David Brooks: The Book of Sei (Faber and Faber, 1988)

How so many could have interpreted such diverse things in so similar away I cannot tell. Perhaps the sight or rumor of what others were doing influenced their understandings; perhaps there were dimensions to these signs and portents that none could detect or consciously register. Whatever it was, in Vincentia, in St. Mary’s, in Albatross and Mooney Creek and all the small hamlets in between, on hillsides, on neighboring streets, on curves of the highway, roofs came off the houses, the paneling of weatherboard and fibro left the walls, and here a man could be seen showering in a cage of two-by-fours, there a family could be seen in their lounge room watching the sky over their television, in the manse at Albatross the housekeeper could be seen through the gaps of the bookshelf she was cleaning, staring across to where the SP bookie was tearing the paper from his shop-front, digging away at the putty of the windows, and from the first stirrings of this strange exposure, just after six on Friday, to the time of the shower on Sunday evening, people all down The Head began living out-of-doors in the comfort of their own carpeted rooms, sitting up late by unseasonal hearth-fires, making toast as they had once done as children while all the stars of the southern hemisphere attended. True enough, we laughed at ourselves, but we sat there just the same, against the cool night air, listening to the possums, yarning as we haven’t since our honeymoon.

”Blue”

A couple of decades ago, I acquired a book titled Sudden Fiction International, one of several anthologies of very short stories edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. I’m not sure when, how, or why the book came into my possession, or if I even read it at the time (the 90s were a pretty weird time for me, much like the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the aughts, the 10s…). I did pick it up (again?) about ten years ago, when I started writing a bit of flash, to read as a model. I loved these stories, but one in particular stood out: “Blue” by David Brooks (who is, I should clarify, an Australian writer and professor, not the American journalist), originally published in his collection The Book of Sei. It remains one of my favorite stories.

For some reason, I never followed up to see what else Brooks had written, though I thought about it from time to time. And for some other reason, I finally decided it was time, a few months ago, to read the collection whence what has remained one of my favorite short-shorts ever came.

The twenty-three stories in the collection live in a world of possibilities, as Emily Dickinson imagined, but express those possibilities quite differently. A few are science fiction. Many are metaphysical, dancing around ontological questions. Some read like essays, some like history, anthropology, or biography. Most are fairly short; many are very short, two to four pages. They are all lyrical, mysterious, and intriguing.

A few exemplars:

Du” – a traveller, ill from his journey, spends a year in the city of Du, and discovers a strangely universal game that persists in him after he leaves, even as he travels to other cities. “In the City of the Game all things bear up on the stranger to the same effect, the dance of streets, the dance of customers, the dance of pieces on the board all linked, all governed by rules as deeply graven as topography itself…. Could it be, as some have claimed, that the modern game is a ritualization of the ancient conflict, a refinement of all its subsequent eruptions?”

The Dolphin” – A people come from another star just as Earth is forming, and end up, during a period of constant rain, splitting into two groups, one on land, one on sea. They hope to reunite, but never quite do.

The Journal of Roberto De Castellán” – A young naval officer tries to document the different peoples living on several separate islands; initially the largest island was populated with convicts, but some escaped to the second island, and some escaped to the third, etc etc. A sociological mystery.

The Lost Wedding” – A woman washes and hangs out her wedding dress periodically. She remembers getting engaged, spending a month preparing for nuptials, dressing for her wedding, nearing the church, then returning home for some forgotten item; but when she got back to the church, no one was there. And now, no one remembers it at all. Did it happen? “When she talks about her wedding, as she sometimes still does, Jennifer Cooley keeps changing things – one time, say, it’ll be a brooch she goes back for, another time a ribbon – as if fitting the wedding into the real history of things were a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, or like one of those shapes that in the children’s game you have to get into the right shaped holes…..Maybe she just doesn’t have the right shape yet.”

Black” – Various philosophers over time – among them, quoted in the story, are Grosseteste and Scotos Erigena, but Thomas Aquinas could be added to the list – have proposed that “Everything that is, is light.” What if it’s the other way? There’s an intriguing image of dark underneath writing, bringing to mind the idea that, instead of implanting black ink on white paper, maybe writing is scraping appearance enough to show the black reality underneath.

The Line” – What if one’s writing took on a will, a life of its own, independent of one’s pen? Where might it go, where might it end up?

Striptease” – Essayish examination of striptease, through the person of a man living with an artist who sometimes works as a stripper when finances require. It brought to mind two paintings by Manet, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. All, of course, are from male viewpoints. But I also recall a short piece from an old Pushcart that featured a stripper’s musing on her art, on the men who watched her, written by a woman. I loved that piece. I had to mark it as Private, at the author’s request, because she worried it would impede her job search. I would have hired her on the spot.

The Tape-Recorder of Dreams” – Science says we dream far more than we remember. What if we had access to those forgotten dreams? Would we become addicted to listening, to ours, to the dreams of others? Remember, this was written pre-Internet. Would we become more compassionate, realizing that we all harbor evil? Would we be inspired? Might we think differently about consciousness, the border between life and death? Would recordings be banned? Required? Metaphysics as speculative fiction: “Although the face of society was not thus greatly altered, ones judgments upon its extremities were dramatically curtailed. One had to admit that deep within one’s self was very likely, in embryo, all evil, all perversity, and so one trod all the more gingerly…. It came to be suggested that at death we are not transported to some new and unaccustomed place, but into that parallel world towards which our dreams had always gestured.”

These have been compared to stories of Borges and Calvino, and I see the similarities. Sometimes they’re also highly spiritual, occasionally anthropological. The only story that didn’t interest me at all was the first and title story, the longest in the collection; it’s a tale of a lost wanderer in the woods that turns into a kind of Kama Sutra.

But the rest, to varying degrees, were stories I greatly enjoyed, though none quite reached me the way “Blue” did. Even as I dictated the paragraphs for this post (using voice recognition to save wear and tear on my wrists), I kept choking up.

And at last it came by the bucket full. A short, torrential pour which no one could have predicted and which all, mysteriously, recognized as the only true and likely culmination of those strange three days of air and light. Children ran about with buckets, the young people danced, and we who are older just sat in mute amazement: a short, sharp burst of blue carnations, tiny blooms like great, sky-petalled snowflakes in the evening dust. And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been, and we sat there or sang in the phenomenal rain, and something deep within us was drinking, every stem, every petal, every tiny perfect flower, slaking, in that long, imperfect summer, a deep, deep need for miracles, for something a little more than rain.

”Blue”

When I first started blogging back in fall of 2010 – my third start, after deleting my first two attempts – I had no idea what I wanted to do in this space. I keep wanting to delete those old posts, a mishmash of TV recaps and random thoughts. But among them is a post titled “Favorite Stories” which includes this one, and generated the idea to blog BASS and Pushcart. I’m not sure why it took me so long to look at Brooks’ other work, or why it struck me to do so now. Maybe that’s another metaphysical/psychological mystery, an impulse with its genesis in a forgotten past, an unseen present, or a looming future. In any case, I’m glad I finally got around to it. Maybe I should put Dean Paschal – another writer whose story, “The Puppies”, shows up in that old post – on my read list for next summer, after Pushcart.

 

One response to “David Brooks: The Book of Sei (Faber and Faber, 1988)

  1. Pingback: Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015) | A Just Recompense

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