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Cannibals

By Dan Collins

This book is, like the proverbial curate’s egg, good in places. Unfortunately, it is also very bad in other places, and the whole is rather less than the sum of its parts. ‘…Cannibals is a novel consisting of eighty-eight compelling bulletins that reveal the fractured essence of our age’ the blurb tells us, and ‘We enter the characters’ lives through seemingly disconnected fragments…’ That ‘seemingly’ is excessive, since a name repeated very occasionally here and there is hardly sufficient to lend integrity (in the literal sense of the word) or narrative thread (to say nothing of thrust) to a randomly assembled bunch of monologues and scenes. The ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode of Ulysses, the splintered technique of which was made valuable use of more recently in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, certainly disturbs the solidity of the space/time continuum, but the sightings of two separate characters’ contrary journeys provides a linking device for those that see them. With Cannibals, the sequencing is entirely arbitrary. Not that I am suggesting that hoary old humanist notions of agency, causality and consciousness are appropriate to the material in hand, since the aleatoric presentation is probably completely intentional and indeed the whole point of the exercise. But, as Thomas Pynchon has written in the introduction to the collection of his early short stories, Slow Learner, with regard to the influence of surrealism: ‘What I had to learn later on was the necessity of managing this procedure with some degree of care and skill: any old combination of details will not do. Spike Jones, Jr., whose father’s orchestral recordings had a deep and indelible effect on me as a child, said once in an interview, "One of the things that people don’t realise about Dad’s kind of music is, when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful." ’

The titles of each snippet are arranged alphabetically, examples of which include: ‘A Thing About Hotels’; ‘Before We Were Married’; ‘Being Stalked’; ‘Catwalker’; ‘Fucking Bicycles’; ‘His Bergman Phase’; ‘Jellied Eels’; ‘Novelty Knickers’; ‘Pigpoo’; ‘Sex With My Husband’; ‘Tracking Rory’ etc. A couple of the more successful ones are the extramarital and political satire of the section with the same title as the book, and the domestic betrayal and resignation of ‘Snakeproof’.

There are bound to be problems unifying a plotless text with no characters who could remotely be described as three dimensional or central. David Foster Wallace managed it in his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but that was through the zanily delicious irony of the underlying ideas, and the exactness of register in the rendering of each disparate interviewee’s use of language. Each piece worked as a stand alone, but taken together, they provided valuable counterpoint for each other. Then again, Foster didn’t call that book a novel. There’s nothing novel about the bad sex, emotional betrayal, blatant careerism and vacuous consumerism on display here, and the glib, shallowly cynical tone, simultaneiously callow and world wary, in which it’s delivered. Then again, maybe it’s this very tone that’s supposed to make the slapped together segments some sort of single entity, but paradoxically it’s the lack of variety in world view that makes it ultimately unsatisfying. Like the recent spate of American movies about how messed up the world is (Very Bad Things, Happiness, Magnolia, Your Friends and Neighbours), it’s the absence of light and shade that drains any tragedy of potential significance (which is, I suppose, a tragedy in itself).

There is a deal of writing from a female point of view, some of which seems quite authentic (to this boy, at least), some of which seems merely misogynistic, or at least comes off as a woman talking with a man’s voice. Still, there are lots of different kinds of women out there. There’s also a good dollop of the Brett Easton Ellis multiple designer labels trick.

This is a debut novel, and there are things here that could be developed and built on, but for the moment this writer isn’t telling the hippest of us (presumably the audience it’s aimed at) anything we don’t already know.

First published in Books Ireland

 

 

 

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