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Black Static


The Late Review: Brendan Connell Part 1

23rd Sep, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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I probably have more books by Brendan Connell in my TBR pile than by any other author, which is a comment both on his profligacy and his publishers' optimism in sending me review copies. I may or may not get to the five or six that are still unread, but here in two easily digestible blog posts are the five volumes that I have consumed.

First up the two books he published with Chômu Press, back in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

At times it feels like cookery is the new rock and roll, with the list of culinary programming in our television schedules ever expanding and the Garys and Jamies, Johns and Delias given superstar status. In LIVES OF NOTORIOUS COOKS (Chômu Press pb, 180pp, £11.50) Connell does for cooks what Vasari did for artists; at the same time the collection bears more than a passing resemblance to the writer's earlier Metrophilias, with its emphasis on short and thematically linked stories (cities as the common denominator in that case, cooks in this one). The book contains fifty one potted biographies of famous cooks, ranging in time from the ancient world to that of the nineteenth century, and in space from China through to the American states. With the author's lavish prose (every bit as much a feast for the senses as the recipes and dishes he describes) and dry humour, with its Rabelaisian overtones, this volume serves as a marvellous antidote to all the media adulation of the sous chef. Connell has a rare ability to work in the miniature and make his subjects endlessly fascinating, incorporating elements of the supernatural and the spiritual into his text.

If I have a complaint, it's that after a while it all gets to feel a bit much of a muchness, but that may very well be my own fault for reading the book through from beginning to end instead of dipping in at leisure and over a longer period of time (if you stuff your face with rich food to excess, don't blame the chef if you later feel queasy). I think what I would like to see is an actual cook review this work, with comments on how the various flavours in the recipes would interact. Do the fictional repasts Connell throws at the page have any validity in the world of haute cuisine or are they simply part of the joke?

There are two main strands to THE GALAXY CLUB (Chômu Press pb, 200pp, £11.50), a patchwork novel set in New Mexico in the 1970s. One plotline has the drifter Cleopatra hitch up in a small rural village where he becomes enlisted in a search for fabled hidden treasure. In the second strand the precocious Blue Boy Montana, who kills dragons with his magical stick, becomes a person of interest to various extra-natural entities, including the Galaxy Club (these don't take much part in the action, so the title is something of a misnomer). The two strands intersect when Blue Boy helps Cleopatra find the treasure.

As far as the plot goes this book isn't all that interesting, with the real pleasure coming from how the two strands rub together - on one hand a noir storyline complete with femme fatale and corrupt lawmen, and on the other something that verges on the mythological with its animistic undertones - and the way in which it is told, Connell using every trick in his literary kit to move the action along. Nearly everything is told in the first person, but related not just by the principles, but by the dead as well as the living, and by inanimate objects, such as a statue of the Virgin Mary and the shovel Cleopatra uses to dig for treasure. In the case of the town's sheriff we get differing accounts, one of what actually happens and the other having to do with his idealised version of events in which he is the hero. Cleopatra is little more than a reactive agent, simply responding to events, hardly ever initiating action himself, and haunted by images of ancient Egypt and memories of military service in some foreign land (probably Vietnam). The non-human characters are drawn with panache, coming across rather more as comic cut outs than divine creatures, with grandiose names and put upon attitudes to underline the joke.

With passages written in a faux stream of consciousness style and the story constantly backtracking to fill in details or relate events from a different perspective, this is a bravura performance from Connell, one in which his invention never flags, though at the same time raising the spectre of nullity, the fear that all this style that he flings in the reader's face is simply a distraction from the lack of substance. No, that's wrong, the book has loads of substance, but it doesn't present an especially cohesive story, aside from aesthetic concerns, which makes it mirror real life rather more than you might expect from a story of this fabulist nature. I liked it a lot.



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