OR: Weirdtongue

The first part of a feature on the work of D. F. Lewis that originally appeared in Black Static #25:-


In the UK the name D. F. Lewis is pretty much synonymous with the independent or small press, though probably less familiar, if known at all, to anyone from outside those circles. A prolific writer, Lewis has had more than 1500 short stories published, and that total has almost certainly changed since I last checked, but longer work from his word processor is rare. 2011 is a bench mark year, with the appearance of a new novella and Lewis’ first published novel.

Lewis is a writer with a distinctive and idiosyncratic prose style, to such an extent that at times he almost seems to be writing in another language, one that uses the same words as English but in an entirely different way, with his own neologisms thrown into the mix to create a patois or weirdtongue that is probably only understood in its totality by Lewis himself, while the rest of us are left guessing as to the meaning of any given phrase. Posterity may judge differently, but at the moment he seems condemned to cult status, his fiction appreciated by an audience that values work that is innovative and challenging, that revels in its difficulty.

I count myself part of that audience, and yet there are times when I find his writing simply too abstruse. His work brings to mind one of my favourite aphorisms from the pen of Nietzsche – ‘Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity.’ I’ve no idea if Lewis wishes to be thought profound, but there are certainly moments when I feel he needs to work a bit harder at the whole clarity thing.

I’ve not been keeping count, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve read more than five hundred stories by Lewis over the years, a mix of good, bad and indifferent, but each rehearsed in that unique and often beguiling prose style of his, churning up thoughts and images that linger in the subconscious long after the reading is done. The important question is if the effects engendered by these short, sharp shocks – ram raids on the psyche of the reader – can be sustained at the greater length that constitutes a novel/novella, or if the whole enterprise will implode under the weight of its own arch-weirdness and abstraction.

WEIRDTONGUE (Inkermen Press paperback, 122pp, £7.99) is the second novella I’ve read by the author, released more ten years after Agra Aska. Subtitled ‘A Glistenberry Romance’, it contains all the traits that both appeal and, possibly, appal when it comes to Lewis’ work. There are the self-invented neologisms and the sentences that seem to ramble on and on, ever further from the shore of any common language – ‘In this way, nemophobia and nemophilia, whilst superficial opposites, were also part of a synergistic, symbiotic oxymoron-relationship, a situation that encouraged further self-effacement by needing to face up to the self-disgust created by the recognition of the self itself ’ – so that, while there is sense to be untangled from the avalanche of words, their cumulative effect, the rhythm of the prose, is akin to a form of white noise that eclipses all meaning. And there is also the rich and inventive word play that has become one of the trademarks of Lewis’ work, the striking imagery and the ensemble cast of familiar characters, each with distinguishing traits.

Initially I felt like abandoning this book, irritated by what I perceived as the author’s perversely self-indulgent and self-aggrandising technique, the way in which he always seemed to be striving for the most oblique way of expressing himself. But about a third of the way through things clicked into place and I started to be won over by the writer’s vision, to accept him on his own terms rather than apply conventional standards: maybe I’d got sucked into the writer’s mindset, or maybe Lewis is such a natural writer that he couldn’t keep up the pseudointellectual folderol forever and so lapsed into intelligibility, or a close approximation. Whatever the reason, the quality of the prose and imagery, the narrative games played, was enough to win me over, and yes, there are games being played here, but to paraphrase a Jethro Tull lyric, ‘it’s not chess Pete, it’s solitaire’, Lewis is playing with himself (pun intended) and allowing the rest of us to watch.

The plot is nebulous, with only the assurance of the characters themselves that there’s cohesion and a structure of sorts to the work. The story opens in the so called Narrative Hospital with a patient named Gregory Mummerset, then hares off round the globe reintroducing such familiar Lewis characters as Padgett Weggs, Feemy Fitzworth and the Weirdmonger, and Lewis himself (more accurately, a character answering to the name of Lewis and claiming to be the author of the work) appears at a later stage. Though none of them speak Cockney, they bring to mind Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius brood. There are also new (to me) creations such as the clown Modal Morales and Captain Bintiff. Each of them seems to be on a quest of some sort, characters in search of a narrative, or hanging on by the skin of their teeth as the author, or some other force, tries to expunge their presence from the tale.

Lewis’ learning is encyclopaedic. There are references to Glastonbury and John Cowper Powys, the composer Charles Ives, the work of Thomas Mann, television programmes from a 50s childhood, and probably a host of other allusions that flew right over my head. There is elaborate word play, with ‘Glistenberry’ used for Glastonbury, and given a deliciously sinister resonance, and a band suggestively named Goldwrap, and further language contortions, substitutions and mergers that delight with their invention. And unfortunately there are also typos, at least half a dozen according to my count, though in this case there are grounds for cutting the poor old proofreader some slack, as sorting the tweet from the chat must be difficult where Lewis is concerned, if not near impossible.

The book wears its metafictional status with pride, with the characters discussing plot developments or lack thereof, and word allocation corresponding to lifespan, so that members of the dramatis personae acknowledge that they only have so many more words in which to achieve their narrative ends. There’s even an element of self-criticism, with a character named Simplon ridiculing readers (and presumably reviewers) who wish the author to write more simply, a trick that Lewis also used in Agra Aska, though not as comprehensively as here, nor with quite as much pertinence to the writer-reader interface.

I’m not sure that I fully understand this book, or that I ever could. Indeed the case could be made that ultimately there is nothing to understand, that like some works of modern art Weirdtongue exists simply by virtue of whatever effects it creates in the viewer/reader, and whether you sneer dismissively or reach for your cheque book is entirely a matter of personal preference. For me, its defining quality is playfulness. Lewis is, quite simply, having fun with words and narratives, and splendidly so. Whether there is anything more substantial to it than that is entirely down to reader subjectivity.


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1 Response to OR: Weirdtongue

  1. Pingback: OR: Nemonymous Night | Trumpetville

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