Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Ken Nash: The Brain Harvest

Already compared with a range of striking authors (Saunders, Barthelme, July), Ken Nash’s debut collection of short stories The Brain Harvest (2012) has another couple of forebears I’d like to add to the list. From the opening story ‘Baskets’ (allegedly about basket weaving), sections of The Brain Harvest are clearly the equal of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. And like the critic of Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, certain readers are sure to say:

“Ambiguities indeed! One long brain-muddling, soulbewildering ambiguity (to borrow Mr. Melville's style), like Melchisedeck without beginning or end - a labyrinth without a clue - an Irish bog without so much as a Jack o' th'-lantern to guide the wanderer's footsteps - the dream of a distempered stomach, disordered by a hasty supper on half-cooked pork chops."

But it is Nathaniel West, that short-lived and unpopular master of the American absurd, who comes most strongly to my mind when I read Ken Nash’s surreal and unsettling short fictions. For those who don’t know him, West is most famous for Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of The Locust (1939), but the first thing he published was The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931).  [Coincidentally, the typeface used for The Brain Harvest’s titles is also called Snell (after the roundhand of George D. Snell, Nobel Laureate and mouse geneticist). But I digress...] West’s debut The Dream Life... was a 95 page absurdity of a young man’s adventures in the bowels of the Trojan Horse, a nihilistic, scatalogical “protest against writing books”. As you might expect from a writer who protested against writing books, all of West’s work is under 300 pages. Though he’s described as a novelist, West’s work is an extremely curt example of the novel. Call it nihilism, cynicism, absurdism, or whateverism you wish; West clearly had a deep suspicion both of the fictions of life, and of long, comfortable reads. 

There’s something radical about extremely short fiction. There’s no chance to settle into the story or the rhythm of the narrative, to slip into it (as Marshall McLuhan said of newspapers) like a warm bath. As soon as you’ve caught up, it’s gone. The shortest fictions – and we can include Ken Nash’s stories in this – function like a joke. It’s compressed to its absolute minimum form, impossible to gloss or explicate. It does things to you physically, pulls half-voiced inadvertent sounds from your body, little snorts. And when it ends, but refuses to close, it leaves you in a sort of breathless shock, waiting to see what will happen. You turn it over again in your hands, like a wooden puzzle. You can figure out how it comes apart and fits back together, but still can’t seem to fit it in your mind. Raymond Carver has that touch, taken up from Hemmingway. A breed of minimalism, every casual-seeming word deftly placed, interlocking, to make something fascinating, startling. 

And they are short, these pieces of The Brain Harvest; many are no more than a couple of hundred words. (Thirty-two in 163 pages, in fact.) We’re not really in the realm of the short story here, but instead that of the anecdote, or perhaps the prose poem. These works are short, precise, and very, very puzzling. Their narrators are in the grip of terrifying and bizarre events, unmoored from stable meaning, which have become utterly workaday; Ionesco’s rhinoceroses have settled down, started businesses, and had children. (Look out for children and parents; filial responsibility comes up a lot.)

The best debut collections of short stories (Joyce’s Dubliners for example, or Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) function both as individual pieces and as a whole. Like an arch, perhaps, with the careful shaping and positioning of individual stones allowing a defiance of gravity. I had this feeling, reading The Brain Harvest. I felt a rising at the beginning and a stepping down at the end. And those anchors – ‘Baskets’, ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘The Day I Met My Parents’ at the beginning, and ‘Event Horizon’, ‘The Reagan Years’ and ‘The Great Simanoa’ at the end – help hold a challenging, even daring structure in place. 

To some extent, all literature is proposal. We are asked to accept provisionally something fictional so that we can be introduced to something real. Unless we experience a sudden flash of insight (that ‘short story epiphany’), being led through the maze takes time. And as far as I can see, a good rule of thumb is: ‘the shorter the piece, the more time you need to give each word.’ With a collection of such short pieces, careening through such strange waters, there are huge demands on the reader. Unwarned, we flick unrelentingly from image to image, scene to grotesque scene. For the hidebound, it’s easy to dismiss this as a weakness in the writing, an inability to sustain, to mete out the meaning, to measure the prose. Fragments. Channel-hopping. Whether these offer the depth of a monolithic experience is precisely the point. How do we read fiction? How do we read our experiences? Do we expect a short story of a certain length, tidied up at the end with a nice Romantic epiphany?

“The universe continued its expansion. Dark energy rushed in to fill the void. This, he saw, was the true encounter, the one everything led up to. He could not resist its draw. Nor the promise it held of something great, life transforming, just beyond the periphery of this event.” (Event Horizon)

Do we relegate fantasy to the naïve and unfashionable, possibly in need of psychiatric help, certainly spoiling our “gruff Chicago realism”?

“    ‘He told me that appearances are reality and we shouldn’t be fooled by those who say reality is something that runs underneath, something that needs excavating and interpretation.’
    ‘Wilde said that?’
    ‘Yes. That’s what I just told you. You’re not a good listener any more, Frank. I have to keep repeating things to you.’” (Shelly’s Cafe)

Are we good listeners? Does Ken have to keep repeating things to us? Setting aside for a moment my slew of rhetorical questions, there is a certain investment of time needed to solve a puzzle. With poetry comes huge pressure on each word and the relationships between them, similarly with the prose poem. (Oscar Wilde was a master of these. But his brief appearance in Shelly’s cafe is, of course, unbelievable, unreliable, to be dismissed.)  For many, the troubling thing about poetry is that one reading is not enough. Thinking needs to be done somehow outside of reading. Resolution, or (since we’re in America with The Brain Harvest) ‘closure’, comes only with work. Novels gently lead us by the hand, or sometimes by the nose. Such short pieces rely on the reader to do the walking. 

For many years, Ken Nash ran a reading and performance series in Prague called Alchemy. (It still exists, recently passed on to other hands.) Alchemy uses an open mic format; people get up on stage and read for five to seven minutes. There are clear constraints to this. Long work is impossible. Performers, especially regular performers, adapt to the format, creating the literary equivalent of the pop song. Knowing this, the strengths and weaknesses of The Brain Harvest’s style make more sense. The storys are mainly in the first person, “autobiographical narratives and other fictions”, as we are warned on the cover. This is not so unusual, of course. But when you imagine the stories read aloud to you, sometimes with the author’s name casually throw in, when you realise that these are performance pieces, dramatic monologues, written to the strictures of the five minute open mic set, they take on a wholly different aspect.

These pieces are not short because the author cannot sustain length, but because he was writing for a specific setting. A setting, moreover, where confessional autobiographical narratives are the norm (as seems to be ever the case with poetry open mic nights). Knowing the exact genre, the level of mastery becomes more evident. For me, this is crucial information for the reader, sadly missing from the first edition. (Though the edition is beautiful, as you might expect from an artist, with gorgeous cover design, paper stock and typefaces.) Knowing this, as I say, we read differently, listen differently. Listening, actually, would be a good accompaniment to this collection. Perhaps Mr. Nash can be persuaded to read them aloud, put them on iTunes to purchase, bundle the recordings in with the price of the paperback. 

I’m studying literature again, now that I’m teaching it. (Not that I really stopped, of course. The habit of close reading, once laboriously acquired, is something you can never quite escape.) Perhaps we’re not quite done with The Brain Harvest, here on Prague Art Review. This might be one of those puzzles I can’t quite put down.

Ken Nash's The Brain Harvest is out now, published by Equus Press. Order your copy here


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