Hang him when he is not there is the first release by Brisbane-based independent publisher, Savage Motif, who provided a copy of the book for this review.
Hang him when he is not there, Nicholas John Turner’s debut fiction collection (Savage Motif 2016), challenges and intrigues the reader from its very opening, ‘Prologue’. Is this a prologue to the collection as a whole, a story titled ‘Prologue’, a bit of both, or something else entirely? The conversational tone, a first-person direct address to the second-person reader, exemplifies much of the writing that is to follow, while also hinting at some of the themes the collection explores as a whole—most particularly old age, death, and the transitory places where we are cared for as we wait to die. That ‘last room’, as the prologue’s narrator describes it.
But of course the very idea of “the second-person reader” is a simplification that masks the smart and playful voyage we’ve begun, since the narrative ‘you’ actually implies multiple readers—a fictional addressee in addition to our readerly self—and the question of whether these are intended to be distinct. Later in the book, in the final story ‘All That Remains’, this mode of address returns in a series of passages that are signed-off as letters, and questions of perspective and identity are posed and investigated more directly, which for me brought to mind another literary collection released in 2016, Michelle Cahill’s wonderful Letter to Pessoa.
The book’s back cover summarises the nature of just some of the stories inside: ‘A journalist waiting in the house of a great, unknown novelist’; ‘An old woman lost in the words of Günter Grass’; A filmmaker exiled in a rhetorical cult’; ‘News of a beheading’. What we don’t see, until we delve deeply enough, is the gentle circularity that links some of the stories into a profound and thoughtful whole. Alongside death and ageing, a preoccupation with the nature of reading and writing reveals itself across multiple stories. In ‘Polisher (Vanity is the snake you breed to bite you)’, the narrator is a polisher of autobiographies who also performs lucrative government work as a spin-doctor of sorts. We find him on his way to South Australia “to conduct a series of interviews with Australia’s most celebrated writer, who until then had worked under a pseudonym and never spoken publicly”. Through seamless shifts between two time-streams, we already know that the celebrited writer, Marcello, has died, and there are amusing touches of satire in the desperate literary underworld and political intrigue that threads the story. One particular feature is either a brilliant masterstroke or a happy accident. The narrator writes: “After long evenings of dictation I would go back home in the morning and proof-read the articles for which I was well paid”. The idea of being well paid for this is a literary in-joke in itself, but what struck my attention was a handful of typos on the preceding and following pages. A carefully-placed metafictional device or just ironic chance? Later, the narrator asks if he should be called a “mere ‘polisher'”, just as the glaring typing errors have begun to show him as a fraud. I’m still not entirely sure if this was purposeful, as errors also creep into some of the later stories, but if it is a happy accident, then so be it—the effect was joyful.
It’s difficult to provide plot specifics beyond this, because it’s in the deep characterisation effect of each narrator’s meandering thoughts that this collection’s real power lies. While this is experimental writing, it’s not a difficult read or one that pushes the reader away; dark comedy and recurring themes pervade the work and the reader’s challenge isn’t caused by difficult writing, it’s in the move away from a traditional plot-focus and into the lives and minds of the stories’ various narrators. This is a curious book that will get you thinking and feeling without pushing you away or making you work too hard for the pay-off.
At times, it seems like Turner is asking us too directly whether all this literature stuff is worthwhile. In ‘Local Anaesthetic’, in which the character Errol Doyle dies—and his is a name worth noting for connections to other stories—the character Ursula is deeply engrossed in a Günter Grass novel, Local Anaesthetic. We’re told that “Ursula did not read in the conventional fashion of left to right, top to bottom. Instead, she merely opened a page and scanned, seemingly randomly, her eyes following no obvious pattern, and pausing only briefly between movements”. So should we do the same? Is Turner’s careful arrangement of words, non-linear as it may seem at times, better replaced by our own random non-linearity? Perhaps this line is just a recognition of the reader’s agency in creating meaning from a work, and how ultimately the writer has little control over it.
Towards the end of the final story, as multiple connections come streaming together into this book’s coherent whole, Turner’s narrator writes about writing and reading as “the reflection of each other”, and refers to the act of reading someone’s work as an act of obliteration. But by reviewing this book, and hopefully encouraging you to read it, maybe I can enable its re-creation in your mind. Enjoy!