A Quality Of Life
We all want certainty because it gives us security, but as the philosopher Alan W. Watts has pointed out, both Buddhists and Taoist have concluded that life is inherently changing, and indeed we can even benefit by abandoning our fixed notions, our structures, our certainties and embrace the convolutions of life. (Watts. The Wisdom Of Insecurity, 1951) If you enjoy a buzz in life Unexpected Tales is for you, but if you enjoy routine, or even want more stability, this book also has notions about life to offer you.
Life has a certain unexpected quality that can come upon us in many ways. The Preface to this book points out that these stories come from a wide variety of geographic places and thus describe different cultures that we might find “unexpected”. That is indeed true, though the various descriptions of uncertainty go beyond that. Some of these stories are humorous, with an unexpected punch-line: we are astonished, delighted, revel in the surprise twist. Some tales describe the sort of situation that we call ‘a turn up for the books’. These are the sort of real life events where we end up saying, “Can you believe that?” Some of the narratives are enigmas: we assume answers, but that is exactly what we don’t get. Some of these yarns are quite philosophical: they express truths which we at first don’t see, don’t want to see, even hide from ourselves.
Society is depicted in various forms, but never with complete acceptance. All of these authors ask questions, forcing us to evaluate where we stand. In particular localities some of these tales would be considered quite revolutionary, in others, they would be more conventional, but not quite mainstream. The philosopher Michel Foucault, and many others, have taught us to question all structures as possible devices to reinforce powerful minorities, and indeed many of the tales specifically examine the question of power and elites.
Female readers will be happy to find that there is an ample representation of positive female characters. Certainly, as in life, some of the women portrayed are hurt and searching individuals, but others are strong, determined and even rebellious. In the philosophical theories of Luce Irigarary and Julia Kristeva women are viewed as oppressed, but self-containing the possibility of considerable creativity, and indeed these tales reflect those views; however, even female powers systems are examined, particularly by Xarina. Women also can be sell-outs to the system.
Members of repressed ethnicities are portrayed with considerable understanding in two stories. These characters receive both criticism and positive acceptance. They are viewed both from an outside standpoint (the point of view of others) and an inside perspective (self-analysis).
None of the many characters strike the reader as false; indeed, as readers we often recognise ourselves, even in those tales that are more bizarre. While these tales are ‘unexpected’ they very much portray how ordinary people react in unusual circumstances. That is to say these stories ring true psychologically.
As we have noted some of the tales are tongue-in-cheek; that is, slightly larger than life. Many others are written in the ‘social realism’ style. Tomov’s surrealistic vignettes are a prominent departure from the ‘normal’, though not from real life.
Money, power and success are central driving forces in our society and it is no surprise that this issue appears in various stories buy Candy Korman, Abby Fermont, Xarina and Martin Craig-Downer. We see the lengths people will go to achieve: the tricks and sacrifices of personal value. We are lead to wonder what real success is: money, reaching the top of the ladder, friendship?
The stupidity of bigotry, in various forms, features in the tales of Korman, Craig-Downer and Fermont. This failing is examined in the actions of governments, but also in the rote thought patterns of individuals following the pat beliefs of their society.
Looking deeper into the workings of the human mind we see the quest for meaning in the works of Craig-Downer and Alexandur Tomov. Can we find significance in work or do most of us need something deeper than that? How can we escape from the sense of pointlessness and emptiness?
How could a book be written about people without at least touching on the subject of love? Craig-Downer, Fermont, Xarina and Tomov indeed all have written tales that specifically detail and examine this basic human motivation. We are enlightened by the authors as to how we come to miss love and botch it, how we fail to give it (though we imagine we do), how we come upon it and how we deeply need it.
In a world of ever increasing communication and travel we all must face the issue of cultural difference. Fermont and Xarina each consider this topic in fairly lengthy tales. The third world certainly operates differently to the first (Western) world, but increasingly such global divisions are becoming obsolete. People of third world background are living in our societies and we are at least visiting there. How do we react and cope when we meet someone of very different values? Is there, at least in theory, a ‘right’ way of doing things? Will we eventually abandon these differences, or are they a result of particular circumstances that are not going to go away in a hurry?
While all the authors are skilled at their art of short story writing, Alexandur Tomov clearly stands out as the best contributor. He contributed 13 tales and so could be said to be the most prolific, though his stories are quite short. Beyond that, however, his work has an informed insight into life with a surprising depth of vision. He is, indeed, an interesting new author of some considerable talent and understanding. At first glance Tomov’s stories seem repetitive. There is the frequent dream motif, the recurrent trip to the future and the unexplained loss of memory. On a closer reading, however, we see that most of the tales highlight particular points, giving special insight into particular facets of life and emphasizing new philosophical details. This is the work of one mind and so of course there is an overall, coherent ideology. Most notably Tomov is influenced by Existentialism. Tomov’s tale Crime And Punishment, like Dostoevski’s novel of the same name, examines the question of moral decay arising specifically from the philosopher’s own reasoning. William Barrett in his book Irrational Man: A Study In Existential Philosophy (c1958) identifies Fyodor Dostoevski as a proto-existentialist. In Tomov’s story The Squad the plot is set in the future, but the society depicted is very much reminiscent of the German Axis or the Soviet Block. This story reminds us of Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers (1953) in which official state persecution is explored. Tomov’s surreal plots, as indeed Frisch’s, are of course influenced by Albert Camus’ idea of the absurd. (The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays, 1955) As Jean-Paul Sartre demonstrated in Existentialism And Humanism (1946) that philosophy is not without its ethical implications and Tomov’s works certainly dig into the issue of moral decay. Always, like the Existentialist, Tomov leads us to ask, “Do we truly need to live like this?” Tomov, however, is not simply rehashing old ideas. These are very much tales of the Twenty First Century. The future implications of the ideas, first fully expressed in the post-World War 2 period, are very much examined. Where is this relativism and absurdity leading us? The philosopher is in some ways guilty of the ideas he releases, though of course much of the ‘damage’ comes from other’s misunderstandings, additions and misuse. In this way Tomov, in the mode of Postmodernism, deconstructs Existentialism as much as he supports it. Psychoanalysis is another minor influence on Tomov’s work. More than once characters refer to “The Ego” as a seemingly rational explanation of ‘mad’ behaviours. These explanations, however, are not to be trusted. In A Too Confused Dream Tomov depicts a nightmare which could fit into the category of a Jungian archetypal, or ‘big’ dream (Ann Faraday. Dream Power: Berkley Books, 1980, p.124), but which is also reminiscent of Near-Death-Experiences (Raymond Moody. Life After Life, 1975). Both these phenomena have a ‘life-changing,’ never-to-be-forgotten’ quality, as does the events of Tomov’s tale.
Tomov’s tales are darkly surreal, ironic and deeply philosophical (without being overly scholarly or boringly academic). He raises questions about modern relativistic life, depicting our fears and hopes. He does not always answer the questions he raises, thus avoiding ‘pat’ answers. Memories of childhood offer only partial comfort at best. Love is depicted as hopeful and helpful, but we are not given an abstract, absolute view of that ‘solution’. Tomov’s love is very practical and mundane, not reaching much further than finding a friend, or better still a partner. In line with Foucault’s thoughts (Madness And Civilization – A History Of Insanity In The Age Of Reason, 1990), and the theories of other anti-psychiatrists, psychology is often depicted as being used by ‘the establishment’ to write off very real feelings by seemingly logical explanations. The seemingly intelligent ’answers’ when really considered turn out to be hollow and “absurd”, as indeed many of Tomov’s characters protest. One criticism of Tomov’s tales is that women mainly appear only as very undeveloped characters: they remain shadow figures: they represent the unknown ‘Other,’ who we don’t know, but with whom we seek to unite. Certainly these shadow women offer the potential for creativity and fulfilment, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva suggests, but only as adjuncts to men. Indeed in the three of the four stories in which female characters are more developed (Eternal Love, From The Future and Crime And Punishment) women are represented in the stereotypical ‘prime hussy’ role: powerful and active, but of evil intent. This is clearly an idea of the dominant patriarchal culture. Also while partnerships are represented as a positive source of meaning, all of them are heterosexual: gay partnerships are completely absent from Tomov’s tales. Over all of Tomov’s tales hangs a sense of meaninglessness and moral decay that results in a dreamlike, hazily futuristic, visionary judgement.
Of course it would be difficult to write a review of Unexpected Tales without some comparison with Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected: the humour, the “Oh my God! endings, and the reflection on the darker side of human nature are all analogous. Dahl is of course a master of his art, though his tales are sometimes over long and in some ways repetitive. Unexpected Tales holds up reasonably okay in many respects. Coming from the minds of various authors, as Unexpected Tales does, we see different perspectives of the world and different writing styles. If you enjoyed Dahl’s short stories you will certainly want more and this new book is a good choice.
Unexpected Tales is a book ideal for those who like to be surprised, who like the unusual and even at times surreal, who like to be challenged to think just a bit deeper. Most of these stories are short and can be read within half an hour, and so the book is ideal for people on the go, for weekend reading, or for a brief read before bed. The writing style is consistently good and none of the tales are at all boring. The themes covered are varied and we have the benefit of reading different perspectives on each issue. Different moods are captured, from the humorous to the chilling. All in all this book is an excellent read which has something for many different readers, from those who want to be lightly entertained to those who are willing to think quite deeply. This book certainly deserves a 5 out of 5 rating.