Tuesday, May 24, 2011

All God's Angels, Beware!

"The Judaeo-Christian creation myth makes the universe sound like the quaint hobby of a kindly landowner pottering about in his conservatory."
"Any freak exiled from sex knows that they have been apportioned tragedy whilst being robbed of dignity."
Both these quotes come from "Suicide Watch," the novelette that closes out Quentin S. Crisp's 2009 collection All God's Angels, Beware!  But do they belong at the head of a review?  Is there any reason to have pulled them out of context, except that the reviewer found them striking enough to post on Twitter?  For the first, probably not, although it may have some value as a barometer; if the sentiment offends you, you should probably not read this book, or anything else Crisp has written or will ever write.  The second is perhaps more relevant, as some degree of sexual dysfunction or abnormality features in several of these stories.  But it's hardly a dominant element, and doesn't deserve consideration above other motifs just as prominent.  So there's no reason for those quotes to have pride of place, except that I want them there.  And that, as the narrator of "Suicide Watch" might suggest, is worth more than any convention that might suggest I cut this entire self-indulgent first paragraph.

I've already reviewed Crisp's earlier collection, Morbid Tales, in glowing terms, and that review itself referred to my praise for Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!"  So this time around I shall keep the superlatives to a minimum, and try simply to describe each of the stories in All God's Angels, Beware! as best I can.  The first, "Troubled Joe," features the ghost of a suicide, who has discovered that life as a spirit is as solitary and purposeless as earthly existence.  Like many of Crisp's protagonists, he is sensitive yet bitter, longing for affection but sure he doesn't deserve it and ready to reject anyone who might offer any.  It is difficult to write sympathetically and intelligently about such individuals, but Crisp always does so, and there is a subdued poetry to the ghost's wanderings and his attempts to tell his story to the indifferent living.

"The Were-Sheep of Abercrave" is, as its title might suggest, something of an ironic twist on the weird tale, in which a quirky loner gets his revenge on the small town that rejected him.  Crisp manages to puncture the portentous tone of a certain kind of fiction without abandoning the disturbing atmosphere its best examples create.  That same atmosphere is stronger still in the novella "Ynys-y-Plag," about which there is nothing parodic: it's simply a terrifying story of an isolated Welsh town and the presence that haunts its woods at twilight.  At 74 pages this is the longest story in the collection, and Crisp uses that length to build a dense, many-stranded narrative that unfolds its secrets slowly.  This is horror in the classically visionary mode of Machen or Blackwood, but with an undercurrent of contemporary psychology that an inattentive reader could easily miss.  Sorry, but I feel a superlative coming on: "Ynys-y-Plag" is chilling, and will surely join works like T.E.D. Klein's "Children of the Kingdom" and Michael Shea's "The Autopsy" as a contemporary masterpiece of long weird fiction.

Nearly as long as "Ynys-y-Plag," the novella "Karakasa" is, to all appearances, much less tightly structured.  A dreamlike science fiction story of a future where immortality is fast becoming the norm, holographic objects have as much currency as real ones, and England has been swallowed by a plague of spontaneously self-constructing buildings, it approaches philosophical issues of identity, value, and authenticity from several angles.  The images are often absorbing, and this mostly makes up for the slightly rambling air generated by the plot structure and the narrator's voice.  "A Cup of Tea" is, in its own way, more plotless than "Karakasa," but it's a shorter story, and one in which Crisp's ability to capture the evocative atmosphere of a single moment is used to its greatest possible effect.  It is, not quite an epiphany, and to call it "grace" would be to invoke a wholly alien frame of reference, but an instant where the elements of ordinary life combine to suggest some elusive, greater thing.  The glimpses of the protagonist's existence outside this instant add to a sensibility that is elegiac without being melancholy.

"Asking for It," on the other hand, captures a grim moment of human cruelty, the point at which remembered and current frustrations and slights become too much, and violent impulses bubble up as if from nowhere.  "The Fox Wedding," which immediately follows it, also deals directly with the sexual frustration of socially awkward men, but in a more fantastic way, turning ancient Japanese myth into potent, unpleasant modern symbolism.  "Mise En Abyme," on the other hand, is a thoroughly absurd story, though not without its own stylized sinisterness, as the aptly-named Venn rearranges his wallpaper pattern to discover the source of strange discontinuities in the universe.  Crisp's formal prose prevents all this from becoming intolerably whimsical.

"Italiannetto" achieves the remarkable distinction of being unlike anything else by Crisp I've yet read.  The story of a young boy on vacation, visited by and infatuated with a radiant young associate of his uncle-- but the associate is Annette Funicello, and the experience is being recalled during the young man's adulthood, during which he has become a successful artist.  This may sound distractingly quirky, but in fact it all plays out naturally, with an air of strangeness that is entirely appropriate to the way young boys experience the world.  Without being sloppily sentimental, the story captures the influence certain figures can have on a child's mind, whether those figures are friends of the family or world-famous celebrities.

And then there is "Suicide Watch," which looks at suicide as mark of overwhelming despair, as surrender to an inability to live in the world, as response to the coldness of an indifferent universe, and as something else altogether.  Beyond that, it's not a story that can easily be described, except as capturing, as so much of Crisp's fiction does, the texture of a life forever on the verge of embarrassment and never far from total collapse, and offering redemption of a bizarrely powerful kind.

Quentin S. Crisp is one of those writers whose voice is so strong that the essential features of his fiction remain constant whether the trappings are science fiction, horror, fantasy, or contemporary minimalist fiction.  It's not something that all readers will be able to bear.  His characters' awkwardness, suffering, self-pity will turn off those for whom such modes of existence are impossible to understand.  But for those who are epicures of the upsetting, the degraded, and the unexpectedly numinous, he is (superlative alert) among the finest of contemporary writers.


  1. Hi Brendan,
    I'm enjoying your reviews. Did you check out Crisp's contribution "Tzimtzum" in EO's Meyrink tribute (Cinnabar's Gnosis)? While I wasn't as taken with the story's "framing device," I thought the remainder of the story made it one of the strongest in the collection (along with Rasnic Tem's.)
    Just curious. I look forward to reading more of your posts,

  2. I haven't read Cinnabar's Gnosis yet; it's on my list of books to pick up, though. With contributors like Crisp, Rasnic Tem, Oliver, and Hughes, I doubt I'll be able to resist it for long. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Good luck! I see there's one on Ebay today for a slight discount. Other standouts are Weighell's and (of course) Valentine's stories, though I think Valentine's also appears in the Escritoire.