Sea, Swallow Me and other stories: by Craig Gidney (Lethe Press, USA 2008)

Like veils of a Sufi dance or manifold visions of Blake, Gidney’s tales hint at deepening mystery. Vanishing cafes conjure the magic theatre of Steppenwolf and caravans of Knauf’s Carnivàle; carnies are a constant presence, as in Carnival of Men in Circus-Boy Without a Safety Net, or harrowing finale Catch Him by the Toe, in which a sly pun on tiger/nigger becomes an etymological taunt. Gidney’s vocabulary ignites senses with imagery, woven by a needle of syntax: dramatically punctuated sentences vary in length, languidly floating or tensely staccato. Description and action offset dialogue. Sequencing flows seamlessly from one paragraph to the next, each a vignette of storytelling. Beneath this intricacy runs a stratum of mythological, historical, literary, cinematic, architectural, anatomical, botanical detail. Visual art refs (Dali, Kahlo) are juxtapose with European and African folklore (Ondine, The Tar Baby) and Freudian angst, although the portrait of a dead mother hearkens to Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Exploring tricks of a yosei, ambitions of a poet, or abuse of a slave girl, Gidney portrays our mortal coil with irony and compassion. He swings like a trapeze artist from the Erl King to Eva Peron, from Snagglepuss to Saint Sebastian, Satan or the Samurai; from Beatrix Potter to Baudrillard, Boy Wonder, Bette Davis or Betty Boop; from Icarus to Iemanja and Izambard. He complements these with music: jazz (Miles Davis), darkwave (Joy Division), surreal pop (Bjork), gothic dreamrock (DCD, The Cranes, The Swans, The Cocteau Twins, Diamanda Galas), haze of dance, rave, jive, techno, acid, ambient space and musicals (The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, West Side Story), interspersed with cult celluloid (Twin Peaks, Blade Runner, Cabin in the Sky).

Other allusions are more oblique: Olokun of the title-story could be a chthonic prototype of the Fluke in The X Files. An island as sentient being that loathes or loves its flawed interloper, reminds me of the series Lost. There’s a cheeky tribute to a children’s classic by Welsh writer Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, with wicked wit of David Lynch or Chris Carter. When Oscar Wilde quipped that all bad poetry is sincere, he was expressing a paradox: that authors need to be at once immersed and detached. Art for morality or self-pity is indulgent. Poetic is harder to attain than Polemic. Gidney deftly dances around this trap, sure of his craft. Storytelling is his element; impossible for him to miss a beat, unless omission were part of the hypnotism. As in ballet or gymnastics, it takes discipline to present an illusion of effortless grace.

Like Dante and Virgil in Hell, protagonist of Etiolate (2nd tale) leads us through smoky shadows of underworld clubs and strangers’ bedrooms; each scene an Inferno; occupants writhe in seduction, a paradox observed by Zizek: that desire is at once an expression of our greatest freedom and our greatest prison, with phrases like “I cannot help myself” or “I cannot do otherwise”, echoing down the ages like fatal compulsion of Romeo and Juliet. There’s also Cervantes’ formula of Don Quixote (Oliver) and side-kick Sancho Panza (Pompeii). Gidney’s voice is shamanic. With deft strokes he guides the reader through states of consciousness, bending ordinary objects, landscapes and creatures into phantasmagoria: reminiscent of Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road, in which a spirit child of the Abiku slips in and out of dreamscapes, perceiving shapeshifters. Stylistically, Gidney is closer to magic-realists Calvino or Byatt. As Harold Bloom suggests, the way we read is to misread, but some misreadings are better than others. Great artists influence not only what follows but what precedes; their power stretches backwards in time as well as forwards. Perception of magic-realists or gothic-fantasists, including Poe, Borges and Dunsany, is altered by fresh talent. Gidney’s albino theme fascinates me. From cryptic Silver to monkey, swan, snow, cloud, ice, crystal, vanilla bean and white tiger, this theme forks into sub-motifs: biology books of transparent “tissue” paper revealing layers of flesh until white bone is bared, echoed by flayed or scarred skin, dyed hair, pastries (Strange Alphabets, Etiolate) and “multi-layered reality” of ancestral ghosts (Come Join We). This is not just about race or sex. It’s a collision of civilization with anarchy, tension between Apollo & Dionysus. No less intriguing is psychology of Gidney’s characters. Their thoughts, feelings, conversations and dreams speak to our humanity. Their decisions and fates keep us guessing. Between history’s inherited constructions – of slavery or lynching, kleptomania, devotion, sacrifice – spaces form, as Gidney pulls stones of assumptions apart. Through these fissures, angels and monsters loom.