A book-length demonstration of propulsive prose.
This is the word that I wrote in capital letters, in the margins of my reading diary about Mark Anthony Jarman’s Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (2015), but then I wondered if I had subconsciously (deliberately, even!) lifted it from the cover.
It sounds like a word one might see in a blurb, doesn’t it? But, no. There, it is described as ‘incendiary’, ‘adroit’, ‘riotous’, ‘bittersweet’, and ‘rollicking’.
And, in such company ‘propulsive’ pales.
And, yet, I felt driven to read on.
Not turning pages in a ‘enjoying the ride, why step off’ kind of way.
But more out of fear that the constant motion would leave me dizzy if I tried to look away to make e a beeline for the exit.
This is appropriate, given the sense of dislocation which the central character feels through this collection of linked tales.
Consider this observation from “Pompeii Über Alles”:
“Memory seems random, the lobes of my brain seem to rule me, as if I am the sighing servant. Should it not be the other way around, shouldn’t I rule my own brain? Yet it doesn’t happen.”
Reader, like character, is dizzy with the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the strange intersection between desire and despair.
Even the moments of stillness/contentment/respite are troubled, as revealed in this passage from the final story, “Pompeii Book of the Dead”:
“Slightly dazed, I jump off the sweaty train at Pompeii and explore the raw ruins on foot and in the ruins I enter another tunnel, tunnel after tunnel, airports, trains, and now this underground forum. A dark passage leads at an angle into the earth and I follow this tunnel into the lower level of the forum complex, the Teatro, down into shade, hiding from the relentless sun for even a few rare moments.”
What makes the collection habitable, however, is the sense that the overarching desire is familiar, human, universal.
“I travel so large a world, but my favourite is the tiny world we create when two people are kind to each other.” [From “Hospital Island (Wild Thing)”]
Yet, regardless of whether the tenor of this collection is one which will appeal to readers, the prose is truly remarkable.
Not in a ‘showy, look what I can do’ kind of way.
More like ‘this is simply the way in which this tale exists to be told’.
This collection stood out amongst the others in my stack at that time — Alice Munro, Kathleen Winter, Julia Leggatt — but it wasn’t about the knife. I can think of at least two other knives in those other collections, without even glancing at the tables of contents. And, so, although a reader could certainly opt to read for excitement alone (there is a good deal of it in Knife Party at the Hotel Europa), it is the crafting which secured my interest.
The following passage was the first that I stopped to reread three times, and that was only a handful of pages into the work in “The Dark Brain of Prayer”.
“Write on my tombstone that I can’t make up my mind, write that I am murdered by night-riders, by mumblers and nitpickers, by fellow travelers and Roman gods, by cold staring statues, by Hermes, by Natasha chatting at a gas station. Write that, like everyone else, I am murdered by love, that I am nibbled to death by ducks, brought low by normal events.”
See what I mean?
It is propulsive, is it not?
And every interconnection, thematic link, motif, delicate echo of another story’s core: each only makes you want to read on, travel on, live on.
Contents: The Dark Brain of Prayer; Butterfly on a Mountain; Knife Party; Hospital Island (Wild Thing); The Petrified Florist; Pompeii Über Alles; Hallway Snowstorm; Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning; The Troubled English Bride; Party Barge; Exempt from the Fang (Aircraft Carrier); Pompeii Book of the Dead