Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Personal Taxidermy

by Stuart Forsyth
Vanark Press 2007

Personal Taxidermy is an quirky Melbourne fairy tale in the form of a novel. It seems to be a first book written from start to finish with minimal planning, no revision and subjected to only a fleeting copy edit. Despite this or perhaps even because of it, it held me through to the conclusion. The rawness is oddly compelling, and that much roughage can only be good for you.

The story begins when a lost boy, Widmo, is discovered by a prostitute in a CBD alley. Having lost all memory of his past life, she takes him to stay in an old hotel with her. The story then follows the boy's attempts to discover who he really is. Unfortunately the plot only gets started several chapters into the book. It seems to take forever to get properly rolling and it's almost as if you have to push start it yourself. Widmo forever seems to be waking up in his room, walking out the door observing the hotel on the way, and then going to visit one of the supporting characters.  The characters are arranged like landmarks on a map, and none of them seem conerned that a twelve year old amnesic is walking the city without a guardian. Plotlines branch out everywhere and some of them seem to have been aborted mid-construction. The fish scale / biology lab episode is one of these, and it is never explained why Widmo choses to look for the bat-guy's ex-lover in an arbitrary brothel.

The book is sylistically variegated, moving from realism to frivolous excess and back again. The use of wild metaphors is particularly entertaining, for example a woman is described as being “lodged like chewing gum to the roof of my brain.” This contrasts with some quite poignant realistic passages, such as the beleagured prostitute taking heroin. The author also has a strange habit of finishing a chapter with a lavish description of something irrelevant, which eventually becomes mildly irritating. Free verse is even used (successfully) to convey some kind of inner voice or collective unconscious.

The plot becomes less important as the novel eventually blooms into surrealism, a presentation of the inexpressible.  Recurring motifs here are light and darkness, and the bewildering notion that shadows exist independently of their objects. There is even a hint of the supernatural, and the main ambiguities of the novel can probably be forgiven considering how strange it all becomes.

This is a good novel, but it could have been much better, had it reached the claws of a severe and merciless editor. There are several unnecessary switches of perspective between Natalie and Widmo in the first chapters, and later there are shifts between other characters as well. This makes for sloppy reading. Also annoying is the copy editing – the spelling is fine but far too often whole incorrect words have been left behind, i.e. “the” instead of “then”.

Perhaps too, Personal Taxidermy should have been cut down to size, leaving two thirds of it on the cutting room floor. If so it would have resembled the Little Prince, or a Brautigan-type fable such as In Watermelon Sugar. Hopefully the author (and publishing company) stick at it, because this is undoubtedly a good first effort. Three stars.

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