Sunday, September 7, 2008

Shimmery, refractory, disconnectedness (Books - The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio)

Sreenwriter the next story in Charles D'Ambrosio's volume of stories The Dead Fish Museum is a seriously bleak little tale.

How was I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private? My first suicidal ideations occured to me when I was ten, eleven, twelve, something like that...

With an opening like that... In this story, a bipolar screenwriter meets a depressed dancer who has a tendency to burn herself and, despite whatever the diagnostic manual says they are, they spend some time as human beings trying to reach each other. This story is beautiful for its humanity, people, even serious sick ones, are more than their diagnoses. This story is built on an idea, offered as an image:

"Here's my idea for your next screenplay," she said. "Sirens are going everywhere. People are weeping. It doesn't really matter where you are, it's all black. You can't open your eyes anyway."

"What are you saying?"

"And there's a donkey marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean. A volcano is erupting on the island and rivers of hot lava are flowing toward the donkey. In addition, all around the small island is a ring of fire. What would you do?"

I considered the possibilities. "I don't know."

Smiling, she said, "The donkey doesn't know, either."

The next time I think my life is bad, I think I'm going to remember that image. I found that this story had a couple of gorgeous images, and some fabulous writing, but was ultimately too desultory for my taste. Granted that may reflect the narrator's state of mind, but it didn't move of-a-piece to or from its notion. There were so many disconnected jumps and starts that I found my interest waning, only to be brought back by some incredible sentence like:
Everywhere I went, he went, creeping along a few sedate paces back in soft-soled shoes, a shadow that gave off a disturbing susurrus like the maddening sibilance settling dust must make to the ears of ants.

Holy cow: soft-soled, disturbing susurrus, sibilance, settling dust must, and then dust with must, and also sedate, shadow, disturbing, dust... Being inside that sentence with the noise of its sibilances, rhymes, and alliterations must be a little like being mad!

Here's another of those images, as incendiary as the other:

Her voice had no affect and its deadness sat me right back down on the bench. She turned away and flicked the wheel of the lighter, cupping the cigarette out of the wind. A paper plate rolled as if chased, around and around the patio, like a child's game without the child. A white moth fell like a flower petal from the sky, dropped through a link in the fence, and came to light on my hand. The cooling night wind raised gooseflesh on my arms, and a could of smoke ripped into the air. The girl's down was smoldering. A leading edge of orange flame was chewing up the hem. I rose from my seat to tell the ballerina she was on fire. The moth flew from my hand, a gust fanned the flames, there was a flash, and the girl ignited, lighting up like a paper lantern. She was cloaked in fire. The heat moved in waves across my face, and I had to squint against the brightness. The ballerina spread her arms and levitated, sur les pointes, leaving the patio as her legs, ass, and back emerged phoenix-like out of this paper chrysalis rising up until finally the gown sloughed from her shoulders and sailed away, a tattered black ghost ascending in a column of smoke and ash, and she lowered back down, naked and white, standing there, pretty much unfazed, in first position.

My god, what writing - even better the third time than it was the first and second. I guess that's the beauty with short stories. This particular story would not hang together as a novel, at least not one I would read. But I was happy to immerse myself in its shimmering, refractory disconnectedness for a half hour and have the kind of experience I would not be likely to have any other place but in this idiosyncratic and loving collection of stories.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have had this book on my bookmooch wishlist for months but haven't had a copy turn up, I think I'm going to just order it or see if the Lausanne library has a copy (slim chance) - the excerpts you've posted have convinced me. I love writing like this.