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issue 43: July - August 2004

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Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.

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Do the Blind Dream? New Novellas and Stories by Barry Gifford: Seven Stories Press, U.S. 2004

Barry Gifford is a well-known name here in Spain. For one thing, the Spanish are big David Lynch fans and Lynch’s Wild at Heart was based on Gifford’s novel. Gifford also co-wrote Lost Highway with Lynch. And his novel Perdita Durango was made into a film by Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia in 1997. He’s also appeared in Spain’s top newspaper, El País, and much of his fiction—most recently Wyoming—has been translated into Spanish (as well as many other languages). No surprise then to find a cover blurb by Pedro Almodóvar on this latest offering of stories and a novella: "I love Do the Blind Dream?—a wonderful and delightful piece that tastes of Buñuel and Cocteau."

There is that slightly off kilter feel to the whole. The novella, Havana Moon, is a disconcerting hall-of-mirrors construction. There is the Havana Moon nightclub "where one never knows what time it is—or could be," and where the club manager Cora and the club’s performer Luis weave bizarre acts, including hypnotism, into the nightly shows. Businessman Raymond is introduced to the handsome and well-to-do couple Mark and Constance by his associate Robert, who functions as a kind of counterpart to Raymond. Raymond falls in love with Constance, but when he sees her on the street, she claims to be Olivia, a twin sister. An affair is begun, but is Olivia really Olivia or a lying Constance? Constance/Olivia’s father, a mega-powerful business magnate, is Raymond’s secret employer and all sorts of intrigue, including murder, creep in, giving tension to the eerie whole.

The title story is set in a small Italian town and opens with the wake of 76-year-old Beatrice. Two of her three children are present; they are waiting for Cara, the sister in Madrid, to arrive with her American boyfriend Buddy, hoping she’ll make it before the coffin must be closed at 6:00. They arrive on time; there is family talk about what a "monster" their estranged father is, and then an absurd twist functions to reveal dark family secrets.

"Ball Lightning," set in the rural U.S., begins with 22-year-old Terry pulling into a gas station where the attendant is 19-year-old Amelia. They begin talking and Amelia mentions her brother Priam who disappeared several years ago. Then Terry says her boyfriend is named Priam, who they discover is one and the same . . . and we are given a glimpse of the enigma that is Priam.

In "The Ciné" a young boy is left stranded at the cinema by his father; while in "The Lost Tribe" young Roy discovers why the black janitor at the local synagogue wears a yarmulke. "Johnny Across" sees a fifty-plus Roy reflecting on a rough game played in his childhood, which provided a valuable lesson in life; and then a young Roy appears again in "Forever After," here involved in a short conversation with his dad about a murder that ends on a perfect note of delayed realization.

"Rosa Blanca" is an engaging tale told by one airline passenger to another as an idea for a movie since his companion is a screenwriter; "African Adventure Story" is a circular tale involving crocodiles and an order of Polish nuns, the Sisters of Immaculate Apparel; while "Holiday from Women" follows Bobby Newby, who " had three women in his life, each of whom provided ingredients important if not essential to his existence."

Time and setting are varied throughout. In the last three selections, "Life is Like That Sometimes" takes place in Ogden, Utah, in a bar full of Indians; while "A Day’s Worth of Beauty" shifts to Chicago, 1963, and gives us a look at two beautiful sisters through the eyes of a teenage boy; and then comes the narrator of "The Peterson Fire" who reflects (from Paris) on a time (thirty years ago) when a fire destroyed a neighbor’s home and nearly all the family.

I love Barry Gifford’s stories because they manage to blend a strong sense of everyday reality with a touchor dollopof strangeness, as though bits were filtered and viewed through an opium haze, like those moments when you’re walking down the street and feel faint, like your feet might suddenly come out from under you. You’re thrown, shaken for a moment, and then everything falls back into place, kind of. That’s the best I can describe Gifford, and I don’t know any other writer who conveys that sensation of disorientation so perfectly, whether it be through a confused sense of identity or the sudden awakening of a memory. Or perhaps through a stark realization or the creation of a divinely imaginative, unsettling tale. It is fine to draw on Buñuel and Cocteau to describe what this collection tastes of, but Almodóvar himself comes closer to mind. I would love to see a collaboration between the two. J.A.

[ See Holiday for Women in TBR]

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The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes: Canongate, UK, July 2004

Dan Rhodes was thrust into the limelight when Granta picked him as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists. That pick was based solely on two short-story collections. Timoleon Vieta Come Home was only in progress, but with that novel’s release Dan Rhodes indeed lived up to expectations [see review in TBR]. I adored this novel and couldn’t wait for the next. But then Rhodes announced that he wouldn’t be writing anymore. And Dan Rhodes has held to his pronouncement. But Danuta de Rhodes, who "grew up in Paris and studied modern medieval literature in London before moving to New York, where she works in the fashion industry," has given us The Little White Car,"her" first book. And it even includes a dog; this time, a Saint Bernard named César.

The year is 1996. The city: Paris. Young and pretty Veronique is beginning to tire of her boyfriend Jean-Pierre, who smokes too much pot to be fun and plays boring experimental CDs, such as the one by The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet, a Bulgarian group that actually contains 14 members. She leaves in a huff one night telling him not to call her again, then climbs into her little white Fiat Uno, tired and not completely sober, and heads off. Not until she wakes up the next morning does she remember that she had smashed one side of the car as it brushed against another. Then she turns on the news and learns that Princess Di has been killed. And the whole city is looking for a little white car that caused the crash.

Veronique soon confesses all to girlfriend, Estelle, who agrees that a confession wouldn’t do anyone any good. Since the TV is full of news of the crash, they watch a video instead, and start "talking, about anything but cars and tunnels and dead princesses."

Later, they weep as they watch Di’s funeraland Estelle, an aficionado of all that is Welsh, is incensed by Elton John’s singing of "English Rose," when Di was Princess of Wales. Then the girls listen to their favorite CD. It’s not that they’re insensitive, it’s just that they’re young, and pretty, and, well, young. Veronique has moments when she thinks she must turn herself in, but that passes. In the meantime, whenever she hears a knock at the door, she makes sure her hair is combed and her make-up applied, since she thoroughly expects it to be the police with a horde of photographers in tow.

The novel follows the two girls as they try to get rid of the car and quickly purchase a new one before Veronique’s parents arrive home from a trip to Africa. This, of course, requires money that neither one has, so that problem must be tackled first.

An array of wacky characters enters: there is Jean-Pierre’s Uncle Thierry, a man who travels to Paris every two weeks or so just to release his pigeons, and then returns to his village to await their arrival. There is the shady Clement, who moves stolen goods; a greasy, thick mechanic; an English ex-boyfriend of Veronique’s; and a suspicious co-worker François. The cast expands as the girls travel to London—and Estelle on to Wales—following a rough plan of action.

Not to give any more any more away, except to say that The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet makes a live appearance at the end.

The book is scrumptious good fun, but the Princess Di episode, around which it all hangs, has already appeared in fiction in Alexei Sayle’s darkly humorous short story "Barcelona Plates" [published in TBR]. Here a British bloke travels to Spain, rents a white Fiat Uno, and out of boredom ends up driving all the way to London before having to turn around and drive back to Spain to turn in the car. He takes on a different personality in his rented car with Spanish plates and becomes violent and reckless, accidentally running into Princess Di in the tunnel, although of course he doesn’t know who it is at the time. The story packs a real punch, and some of the punch in The Little White Car is diminished because one can’t help but think of Sayle’s piece. Still, everything else is pure Rhodes, I mean de Rhodes, and if it doesn’t quite measure up to Timoleon Vieta, that is because Timoleon Vieta is such a superbly rare and wonderful book. If you happen to have missed it, catch it now. And pick up this one as well. It’s feisty, irreverent and as much fun as a night on the town with the saucy French beauties who inhabit its pages. J.A.

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girls by Nic Kelman: Serpent’s Tail, U.K., July 2004

What middle-aged man does not lust over pubescent girls? According to the narrative voice in Nic Kelman’s girls: none. That’s just the way it is. "Because at the end of the day, what else do we have? After the rebellions, and the struggles, and the political endeavors, after watching our backs day in and day out, guarding them not just from others but from everything, what do we really have? . . . What else can really make us feel alive, even if it is only for an hour or two? Is there anything else out of all we have, that we can actually say is worth living for?"

And what middle-aged man is not somewhat (or perhaps totally) sexually repulsed by women in their late twenties or older? Again, none. "She was still in great shape, her skin was still smooth for the most part, you really only thought about her age when you saw her hand around your cock." But that did it: "when you fucked it was no good."

The voice is not one man, but rather a composite of like-sounding males, all wealthy and powerful, who presume to speak for all men. Desire for pubescent girls is the one thing they have in common. Speaking of international travels: "In all these places a pair of teenage girls has walked past wearing less than they should be. In all of these places you have turned your head to follow them. In all of these places you have looked from them and met the eyes of another man. And in all of these places you have smiled at each other with absolute understanding. In all of these places it has been this that you could share with other men."

There is no variation in theme, no apologies, no reaching for explanations. Girls is a relentless onslaught by this single-minded compound voice, relaying sexual encounters and praising the rejuvenating power of young, innocent girls. But, hold on, it works. There is a clever method to the delivery. The voices are broken up by quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, beginning with the mention of Achilles’ great anger, which, as we know, was fueled from having his prize (won by his spear), Briseis, the flower of young girls, taken from him, an act which almost cost the Achaians their ultimate victory. Young girls were always the prize booty in battle and the most precious offering in ransom. The whole epic battle was undertaken over no less than the young and lovely Helen. But it’s all about power as well, of course. As Agamemnon told Achilles, he took Briseis from him " . . . that you may learn well how much greater I am than you." An admirable heroic quality in these ongoing power struggles would be Odysseus’ deceitful nature, which, unlike the more forthright Achilles, saved him from an early death.

So have men always been so obsessed? And does cunning serve them well? Yes and yes. The book opens with a man, working for an investment bank, sent to Pusan to find out why a container ship is behind schedule. On the pretence of slackness, he fires a worker at random, destroying the man’s life, simply to serve as a warning to the others. And his prize? His boss introduces him to the pleasures of young-girl Korean prostitutes. Afterwards: "You wish you felt worse about this. You wish you felt terrible, in fact. But you don’t. Instead you feel fucking fantastic. Reborn. Your head is clear, you can actually feel the sheets touching your entire body."

Etymological info also serves to break up the narrative while lending force to the theme. Thus we have entertaining explanations—tenuous though they may be—of the origin of such words as "cunt," "cock," "love," etc. Sociological asides appear as well. One such digression concludes that men might well share more genes with gorillas than they do with women. Perhaps that’s so, but I couldn’t help think at this point that it was an insult to gorillas.

The sex scenarios revolve around young girls—who always revitalize, like blood to vampires: an analogy that’s not overlooked—and the thirtysomething or nearly thirtysomething wives/mistresses/girlfriends/ex’s—who always disappoint. To the man who has everything—and these men do—there is only one thing out of their reach, and that’s innocence. A sexual encounter with a very young girl can momentarily relieve that loss. But part of the joy in the encounter can be taking the young girl’s innocence. In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, a wealthy man goes to a high-class strip club and pays for two young girls, sisters, who are new at their job. In a private viewing, he asks them to have sex with each other, for one hour. They begin hesitantly, but slowly become aroused until they’re really into it. This juncture, where innocence dissipates and loss begins, is something the male voice often pinpoints in past relationships, as when a girlfriend asks for a dog. It is not always easy to predict just when it will arrive—perhaps the man will marry, perhaps have children—but inevitably it will come. In the case of the man in the strip club, he knows exactly when it will come, during that hour. Afterwards, he tips them extremely well and they say they hope he’ll come back— "which you won’t—not for them—they have nothing to offer you now."

As above, the narrator generally refers to himself in the second person, allowing for greater distance, and it works extremely well, adding an eerie tone to the whole. The structural composition of the book is masterful, in fact, swinging from Homeric quotes to raw scenes such as a man masturbating over a Polaroid, to the etymological and sociological insertions; and the juxtaposing of young, hot girls with (slightly) older women who have "nothing to offer."

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s principal theme concerned "emotional exhaustion," the using up of emotions until one burns out and cannot recapture earlier feelings. This is something common to the cynical and jaded voices here. It is the price a man must presumably pay for having attained his position of power. But whenever one of them hears a young girl say "pinky promise" or order a Shirley Temple, he lights up. "You can live your life through them even though you are dead." Or as another male puts it: "they have the energy we spent elsewhere."

Every reviewer, I’m sure, will home in on the book’s closing line: "How did we get so ugly?" That is left for the reader to ponder, to argue about, to discuss, or to reject. One thing the book will not do is leave you indifferent. From the opening line: "How did they get so young?" until the last, you’re hooked. It may well raise hackles, but that can be a good thing. Like American Psycho, girls shocks to make its point. The former captured the ugliness of the 1980’s; girls nails a certain type of male (think of almost any public figure in a high position of power) and depicts the emotional bankruptcy—with its ugly ramifications—that inevitably arises. The 80’s mercifully disappeared, but the unnerving thing about girls is that insistent note of continuity. Ellis drew heavily on pop cultural trends and black humor. Kelman draws on Homer and doesn’t go for laughs (though it does provide its share of diversion). Both are important novels, but the deeper, more disturbing vision lies in the latter. J.A.

Available from Serpent's Tail

[See an extract from girls in TBR; see also author interview]

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World Famous Love Acts by Brian Leung: Sarabande Books, U.S., 2004

This collection of twelve short stories was picked as the winner of the 2002 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, as judged by Chris Offutt, who offers a forward to the book. It is indeed an impressive debut. Leung’s prose is sure and solid, natural and easy-flowing, but not without some effective lyrical touches. The characters and setting are quite varied, but the small town of Blue Falls, Washington, near Bonneville Dam, crops up more than once (as does L.A.). The town is dying and real estate developers plan to move in and convert it into a tourist haven. In "Good Company," one of the locals, an older woman named Madeleine, decides to fight against the takeover, and her confidence is boosted when she wakes up one morning to find a dark-skinned pair of hands, folded in prayer, hovering above her head. She goes on to tell about her life growing up in Blue Falls, and so later in "Desdemona’s Ruins," where we find the archeologist Desdemona working on uncovering the sculptures of the Xi’an warriors in China, we know that her sister is Madeleine; in fact, we know Madeleine better than Desdemona does.

Elsewhere, we find characters struggling with identity, such as the half-Chinese, half-Caucasian young man in "White Hands," whose heritage is one the author shares; or the 4’10’’ porno star Zen Lee in "Who Knew Her Best." Even young kids have identity anxiety, such as the two fourth-graders in "Executing Dexter"—both outcasts: one the new black kid on the block, the other a Native American. And life is confusing for the Chinese-Amerian family (now all living separately) in "Dog Sleep," who "never say what we really mean."

Loss is also explored, as with the old widower whose daughter has disappeared, leaving him to live out his days alone next to a bridge that attracts suicides; or with the young well-to-do Gideon who knows that AIDS is "no longer a dismissible visitor but has, in fact, become his primary companion."

The title story follows a gay couple on the road, trying to recapture earlier feelings; while "Leases" traces the unusual marital set-up of a couple on the eve of their 29th anniversary. Will the husband be able to fulfil his promise to his wife and give up the separate apartment he has kept all these years to entertain men?

I was particularly taken with one of the longer stories, "Drawings by Andrew Warhol." Here we find a man in the dead-end job of night manager at a grocery store. He’s been with his girlfriend for five years and now they’re planning their wedding, but without the least bit of enthusiasm on his part. "In a month I’ll be married, in two months I’ll be thirty-six. Being the night manager isn’t the job I want for the rest of my life." Similar refrains appear elsewhere in the book, as people suddenly realize that where they’re at in life isn’t remotely like where they ever expected to be. That’s life, hey, and Leung captures those moments of clarity superbly. In the case of the night manager, however, change is perhaps possible, but only after a whacko drifter comes charging into his life.

There is not a dud in the whole collection. These stories give a lot of pleasure and I look forward to reading more from this exciting new author. J.A.

[See Executing Dexter in TBR; see also the Sarabande Books catalogue for more good fiction ]

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Deadfolk by Charlie Williams: Serpent’s Tail, U.K. 2004 (June)

Ahhh!, rural England, bucolic and tranquil, little baa-lambs and kindly farmers waving pint pots of scrumpy in the air outside ivy-covered cottage inns. What bollocks, and Charlie Williams nails reality spot on with this rather excellent debut novel. Reality is dead-end towns denuded of those intelligent enough to get out, and populated by the dregs that remain or are too afraid to leave. Mangel is such a place. Mangel could be anywhere—Devon, Herefordshire, Yorkshire or the author’s native Worcestershire. Its locals speak with a kind of bastardised West Country accent and in one paragraph it could even be American mid-west. Mangel is the sort of place where god left his socks. It’s the sort of place where to be someone you have to be hard, and Royston Blake is hard. Royston Blake has to be hard as he is the head doorman of Hoppers Wine Bar& Bistro. And if you are a hard man you’ve got to have a hard man’s car, a Capri 2.8i (actually, rearrange the letters and you get close to what a Capri really is), and you’ve got a be a total pervert-sexist-shit to the young girly clients. And to be a real man you have to drink, and drink some more, and have a quick fight between rounds. And when you’re not doing that, or stroking your beloved car, you sit in front of the telly eating whatever ‘scran’ you can find—as in half a dozen eggs and eight sausages. Yeah, Royston Blake can stand tall and walk proud in Mangel because he is a hard man. Except that the Muntons seem to be spreading around a rumour that he isn’t that hard. Now, the Muntons—nasty, nasty people—drive around in a van called the Meat Wagon and don’t take shit from anyone, not even the town’s so-called hard man.

Then Royston screws up. The Muntons have dented his confidence and ego—a new sensation for him—so he makes a big mistake that will distance a friend, a bad move as he is going to need every ally he can find. He will make some more errors as the story unfolds, unveiling some nasty skeletons in various cupboards and creating new ones. Luckily Royston is a little too thick and into himself to see the chaos he is creating or that is unfolding around him, and so blunders on convinced he will end up as a co-owner of the wine bar.

The plot, which becomes quite involved, works fine; it’s nothing staggeringly original but it is the telling that works so well. The whole set-up of Mangel gives a feeling of nightmare familiarity of small country towns, yet the odd street names, East Bloater Road for instance, conjure up a parallel universe or a comic book unreality. (A bloater is a cured fish but in some slang can mean a turd.) The chatty style, tongue-in-cheek humour and the non-specific dialect allow for a crime novel that has its own voice, doesn’t follow a tradition and isn’t trying to be literarily pretentious like David Peace, for example. But where Williams really triumphs is in the portrayal of Royston. Here is a man who should be universally loathed; he is violent, small-minded, vain, cold and indifferent, yet when he loses his power—his ‘hardness—and the town starts to see him as weak, I found myself actually feeling a bit sympathetic for the bastard. Recent English TV comedy has done much to champion the normally totally loathsome and obnoxious— Alan Partridge, The Office, and Nighty Night, for example, as well as the classic Absolutely Fabulous— and Royston fits right in there; but where the others play for laughs, no matter how grim, Royston is a bit too close to the truth to be funny—the ‘humour’ with him evolves from his excruciating blundering, aided by deft turns of phrase and clever observations by the author. Recommended summer reading for those who have escaped or want to escape from a small town, or those living in the big city who mistakenly think that there is a quiet life out there in the country. For more on Mangel, Ford Capris, and the plot, as well as some excerpts, visit The Mangel Informer. MGS

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One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.: translated by Lawrence Venuti; Serpent’s Tail, 2004 (August)

According to her diary Melissa celebrates her sixteenth birthday blindfolded, in various rooms, being licked, sucked, probed and prodded by five men. A willing participant, Melissa endures this and other odd forms of sexual encounters thinking it is a way of fulfilling every girls’ childhood fantasy: to meet and fall in love with a beautiful prince. But the men she meets are all creeps and Melissa is just a little too young to see it, mistaking sexual gratification—usually theirs—for emotion. It is she who returns home most nights battered and messed up, a little confused, but still willing to try another perversion be it voyeurism, same sex, whatever, on her journey to find ‘love’.

The tale unfolds in diary form and at first the reader has doubts about the narrator. At age 14, she begins by writing of her first sexual experience; the man is a total arsehole, whom, of course, she thinks she loves. Fair enough, but the diary entries seem written from another era: "The only thing that really makes me feel good is the image I behold and love: everything else is make-believe. My friendships are fake, born by chance and raised in mediocrity, utterly superficial." And a year or so later: "I feel happy, Diary: my body is saturated with such euphoria, although becalmed by a sensation of utter bliss; a sweet, unbroken tranquillity engulfs me completely." Melissa is one precocious and very well-read kid—at least of 19th century romance—so, with all this reading behind her, surely she must already know the answers to her ‘quest.’ Or perhaps Melissa is just being a teenager, experimenting with and getting hooked by sex rather than drugs. It is this recurring image of her being untidy and dirty, afraid of looking in the mirror, that echoes drug abuse—though she never touches them. The reality, of course, is that the sex she has is brutal, unloving and dirty. Melissa is no more than an animated tissue for some men and when she discovers her sexual power over them, she too learns to be a monster. "I am not sure I love myself as I once did: a girl who loves herself doesn’t let her body be violated by any man whatsoever, without a specific reason and without even any pleasure."

It is easy to see why it was a massive bestseller in Italy (Melissa P. is from Sicily). In just 144 or so pages Melissa P. covers a lot of ground. One at first thinks that the book is going to be erotic but that is the last thing it is; the sex is just too sordid, the smell of despair too strong. In many respects it could even be seen as slightly moralistic: ‘don’t do sex, kids—look at how unhappy Melissa is’. But, after finishing the book, you realize you have just read a rather clever, dark, gothic-style, twenty-first century fairy tale. MGS

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Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi: Black and White Publishing, Scotland, 2004

The Scots-Pakistani Suhayl Saadi debuted with a stunning short-fiction collection, The Burning Mirror [see TBR review; and the short story Bandanna]. Now comes the novel Psychoraag, in which Saadi continues his exploration of Scots-Asian culture, specifically the Glaswegian-Asian community. The protagonist is Zaf—"that’s zed ay eff"—the midnight-to-six DJ on Radio Chandni, an Asian Community Radio station that has been going for three months and is now about to shut down. On this last night Zaf isn’t taking any requests. He’s playing what he wants and forming the playlist as he goes along. The music includes the Asian Dub Foundation, Kula Shaker, Junoon, and Kavita Krishnamurthy and Sonu Nigam, as well as Celtic rock groups such as The Colour of Memory and Cosmic Rough Riders. The Beatles, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, Madonna and Primal Scream also turn up as do some old Asian singers who were popular during his parents’ younger years (Mukesh, Talet Mahmood, Lata Mangeshakar), and even some music taken from old gramophone recordings. In addition to a Glossary of Urdu words at the end of the book, we have Zaf’s full playlist and a discography. It would have been wonderful to have a CD of the playlist to accompany the book as Zaf’s passion for the music and his descriptions of the sounds whet one’s appetite for the unknown music.

The book is divided into five sections, each part representing an hour of Zaf’s Junnune Show— junnune meaning madness or a trance-like state. As the night wears on we learn more and more about Zaf as he meditates on his life and life in the Glaswegian-Asian community, the music sometimes triggering a memory, and a memory sometimes eliciting the music. We learn that his current girlfriend Babs is a goree (a "white" girl), a nurse who rides a motorcycle. She’s been more or less supporting Zaf as his radio gig doesn’t pay, and she’s getting fed up with his overall self-obsession. Before Babs, there was Zilla, a "ScotPak" like himself, who could have been an "Asian Babe," but ended up a junkie instead which is why he left her, although the relationship was probably already doomed:

It wis unusual to see an Asian girl goin out with an Asian guy. It seemed somehowthat the two entities were mutually repellent—as though there wis a danger that they might catch somethin from each other. Blackness mibbee. Or shame.

Zaf tries to deal with his guilt over letting down both women while also attempting to come to grips with feelings of guilt and despair concerning his parents: his mother considers him a failure (he has a university degree in ethnology, but hasn’t accomplished anything) and his father has recently been committed to a nursing home for presenile dementia.

One of the more interesting diversions in the book is the interwoven story of his parents’ romance back in Lahore and their escape from Pakistan. His mother Rashida was a married woman when his father Jamil fell in love with her; worse yet, her husband was Jamil’s boss. Jamil was also married and had a son. Somehow the two managed to find time together and eventually fled the country, making their way to Afghanistan and eventually to Scotland, where Jamil, a universtiy-educated engineer, ended up working in the sewers for 25 years before being able to open a corner store ("Talk about lowerin your sights"). Zaf is their only child, but feels alien. He’s Scots born for one thing, and suspects his parents pin their regrets on him. Is he partly to blame? Why does he find it so hard to visit his mother and harder yet to see his father?

Zilla is perhaps the most intriguing character of all. Her story begins with her romance with Zaf, who introduces her to her first "adulterated" joint. She may now be a full-blown heroin addict, but she’s a mesmerizing (and still foxy) lady with a mind of her own, sassy and street savvy. The description of her junkie-hell East End neighborhood is keenly perceptive:

When [Zaf] glanced at the people, they seemed flat—as though their features had somehow become rubbed over like charcoal on paper. He couldn’t tell one from another. A couple of guys haunted each close entrance as though they might’ve been on the verge of somethin and it wouldn’t be enlightenment. All along, Zaf felt there wis somethin wrong—not the dog shite runnin down the walls, not the imminent violence, not even the silence broken only the sound of the rain hittin the tarmac—there wis some other terrifyin thing which he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

The "terrifyin thing he couldn’t quite put his finger on" could also apply to Zaf and his troubling nocturnal ruminations, which become more and more surreal. A final-night party is going on in the building—an old kirk—and various acquaintances wander into Zaf’s cubicle: the Station Master Raf, recently worked over by a ScotPak street gang for not paying extortion; the radio director Harry, who will face down the gang before the night is over; and Fizz and Ruby (hosts of the Bollywood Heaven show), who make love in the cubicle adjacent to Zaf’s and can easily be seen through the glass. At one point Zaf drinks a spiked glass of absinthe (curious that he has to ask what "absinthe" is) and from here on out reality blends with hallucination. Does Zilla really appear and give him an injection? Whatever, Zaf descends further into his world of psychoraag, at one point flash-forwarding, so that we see the future unfold as the last hour of the show moves through a phantasmagoria of events, climaxing with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s "Mustt, Mustt" and The Beatles’ "A Day in the Life."

Psychoraag is best when it moves from Zaf’s personal rambles—and ramble he does, often mundanely ("It wis all just a big Country-and-Western lament—Glasgae-style" is a comment that could well apply to much of Zaf’s rap), with hackneyed pronouncements such as: "So much of our lives is pretence . . . So many lies, evasions, self-deceptions . . . and all for what? In fifty years’ time we’ll all be dead." Or: "Deep in the night, no one knows whit’s goin oan in another person’s heid. We’re aw human beings as we’re aw trapped in oor solitude." Sharper perceptions appear when the focus shifts to others—to Zilla, for example, or a description of Asian-Glaswegian wannabe gangs, like The Kinnin Park Boys in "Wee Faisalabad." Fortunately there is much of the latter. One gains insight into Scots-Asian culture while seeing at the same time that problems of identity, relationships with others, questions of self-worth, and feelings of fear and guilt are indeed universal. The playlist functions nicely to break down barriers and pull one in. By the end of the novel, you want to dig up, among other selections, The Junnune Show’s finale of Nusrat’s "Mustt, Mustt." I looked through my Massive Attack remixes but couldn’t find it. I settled for an Asian favorite I had on hand, Talvin Singh, but much of Zaf’s raag begs to be listened to. As he says, it’s all in the music. Although I prefer the tightness and less self-referential direction of the short stories, Psychoraag—in its multi-vernacular, rambling, frenzied, helter-skelter fashion—sings. J.A.

© 2004 The Barcelona Review
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issue 43: July - August 2004  

Short Fiction

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women
Nic Kelman: girls
Brian Leung: Executing Dexter
J.K. Mason: A Caricature of Faith
Juan Bonilla: Mónica’s Letters
picks from back issues
Julie Orringer:
Javier Marías:
Fewer Scruples


Nic Kelman


The Iliad
answers to last issue’s quiz Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Book Reviews

Do the Blind Dream? by Barry Gifford
The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes
girls by Nic Kelman
World Famous Love Acts by Brian Leung
Deadfolk by Charlie Williams
One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi (review available August 7)

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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