Monday, August 4, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“ASTONISHED DICE – Collected Short Stories” by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

            The sun was as hard as a loaded dice or a difficult passage from Proust once he’d left Lambton Quay behind him and got to Courtenay Place. Funny how not many people were around, even at this time of day. He steadied himself, raised the too-light bottle one more time and sipped. Not much left in it now. Sweet sherry for breakfast was getting to be a habit, and what are habits but compulsions dressed as graces?
Maybe it was the sugar. He’d read the story “Blue Lady” where the guy said he drank sweet sherry because he needed the sugar hit.
He sipped again and it was empty and he threw it away. The soggy brown paper bag that encased it didn’t stop it from clanking when it reached the gutter. No cops around. No guardians of public morality. Just one sour look from a passing typist swinging her curiously 70s-looking skirt. Was he going to have another of his flashbacks to the ‘70s? Did they still even have typists now? 
It was alright. There was nobody here to tell him off. It wasn’t like serving mass for Father Ignatius up at the Redemptorist monastery when he was a teenage altar boy. It wasn’t like when he had to go to confession or when he rushed up there once, pissed, asking to be married. He’d left all that religion stuff behind him, but he still thought about it a lot. He was religiously irreligious. And who could sanctify bums and street people and winos if not a mystic? As a rationalist, he could nurture his soul without feeling embarrassed about it. Or not too embarrassed.
            He slumped down on a bench, and fumbled in his pocket for a fag. The packet was now nearly as empty as the discarded bottle. Maybe he could get some from Mavis next time he visited her flat and tripped over the piles of Mills and Boon she propped against the kitchen door to keep it closed.
“Watch out for the crocodiles”, Mavis had said last time he was there.
He knew what she meant. She didn’t. That last lot of smack she scored wasn’t the best quality. The dealer had a funny sideways grin when she made her payment and he knew what she’d had to pay for her payment. Sailors. Overgrown schoolboys. Pushy businessmen when they were half out of it. And that track of needle pricks up her arm. He couldn’t help loving the woman whenever he bumped into her.
It had been raining last time he was there. They slept on her floor mattress. An SIS man had burst through her flyscreen and said he was going to take them for interrogation. God, he knew the feeling. The threat of thumbscrews. Would the powers ever force out of him everything he knew?
He felt interrogated now.
He had to write this review of Geoff Cochrane’s collected stories Astonished Dice. The loaded dice of the sun was now burning his brain.
He said “I will be true to my code”.
He said “My code is, you respect writers who can write, even if you don’t see life the way they do. You look for the craft. You try to see what it offers readers. You try to keep your judgments and gut reactions for the last paragraph.”
Gut reactions.
Sweet sherry and that second fag and too early for the chug-a-lug of the pubs. His gut felt like a halcyon whirlwind, a still tornado. What was that? Litotes? Euphuism? There had to be a chance to put some poncy literary words into his report before he got to the detox part. They liked that. And the detox part. It left him dried out. It left him washed out. It left him feeling the essential nothingness of things. Like that movie Round Midnight where the jazzman says everything’s inside the universe but what’s the universe inside? And you know the universe is nothing or there are universes inside universes or it’s all inside God. Or something.
If only he could focus.
He braced himself. Okay, what did this book offer readers? The re-publication of two little collections called Brindle Embers and White Nights that had got the small-circulation treatment first time and were now getting the VIP VUP treatment. And bracketing them new stories. The one at the end was surprising from this author. It was called “Quest Clinic” and it was nearly fifty pages long and was broken into chapters. This was unexpected from a writer who dealt with miniatures.
Ah, there it was.
He began reading this book expecting stories, because it said “collected stories” on the cover. But most of them (2 or 3 or 4 pages long) were not stories. They were vignettes. Or scenes. Or maybe prose poems. Yes, that would do for a review. Call them prose poems. Or maybe they were like the beginnings of stories that never got completed. The one called “Coffee” for example. It has a police chief beginning to interrogate a tourist (more spy fantasies) and then it just ends and you’re left thinking “Is this some extreme form of join-the-dots irony where we’re supposed to infer how the rest of the story goes? Or is it just an unfinished story? Or doesn’t Geoff Cochrane really do stories?”
He struggled to keep his head clear. He knew this writer was no unlettered bum. He could do stories about F. Scott Fitzgerald and drink (“Burning”) and he could do stories that seemed to take the piss out of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria (“Alex”) and he could do an in-joke about literary lunches (“Takes”) and then there were the ones that seemed to have a nodding acquaintance with the film industry. Or were they just dreams of being part of the film industry? Like that one written like a cod film-script, called “Human Voices”. Was the ghost of William S. Burroughs in these stories as much as the ghost of Barney Flanagan?
He had to be fair. Fairness was in his DNA. That explained why he could never be an extremist. So he did admit that he laughed out loud at the story “Hospital” with its quirky contrasts of social classes. And he went all po-faced and solemn when Geoff Cochrane shifted into autobiographical mode and did first-person ones on his pain and toxification like “Boiler House” and “Full Clearance”. And oh the ache of absence when he goes all ironical on his Catholic background and calls the result “Wonders”. The one called “Sacraments” was somewhere in the same Basin Reserve of mind.
But was it wrong to read these prose poems all one after the other? Maybe they should have been left to percolate in his brain longer. And individually. Sometimes the sameness of them got to him. The ones beginning like photographic realism (grainy black-and-white, slow shutter speed for preference to get that blurry-but-gritty look) and then becoming surreal fantasies like something spurted forth by a shredded mind. He found himself writing “blah blah blah” after reading yet another story of this sort.
He got up. The book was troubling him. Courtenay Place was filling up. The morning was getting on. He had an undirected hunger. Or thirst. Not like the straightforward hunger of the woman for a screw in the story “Programmed Maintenance”. Not like the other characters who want quick sex and are usually unfulfilled in their desire. Something was nagging at him.
He turned towards the waterfront. What did you call that feeling in his gut, now? Biliousness?
Concentrate. Concentrate. He was supposed to be thinking about the book.
Geoff Cochrane. His imagery was vivid. You did remember it. You had to give that to the guy. But he often put together incompatible things in his 2 or 3 or 4 pages of prose poem and you had the feeling that this juxtaposition was supposed to be very meaningful but it was damned hard to see what the meaningfulness consisted of.
Or was it nor meaningful at all?
He had this recurring image of a garrulous drunk he once knew who would drone on and on. Once, when thoroughly plastered, the drunk began to talk about the importance of ants as he kept turning his hand over and over watching this ant scuttling along it and back again as the drunk kept blocking its routes of escape. But when sober the drunk had no interest whatsoever in ants and never talked about them again.
Was that it? Were Geoff Cochrane’s juxtaposed images things that seemed meaningful and connected at the time of writing, but not otherwise?
At the waterfront the waves heaved. He moved slowly towards the part near the maritime museum. There really was one thing he found he found hard to accept. It was the way some of the stories finished in the middle of

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