Review: “The Dead Lake” by Hamid Ismailov

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“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible. I was travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan…” p.9

Recently longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the thirteenth publication from Peirene Press, and the first from their “coming-of-age” series. Together, The Blue Room, Under The Tripoli Sky and The Dead Lake form a devastating trio spanning three continents and three vastly different cultural landscapes, united by deeply pensive narrators who are each meandering through their own adolescence simmering in their existential angst, trying to ascribe meaning to their existence and life experience. Each book offers a short yet deeply engaging and provocative vignette of different fascinating cultures and allows you to become an insider, to explore worlds far-flung from your own (or at least my own) and, crucially, to come back to reflect on your own situation and culture.

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The Dead Lake begins with a stark preface, photographed above, that immediately gives you the context for the novel. Set in Kazakhstan, the novel familiarises the reader with the seemingly endless, lonely, barren landscape of the Kazakh steppe, a word that crops up again and again as the novel proceeds. It is an expansive, wide-open land that seems only to be populated by rusty railway tracks, plodding donkeys, mysterious lakes and the characters of Ismailov’s novella. Intermittent explosions from atomic test sites play over this landscape like the novella’s very own soundtrack, and the true horror of these atomic experiments become an accepted part of reality and, tragically, perhaps even something mundane for those living in the area. The narrative beings on a train with a talented young boy playing Brahms ‘with such incredible dexterity and panache that at once all the compartment doors slid open and the passengers’ drowsy faces appeared’. It conspires that this boy, initially presumed to be ‘a ten- or twelve-year-old boy’, is actually 27. The narrator engages the man in conversation, and thus we are told the sad story of Yerzhan, a tale of lost promise, lost love and a melancholic re-telling of the fable of Peter Pan.

Yerzhan grows up in a loving home and enjoys a happy childhood roaming the landscape of the steppe with his childhood sweetheart Aisulu. He shows great promise as a young musician, and he is full of the zest of youth. Despite the rumblings of the explosions which follow Yerzhan around as he treks back and forth to his violin tutor’s home, Yerzhan develops a close relationship with the steppe, which he seems to find intriguingly beautiful and mysterious. As the narrator so wonderfully puts it,

“The joy of the steppe, the joy of music and the joy of childhood always coexisted in Yerzhan with the anticipation of that inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado from the Zone.”

His fascination with the steppe comes to a head one day when faced with The Dead Lake of the title. Despite being warned about the lake’s peculiarity, Yerzhan, bursting with youthful enthusiasm and energy, is seduced by its strange beauty:

“It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale like lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling…” p.65

It is interesting to note that it is the stillness of the water that attracts him; ‘trembling’ is a word frequently used to describe the explosions and so his desire to enter the serenity of the lake might be thought of as an escapist attempt to move away from the horrors of the Zone. He cannot resist the lake’s allure, and with little or no hesitation Yerzhan strips off and struts calmly into the water. This mundane event is told in richly symbolic prose, expertly captured by the novella’s translator, Andrew Bromfield, always foreboding the consequences of Yerzhan’s apparent heedlessness, the consequences of which the reader is aware of from the first chapter.

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What I liked most about The Dead Lake is, like The Blue Room and Under The Tripoli Sky, it is told in a very simple, yet effective and moving literary style. Even in the happier episodes of the novel recounting Yerzhan’s youth as a promising musician, the language is tinged with a quiet melancholy caused by the clever way Ismailov has structured the novel. In addition to the larger themes of atomic warfare and the ethics of warzones, I loved the novella’s portrayal of the art of storytelling which is perhaps much more subtle yet just as powerful. The Dead Lake is full of people telling stories: whether this is Yerzhan telling his story to the man on the train which frames the novella, or Yerzhan’s grandmother telling him fables in his youth, or the stories/rumours which echo among Yerzhan’s friends at school. The story represents a deeply powerful medium that can touch and change lives. Coming out of all these stories is the book itself, one that, despite its size, gives the reader plenty to consider and it is one that left its mark on me long after the final page.

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The Dead Lake is available to buy from Peirene Press here. You can read my reviews of the two other titles from Peirene’s “coming-of-age” series, The Blue Room and Under The Tripoli Sky, here and here. Thank you for reading.

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Book Review: “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn

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“‘I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique’” p.319.

Re-published by Abacus twenty five years after its original release, this brand edition of the American cult classic Geek Love features a handsome new cover boasting endorsements from Kurt Cobain to Douglas Coupland, Audrey Niffenegger to Jeff Buckley, with Terry Gilliam calling it ‘the most romantic novel about love and family I have read’. Impressive stuff. The story itself revolves around the Binewskis, a family of carnival performers who travel around the United States flaunting their full array of talents to ever-increasing crowds of spectators. Yet the Binewskis are far from being your typical American family, and this is no typical gang of carnies; each child, and performer, is a labour of love on the part of Crystal Lil and Alonysius, the matriarch and patriarch of the family who together decide to thwart the declining carnival business they have inherited from Al’s parents by producing their very own panoply of disparate and eccentric performers. Experimenting heavily with all sorts of drugs and chemicals while pregnant, Lil gives birth to a colourful cast of characters that become Geek Love: Arturo, known as Arty or later Aqua Boy, a megalomaniac with flippers instead of limbs; gifted musicians and conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia; Fortunato, known in the family as Chick, the youngest born who appears to be a ‘norm’ but is discovered to hold potent telekinetic powers; and finally our narrator Olympia, a bald, hunchedbacked albino dwarf who becomes the mouthpiece for her family both at the carnival—where she is trained up by her father as an orator—and in the form of the book itself.

 

Geek Love is a complex novel that resists definition. It is family history, yes, but told from the perspective of Oly, the book also acts as a love letter to her only daughter, Miranda, who Olympia is forced to abandon due to her normalcy. It is also a study about family and familial love, a biting social satire and a celebration of diversity. From the off it is all go, a rollicking read that charts the peaks and troughs of the Binewski’s endlessly entertaining escapades across the US. From the novel’s vibrant cast of characters, it is Arturo the Aqua Boy who emerges as the principal character. Throughout the children’s youth, it is Arty who yearns for power among his siblings and in the family at large, and it is something he achieves through his dedication to his act. As the novel proceeds, Arty germinates a powerful and disturbing cult, called ‘Arturism’, founded

“‘on the greed and spite of a transcendental maggot … who used his own genetic defects and the weakness of the unemployed and illiterate to create an insanely self-destructive following that fed his maniacal ego’”(p.268) (Arty is so thrilled by this term that he goes on to use the term ‘Transcendental Maggot’ as another of his nicknames—a great example of the novel’s type of humour).

In a perverse form of imitation, Arty requests that his followers demonstrate their dedication to his cause by having their limbs decapitated until they reach the demigod-like limbless status himself. Yet it is not only ‘the unemployed and illiterate’ who are drawn to his cult; graduates from Yale and Harvard soon rock up hoping to spend their summers away from college adulating the renowned Aqua Boy, many of whom jeopardise their studies in order to remain in his cult.

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As the moon of Arturism rises, however, that of the Binewski family is steadily on the decline. Crystal Lil and Al, once the masterminds and puppeteers of their carnival, quickly lose control of their grand project as Arty takes over the reins. What is once a happy, self-sufficient, interdependent family body becomes fragmented and disintegrated thanks to Arturo’s megalomaniacal wants and needs. The narrative gathers pace steadily until it becomes an uncontrollable, tumultuous ball of mess that crashes tragically towards the end where we are met by nostalgic, regretful and touching passages from Olympia who addresses her daughter with complete transparency in the hope that Miranda might be able to comprehend her mother’s decision to orphan her when still a baby.

 

The above barely touches on the central events of Geek Love and there is a whole whirlwind of other events and narratives going on around this. One of the most significant narratives is that surrounding a character named Miss Lick. The novel begins from its end point, with Miranda by now a fully grown woman doing what she can in the world to get by. Olympia is living in the same building as Miranda and decides to follow her daughter, who is still unware that Olympia is her mother, one evening to discover what she does to earn her living. Oly is led to kind of fetishist strip club, where Miranda’s only peculiar feature of having a small tail is a central selling point in her performance. Yet Miss Lick wants to draw Miranda away from this; as Olympia notes, “Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers… Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory. She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty. So am I” (p.230). In the first instance, it is interesting that Dunn has Miranda unknowingly continue her family’s tradition; she is selling her unique physiognomy to consumers for a monetary gain, essentially the same thing her mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents did for the most part of their lives. Miss Lick not only seeks to help Miranda come away from this type of business, to use her natural beauty and intelligence to gain a way in the world, but Miss Lick also helps Olympia in her later life. She teaches her to swim, for example, and Oly actually comes to realise that ‘she is the only friend I’ve ever had’ (p.467). Miss Lick is a feminist hero of sorts, the only character who provides any sort of resolution at the end of this completely bonkers novel.

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In addition to gender and gender roles, Geek Love explores an impressive number of complex themes. Family is obviously a central one, and although the Binewski family seem so fundamentally different to your own in terms of who they are, what they look like and how they think, their sheer dedication to their family body is something that many families can relate to. So there are passages, such as the one below, where even criticising or talking ill of the family can result in violent outbursts:

“ ‘Mama, Elly isn’t there anymore. Iphy’s changed. Everything’s changed. The whole berry business, cooking big meals that nobody comes for, birthday cakes for Arty. It’s dumb mama. Stop pretending. There isn’t any family anymore, Mama.’

Then she cracked me with the big spoon. It smacked wet and hard across my ear, and the purple-black juice sprayed across the table. She stared at me, terrified, her mouth and eyes gaping with fear. I stared gaping at her. I broke and ran.” p.397

Power in relationships is another central theme, and one which focalises largely on Arturo.  With the benefit of hindsight, Olympia is later able to impart a more objective view on Arturo’s megalomania:

“General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions of this spectrum at one time or another. Watching Arty pine for Iphy, however, I have come to see him as just a regular Joe—jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge” (p.390).

As a woman who is largely repressed by Arturo for large parts of this novel, it is illuminating that Dunn allows Olympia the space to reflect in retrospect on her relationship with her brother and actually have her reprimanding herself and Arty. The more I think about it, the more fascinating gender in this novel appears to me, and I think it would make an incredibly rich text to explore in the classroom. Wacky, bonkers, touching, emotive, laugh-out-loud funny and at times incredibly sad, Geek Love hit all the notes for me and this is an elegant edition that I will be thoroughly recommending to friends.

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Geek Love is available to buy from Abacus here. Thanks to Poppy for the review copy, and thank you for reading!