Our distinguished fiction editor Sarah Reynolds gives her take on the latest release from celebrated surrealist Alan Bilton.
If art is a mirror held up to life, then Alan Bilton’s is a carnival mirror; crooked, distorted, at times hilarious, often sinister. ‘Anywhere out of the World’ is Bilton’s first collection of short stories and fans of his previous two novels will not be disappointed. His distinctive voice curls off the page, like the beckoning finger of a circus master, daring the reader to follow him into his strange alternative reality.
Bilton’s protagonists are well-intentioned bunglers, stumbling from disaster to catastrophe with fatalistic bonhomie. There are frequent cries of “Well what could I do?” and “What did I expect?”
Nick is one such character. He reappears throughout the collection, part hapless anti-hero and part stand-up comedian. “How much rain?” he asks us in ‘Lewelling’ – “Think of a bucket of water being poured over a feather bed. Now think of a swimming pool being emptied over the same bed. What’s that? What’s a bed doing out in the rain? Listen, forget the bed… in fact there is no bed, just rain.”
You can’t help but follow him, incredulous, as he posts a lost dog through a stranger’s window and ends up getting arrested – well what did he expect?
Walla Walla Washington reads like a classic anxiety dream; Professor Milton must deliver a paper in an unfamiliar university but he just can’t seem to get to where he needs to be. He finds himself lurching, half-blind and wounded through mist and murk, mysterious blobs and obscure shapes looming towards him. There is a hallucinatory intensity to the story that is reminiscent of ‘The Known and Unknown Sea’. We meet again the returning motif of the unseen beast – hairy and scary and barely a snuffle away. As always, Bilton diffuses the horror with comedy: “The thing had mass, bulk, weight; how would my wool mix protect me against that?”
Many of the stories are set in European cities and characters often speak with an odd or antiquated manner. Exclamations of Foo! Pff! Ho! and Tch! pepper the text, giving it a distinctly un-British flavour. It all adds to the sense of dislocation and temporal displacement, mixing the familiar and the strange – our own world but off-kilter.
Where many of the stories could be described as magic-realist, ‘Anywhere out of the World’ pushes past this boundary into the realms of the absurd. Urbino is a Parisian postman, burdened with the impossible task of delivering a letter to a house that doesn’t exist. His investigations lead him on a wild goose chase past a cast of crazy characters, rather like a train ride through a comic house of horrors. There are talking cauliflowers, Kafka-esque insects, and the dialogue is very funny: “O Madame, your pain aux raisins are so flaky – are you able to let me a room…”
An intensely visual writer, Bilton’s prose drips colour and light, tone and texture. The colour blue seeps through many of the stories; a signifier of the other world just beyond the one we know. Rather like paint dribbling down from one canvas onto the next, certain motifs and phrases reappear throughout the collection, creating links between the stories, smearing the edges between worlds.
‘Night School’ has a fairy tale quality – the story of a little girl whose shadow takes on an identity of its own, separating itself from the sleeping child to lead a secret, nocturnal life and sapping the living child of her life force. In her attempt to rescue the child, the mother falls victim to the same malady and is literally consumed by her own darkness. One of the few stories in the collection that is more tragic than comic, it packs a powerful punch as a metaphor for depression.
In ‘The Honeymoon Suite’ Adam and Zdenka’s marriage begins with such promise but as their wedding night draws on, a series of seemingly insignificant events sends them spiralling away from one another, down the labyrinthine corridors of their hotel. In the tragi-comic farce that ensues, the couple become separated in time, lost and alone. But this is a story with two endings and it is for the reader to decide which is true. Perhaps they are happily reunited, or perhaps they remain lost in the folds of time, separated from one another forever. Obscured beneath a barrage of witty quips and slapstick routines, there is an underlying pathos to many of Bilton’s stories; they deal with loneliness and sadness, a feeling of powerlessness.
The horror of aging is a recurring theme. In ‘Two white, One Blue,’ the befuddled Nussbaum struggles to find his lost pills and hat, and in the pursuit of these, he seems at last to lose the plot of his own life. “And to face it alone,” he cries, “hatless, pill-less without medication of any kind…” As always with Bilton’s stories, comedy and tragedy are flipped interchangeably – two sides of the same coin.
There are echoes of Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ in ‘The Pool at Weine Street’. The aged protagonist finds himself stumbling along a dual carriageway, semi-naked and barefoot, traffic horns blaring at him as he attempts to find his way home. A melancholy reflection on mortality, the story leads our hero into the deep end. “Ah, Miss what happened to the two of us?” he asks, “How did it go by so fast?”
In ‘Venice in Blue’, Urbino – the Postman from ‘Anywhere out of the World’ – is reincarnated as a bug exterminator. In this version of reality, he is sent to eradicate a flea infestation – fleas hop between all of the stories. Just as in his previous life, Urbino stumbles across a mysterious painting by the elusive artist, Ferrant. These strange blue paintings offer an escape from reality, allowing Bilton’s characters to step inside the artist’s imagination. But once there, can they ever return?
There is nothing banal or commonplace in this short story collection; it is fiction at its most escapist – fantastical and utterly absorbing. I found myself as wrapt as Urbino, in ‘Venice in Blue’, stepping into Ferrant’s painting: “The blue deepened, the shapes blurred, and just for a moment the gnawing of the insects seemed very far away.”
‘Anywhere out of the World’ by Alan Bilton is available for £9.99 from Cillian Press @ http://www.cillianpress.co.uk/anywhere-out-of-the-world/
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