Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

The Appointment – Katharina Volckmer

Have you ever looked in the mirror and not liked what is reflected back at you? ‘The Appointment (Or, The Story of a Cock)’ by Katharina Volckmer is one unsettling work about a person who is uncomfortable with everything about their life. Our single unemployed female, German narrator, is unhappy about being unemployed, being female, being German, being single, she is unsettled about everything in her past and her present. Can a change settle these old debts and secure a better future?

Written as a single 96-page monologue, our German narrator is being examined by Dr Seligman and during this examination, whilst he’s down there, between her thighs, she unburdens intimate and perverse details of her life.

Your assistant told me that you are very thorough and that this will take a while, especially the photos, so I don’t want you to worry, because I still think the reasons for my discharge from work were misconstrued and it’s unfair to say that I have anger issues. I was angry that day, of course – it was before I had started taking my hormones – but to get suspended like that when they have no idea what it’s like for people like me. And I don’t think that threatening to staple a co-worker’s ear to their desk whilst waving a stapler around can really count as violence. Not with those staplers, anyway. I doubt they have every tried to staple through human flesh and into a solid desk with one of those stiff little plastic things. I was probably more at risk of losing my eyesight from an errant staple, but of course that didn’t matter to them. And you don’t need to think that they had ever provided us with safety glasses, heaven knows how many casualties will be caused by all that cheap stationery. But now I don’t feel sorry anymore; let them all be poisoned from chewing on those horrible pens that turn all handwriting into a lament. Because the worst thing was not losing my job – in the city you starve either way – but that they made me see a therapist called Jason, for otherwise they would have pressed charges. Can you imagine being serious with a therapist called Jason, Dr Seligman?

The monologue lurches from the highly amusing and razor-sharp observations to perverse and outrageous, “but I thought that it would wind him [Jason] up if I told him about my sexual fixation with our dear Führer”. The topics intentionally provoking, asking readers to contemplate subjects that are considered taboo. The guilt of being born German:

I mean, I know that as Germans we can never get away from our past and simply start growing happy flowers in our front garden – our outlook will always be something that has been raked to death and closely resembles concrete.

The guilt of not being happy with her own body, the rants about sexuality, binary tags, just as disturbing. Within a paragraph you can go from laugh out loud to a grimace.

A difficult work to review without giving away spoilers, or moving to over reaction to taboo subjects, it’s not just the Hitler references, although they have seemed to get their fair share of coverage, there is also robotic sex toys, quick oral sex in public toilets, a fluid relationship with a married man where our narrator is just used for her body, a dissection of the nuclear family.

At times disturbing, and at other times simply a person bringing up their deepest anxieties and fears. I have an impression that the monologue is being conducted under the influence of an anesthetic, an unburdening of everything that brought her to Dr Seligman’s in the first place.

God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette. The kind of man who shoots lions and overtakes women in the swimming pool. It’s of course much easier to be religious when you are a man, and yet I could never understand why a single woman ever went to church, or any of the other temples, Dr Seligman, because no religion I have ever come across had anything nice to say about women. I could never understand why my mother believed in Jesus and had a secret altar will all sorts of glittering memorabilia tucked away in the corner of her bedroom. Why would she worship where they teach nothing but shame and fear, where they came up with all that crap about holy mothers and whores, where they were scared of vaginas. Because that’s really what it is all about, isn’t it? Apart from trying to find a way not to die, to carry on living somewhere in the clouds with all the people you never liked in the first place, it is a way of trying to keep the difference between people with and without cocks alive. And they talk of penis envy, but look at the lengths people have gone to to cripple and defeat vaginas, to tell women that pleasure is not for them, that there is such a thing as being good. I mean, how many women have covered pages and pages of books about cocks and they way men are supposed to dress and think and dream? How they are supposed to be some sort of fuckable mother figure with clean fingernails and plenty of tissues in their handbag. I never understood how God, who couldn’t give birth, is supposed to be the source of all life – how a man could be our creator. Unless, of course, it was what we would call arschgeburt in German, something that your ass gave birth to. Maybe that’s what this world is, Dr Seligman: something that came out of a holy man’s ass, the leftovers of broken stars and an imploding universe.

A work that challenges your notions on just about every subject you could think of, a work that provokes and prods you, a work that questions the norms and pushes at the boundaries to see how far they can be stretched before they break. But this is also an important work in that it addresses subjects that people do not want to confront, German identity, non-binary identities, sexual perversions… Katharina Volckmer has arrived with a very noisy debut.

A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.

‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.

However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…

My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.

But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.

I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:

In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.

As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:

He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.

This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.

How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?

There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.

An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has a very interesting back story, one I think is worthwhile sharing here, before I look at the book itself. Firstly the book was crowdfunded back in September 2019 to get into print, with an acknowledgement page appearing at the back of the book thanking the people who funded “this book out into the world.” Since then it has received rave reviews in the mainstream media and has appeared quickly on three respected Prize lists.

Prizes

In October 2020, the novel was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and Award established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” It didn’t win the Prize, losing out to ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison.

In November 2020 the novel was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, an award for the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland” and last month it was named winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year.

Then in February 2021 the book was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, an Award to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees.

A flurry of Award announcements and interestingly deemed not “daring” enough for the Goldsmiths but “enjoyable” enough to win the Costa.

The Publisher

As the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize attests, this novel is published by a small press, less than five full time employees. Peepal Tree books “a small publisher that has consistently supported international Caribbean writing for 35 years.” Two days after the Costa announcement the press had sold 12,000 copies, having to move to a different printer to cope with demand.

There is an interesting article, and interview with founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting available at ‘The Bookseller’ where he speaks of their list of 450 titles still being available, how ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ was crowdfunded to even get printed and the demands of a small publisher having a best-selling title in their catalogue.

The novel

We were both lost people.

David Baptiste is a fisherman in the small Caribbean enclave of Black Conch, one day whilst smoking a spliff and strumming his guitar on his boat, he spots a mermaid, Aycayia. A young girl who has been cursed for her beauty and temptation of men and sealed up with a tail and forced to swim the oceans for eternity. During a big game fishing competition she is caught by “those white men from Florida”.

This novel is told in a variety of voices, excerpts from David’s journal, short innocent lyrical poem like musings from Aycayia and the omniscient narrator, using local language and slang:

The Black Conch men, Nicholas and Short Leg, backed away from the stern. Like Nicer, they knew this was wrong. They fraid bad jumbie get ketch. They didn’t want to help. They were lost for words and for what to do. The white men wanted to pull this creature out of the sea. But this fish was half-woman, plain enough. Everyone had heard of the mermen in Black Conch waters, but a merwoman? No. She carried with her bad luck, at best, and her hair had frightened them – like she could kill you with just one lash from those tentacles. She could poison them all. They’d seen spikes on her back, dorsal spikes. Scorpion fish spikes, They had seen a bloody, raging woman on the end of the fishing line and now these white men wanted to bring her in. Nah, boy, they all said to themselves.

More than a simple love story, although the cover does say “a love story”, this is a complex study revealing misogyny, sex, the colonization and maltreatment of indigenous peoples, the destruction of the environment, modern day man’s move away from spiritual connection to their environment and the USA’s domination of the Caribbean amongst many subjects, all wrapped up in a tale of David Baptiste and Aycayia’s love.

The locals see the catch of a mermaid as potential bad luck, the Florida fishermen see the potential financial rewards. David sees his friend from the ocean, all strung up like a trophy catch and has to release her:

The old man, Thomas Clayson, had spent a second day at sea. He’d taken a rifle with him, this time, and some marine flares in case they got into trouble, also an axe and a cutlass as back up to the gun. He would shoot her if need bel that would be the end of it. He’d shot big game before. He’d shot a lion in South Africa, once. The head had been stuffed and mounted and was now above his desk in his den at home. He’d shot a buffalo in the Yukon, a female too; he’d even shot a grizzly bear, once, up in the Rockies. He would shoot the bitch, no messing, bring her in. No beers on the jetty; he’d take her straight, by truck, to the other end of the island, to the port at English Town, where she would be tagged and photographed and packed on ice and taken to the larger island/ There, she would be airlifted back to Florida. This time, he knew what he was up against; a big, bad motherfucker of a mermaid. He paid his crew double. He was furious over the theft of his catch, with the incompetence of the villagers, and mostly with his weak-minded sissy of a son.

There are interlocking love stories, abandoned single mothers, deaf children with connections to the environment and weird happenings, such as the skies raining fish, a wonderful blend of folklore, romance, and a race against time. Aycayia’s short melodic interludes dragging you back to simpler times:

I swam away, the dive deep
My terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die

Enough shame put on my head
I was a human woman once
some thousand cycles past
Cursed to be lonely
with no love

They curse me good
Goddess Jagua was the goddess of their curse
She keep me lonely all those years

I miss my life in Black Conch
I was human woman again
after they ketch me good

There is also the underlying uneasiness of a “home”, is the mermaid’s home back on land from where she was banished, is it the sea? Are David’s roots in Black Conch? Is the white overseer’s place Black Conch? This pervading sense of displacement.

Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery.

A wonderful blend of readability and prescience, a blend of tragic love story, environmental warning, folklore, with the pace of a thriller. A worthy winner of the Costa Prize and it is magnificent to see a novel that had crowdfunding beginnings, find a small publisher and then find success.

Republic of Consciousness Prize Longlist 2021

The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by author Neil Griffiths with £2,000 of his own money to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees. The first Prize was awarded in 2017 to John Keene’s ‘Counternarratives’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and subsequent winners have been Eley Williams’ ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press) in 2018, Will Eaves for ‘Murmur’ (CB Editions) in 2019 and last year Jean-Baptiste Del Amo took home the prize for ‘Animalia’, translated by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions).

The Prizemoney has changed this year with the publisher of all longlisted titles receiving £1,000, at total of £10,000. A further £10,000 will be split between the shortlisted titles, which will be announced in late March.

Earlier this week the longlist for the 2021 Prize was announced. Here are those books (listed alphabetically by publisher as the Prize has chosen to do):

•A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)

The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

•Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)

Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

•Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Bingen (Ignota Books)

•Lote by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)

•Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

I have read three of the titles, only giving my thoughts on one here (‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths), however I will write up something about the other two in the coming weeks and will also get to a few more that sit on my shelves, hopefully before announcement of the shortlist. Links to my reviews will be updated on the list here.

This year’s judges are:

Guy Gunaratne, his first novel ‘Our Mad and Furious City’ winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Authors Club Best First Novel Award in 2019, also longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize.

Eley Williams, winner of this Prize and the James Tait Black Prize in 2018 for ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press).

John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound the book crowdfunding platform.

Prizemoney is largely donated from two sources: The University of East Anglia, through the UEA Publishing Project; and The Granta Trust, with the remainder of the prizemoney being raised through donations and through the Republic of Consciousness small press book club. I have been a member of their book club for a little while and as part of your membership you can choose to receive a fresh small press title each month, sometimes giving you a sneak preview as to the following year’s longlist.

If you would like to join their book club visit their website here for more details, I recommend it, a new book a month (even if mail to Australia is slow), and the knowledge that you are supporting a prize for small presses, those who push the boundaries and publish “brave literary fiction”.