No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.
THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE
“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”
The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.
The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.
A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP
“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”
Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.
THOUGHTS & THEMES
“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”
Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.
“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”
This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”
THE SOFT TREAD
“A black rose.”
The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.
This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.