EQUUS Press was established in 2011 in Prague with the objective of publishing new writing that is innovative and doubly marginalised: written outside the literary establishment defined by the Anglo-American publishing industry, and outside the confines of nationalism, pursuing a cosmopolitan agenda. Such a doubly marginalised position, it is our firm belief, allows for a writing both idiosyncratic and authoritative. This marginalized writing can take a stand, make a change, and matter – things increasingly rare in titles conforming to the dictates of the book market and the tastes of mass readership. Writing published by EQUUS, though diverse in its genre, form and style, is always concerned with dwelling, identity, and place as experiences of writing. Writers published with us are concerned with writing not as a vocation, but as a way of living. EQUUS aims to become part of the kind of momentum which has been gathering in Prague over the last several years, with the city re-emerging as a genuinely cosmopolitan centre.
EQUUS’s inaugural title was Clair Obscur by Louis Armand, which replied to the publisher’s search for innovative writing with a volume of prose which explores the relations between cinematic and literary writing as containers of, and vehicles for, memory. Reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ or Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s and Samuel Beckett’s fiction—though in no way reducible to any one of them—Armand’s novel reads history, both personal and general, as a palimpsest of place-bound traumas, as a ghost-story of ever-eluding loss in which “only the dead return.” Taking place alternatively in Trieste, Venice, Marseilles, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Clair Obscur reconstructs some of the most acute traumas of the past century. Reading the 1990s Yugoslavia war through the prism of the fascist terror in the Trieste of the 1930s and 40s, Armand’s text launches a sustained poetic reflection on memory, guilt, fantasy and desire in the cataclysmic history of Europe in the past sixty years.
In early 2012, thanks to the hospitality and enthusiasm of Birkbeck College, University of London, EQUUS established itself as a publisher with a base in the UK. Three new EQUUS Press titles by three Prague-based Anglophone writers were launched in London and Manchester in mid-April, 2012. Each work in its own way embodies the kind of writing that EQUUS aims to promote: Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight, Thor Garcia’s The News Clown, and Ken Nash’s Brain Harvest.
Louis Armand’s Breakfast At Midnight
A brief synopsis of Louis Armand’s Breakfast At Midnight would run as follows: Its nameless narrator has returned to Prague after ten years wandering through Mexico and South America as a fugitive. Back in Prague, the narrator moves into a barge on the Vltava River and attempts to reconstruct the circumstances (of his father’s murder) that led to his becoming a fugitive while also searching for his childhood lover, Regen, who ten years earlier disappeared after a series of violent events and under mysterious circumstances. He reunites with Blake, a fellow exile whom he’d met on his South American peregrinations and who’s turned from a drug-dealer and hustler into a photographer with the double fondness for photographing corpses and playing games with the narrator’s mind. One grey morning Blake takes him to see the body of a girl that has turned up in the local morgue. The girl looks strangely like Regen, conjuring up many ugly ghosts of the narrator’s pasts and dispatching him on a psychedelic odyssey through the Prague underworld (redubbed, after its most famous literary ghost, as “Kafkaville”). Attempting to escape his demons, the narrator encounters a Russian girl called Inessa, wise beyond years, who gives him the chance to see himself in a new light. Out of the violence, ugliness and despondency of a life lived in self-loathing and recrimination, the narrator rediscovers the possibility of things turning otherwise. The ending offers no rainbows, but the abyss no longer yawns as wide.
Even though a-few-hour read, there is an “epic” quality to this novel, in its compactness and unity of motifs, its mythological symbolism, and its language. Verbal echoes and visual emblems make disturbingly repetitive appearances, such as the scene of “trees thick with fruit fly… bees swarming from the hives at the foot of the orchard, a loud buzzing… In the tree a bed sheet wound like a thick rope… a ladder rested against the trunk. On the ground beneath it… a pair of my mother’s shoes, covered in ants” – the scene of the narrator’s mother’s suicide. The never-ceasing rain holding hostage the whole of Kafkaville is a perfect match for the narrator’s quest for Regen (“rain” in German), equally obsessive, hopelessly inconclusive, and intangibly fluid. The last to complete this ghostly trinity is the abusive father, a butcher always at work at the abattoir, “assembling and disassembling his machines, like an angry Archimedes. Machines for cutting, grinding, pressing” – the father whose violent profession finds its grim parallel in his rape and continuous abuse of the young Regen, an unspeakable deed the son must avenge. The mythology is present in even such details as the framing locations in which the story of the contemporary Oedipus takes place, from his barge of insomnia and delirium named G.O.R.A. (acronym for Argo, the fabulous vessel) to the place of ultimate reconciliation, the Kafkaville quarter of Trója (the Homeric Troy).
The language takes on a certain fatal, absolute diction of the epic mode, in which almost every paragraph offers a sentence or two that read like a self-enclosed epigram or a consummated epigraph: “The mistake is believing that anything remains the same”; ”We vanquish, we decimate. Yet time remains closed.” As in the Homeric epic tradition, metaphor is used as a window onto some otherworld, here, more often than not, the gloomy otherworld of repressed history: for example, Blake in his Enfield gear looks “like some Luftwaffe pilot blitzed on pervitin” and likens the situation of the artist under totalitarianism-turned-capitalism to “kiss[ing] Marilyn Monroe’s feet so you can be buggered by Stalin.”
Billed as an “acid noir Coltrane-esque elegy to the other Prague” and described as “Mickey Spillane meets Georges Bataille on speed,” Breakfast at Midnight unsettles and evades resolutions in order to teach a valuable lesson. That the truth value of any individual or collective claim to “coming to terms with one’s past” should always be measured against the deeds of the teller, not the words of the tale. And that there is nothing inherently redeeming in absolution, nor is there anything virtuous about its pursuit since, according to one of the book’s most memorable axioms, “Every confession is a lie.”
Thor Garcia’s The News Clown
Thor Garcia’s monumental novel, The News Clown, which was a finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, has been described in a Publishers’ Weekly review as a narrative “fuelled by prodigious amounts of alcohol and tobacco, sex and drugs, [skipping] along from one bizarre episode to the next in the tortuous life of Thor, a young man whose dreams of a literary career have been sidetracked into an undemanding job as a ‘news clown’ for a small wire service in the crime-infested back alleys of Bay City.”
Indeed, sidetracking in this work can be seen as the principle of narrative organisation itself: where Armand’s text presents a terse, compact, unified vision, Garcia’s is a loose, episodic, picaresque survey of the turn-of-the-millennium America. There are parallel lines of development, narrative tracks played simultaneously, on a number of levels. The lived world of Thor and the legion of his drinking buddies, fellow sots, lovers, and one-night stands is one of celebration. Whether at a wedding or a funeral, or whether to the accompaniment of punk music or violent porno makes no difference whatsoever: for the be-all is to consume, amuse oneself, and forget it all in order to start over. However funny the escapades and snappy the wisecracks of Garcia’s entertaining satirical narrative, as the number of women and bottles conquered and downed rises beyond count, so does the number of black eyes received in drunken brawls and the equally innumerable scars to the soul, driving the point home that the end of pleasure is callousness now that despair is beyond emotional reach. This has a symbolic parallel in the colony of worms invading and gradually coming to inhabit Thor’s apartment, to his initial disgust, and his alternative horror and protests which finally metamorphose into resignation.
Alongside Garcia’s Punk version of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age (a satiric post-apocalyptic Golden Twenties) another textual world invades the pages of the novel: the world reported through Thor’s magazine articles, the world of crime both organized and random, but vile and gruesome either way. Here lies News Clown’s crowning achievement. Thor’s binges and shags and hangovers coexist with an endless series of reportage headlines such as “MAN STABBED TO DEATH ON BAY METRO,” or “STUDENT SHOT TO DEATH AT BEACH”. And so on and so forth, with repetitiousness at once benumbing and grisly, the unspeakable horror of violence and suffering of its victims reduced, in the callous journalese of the reporting, to figures and modus operandi.
Mediation is of course the question behind all reporting, communication and language; and the mediatised world of Garcia’s protagonist appears unmasked by those in service of its fictitiousness. One example of many is the discussion of 9/11 in the “HIDE IN ‘PLANE’ SIGHT” chapter, where Thor is fed evidence by one of his colleagues that the buildings were exploded from the inside and the planes were photoshopped into the videos. “Then they showed it to the world, and everybody instantly became convinced that aluminium airplanes can knock down steel and concrete towers!” In a world of general insanity, survival is possible not through reason, but of out-crazing your opponents: “the only way to beat them is to think as crazy they do.”
Finally, the text of The News Clown itself comes to us, with a fine additional meta-textual touch, already mediated – furnished with explanatory footnotes, presenting “official reports,” “evidence presentation” and “investigation results”; but no additional voice is required for it to be clear that such discourse of official truth can only serve to further deceive and blur fact with fiction.
Ken Nash’s The Brain Harvest
The thirty-odd stories in Ken Nash’s collection The Brain Harvest present a variety of styles, themes and arguments in themselves. There are elaborate, developed narratives with detailed characters and plots (as in “The Cello Garden,” the fictional account of the life and fate of a beautiful cellist Anna Leibowitz), and there are sketches in a few rough brushstrokes (“Making Babies” and “My Lobotomy,” two very different, yet eerily funny renderings of amorous failures). They feature real-life characters and narrators trapped in surreal or unreal states and situations (both “The Two Lives of Edward Hopper,” who “having pursued realism to its end,” has nothing to paint, for all’s been painted, and “Maurice Utrillo” who achieves an epiphany of space, surface and depth when observing a commonplace wall); but they also brim with completely fictional or even fantastic characters in equally surreal situations (“Anima Husbandry,” a three-page description of a Moldovan wife’s dismantling and packing her husband into a suitcase for a trip to Paris; or “Three Sisters,” where the narrator stages the famous Chekhov piece featuring three specially trained chickens). This blending has as its combined effect not only the defamiliarising the real, but the equally unsettling familiarisation of the unreal, ultimately posing the question of whether one can or indeed should distinguish between these two in a fictional world such as Nash’s.
Equally unsettling, if also “wickedly humorous,” as the recent Prague Post reviewer Stephan Delbos has correctly noted, is the basso continuo that prevails underneath the episodic brevity and constant shifts in narrative perspective performed by these tales: Nash’s preoccupation with language and the bizarre names inhabiting and describing both the natural and the corporate worlds. Delbos’s list of these appellation is as good as any: “Cambodian Vine Rattan, Sinai Braided Sea Grass, Singapore Cane, Burmese Celery Hemp, Uyghur Cave Moss” (“Baskets”), or “afternoons watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Cantonese, and evenings watching bootleg videos or playing high-stakes mahjong, while chain smoking Mann Si Fat cigarettes” (“The Hostage”), Nash’s manipulation of the particular and the minute has the attention for the bizarre and the ability of evoking the grotesque.
Described as “an eclectic, deceptively witty collection of short fiction that represents the crystallization of one of Prague’s most resourceful and imaginative English-language writers” by Delbos, and commended by Clare Wigfall—in her cover blurb of the collection—for how each of Nash’s short stories is “distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness,” and the characters are “unique and endearing,” Brain Harvest is a richly imaginative if also highly heterogeneous collection. It was no exaggeration when Wigfall compared Nash’s “playful and quick-witted style” to that of the “maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme.” To this, one can only add Nash’s avowed influence of the labyrinthine structures of Jorge Luis Borges, and the evident presence, behind the eerie waft of the everyday turned grotesque that hovers over the collection, of the unquiet Prague ghost of Franz Kafka.
For all their differences, these three books—Breakfast at Midnight, The News Clown and Brain Harvest—are tours–de–force of their respective genres, challenging exercises in narrative style and technique, and fruitful examinations of the extents to which language can both generate and stifle emotional responsiveness. As such, Armand, Garcia and Nash all seem to share the sentiment of their famous Prague precursor:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (Franz Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904)
*Reposted from London Student, Europe’s largest student paper.