Have Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and Ghalib Islam’s debut novel met?
Were they caught up together in an air-raid shelter, sharing the same transistor radio while the sirens howled?
“Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for him to tell the story. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what century it was, maybe he just didn’t like the way the story was headed and it screamed and laughed and spoke in tongues when he tried to turn it around. We’ll never know how it ends,” she writes.
Oyeyemi’s words seem to speak of Fire in the Unnameable Country.
She seems to know its concatenation of voices, its pleated timeline, the manic bursts of exposition which fuel the narrative.
Islam’s words twist on the reader’s tongue.
An ownbulleted death. A gestation in wombwater. Some people are eyeshut.
Even the language seethes in this novel.
“She passes the cracked mirror alleyways broken homes walls floors and edifices.”
Strings of nouns, verbs, existing words, invented words: it seems as chaotic as the novel’s opening scene.
But the prose is not all “adda, nada, yada yada” as the narrator’s mother suggests of his father’s talk during the days he spends at the cigarette shop.
For instance, this talk of mirrors: it’s vitally important to the novel.
“He talks of a place where mirrors chokes streets and of an unnameable resistance exploding reflective labyrinth walls in that place.”
But what kind of reflection and refraction? Is it on a film camera, designed to augment the thoughtreels? Is it in the reader’s mind, designed to counter the belief that “a whole nation could fall into incurable sleep”?
The mirrors are one means of “dividing and subdividing hallucination” and in Ghalib Islam’s country they can reorder and revision.
They can rename and unname. So that “the gift of the future – and its arrogance – is the ability to cull the past and call it anything it likes”.
The perspective alters and transforms, the process complicated by shifting chronologies.
But this is not a trick. It is deliberate.
Ghalib Islam is aware that readers will flail in orienting themselves, in disorienting themselves.
“Son to father isn’t the usual journey in a family history, but the unnameable country necessitates gangster leaps backward.”
And he knows this will not be a gentle process, but a threatening, menacing gangster-styled leap.
At times, readers might question whether this is truly a leap from one spot to another. Perhaps it is “a labyrinth of endless identical rooms”, senseless and excessive talk better suited to the cigarette shop.
But there is no question of authorial control here. “But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, too far ahead,” he declares.
It’s like a game of hopscotch: playful, yes. But directed, numbered.
There is a progression. But one-footed and balance ever-shifting.
And while the body is working to remain upright, there is turmoil blazing. The thoughtreels are aflame.
“There occurred two functions of the mind simultaneously, he noticed: one directly concerned with the world at large and the other internal and secret, doing the work of poetry.”
But storytelling, too, has more than one function simultaneously, and storytellers might disagree.
Some might think this leaping and hopscotching into the past is valuable, whereas others might question this “thinking all the time about parentsandyourbloodypast”.
Some might anticipate landing in a square of plot whereas others might yearn to play “a hopscotch of dactyls troches, lub-lubbing iambic on certain occasions like a heart”.
A single storyteller might contain more than one voice; a first-person voice might slip into a third-person voice.
One man might become two and a person might transform into another kind of creature (there are many reflections and glimpses of canonical literature in this work).
Readers might become “incapable of understanding the differences between their moving bodies and their reflections”.
Readers, like characters, might turn “mad from looking at themselves all inverted reduced enlarged reflected”.
“It was around the time the unnameable country’s debts could no longer be accommodated by the Soviets, and against the Kremlin’s severest warnings, the President felt forced to meet with a team from the International Monetary Fund that had been hounding him for years like leprechauns that would turn up in the maid’s sweepings from under the armoire, would appear out of banishment unannounced at his door with please accept this gift a block of hay and a bag of oats for the first lady Dulcinea, or would whisper pss pss suggestions from the corner of his skull even during meetings and sheepishly adjust their ties when he thundered how in the world did you manage until, finally, when their buzzbuzzing became impossible to avoid and the country’s fiscal situation turned utterly unmanageable, he agreed, okay let’s break bread together at the same table and draw up a Hollywood structural adjustment policy of metamorphosing La Maga into a vast film set, thereby inviting all the vultures of the world.”
Characters rise above. Maybe awhirl in the maid’s sweepings, or on a flying carpet, or in a dirigible. Maybe by bootlace. And maybe it doesn’t matter, because “the floor of the earth is sky when underground”.
Characters take a step. Perhaps onto a raised platform, or it could be a stage. But perhaps it is a gallows. And characters are shackled. Maybe by chains. Or maybe by restlessness.
Readers travel with them, restless and breathless, whether through cracked-mirror alleyways or along a dolly track.
But perhaps it is a rail line. An internal rail line. Arranged like a hopscotch board. Designed to awaken the eyeshut.
And perhaps it ends, like Ghalib Islam’s novel, without a stop
Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati (2008)
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night Traveller Trans. William Weaver (1979)
Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms (2013)