Plain-talking stuff

Down with Beauty, Ken Edwards (10.50, 235pp, Reality Street)

Ken Edwards' latest collection of prose, Down With Beauty, brings together new short stories, flash fictions, dialogues, dramatic monologues and long prose poems, with the second half of the book re-printing his previous work Nostalgia for Unknown Cities. This latter work is a 75 page stream-of-consciousness flow of language and poetic prose which begins: 'About 3AM I awoke from a dream of the city in which I was born, and I recalled that I had actually revisited the city, though not for many years after I had first exiled myself from it; but the dream seemed more real from the visit'. This sets up the dream-like quality of the prose that follows, reality morphing into dream and back again ('a man passed by with a lion cub on a lead, but this may have happened in a different city entirely'). The speed is break neck. 'Below ground, however, it was said an anti-city existed of paved tunnels, circuses, embrasures, vaults, futuristic hospitals for avant garde surgery, endless kitchens, tubular structures, ducts of all kinds, locked cabinets, vast and echoing garages, all long since abandoned to the night, its reality denied by day to day pedestrians'. No sooner have you got your bearings than the prose heads off in an 'archipelagic zigzag' to a bar ('Hi, we're all first person plural'), a museum, a school, a hotel. It's breathtaking.

Chapter Two of Nostalgia
..., 'City Break' (which we might expect to be relaxing) is, in fact, a hurtling single sentence, listing minute details with enormous energy, taking us on adventures 'in the old town' which 'is quaint with the evocative street names the street of revolution the winding stair of tears the avenue of despair boulevard of dreadful transgression square of hideous metastasis and gloom the old cemetery' and so on. Interspersed within the pages of the prose are black and white photographs of locations alluded to in the text. All the sensory richness of the city is captured in this work: sound (the jazz of John Coltrane and wooden flutes), taste (hummus wraps, muffins and milk, and cold Chinese food), smell ('at the end of the ornamental lake, a faint aroma of sewage'), sights everywhere, and touch ('a black man on the bus said 'You need a licence to touch someone's face'). There is also 'feeling' which, very often comes in 'narcotic patterns', or is attached to a feeling of dystopia: industrial decay, 'work camps' and 'armed guards', Police shutting down access points, evacuations and exile: 'A man screamed at a woman to look at the body of a person who died while waiting for buses to rescue them. Dozens of old people, obviously from a nursing home, were dumped in the middle of the street and were dying in the blistering sun'. It is tough, unforgiving subject matter. The whole piece ends on the image of a dog 'a German shepherd, which squatted briefly to shit in the grass, then scampered'. This is plain-talking stuff blended with modernist stream of consciousness and postmodern meta-textuality. A review like this can only be selective, but I hope this gives some sense of the energy of this piece and, what Fanny Howe has called, 'a berserk piece of work'.

The new work, Down With Beauty
, is more varied and hence less 'berserk' than Nostalgia..., although it still manages to capture some of the same themes: exile, the aftermath of war, existentialism, violence. The short story 'Soldiers' is narrated by an unknown person in a foreign land, speculating on whether 'the Americans will get here'. This could be any war-torn province, with the liberating(?) forces approaching. Again the prose progresses by free association, from writing, to music, to marching soldiers, to cultural perpectives and assumptions, with the soldiers' arrival always imminent. This creates a great balance of stasis and energy.

There are a couple of stories about families: 'The Story of Nobody', 'A Memoir of our Father' and 'Our Mother's House'. The 'Memoir' piece turns from the broad sweeps of History, to personal history, to politics, with great wit and, again, rapidity. The 'Mother' piece is again in a war-torn location - Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan immediately come to mind - and, again, the sweep from world politics and history to the personal is very well handled. The prose piece 'Return of Darkness', takes the form of a letter from abroad, like one of those spam emails begging for money or marriage, and is here intercut with Biblical-like phrases and a narrative about tribulations in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. This is ambitious work, and it demands attention from its reader: attention to the textures of language and story-telling, as well as to the textures of the wider social, political and historical contexts.

There is a stunning classic short story in 'The Homecoming', which follows a narrator back to the seaside home town he has not visited for years. And here, something remarkable and grim happens. The characterisation is superb, the attention to the details of the journey home and the arrival, is evocative and complete. The drama is chilling and powerful. This is one of the best short stories I have read this year. Read it. The other piece I very much admired was the prose poem 'In Gondwanaland'. The technique used here is called 'regression' - moving forward by negation; stating the opposite. It is a kind of via negative
, that begins: 'There was not, so far as I can recall, such an evening: we never again went for a walk in the park, we didn't sit on a bench, never watched the young Asian men play cricket on the common'. This is a love story, but it is a not-love story 'because there was no you'... 'Because it was not loved'. It is a story in which 'Unknowing thus became the theme'. It takes us to a point of philosophy that speaks for much of Edwards' work here: 'I didn't discover that we could only perceive evidence of 'the soul' but never the soul itself. That consciousness created the illusion that mind and matter were two different things, but that they were the same, just as lightning and thunder are different aspects of the same phenomenon'. This is one of the best prose poems I've read this year. Along with 'the Homecoming', two 'bests' between two single covers is no mean feat.

     Andy Brown 2013