Memoirs of a
Gone World
 by Martin Bax

Salt Publishing
2010, Paperback
First collection

"And what I've tried to explain is that if the hands reject you how can you expect what lies behind the hands to reach out to you?"

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

The gone world goes in the first story in this collection (The Turned-in, Broken-up and Gone World), not because of a nuclear winter or the sea-rise of global warming, but through a tilt in the laws of thermodynamics. Increasing entropy trumps everything, and as a result human bodies break down into simple molecules, carbon dioxide, water, some phosphate.... All of this is startlingly introduced in the story's opening lines:
"It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root."
But more startling still is the way Bax then continues, calmly detailing Caroline's past and generally giving the impression that a broken penis is just one significant facet of a sexual encounter, no more or less important than any other.

The same relaxed, distant, almost Mandarin, tone pervades the rest of the book. It works better in some stories than others. In the case of The Turned-in, there is no final explanation as to why the world fell apart, or any clue why the likes of Caroline and the narrator survived. By the end of the story's emotionless narration you suspect the gone world went because of its inhabitants' lack of interest - in anything. The same kind of problem affects Journeyings, in which the matching, related dreams of a man and his lover are described. The dreams unravel pointlessly, to a pointless end and tell us nothing about the two dreamers (who are described so little they are less people than ideas). The overall impression is that of a writer who has become bored with conventional reality, but is too tired to replace it with anything better.

But when Bax sticks - more or less - to the real world he is more successful, and at its best this collection both raises expectations and then successfully delivers.  Bax has an easy, authoritative writing style, and a knack of producing openings that ask for, and bring about, the reader's involvement ("A man has placed a hat on the shelving where we want to put our drinks,", "'You can practice describing the scenery,' you said as we parted,"). More often than not involvement is rewarded, as Bax's eclectic mind switches both location and approach as he takes us from the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec (Le Magasin des Gants) and a countess finding a chance encounter has drawn her back to a sexually-charged period of her youth, to a British V.I.P. in India (Your Hands do not Permit an Attachment), on the edge of sexual involvement but finding India throwing back at him his lack of connection to the world.  The official function/conference-attending bird of passage appears here twice more, in America (The Bells are Ringing) and in A Trip to Dublin, and you wonder if he represents Bax's ideal life: the opportunity for cool observation and chance sex, the freedom from attachments.

However, while Bax's tone is cool and dry, his impulses are often playful.  For instance in the wonderful Seconds Out, Henry Jones, bored of his life, bored of his wife, stumbles on a rogue TV channel where two naked wrestlers (one male, one female) face off with the aim being, "to induce a state approaching orgasm in one's opponent so that he or she begged to be taken."  The end of this very short story is pitch perfect.

And then right at the finish Bax plays it straight. In Brussels during World War Two (When Childhood Ends) Pierre leaves his toys on the floor as the Germans enter the city. Later he's evacuated to his cousins in the country. All of this is seen through his child's POV, with the result that we only realise Pierre is Jewish when his cousins' house is daubed with whitewash stars. The power of the story comes not from what Bax shows us but what he doesn't. We have just glimpses: Pierre's mother with a Star of David pinned to her coat. And in the end we have Pierre himself as a serious - possibly joyless - young man, and as the story circles back to its beginning, we see not toy soldiers on the floor but the corpse of a childhood.

So what to do with Martin Bax? Apart from reading him, perhaps we should bury one copy of the collection in a time capsule. And then long after the balloon goes up, when whatever aliens have eventually come to pick over our bones, they will find this - a testament, both to the on-going peculiarity of the gone world and to one of its most singular minds.

Read a story from this collection at Salt Publishing

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Zahir and GUD among others.
Mithran's other Short Reviews: "Best American Mystery Stories 2007"

James Burr "Ugly Stories for Beautiful People"

Steven Wingate "Wifeshopping"

Theodore Q. Rorschalk (ed) "Touching the Monkey"

Hassan Blassim "The Madman of Freedom Square"
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Martin Bax has been a paediatrician for over 40 years and is currently an honorary reader in Child Health at Imperial College, London.  In 1959 while still in medical school he founded the arts magazine Ambit, which is still in existence today.  He has published the novels The Hospital Ship and Love on the Borders, as well as Edmund Went Far Away for children.  He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Literature in 2002.

Read an interview with Martin Bax