(Publish and be Damned, www.pabd.com,
£not advised, 262 pages, paperback, published 2004.)
ten years ago Chris Bell's short stories appeared regularly in the UK
independent press and I enjoyed most of them, fusing, as they did, ideas
of time, meaning, and a filmic atmosphere that placed them firmly at
the quality slipstream end of the spectrum. When I noticed this novel
was up for review, I grabbed the chance to take a read, but unfortunately
it didn't resonate with me as the stories had done. All the material
is here, but it lacks a vibrant heart.
Typo Blod is a journalist who inadvertently slips into another era,
takes the assumed role of private detective, and hunts for the gorgeous
Ellen Bogen who may -- or may not -- have befallen a horrible fate.
Bell takes as one of his starting points the paintings of Edward Hopper,
and whilst I'm not an expert on the subject it's evident that the subjects
and styles of Hopper's paintings permeate this novel in a very specific
fashion. Blod effectively lives in the art, which is made and remade
in turn, trapping him in a Twilight Zone kind of city (named Fulcrum)
from which, it appears, there might be no escape.
This central premise could work well, but whilst some of the writing
is excellent, equally in other sections it's overdone. The transitory
nature of Fulcrum -- where there aren't enough faces to go around, where
reality shifts overnight, where time stalls and repeats -- means that
for each step Blod takes forward, he then takes half a step back. This
constant dance back and forth frustrated and confused me to the extent
that I fell out of step with the novel. It took me a long while, and
for the wrong reasons, to get to the end.
Despite this, the large cast of characters does make for some interesting
reading, with the females in particular sharply drawn and with fledgling
feminist sensibilities, nicely containing them within the '40s period
that Fulcrum obviously embodies. Raymond Chandler is also an influence
here, and the Chandler/Hopper fusion works well, although I did find
it difficult to follow the actual crime elements of the book. Often
Blod's actions and reasoning just didn't ring true.
There is one exemplary scene on a train, when Blod finally catches
up with Bogen. For a moment their time is their own, yet their drunken
revelry is interrupted by Blod getting forcibly buggered by a large
clown on a trip to toilets: and whilst this sounds ridiculous, it is
an incredibly effective piece of storytelling. Just as Blod might succeed
in his personal goal, his entire world is once again turned upside-down.
Whilst the above segment does indeed work well, perversely it is precisely
because Fulcrum feels like a dreamt town--and therefore contains all
the possibilities which dreams might contain--that nothing can surprise
us because everything can be expected. This strange logic frequently
empties the book of tension, meaning we only rarely care about the characters.
And whilst the last page does contain some wonderfully pertinent prose
on the joy of being alive, there isn't enough of such interconnectedness
with the reader in the preceding pages.
Liquidambar feels like a great novel just waiting to happen.
The winner of the 2004 'Search for a Great Read' competition run by
the UKA Press and PABD, I wonder just how much independent editorial
input was put into the finished product. I sincerely felt that the book
would have improved tremendously under a damn good edit. As it is, there
is much to admire here, but it's not an easy ride.