Short Stories of Absurdist Fiction
by Rhys Hughes
Artwork by Rabidwire
Reviewed by Steven Pirie
It's a strange place to loiter, inside Rhys Hughes's head; strange, but compellingly imaginative. The Skeleton of Contention is nine stories of bite-sized, deliciously absurd fiction from an author who is clearly a master at this lark.
In a way, it's hard to categorise these stories, particularly for a novice reviewer like myself, as I get the feeling that Rhys Hughes has heard of convention but wants no dealings with it. It certainly adds a unique feel to his 'voice'.
The Skeleton of Contention opens with The Undeniable Grin. In the theatre, when the lights dim and the spotlights focus until the actor's monologue is reduced only to an undeniable grin, and the protagonist sets his fellow audience members onto a path of spiralling mischief, in Hughes's world only murder may ensue. There're some lovely lines in this as the undeniable grin is systematically blamed for life's ills. 'The bugger has filled my mouth with obscenities', for example, is a fine, dryly humorous line. It's a strong opening, and one that certainly sets the scene for what's to follow.
The second story, The Innumerable Chambers of the Heart, is also a strong tale. This is a little more conventional than the opener in that it does have more of a beginning, middle, and end. Essentially, it's a 'looking for love' story set in a future, bleak, post-war world in which the inhabitants have been herded into a single 'gargantuan' dwelling, the largest apartment block in existence, so great that 'not even the architects knew how many rooms it contained'.
Lost amongst its uncountable levels and dead-end corridors, Viviana and her would-be lover call to each other in the tender rap of spanner on pipe work. Theirs is a love no u-bend may temper.
In a way, I felt this scenario to be poignant enough. There are parallels with the modern world--as a society we seem to be more isolated than ever, evident even in the short time since I was younger, closer together in modern suburbia but less of a community. Yet Hughes (at the risk of adding a spoiler here) adds an element that even this potential love is of a forbidden nature. It seemed an unnecessary add-on to a tale that already worked well. It is foreshadowed in the sporadic nature of their communications, but it still seemed like an afterthought in the writing. But overall I have to say this was my favourite story of the nine.
Third up is the wonderfully titled There's a Woman with a Cactus Instead of a Head. This is another absurd offering in which the narrative is often so warped we meet it on the way back. 'Every day my sandwiches are the same: anchovy and egg. I loathe anchovy and egg. Every day I make the same vow: if today's sandwiches are anchovy and egg I will kill myself... but then I remember it is I who make my sandwiches'. It's this kind of rebound that makes me love Hughes's writing--and there are lots of examples of it in this volume--it means the reader can never quite be sure where the writer is going, it's never predictable.
Story four is The Apology. Hey, I watched The Sky at Night, and Patrick Moore never once mentioned two hyperbolic ears winging their way through space. This tale is a loosely based 'first contact' affair, but in keeping with Hughes's style, it's first contact with a difference. 'Apologise now and make appropriate conciliatory gestures', say our aliens; somehow, when you think about it, it seems far more likely a thing for an alien to say than '1010010101' or 'we come in peace'.
Niddala is story five, perfectly illustrated as are all the tales by the inimitable Rabidwire. It's a genie and wish tale that pokes fun at the logic of the whole three wishes idea. Don't read this if drunk, or if hung over, as the wonderful twists in logic will hurt your head. Like much of the writing in this book, it has some lovely, understated lines of humour. '...you've accidentally wished to be everything which isn't a genie...' The reply was trillion fold. 'Yes, and I don't feel well'.
Story six, Miserable with Groceries, Cuddly with Stubble, is not so much darker than the other tales, but rather the humour is more muted and so the underlying bleakness that seems a theme of Hughes's writing is less disguised. It deals with the trials of middle age, the pang of regret at receding opportunity, played out nicely in a university setting, and thus contrasts the hope of the new students as they embark upon their lives.
Next comes Under the Tree, and we're firmly back in the absurd again. Only Hughes, it would seem, would dare tackle social commentary on the environment and such like by creating a character with a tree growing out from the nape of his neck. But it's fun, and it's effective, even if it does have a real groaner of a one liner for an ending.
Primate Suspect, story eight, is quite probably the weirdest story in The Skeleton of Contention. It's short, and strange, and I couldn't begin to understand it, but it still has that charm about it that Hughes seems to place so easily upon his words. Whether it carries some message, well, I read it a dozen times and I still can't say for sure. Something to do with bananas and fascist dictatorships. The two are probably inseparable anyway.
Last, but not least, we have Sucking the World's Thumb, in which Hughes deals with bureaucracy gone mad. Does it work? Fill in form 32b and I'll get back to you Tuesday.
Taking the work as a whole, it's hard not to notice the waves of cynicism that populate Hughes's writing. The places and themes he creates are often dark and imposing. It makes for an interesting mix with the all pervasive humour. If Hughes's humour dwells just in the silver lining, it's clear he feels the dark clouds to be perilously close. Maybe living in Wales does that to a man. But it means there's an edge to Hughes's writing, and I couldn't help delving below the humour for the opinion and undertone that's surely there.
On the negative side, I think folk who like more of a rigid structure to their fiction might flinch at some of Hughes's work here. Of course, it is advertised as 'Absurdist' fiction, so there's no trying to deceive in any way. It's more of a toboggan ride than a ski slope, with twists and turns and bumps and blind corners that might not appeal to the speed skiers. I'd call some of it stream of consciousness writing, but that would be somewhat of a disservice to Mr Hughes, as amongst the rambling style there is an underlying structure carefully and skilfully tucked away.
If you're feeling warped today, come join us in Mr Hughes's head. Without doubt you'll trip over the odd trailing synapse, bang your head on the low neuron or two, but it's much more interesting than the world outside.
And at a quid a go, this chapbook is a steal.
The Skeleton of Contention, A4, 36pp, £1.00 incl p&p
For details of how to purchase, visit the Bookshop here.
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