The wolf cut him off with an impatient snarl. 'Art is lust! As a man I collected art and thought myself above the crowd. As a beast, without a man's talent for self-flattery, I acquired a better understanding. Art is the voluptuous language of the senses. The artist is a pornographer. The connoisseur is a voyeur. Art is a euphemism that permits humans to indulge all their lusts, however base or alarming, while imagining that they are using their highest and holiest faculties. Man can't decide whether he wants to be an angel or an ape. Art lets him be both.' (p. 30 e-book, from "The Love of Beauty")
It has been nearly ten years since the publication of Australian writer K.J. Bishop's first book, the excellent novel The Etched City. That novel, which contained elements of the late 19th century French Decadents (it is no accident that a quote from Lautréamont's "Poésies" is the epigraph), was one of my favorite novels when I first read it in 2003. Ever since then, I have eagerly awaited Bishop's next book, with only a few short fiction pieces to sate temporarily my appetite for more. Therefore, it was with great surprise and pleasure last month when I was offered by the author herself an e-copy of her December 2012 self-published story collection, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote (from what I understand, a print edition may come out later this year).
That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote contains 19 stories over a little more than 200 iPad e-book pages that span Bishop's writing career, from 1997's "The Art of Dying" to two 2012 stories that are original to this collection. The stories, as Bishop discusses in the notes at the end of the book, run the gamut from Decadent-influenced pieces to those inspired by some of M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories to Borgesian fables to others that are melds of other disparate elements. In the 1999 story "The Love of Dying" (quoted above), there is a transformed wolf who speaks of his former life as a man, who became ensorcelled, first in mind and then in body, by the woman he then loved:
'I was a man once. I wronged a woman. I thought myself ensorcelled by her loveliness, but the only spell was the spell of my own lust. To punish me she enchanted me in truth. She turned me into a beast in body and mind. The one thing I retained of my human nature was my desire for beauty. The woman was not only an accomplished with, but a great ironist.' (p. 29 e-book)
Here, this seeming "beast" is not so much an allegorical representation of the depravities of human nature as he is of the desire for refinement, for a beauty that is beyond the grasp or even ken of human experience. There is something about art, about beauty, that entrances humanity. We lust for it, or at least for its representations. If we cannot possess the winsome wife or the dashing, gallant husband, then a representation of virility or charm is the next best thing. Bishop here explores the tangled connections between lust and love, between desire for possession and desire for creation. It is a very fine line in life and here in her tale, the deeper implications of these alternating conflicting/complementary desires are explored with a subtlety that few authors manage to achieve. The conversations with the beast echo those between The Rev and Gwynn in The Etched City, with much of the power found in the later novel on display here.
There are also nods to The Etched City's Gwynn in the proto-story "The Art of Dying," which was Bishop's first-completed story. In it can be found a working out of themes and images that later appear in the novel. There is a decadent quality to the story, as Mona's fading from life and her lingering embrace of death serves as a counterpart to the staid, almost stodgy bourgeois life which exists around her. As she and Gwynn carry Mona toward her awaiting tomb, Vali has an experience that goes beyond time and toward something quite different:
She fell gradually into a sense of timelessness, as if Time were a woman and she a babe on Time's back, and Time had put her down, until she felt as still and untroubled as the tombs themselves and sensed a mysterious familiarity with the stars.
As she grew more deeply immersed in this state she came to an understanding that the universe was alive. It breathed with the breath of multitudes, and it did not know loneliness. If it loved, there was nothing of need or desire in its love. The priests of this country would say that the night's ravine was alive with God, but she couldn't imagine their God inhabiting that enormous tranquillity. The state of grace flowed without regard for custom or for its own alienness to everything it touched. (p. 12 e-book)
This sense of the numinous pervades several of her later fictions. There is no resolution, nothing that can be explained, only feelings that are derived from these fleeting contacts with the inexplicable. This weird quality, of there being something unexplainable and yet often desirable, inhabits the nooks and crannies of most of Bishop's fictions here. The reader senses it, but can't quite describe what she herself might be experiencing. Bishop's stories puzzle and tantalize the more the reader considers the import of the fictions being read. Bishop's careful placement of images and dialogue creates an almost hallucinatory effect within even the more mundane-seeming stories of hers. The characters tread that narrow path between being empty vessels that will receive within them these transformative events and active actors who cause themselves these transformations of image and spoken word into something different than what first appeared to be the case. Despite there being differences in tone and narrative between these 19 stories, there is a uniformity of quality that makes That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote one of the best short fiction collections I read in 2012. Its deceptive narratives will entrance readers, perhaps lingering with them for days or weeks after the final story is read. If literature is art and art is lust, then perhaps we are left lusting for more fiction from Bishop in the near future. Highly recommended.