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by Chris Bell

(Publish and be Damned,, £not advised, 262 pages, paperback, published 2004.)

Review by Andrew Hook

cover scanAbout 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.

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