James Joyce meets Front Lawn, Chris Knox

Stray Thoughts and Nose Bleeds
Duncan Sarkies
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 382 8

Since the huge success of Scarfies, the Sarkies name has become almost mainstream. The exceedingly popular film, based in the student flatting subculture of Dunedin, has hit some sort of nerve in the local psyche, possibly a deep-seated one somewhere in the back of the mouth, in a wisdom tooth perhaps: much pain, must come out.

I digress. But so does Sarkies. In Scarfies he is constrained by the more structural concerns of his brother Robert, a moderating influence on the dark and twisted thing that is the author’s mind. To see that mind in a purer cinematic forum, try Saving Grace, Costa Botes’ film of Sarkies’ stage play, an altogether weirder and more insular piece than the relatively user-friendly Dunedin drama.

This ungainly, claustrophobic, theatrical work is much closer to the style of the stories we have here in his first collection of short fiction. Grace dealt with delusion, insanity, outsiderness, the craft of being alone. It was largely unsuccessful as a film, too talky and cursed with a most uncinematic form. I’m sure it would’ve worked in the utterly different environs of the stage where the artifice would sit quite comfortably and the lack of outer reality would reinforce the inner reality of the characters.

For this is what Sarkies is really good at. Showing the inner workings of the average totally fucked-up human brain at its hideous and torturous work. And that is what the best of these 14 short pieces do. They, almost clinically at times, dissect and demonstrate the machinations of that thing that we like to believe contains our self. It is a fragile organ at best and Sarkies likes to show the ways in which all of us are, if not quite mad, then at least partially unhinged. His characters are all believable types, second cousins to those that filled the heads of Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan in their Front Lawn days. And, like the Lawn, a lot of these stories are more lists than narratives, or overheard conversations with the beginning and end missing, robbed of immediate context. Formal games, perhaps best appreciated in a live reading by the author.

Despite this seeming handicap, they work well on a first reading. Example: “Wild Man Eyes”, which supplies a subtitle for the whole collection, is a pretty clichéd story of an office worker’s desperate desire to be someone of much greater intrinsic interest, say a serial killer or similar. Nothing countless fictions, from Burgess’ Enderby to TV’s Reginald Perrin, have not previously addressed but Sarkies’ twist on the genre uses a three-page list of internally delivered mental notes to portray the breakdown of his office-bound hero:

Sit straight Walk tall Do right Feel small Chew your food Feed the meter Pay your share of the office Lotto ticket Pay your share of the office betting syndicate Don’t demean women if there’s women in the room

It’s the likes of that last “Post-it” that skews the narrative enough to put flesh on the skeletal frame of the character. This is a mildly dumbed-down mixture of James Joyce and Hubert Selby Jr that works. To a degree. For there’s no getting away from the fact that, at heart, it is a rather tired idea upon which to hang a story.

Happily, the next story, from which the collection gets its main title is a doozy. Again we burrow into a bloke’s head, but this time the head is seriously, medically deranged. Here is Sarkies’ motherlode. He knows madness and that it is just a hair away from normalcy. Like Janet Frame or Doris Lessing, he can plunge you into a world of insanity that is too frighteningly familiar. This story also goes deeply into the notion and reality of friendship. A marvellous piece.

“Shampoo Girl” follows with another victim of modern life revealing her neuroses but here the narrative is almost derailed by the author’s decision to deliver some of the narrative in rhyming couplets, disrupting the flow and easing it (in a “Hiawatha” sorta way) at the same time – not wholly successful. “The Dandelion Method”, however, uses a 35-part “how-to” guide to tell a deeply cynical story of a repeat sexual offender and succeeds totally. As does “Sad”, a cautionary tale of the luxury of melancholia that also serves as an apologia for the pathetic protagonist. Classy stuff.

“The Magician”, at 93 words, puts 99% of short short stories to shame.

“Stranger Soliloquy” is Sarkies at his most Front Lawn. Which is not to say he loses his voice; it’s still there, loud and queer. “OE” throws a kiwi naif into darkest Amsterdam and pins that unfortunate city perfectly. It also, fortuitously, mixes in “How Bizarre” to show how well some other Kiwis travel. This is perhaps the most straightforward story in the volume, with the sanest lead character. A little surprising, then, that it appears to have a happy ending. Is our boy losing his venom?

Well no, for next up he (probably) straps himself to the torture rack for “The Good Thing”, another interior monologue about a performing artist who cannot get enough approval for his nightly onstage soul-baring: his audience must be changed forever, must live the work as he has lived it. Very nice but finishes nine lines too late.

“Cows” is pretty much a waste of space. Unlike “Life Skills”, which is one more listwerk that manages to be both deeply cynical and deeply caring at the same time. Is he caring despite himself or is Sarkies really quite a nice guy? Hard to tell at this point and the next story, “Star of the Show”, adds nothing to our knowledge of the man and is fluff compared to the best on offer here.

The stories thus far had kept me well entertained on first reading and even enlightened at least 50% of the time. The weaker ones grew more tired second time through while the stronger increased in power. Like the rest of the world, this collection was suffering a divide between rich and poor that was becoming more and more evident. Sarkies’ self-imposed editing skills needed polishing, his theatrical leanings were getting in the way of the author-for-the-page who made such good reading. I wanted to pick him up and shake him. Gently, of course; the brain is a fragile organ.

Then I fell upon the penultimate, and by far the longest, story in the book.

“18 acts of love and compassion” is the 42-page heart of the book. As its title would suggest, it is 18 short works, each of which could stand alone and each of which is written much in the style of “OE”. Good straightforward storytelling with a minimum of gimmickry. What makes it great is that, as in Richard Linklater’s unique film, Slackers, each story concerns someone from the previous tale in an apparently arbitrary fashion. It is only near the end that you realise that the protagonists of the first couple of stories (who you thought had long ago disappeared) make their way back into this fascinatingly labyrinthine narrative. Then, in a sudden burst of adrenalin to the intuitive centres of the brain, you realise that stories 3 to 15 actually precede and lead to story 16 and its two successors. Hey, this is bloody clever writing you think. This guy really knows what he’s doing! Too right he does. For then (oh yes, there’s always more), then you click if that is the case (and rest assured it is), time must be seriously out of joint, and if time’s being fucked with you must be reading science fiction!

Maybe. In a Phillip K Dick kinda way perhaps. You’re definitely reading very good fiction with a grasp of characterisation, reality and formal structure that lesser mortals may only dream of. It’s a fantastic piece of work that two readings have only scraped the surface of. Exhausted, you prepare to close the tome but wait! There is one more, quietly waiting for you to notice its subtle presence after the pyrotechnics of its predecessor.

“Safe” closes the book with a terrifyingly convincing account of a few hours in the life of a hopeless obsessive-compulsive, once again showing the deeply caring side of the Sarkies personality. The last words of the book are:

God will keep you safe tonight 

which, in this context, are as reassuring as Ringo’s sickly, treacly reading of Lennon’s “Goodnight” at the end of the Beatles’ White Album. Which makes “18 acts” Sarkies’ “Revolution #9”.

If you can make sense of that, this book will offer no resistance.

Chris Knox is in the process of home-recording his latest album. 

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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