I Wish, I Wish by Zirk van den Berg (Cuba Press Novella Series, 2020), 173pp, $25; Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson, and other very short stories by Jack Remiel Cottrell (Canterbury University Press, 2021), 136pp, $29.99
Two interesting and arresting books. The first is a short novel, a work of fantastic fiction; the second is a series of short, short genre-benders, a work of sometimes frightening fabulousness. Both are very well written, compact in construction and content, and compelling.
I Wish, I Wish is a cleverly written novella which is bodacious reading—swift to complete, simple to solve. The kaupapa or theme is rather unusual. A nondescript nonentity of an undertaker, Seb, earns himself three wishes because of his own kind act towards a fading yet angelic child, Gabriel, who visits the bankrupting mortuary where Seb performs the brunt of the work, and who somewhat miraculously reconstructs a seemingly unsalvageable Rubik’s Cube.
Seb’s latent ambition had always been to have a better life, whereby his kids would show him some respect and attention, even if his disinterested wife did not. A life that did not require the sheer dull drudgery of his lifelong vocation as embalmer, but with some other more profitable means of income. A life where his marital relationship retained attraction and appreciation. ‘He was a player thrust into a game he didn’t understand—going to work, selling hours of his life for money to fund the rest of it.’
He subliminally recognises the veracity of Thoreau’s ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’, but has neither the wherewithal nor the instrumentality to escape this truth. ‘Now and then he wished for some kind of intervention—divine, dumb luck or otherwise—to pluck him from this earthbound fate … something to lift his life out of the mundane.’
The conclusion and denouement of this slim volume detail how Seb ends up achieving all he has always ever wanted: namely, fulfilment, an escape from hollow-man-itis. Van den Berg gifts us a positive, affirmative message—something like, ‘If you are a good person, eventually good things will happen for you,’ although you may need to undertake an acutely authentic act for this to occur. And yes, this novella is an existentialist tract. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, Seb seems destined to roll the stone, forever, in a form of resigned stoicism. He recognises this too: ‘Maybe each body he worked on was a lament for his own spiritual death, his existential emptiness.’
Prompted by the demise of the divinely named Gabriel, Seb finally does bestir himself from his usual self-suppression: ‘Then the boy came and suddenly the focus sharpened, and colours bloomed in everything.’ After erupting one evening when his wife evacuates their family home and he smashes up a glass-topped table, he goes out on another night to reclaim his own selfhood, ‘the love you’re supposed to feel for yourself’. At last, he will complete the interminably unsolvable Rubik’s Cube that his life has resembled for so long.
I will not disclose all the details of his happy end state, but everything Seb wished for comes to pass, even if his wife deserts him to go and reside with another woman and also, importantly, even if he never actually articulates a third invocation, after his first two wishes do transpire. Colin Wilson, the architect of New Existentialism and its widened vista of optimised enlightenment, would be proud of him.
His is a tale of evolution into positivity whereby he can, on the final page, at last think of the future.
Jack Remiel Cottrell’s first collection of flash fiction sorties is very clever, given that one or two or three pieces do not quite gel at first and/or improve with more than one reading. There is a continuity of oblique oddness that prevails through the ninety-six brevities, few of which manage to grasp hold of a second page. Tangentiality, time shifts and indeed time travel are structured around the seven-day template of a ‘normal’ week, while ‘normality’—whatever that is in 2021—has become topsy-turvy, eerily deconstructed and reconstructed into a New Zealand gothic in which a bus driver is ‘a Lovecraftian being with an infinite number of limbs’.
There is a range of pieces—and pieces is the operative word due to the concision of each one—that invoke robots, computers, cyborgs, transhuman of all ilk, ostensible invaders. I term these many examples as Immediate Future, whereby human corporality has been, is being or is about to be subsumed into some anodyne and anonymous corporatised Twilight Zone. Sometimes, as I sped-fed through this blended concoction, I wondered if Jack Cottrell was/is an amalgam of disparate random software, if the collection was computer-generated, the machine hacked somehow by alien forces from some offbeat other dimension.
His mahi is replete with contemporary references to Covid-19, the doom of impending climate change, Big Brother surveillance and social ‘mediaddiction’, arranged across several formats such as adumbration, definition, Latinism, pithy sentence separated by computerised hieroglyphic, found story, reflectivity. There is even a timetable titled ‘The routine’.
His work is often funny, as in the reference to R. Serling, the Vice-Chancellor signee of a letter to students, which commences: ‘University administration has noticed higher-than-normal numbers of time travellers appearing this semester.’ More often than not, this humour is downright black. Yet beneath the material intermixing across these pages, there is also sadness, a pathos, as in the tabulated reasons why he did not attend a mihi whakatau for new employees, because he is whakamā—in both meanings of this kupu. There is also the pathos when relationships have died. ‘The predictable limitations of magic’ concludes:
I dig through everything and try to reconstruct the world of you and me, to find the part of the puzzle that tells me you’ll be back. But all I can see are the missing pieces, the fights, the lies, and that final silence that told me it was over.
There are several similar quasi-autobiographical shards from what I assume is the writer’s own love life sprinkled throughout—which does confirm that Cottrell is in fact a sentient being. I think.
(Magic, by the way, does succeed in a couple of other tales.)
However, deeper down, there is also a taniwha lurking and ready to spring through the pages and devour the reader. There is a constant ominosity, a droll yet disturbing element throughout. Take the Kafkaesque ‘A classics major is not for the faint-hearted’, where the sweaty protagonist cannot escape a labyrinth that was not there yesterday. Take the breviloquent ‘Bertha Rochester would like a word’ that ends ‘As if I didn’t want to die already’, and which doesn’t allude to the unfortunate Bertha. Something sinister slithers here, something malign at times—as in the titular tract where it is deemed acceptable to conflagrate certain questionable items such as ‘Your ex’s stuff’ and ‘The crumbling old family bungalow that keeps you trapped in a toxic relationship with your mother.’ After all, my copy of this collection has a duplicate section of pages out of sequence, which could well be a deliberate machination by unseen forces, a confirmation perhaps of the multi-eyed creature breathing under the bed in ‘Monster spray’.
Cottrell’s ‘very short stories’ are original, impressive and above all, in their ultramodern divergence, necessary.
These are two rather different books, yet both excellent examples of current at-the-edge fiction here in Godzone.
Ka pū te ruha, Ka hao te rangatahi.
When the old net is cast aside, the new net goes fishing.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand, when Covid-19 permits. He is widely published across several genres in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian and Spanish. In 2021, five books written or edited by him have been published.