Three reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 26th of September last year:-
DR. BLACK AND THE GUERRILLIA (Grafitisk hc, 88pp) is the oldest of the Brendan Connell titles in my TBR pile, having been published in a limited edition of 300 copies back in 2005. From the biographical details on the dust jacket sleeve it may well have been Connell’s first book, as only short story credits are listed. I can’t remember much about the circumstances in which I received it (though well after 2005, as even I’m not that tardy); it turned up in the post one day, though who sent it to me or if there was a cover letter I don’t recall. It might not have been intended for review at all, but I’ll give it a shout out for the sake of completeness.
Dr. Black, a polymath in San Corrados researching his book ‘A Key to All Gods’, wants to establish contact with the isolated Yaroa tribe and study their deity Apozitz. After various misadventures he falls in with the Yaroa and spends some time with them, studying their ways and undergoing drug enhanced rituals to speak with their god. One day, while walking in the jungle, he is kidnapped by freedom fighters of the Flaming Light movement. Befriended by General Pineda, Black eventually helps forward their plan to overthrow President Trujillo, but not everything is copacetic under the new regime, with nature intervening to unravel the plans of men and Black pursuing a vision he had.
This short book, perhaps novella length if that, is a curious confection. The conceptual grounding of the book is intriguing, with some of the visions of the Yaroa religion and ideas regarding revolution that are both fascinating and eloquently expressed, the former especially seeming to offer up much food for thought and potential for future fiction. The writing and imagery are exquisite, with line drawings by John Connell that perfectly complement the text. On the other hand the story does seem to ramble, with no clear idea of what it wants to accomplish and where it needs to go, while the conclusion all feels rather up in the air, as if the author got tired or ran out of steam and decided to simply bring the curtain down. If it were a firework, then it would be a Catherine wheel, with plenty of pyrotechnical bang for our buck, but ultimately going only in circles. I enjoyed it, certainly, but it felt incomplete, as if it was an episode in some larger story cycle (a suspicion confirmed by later developments, the release of The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black in 2014 – and yes, that book is also in my TBR pile, though if/when I’ll get to read it is anybody’s guess).
In 2013 Connell released the most conventional of the books I’ve read by him, the enticingly titled MISS HOMICIDE PLAYS THE FLUTE (Eibonvale Press pb, 175pp, £8.99). Flautist Serena Plievier subsidises her income by working as a freelance assassin. After completing one contract (euphemism) she undertakes another that requires her to travel to Italy, where she is to murder Pier so that his brother Glauco can inherit, but it must be done with finesse, so that there is no suspicion of illegality. Pier is a cross-dresser with a foot fetish, which somewhat complicates Serena’s plan of attack. Posing as a writer working on a history of antique musical instruments she worms her way into the affections of the Spallino family, whose residence houses a collection of such artefacts. More complications ensue as not only do both Pier and the grotesque Glauco become slightly infatuated with Serena, but so also does their mother Gemma, causing our heroine to have to engage in a delicate balancing act while she gets all the elements of her plan in place. There are also subplots involving the cousin who abused her as a child and a man who wants her to have his children.
This is the plot standard of the femme fatale come professional hit woman, but written as only Connell can, with alarums and excursions on every other page. While the main story arc can be effortlessly followed, we get by way of diversions numerous learned asides on musical instruments and dance, on the history of Italy and Greece, on art and culture. It is perhaps the kind of decadent story that the Marquis de Sade might have written had he lived in the modern day, not been so fascinated with violence, and had a better prose style. These things elevate the story, provide endlessly fascinating material for the reader to speculate on and enjoy, while at the same time feeding into the main narrative and broadening our engagement with the work. We get hints here of the kind of writer Connell could have become, commercially successful and widely read, if he hadn’t opted for something more ambitious – a genre of one, characterised by a pyrotechnical prose style and unbridled imagination, erudition and a disregard for convention. I loved it.
Which brings us to 2015 and JOTTINGS FROM A FAR AWAY PLACE (Snuggly Books pb, 156pp, £9.95). According to the back cover blurb this is “A book that is like a collection of bulletins from the world of dreams”, and certainly there is a dreamlike quality to this series of stories that is, at the time of reading, the most experimental work I’ve seen from Connell’s pen. There was a time when I and an artist friend clipped memorable phrases from newspapers and magazines – he to use as titles for his paintings and me to assemble into found poetry per the operating procedure of Tristan Tzara. I would like to believe that Connell used a similar methodology for his story titles – ‘Observations’, ‘Habitually Dancing’, ‘A Ramshackle Village’, and ‘Ghost Cave’, to name a few.
Sheltering under these umbrella headings we have numbered sub-sections that can consist of fantastical and absurdist short stories, lists, recipes, non-sequiturs, and Nietszschean style aphorisms, plus whatever else the author can come up with. Sometimes these “fictive moments” are related and on other occasions they standalone, though possibly the author is the only one who can be sure of such delineations. Sometimes the stories within the stories are self-contained and on other occasions they bleed into other sections, as if Connell is an artist who has problems with working within the lines, or rather renounces the idea of lines altogether.
To give you a taste of the stories – we learn of a castle that continually reproduces itself, much to the annoyance of its exclusivity loving owner; we hear of the rivalry between two holy men with differing ideas on the subject of helping a fallen woman cross a river in flood; we have the story of a man reincarnated as a spoon and that of a lecherous priest with designs on the virtue of a woman in his congregation. And so on and so forth. Each story is an exquisitely fashioned gem, with Connell producing delicate prose that delights the ear and the mind, juxtaposing the beauty of his language with the often sordid and vicious acts that are being portrayed. But if the stories are gems it is their setting within the greater collection of literary ephemera that give them their polish. Ultimately this is not a book that will appeal to those whose minds are receptive only to conventional fiction of the beginning, middle and end pedigree, but for those who like to dip their toes into stranger water then we have here a work that can be explored endlessly, with the certainty that you will stumble across some new idea or eminently quotable phrase on each new reading.
I wouldn’t dream of pinning a label on Connell’s oeuvre; it is ultimately too nebulous, too experimental for such reductions. Decadent would perhaps be the term that most usefully conveys something of the flavour of his writing. But however you choose to categorise his work, as these three titles and the two I reviewed on Wednesday prove, Connell is a writer intent on defying reader expectation, a writer who will pop up somewhere else just as soon as you think you know what he’s about, and all you can depend upon are that whatever he produces will be different and daring and worth reading.