Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children (2011) by Brendan Connell

Yikes, a book published this century ? Yes indeed, a title I started on the strength of a promising review online, and probably the most recent thing I have read in years.

Of the 11 stories present in this volume, only about 2 of them I'd say are really good, with one that is almost there but stumbles. That leaves a lot of things that sadly left me in a bit of a sour mood.

To get the bad out of the way first, both The Dancing Billionaire and Maledict Michela are utterly pointless. One has a character almost grow as a person but then deciding not to and the other has a German who likes feet marry a woman and make eyes at the cleaning lady. I find no real lasting appeal in either of these.

The Slug, while fitting the theme of degradation, seems to be largely without any reason behind it's central conceit, and so it feels more like a philosophical excercise than a story.

Peter Payne, while technically a story, doesn't have much to it, and it doesn't seem to fit with the theme the book sometimes tries to convey, and honestly it is the least interesting piece in the collection if one discounts the two damp squibs mentioned above.

Collapsing Claude does go with the overall theme of degradation, but it isn't the most interesting of premises, with a man being forced as a third, degraded wheel in a three way relationship with a horribly ugly woman.

Molten Rage is basically a slow description of the collapse and destitution of a worker and of the hypocrisy of his intellectual friend, the so called champion of worker's rights. It is servicable for what is it but like thw previous two stories fails to really grab you or present something more novel.

The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon is something that tries very hard to ape the title story in presentation and in execution and I argue it would have been sucessful and worthy of being included as one of the genuinely good and fitting stories of this collection, provided the ending cut, as it, despite conjuring up a single specific potent image, I definitely can say tries way too hard and thus spoils the whole broth.

The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes is another story that could be genuinely good, but isn't. All the pieces are there for it to be genuinely an interesting, metaphysical read, but Connell stumbles over himself and ends things before anything truly happens. Both the setting in 19th-early 20th Century Prague Ghetto and the mystical rituals invoked remind one very strongly of Meyrink and one is to wonder what he could have done with the concept. Not helping Connell any is that his characters walk by a magician who it's apparently not good to associate with, but then that's dropped and most of the story is taken up with people drinking beer.

Brother of the Holy Ghost, the story that more than any of the previous ones is close to being good, and perhaps can even be said to be so, but not to the fullest degree possible. Showcasing the life and incompetent reign of Pope Celestine V, as well as showcasing some dark secrets from his past, should do well to make it stand alongside the title story, but unfortunately the stream-of-consciousness writing that Connell likes to sometimes engage in does this story some disservice, which is topped off with it's rather short length and lack of any great detail afforded to the events and incidents alluded to.

The Search for Savino is one of the two really good pieces in this collection, and it is slightly annoying that this is the only story not solely authored by Connell, being co-writen by Forrest Aguirre. In essence it is the examination of the life and works of a fictional painter, as well as the rather bizzare art he creates in secret and leaves behind as a monument. The story, more than anything else, reminded me very strongly of Borges.

And finally, The Life of Polycrates, is the story of the life, reign, tyranny and cruelty of Polycrates, Tyrant of Samos, detailing his beneficial and monstrous deeds in equal measure, and using various excerpts and letters as well as snippets of narrative to paint out the life of this most amusing rogue. it is by far the best story in the collection, and even the notes attached to it contain many short and intriquing episodes and anecdotes. One only wishes the whole book was of this nature and quality.

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