In his published works David Rose consistently seems dissatisfied with the linear drag of plot, its imposition on reality. His previous books include ‘Vault: an anti-novel’, and a vertiginous blitz through through random human lives in ‘Meridian: A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices’. The subtitles already warn the reader not to expect a linear plot.
It’s good to be forewarned. Reading David Rose fiction can be a bit like viewing a piece of modern concept art when your whole sensibility has become accustomed to viewing landscape paintings.
For this collection Rose took some unpublished stories he was dissatisfied with, finding them too conventional. So he 'self-vandalised' the text with authorial comments. He calls this his 'interventionist technique'. (I don't know to what extent others have used such a method before.) The result is generally a 'glimpse in the life' style of story with an overlayer of boldface comments which disrupt the text.
The first glimpse is of an art gallery guard, the second of a man in a post office frenetically observing those before him in the queue. (We quickly learn he is armed and about to rob the place.) The third features a stoic entertainer at children's parties. The stories are written in short sentences, page-turning prose – nothing too obscure, no reaching for a dictionary. The interpolations become stumbling blocks, making the reader pause and reassess what's happening. I'd actually be perfectly happy reading the undisrupted story (i.e. ignoring the boldface comments as far as possible). It's fascinating to get such an intense focus on moments in mundane lives.
The interpolations are like an added puzzle, stretching your brain into a different dimension, not always illuminating but casting a different light.
Sometimes the voice of the comments is the author in a different mood, sometimes they are pseudo-academic, and in one piece a ghostly presence.
Decrescendo is an intriguing oddity among the eight pieces. It's related in the same first person deliberative style of the stories featuring a security guard or fireman. But this one is about one man's dalliances with various philosophies – he has a period of Ayers, then a fascination with Wittgenstein.
“But in the long terrain of middle life, as the solipsism became loneliness, the cosmic silence ominous, I turned instead to Spinoza.”
The battle against solipsism – the isolation of the individual – is engrained in his life. The 'meaning of life' is not what concerns him. The account is in a calm neutral style, as though every fireman, office clerk, and building site worker on the planet each have their own story of personal progression through schools of philosophy.
I love the idea. The interpolations in this piece are all biblical quotations – I need to go back again, I'm close to unlocking this story.
The book contains eight images by the artist Leah Leaf 'created in response to the stories. They are photos or collages – the one to accompany Smoke for example is a woman's face obscured by her unruly red hair and pressed up against a pane of glass. When you read the story you understand why. This use of images is like another layer of commentary, another form of distancing from the text.
In Under the Plan our (again unnamed) protagonist is getting a licence renewed. His skull measurements, distance between the eyes, etc are taken. Straight off we know we are in the realm of speculative fiction (that's what they started calling sci-fi without the ray guns). Pretty much every mainstream writer of gravitas – Joyce Carol Oates, John Banville – has turned their hand to speculative fiction at some point, so why not. It seems to be a totalitarian world developed from the fascist tendencies in the 1930s USA. Perhaps a speculation of the direction things might have taken had Germany not gone there first. It feels like the initial pages of world-building but it's all we get.
Here's what i mean by the 'deliberate' prose style: you're at some level aware of the narrator choosing his words.
The foreman waved the bulldozer over, got the others crushing bricks to fill in the dip, then the driver pounded them down. I managed to find a beam about the right length, laid it across, checked with the spirit level.
They dug out some of the rubble, flattened it again, added a bit more, until I felt satisfied. I let the jack down, craned the unit over, lowered it into place, checked with the plumb line, gave them the nod. There was another round of cheering.
Foreman suggested a brew, so they could test it. We drank it by the bonfire of splintered rafters.