Nicholas Lezard

Surreal parables

Even her commas are interesting, says Nick Lezard — and her non-sequiturs may not be non-sequiturs. What’s certain is that she’s an exceptionally original writer

There is a common assumption that experimental writing — for want of a better term — is obscure, joyless and arid. Or worse: that it is fake (or ‘pseudy’), a deception practised upon either the deluded or gullible reader. So I wonder what people who hold such assumptions would make of this. It constitutes the final paragraph of ‘Specialist’, one of the stories in this collection. The story itself is, not untypically for this book, less than a page long:

The cyclist hit me, and it’s vile after my life ends in the afterlife. Lots of incense, resin, apes and giraffe-tails — all acquired tastes. I don’t like that kind of thing.

Several things may strike you. First, of course, is the breaking of the narrative convention that holds that no first-person narrator can report back from death. This is certainly not an unbreakable convention, but there is something about the speed and airiness with which this death happens that amounts almost to insolence. And that list of aspects of the afterlife (not to mention the strangely skewed grammar of ‘after my life ends in the afterlife’): what’s that about? We might think of the cargo of Solomon’s ships in Chronicles 9; or of the gifts of the Magi; or even John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’; but the reference is hazy, as if recalled in a dream.

And then we get ‘all acquired tastes’ and ‘I don’t like that kind of thing’. What kind of thing? Acquired tastes? Or incense, etc? Moreover, in what position is the narrator, that she (I assume she’s a she, but there is no evidence of one gender or another) can express irritation at the way the afterlife has been arranged? What bizarre eschatology is going on here?

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