Two Weird Chapbooks
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This was my first two-book review, looking at Kristine Ong Muslim’s The Drone Outside and Madeleine Swann’s Fortune Box, first published Jun 21 2018.
Kristine Ong Muslim ‘The Drone Outside’
It is not officially morning but everyone in the world has already reported waking up from dreams either completely or partially encrusted with black mold. The general consensus: it is black mold, all right.
Herein, snapshots (interconnected, but by the barest thread) of the apocalypse are laden with unknown references to veiled wider world lore and impressionist aesthetics that lend them an oppressive, dreamlike quality. In Kristine Ong Muslim’s The Drone Outside, the boundaries of speculative fiction are pushed into a surrealist fantasy space.
Muslim envisions our species’ shared narrative limits. Some of these pieces are descriptively rich, others merely fragments of dialogue such as ‘The Outsiders’ or contextually obscured epistolary microfictions such as ‘Demolition Day,’ a series of letters, at least one of which is addressed to the dead. The tone is often a detached one, but wistful and pained rather than clinical or objective.
From the first page to the last, we readers are being haunted by something incomprehensibly vast (in its consequences and reach), but so much so that it becomes, essentially, a limit experience to contemplate. It becomes something personal, intimate, which can only be experienced close up and partially.
The longest and most memorable story (the most narrative based) is ‘The Early Signs of Blight,’ which obeys many of the conventions of a supernatural horror, only to be so enigmatic about the locus of its horror—which is only semi-perceived and even then largely from a child’s perspective—that it becomes something more than this genre categorisation helpfully indicates. It is eerie not chiefly because it is cosmic or alien, but because those qualities are barely detectable beneath a kitsch domesticity, but sufficiently present to invoke the eerie.
Madeleine Swann ‘Fortune Box’
A small collection of smaller stories, Madeleine Swann’s Fortune Box is rooted in a simple and effective conceit. The enigmatic Tower Ltd Surprise Packages sends gifts by mail to assorted strangers, each containing strange but aptly allegorical content. Swann is a part of a writing tradition called Bizarro Fiction, a pop-surrealist genre that aestheticises the grotesque and absurd in a satirical medley with often-subversive borrowings from the stock of contemporary commercial material—the world of pop reassembled to become visibly odd.
But Swann’s voice is distinct even in a tradition that favours maverick approaches to storytelling. Here, each piece is itself a wry reimagining of the archetypal dynamics of the Faustus myth—that is, the protagonist and recipient of a titular box is presented with a choice that doubles as a temptation and expresses, usually, a concealed (notably perverse) desire. They are tempted to sell their souls, but as with most of the best authors to tackle Faustus, the author has a conflicted attitude to the bargain.
The best example of the work, in my view, is ‘3’ (the stories all have number-titles, pointing to the collection's episodic unity). Here, an underperforming office worker, Terry, is the victim of isolation and everyday cruelty, bemoaning his unrecognised existence. His package transforms his life into an autobiographical bestseller and his thoughts into instant and unmediated tweets, but as an online and offline celebrity he quickly realises that robbed of any separation between public and private, he becomes a public monster, revealing his most troubled self to all.
To cope with this revelation, Terry defends himself on increasingly reactionary and appalling grounds—allowing Swann to effectively satirise the undignified personas of the alt-right, red pill, incel subcultures and the attendant heroes of the right. It is hilarious, but full of pathos, revealing something fundamental about the necessary gap between self and social existence that is dangerously violated in many modern fantasies. It also perfectly encapsulates the satirical wit at the core of the collection.
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