Tag Archives: death & dying

Chapman’s Odyssey by Paul Bailey

Paul Bailey’s latest novel, Chapman’s Odyssey, is mostly set within the confines of a London hospital. The story plays with the idea of memory through the mind of one man, Harry Chapman, a writer aged 70, collapsed and whisked off to hospital where he remains undergoing numerous tests and awaiting a diagnosis. Naturally, he contemplates the possibility of death, and in the twilight moments of sleep and effected by drugs, he has numerous visitations and conversations with a wide range of ‘visitors’–mostly imagined. There’s his indomitable mother, Alice, who lived to the ripe old age of ninety–a reassuring thought when one is facing death at 70:

Was it courtesy of Dr Pereira’s wonder drug that he was hearing her now, her naturally harsh voice sharpened by hurt and disappointment?

During his quiet and lonely moments, sometimes tempered with sedatives and painkillers, Alice’s words return as arguments and recriminations are revived, and Harry recalls his mother’s favourite phrase:

–Get back in you pram, Harry Chapman.

That taunt for all his childhood; that lethal combination of five short words intended to diminish him; oh the terrible inference that he would never grow into the kind of manhood she might approve of–her it was, harshly expressed, unsettling him, angering him, in this hospital ward, in a changed London, on the eve of his seventieth birthday.

Fortunately, Alice is not the only memory to visit. There are many other visitors from Harry’s past, including a local homeless woman known as The Duchess of Bombay, but most curiously, fictional characters impose their equally real presence as they appear from the novels of Harry’s reading past:

–Who are you?

He was curious to identify the stranger.

–You don’t recognise me?

–I can scarcely hear you.

–I have not much to say. I have no reason to speak louder.

He thought he detected a subtle American twang, suggestive of a refined New England upbringing, perhaps.

–Then why are you bothering to talk to me?

–I am bothering to talk to you because I cannot–no, I must not–be bothered.

–Did I meet you in New York?

–You have met me in many places. We have been companions of a kind in London and in Rome and once, I believe, in Calcutta. I am unusually verbose tonight. I am, usually, a man of very few, necessary words. That is my customary condition.

And this is madness, Harry Chapman thought, to be communing with someone who never lived, except in the pages of a little book.

–Are you still there?

He was relieved that there was no answer. Of course Bartleby wasn’t there. It had been the purest lunacy to have imagined that he ever was.

That quote should give a taste of both the writer’s style and the sort of encounters Harry has throughout the novel as he lies in his hospital bed and waits for the results of his tests. Visits from Pip (Great Expectations) are every bit as real as Harry’s conversations with his dead lovers. It’s impossible to read Chapman’s Odyssey without wondering which literary characters would come and visit us in our hours of illness and loneliness, and yet even as I considered the possibilities, it seemed both fantastic and wonderfully reassuring that visits from some of the great fictional characters who have become… well… our treasured compansions in their adventures and adversities should come and visit in our hour of need. Unfortunately, this is a cleverly written novel which will appeal only to people who ‘get’ the frequent literary allusions as Bailey is writing for a literate audience who know their Austen and their Dostoevsky.

The book’s title, Chapman’s Odyssey, is in itself a play on words and a giveaway about the novel’s complexities. George Chapman translated the first complete Homer’s Odyssey in English in the 16th century and died in poverty and debt. Our modern-day protagonist, Harry Chapman, has his odyssey from the confines of his hospital bed where he recalls the highlights of his life, the people who meant a great deal to him, and the moments that shook his life to its foundations. These memories are mingled with his waking moments when he regales the nurses with poems he’d memorised, and then when he nods off to sleep, finally, he meets all the fictional characters who composed another part of his life: his reading life which is every bit as real as the great passions and that poisoned, tortured relationship with his mother.

Chapman’s Odyssey is a rather sad novel–not so much because of the direct subject matter–a man waiting to hear whether or not he’s going to die; instead the novel is sad because of its immense poignancy. Stuck in bed, surrounded by nurses, doctors and other patients, Harry is diminished, at first by his mother, and now at the end of his life to a set of symptoms and an elusive disease. Death and disease are the great levellers of humankind and no respecter of youth, circumstances or wealth. Harry struggles against this leveller not by the usual cliché ‘it isn’t fair,’; in Harry’s case he tries to assert his individuality by reciting poetry to the nurses and engaging in pedantic mental wordplay to assure himself of his individuality in the face of death. The figures from the past mingle equally with the figures of fictional characters as if there is little difference between the two, and perhaps, after all, this is the only level of immortality we will ever reach as we become visiting shades in the memories of those who loved us.

Had there ever been a golden age in the long life of Harry Chapman? He tried to recall it as he lay–dying, perhaps–in the room reserved for those poised on the very brink.

 Review copy from publisher

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The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest,  The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.

Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like  Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:

How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.

None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.

Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t.  To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost”  who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on? 

Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:

Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?

We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:

What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.

These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen,  physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.

The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.

A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:

He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.

And again:

A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of  local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.

Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages.  Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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The Maimed by Hermann Ungar

I came across The Maimed by Hermann Ungar while trawling through the Dedalus website. I’m stating for the record that I didn’t love this book (I wonder if anyone does), but I didn’t loathe it either. Instead I am left with the sensation that I inadvertently gawked at someone else’s rather sick and twisted sex life. Yes, I’m a bit appalled and at the same time, damn it, curious in spite of myself.

The back cover includes a quote from Stefan Zweig (which influenced the purchase). To Zweig The Maimed was “wonderful and horrible, captivating and repulsive, unforgettable, although one would be glad to be able to forget it.” Strange praise indeed. I’ll agree with everything except the “wonderful” part, but I’d add “kinky” to the book’s other attributes.

Born in 1893, Ungar was a Czech, German-speaking  jew who wrote just two novels before his premature death in 1929 of peritonitis. His surviving body of work suffers from a combination of being thrown away, lost or simply forgotten.  At one point, he was called “the most important writer of the decade,” but Ungar died before the decade concluded. After finishing the novel, I found myself wondering what sort of person Ungar was. Everyone in the novel suffers from phobias, and various pathological mental states, including obsessions, fetishism, and paranoia. What would Freud have made of this novel?….

The novel’s main character is Franz Polzer, and when the story begins, Polzer is a middle-aged man whose entire life revolves around his job as a bank clerk. This is not to say that he cares about his job particularly or devotes himself to his career–rather he has nothing else in his life other than work. The son of a “shopkeeper in a little country town,” Polzer was brought up by his widowed father and an aunt. And what a couple of sickies these two are. Polzer’s hideous childhood memories include some rather shadowy impressions of his father’s true relationship with his sister. As a child, Polzer was frequently held down and beaten by this pair, and Polzer’s psychosexual development becomes somewhat coloured by masochistic impulses as a result.

When the novel begins, Polzer has worked at the bank for 17 years. He briefly attended university with plans of becoming a doctor but these plans were dashed when his benefactor, the wealthy father of Polzer’s best friend, Karl, withdrew support. Up to that point, Polzer had attended university along with his friend, but Karl’s ill-health forced him to drop out, and then Polzer took a job at the bank. Here’s Polzer’s abysmal life:

Franz Polzer had been told that, given his abilities, he could, with industry and application, rise to a senior position  in his profession. Through all the years he had never reflected on the fact that the hopes he pinned on his career had not been fulfilled. He had forgotten them. He forgot them in all the little activities which, from the very beginning, his time had been divided up. He got out of bed in the morning, washed, dressed, glanced at the newspaper while he was having breakfast, and went to the bank. He sat down at his desk, on which were piles of papers which he had to compare with entries in the ledgers on the shelves round him. He signed each sheet, when he had checked it, with the initials of his name and placed it in a file. All around the office, and in the other rooms, there were many other men and women sitting, like him, at desks that looked just the same as his. The whole building was filled with the smell of these men and women, with the noise of their monotonous activity and conversations. Franz Polzer was equal to the demands his work made on him. It offered no opportunity of distinguishing himself and therefore no chance of attracting the attention of his superiors.

A couple of things struck me about this passage. Polzer is too dulled to even think about disappointed hopes, and then he seems repulsed by the physical presence (smells and sounds) of the other people in the office. Yes, indeed, Polzer does have a horror of physical contact. And so when Polzer’s plump landlady, the lusty widow Frau Porges begins to make sexual demands on Polzer, well we know it can only lead to trouble….

Polzer’s private life becomes so out-of-control he decides to go and see his old friend, Karl. This, as it turns out is a serious mistake. Karl is extremely ill and suffering from a  progressive chronic disease. His legs have been amputated, his body is covered with abscesses and he’s about to have an arm amputated. Karl’s life is a worse mess than Polzer’s, and there’s the distinct possibility that Karl’s mind is also diseased. He’s constantly accusing his wife, Dora of infidelity, yet he demands a male nurse to help with his daily care. There are hints of Karl’s rather strange sexual tendencies. Just how much should Polzer believe?

At this point, the novel switches from Polzer’s problem with his insatiable landlady and her groppy friend Kamilla, and instead Polzer sinks deeper and deeper into the mire surrounding Karl’s domestic arrangements. In some ways The Maimed feels like two different books. The first novel concerns the pathetic figure of Polzer, a man who’s horrified by female flesh and who may have homosexual tendencies, but then the novel shifts focus as it moves away from Polzer’s life and into Karl’s orbit.

Ungar’s Polzer is the progeny of Decadent author Huysmans. In Huysmans’ With the Flow, middle-aged office clerk Jean Folantin ekes out his meagre budget in a futile attempt to derive some pleasure from life. Polzer is a hollowed-out version of Folantin, and even the anticipation of pleasure remains elusive to Polzer. He “longed to play billiards” but declines to due to fear of “putting his body movements on display.” Polzer shrinks from his landlady’s advances, and yet surrenders when she applies the correct combination of punishment with authoritarianism.

With the whereabouts of an amputated limb, a missing fetish object, a cult of death and guilt, a dominatrix, exhibitionism, masturbation, and sadomasochism to boot, The Maimed is not for all readers. This is a strange novel indeed, full, as its title suggests, not of wounded people, but mutilated and defective people. Karl’s disease with its stench, its pus and its sores is the physical manifestation of the damage. While Karl serves as the hub of all this disturbed and disturbing behaviour, it’s what lies underneath that is truly horrifying:

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

Translated by Mike Mitchell.

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