There are some odd, alien, repulsive, nightmarish,
sly, funny, fabulous, fairytale-ilike images in Berit Ellingsen's new collection
of stories, "Beneath the Liquid Skin". This book sets up and detonates little
depth-charges of meaning. You can't resist being pulled into Ellingsen's unique
and vital imagination.
Ellingsen doesn't practice the art of the short
story, she explodes the accepted state of the short story and mines its shards.
Each of these stories, some no more than brief vignettes or prose poems, is so
different from the others that you feel that Ellingsen is re-inventing the story
genre with each with each and every outing. Like her artistic forbears Kafka and
Borges, she is exploring new possibilities in fiction writing and showing more
conventional authors the way it can be. She doesn't keep coming back and
re-ploughing the same earth the way some writers do, nor is she forcing each
piece into the kind of shape that a New Yorker editor would love. Rather, she is
letting each story stand on its own as a work of art and as an expression that
was the result of a successful quest to find a new form.
And yet, as
different as each story is, the constant behind them all is her narrative voice.
It is controlled, vivid, accurately descriptive, and packed with surprising
images. Her imagery comes from the biological world, cityscapes, Cold War
defections and online games, nightmares and dreams. Her voice gets in your head
and you want more of it. This is especially true in "A June Defection", which
could have become a full-length novel. "A June Defection" is as close as she
comes to New Yorker short stories with their little epiphanies. But it carries
her own special twist, as the ending is prepared like a trap that is sprung in
the last sentences.
In other stories, like "The Glory of Glormosel" or
"The Love Decay has for the Living", the authorial voice is very tongue in
cheek. There is a sly humor that easily conveys the bizarre logic of dreams. On
the other hand, the stories "The Astronomer and the King" and "The Tale that
Wrote Itself" read like fables, and the narrator is the tale-spinner, who
delights in entertaining and confounding the reader. And "Autumn Story" is a sad
evocation of loss, told by a somewhat removed narrator who follows the character
in the story who, much like the one in Ellingsen's novel "The Empty City",
gradually empties out and seems to be fading away into nothingness.
there is a theme that unites many of these stories, it is that of Identity. It
is as if, after the collapse of the post-modern ironic consciousness in the wake
of 9/11, a new kind of identity arose, which she explores in this book. This new
kind of identity is more fluid, less rigid, quite apt to metamorphosize.
Everything is mutable, including the self of an Antarctic researcher, the body
of a Chef's lover, and the man whose lover turns into a shark. In "Sexual
Dimorphism - A Nightmare Transcribed From the Sanskrit", a "female self" decides
to change into a "male self", with strange results, but with a haunting refrain
that reminds us of the mutability of the gods themselves. Again, as in "The
Empty City", she treats notions of the Self and Identity not as fixed structures
to be explored, but as notions that are liquid, flowing, ephemeral, and made to
be deconstructed, melted down, re-formed into something bigger, wilder, more
open to crazy possibilities.
It is impossible to pigeonhole Ellingsen's
work into a genre or an influence.
You find modernism, sci-fi, fantasy, surrealism,
magic realism, and straight short story art. At times it seems that she is
verging on post-modernist meta-fiction, but her sensibility is too close to the
bone to undercut her own narratives in that way. Yet it is as though she is
inventing a new narrative space all her own, where her deadpan, controlled
language meets her concern with identity, metamorphosis, and non-duality. At its
best her work is attains the spiritual, but in a way that is unexpected and
This is nowhere more evident than in her final story,
"Anthropocene", and another story, "A Catalog of Planets". The latter story
starts with the statement, "this planet reminds your atoms and molecules that
they are mostly empty space". In very brief paragraphs, she presents the various
ways that people are in prisons of their own making, and ends with a vision of
The story "Anthropocene" takes a similar planetary
perspective, but starts from the viewpoint of geology. I didn't really
understand this story until I looked up the meaning of the title word. The
Anthropocene is a scientific neologism for the human epoch on earth and its
effect on the planet's ecology. This story is ostensibly about geology and a
possible future if humankind continues down its current path. The constant
refrain, as the narrator moves through time past to time future, is about a
poison ore at the heart of the earth. The final lines jump to a statement that
both sums up the entire book, and explains what the poison ore is:
and 'I' denote no one and no thing. They are simply chalk marks on the
blackboard or letters on the page."
Ellingsen takes us on quite a journey
through the stories in this book. Open it at any page and start reading and you
will be enthralled. And wanting more.
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