Monday, 22 September 2014

At the Mouth of the River of Bees

(September 2014)

In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.

In one of the few out-and-out negative write-ups I’ve done on this blog, I got all hot and bothered about (amongst many, many other things) the author’s claim that English users try to make their communication as context-free as possible. Which is demonstrable bollocks; it’s like the guy has never heard of a deictic (though now I type it out that doesn’t seem quite so implausible). English is as context (in)dependent as any other language you care to mention, which is to say that, as ever, context is vital.

I’m reminded of this because, frankly, I’m having a bit of a hard time writing about At the Mouth of the River of Bees. Not because it’s a bad book, far from it, but because it’s a book of short stories and reading it so soon after a collection that had such a strong unifying theme makes the apparent lack of one here all the more apparent, so to speak. More significantly, it’s one of those books whose main selling point is its use of language; some passages are just achingly beautiful:

Linna watches the bees. The sun rises, a cherry ovoid blur that shrinks and resolves as it pulls away from the horizon. Pink-gold light fills the hollow. The river quickens and grows.

See? This is what always happens. Whenever I read a book with gorgeous language and try to excerpt a bit in the subsequent blogpost – because I think there’s no point using my words to do what someone else already has far more successfully – it always ends up looking a bit flat. I find myself reading it later thinking, “Really, was that the best extract I could find?”

Truth be told, it often isn’t. Usually, it’s the best bit I could find on a quick flick through, the best I could find without basically rereading the entire book. But when I type them out I always feel like they’re something special. That quote up there genuinely had me mesmerized when I read it the first time but here I know it’s going to come across as slightly lifeless. See also quotes in posts like this and this; they’re nice n’ all, but really don’t seem to merit all the praise that I’ve gone and gushed all over them.

The obvious answer to this is that the context of this blog is very different from that of the original book, and the effect of this type of language is definitely cumulative. It’s not just that you lack all the scaffolding and build-up present in the original context, but you’ve also got to deal with the jarring effect of the shift in tone from my slightly [insert your adjective of choice here] prose to whatever it is I’m praising, which almost by definition (sadly) will be very different. It’s also exacerbated in a collection like this, which spans a quarter of a century of one author’s writing. I’d love to say that there’s some clear underlying theme along the lines of loss or love of dislocation (all three of which are here to greater than average degrees, to be sure), but the truth is I’m not really sure there are any as neatly present as that. Even if there were, you get so swept up in the language that everything else seems somehow secondary.

So as regarding the stories, let’s just take it as read that they’re all astonishing, shall we? The only exception I’d suggest would be The Cat who Walked a Thousand Miles, a relatively dull feline travel log through feudal Japan. More pertinently perhaps, I don’t think anthropomorphisized cats as protagonists is a narrative device I’ll ever be able to get on board with; there’s a bookmark stuck about a third of the way through my copy of Soseki Natsume’s magnum opus and it hasn’t moved forwards for years now. In a way this works as a very interesting contrast with the final story – The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change – which sees dogs literally getting their own voices. It works very well as a counterpoint to the tedious ‘speaking cats’ type story in that, as a nifty little allegory for race relations in America, these dogs speak with what seem to be genuinely ‘canine’ voices. I know that on the face of it that’s a ridiculous claim to make, but there’s a certain unfathomable depth to their talk that gives it a believability and weight beyond ‘I want to fuck that tabby, that was a tasty mouse.’

There are seventeen stories in this collection in all, so in the interests of keeping this post under 1000 words, lets just pick out a few of my favourites. The opening 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss is just as unsettling and disconcerting as you’d expect from the title, and the title story of the collection is by turns beautiful, sad, and just simply stunning. The gloriously titled My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitare – Exposition on the Flaws in My Wife’s Character – The Nature of the Bird – The Possible Causes – Her Final Disposition is a bit slight compared to other stuff here but stands as a witty and somehow poignant tale about a petty and ignorant cuckold. Top billing perhaps has to go jointly to Story Kit, which is an agonizingly metatextual howl concerning the break-up of a marriage and the timelessness of betrayal, and Ponies; quite simply one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read. I believe that a lot of these stories are still floating around the internet, available to you at no cost whatsoever. I would humbly suggest that are many worse with things you could do with your time than tracking them down, and few better. Buying this book may be one.


  1. Have you read the bacon remix of the story you opened the review with? Probably worth a look if not.
    I will eventually read this and all the other short story collections I am missing out on.

    1. The what? Is that by someone called Bacon, or two people endlessly fucking in and around bacon? Not sure which is less appealing, but will look it up nonetheless.

      Lots of short story collections recently. Deadlines and life in general mean I just haven't had the concentration for anything much longer than a few dozen pages, but things seem to be looking up on that score at least.

    2. The author herself remixed it to be about consuming bacon. It's pretty funny, and almost as gross as the original.

      Good to hear life is calming down.

    3. “Pork,” she says. “Trotters. Ham hocks.”

      Thank you. I think.