No Relation by Thomas Pors Koed (Titus Books, 2015), 185 pp., $30
In Thomas Pors Koed’s short story entitled ‘Home Run’, one of the most extraordinary sentences in a book full of such sentences offers the revelation that one of the escapees ‘has been eating a bird and there is blood on her chin’. So the fugitives are less than human? Are in fact animals? The ambiguity is so finely crafted in this paradoxical tale of escape into the comfortable confinement of an ‘immaculate perimeter’ that we are never quite sure of the answers to these questions. Thomas Pors Koed, the author of this set of tales of the bizarre, the sinister and the downright hilarious, likes to play hide-and-seek with his readers, teasing them as much with the information he withholds as that which he provides.
Is the incontinent patient in ‘Dry’ a prisoner or a victim? Is the young man’s unresponsive girlfriend in ‘Breathless’ not frigid so much as rigid? In ‘The Last Work by Idel Stillman’, was the author’s death a suicide or was it an accident? Perhaps no story sustains this deliberate ambiguity as complexly as ‘Hammerhead’. A novelist, apparently suffering from writer’s block, finds, in her son’s bed, a child covered in dirt. The child is described in terms of ‘bones in paper, well, vellum really’, its ‘arteries written like two words on the forehead’. So far, so allegorical. But the child may also be a vision of the writer’s pre-adolescent self and a substitute for her absent son, mysteriously hospitalised about the time she discovered the child in his bed. If the child is the changeling of her unfinished novel, it appears to have been recently disinterred. Her husband will eventually find her crouching on a ‘little pile of ash’. Koed’s strategy in this story is that of a symbolist poet in the manner of Michael Harlow: in other words, to generate a plurality of meaning by charging the text with as many evocative images as possible. Take, for example the associations this description conjures up in its rhythmical and balanced sentences:
The lips are dry, the breath, hardly a breath, like breath between two sheets of paper. But where has this child been? The skin is powdered with dry earth, the hair, hair that looks like it has never been cut, is full of dry earth, black dirt in the golden hair, hair pale like a lightless flower …
Koed describes himself offhandedly as ‘scrupulously uninteresting’. He has lived for almost 50 years in Nelson, and yet he often chooses Russian or Mitteleuropean names (Klossowski, Lechman, Lissitsky) for his characters and cities. The locale in ‘Broken Banks’ is vaguely Australian, and ‘Leather’ concerns two gay cowboys on the range out West, but these are the exceptions. The influence of Borges and Kafka is fairly obvious. ‘Salivating’ is almost a pastiche of the Kafka of the short stories, remorselessly delineating the paradox of a love affair that is only meaningful as long as the beloved offers the protagonist an escape from his difficult and demanding father. Generally speaking, though, theme and storyline are not so straightforward in Koed: he is Borges and Kafka, with missing parts.
In the dreamlike ‘Meat’, we are on board an express hurtling through the night towards a city called Smert. The typewriter the guardsman/author operates is a parodic device to remind the reader that this after all is merely fiction – rather like the authorial admission that reader/pursuer will be ‘up out of your seat if I don’t stop stringing you along’. The title has implications that are only resolved (ironically of course) at the end of the story.
This penchant of Koed for ‘stringing the reader along’ is seen at its most playful in ‘Milk’. Not only does there seem to be – at least initially – no relation1 between the title of the story and the two narratives of which it is composed, but the relationship between the story of Max and Lucy and the Kafkaesque narrative Max keeps returning to, a dreamscape of winding streets and dimly lit passages, is somewhat tenuous (they share at least a pin-stripe suit and a dead female companion). Max tells his neighbour that Lucy died peacefully in her sleep of ‘undiagnosed aporia’. Here, ‘aporia’ (confusion, perplexity) is a Freudian slip for apnoeia; aporia is the undiagnosed condition of the reader!
There is also a distinct group of stories that derive a Pirandellian humour from the fact that their protagonists are unwilling or confused participants in their own narratives. The assassin in ‘Unseen Guest’ admits that he doesn’t understand his place in the scene: ‘Everything I do complicates things.’ Pip in ‘Red Rider’ has a character that is waiting for her, but, something of a grouch, she refuses to play her part. The Red Rider is initially a sinister figure – after each vision of this mysterious cyclist, Pip wakes up recovering in bed or in hospital. However, once she accepts her place in this fiction and decides to play the game, (actually after she has accepted the idea of her father’s death), she becomes the Red Rider herself, a smiling and even joyful double.2
The doppelgänger theme is being revived these days in the cinema (witness Richard Ayoade’s clever film The Double), and it certainly gets a thorough airing in this collection. At least five stories either wholly embrace the theme or combine it with the Pirandellian humour of the reluctant protagonist. The assassin in ‘Unseen Guest’ confronts himself when ‘the doors fly open’ and he steps forward to meet the same fate as his double. The story is written in the dry, unemotional ‘writing degree zero’ style of the later ‘sex & sadism’ Robbe-Grillet, but with a deadpan humour verging on slapstick. In ‘Inclination’, the ‘dead’ grandfather of Mort (!), who has only just returned from his father’s funeral, emerges from a concealed bed-sit in his absent wife’s bedroom and accuses his grandson of being fiction ‘like the rest of us’, ‘me, you, the reader, we’re the same’. Needless to say, grandfather and grandson are both writers, the former an aged reflection of the latter, but granddad manages to escape the tedium of his story, leaving it to be finished by grandson who decides that he doesn’t like the narrator (i.e. himself) – and meanwhile he is running out of paper!
‘Detective Instinct’ is a witty companion piece to this story and ends in a similar fashion. Two women, doubles of each other, argue the toss about features of story-telling – plot, characterisation, the purpose of detailed description such as that of the greatcoat in Beckett’s Malone Dies. Towards the end of the story there’s a marvellous piece of dialogue in which you can hear an authorial aside:
– Is it possible to read someone’s story and remain watchful, mistrustful, wrestling with the author for control?
– I don’t know. You make it sound more fun now. Is it?
– I don’t know either.
Eventually the two women exchange roles; the pragmatic Parker appropriates the storyteller’s spectacles, the latter blunders out into the street and confronts someone in a greatcoat, ‘only his eyes were in focus’, eyes ‘a bright forget-me-not blue’ behind thick lenses. ‘Parker, what are you waiting for?’ asks the stranger. ‘Let’s go!’
Samuel Beckett does more in this collection than play a cameo role. He is there in the nihilism and black humour of ‘Beyond Saturn’, with its fragmentation and dust, its appropriately named characters Speck, Dr Fleck and Nurse Watt, and with its hammers, the instruments of all this wilful pulverisation that reduces fragile things to their natural state, as Speck’s mother only too enthusiastically asserts. ‘Why this hammering,’ asks Speck, ‘always this hammering within me or without?’ – a question that refers the reader back to the epigraph of the book, from Kafka: To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing. Saturnine characters were once considered to be subject to the bile of melancholy, but it is the planet that seems to be uppermost in the author’s mind. Speck imagines that he is being ‘flung from the perihelion far out into the emptiness, the cold, the dark’ of endless space.
What sort of author hears the leper’s call in children chanting ‘uncle ian, uncle ian, uncle ian’? I hope you don’t think I’m being flippant if I answer, ‘in this case a postmodern one’. Constantly pulling the rug from under the readers’ feet or teasing them with self-conscious irony and intertextuality, Koed’s fiction is almost textbook postmodernism. The ambiguities and the wilful shattering of fiction’s comfortable illusions force the reader to become as much a producer of these texts as s/he is their consumer. Not that reading them is remotely like a chore, for these are some of the most ingenious and strikingly original short stories I have read in the last 10 years. The author’s visual imagination is acute, ranging from the gruesome (the epidermal excrescence in the ironically entitled ‘Growth’) to the memorably poetic (the dimple in the sheet covering Lucy’s mouth in ‘Milk’). His comic inventions are equally memorable. Take for example the male fantasy at the end of ‘Milk’, which will also explain (finally!) why this story has such a mysterious title.
- The phrase first occurs in ‘Salivating’.
- A footnote seems appropriate to this ingenious tale which is replete with them. Pip and her frustrated doctor, Dr Havisham, names straight from a very famous novel, exemplify a theme adumbrated in n.2, p.169, namely that culture is an entity parasitic upon its hosts.
TED JENNER is a retired teacher and lecturer who lives in Auckland. He has published two books of poetry, one of poetry and short fiction (Writers in Residence, 2009), and two books of translations from ancient Greek poetry, the most recent of which, The Gold Leaves (2014), was reviewed in Landfall Review Online last July.