Dead Iraqis
by Ellis Sharp 

New Ventures
2009
Paperback
First collection? No

Ellis Sharp is an experimental British writer, based in London. He is the author of ten books of absurdist metafiction, distinguished by their dense, allusive prose and their interest in re-imagining themes from history, literature and cinema, sometimes from a radical socialist perspective..

Read an interview with Ellis Sharp







"… reassuring rubble of the refuse lorry as it enters our street, its stout rubber-gloved crew whistling cheerfully as they pick up the heaped black bulging sacks of rubbish and toss them, one after the other, again and again and again, into the dirty grinding jaws of the ceaselessly turning crusher at the back."

Reviewed by Jason Makansi


If you don’t have several of the following, get them before you tackle this collection: • An immense vocabulary, preferably including professional and academic jargon from fields such as medicine, history, and psychology.

• Some knowledge of the geography of London and England

• A recent reading or rereading and appreciation of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Joseph Heller, or Jonathan Swift

• A refresher on the absurdist movement in theatre

• Patience for streams of consciousness that turn into raging rivers

• A distaste for obvious narrative, plot, or traditional story

• A fondness for ideas that jump around like the steel ball in a pinball machine.

Even three or four of these may not be enough. Or, you’ll have to read these stories more than once. The beginning of the last paragraph of the introduction by MacDonald Daly sets the stage:

"It is very curious to write about an author whose talent is such that one considers he should have a large audience when, in fact, the number of those who appreciate his work is infinitesimally small."

I don’t doubt that Daly may be correct when he ends with, "There is certainly no contemporary British writer quite like him." That can mean a host of different things. I have a rule of thumb about writing of any kind. I call it the law of concentric circles of meaning. If I don’t "get" it on some level the first read, the likelihood of my returning for a new level of meaning and enjoyment is close to zero. I suspect Daly knows that, and so does Mr. Sharp himself. He’s writing for a narrow slice of the short story readership, in itself pretty damn slender. For my part, I didn’t "get" most of what I read. I got an idea where Sharp is going with his stories, but I didn’t have the patience to stick with him.

I like satire of the Catch-22 variety, when there is no problem following the story and enjoying the humor. You can probably figure out where Sharp is heading from a few of the story titles: Dead Iraqis, Lenin’s Trousers, An Interview with Nietzsche’s Moustache, and Tympoptanomania. No question, it is satire and even absurdist, in some cases horrific (see the short quote above from Dead Iraqis), in some cases more mild skewering of the academic classes (Nietzsche’s Moustache). And I found many of the sentences funny and unique.

"An hour went by dragging a sheet of dusk behind it." "His teeth were as white as the cuttlefish which littered Bognor beach at low tide."

But I don’t think I have the appropriate level of attention deficit disorder for Mr. Sharp’s prose. When I got to the story, Rag, I was angry at Mr. Sharp. Not only does this story demonstrate how lyrically he can write when he wants to, I have to confess that after about the second page I could not stop my mouth from reading out loud. Now that’s when you know there’s a powerful voice! Thank God I was outside and my kids didn’t think I was going nuts. This story has a motif that ties it together, a rhythm that moves it along, a narrator that acts as a camera-man would in filming the story, and a main character that goes to visit a site in a movie he loved when he was much younger. These are real story elements. And yet, I would not classify this as a traditional story by any stretch. It has a unique way of being told. I loved it and admired Mr. Sharp’s skills richly illustrated. Maybe a little more of Rag would save Mr. Sharp from an infinitesimally small audience?

Daly writes that Sharp’s politics are scalding and up-front, he makes "literary demands" on his readers, his "modicum of acknowledgement is long overdue." He’s certainly demanding but I’m not sure it’s of the literary variety but more in the vein of someone feigning a modicum of insanity. Perhaps that’s intriguing enough for others, though, so that "infinitesimal" swells a bit?




Jason Makansi has published several poems and half a dozen short stories in a variety of literary journals, as well as one accepted by the Amazon Shorts Program.  In 2009, he attended the renowned Sewanee Writer’s Conference held at the University of the South. Makansi has also published three professional books and numerous works of non-fiction in the fields of engineering, energy, environmental science, and economics.

Jason's other Short Reviews: Susie Bright (ed) "The Best of Best American Erotica"

Warren Adler "New York Echoes"

Frances Thimann "Cell and Other Stories"

Steven Coy (ed) "See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming"

Deborah Bostock Kelley "Damaged Goods: Narrative Unendings from Inside My Heart and Mind"

David Gardiner "The Other End of the Rainbow"

                     
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