the book assuming that the portmanteau neologism was representing something along the lines of “heretical Odyssey,” until mid-way through the book it was revealed to be for “hereditary Odyssey” (which makes a bit more sense, to be sure. On reflection, however, I wonder if we shouldn’t read the first four letters of the portmanteau at face value: this deeply satirical and allegorical book is, after all, about “here” (and now, and us…).

The style of the book is, as mentioned above, challenging to define—and occasionally distracting to read. Narrated in the first person by an obsessive rhymer, all narrative, description, action, dialogue and quoted speech or text are peppered with random, strained, sometimes inappropriate or malapropos rhyming, semi-rhyming or alliterating words. In the narrator’s own voice, this is appropriate to the story, since it is a character trait that he rhymes compulsively, but when put into the mouths or pens of others, it is a fine example of the narrator being unreliable, a hint to the reader that not all in the world of this novel is as it is being described. This rhyming is often unobtrusive, so you don’t notice it unless you look for it, but sometimes it hammers you in the face and makes it quite hard to stay in the world of the text; typical examples include: “that other, with whom you shared a mother, your brother;” and “I’m able to catch mushrooms in my maw like mice in a cat’s paw or fish in a fat seal’s muzzle, a veritable tussle.”

The protagonist therefore, one might even say the only real character, is the narrator, an aged, unwashed, amnesiac tramp with antisocial habits but a gift of the gab and a prodigal musician. At the start of the novel he does not even remember his name, but he is soon told he is “Nadith,” itinerant brother of the genius painter Zenir, and Nadith he remains for the first chapter; later he and his brother’s names change to Nithna and Dirze, Ithir and Zennad, and finally Nadir and Zenith. Our hero’s superpower, for all the help it is to him, is a mechanical device surgically implanted in his chest, which allows him to sink wires into the ground or buildings around him and see their pasts and futures. His prophetic utterances, absurd and rhyming as they are, are often ignored like the helpless truths of a Cassandra. Nadith makes friends easily—or rather, despite his rudeness and poor personal hygiene, other characters seem to take to him very quickly and with fierce loyalty. Other than his evil nemesis brother, however, other characters are all rather fleeting and shallow: women for him to sleep with and then abandon; men to save him from one predicament, or lead him somewhere down the road toward the next, or provide him with a stable base from which to figure out what to do next, before the story races on leaving them behind and forgotten (if not dead or ruined).

For this is the story of Nadith/Nithna/Ithir’s attempt to catch up with his world-famous but corrupt brother, although even he is sometimes confused as to whether his goal is to kill, reconcile with, rescue a girl from, or learn the truth about himself from Zenir/Dirze/Zennad. The fortunes of both turn on a dime, sometimes reversing or plunging to hell at the turn of a page—in time-honored story-telling tradition, the better things look for our hero at any moment, the harder he is going to fall just around the corner. He travels the world, or at least the environs of one great city, mostly on foot but also by row boat or skating on ice, getting closer and closer to (but also further and further away from) his goal. As in most speculative fiction, the setting is as much a co-protagonist of the story as any of the characters, in this case the mythical city “Urbis” which is spoken of but never visited until the final chapter, as all the action takes place in the four surrounding regions: “Suburbia,” “Industria,” “Oceania” and “Sylvia.” Apart from being stereotypes of particular examples of physical and human geography, these regions are more or less cardboard scenery for the story, well-described, but not through any essential differences impacting on the plot. Nadith steals a boat when he needs to travel to Oceania; the sea freezes over when he needs to flee from it; he acquires rich patrons when he needs to survive in an expensive part of town. Urbis itself is everything you would expect from a pastoral cliché of the big city: busy, ugly, intimidating, and ground to an almost complete standstill by its own weight.

This review has not really done justice to the turns and twists of this confusing and surreal novel, partly because it would be unfair to give too much away, and partly because any attempt to summarize the plot in this medium would be inadequate. This is a story of style over substance (in as much as there is any difference between the two), which reads—depending on your mood—like a juvenile poem or like a hallucinogen-fuelled nightmare. While I felt there were some careless elements thrown in or thrown away (the treatment of most of the women in the novel, for example), it is clearly a painstakingly and expertly crafted piece of writing, speaking to surrealist and absurdist aesthetics as well as the antiquarian’s love of subverted folklore and retro-science fiction. As often with Thompson’s novels, I came out of reading this book not entirely unambivalent, but certainly not unmoved.


Don Riggs said...

To what extent is this a version of the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, who is taken by the Queen of Faerie to her homeland on the condition that he not speak a word, then is returned to our world, and prohibited from ever telling a lie? It seems, from your description, that this is that same Thomas after he has been returned to this reality and cannot handle it totally, or perhaps I misread your review?

Djibril said...

@Don, that version of the Thomas the Rhymer story is indeed invoked in the novel, repeatedly. To what degree this is what is going on in the narrative “reality,” and to what degree it is just another layer of misdirection and the narrator's psychosis, is for every reader to decide (or not decide, if you like multivalence as much as the author does!).