Saturday, May 14, 2011

Link Arms With Toads!

Literary whimsy, like literary nonsense, demands a harsh edge, a counterbalance to its playfulness that prevents it from becoming irredeemably precious: a dark lining for the silver cloud.  Nonsense is likely to be macabre, as in the death jokes of Lewis Carroll or the dreadful fates of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies.  Whimsy, on the other hand, can be subtler and more subdued in its flashes of shadow.  Such is the case with Rhys Hughes' Link Arms With Toads! a career-spanning collection that is, in the author's view, the best single introduction to his work.  If it is indeed representative of the quality of his other fiction, Hughes is not only remarkably prolific but also a writer of unconfined imagination with a gift for wordplay and a sharp, wry sense of humor.

The stories in Link Arms With Toads! could be classified in any number of genres and subgenres: fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, the weird, the satirical, tragical-pastoral-historical-comical-- but you get the point.  Within its first fifty pages, the collection presents its reader with a wandering group of seductive music instructors ("The Troubadors of Perception"), a note-perfect parody of M.R. James that also takes in parallel universes ("Number 13 1/2"), a world in which the mystery of under-patronized Indian restaurants has evolved into a space program and a religious experience ("The Taste of the Moon"), and a contemporary-Gothic Birmingham with an unorthodox plan for winning an unorthdox contest ("Lunarhampton").  It should be obvious that a representative selection of Hughes' style is impossible, but here's a paragraph anyway.
He shook a finger.  "Oh no, Ms Sting!  You won't pull that particular shade of wool over my eyes."  In a more conciliatory tone, he added:  "The car is a minor issue.  We all make sacrifices, we all have fears.  My dear mother was startled by a monkey.  She was pregnant and the shock affected her womb.  The world is an absurd place."
Indeed.  And Hughes is the perfect chronicler of that absurdity, not simply because of his gift for whimsy, but because that gift is accompanied by a feeling for the symbolic value of the strange.  No cheap moralizer or allegorist, he nonetheless imbues his tales with awareness of the human yearning for companionship, purpose, clarity, and fulfillment.  "The Expanding Woman," which like quite a few of these remarkable tales is previously unpublished, involves a battle between Klingon and Esperanto, an enormous cracked orbital mirror, and (surprise, surprise) an expanding woman, but it's also a melancholy meditation on the (dis)contents of futurism.  Make no mistake: Link Arms With Toads! is hilarious reading, and can, if one so wishes, be taken simply as an entertainment.  But it's also rewarding for those with higher expectations.

To do the book justice, a reviewer ought to describe and discuss each story, for this is hardly one of those collections in which every tale is like the others.  But my limited store of superlative adjectives is already sorely depleted.  How would I praise the ingenious plotting of the Poe-inspired "Pity the Pendulum," the parable-like irony of "333 and a Third" and "Discrepancy," the sheer bizarrerie of "Hell Toupee"?  I suppose preterition will have to do.  Rhys Hughes is a singular talent, and the fact that this and many of his other collections have been released by small presses should not be taken as a sign to the contrary.  Like his wandering troubadours, he has talent, and ambition, on a greater scale:
While we argue, debate, cajole, the waiter serves us all supper.  We need to fortify ourselves for the tribulations ahead.  But we must not be defiled.  We are minstrels, the lyric poets of the garden cities.  Music alone is the reason for our being, we require no other sustenance.  In this particular cafe our needs are understood.  Do not fret.  We shall rebuild Carcassonne, we shall.  Solemnly, in the sinister light that emanates from the charcoal ovens, we dine on manuscript stew and violin steaks and pick splinters from between our broken teeth.

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