The Rest of the Trilogy: Re-Reading Makers of Empty Dreams and Identity Papers by Ian Seed

Makers of Empty Dreams by Ian Seed      Identity Papers by Ian Seed

[posted by Alice]

Ian Seed’s New York Hotel, a collection of prose poems published in 2018, was the subject of the first comments posted in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe. Since then, this third volume in a trilogy published by Shearsman Books was named a Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement. To help celebrate the positive reception Seed’s work has received, I decided to comment on the first two volumes in the trilogy. This will also give me a chance to talk about some of the things I have learned since I posted those first comments.

For one thing, while writing comments about Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman, I came to understand the importance of the prose poem as a genre. At first, I continued to believe that some prose poems work like stories and others work like poems, so the genre itself is a rather confusing hybrid. But I was more influenced than I realized by Daniel Lawless’ introduction to Floating Tales. In it he describes an important volume, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, which was first published in 1976 and edited by Michael Benedikt. Lawless tells us that the anthology contained works by Brecht, Borges, Edson, and Kafka, among others, and these works were “[s]trange, image-centered, associative pieces through which, still, a narrative often might be glimpsed or even serve as a kind of scaffolding or superstructure on which all manner of odd brise-soleil, parapets and volutes might be affixed.”

I still think that prose poems containing a narrative scaffolding are the ones we would consider to be irreal, but as I re-read Seed’s trilogy (the first two volumes are Identity Papers (2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014)), I understand more clearly why he has adopted the prose poem as his preferred form and that it is a genre unto itself. It’s also clear to me that this form repays its adherents by giving them many different creative options.

In addition to knowing more about the prose poem, I now also know more about Ian Seed and his influences than I did when I first began our Year of Reading. Largely, this is because of an essay at Fortnightly Review in which Seed talks about his discovery, turn away from, and rediscovery of the prose poem as a genre. In this essay I also learned that Kenneth Patchen was one of Seed’s early influences. Patchen, an anti-war poet initially associated with the Beat movement, was the author of The Journal of Albion Moonlight, as well as many collections of poetry. These ranged over the years from the early socially conscious free verse to the painted and more experimental poems he produced in later life. Seed indicates in this essay that it was Patchen who introduced him to the possibilities of poetry and the many forms it could take.

Furthermore, regarding Patchen’s Love and War Poems, published in a small edition, Seed says, “The fact that I discovered prose poems through editions like this meant that for me they quickly became associated with a literature which was underground and subversive. Prose poems were outsiders. In spite of their square shape, they would not be boxed in by academic labels or commercial interests.”

I share Ian Seed’s enthusiasm for Patchen’s work, and in fact, I grew up just a few miles from Patchen’s home town in Northeastern Ohio. In 1989 I attended the Kenneth Patchen Literary Festival in Warren, Ohio, where I got to meet and talk with Patchen’s widow, Miriam Patchen. She told me, among other things, that anyone can write one effective poem but to write them over an extended period of time as Kenneth did is the real accomplishment. In Fortnightly Review Ian Seed described the fact that after he found the prose poem form, he let go of it for a period of twenty years and only recovered it in the early 2000’s; since then, however, the overall effect of his outpouring of work is more than the sum of its parts, as was Patchen’s.

Seed was also influenced by the prose poems of Pierre Reverdy, whose work he later translated, and by the work of Cory Harding. Yet, Seed says, when he finally tried his hand at the form, the resultant short piece, which was published in 1981, was considered Kafkan by the editor who accepted his work. Seed says that he hadn’t thought of Kafka when writing this story, but he had earlier “soaked” himself in Kafka’s work and “now realise[s] that his influence has lasted to this day.”

Yet it is Max Jacob, a friend of and mentor to Pierre Reverdy, who is cited by Seed as having had the most explicit influence on his work. “While Kafka builds an alternative universe through the accumulation of seemingly realistic detail, Jacob is a writer who with just a few brushstrokes plunges us into a world we create for ourselves. His language is plain, pared-down, almost conversational, like that of someone telling a jokey anecdote in a bar. Yet the pictures he paints are astonishingly beautiful, filled with a sense of mystery and loss, which is in no way diminished by their comic absurdity.” In his prose poems Seed himself uses pared-down and conversational language, painting pictures that combine mystery and loss with comic absurdity. Even so, I clearly see the Kafkan influence in Seed’s work, and I agree that he uses fantasy in a very Kafkan way in stories like “Insect.”

In his short but concise and very approachable book Existentialism, Thomas Flynn states that this philosophical approach has always been connected with the fine arts (though he determines to “treat existentialism as a philosophical movement with artistic implications rather than as (just) a literary movement with philosophical pretensions”). Kierkegaard, for example, used pseudonyms, parables, and other forms of “indirect communication” in his philosophical writings to enlist the reader’s involvement in the ideas under discussion. Seed’s prose poems are not parables, but they often seem to work by indirect communication. Control over his material is Seed’s forte, and he leaves us certain that we know something, yet we mull over each short piece for much longer than it took us to read it in order to determine what it is that we know. In the case of those prose poems we consider to be irreal, we are given “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” as in the case of Kafka’s work, but all of Seed’s short works challenge us to find meaning. Here are three examples:

“Bad Faith (I)” in Makers of Empty Dreams centers on an old homeless woman begging outside the subway entrance. One day the narrator asks her what happened to her, and she says she was a collaborator during the war. He seems dismayed – the war was such a long time ago – and he raises his voice to remind the passersby that lots of people “even your great Jean Paul Sartre, slept with the enemy in one way or another.” The passersby respond by passing by even more quickly, but as a reader, I am left with the task of wondering if that is true, if that was true of Sartre, if that is true of me.

In “Creatures,” which is also in Makers of Empty Dreams, the narrator has found a snake living under the kitchen sink and needs information to make a choice: if the snake is venomous, he will have to kill it. If it’s harmless, he can keep it as a pet. And then too there is a woman upstairs lying naked in her bed, and he doesn’t know if she is waiting for him. Before he gets back to the old familiar routine of his life (and goes to the shop around the corner to talk with the owner and buy a bottle of wine), he must make decisions and he must choose. There’s a glimmer of irreality here, but it’s often true that the choices we are condemned to make are equally obscure and absurd.

And “Parenthood,” which appeared in Identity Papers, addresses the existentialist notion that you are what you make yourself to be. The narrator, who has just discovered that he has a grown son, waits to meet his child for the first time. The son turns out to be a strong young woman who is both a priest and a comedian. “Everyone is full of such contradictions,” she tells him, “but few of us have the joy of living them out.” This in turn inspires him to take his newfound son to see his mother, who not only embraces her newly discovered grandchild, but also shares the (somewhat unlikely) news that she is pregnant. As it illustrates the notion that you are what you make yourself to be, “Parenthood” undermines the gender binary and hints at the irreal.

The short dense prose poems in both these volumes have repaid frequent re-reading, allowing me to get something slightly different (or very different, depending on my mood and current situation) each time. Though New York Hotel received the most significant acclaim, each volume of Seed’s trilogy deserves careful reading and repays the reader’s careful attention. You can still buy Identity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams at Shearsman Press.

An Irrealist Reading of Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has been a regular at The Cafe Irreal for a very long time. We published his story “Circus” in Issue #3 (which went online nineteen years ago, in February of 2000), and his work has appeared on our site five additional times since then. Wilson’s story “Giraffe” was included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader — Fiction and Essays from The Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013), and in May of 2016, one of his plays, “Primacy,” appeared in Issue #58. I first read Wilson’s collection of Three Plays when we published “Primacy,” and I decided to re-read the plays during Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe.

Wilson is the author of biographies, fiction collections, novels, and criticism, including Modern Masters of Science Fiction: J.G. Ballard, and he is a professor of English at Wright State University. According to his bio, he is also one of the co-founders of bizarro fiction. David Vichnar, in an essay about Wilson published at 3:AM Magazine, has this to say about bizarro fiction and Wilson’s writing in general: “[s]ome critics have been cited as calling him ‘a genre in himself.’ That’s lazy, though, for in the best spirit of the avant-garde business, Wilson has helped to cofound and shape the movement & aesthetics of ‘bizarro fiction,’ a mélange of elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with genre fiction staples (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) aiming to create subversive, weird, and above all entertaining works, and defined as ‘literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.’ In Wilson’s hands, bizarro is a sometimes extreme, sometimes (hyper-)exaggerated, sometimes flippant, almost always blackly humorous critique of what our lives have become.” Vichnar considers Wilson’s anti-literary avant-gardist approach to writing to be a purposeful effort to undermine the fetishized nature of literature and literary writers in this stage of late capitalism. I propose to add something to this portrait of Wilson as I talk about his plays because I find in them a search for meaning and insight into the ways the means can revolt against the ends that add to my view of Wilson as a genuinely irreal writer.

“Primacy” is the most accessible and in some ways the least irreal of the three plays. In fact, it calls to mind the work of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett who in 1945, after a considerable period of living in James Joyce’s shadow, realized that his work should focus on “poverty, failure, exile and loss,” and acknowledged to himself that he was interested in ignorance and impotence, in impoverishment and in man as a “non-knower.” There is something of Beckett’s focus on impotence and loss in the line often-repeated by “Primacy”’s only two characters, Man and Woman: “If you die, I’ll kill you.” Also like Beckett, Wilson infuses this play with a bleak humor that results in lines like these: “Nobody likes you sober. You and sobriety are a bad mix. Like water and dirt. That makes mud.”

Despite their generic names, the two characters have a relationship that is semi-realistically portrayed at times. But Wilson undermines our expectations of how a domestic drama about a couple should unfold as the two end up, hapless and disoriented, in the front yard, in the backyard, on the roof, and in the dark offstage, all the while continuing their somewhat hectoring, somewhat affectionate dialog. Until the end, that is, when Man’s ongoing insistence that Woman transcribe the obituary he is dictating meets an absurdist conclusion. An absurd and Beckettian bleakness can be found in Man’s line: “The best obituaries are composed in the darkest silences.” Note that “Primacy” was staged as part of the Rutgers University-Camden Student-Directed One-Act Play Festival.

The other two plays in this volume, “The Triangulated Diner” and “The Dark Hypotenuse,” might more accurately be called bizarro, according to the description given in Vichnar’s essay, but they undermine our expectations of the conventions of drama and they also engage in a search for meaning that makes them irreal. The diner in “The Triangular Diner,” according to the stage directions, “occupies the basement floor of an evacuated industrial elevator shaft,” and we are told that it is “a kind of culinary museum distinguished by appliances, wallpaper, décor and bric-a-brac from another era or dimension. The geometry of the diner belongs somewhere else, too, ceiling and walls forming a deranged rhombus.” But it is the superscreens that add the most non-realist elements to the stage setting. The three superscreens in “The Triangulated Diner” are supposedly there to show us what is happening in the mall where the diner is located, but in fact the superscreens’ offerings sound more like surrealist films – for example, on the one on the right wall: “Colorful amoebas of light flow across it in slowtime. When the amoebas collide, one assimilates the other, like protoplasm. Sometimes they ricochet, lobes groping for stability.” This description calls to mind Man Ray’s short films and the images on the superscreens do sound somewhat surreal. Yet Wilson’s work doesn’t read like the automatic writing championed by Breton. Instead the play is made up of dialog and quotations that contribute to an overall irreal effect.

Roarke, the hungover man at the center of this drama, keeps asking for a Mimosa that he never receives. What he does get, among other things, is a chance to hear an offstage psychologist quote Darwin on male sexual attractants, an extravagant bill of $875.24 for a hotel room he didn’t stay in, the sight of a gunman firing an Uzi and killing mall-goers and hotel guests alike, a chance to hear a waitress quote Jacques Lacan on “the sexual relationship,” and an unsatisfactory grilled cheese sandwich. After re-reading the play I went back and read the quote from Freud’s Civilizations and Its Discontents that appears as one of the epigrams (the other is a quote from Jimmy Carter about aggression). Yes, this play is bizarro in its overall intent, but it also gives us insight into why, as Freud would have it, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks,” leaving us with no alternative but to seek various “palliative measures.” In the play’s final scene, as Roarke tries to get the waitress to lie down and have sex with him, she says, “The metaphor of love is that thing we think we point at inside of somebody else, but in fact it is only that which we point at inside ourselves. And our insides are defined by lack.” Though Wilson frequently invokes Freud, this play does not give us the sense of harsh determinism often favored by writers who take a psychoanalytic approach to human nature, but instead has a more questioning and open-ended quality.

In the third play in this volume, “The Dark Hypotenuse,” another middle-aged man with a hangover, Starke, finds himself in “what may or may not be the Lacanian Real.” We are also told that “The Dark Hypotenuse” is another name for the Lacanian Real. The stage directions here are unsettling: “The stage is a thick black rhombus that hovers in the middle of the theater. The floor is a maze of trap doors through which actors may enter or exit. Some of the trap doors swing open whereas others slide or fall open. Giant mechanical arms extend from underneath of the stage. At the end of each arm is a gondola that sits up to ten spectators. Throughout the performance, the arms are in constant motion and move the audience all over the theater so that each gondola achieves a fluid multiperspectivalism as it glides east to west, north to south, accomplishing close-ups and bird’s-eye views and everything in between.” Even the alternative stage setting given involves stage and audience constantly rotating, but since such stagings are unlikely, it is mainly the reader’s imagination that is sent spinning.

In addition to its unsettling stage directions, “The Dark Hypotenuse” is a one-act play with no fewer than twenty-seven scenes and a cast of hundreds if we include the pigs, apes, mannequins and deconstructionists. As I describe this, I realize that it sounds completely chaotic, but Wilson has a surprising amount of control over this material. The play sometimes reminds me of the work of Dadaist Tristan Tzara, whose plays use language to a similar world-building effect. And its manic energy reminds me of the work of Alfred Jarry, creator of King Ubu, because Wilson’s play also shames and fascinates us at the same time. But though there are times when “The Dark Hypotenuse” reads very much like these avant-garde plays, I always find within it a return to irrealism as our expectations of theater are undermined in a way that invokes the revolt of the means against the ends.

At one point, just before Starke – who is increasingly distressed by what he is doing – participates in the execution of an elephant that killed a human being, Wilson gives the following stage directions:

Starke’s cinematic unconscious flits across a movie screen that looms over the western edge of the stage. The torrent of imagery is dominated by still shots and stock footage of war, pornography and Red Carpet bacchanalia. There are also clips from home movies, commercials, sitcoms, satellite recordings of deep space, and Hitchcock films. No soundtrack accompanies the cerebral carnival. It is aggressive and uninterrupted and silent.

And in the end, when all the chaos and violent imagery is over and done, the stage and the audience grind to a halt and a trap door falls open on an empty stage that we are told is somewhere in eternity. “The Dark Hypotenuse,” too, deals in a shocking but meaningful way with the “pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” of the lives we have been thrown into.

Though I read these plays when we published “Primacy,” Wilson’s Three Plays rewarded this second reading. I was especially struck this time around by the humor – deconstructionists “doppler[ing] into the abyss,” stern grammar policing at the dentist, and the mysterious conjunctions between the first two plays – a sly wink at readers to see if we are paying careful attention. Both plays begin with the same one-word line of dialogue: “Siparium,” a word that might refer to a tapestry used as a curtain in ancient theaters. There’s also the role of geometry: a triangulated diner, a dark hypotenuse, a rhomboid stage, etc. I enjoyed these small and mysterious conjuctions, which made the plays more irreal for me.

Wilson’s plays contain elements that could be described as bizarro, and they also have an avant-garde sensibility that I found energizing. He builds worlds from words in a robust and sometimes frenetic way that is surprisingly humorous and often quite humane, though his splatterschtick sensibilities don’t always ensure that. But while it’s true that there are a few scenes in the plays that distressed me, I know I live in a world filled with intensely disturbing events and images that don’t give me trigger warnings before presenting themselves. Overall, I found that this re-reading made me laugh and gave me imaginative enjoyment that made up for the occasional discomforts.

The effective black-and-white cover by Norman Conquest shows off the designer’s surrealist, dadaist, and irreal influences, among others, and features a photograph by Lodiza LePore. She describes her own work as “‘surreal,’ ‘edgy’ or an ‘absurd view of the status quo,” and the photo features a mysterious figure in an ambiguous costume on a textured, somber background. At the front of the book there is also an intense “Illustration of Screaming Pope” by Goodloe Byron, which foreshadows one of the scenes in “The Dark Hypotenuse” with its screaming live-action version of Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” Publisher Black Scat Books is dedicated to bringing us art and literature, notably “absurdism, pataphysics, erotic fiction and works in translation” that might serve to “disrupt, disorient, and smash boundaries — academic, cultural, literary, and philosophical.” Wilson’s volume of plays is a good fit.

Note that, coincidentally, a short dramatic monologue by B E Turner (“His Exegamination of Poelemtics as Addressed to the Audience“), whose plays we commented on earlier in this Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe, also appeared in Issue #3, which means that we’ve known both these prolific writers for almost as long as The Cafe Irreal has been around.

Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe Looks at Earlier Reviews

The Twentieth Anniversary issue of The Cafe Irreal is in production and will be online on February 1.

As part of our celebration of The Cafe Irreal‘s twenty-year history, Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe has included comments on a collection of prose poems by Ian Seed, story collections by Ken Poyner, Luis Garcia, Jeff Friedman, Brian Biswas, Vanessa Gebbie, Bob Thurber, and Ana Maria Shua, as well as plays by B E Turner (all of which contained material that had previously appeared in our pages).

Before the anniversary issue comes online, we plan to post comments on one more collection of plays, but we’d also like to call your attention to past comments on books that contained material originally published in The Cafe Irreal.

You can read Garrett Rowlan’s “Irreal expedition: a review of Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey” in Irreal Reviews. Note that “The Other Assassin” and “Odysseus in Hell” by Zachary Mason appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal before The Lost Books of the Odyssey was published, first by Starcherone Books and then by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

You can also read G.S. Evans’ phantasmagorical review of George Belden’s “Land of the Snow Men,” a book that lists Norman Lock as its editor. Note that Norman Lock’s work appeared eight times in The Cafe Irreal.

Eating at an Irreal Café: the Plays of B E Turner

Still from Timbuktu
A still from the video of “Timbuktu” by B E Turner, posted by Mark Perry

At The Café Irreal we are most interested in publishing work that plunges us into the Kafkan fantastic and which also seems to be engaged in a search for meaning. Because, over time, we have often found these tendencies in the work of New Zealand author B E Turner, he is one of our most-published authors. His work has made ten appearances in our webzine, and four of these have involved his short plays. Most recently, we published “Timbuktu,” a one-act play set in an irreal cafe. Here are the first four lines of “Timbuktu”:

 DINER: It’s irreal is it?

WAITER: Indeed so.

DINER: Is that Theatre of the Absurd?

WAITER: Worse.

I’ll talk more later about how Turner’s work compares with Theatre of the Absurd, but as part of this Year of Reading at the Irreal Café, I wanted to comment on his plays because, in addition to the presence of a search for meaning and philosophical depth, they are also very witty and engaging. But first, a little about how they exemplify a Kafkan sort of fantastic literature.

When GS Evans and I were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came upon a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre that would eventually grace our home page. This same quote also inspired the name of our publication because this is where Sartre described the café topsy-turvy – a concept that is for us the essence of the irreal. In such a cafe the means, such as coffee cups and doors and even waiters, evade the human ends we assume they were designed for, or to give one of Sartre’s examples, something as utilitarian as a door might work very differently than expected: “It is there before us, with its hinges, latch and lock. It is carefully bolted, as if protecting some treasure. I manage, after several attempts, to procure a key; I open it, only to find that behind it is a wall.” But what is there about this particular door that makes it irreal and not simply an absurd obstacle?

Answers can be found in an article by Jo Bogaerts called “Challenging the Absurd? Sartre’s Article on Kafka and the Fantastic,” (which is available behind a paywall at https://www.berghahnjournals.com/abstract/journals/sartre-studies/24/1/ssi240103.xml). In it Bogaerts shows that Sartre was determined to distinguish his own brand of existentialism from the absurdism of Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka was the “figurative ‘prism’” that allowed Sartre to challenge other versions of existentialism.

In Kafka’s work Sartre found what he called “le fantastique,” and though this was later misinterpreted as an attempt to link Kafka with writers of fantasy literature, Sartre actually dismissed the fantastic elements in the work of writers such as Edgar Alan Poe and Lewis Carroll as “mere trickery.” Instead, Sartre believed that the work of Poe and Carroll represented an attempt to escape the human condition, whereas Kafka’s work, rather than being escapist fantasy, represented a search for meaning.

Bogaerts elaborates on this Sartrean notion of the fantastic: “In our normal dealings with the world, matter is endowed with human signification and serves human purposes… In the fantastic universe, on the other hand, objects refuse to answer to this rigorous utilitarian logic and man can no longer project his proper possibilities in the world.” The relation between means and ends is thereby reversed, and as Sartre concluded in the quote we now know so well: “… if we have been able to give [the reader] the impression that we are talking about a world in which these absurd manifestations appear as normal behaviour, then he will find himself plunged all at once into the heart of the fantastic.”

The Three Short Plays by Brian E Turner (now B E Turner) that appeared in Issue 9 in 2004 all take place in a café setting and all show a keen understanding of the revolt of the means against the ends.

In “Get On with the Play” two actors, X and Y, ask their waiter, Francisco, for mixed drinks and Turkish Delight. They receive what the waiter assures them is appropriate fare for actors in a play: water, flat ginger ale, and an empty plate. Yet they can’t seem to resign themselves to the fact that they are simply means serving the ends of the audience’s enjoyment, rather than being ends in themselves.

In “Furtive Love” a young man, who changes his name frequently, shares a restaurant table with Captain Nemo. These characters also have ideas of their own about how the meal is supposed to transpire, yet they can’t order anything because the author has decided not to include a waiter in the cast of characters. This play also touches on our (admittedly often violated) dictum that irreal writers shouldn’t try to make us care about the characters they create. The young man says, “The problem is neither of us have characters, we don’t have a past, I don’t even know my own name. It can’t be a realistic play.” And in fact, it isn’t.

And finally in “A Cup of Tea” Hank asks Francisco the waiter about the tea that’s available. He learns that there’s also art on the premises — two mirrors covered by curtains. When Hank asks Francisco what he will see when he looks in the mirror, the waiter says, ” I do not know what you see. Certain philosophers will say that what we call reality is merely an illusion. Perhaps you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.” And, of course, the play offers itself up for the same kind of inspection.

Turner’s “The Comedy of Art” appeared in Issue #11, as well as in The Irreal Reader.  This short play draws its characters from the Commedia dell ‘Arte tradition. Again we find lots of wordplay, and there’s some commentary on the nature of art and realism from Magnifico, “[p]laywright, philosopher and master of illusion.”

In a short monologue, Magnifico says: “All who enter here be warned that the safe square of reality is to be clucked away by a poor chook. What you think of the play realistic may be extolled or may not according to the moderator’s whim whether or not he or she (as the case may be) is of unsound mind or otherwise inclined to be interpretative of games, play and other pastimes, whether cyclic or palliative. And what you may think of the play unrealistic is left to the opine of the adjudicator.” Here he is rephrasing, in an enjoyably euphuistic way, Francisco’s advice that “you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.”

Most recently, in Issue 68, we published “Timbuktu,” a short play that’s also set in a café which is of course topsy-turvy.  Turner seems to reflect Sartre’s description of what might happen in such a place.

DINER: … Have you written my order down exactly?

WAITER: Indeed sir.

DINER: I hear that this establishment sometimes fails to make correct notes and that on these occasions the diner fails to receive the correct menu.

WAITER: That is if the diner does not order the correct menu. I shall request the Chef to confirm. [Exit]

The wordplay in “Timbuktu” is gentle but lively, a regular feature of Turner’s work. Just a note, by the way, about the importance of wordplay and nonsense in the irreal: For one thing, you can find wordplay in a number of works that we consider to be irreal, especially Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in which reality is undermined partly through the use of language. (Here I should also say that we disagree with Sartre’s assessment of Lewis Carroll’s work and do consider it to be irreal. And for an interesting perspective on Carroll, see “Slaying the Snark: what nonsense verse tells us about reality.”) In addition, we sometimes describe irreal works as evoking the dream state, and it’s important to remember that puns and nonsense can occur in our dreams.

And as always in Turner’s work, there is that subtle search for meaning as in the following short monologue :

CHEF: Within the psyche is the mind and within the mind are the two moieties, the real and the irreal, the left and the right. In the real we cling to the wreckage of safe certainty but in the irreal we enter the unsafe world of dreams, absurdities, impossibilities, the place where the accepted laws of nature and logic are broken. And why should we enter this realm which we are so reluctant to experience? Because it is the centre. It is the source of creation and the next step on the way we should all have the courage to follow. Enough. He has said his piece.

In Issue #61 we published a play by Turner that I would say is more absurdist than irreal. “Knitting” reminds me of Edward Albee plays such as The Sandbox or Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In it we find the dark humor that is a feature of Albee’s and Beckett’s plays and the same disturbing conflict among people who seem to depend on one another. Jo Bogaerts notes that Sartre had the following to say about this literary approach: “But absurdity means the complete absence of ends. The absurd is the object of clear and distinct thought. It belongs to the right-side-up world, as the actual limit of human powers.” In an absurd universe everything, ultimately, is meaningless.

In “Knitting,” the repetitive dialog of invalid Bertha (“Knit two. Purl two.”) at first gives us the impression that this is a homey and easy-going situation. But Rose, despite her assertions that she takes care of Bertha, seems only to taunt her and offer her meals of cooked rodents. There is bleak humor here, and Bertha’s visitor Mr. Pottz also tends to repeat himself in a scattered sort of way (“…what he says he cannot tell. And what he tells he can’t always remember.”). Bogaerts says, “The complete absence of a goal in the absurd novel led to a picture of human activity as tedious and undifferentiated,” and in fact the repetitive dialog in “Knitting” contributes to a similar effect.

Despite the bleak humor in this play, we get the distinct impression that Bertha, Rose, and Mr. Pottz have given up on trying to understand their world. More importantly, unlike what happens in the irreal universe of Kafka, there is no transcendence in “Knitting” – means are not associated with ends, so there is no meaningful activity. Instead, we find an outcome as distressing as anything Nell and Nag experience in Endgame or the fate that comes to Grandma in The Sandbox – all are trapped in a hopeless stasis, waiting for the inevitable.

B E Turner has been active in community theatre as playwright, actor, and director for many years. Reading his plays is enjoyable and worthwhile, but they are of course meant to be performed onstage. You can see a video of one production of “Knitting” (in it Mr. Pottz is Mrs. Pottz). Note especially the knitting Bertha has been working on for five months, which looks like a misshapen multicolored patch of despair. You can also watch a dress rehearsal of “Timbuktu” and see for yourself what it’s like to be a patron at The Café Irreal.

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction by Ana María Shua, Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan

Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction by Ana Maria ShuaTwenty years ago, as G.S. Evans and I were distilling and defining our ideas about irrealism and putting together a first issue of The Café Irreal, I happened upon issue No. 44 of The American Voice, which contained stories and poems by Latin American and Spanish women writers. Because we had decided to use the tagline “International Imagination” for our publication and because many of these stories fit nicely within our concept of irrealism, we read this magazine with great interest. We felt a special attraction to “Twelve Short-Short Stories” by Ana María Shua, an Argentinian writer whose novels, children’s books, and collections of short fictions have won prestigious prizes, both in her home country and internationally.

A few years later, after The Café Irreal was well underway, we contacted translator Rhonda Dahl Buchanan and asked if she had other stories by Shua that we could publish. She kindly forwarded for our consideration ten short pieces under the title “A Selection from Other Possibilities,” which appeared in Issue #6.  And in our next issue we were able to  publish, under the title “A Selection from Botany of Chaos,” the “Twelve Short-Short Stories” that had appeared in The American Voice. Surprisingly, there are only eleven short pieces in that selection, a fact which contributes to the satisfyingly irreal nature of this group of microfictions.

In general, I find that there’s something about a very, very short piece of fiction that gives the impression of irreality, even if the story is told through realistic details. Stories by Lydia Davis come to mind (see, for example, “Spring Spleen”). Much of Davis’ fiction seems realistic in intent and tone, yet in a story this tiny there isn’t enough descriptive space for a setting, for characterization, for metaphors and symbols, and this in turn undermines the reader’s expectations of the work a story should do. The fact that the writer has only hinted at meaning and narrative and we readers must do so much work of our own forces us to use our imaginations more than usual, even when the story is realistic. And, therefore, when the writer intends something less realistic, as did Kafka in many of his parables and other short fictions (see, for example, “Before the Law”), the effect can be intensely irreal. This is also, in fact, the case with Ana María Shua’s work.

In 2008 when Rhonda Buchanan published a volume of her translations of Shua’s microfiction under the title Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction, she graciously sent us a copy. I decided to re-read it as a part of Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Café. Quick Fix is divided into four sections, which correspond to Shua’s four extant published volumes of short shorts at the time this book went to press. Each section has an informal theme – “Dream Catcher,” for example, deals with sleep, dreams, and insomnia – but all contain tiny histories, concise philosophy lessons, miniscule news stories, and reimagined fairy tales. In addition, many of Shua’s stories work as epigrams and humorous adages, giving us some sly wisdom and a refreshing amount of wit as well. And each story is included in the original Spanish, which enables us to see quite clearly Rhonda Dahl Buchanan’s skill as a translator.

When I first read the selections from Other Possibilities which we published in Issue 6 (and which are included in Quick Fix, with some changes in text and/or title, in the “Geisha House” section), I was delighted to see that all of them related to the theme of writing and reading. In “The Author and the Reader” a writer is asked by a journalist if he thinks about the reader when he writes, and though the author thinks of nothing else, thinks of the reader “as a prince clothed in dazzling, embroidered fabrics,” and so much more, he says that he does not. The conclusion of this little interview is an unexpected glimpse into the writer’s mind that is both humorous and poignant. “Four Walls” shows us something about a writer’s isolation through a claustrophobic sort of geometry. In “Unlucky Robinson” (which appears in Quick Fix as “Unfortunate Robinson”) we learn that a shipwrecked writer would have preferred to build his novel out of “some nails, maybe even a collection of pipes, or a few simple wooden planks,” rather than the “soaked paragraphs” and “metaphors encrusted with barnacles and mussels” that the sea has delivered to him. In “Literary Workshop I” a writer’s stories are found to be demanding, unruly, and voracious. In “Respect for Genres” a man who wakes up next to a woman he doesn’t recognize must find a way to fit his story into the appropriate genre or risk remaining unpublished. (These last two stories, among others by Shua, appeared in our 2013 anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction and Essays from The Café Irreal.)

Quick Fix is filled with ingenious line drawings by Luci Mistratov, and the cover bears a color-washed depiction of a man who might be a letter hunter from the tiny story “Run for Your Lives!” The other drawings show us bits and pieces of the universe Shua has created, including fused lovers, the menacing sight of clothing on a chair, a girl transformed by words, the varieties of ties that bind, a rabbi making what might be tiny Golems, a waiting room after patients have exchanged symptoms, and many others. These drawings do not violate Kafka’s injunction that nonrealistic stories shouldn’t have realistic illustrations (http://www.openculture.com/2015/10/franz-kafka-says-the-insect-in-the-metamorphosis-should-never-be-drawn.html) but instead they riff on and complement the tiny stories they accompany as they contribute to the overall irreal effect.

Because Shua’s stories are so small and yet so complex and imaginative, Quick Fix was truly worth a second reading. In fact I’m sure that it would bear up under repeated readings, yielding new variations of its diverse meanings and imagination-taxing pleasures again and again. As Rhonda Buchanan notes at the end of her introduction to the volume:

Those who are addicted to reading know that oftentimes it is impossible to put a book down once you open it. Ana María Shua is certainly aware of this danger, and once remarked about her book Casa de geishas that it was her intention to set a more subtle trap for her readers, one that would entice them to return to the pages of her book time and time again, at the risk of becoming entangled forever in the web of her intrigue.

There is almost something irreal about how well these challenging little pieces stand up under such intense scrutiny. Happily, you can still get Quick Fix online at Wordery.

Nothing But Trouble: Stories by Bob Thurber and Images by Vincent Louis Carrella

Nothing But Trouble by Bob Thurber
[posted by Alice]
At The Cafe Irreal, when we meet talented writers who know what we mean by irrealism and are inclined to write irreal stories, we tend to publish their fiction as often as we can get it. In fact, most of the writers whose work has been featured in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe have been published in The Cafe Irreal on a number of occasions. So it’s a tribute to Bob Thurber – an “old, unschooled writer,” as he unfailingly describes himself – that though he is probably best known for his realistic stories, his irreal fiction has appeared on our site more often than anyone else’s (in no fewer than twelve issues).

The cover of his 2014 story collection, Nothing But Trouble, features a photograph by Vincent Louis Carrella, whose powerful images add depth and flavor to this volume. Often, they don’t so much illustrate the stories as amplify them, with their steady gaze into a world that is both familiar and challenging. The cover photo is whimsical but also a little disturbing, and it features an impish-looking boy with a moustache, beard, and eyepatch drawn onto his face. As you look at the cover photo you wonder how this image could fit the description of art given by Christine Brooks Cote (founder of the volume’s publisher, Shanti Arts) when she says that art “often brings with it a powerful sense of stillness and focus.” Yet the cover image does give us a chance to think about the title – Nothing But Trouble – before we dip into the stories, and as we read on, Carrella’s photos continue to give us resting points, places where we can stop and mull over Thurber’s sometimes heart-breaking stories before we continue reading. They also gave me a chance to think about the ways this “old, unschooled” writer creates his own version of the irreal.

As I said earlier, we published Bob Thurber’s work in The Cafe Irreal twelve times, and six of the stories we published are included in this collection. “The Cat Who Waved,” which appeared in Issue #5 (in 2001), is here accompanied by a photograph of a barn owl that looks as though it might be dancing. Though we agree with Kafka that nonrealistic stories shouldn’t have realistic illustrations, in this case the irreal nature of the story is actually enhanced by a photo of a dancing owl. “The Cat Who Waved” is a deceptively simple piece about a man who spends the night with a girlfriend, wakes in the dark, and thinks he sees, out on the balcony of the woman’s ninth-floor apartment, two cats. He tells us he’s had dreams like this; he says he’s seen illusions brought on by trying to see through thick thermal glass or having drunk too much alcohol; he says he thinks the shapes might be pigeons or might be owls (in this way the image of the dancing owl relates to the story but doesn’t exactly illustrate it). The narrator also admits to having problems with his eyes, and he gets out of bed to try to see these shapes for what they are. Going over to the balcony door he says, “You tap the glass, trying to get them to turn, these two dark shapes. Owls can turn their heads 180 degrees. They have to. Their eyes are so large they have no room left for eye muscles. Barely room for brains,” but then he becomes more certain than ever that they are cats and that one of them waved at him. The rest of the story involves the narrator’s attempt to explain – to the woman and to himself – what he has seen. The story undermines our expectations subtly, and the photo of the owl helps it to do that.

Several years later, in Issue #34, we published “You Don’t Belong Here,” which also appears in this volume. As the story begins, the narrator tells us that he has been invited to a surprise birthday party for a friend. He says he has few friends. He says he really hates parties. He says he sometimes does go to them, but the problem is that he often runs into his doppelganger. The story’s title becomes clear when the narrator describes an incident at a wake where he encounters his doppelganger in the restroom and they simultaneously call each other “my evil twin.” Then the narrator says, “After a long accessing stare, we both said, in the same tired voice, ‘You don’t belong here. You should do yourself a favor and leave.'” He describes other events at which he and his doppelganger have both shown up. We begin to wonder if this is some sort of psychological disorder, if the narrator is hallucinating, and we are told that this presence of the other, the “evil twin,” the doppelganger leads to confusion for both men and sometimes neither is sure whose life is which. Part of the pleasure of reading Thurber is the deftness with which these events are handled. The dialog is spot on. The incidents are believably told. Yet the oddness of the outcome, which blends so smoothly into the story as a whole, is what makes it irreal. The story springs into a different configuration, a different perspective, like those optical illusions where you see the head of an old woman looking one way until someone suggests that they see a young girl looking in another direction. This shifting perspective is the key to the irreality of this piece.

A Woman on the Bus,” which we published in Issue #38, follows a somewhat different trajectory. The viewpoint character often sees a woman on a bus, but each time she is so differently described, we imagine that this can’t possibly be the same woman. She is dressed in varying costumes, she is pregnant perhaps by the bus driver, she is not pregnant, she is in pain, she is “quite composed,” she looks like she is dying, she looks “lovelier, more beautiful than ever,” and she even has some hard-to-define relationship with the narrator. It’s Thurber’s choice of detail that keeps us engaged, as in “The next time he saw her she wore plaid everything, except for her Buster Brown shoes. She was telling a man with a brown cap that she had released her equity, consolidated her assets, become bullish on America.” The ongoing litany of these sightings has a dreamlike quality that undermines our expectations yet again.

In “Crackers,” which appears in this collection and was in Issue #40 of The Cafe Irreal, the setting is old fashioned and evocative. The narrator lives in a rooming house with a main door at street level. People wedge the door open with a brick. The narrator lives on the third floor and says he was never bothered by people who came in off the street, attracted by that welcoming open door, “but one hot August night, while I was eating stale crackers and reading at two A.M. with my own door open, I was visited by a strange white-haired man in a rumpled sports jacket who claimed that he was from the future, my future, that he was in fact me.” This sounds like vintage Twilight Zone, but in such stories isn’t the visitor from the future, who is the future version of the narrator, supposed to give him warnings that make life easier or more livable or at least tell him what to expect? Not here. Thurber undermines our expectations of what we want to get from a Twilight-Zone-style tale and gives us something a little more philosophical that includes some advice for writers.

Also included in this volume is “Mister Fumble Bumble,” which appeared in Issue #43 and whose irreality flows from the way it undermines our expectations of a tale in which Death is personified.  And then there’s “Old Sharp Photo,” which appeared in Issue #45, and is a story which not only calls to mind vintage Twilight Zone because the setting is a “dilapidated rooming house for men only,” but also even cues the reader by describing “what makes it all feel like some bizarre lost episode of the Twilight Zone.” The narrator says that, although there is a phone in this rooming house, it’s just an old pay phone that isn’t in his name or associated with him, and yet his ex-wife manages to call the pay phone after a ten-year separation to tell him about a photo she found of the two of them from the time when they were together. This story, like “The Cat Who Waved,” is written in the second person and gives us the ex-wife’s somewhat breathless description of the photo:

“She says, listen, yesterday I was cleaning out a closet and found a box full of useless junk and at the bottom of the box was a picture, a snapshot, a black and white, no frame, just an eight by ten glossy with the two of us in our pajamas sitting across from each other eating breakfast, though I suppose it could be lunch or dinner, you can’t see what’s on our plates, but it’s a really nice shot, focused, very sharp, plenty of natural light, probably because in those days we didn’t have any curtains, we couldn’t afford curtains, remember, so you can see our faces, half our faces, good and sharp like a couple of statues in perfect profile, excellent detail, as I say black and white but with all the shades of gray, and we look so young and pretty, goddamned happy the two of us, though in an odd pretty hard to describe way, neither of us is really smiling…”

The photo that accompanies this story about a photo shows the rotary dial and coin slots of a very old pay phone, but that’s OK because the irreal nature of this story comes not from the Twilight-Zone wonderment of how someone could be calling on a pay phone after all these years and get her ex-husband, but the emphasis that the story isn’t really about weirdness but about that combination of poignancy and cynicism that Thurber evokes so effectively and which in this case undermines our Twilight-Zone expectations.

There are a few other non-realistic offerings in this volume, but most of the rest of the stories in Nothing But Trouble are what we might call naturalistic or realistic stories. Thurber turns his steady and unflinching gaze on failed or failing relationships between parent and child or between domestic partners, and again and again he views poignant situations with a cynical and distanced eye. In “My Daily Bread” a father tells his son he’s just “nailed” the babysitter that the son once had a crush on. In “Portrait of a Virtuous Woman” a wife threatens to cut her hair short in order to keep her physically disabled husband in line. In “Cryptogram” all the members of a family try to help a dying man communicate, but as the title suggests this isn’t entirely successful. In Nothing But Trouble the stories and the photos give us that “powerful sense of stillness and focus” Christine Brooks Cote describes because they help us see what we might easily have missed – either because it was too painful to look at or because we didn’t even know it was there.

You can buy Nothing but Trouble at Shanti Arts or at Amazon. For more of Vincent Carrella’s work, go to http://www.thelighthouse.photography/.

Nothing to Worry About, Flash Fictions by Vanessa Gebbie

Nothing to Worry About by Vanessa Gebbie
The cover of Vanessa Gebbie’s new story collection, Nothing to Worry About, features a monoprint by Brighton-based artist Michaela Ridgway. In that image two figures seem to move forward with effort and determination. We can’t make out much else about them, but because of their somewhat mysterious and indeterminate outlines, these figures help to create a mood that complements both the stories and the title of this anthology. Everything about this slim volume seems to say there may be nothing to worry about and all may be well if we continue moving forward – or else of course it won’t. In either case we really must keep going.

Vanessa Gebbie’s work first appeared in The Café Irreal in 2007 when we published a three-part story called “Three Stages in Learning to Fly,” which can also be found in Nothing to Worry About. This story offers a good example of Gebbie’s tendency to oscillate between a sense of the ominous and a sense that all is well. The piece begins with specific details that immediately undermine our expectations about reality as we know it – Ed’s wife became an ant one night in August after the couple experienced an ant infestation. Ed marks her with a dot of nail polish so he will recognize her later and then takes her outside to the terrace. In a second incident Ed’s wife “became a sound in the grass. Perhaps she was a cricket. She’d always been a little person, self-effacing.” And in the final incident Ed’s wife is a flock of birds which “wheels from roof to tree to roof.” Each part of her flies, but one bird is her heart, and “[a]s the flock crazes, mosaics, wheels, this bird is now at her centre, then her boundary.” Ed is sanguine about these changes, but there’s also a trace of anxiety as he struggles to keep watch over his wife and to keep track of where she ends up after her metamorphoses.

So too in “The Note Takers” – also published in The Café Irreal and included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal – there is a sense of the ominous, though with perhaps a little less of an implication that there’s nothing to worry about. “You are not looking forward to this,” the story begins. This is because the narrator must tell a waking dream to a note-taker at a scheduled meeting, with the potential for personal harm if the meeting doesn’t go well. The narrator who must communicate this waking dream says, “You must create truth, like glass, out of sand dug from that strange country between sleeping and not.” The situation is dangerous but there is pleasure in it, too – “One can, you have found, enjoy the frisson, the sensation of uncertainty.” Though we never learn why the narrator is forced to speak about dreams to the note-taker in the first place, the situation seems somehow familiar, reminding us of times in our lives when foreboding and anxiety mingle with a desire to get as much from an experience as we can.

A third story in this collection which appeared in The Café Irreal, and was also in The Irreal Reader, is “Storm Warning.”  A phone call comes from Istanbul at 3:00 a.m., and a woman’s voice can be heard saying, “Storm Warning.” There is also the sound of a “clicking, secretive language, robotic, strange.” This story exemplifies Gebbie’s ability to take a small, strange incident and to build around it an internally cohesive world in which the viewpoint character responds to the incident in subtly unexpected ways that also create a sense of the irreal. This also happens in “Flood,” the fourth and final story in this volume that also appeared in The Café Irreal. At the beginning of the story a drowned man is found. He is claimed by many bereaved people – as the son of one of them, as the father of one woman’s child, as the priest of an abandoned congregation, and others. In all these cases there is the overarching problem that, though these people may be missing a loved one or a significant leader and though the missing man’s dark blue eyes are cited as his identifying characteristic, no one seems to be able to say conclusively that the drowned man is theirs. The inability to say who the drowned man actually is results in uncertainty and anxiety for so many people that we have a sense that reality is being undermined.

All of the stories in the volume, in fact, have a sense of unreality (if not irreality) about them and tend to oscillate between the ominous and the optimistic. As the publisher – Flash: the International Short-Short Story Press – says on the page they devote to Nothing to Worry About: “After all, the world keeps turning, and people occasionally do strange things – but then, that’s life, and life is nothing to worry about … Or is it?”  Gebbie’s challenging yet engaging short fictions insistently ask us to think about that question and in a variety of imaginative ways.

Some of the stories magnify small and seemingly insignificant incidents from everyday life which take us in unexpected directions.

  • In “Gifts” a misdelivered package challenges a whole neighborhood.
  • In “Door” a “lovely door” inspires a lot of activity but never actually delivers what it promises.
  • In “Window” a homeowner decides that privacy is the highest value.
  • In “Swarf” a worker at a nail factory becomes enamored with the shavings that are produced when metal is filed.

In each case the story starts with a small aspect of the quotidian and embellishes it, creating a small doorway into an irreal world.

In other stories Gebbie deals with larger philosophical and somewhat mystical issues – actually, matters of life and death – yet in a very personal way.

  • In “The Little Archaeologist” Male 6580 has reached the end of life, and in the world in which he lives, a personal archaeologist comes “to plumb you, speak your body away.” This intimate process involves both a physical and a psychological summing up of the individual by a woman whose “slim purposeful fingers calloused at the tip move over, under my skin like so many arthritic spiders.” The story creates a mood of deep sadness in just a few hundred words, yet it manages to assure us that the personal archeologist doesn’t hurt the ones she plumbs.
  • “If a Baby Could Speak,” at the other end of the life spectrum, is the interior monolog of a newborn infant who, besides ruminating about the existence of God, also tells us what it likes and wants in a voice that is surprisingly wise and not what we might expect.
  • And in “Reeds” there are babies growing in the reed beds. The narrator, though warned not to stray off the path or make eye contact with the fetuses, says, “Below me, the water was still as glass. And, under the water, babies. Curled up tight, thumbs in mouths, floating under the surface…” and then feels a strong desire not to heed the advice given.

All three stories have a much stronger impact than their brevity might lead us to expect.

And then there are some short pieces that start with an unreal but insightful premise and carry it through to a fantastical conclusion:

  • In “Navigation,” during a time of rising flood waters, people begin to grow sextants and maps and other useful items under their skins.
  • In the title story, “Nothing to Worry About,” a husband worries, despite her doctor’s reassurances, about the fact that his wife is turning to metal.
  • In “Wei-Ch’i” a man comes home to find parts of his wife’s body scattered throughout their home, cool and bloodless, yet he does not seem to regard this as a reason to panic.

Though most of the short fictions in this collection are told with relatively serious narrative voices, there is also humor to be found. “Personal Bonsai” takes the form of a letter from a woman whose ear-trees and nostril-trees (as well as trees in other bodily spaces) enjoy classical music and cause their host a variety of problems. And in “Selected Advice for Strangers,” which was first published in Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief, we learn that “It is mandatory to dress as a bee-keeper when visiting the UK for the first time.” The story then proceeds, in perfect bureaucratic jargon, to elaborate on that regulation. Is there anxiety and discomfiture in these humorous pieces? I’m not sure I’d say that, but because these stories unfold in Vanessa Gebbie’s fictional universe, I also wouldn’t be willing to say that there’s nothing to worry about.

You can buy Nothing to Worry About, Flash Fictions by Vanessa Gebbie at https://shopfront.chester.ac.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=763