The thirty-odd stories in Ken Nash’s collection The Brain Harvest present a variety of styles, themes and arguments. 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 (e.g. “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 (for example, “Anima Husbandry,” a three-page description of a wife’s dismantling and packing her husband into a suitcase for a trip to Paris). This blending has as its combined effect not only the defamiliarisation of 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 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. To take but two examples, there are the “Cambodian Vine Rattan, Sinai Braided Sea Grass, Singapore Cane, Burmese Celery Hemp, Uyghur Cave Moss” in “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” in “The Hostage.” Nash’s manipulation of the particular and the minute has all the attention for the bizarre and the ability of evoking the grotesque. In terms of analogues and precursors to Nash’s “playful and quick-witted style,” Clare Wigfall’s cover blurb speaks of the “maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme.” To those one can plausibly 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 into the grotesque that hovers over the collection, of Prague’s chief literary revenant, Franz Kafka. Described by the Prague Post 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” and commended by Wigfall as a collection whose every short story is “distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness,” Brain Harvest is a richly imaginative and heterogeneous collection.
The Two Lives of Edward Hopper
Summer, 1953. Edward Hopper had been unable to paint for months. What was left to paint? Nothing. He had pursued realism to its very end. The course ran off into emptiness, like the road to Coast Guard Beach, bitten off at the end by the hurricane of ‘38. Trying to proceed was hopeless. He risked plummeting into an abyss where not even the guiding beacons of Nauset Lighthouse could reach.
It was the year communists invaded America. They were everywhere. They filled the headlines of the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Brewster Herald. Their names were whispered amidst the static of AM air-waves. In New England, the communists floated zeppelins carefully constructed from cumulonimbus clouds,
sea salt and gull feathers. They ran stealth recognizance missions up and down the coastline.
Hopper kept up with the news. Stalin had died in March. Three months later he was reborn as a hydrogen bomb. In six days’ time, the Rosenbergs were about to pay the price for their atomic midwifery. The red menace was said to have infiltrated the postal service, the film industry, food service personnel – even street walkers were said to subsidize their income by passing along reports and photographs to Soviet agents disguised as gas station attendants, pharmacists, hot dog vendors, train conductors and priests. Hopper knew that even the local whippoorwills were suspect, their whistles beginning to sound more strident and anthemic than like mere avian mating cries.
Hopper’s roof was leaking. The brand new roof of their Eastham cottage. He carefully positioned an old paint bucket on the wood floor. Every half hour he rushed over to empty and replace the bucket.
Hopper sat in an Adirondack chair by the open door, watching the tall grass undulate in the wind like green and silver waves. He thought of moving his easel here and trying to capture the effect. Then he decided he would rather eat week old clam chowder than paint another Cape Cod landscape.
Hopper longed to be in New York. When he was in New York, he longed to be in Cape Cod. When he was in Cape Cod, he longed to be in New York. “What sort of realist are you?” he asked himself. “A person who perpetually longs for what isn’t is not a real realist.”
During lunch, he had a momentary flash of inspiration. “I will paint this Campbell’s soup can! Just that. The can and nothing else.” By the time he had squeezed out a full tube of crimson red, he realized it was a stupid idea.
Nothing felt new to him anymore. Everything had been done. Not even Jo excited him any more in the way she once did. She had grown broad in the hips. The sour skin of her buttocks had begun to curdle. He had grown so accustomed to tuning out the sound of her voice that she had started to pummel him with cutlery and houseplants to get his attention before telling him anything important.
Technically, Hopper knew that he was never going to be a better painter. He was too old to improve. There were now only three things he could do if he wanted to assure his place in art history. Stab Jackson Pollock repeatedly with a fork. Shoot himself in the head. Or single handedly capture a communist spy. He immediately ruled out capturing a communist spy. He wasn’t entirely sure there even was such a thing as communism. Communism was like light; it had no true source, only its effects really existed.
Hopper stood in the doorway and watched the dark clouds moving overhead. There was a change in the air. The stench of sea awoke in his nostrils. After a moment, he realized there was something unusual taking place in the sky. One of the clouds seemed to be moving much faster than the rest, nosing its way through the sulfurous haze.
Hopper steeped out into the rain. His balding, flattop head repelled the heavy drops. Streams of silver and white water ran down the creases of his face. He watched the cloud moving through the sky toward his home. As it neared, he thought he saw lights blinking from inside, like a bellyful of stars. The wind grew more intense. The tall grass whirled like ecstatic Sufi dancers. Jo’s hydrangeas leaned forward and bowed their heads. The grove of locust trees protectively wrapped their branches around each other. Hopper wiped rain from his face, while still trying to keep an eye on the cloud directly overhead. It had slowed to a complete stop, yet all the other clouds kept passing by. It struck him then. He had lived this moment before.
This very moment. Though it was not really this moment. It had been a moment like this, but from another lifetime.
Hopper’s previous life had ended in the summer of 1953. That summer, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after making a daring prison escape, fled to Cuba to help Fidel Castro gain Soviet support for his revolution; Senator Joe McCarthy lead a Senate inquiry regarding the possible abduction of American citizens by Russian
spacecrafts; Albert Einstein had proven the possibility of time travel; and Edward Hopper was placing the finishing touches on his painting “Sexy Robot Slaying Dragon in Outer Space.” His wife, Jo, had gone out to visit a friend, pick up the mail, then buy groceries and a fresh bottle of scotch. That evening, they would
celebrate the completion of his painting with a dinner of baked potatoes and fried cod, then play cribbage, get drunk, fight about money problems, and fall asleep after making fetishistic love on the sofa.
Hopper knew he was at the height of his powers as a painter and yet he was lucky to sell one or two canvases a year. His “sexy robot” paintings were not doing well, but they sold better than the “Jungle Vixens of Venus” series and the “Vampire Harlots Battling Squids” series before that. His last dealer, Vivian Lieberman, suggested that if Hopper ever wanted to become famous, he had only three options available to him:
stab Jackson Pollock repeatedly with a fork, shoot himself in the head, or move to Italy were they were more likely to understand his visionary work than in America. Jo, in what Hopper described as “her usual narrowminded and piggish way,” refused to move to Italy.
The ceiling was leaking. The wind was picking up. Hopper was daydreaming about Tuscan villas and buxom, Mediterranean beauties with bare, grape-stained feet hefting wicker-wrapped jugs of Chianti upon their tan shoulders.
Hopper stood in the doorway. The tall grass was bent by the wind into waves of silver and green. Scarlet dragon blood clung to the tip of his sable brush. He wondered if he had chosen the right path in life? What if he had stayed in Nyack and taken over his father’s dry goods store? What if he had married young, started a family? Why is it that we have only one life to experience? The impulse seized him to smash the sexy robot painting and denounce all art as a silly, useless contrivance and the impulse to create it nothing but a mental illness.
Hopper heard a loud mechanical screech. He turned his head in the direction of the ocean. Dark clouds were rolling towards the shore. One cloud amidst all the others appeared almost luminous and moved rapidly through the sky past the other clouds. As it neared Hopper’s home, it began to slow until it came to a complete stop. The cloud was nearly translucent. It seemed to Hopper that there were stars within it.
Something hung down from the cloud. It tumbled forth and stopped just several feet above the ground, nearly within Hopper’s grasp. It was a rope ladder. It dangled there like an invitation. Such an event was like nothing he had ever dreamed of, yet it was real and happening at that very moment. He seized the opportunity, pulled himself up, and began to ascend.
As Hopper rose toward the cloud, he began to wonder if perhaps the world was full of more possibilities than he had ever imagined. If even a simply cloud could contain such mystery, why not a lighthouse, a barn silo, an automat, a train compartment, a gas pump, an all-night diner, a shaft of light in an empty room?