Review ~ Two Weird Chapbooks

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.

These snapshots (interconnected, but by the barest thread) of the apocalypse are laden with unknown references to veiled wider world lore and impressionistic 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 to the dead. From the first page to the last, we readers are haunted by something so incomprehensibly vast (in its consequences and reach) that it becomes, essentially, a limit experience to contemplate. The longest and most memorable story (the most sensibly 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 point of view — 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 Boxis rooted in a simple and effective conceit. The enigmatic Tower Ltd Surprise Packages sends gifts by mail to assorted strangers, each containing some strange but aptly allegorical content. Swann is a part of a writing tradition of Bizarro Fiction, a pop-surrealism genre that aestheticises the grotesque and absurd in a satirical medley with often-subversive reference to contemporary commercial culture. But her 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 (often perverse) desire. They are tempted to sell their souls, but as with most 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 numbers as titles, pointing to the episodic unity of the collection). 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 he quickly realises that robbed of any separation between public and private, he becomes a public monster, revealing his most troubled self to everyone. To cope with this revelation, he defends himself on increasingly reactionary grounds — allowing Swann to effectively satirise the undignified personas of the alt-right, red pill, incel subcultures and the attendant celebrities of the right. It’s hilarious, but full of pathos, revealing something fundamental about the necessary gap between self and social existence that is dangerously violated in many modern reactionary fantasies. It also perfectly encapsulates the satirical wit at the core of the collection


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Sunday, 31 May 2020

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