The Orchid Stories, by Kenward Elmslie
If there is any hope of fully understanding what language and literature are capable of, then nothing can be held as sacred. Not sacred in the sense of subjective moralities, but sacred as an unquestionable, inviolate principle. There are, in my opinion, no universal truths about literature and language, despite centuries of philosophers and critics searching for them. “Universal truths” attempt to confine and restrain things of perpetual motion, and with them, we would not have works like The Orchid Stories by Kenward Elmslie. The word that I keep returning to when considering this text is “multidimensional”, and I mean that in the vein of a true reality altering context. This is a novel, or it is a collection of interrelated short stories, or it is both. This is a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of language that twists and inverts and prisms, immune to easy interpretation and existential consensus.
I am not using hyperbole when I say that there may be no practical end to the metaphors I could use to describe the experience of reading the language of this book. A shaman, high on narcotics, experiencing the dilation of time and space. An artificial intelligence processing a rapid succession of human behaviors and attempting to compile a working grammatical base for the English language. A homeless man walking along a crowded city street, shouting his fever and frustrations at the giant buildings and the ants that mill about them.
“A feeling of immense power surged through me, as if outward moving weather map arrows were under my control, and were speeding from the Arctic Circle, in all directions, gathering momentum, darkening skies above valleys and mountains into a huge black bruise. Ach, the bigger the surge, the fainter the tune, the bigger the mystery, the sadder the letdown.”
So much of the book is written like this, with rushes of sensation abruptly punctuated by confounding comparisons and deeply intimate but untranslated conjecture. It is infuriating and fascinating in the same breath. The Orchid Stories is written with an entirely unique sense of language, one that shares vague similarities to that which dominates our culture but also one that operates on an entirely different level. The effect of this is that the book is ultimately unconcerned with anything but the conversation that is writing itself. This is a book written for writers, borrowing established literary conventions and putting pieces of them in a fashion reminiscent of a child building a franken-toy out of plastic limbs and repurposed joints.
The structure of this text is not, in the strictest sense, unprecedented. Many other authors, of which the most well-known is probably Joyce, have blended styles and techniques to deliver narrative in a way that never permits the brain to relax and become complacent. But Elmslie extends this ethos to the narrative being told. The text will tell part of one story in prose, then jump to another part of another story and tell it as the script of a play, then digress into some truly beautiful poetry, only to return to the original prose, as if completely incapable or unwilling to present one narrative perspective. If this sounds intimidating or frustrating, that is because it is. But it is also the kind of thing that those with a love of the complex potential for language live for.
“I looked up. Attack of ‘trapdoor-it is’ – nostalgia for the ‘Native Innards’ box reposing back in Hode…
Wisps. Streaks. Puffing up. Laser vibrations / constricted on my thumbnail. Instant intensity! / Circles in assorted colors widen – steady flow. / Hurts my eyes.”
And in taking the time to carefully read, a reader realizes that the story being told, while open to interpretation, is not sacrificed for its unconventional delivery. The narrator(s) of the story deals with very real trauma and multiple methods of processing it, and the text itself can be seen as the mind’s attempt to grapple with that trauma, in the mold of Kafka or Vonnegut. The multitude of cultural and geographical references help to engender the feeling of a narrator freed from anchoring at a particular point of spacetime, as does the constant references to physical motion. The narrator, and the text through which we experience the narrator, never cease their momentum. Even character identities are not stable. The Bubbers become the Mummys with little to no explanation. The narrator is never given a name, leaving only his language for us to identify him. This is the impermanence subjectivity of meaning woven through the whole of the text, and it reflects the inconstancy of dealing with pain, confusion, and the need for clarity.
I highly recommend this book, unless your preferences are limited only to popular writing. The Orchid Stories is complex and demanding. You cannot read this text quickly and begin to grasp its depth. It is as if it was written specifically to defy a quick glance, with careful sequences of words that are delightfully absurd enough to make your brain instinctively pause and process meaning. It has the same addictive qualities of any series of engaging puzzles or riddles or word problems, leaving you satisfied upon coming to a conclusion and yet eager to parse more.
The Orchid Stories is available now through The Song Cave.