By which provocative title I mean that I finally get around to reading Simon (Saimon A.) King’s second collection of short stories which he calls Accepting Reality: The University Years, after his first collection, which was Confronting Reality: Stories from A Sabbatical Year. Why, you ask ─ and by “you” I mean the author, because he is probably the only person who even occasionally deigns to read things that I write for public consumption ─ are you then writing about the second and not the first? Indeed, have you (that is me ─ go along with it) no sense of chronology? Here I am, working against time, as they say… But no, my reasons, or rather reason, for it is the only one, that I have not and probably will not ever review King’s initial confrontation of reality, is that I never finished it. Bear with me, because this will seem mean, but if anything it should prove that there is no conflict of interest in my reviewing the works of a friend: I couldn’t stand that book. I found it lumpen, turgid, messy, a real literary porridge with a principal flavour of Borges, but without any of the wit or concision of that great teller of stories, but an onanistic and half-cocked bravura which I guess I’m equally as guilty of in any of the garbage I’ve put forth with a view to completing a novel. Who am I kidding? I sucked on a whole other level, very probably, but I knew what I liked, and it wasn’t whatever the hell that was, though excuses are presently made to the bizarrely hilarious “Same Book Same Bus,” the likes of which I had not previously encountered and should probably hope, for the sake of my mental well-being, never to encounter again.
With that in mind, it was with some trepidation that, two years ago (eek!) when the book was first handed to me by the author, and probably with very little hope on his part of it being read in a timely fashion ─ a gambit which time has proved rather prudent ─ I opened the book and skipped ahead to the first story, “Eight PM in Buenos Aires” ─ because really, who reads prefaces? Perhaps owing in part to my familiarity with its central subject and model, the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, I for once felt right at home in the midst of King’s… uh, askew? prose. By way of some ingenious phantasmagoria, spiritual visitation, or mere half-asleep hallucination, who should appear to the author the night after the screening but the blind sage Borges himself, and from there the neat little parody proceeds. Although I have said or at least implied that Borges, in the previous collection of stories, is a kind of touchstone and possibly goal of emulation that isn’t at all reached, in this story, with its cadre of Latin American literary giants and madmen, history of movements and of underlying philosophies, I am reminded in fact of Roberto Bolaño’s epic The Savage Detectives, which presents a similar if much larger in scale and far less humorous sense of that literary world and of its history.
So too his next story, “Francisca Franzen,” which perhaps could be read broadly as a distant Chilean variation upon Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, in which the Tramp is not so much an actor but an observer, his view refracted doubly as if through Iceland Spar, is one reminded to some degree of Bolaño ─ knowing my penchant for misreading influences, however, I would be surprised if the author didn’t get in touch upon reading this in order to let me know how much he hates Bolaño. As King wanders, however, from the comfort of his beloved Argentine, Chilean et. al. environs, he can be found adrift and floundering on the rapids of the western cultural milieu, not exactly at home with its realities, which he will presumably, by the end of this volume, have accepted. His historical tales, wherein we visit with such figures as Gesualdo, Messiaen, and Heraclitus, are seeming attempts to convey a certain seriousness of purpose, as he tries to strike down into the oily depths of the human condition, but they are somehow, perhaps through the kind of nervousness which leads an author to almost leap from the page and apologise for taking up too much of the reader’s time, or merely from the ever present imperfections of judgement which befall we constant learners, not quite capable of hitting their mark. There is of course an endearing quality about this apparent failure, because in its way it speaks more of the human condition than the content of the stories themselves probably ever could, revealing a certain fragility in the author which is belied by the hard-edged and occasionally venomous nature of much of his fiction.
King also, I feel, struggles with both pacing and empathy. In “The Bridge of Time,” a young man is rescued from a near Amish lifestyle, a family which is understood more as a symbol of overbearing and possibly false religiosity than a unit of people, and total illiteracy, by communications from beyond the edge of the known world. Severing the umbilicus he ventures forth, and soon finds himself in the quite literally blinding light of what turns out to be a city. For a moment King plays with tantalising questions of Atheistic self-doubt, for the light could so easily be the light of God or, perhaps even more terrifying, light projected by a deranged Wizard of Oz who desperately wishes he were God, but as soon as this tension has arrived we are delivered from it into what are for us familiar surroundings. And it is the known and the quotidian (yeah, I know, I use that word too often) as given in the first person prose account that ultimately leads the story to fall flat, for the narrator’s sense of wonder is not adequately portrayed. Instead of, for example (‘n’ I ain’t sayin’ this is better or nothin’, y’ hear?) “huge towers of light,” we get “skyscrapers.” Now, it may be presumptuous of me to say, the narrator of course delivering the story in the past tense, but it seems to me that a young man isolated in archaic surroundings, and with not even the Amish horse-and-cart townward venture to give him so much as a clue as to what else exists in the world, would have no idea what he was witnessing in this period of first contact with civilisation. Would he be amazed, frightened, aroused, I don’t know, but I get the impression that I’m being hurried along to the exit, the side show attendant becoming impatient and okay so there’s the man with no nipples and here’s your goddamn Fiji mermaid now hurry it up wudja? Jeez, some people don’t got no respect!
The collection ambles along readably enough through the author’s morbid curiosity about the media junkies of the digital age, his inverted fantasies of success in which the horrors of self-satisfied complacency outweigh the publishing deals and impressive titles, but it’s when we near the end of the book that King finally kicks back and lets loose his lurking Pirandellian side with “My Vinyl Fetish,” a delightfully self-aware and self-mocking meta-theatrical dialogue between the author, his four unambiguously named ciphers, and an easily impressed bimbo more of his libido than of his mind, all of whom are naked. For me this is King at his most raw and unpretentious, he has no interest here in convincing you that he is a writer, he simply writes and lets you see for yourself. Maybe it’s not as bleakly funny as Beckett or as wildly absurd as Ionesco, but I would hardly expect that from someone in their early 20s, and with that fact in mind I’d say this is pretty damn good. While some, especially among those who reach their conclusions before the story reaches it own, may find it to be vulgar, sexist, and masturbatory in the extreme, for me it is the only time in the entire book at which I feel I am witness to an honest delineation of what’s on the author’s mind, and I hope that more of this irreverent self-exploration is to come in his next book, whenever that might happen to be ready.
I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to write a concluding paragraph so that you can just skip to the end and get the gist of what I’m saying without actually having to read too much, but I will not give you the satisfaction. Lazy bums fuck off.