— Hey! Come here would you? I want to show you something. I won’t keep you long.
— What is it?
— This.
— Oh. A book. I’ve seen plenty of them before.
— Maybe not this one though.
— OK. So, here we have a very navy book. Big deal.
— Yes, it is navy for sure.
— Well thanks, but a book’s a book.
— Sure, but this one is also a book full of other books. Hold on and I’ll show you. There’s a story here called ‘Elsewhere’ where you can read about a boy remembering a book he read about a boy and girl who go missing, just as the two children from the family next door run off in the direction of the sea. And in another one, ‘Reading’, an old man reveals that when we die we revive in the world of the last book we were reading. We can go into the book. Then there’s a squirrel in another story and he explains to a bunch of kids how to read a picture book: how point of view and setting and characters operate, all that jazz. A book might only take ten minutes to read he says, but it has “all this time packed inside, and when you remember reading it, that time returns to you, adding to your own small portion”.
— That’s quite cool.
— Yeah, the book as manipulator. It can “slow time to a drip, drip, or push it on in a rushing, sinewy torrent like a snow-fed river in spring”. That’s the squirrel talking by the way. A man in another story has a dream – and “the skull boat floats away without moving”. Exactly what happens when you get into this blue thing I’m holding now.
Darker with the Lights On by David Hayden.
— Uh huh.
— Alright, OK. But rewind a minute to what you were saying about that story where you find yourself in the world of the last thing you were reading. You seem keen on this guy Hayden’s stuff. I suppose you’re going to say you’d like to wake up in the world of one of his stories.
— Well maybe not. You might not know where you are. Because these are worlds that kind of shift and reconfigure. There’s one called ‘Mareg’, and Mareg finds himself in a hotel where there are abandoned platters of “partially eaten, unidentifiable brown and yellow food that seethed with insects”, and he passes library steps strewn with “sun-withered turds” before going to a restaurant where a man in a cream suit and cravat eats blueberries. The man starts to talk about his experience in a busy Accident and Emergency Department. And that’s so normal it’s shocking. In ‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’, the story begins with all the paraphernalia of the folk tale, the hearthstone and the supper pot, the dark woods and the old tower. But when the man Leckerdam talks about his younger days, he recalls the subway, galleries, museums, a great square with a park where people played chess, roller-skated and sold drugs.
— Sounds like, maybe, Tompkins Square.
— Well, could be. It’s like that painter guy, Ged Quinn. He does Ovidian idylls mixed with Americana and Battenberg cakes.
— Never heard of him.
— Or maybe Magritte. In ‘An Apple in the Library’ a reader in a library wants an apple. He’s eventually given an apple and he eats it. But then, a little later, the white flesh pulses from his mouth and the skin peels out and the apple is once again its pristine, prior self.
— So an apple is not an apple then. In that library anyway. But, apples, squirrels, freaky hotels, what’s all of this saying about life? What’s it saying about what it means to be alive?
— Wait ‘til I tell you about ‘Hay’. It’s wonderful. Miners have been weeping constantly; they’ve flooded the mines with their tears in a “great self-syncopating orchestra of misery.” But in the end the miners become shift weepers and their tears end up irrigating orchards of oranges, lemons and mangoes.
— OK. Let me give this a go. Hold on. OK. I am going to go for……….an index of capitalism’s flexibility and ingenuity in exploitation.
— Ha. Nope. Too schematic. These stories’ll flit round stuff like that. There’s another one, ‘Egress’, where a man steps off a ledge and as he falls, and keeps falling, never reaching the ground, he sees life below. There isn’t contempt for the things of the world, but there isn’t any great affection for them either. He sees people holding coffee cups and cars, birds and cyclists, people gathering coats and bags.
— Ordinary stuff getting noticed by a man in the extraordinary situation of falling through the air. Forever.
— Yeah, that’s it. And there are plenty of other incredible journeys. In ‘Golding’ someone wakes in a clearing and then enters a house. In the first room there’s hundreds of butterflies and naked, bloody men lolling on chairs.
— OK, go on. What’s in the next room?
— A tree that rubs its twigs together, and in another a river rushes from an open sash window to a fireplace where it goes up the chimney. Go outside and a woman with waist long hair writhes in a pig pen. All these absurdist conflations of people and animals, all these objects coming to life, before the person eventually disintegrates: “Skin bloated, folded, puckered…bones appeared…falling dust and finally, a vacancy.” It’s a Boschian kind of trip.
— Well, you said it. Sounds like a trip alright.
— And then, in the afterglow of ‘Golding’, as you look around say your kitchen, a Hallowe’en pumpkin seems like it is going to explode, its ridges deepening and darkening. Your windows appear to be viscous. The yellow washing-up liquid shines and vibrates.
— It’s made the world all weird?
— Well it’s made it new. Just for a while.
— I see.
— So it’s a marvellous book.
— Lovely paper by the way. Top quality.
— Yeah.
— And sitting nice on the page.
— Yes. Well, that’s it. That’s what I had to show you. That’s it. I said I wouldn’t keep you too long.