Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Life of Polycrates

I wasn't going to review this book.  I've reviewed all five previous releases from Chomu Press, but after finishing The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children I wasn't sure I had anything to say about it.  (I can already hear the cries of "That never stopped you before!")  Now, though, I find myself wanting to write a review whether I manage to say something or not.  So here goes.

Anyone who has studied the ancient world in an English-speaking classroom will be familiar with the style adopted by historians like Herodotus and their modern translators, with its slightly formal word choices, its long sentences, and its frequent parenthetical digressions.  That style forms the jumping off point for "The Life of Polycrates," the title novella of Brendan Connell's new collection.  That title itself has a footnote, which leads the reader down to a dramatis personae with descriptions like "his Brother, a Luxuriant" and "a Flatterer," and sprinkled throughout you'll find lacunae and scriptural references.  But that's only the beginning of the quirkiness on display in this ambitious novella, which supplements traditional history and anthropology with such delightful asides as a letter from a prospective court jester, a list of the contents of a dressing case, and "conjectural conceptions" that reveal the hidden thoughts behind these epic Greek lives.  The prose is never drily historical, and often finds a pleasing poetry of simple images:
On leisure days he would sit in his garden, under the shade of the amamaxudes, or else wander along the paths, sniff at the flowers and sample prime pieces of fruit from his orchard.  There were roses that were half white and half red and vines which carried both white and black grapes together, grapes that were not fit for wine, but for eating were deliciously sweet.  He had a mulberry tree which was grafted to a chestnut tree, a chestnut tree grafted to a hazelnut tree, and a pomegranate grafted to an oak.  He grew cadmium-yellow lemons which smelled of cinnamon, melons odiferous as peach blossoms, and artichokes which breathed the aroma of hyacinth, were without sharp prickles and tasted not unlike sweet plums.
While I had fun reading "The Life of Polycrates," I didn't know what the point of it was (beyond, of course, the hope that people would have fun reading it).  I'm still not exactly sure, but having read the rest of the stories in the collection, I could probably hazard a guess.  If this collection is anything to go by, Connell's fiction deals with eccentric passion in all its forms.  Whether the protagonist is an ancient Greek tyrant, a medieval pope, or an ordinary contemporary man, he or she is sure to manifest some bizarre behavior in aid of an equally bizarre desire.  The language of the other stories is more modern and experimental than that of "The Life of Polycrates," but the unique vision of the world remains the same.

Perhaps my favorite of these shorter works is "The Dancing Billionaire," which contrasts the search for purpose of a child of wealth with his aunt's unexpressed, disturbingly ambiguous devotion to him.  As in all his stories, Connell's voice varies to fit the needs of the moment, but this passage will do as well as any to demonstrate what he's capable of.
Next tableau:
The curtains glide open.
He appears, cane in hand, in black coat and tails, bow tie, top hat, tipped negligently to one side, and spats.
The orchestra bursts forth, coolly, his mouth drops open, utters words of song, strangely pathetic, ridiculously melancholy.

guests twist
that embarrassed sweat
glistening brows of red madness

Stepping out with my baby...

The cane toyed with, an extension of the procreative
obsession, violins
waves of colorful insects.

smooth sailing 'cause I'm trimming my sails...
 I generally prefer a more direct, undramatic style, but Connell generally handles this well enough that I have no complaints.  From time to time there's an abstract sentence that doesn't flow right, feels too much like an unconnected block of nouns and adjectives, but that's rare enough to be written off as an occupational hazard.  And I'd say that the disturbed yet all-too-human personalities of Connell's stories-- cross-dressing big game hunter, motorcycle daredevil with a gambling-addicted wife-- demand such an approach.  In fact, one of the stories I didn't think quite worked, "The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes," is a perfectly adequate piece of suggestive fantasy, but pale and underdeveloped compared to the rest of the book.  To resemble human beings rather than ironic caricatures, Connell's characters also need a degree of human specificity, and again, most of the stories provide that, generating sympathy as well as shock.  A couple, though, most particularly "The Slug," lack that level of detail, and as a consequence read more like exercises in describing degradation than like full-fledged stories.  Even these lesser works, though, offer a distinctive voice whose equal you're unlikely to find in contemporary fiction.  The Life of Polycrates, like other Chomu Press books, is most certainly not for everyone, but if you enjoy weird and experimental literature, you'll very likely find it worth your time.

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