Grotesque Physicalities

Daniel Green reviews Hugh Fulham-McQuillan’s Notes on Jackson and His Dead

Hugh Fulham-McQuillan,
Notes on Jackson and His Dead.
Dalkey Archive, $17.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

The publisher of Hugh Fulham-McQuillan’s Notes on Jackson and His Dead (Dalkey Archive) cites Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, and Edgar Allan Poe as touchstones in considering the influences on the stories collected in the book. But while Borges and Poe are plausible candidates, Barthelme doesn’t seem quite right. There are elements of the fantastic and uncanny in some of Fulham-McQuillan’s stories, yet they don’t have the casual surrealism of Barthelme’s fiction, nor his stylistic lightness of touch and colloquial directness. The prose is more ruminative, almost scholarly, and in this way indeed more reminiscent of Poe’s first-person narrators.

This cerebral quality of several stories — with numerous direct references to other writers and texts — also bears comparison with Borges. Stories such as ‘An Urgent Letter to the Reader Regarding a Moment from the Life of Fyodor Dostoevsky’, a metafictional meditation on that writer’s survival of the death sentence pronounced on him as a young radical, and ‘Gesualdo’, about its narrator’s wish to assume the identity of Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer infamous for murdering his wife and her lover, seem perhaps the most Borgesian, with their quasi-learned (yet also unstable) narrators and their molding of a kind of fabular history. But, then, many of the narrators in the eighteen stories collected in Notes on Jackson and His Dead exhibit similar attributes. Seemingly self-possessed, well-read (and unafraid to show it), and at first expressing a strong enough sense of purpose, ultimately they reveal that their purchase on prevailing circumstances may be somewhat precarious.

In ‘Spiral Mysterious’, a detective is investigating a case in which an actor in an Irish soap opera is a victim of an attempted murder, which has been captured on video. The footage is juxtaposed with another video depicting a similar scene from the show, in which the actor played the killer. The detective finds himself racked with guilt in considering the first video, as if watching it has implicated him in the crime, and at the story’s conclusion (the crime is never solved) he realises that “this guilt… was borne not of the first-person views of these two scenes, not of all the killings I have witnessed in my life, but of my desire to witness the fulfillment of the murder in each of the videos. … The resolution was what I desired.” In ‘Entrance to the Underworld’, a narrator staying in a hotel (“for reasons I would prefer not to mention”) is subtly undone listening to a woman who is searching for her missing brother as she tells of his obsession with sinkholes and her belief that he has dug a “bottomless pit” and disappeared into it, not to be seen again. The narrator, much like the detective in ‘Spiral Mysterious’, wishes for resolution in the woman’s story, “to get to the bottom of this bottomless pit,” but concludes that reaching it “is an impossible task.”

In ‘The Art of Photography’, the narrator, drinking in a bar attached to a theatre, quite literally loses touch with reality while considering the photographs along the bar’s walls. Other stories cross the line into the outright uncanny, into Poe territory; at least three could perhaps be described as ghost stories. ‘Whiteroom’ is narrated by a man whose wife has died through means that remain mysterious (mysterious for the reader, at least), though her spirit lingers on and directs the husband to make white everything in the room from which the narrator speaks — right down to the couple’s books, the pages of which are painted over to hide the black print. In ‘The Fog’, the narrator’s house is overrun by fog which begins to induce eerie phenomena (the narrator senses unknown presences and phantom sounds), so he sells the house, only to return later, but by now the inhabitants of the house may be ghosts — as is, perhaps, the narrator himself. ‘A Tourist’ depicts a man ostensibly camping out in a valley holding a “ruin”, but he is actually “visiting the grief of his past.” He is haunted by his own memories, as well as others who remain invisible but visit his campsite nevertheless.

The title story (the first in the book) goes beyond mere suggestions of the supernatural to engage in a form of surrealism, as does a later story, ‘Relic’. ‘Notes on Jackson and His Dead’ is narrated by a filmmaker who is making a documentary about Jackson, a former orchestra conductor who sheds selves “like old skin, leaving dead versions of himself behind”. The situation, of course, delights the filmmaker:

We caught marvelous images of his anger. From high enough all those dead copies become little dark blotches — you can really understand the pattern of his mind without having to see the grotesque physicality that is its manifestation. There are aspects of cubism there, the geometricity, the distortion — he could be an outsider modernist. I could make him that. With this strange man and his forever-shedding selves as my paint. I could do that.

‘Relic’, meanwhile, tells us of “a vault deep beneath the Vatican”, where is kept the sacred relic of the title: a fragment of skin putatively belonging to the first pope. It is not only a piece of dead skin, however: it grows, apparently quite expansively, and thus the Vatican employs a cadre of workers to “manage” the growth, including the story’s narrator. One job measuring the growth of the skin is particularly dangerous, involving suspension from the vault’s ceiling, and at the story’s conclusion we learn that our narrator has been given this task.

‘Notes on Jackson and His Dead’ shares with ‘Spiral Mysterious’ and ‘The Art of Photography’ a focus on the ubiquity and influence of mediated images. Perhaps the most extended treatment of this theme appears in ‘Detachment’ (the longest story in the book), in which a peeping Tom (called “the voyeur” throughout) becomes appalled at the prospect of being peeped-on himself when he comes to understand the pervasiveness of surveillance technology. Whereas, in practising his own voyeurism, he at least “did not hide”, honouring a kind of contract with his victims that he would assume the risk of being caught: “The presence of these cameras on every street in the city in every public building — the thought made him dizzy, fragile with anxiety. … There was no fairness in that indiscriminate recording.” The voyeur becomes obsessed with surveillance cameras, acquiring an app that allows him to patch into closed-circuit systems, and as he begins to watch himself on the screen, he becomes dissociated from the image of himself that he sees, eventually splitting into two selves, the watcher and the watched. Finally the “real” self dies (he’s actually given a funeral), leaving the camera-created simulacrum to live on.

Here Fulham-McQuillan has drawn on both Poe (‘William Wilson’) and Dostoevsky (The Double) to fashion a paranormal fable that updates the earlier writers’ stories of psychological breakdown for the modern era of omnipresent technology and its threats to the cohesion of identity. These stories of the malign influence of current visual media might be the most effective in the book, employing their fantasy devices to create an atmosphere of disquiet, if not incipient terror, in a context in which terror might indeed be the appropriate response to the underlying conditions from which their themes arise. Such stories as ‘Detachment’ and ‘Notes on Jackson and His Dead’ don’t merely evoke the practices of previous writers of metaphysical or supernatural fiction but revise these practices to suit present circumstances. This does not reduce the other stories in the book to pastiche or simple homage; these depictions of the dominion of visual culture serve to show more distinctly that the practices associated with Poe (or Borges) continue to be a renewable resource for skillful fiction writers to draw on.

Not all of Fulham-McQuillan’s stories rely on the direct inspiration of tales of the uncanny or supernatural. One of the more quietly affecting is ‘Skin’, the narrator of which tells of an incident from his childhood, a trip to the circus, where he encountered a “freak” act, a man with skin so attenuated that “I could see veins crawl through his smiling face, his neck, his arms.” The experience has a traumatic effect on the child, a trauma that the narrator continues to revisit: “I am haunted by this man. I constantly relive his act, stretching what can only have lasted a few minutes into a horribly misshapen thing that has bridged all these years. These moments live inside me and refuse my understanding, and so I live with them.” In this story, the horror lies within — in the child’s and, later, the man’s inability to fully accept the reality of human imperfection, which the narrator can only regard as grotesque, even though this is a word he cannot utter.

A collection of eighteen stories without explicit sequential connections or in-common settings could certainly seem overly various, too disparate in subjects or strategies. But Fulham-McQuillan provides enough balance between an unobtrusive commonality of approach and a variety of narrative content that the book both hangs together conceptually and provides sufficient diversification. Commonalities of image and theme also emerge (sometimes through direct juxtaposition), but the book’s sequencing does not insist on them so strenuously that the reader can’t alertly discover them, making for a more active and satisfying reading experience. Ultimately, Notes on Jackson and His Dead doesn’t quite fit readily into prevailing dichotomous categories — conventional vs. experimental, realist vs. fabulist — but this is a strength, as the book pushes against convention by reinvigorating aesthetic strategies that remain recognisable.

If the stories in this collection do at times falter, it is due to a highly allusive and parenthetical expository prose style that also relies predominantly on abstraction. (There are few passages devoted to sensory description or other specific details, and most of the stories contain little, if any, dialogue.) Such a style is to an extent appropriate for the sorts of narrators we encounter in the book — especially the more cerebral and self-conscious — but the density of their recitals can at times be somewhat laborious to read. Surely, however, this problem is partly an artifact of the assembly of the stories into a published volume, as no doubt they were not written to be read in exactly this order or in a collection of precisely this scope. Regarded individually, most of the stories in Notes on Jackson and His Dead are intriguing in their inspiration and persuasive in their execution.