A wild slim alien


2 Comments

Gift of tongues #8: Quisquose

For five or six days now, he’s been tapping.  Ever since Carolyn put the tulips in a vase on the sill of the kitchen window.  Mistaking the purplish-red of the petals for berries, perhaps.  Or – but no.  It couldn’t be.

When she hears him tapping she rises from her desk in the study down the hallway and ventures to look at him, inching across the kitchen tiles so that she can better see the glint in his sideways-on eye, the space-hopper orange of his beak, the sootiness of his feathering.  He looks wise.  Masterful, even.  They stare at each other, the double panes of glass between them until a sudden gust of wind spooks the bird into taking cover within the laurel hedge which encloses the view from the window.  She leaves the kitchen with the vase of tulips and sets them on her desk.  But still the blackbird comes and taps, two or three times a day.

By the sixth morning, she has quietened and slowed her movements so much that the bird does not flinch even when she puts her fingertip to the glass.  She waits for him to tap his beak against it, but it’s still a shock when he does.  As she feels the glass vibrate against her finger, a feeling of exultation passes through her being.

Each night when Carolyn gets home from work, she steps out of the car and pauses there in the garage, poised between three worlds; the world in her head, and the worlds outside of it, the exterior of work and the interior of home.  The twilit sky is the void between the worlds.  She sees the lights of aircraft pass high across it, and follows the path of one for a while, before looking instead for the emerging patterns of the familiar constellations.  She wishes there was a moon she could wish upon, to transform the blackbird back into the man who is gone, for by now she is quite sure that it is his reincarnation.  Genie or none, tomorrow morning she will open the window, and let the blackbird back into her world.

Quisquose

A definition of ‘quisquose’


Leave a comment

Gift of tongues #7: Multifoiled

She dreamt of chocolate; she dreamt she was chocolate, wrapped in alternating layers of silver and gold foil till she could no longer move a muscle.  The man wrapping her pierced each successive layer at her mouth with his finger so that she could breathe, but otherwise she was entirely contained.  All she felt was a twitching inside of herself.  But that was a physical tic; her mind was at peace, wrapped tight as she was – she had been absolved of all responsibility.  The only thing to do was to wait, drifting on currents of aimless thought and a growing ache.  She was waiting for the man to break her, to snap the brittle parts of her body with the foil still on; slowly to unwrap the pieces of her, putting each in his mouth, feeling her dissolve upon his tongue.  From being tightly wrapped, rigid, she would be made molten, and hers would be a liquidity that he might mould in any way he chose.  She wanted only to be the shape he desired her to be.  While wrapped in silver and gold, while melting about him, she gave up her right to self-determination.  And yet in those endless moments, he was the more subservient – not so much to the greediness of his own desire, but to the fulfilment over and over again of this urgent need of hers, which could only be sated by the cyclical sequence of stilling, breaking, eating, and remoulding.  She was couverture, she was Callebaut.  She was ganache, she was fondant.  She was salted caramel.

Lucky then that the man of her dreams was a chocoholic.

Multifoiled


3 Comments

Gift of tongues #6: Hitherto

The afternoon was wan.  The day had gradually lost its colour, as if all the light was being sucked out of the sky.  Hitherto, there had been the definite suggestion of spring, a mildness in the air which allowed long-hunched shoulders to release all their tension at last after a long, cold winter.  But now that daubing warmth from the paintbrush of the sun was as good as a distant memory, and once again he suspected he would remain forever trapped in a one hundred year-winter.

Hitherto


Leave a comment

Gift of tongues #5: Oomingmak

When he hears the call of the tawny owls loud and unmistakeable in the otherwise silent night, he thinks of how if they were Strix aluco, they might spend the nights hunting together, flying silently – ecstatically – on the wing to drop extended talons down on dormouse or vole or beetle, or even the plump succulence of a frog.  Across the woods they would call to each other, first the long note of his drawn out hoooouh, and then the tu-whit tu-whoo of her response.  Once each had its catch, they would return to the Scots pine roost to feast together.  Later there would be the press of feathers in an ivy-curtained hole in the pine’s trunk, and just enough room to preen each other until morning came.

Past midnight, as incapable of switching off his awareness of the night as any nocturnal animal, his thoughts reverberate like the owls’ duet.

Oomingmak


Leave a comment

Gift of tongues #4: Ribbed and veined

Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame.  There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone.  The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead.  Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE.  Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching.  Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart.  Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set.  He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.

Ribbed and veined


Leave a comment

Gift of tongues #3: Sugar hiccup

He was in love with the sound of her singultus.  By extension with her, but it was the hiccups which had initially drawn his attention to her every movement and mannerism.  Sugar’s diaphragm was susceptible to the slightest provocation.  From the first time he had heard her hiccup onwards, he had been charmed by the almost apologetic tone and timbre of her each and every involuntary emission.  Sitting at a neighbouring desk, he soon took it upon himself to make sure that throughout the working day, she was watered with sparkling rather than still.  A graceful creature, her hiccups were delicate flutters and birdlike chirps, relatively speaking.  Sugar guessed that her desk neighbour was soft on her.  Secretly pleased to have an admirer who seemed not to mind her hiccupping (in fact quite the opposite), she did nothing to discourage him.  Under the cover of his desk, he found himself aroused, and it was always a satisfaction – hiccup – when the next one came.  He would steal a sideways glance to see in profile her breast rise and fall and her Adam’s apple bob.  Then – it made his heart lurch – she would put her slender fingers to her lips, as if to steady herself against the reflex action’s gentle onslaught.

One day he had the idea to record the sound of her hiccuping on his phone.  Surreptitiously, of course.  Lying in bed that night with headphones on, he played back his recording, allowing it to loop.  He listened to the cycle endlessly: the explosion of her hic, the fall of her cup, the fluting laughter which often followed, her valiant attempts to swallow successive hiccups down.  He fell into step with her, and had never felt more intensely alive than when he managed to match his long-delayed ejaculation to hers.

Sugar hiccup


2 Comments

Gift of tongues #2: Alas dies laughing

‘Woe is me’ was the phrase which most often passed his lips and it was for that reason that both his family and his friends had taken to calling him Alas instead of Alan.  Conversing with himself, his habitually woebegone side always wrestled the straight man he might otherwise have been to the ground, so it was inevitable that he too would begin to see himself as Alas.  The name stuck, inside and out.  It was only when on his deathbed that he truly saw the funny side.  There really had been nothing to moan or worry about, compared to this, the painful end of it all.  Alas died laughing.

Alas dies laughing


Leave a comment

Gift of tongues #1: Feathers-oar-blades

They cut into the mattress with a Stanley knife and then ripped the tear asunder with their bare hands.  Feathers puffed into the air, skeletal springs were exposed and the mattress would never feel the warmth of two bodies lie against its quilted surface again.  Under cover of darkness they slipped down the garden to the bank of the river and rowed away, their rucksacks heavy with the wads of money that they had found beneath the feathers, between the springs.  The gift of all travel was theirs at last, and with it the gift of all tongues.

Feathers-oar-blades


Leave a comment

Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly

Thomas Heatherwick

Christmas card sent by Thomas Heatherwick to Wilfred and Jeannette Cass, 2010.  On display at the Cass Sculpture Foundation.

The source quote (originally ‘Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly’) comes from a chapter entitled ‘The Eternal Revolution’ in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.

Thomas Heatherwick


7 Comments

The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master: on writing lipograms (an afterword to Missing letters)

The comical hotch-potch

I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters.  Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters).  I’m relieved to have finished the series, but also feeling the need to pat myself on the back for seeing it through.  And I thought it might be interesting now that I’ve finished to write about the experience of writing lipograms.

While I was working on the first in the series, I came across an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he contended the following:

‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’

Obviously there are some items in that list that most if not all of us would choose to sign up to, but others – well, ouch.  I can’t help feeling Franzen is being just a touch prescriptive about how we all should write.  He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word.  We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions, motives, and, yes, abilities.  It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no time for the Oulipians.  That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create.  Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby.  Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block.  What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme.  Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.

Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself.  You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way.  When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue.  And Perec might wave a Gauloise in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake.  Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning.  Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.

Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint.  From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint.  There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances.  You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head.  The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.

While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea.  Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders.  The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing he reinvents the English language:

‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’

I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written.  Each letter presented a different challenge.  For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses.  Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me.  But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces.  And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.

How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know.  When I had finished a draft of a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow.  S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft.  I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.

Along the way, I had a wonderful comment from Lunar Camel Co., which got to the heart of what I was trying to do, and how I viewed the challenge:

‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’

The set of 27 is far from perfect.  I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters.  Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.

My favourites?  That’s hard.  Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter.  Combining Perec and Calvino in the two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun.  On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r].  Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year.  There was a lot of life and death in these stories.

But in the end I think I’d plump for the playful love story that is CK & U [F].  That’s what it all probably comes down to.  That I am playing with letters, with words.  Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all.  Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.

And now?  I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store.  But I am looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which should be missing.

Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.