Atmosphere: We don't orbit but fall the same, by Garth Bunse - 4 Stars
Colour is a major player in this tale and that has seeped into everything. It describes the disconnected imagery and wandering language of dreaming, through alien minds, along with the disintegration of sleep deprivation too. The blurb claimed this was a unique book and I tend to be suspicious of directions like that, but having now read it I can tell you that it is undeniably true. If you’re used to describing novels by lazy association, saying “This is a bit like… on acid”, you’ll come unstuck with this one because any link to anything else would be tenuous.
The journey of this novel can be patchwork-confusing early on but perseverance gives the reader a better hold on things, only ever a one handed grip though on the dreaming smooth skins and prehensile tails but it’s enough to enjoy the story, until you find you’re relishing the white water rush of this author’s vision not for the plot but for the style.
Of a character pulling a plough: “Soon he started spinning in circles, having grown bored of straight lines.”
There are no human characters at all in this story, so that’s always a risk but after a page or two of acclimatisation all the creatures become people in your mind so it works and rumbles along, that different angle adding extra interest. I guessed completely wrong at the start, misunderstood what was being presented, not because I was deliberately misled but as the predictable result of being hit with a wall of alternate reality, all worked out into an explicable pattern but then delivered in a chunk too wide to comprehend easily. I thought it was supposed to portray the language of voices living in plural dimensions, represented as the aurora or the spectrum (many of the entities were named after colours and shades). It wasn’t. This lack of comprehension on the part of the reader helps the reader to view the world from the perspective of the species that has moved into it and doesn’t understand what is going on either, so has to find out. Not knowing things is okay, it’s the first accepted step in understanding the Universe.
In perspective, the tale inclines to a primate species from an arboreal planet who go foraging in a space ship to a distant solar system and then curve off course. They are looking for flowers and roots, what else? Plus a few pretty crystals, but it’s unclear what they use them for. We learn from the leading characters there’s a protocol of formal tail positions to indicate states of deference or salutation, which they’d clearly need but no creature without a tail would ever think of. The again, when Japanese gardeners want to plant a tree, they sometimes assume the position of the tree, raise their arms like branches and consider the path of the sun and runoff of the water before deciding whether the tree would be happy to live there. Seeing reality from someone else’s angle is always good and I have to say that if you could slip through Garth Bunse’s ear, elbow aside his squashy brain and look through his eyes, the view might be slightly different to the one you’re used to, if his vocabulary selections in the Chorus sequences are any clue. 4D glasses?
Sometimes it’s hard to relay a reader’s experience in phrases that aren’t in the book but here’s a writer who has dispensed with the regular black and white font of everyday description, our drudging shopping lists of the mind, and swept up and across us with a sort of technicolour Jackson Pollock of visual impressions. Peake did this sort of thing but he was an artist verging on madness, as were William Blake and Richard Dadd, in the latter’s least salvageable coracle of the mind. I think Bunse has consciously chosen this style though because it conveys the minds and priorities of his characters, not himself, which is the difference – planning. Do you have to be an artist (Ang Lee, Van Gogh) to use luminescent colour in your work and express your ideas in that way? Of course not, but it does help. Psychedelic dream state. Sound and movement. Gradients of light. This book has all of that and more and I wish I had time to go through counting all the different shades and colours he brings into this because there must be hundreds, then he attempts the same again with sounds. He’s consciously aware of the word palette because he uses it and I have just realised that I’ve used a lot of his words again in this review, evidence of their impact. Technicolour was a necessary word but the fact the author wheels it out himself suggests he intended to build a multicolour perspective, simulating the way another species would navigate the forests of their home environment, where seasons are flagged by flower colour and the ripeness of fruit is announced by the very turn of the leaves.
A shaft of light from the canopy picks out a victim back home and the rainforest lives in its cloak of seasons but when in a faraway system, the rainforest creatures from this story merrily blast, strip-mine and pillage someone else’s natural resources, a direct inversion of the reality we understand on our own planet. Narcolepsy is another important theme in the book, because it represents and unnatural dimming and greying of these primates’ life force, a way of hurting them back which separates them mentally from the colour and life of the forest.
The Chorus is a working character in this and, although it still has Greek lamentation and Macbeth (witches) predictive stylization, it portrays itself here by the use of rhyme and meter a sort of enthusiastic gangland element, chipping in its poetic support for disposing of people. I thought it was ethereal too, a representation of mood never taking a physical form, but yet again I was wrong. I like experimental writing, in style and topics, as my brain has to work harder for its rewards. If you stare at anything for long enough you eventually understand it, so the payoff has a special link to less predictable form of delivery and sometimes that’s an indication that the payoff will be greater.
“And there, there’s that rhyme, that meter, the sing-song words running in my head.”
The other characters that adopt the playwright style of the Hellenistic Greeks are the alien entities labelled by colour which fulfil the above-stage role that gods might in a theatre but because they have no common frame of reference to us and converse in a melodic and dreamy kind of language, not grounded like ours but a loosely governed free association of thought. In this case, the magnetic field which protects the planet jigs in synchronicity to their group thought, just as our own magnetic field on Earth (I assume you are reading this from Earth; do get in touch with me if you aren’t. I have cookies), protects us. This cast of colours is self-aware in the same way you have knowledge you’re real in an unconscious dream, although they have to remind dreamers “don’t forget to breathe”. There’s a kind of environmental activist feel to this at one stage when these dream voices do more than bounce stray cosmic particles like an aurora and intervene directly instead, lethally. It turns out to me more for their own protection than the planet’s (another wrong assumption by me) but, even so, imagine if our environmental campaigns weren’t necessary because the goddess Gaia made a habit of visiting the guilty executives’ lavish parties and personally crushing their nuts. Awesome. Canapé anyone?
This book wasn’t perfect in all areas, so I should explain why I think that. Using the same tense throughout might be normal enough but unless you tinker and vary your language a little, some words can be used too often to the point where the reader becomes aware of them, which is distracting and can cause the lulled audience to wake up and disconnect from the vision you’ve laid down so carefully. In this book (of 106,222 words), the word is ‘he’ occurs 2,825 times. That’s when you search for space he space, so the total doesn’t include it being part of another word like ‘the’ (which is another 6,232 but the conscious mind always accepts that one so it isn’t problematic). Normally I wouldn’t notice this word reoccurring because it’s only 16 per page on average but there’s a particularly heavy outbreak of ‘he’ on page 69 (x40), 70 (x35) and 71 (x31). Seriously, 106 instances of the same word in 3 pages? It isn’t a tragedy because I love this guy’s writing style but he he he should reduce the problem. I found no spelling errors and there were only a couple of misused words, like routing/rooting, so that’s pretty clean for a full novel. Back to the good stuff then.
Colours. That’s the innermost soul of this really. He’s typing thoughts much as cinema directors do, where the studio writer’s delivered “the cat sat on the mat” and the director has taken that and indulged the moment, drenching the scene in gorgeous colour and texture, to fix it in the mind forever like a collectors’ card of other people’s dreams. When immersed for long enough, the impression comes through of what it would be like to see reality as these lemurs do, with their awareness of a wider range of colour and materials than we register, an amplified spectrum – or maybe the message is that ours has grown muted. Do we still wonder at the world? Do we do it often enough to appreciate it? One book written like this is a good departure but if every book was written like this it could become a drag.
“Ff-lox, where are you? Dream for me your fragrant forests.” So vivid, such drift. The indigenous species have invaded his dreams just as the reader has invaded the author’s.