Saturday, 13 July 2019


Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The act of writing is an act of forgetting as much as it is an act of memory. Description replaces experience, if there was experience there to start with, or otherwise description precludes the experience described, permitting experience only of itself. The pencil’s mark obscures whatever line it traces. That which is described becomes digestible as text, becomes definite, finite and defined. Whatever is described becomes ersatz, the currency of exchange between a writer and a reader, the tin chip passed between parties to a language game, pretending understanding, pretending being understood, the cosiest, most intimate of couplings. How reassuring to have one’s expectations fulfilled by text, but how tiresome, this pact-as-habit, this plethora of detail, this obsessive mentioning that enervates the experience that gets obscured by words. But every signifier has its limit. Every mentioned thing is mentioned at the exclusion of another thing, the excluded or unincludable thing that pushes the mentioned into view while remaining, carefully, out of sight, hidden in the place of greater force, unseen, unfaced, the unseeable and unfaceable warping the mentioning by exerting its weight upon it from behind. A reader has no business to supply anything beyond the text, but also has to complete the text with nothing but their own paltry store of experiences to supply the meanings of the words. How to proceed? How to read the unseen mechanics behind but not referred to by the text? The reader too has ungraspable weights that can be induced to rise and touch the undersurface of the text, pressing up upon it as those of the author press down, two sides of one skin, the text the shared rind of two ungraspable depths, if there are such things as depths, otherwise, without depths, a synclastic and anticlastic flexing of the only surface, two dimensions modelled in a third. If it is what is excluded that potentises text, if it is what is destroyed by writing that makes writing do what writing does, then the stories of David Hayden in Darker with the Lights On move like the sharpened tip of a great black crayon as it scribbles out all memory and knowledge. Not in these stories the reassurance of the expected, nor that of continuity or clarity. Answers are not given, perhaps withheld, though withholding requires an existence for which no evidence ensues, but we are participants in the ritual taking away of knowledge, the deanswering of questions, itself a sort of understanding. Many of the stories concern themselves with the tensions between memory and perception, between two times running concurrently, memory snarling on details and producing not-quite-narrative but a stuttering intimation of the vast force of passing time. What unfaceable calamity bridged the idyll of memory with the torment of the present? In ‘Dick’, for me, perhaps, the most memorable story in the collection, the main character is buried to the waist in the sand, declaring snippets of memory, of idyll even, like some character shoved from Beckett to somewhere beyond the apocalypse, declarative not in Beckettian wearidom and decline but in extremis, the object of some cruelty, disoriented by their own presence, spouting words such as those that may have spoken by the condemnee in Kafka’s ‘Penal Colony’ reading aloud the words as they are inscribed into his flesh by the harrow. It often seems Hayden’s characters’ backgrounds are withheld not only from the reader but seemingly also from the characters themselves. They are being dememorised by their stories, or they exist, as perhaps we all do, with great voids where stories could be expected to be. But stories come from somewhere, unseen, and visit themselves upon us. “There were stories everywhere. Stories in the body, stories in and out of time, stories in the chosen and the unchosen, stories under glass, stories under water, stories under flesh, hot and cold, stories in tumult and silence.” Remembering and inventing contest the same attention, preclude each other but find themselves indistinguishable from one another, as a matter of course in fiction, more problematically so in the lives of writers and of readers. The characters are disoriented but grasp at every chance to climb into, or out of, some awareness: “He senses his head thinking, his trunk big and loose, his delicate fingers flickering at the ends of his arms and decides that he is conscious: real.” The stories’ worlds are composed of granules of awareness, snatches of phrases forced out against their silencing. Reading is akin to viewing through a narrow tube: the perspective is limited but the focus is immense. What is not seen is always there, deforming what is seen, but unglimpsable, unassailable beyond the vertigo of any attempt to look in its direction. Hayden produces a spare disorienting beauty on the level of the sentence. His admixture of restraint — even paucity — and excess, produces a surrealism truncated rather than efflorescent, its effects cumulative rather than expansive, a surrealism not the furthest expression of surrealism’s usual tired romantic literary inclinations but of their opposite, their extinguishment, not the surrealism of dreams but of the repetitive banging of the back of the head as the reader is dragged down a flight of steps, their eyes either closed or open.

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