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The Barcelona Review




Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett


The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


CoverFortune Smiles
by Adam Johnson
Random House, 2015

From the author of The Orphan’s Master Son, Adam Johnson returns with this collection of six longish short stories, each relating to the bizarre paths the protagonists take to cope with hardship and loss. With one foot squarely in the real world and one foot just outside that boundary, Johnson draws the reader into his make-believe world with the ease of a master storyteller.

In “Nirvana” the protagonist’s wife is dying of a rare disease while he, against her wishes, spends much of his time talking to a simulacrum of a recently deceased president engineered to spout real phrases in response to the user’s questions and complaints. It is his way of fending off grief, but what can he do to help his wife? Can he find a way?

“Hurricanes Anonymous” takes us to the aftermath of Katrina where Nonc, a UPS delivery man, must make his rounds with his baby boy strapped into a bouncy chair rigged from cargo hooks. Mom has fled the scene, leaving Nonc and his son to wander the camps of the FEMA campers and the wasteland around New Orleans, a journey that becomes derailed in a mad quest for refuge; while in “Interesting Facts” another dying woman, this time serving as narrator, speculates on her husband’s life after her death. He’s “the biggest lunkhead ever to win a Pulitzer Prize,” she says, the worst part being “that the novel he wrote is set in North Korea, so he gets invited to all these functions filled with Korean socialites and Korean donors and Korean activists and Korean writers and various pillars of the Korean community . . . Did I leave out the words beautiful and female?” This may give us a little chuckle, as Johnson’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set in North Korea, but it serves to focus on the wife’s preoccupation over how long her husband would wait to take up with another woman, pulling us deep into her world of obsession in which she desperately seeks to find resolution.

What are old Stasi prison guards doing in 2008? Especially those who served in one of the most notorious secret interrogation prisons? “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows one such old guard who holds to his belief that he’d only been doing what was needed to be done, even as his old prison is turned into a museum with tour guides—former prisoners—showing people the torture chambers of old. When he accepts the offer to accompany a tour and have his reminiscences videotaped, his unshakable denial is tested.

“Dark Meadow” follows a reformed child-porn addict who now works as a computer security expert kept busy by men wanting help with child pornography issues on their computers where he secretly places trackers in their photos. This proves disconcerting enough, but even more so is the morally questionable way he keeps his dark tendencies at bay. It’s a shocker.

The last story, “Fortune Smiles,” takes us back to Korea where two defectors from Pyongyang find themselves in the bewildering landscape of Seoul which mirrors the absurdity of the West:

Here were women in plastic surgery masks and little dogs wearing dresses.
Passing a fitness center, DJ stared at rows of men running on treadmills. What
force was driving them? What were they running from? Next came a cat café
and a parlor where teenage girls danced with machines. At an empty shopping
plaza, he watched an escalator endlessly cycle, the steps appearing, rising and
disappearing as it carried no one up to nowhere.

Johnson’s fertile imagination makes for some enthralling reading. The prose is always sharp and fresh, with dark, uncanny overtones which often leave you cringing. These stories will burrow in your mind and stay there. They blow you out of a cozy, passive reading, creating a slight sense of disorientation and unease, just before a spark of recognition brings it fully home, leaving you hanging in awe. J.A

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverHeart of the Original
by Steve Aylett
Unbound, UK, 2015

You think you know original? Sure it’s not the same old idea trotted out in fancy new clothes? Because people are most comfortable when presented with the repetition of familiar forms, Aylett tells us. Try throwing something in the mix that has not been in the world previously, ever, and there is no receptor point to plug into. The brain scrambles for some solid ground and failing to get any kind of grip, it can be eerily disorienting. Of course the rewards are great if one takes the leap.

If you’re familiar with Aylett’s satirical slipstream/science fiction, you know that he is a true one-of-a-kind whose works have been described “as a heavy decompression experience, where the reader must re-acclimatise to normal life.” No one is better qualified to riff on originality than Aylett, who, in this beautifully slim non-fiction manifesto, delivers more gems of insight than many a large tome.

Aylett is a word meister. As he says in discussing writing: “You can enrich the stuff of life by bringing together two words which have never, ever been introduced to one another before. Perhaps because they dwell in different contexts or in the jargon of different disciplines, they are never held in the attention at the same time. Yet when put together, their cogs mesh as if they were made for each other and a massive amount of energy is released.” Aylett’s fiction is a pure joy to read for just this kind of juxtaposition, and he applies it here as well in odd comminglings that make you sit up and take note:

It’s inevitable that upon those rare occasions of encountering an original
notion externally, you will start drooling amid blowing fuses . . . People will
be happy or stricken to see each hacking cough release a green butterfly with
the body of a stuntman.

In the quest for the original it is important to distinguish between true creativity and that which has been lifted: “A lifted idea doesn’t have the original’s roots, the intense contract of energy between intent and responsibility. An imitation isn’t earned because it isn’t lived and hasn’t the courage to be first.” You may adore Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but by Aylett’s high standards it is merely a “massively dilated and diluted” lifting of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Which, I will say, makes me want to read Parable of the Sower, though I may prefer the dilated and diluted version. Nabokov takes a knock, too, as does Henry James, who “prayed before a silver semi-colon and exercised a restraint so radical, he imploded, taking a tornado of teak furniture and thousands of readers with him [creating a style] that stated as little as possible in the most possible words.” Also under the firing line are Martin Amis, Jeff Koons and Brett Easton Ellis, who, in American Pyscho, “pretended to say what everyone knew already about consumer society, but when trying to embed what he really meant he found he didn’t know whether to shoot a cake or kiss an ostrich.”

But originals abound, among them: De Vinci, Voltaire, Walt Whitman, Hieronymus Bosch, Hesse, Bulgakov, and Michael Moorcock, the inventor of “modern age steampunk (the first age being that of Fawcett, Verne and Wells).” An abundance of lesser known works receive recognition as well, such as Moses de Leon’s Zohar and Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.

Aylett also cites original thinkers from outside the art and literary world. Two favorites: Simone Weil—“a sort of goofy genius who’d fire all minds at a posh dinner and end up tucking the tablecloth into pants and dragging everything to the floor”—and Nikolas Tesla, the eccentric scientist whose New York lab was burned to the ground, possibly by those not yet ready for his new inventions.

A reading of Heart of the Original leaves one wanting to quote from it at every turn as I have done. Every page has its quotable line. “In the pantheon of archetypes, only the trickster doesn’t run on rails,” Aylett says. And what Aylett the trickster accomplishes here is a push to run from the comfort zone of what has gone before and dare to veer off the rails, with arms “windmilling” as you go, “if possible knocking out the teeth of a spoilt child.” He even offers a little ‘How To’: spatial imaging, anyone? J.A.

© 2015 tbr


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