OUT STACK AND OTHER PLACES by Gary Couzens
Midnight Street Press 2015
With an introduction by Andrew Hook
I have just received this book as purchased from Amazon UK.
I intend to real-time review this book in the comment stream below as and when or if I happen to read it….
“Why does everything have to be either/or? Why can’t it be and?”
Classy romantic fiction featuring a believable sense of place in the Shetland Islands. Growing colder happens not only from south to north within the whole of Britain but within these islands themselves. But warmth can be reaped from death’s currents, if only any people concerned express it. It is never too late, to coordinate or, rather, triangulate the emotions…sexual or otherwise. A tender, perhaps spiritual, even historic-archetypal, story of wreaking sex from out body’s sometimes crude stack.
This story now cross-referenced here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/02/12/green-and-pleasant-land-gbh1/#comment-9156
“The screen was showing the testcard, the one with the young girl and the unfinished game of noughts and crosses.”
More often than not, I tend to real-time review complex stories, digging out their ‘objective correlatives’. But this story – its direct current – is of the sort that impels me into an appreciation of crafted simplicity: a haunting page-turner about a sexually-sporadic uncoupley couple and the couple’s male part of their socket remembering a past haunting by TV’s propensity to close down during the night – with an eventually inbuilt déjà vu. When another game was shockingly completed. The out stack of the pylons.
“…as far as it will go.”
This work ends with those words and that is no spoiler. How can you spoil a spoiler? It is made of triangulated splinters of an incident – various points of view, including your own. Witnessing car crash on road and within a man’s body, in and out its stack – and more telling splinters as well-observed details by females of a ‘male pub’, and the fifty p pieces piled up to save your turn at the pool.
THE MISSING MAN
“The army of ants will eat everything in their path, and there are other scavengers prepared to pick your skeleton clean. Anything left will be consumed by the fungi and bacteria that live in the ground.”
There is an ‘electricity’ permeating Couzens fiction, or at least so far in this book, a sexual synaesthesia, where awareness of, say, a cleavage past which it is hard to avert one’s eyes or of a triangulated lust, marital errancy, permutations of gender interaction etc, of undercurrents like slipping off, say, one’s bra noticeably for the text to record, and this tactile synaesthesia resides neatly here in a tactile Amazon jungle setting, a mystery of blackmail and eventual bloody murder(s), set against the story’s own ‘out stack’ embedded in that jungle, a meteorite from outer space? Absolutely enthralling, and echoes on endlessly as one tries to unpick its tantalisations. I feel that this book’s army of ants that is human life these days in the form of an unknown series of hitmen may be intent on making me a ‘missing man’, eventually, if I ever should get critically too close to the hub or earth’s core or gestalt or inner stack of this fiction collection…
Each story not ‘either/or’ but ‘and’.
“Because I put on a stone with each pregnancy,…”
A relentless refrain of ‘Because…’ from a too easily abusable woman, tracing events in her life from childhood onward. A searing incantation because of for what it eventually gives a reason if not an excuse. Almost unbearable to read, in a way of recognising the world today for what it is. What recurs out each pregnant stack.
NOON IN KRAKÓW
…from my previous comment’s take on stack as pregnancy to one here of the “altar triptych. Inside are six reliefs framing a huge centre panel of the Dormition of the Virgin,…”, a very subtle story of a place I’ve actually visited myself, with the trumpeter in the tower. Where this book’s electricity of bodies and vestments (stigmata?) (“My bra-strap digs into the flesh below my armpits.”) leads here to soul-searching by the female narrator Veronica in interface with the traditional old-fashioned beliefs of her lately errant boyfriend’s Polish grandmother, Veronica exploiting a sickness that even a virgin can turn into … a morning sickness at night? With Couzens fiction, I am quickly learning, you often need to let a story percolate as it bears fruit with time and context.
AFTER THE PARTY
“…the premiere of the new Stanwyck movie at Warner’s, Baby Face.”
An ex-boxer, who has put on a stone or two since being a middleweight, is employed by a black and white Hollywood star, as a troubleshooter, particularly when sexual permutations get out of hand, to keep the cinema cash tills chinking – neatly portrayed, particularly this Michael Barrymore like scenario he is called to attend to regarding a swimming pool. But nothing or nobody — even integrity’s opposite — can have complete integrity. A chip off the old block.
“…just after the council had passed a byelaw forbidding anyone with non-human-coloured hair from the town centre.”
An interweaving dual time period – the first about which the female narrator reminisces of when she was 11 during the Punk era (the ultimate ‘out stack’ whence both human hairstyles and voices grew spiky?) and the Queen’s Silver Jubillee — and the second being the ‘today’ of the Golden Jubilee when she revisits, on a residential business course, the town where she lived during the first period. It has a telling poignancy of her early family life and the ‘due time’ that each of us face, a stoicism mingling with a yearning for a SF-preoccupied boyfriend and the embattled fantasy world or dimension into which he vanished.
“When she smiled, the lines at the corners of her eyes deepened, her chin sinking into its bed of jowl.”
… the protagonist’s sister Mary, who dies suddenly and he finds himself reading her diaries, giving a possible reason for her growing ‘fat’ around puberty, a shock concerning his own father… This situation is set against his own married life, his own daughter, his feeling of being beset by ‘some secret female freemasonry at large.’
The immaculate tone is sad and ekes out some inkling as to the human condition and its dangers, a poignant stoicism, to match that, in a different situation, of the previous story… And now here, we read of ‘a vast void in reality’ between the stars, each star being, I guess, a rare human goodness like this protagonist has always been, with the void being the sump of bad desires that seeks to subsume those stars.
“Fatherhood had changed me: from the moment I’d seen Rhiannon’s head emerge from Vanessa…”
BESIDE THE SEA
Most things I can say here about this incredible story will be a spoiler, I guess. It certainly gave me a jolt at one point, and I want you to share that jolt. Even saying that little bit may diminish the jolt that is only a jolt in the context. Suffice to say, this story artfully reminds me of some of the guest-watching hotel ambiance in the film ‘Death in Venice’, but this is the 1960s in a British seaside resort, and the two watchers are in their late teens and of different gender. It is a portrayal of a teenage boy who may end up like Dirk Bogarde did in that film when he gets older, as foreshadowed by things he says during his watching of the teenage girl, one with a medical condition, staying with her mother in a nearby hotel room. It also has an aura of an Elizabeth Taylor story, engagingly conveying the boy’s younger sister and parents, with whom he is staying, but an Elizabeth Taylor story with a jolt, of course. That story and novel writer sometimes did have jolts, but she did not quite have the sort of jolt that occurs in this Couzens story, a story which is a masterpiece and will eventually be appreciated by many more readers than this small-press, if stylishly presented, anthology is likely to command – or it is complete rubbish. I sense it is a masterpiece. But touch and go.
(I will need to allow this story to percolate – and gauge how it works internally in the light of some of its themes and how it works within the gestalt of the whole book.)
“You had to stay close to someone in the winter months. There were stories of people becoming lost in the cold and found later, frozen to death where they stood.”
Somehow, even before glancing at this story, I had placed Rachmaninov’s Vespers on the music player, and it turned out to be a perfect match. A story of cold so utterly cold conveyed in a frozen stack of words crystallising such a world in the village of 13 year old Masha, her twin brother Peter, her widowed mother, pregnant Olga, Alexei and others, depicting powerfully a community with this book’s stoicism in spades, a life wreaked from interpersonal interaction, out-of-body dreams where the dreamers can meet up and talk, a schoolroom with generations of love-carvings in the wooden desks, and the pregnancy as huge bulge with baby’s head as yet unengaged, but leaving an ultimate, if undefined, hope for Masha that transcends, I guess, that earlier woman’s refrain of ‘Because’ back in our own so-called warmer world?
MEETINGS WITH LEO
Existences defined, say, by high writerly detail of clothes, or Titian hairstyle, or the swell of the hips, or one’s physical bearing as a galleon – or by reputation as that writer. All comes to nought in the end as ‘plain’ Anne(-Marie) remembers her callow 16 year old self as a budding writer sexually exploited by an older, famous writer, then meeting him again in a pub years later. But like Masha in the previous story who “started walking, to see how far she could go” at the end, here Anne also waits to ‘see’ with a loaded ‘Maybe’. Rather than ‘Because’?
THE GIRL ON THE STATION PLATFORM
Sometimes life has events that you cannot see the purpose of: they merely happen, and you carry on. When this happens in a fiction, it is a rare event, since there can be any number of theories as to why it happened, the plot implications, its chaos theory or butterfly effect. This story seems to sidestep any attempts at such interpretation, it simply and engagingly is. The male protagonist’s exposure to others’ crudity or pent-up violence, as well as to a relationship-as-friends for its own sake or briefly-while-passing in a railway station, these two girls from different parts of the rump of MittelEurope, two girls now journeying out on a limb in the UK, not knowing which way their ‘Maybe’ or ‘Because’ path may lead, like Masha or Anne earlier?
ESSENTIAL CHEMISTRY (a collaboration with Martin Owton)
I don’t know what to say about this quite lengthy story, other than it is a straightforward, well-written narrative about entanglements involving drugs, pub bands and sexual relationships, in an underworld of crude violence, with characters I can believe in if not be interested in – with an amorally brutal ‘ends justifying the means’ end. I suspect this story was not written for me.
“Who’d want to see that fat lump in a bikini anyway?”
One thing, whether you enjoy it or not, approve of it or not, you will never forget this story. A form of serious abuse that, however extreme it is, is horribly believable, an abuse, stemming from someone being bullied when a schoolgirl, that is wreaked by an otherwise outwardly normal, modern-crude couple upon that schoolgirl who is now a woman. The story is also tantamount to abuse upon the reader, be warned. But that, in turn, makes the ‘Maybe’ or ‘Because’ path chosen by the abused woman at the end even more powerful and meaningful. A corner of kindness turned, is being kind, even for a split second, to someone else so that you can then be opened up to being kind to yourself….?
For no doubt obvious reasons to any readers who have now read both this story and ‘Beside the Sea’, any thoughtful absorption of this whole book shall need at least to take into account how these two stories affect each other’s meaning…
This book’s stories often tend to have backstories criss-crossing with frontstories. This work has a treffpunkt or meeting-place or trysting-place of backstories, some historical, others personal. Two girls — from England, on the brink of their own freedom Pre-University when everything is about to change, including childhood friendships like theirs — are on an Interrailing holiday in a MittelEurope of station platforms and a divisive iron curtain, without their realising that Europe itself was on the brink, too, a point in time happening when they were away, the Wall coming down, stack by stack, brick by brick, one of which later goes on a mantelpiece. And there is another backstory they view upon their train journey back through what turns out to have just become an invisible iron curtain, a backstory of a loving couple themselves now made invisible, like ghosts come up front, momentarily, at that point in time, too. Utterly poignant.
“The throb of the bass, root notes eight to the bar; the crack of the snare drums, sheets of guitar chords.”
The ultimate pulsing soundstack, as, following the previous story, we have another pair of girls, convent school girls, on the brink of their world changing in more ways than one, hemispheres switching, even. And the stars that go with them. Here, Clytie (half-Greek, calls herself a half wog, in 1979) and her friend Josie are plucked into dangerous partying territory after that soundstack site… Has all the Couzens triangulated gender freemasonries, a surge, a spinning, then a ‘dying fall’, as in music.
MOURNING BECOMES ME
… or ‘Mourning Become Me’, as this final story with another of the book’s errant page title-headings has it. One a statement, the other a request. Meanwhile, this is a not a story at all, but a novella.
Pages 203 – 230
“Her memories. My memories.”
This is an immaculately restrained conception of the continuation of Clytie’s story from the Punk soundstack era, with her having indeed exchanged those terrestrial hemispheres, as seen now from the point of view of her narrative daughter Martha, a daughter who eventually ends up mourning the sad tragedy of Clytie’s death from depression, and taking on some of her responsibilities — echoing with Echo Beach, and with that French 1960s cinematic Jean Seberg haircut from the previous story — and bringing up her younger sister (described earlier as a ‘large lump’ in Clytie’s belly), and caring for her Dad…. But that ‘taking on’ has an accretive force, something ominous, something ripe, artfully conveyed by the text, until, at the end of this section of the novella, Martha visualises, almost re-lives, her mother with a boy (Zack) in 1979, her first sexual experience, as being given some sort of implicit stigmatic or spiritual ‘release’ in what initially happened after “His fingers took hold of the clasp of her bra.”
Pages 230 – 256
The real-time review of this novella reaches its second literary epiphany, another release, to which the text has built powerfully and naturally, as what I said earlier, in another part of my review, about backstories crossing paths with frontstories becomes a succubus, an oxymoron, a perfect storm of welcome and resistance, joy and disgust, a Treffpunkt indeed, as past enters its tryst with future, to the accompanying ‘because’ or ‘maybe’ refrain of punk group names from Clytie’s old-days with Zack and the ‘stack of cassettes’…
Pages 256 – 290
“Details. Fragments. Parts of a picture.”
I suppose, after the sudden arrival of the policemen, this section of the novella was likely to become a satisfyingly ‘ordinary life’ coda running down, towards another ‘dying fall’, but with at least one more epiphany in store by the end. People growing older, people changing, people dying but not really finally leaving, memories stored or lost, and the vivid glimpse of Martha’s self-inflicted stigmata with blade to echo Clytie’s just to drive home a point that no eyes can be averted from this particular cleavage. One of many cleavages, in various senses, within this book. Also the mention of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’ that sort of confirms the correct title of the novella as well as an assonance with the book’s ‘Electricity’? And a crystallising glimpse of an ordinary ready-made of untidy domesticity that almost acts as epitaph to this novella, or the whole book: “One bra-strap was hanging out of a cupboard drawer.”
Magritte as a whole, a painter mentioned in the novella, also reminds me, in some oblique way, of ‘Beside the Sea’, a story that will, now with some percolative hindsight, remain one of the most memorable literary works I have ever been jolted by. And the whole book, because or in spite of its recurrent sexual ‘objective correlatives’, remains a very varied and accomplished collection of fiction remarkabilities.
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