God’s Autobio

God's Autobio by RolliAuthor: Rolli
Publisher: Now Or Never Publishing (2011)
Number of Pages: 233
How long it took me to read: 1 week
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-1-926942-02-5

Like a Moth to a Flame

The prospect of reading short stories never really appeals to me. When I search my memory for the tales that have had a powerful, long-lived effect, it is usually the ranging modulations of novels I recall, not the brief blasts of intrigue or emotional nudging of short stories. If I had to take a guess on why this might be, I might venture their erratic compilation—so many anthologies zip blindly from one theme or genre to another that their effects crumble just as they are beginning to build, or their reductive experimentalism—even if the writing is well stewed, the ideas in each story often lack the vital ingredients to engage me. I prefer to lose my self completely in a story, to melt into its murky depths, to resurface with its insights and ideas fully merged with my own. The few short stories that I remember with any clarity are Edgar Allen Poe’s gradual descents into darkness, and the shifting, ethereal beachscapes of JG Ballard’s Vermilion Sands. I know I’ve read many more than this, Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew and Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime spring to mind, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them now. Nothing of their characters, settings or plots remains in my head (apart from the former’s disturbingly atmospheric The Mist).

Love them or hate them, I’ll have to get used to short stories: they will be the focus of the next module on my MA Creative Writing course. I’ll be writing them, reading them, learning about them and critiquing them. So when God’s Autobio was submitted to The UBR, it seemed a timely opportunity to begin my re-education.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “I think—I don’t think I’m happier, now that I’ve stopped fighting. But it’s easier. Accepting things. Even…if it means suffering. Not feeling it, the wind, when it goes by. Just laying back, D. It’s a strange night.” ~14th Ave (p.135)

4. “Aegean Sea. The very name is peace. Conclusion. I am told not everyone finds it, this place they seek. Many must die, or become lost, abandoning their search. But it’s the dream, the last ambition of every whale, to find it.” ~I am a Whale (p.73)

3. “Something about the guy. Just couldn’t be direct. Like saying what you think would be too easy. Not poetical enough. Or maybe he just thought he was being polite or something. But I’m a pretty tell it like it is kinda guy, and when your answer to something like, ‘Coffee too dark, chief?’ is to twirl your finger in your hair and glance up at the moon, well, it’s fucking aggravating.” ~Blake’s Butler (p.81)

2. “The walls in the cellar—for this was invariably the site of my castigation—were of a dull brown color which, when speckled with blood, so strongly resembled toast spread with jam that it was only by focusing on this humble commodity that I was able to endure these sessions, and walk away from them with my pride—and indeed my faculties—intact.” ~I Am A Butler (p.140)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “I’ve been living inside myself. When things aren’t right, you kind of live…inside yourself. Nothing can touch you but your own skin. And whatever touches it, you can’t feel it. It’s not real.” ~Dreamer (p.175)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: scrimshaw (noun)

Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): 1) a carved or engraved article, especially of whale ivory, whalebone, walrus tusks, or the like, made by whalers as a leisure occupation; 2) such articles or work collectively; 3) the art or technique of carving or engraving whale ivory, whalebone, walrus tusks, etc.
Origins (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary): 1864; back-formation from scrimshander (Moby Dick, 1851); scrimshonting (1825); American English nautical word, of unknown origin; scrimshaw is an English surname, attested from mid-12c.; from Old French escremisseor ‘fencing-master’
As in: “There was scrimshaw, and there were paintings, it seemed, at every glance.” ~I Am A Butler (p.143)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“The book’s blurb fails to reveal how erratic these 26 rides, constructed by Canadian author Rolli, are likely to be but the backdrops it describes threaten, at best, kaleidoscopic irreverence, or worst, gaudy whimsicality:

“…a man with a ridiculously huge coupon… an elderly woman who befriends a frenzied robotic chimpanzee… an overzealous, if increasingly masochistic butler…”

“I’ll just have to strap in and brace myself for the unknown.”

“As I begin jotting down notes for this review, I encounter the first problem short stories present as opposed to the novel: how best to respond to them? By each individual story? (With thirty mini-reactions, this review could drag on far beyond any interest for the reader.) By section? (There are three: ‘Impossible Fictions,’ ‘Possible Fictions’ and ‘Penny Fictions,’ within which the stories may not have any thematic relationship—certainly my experience of the first three suggests not.) Or by the holistic effect of the book (one single, likely reductive, response)? It’s difficult to make a decision on any of this while still in the process of reading—though I learn more about the style, imagination and preoccupations of the writer as I continue, I have learned all I am going to about each individual story by the time it ends. But if I don’t make a decision soon then I might find myself with no notes at all of any worth. So, rather than attempting to frame this review within any particular argument or purpose, I am just going to note down any observations or responses as they occur. As a result, it’s likely to be untidy for many readers, but should better represent my journey through a collection of seemingly unrelated tales.”

“Structurally, short story compilations have more in common with a music album than a novel: various distinct entities linked by only one necessarily common aspect: their creators. In Rolli’s case, at least for this first section of ‘Impossible Fictions’, think They Might be Giants. At times crazy, sensitive, intellectual, devilish, sardonic, but always giving a sense of deeper purpose, even when there may not be one, apart from the omnipresent enjoyment of mastering a craft and delighting when others enjoy it, too.”

“Each individual tale, though, is more akin to a painting, or a series of paintings: an attempt to create one, or several, striking visual images to drive home its themes and ideas, often without narrative resolution. If that image is vivid enough, then this cutting short of the story—the sense of receiving only a fragment of each tale, that the situation continues out of reach of my observation—causes it to linger in my mind. The key question I find myself asking then is not so much what happens next, but what is important about the part that has been included? What is the effect it leaves me with, that requires no resolution? There are moments when Rolli achieves his effect impeccably without need for resolution (e.g., ‘The Irrepressible Head of Pierre Elliot Trudeau,’ on the nature of fame/celebrity). There are others that feel as though he has sketched out an excellent idea that he just didn’t feel like painting to completion, or that at least failed to resonate with me on any level (e.g., ‘The Man with the Ridiculously Huge Coupon,’ ‘Family Crypt’).”

“Interestingly, the day after writing the previous paragraph, I hear a critic on Radio 4 describing short stories as not simply being longer stories or novels cut short but as complete, concise entities in their own right. That’s a stirring sound bite, I’m sure, but he obviously hasn’t read any of Rolli’s work, or Roald Dahl’s Kiss Kiss, through which I am also working my way. For both of these writers, refusal to resolve the plot is often a very deliberate device to achieve their desired effect, or simply a statement that the effect can be better achieved by leaving it to simmer in the readers’ imaginations. I don’t remember it being used so blatantly in any novel I have ever read, presumably because anyone working their way through 60,000-odd words to find nothing but a ragged hole and a sign reading ‘fill in the rest yourself’ would be justifiably unsatisfied. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done, but certainly never as often or as unsubtly as it is in the short stories of these two books. I could imagine some of their tales being spun out, arguably unnecessarily, to at least the length of a novella. (As Dahl himself proved with the final story in his compilation, ‘Champion of the World,’ which later became Danny: The Champion of the World).

“Not that every story in this collection feels truncated. There are many that are fully fleshed out, despite their brevity, like ‘Chimpanions’ ’ chillingly amusing take on accountability/parenthood. There are others that seem to exist just because the initial idea is plain funny—just for laughs, but intelligent laughs*—such as the salacious amusement of pairing William Blake with a modern-day Brooklyn roughneck in ‘Blake’s Butler.’ A few spin a sonorous, dreamlike web of prosody (e.g., ‘I Am A Whale’) betraying Rolli’s poet’s roots. Some appear to challenge ethical assumptions: ‘Von Clair and The Tiger’ is a wonderful sidestep into an alternative perspective on human ‘worth.’ It makes my blood sing when writers display an ability to view our species’ existence with such displaced objectivity and, despite approaching preachiness at a couple of moments, the humour and imagination in this story hold me back from feeling patronised, making it the perfect introduction to the collection. Rolli understands the inherent purposelessness of life, but loves nothing more than to wrap its many folds and creases around himself. He presents it as an object of eternal curiosity, to be patted, scratched and thrown around, like a kitten playing with a ball of string.

(*Not that humour needs the justification of intelligence—it should always be savoured for its own sake, an essential hiccup in the foundations of the brain that prevents our darker elements from leaking out).

“While Rolli shifts styles with grace and professionalism, like a writing ballerina (or, more accurately, a dirty dancer), his works show a definite preference for first person perspective. This emphasis on characterisation allows him to display an impressive ear for dialect, relying more on regional vocabulary and syntax than the re-spelling of words. (Having recently endured Michael Moorcock’s over-egged usage of cockney vernacular in The Vengeance of Rome ([e.g., ‘We fought ya wos wiv that Enrst Röhm, but ’e tol’ ’Uggy ’e ’and’t seen yer fer monfs.’ (p.410)], which sullied an otherwise immaculate piece of fiction, this comes as a particular relief).”

“It is hard, sometimes, to acclimatise when moving from one style of novel to another in quick succession. In short story collections, where each tale is a new journey into the unknown, this effect can be extremely jarring, and often made worse by the ‘erratic compilation’ to which I earlier referred. Having now moved on to the second part of the book, titled ‘Possible Fictions,’ I suspect the separation into three sections was an attempt to settle this literary jetlag, though the tone is so strikingly different between these sections it fails to quell the feeling that I’ve been chloroformed and flown to a different continent. The sudden philosophical sobriety could perhaps be better described as Paul Simon to the previous section’s They Might Be Giants? If I wasn’t reading quickly for review purposes, I’d be tempted to put the book down for a few days, to give my head time to stop spinning. There’s an interesting distinction between these two sections, though: the Impossible fiction being reserved for levity, and the Possible for gravity. I wonder what reason there might be for this, and if the author himself is aware of it? What might the third section, ‘Penny Fiction,’ offer, after these? Also interesting is that most of Rolli’s previous writing style is retained, and is no less successful for having dropped the humour, as if it is being written by some serious-minded doppelganger. I’m not going to attempt an ill-considered psychoanalysis of a person whom I’ve never met, but there is an intriguing dualism at work here nonetheless. I would love to see how these elements might combine and play off each other in a longer piece of writing. Any plans for a novel at some point, Mr. Rolli?”

“From these ‘Possible Fictions,’ I feel obliged to pick out a few notable tales, as I did with the earlier section: The elegantly crafted reversal on nature/nurture and self-delusion of ‘I am a Butler’ and the desolate prospecting and unexpected altruism of ‘The Blue Room,’ which brought to mind one of my favourite films, There Will Be Blood, are unlikely to fade from memory any time soon. ‘Dreamer’ almost made me cry. Almost, because from an early age I was fortunate enough to see ambition as something to be feared, not chased. Almost, because I’ve already gone through the process of rending the story describes and, in some ways, I’ve become the shell the narrator refuses to become. Almost, because every day we kill the more sensitive parts of our selves just to endure this world. Perhaps this is not a sacrifice worth making. Perhaps our sensitivities are more important to retain than our sanity. This page-long monologue has given me plenty to think about, more than many novels.”

“To answer my earlier question, of how Rolli would follow the levity of the first section and the gravity of the second, the third, ‘Penny Fiction,’ can best be described as a sinister take on mental isolation. Think Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but in third-person, and without any sympathetic compromises to ensure a satisfying resolution. The stories here are the natural convergence of Rolli’s possible and impossible fictions, where the subjective narrative of one person’s mind collides with the objective world around them. They are the most frightening of Rolli’s stories, written with the tonal levity of the Impossibles but suggesting the grim, insurmountable reality of the Possibles. Disturbing, and tragically funny, these are the apex of Rolli’s writing and, for some, likely to prove the hardest climb of all. They challenge me to examine the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the version of the world that plays out within my own mind, and to accept the meagre spotlight of human perception.”

“Short stories, when well-written, are not forgettable because they are ineffective, or lack meaning, but because so many come at such a quick pace, wave after wave crashing upon you before you can draw another breath. Therefore, to anyone who might read this book, my advice is to take your time. Enjoy each tale as it comes, and resist the impulse to move immediately on to the next one. Appreciate each instance of writing, each visual image, with the same relish that has gone into creating it. Then move on, because you will want to. (Unless you happen to be of a squeamish disposition, in which case some of the stories will either have you moving on prematurely or possibly closing the book forever.)

God’s Autobio has been, in many ways, the perfect re-introduction to the short story for me, displaying a vast spectrum of possibilities for the form, and providing a sustained reminder of the vast potential for words in any medium, from agonising pathos up through the deepest, most beautiful, poetry and on to the lightest hilarity. Perhaps the only reason that novels have proven to be more memorable for me in the past is because of the amount of time I have had to invest in them. Perhaps my more persistent memories are nothing but an illusion of my own limited perception. Can there be as much depth in one chapter, one page or one sentence as in a 300-page story? I’m now looking forward, with much more positivity, to finding out what I might achieve when approaching brevity as a tool rather than a handicap.”

Gareth Long

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1 Comment

  1. […] out of its rigid body, appears to be either very staticy or highly explosive. Having reviewed Rolli’s previous book submission, I know he is a poet as well as a writer of short stories, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the […]

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