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Rawhead and Bloody Bones, and Elusive Plato by Rhys H Hughes (Tanjen, £6.99, 213 pages, paperback; ISBN 1 901530 06 X. Published August 1998.)

Reading Rhys Hughes is like reading a dream. Not only does his work explore the surreal, but it is unrestrained by boundaries. It moves from subject to subject, from scene to scene - and, indeed, cover scan from locale to locale - with an almost dream-like logic. It's like a cartoon, in that anything can happen, and the limits of what is and is not possible are blatantly redundant. As a consequence, you'd best put aside convention if you pick up this book.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones, the first of the two novellas published here, tells the tale (and it is a tale, in the classic sense of the word) of two dead comedians who, in a roundabout way, are sent off from their London base on a tour of Europe - namely the town of Chaud-Mellé. There, all kind of weirdness ensues: from secret societies to physical operations to remove the comedy from comedians and render them unfunny, to a town built in the form of a sleeping face, predicted one day to awaken. The theme, around which this incredibly strange story revolves, is that while living comedy is life-affirming (the comedian describes valid similarities between his life and the lives of the audience), dead comedy, the type practised by our two heroes, is death-affirming. Which is fine, until someone in the story, assumed dead throughout, begins to suspect that he is in fact alive...

The second novella in this collection - Elusive Plato - I didn't enjoy as much. The opening pages are incredibly dark and decadent, covering most things from incest to suicide to auto-erotic asphyxiation. The style, however, detracts from the darkness; we're never frightened or repulsed: again, we're in cartoonland, wandering around a cartoon that Walt Disney might have made had he spent some time in a secure unit.

Elusive Plato is the story of a lesbian trapped inside a man's body, who, on discovery of this, sets out to find his - her? - true self. Like a lot of Rhys's work the narrative is underpinned by a strong philosophical background, and it's in the weaving in of existing philosophical thought, and the adding of his own, that Hughes's talent really shows through. My main criticism of Elusive Plato is that at times it seemed a bit of a muchness; there were so many images, ideas and metaphors packed into each paragraph that I had trouble keeping up. However, that probably says more about me as a reader than it does about Rhys as a writer.

Rich prose, clever puns, dark satirical humour and a wide vocabulary are the trademarks of Hughes, and Rawhead & Bloody Bones and Elusive Plato is no exception. At times I found myself stumbling slightly over certain sentences, and reaching for the dictionary - only to find that my dictionary was sorely inadequate! Like James Joyce, and on a more technical level Will Self, Hughes enjoys words immensely; their sound, the way in which they interact and affect one another, the inventiveness and exquisiteness of language: it all seems part of the addictive and wonderful craft that reads like second nature.

A fine writer with a fine future ahead. Assuming, that is, he doesn't end up in a padded cell first...

Rawhead and Bloody Bones, and Elusive Plato is published by Tanjen Books, 52 Denman Lane, Huncote, Leicester LE9 3BS, UK

Review by Jason Gould.

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© Jason Gould 13 September 1998