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Review by Marc Lowe

JEF Books/Civil Coping Mechanisms/Depth Charge Publishing
ISBN: 13: 9781884097423
338 pages
$17.95 at Amazon.com

Yuriy Tarnawsky is a unique find.  Nobody on earth writes like he writes.  I will not take up space discussing his impressive background here, for I have already done so in my review of his earlier collection of "mini-novels," Like Blood in Water, but what I will say is that his tales/tails, in this case taking the form of 24 distinct-yet-related "prose pieces," continually surprise, confound, and, yes, entertain as well.

The collection opens with the truly short tale "receding" (all titles are presented in lowercase lettering, so I will follow this precedent), a work in which a man notices that his left eye is creating a distorted image of the world.  When he goes to the mirror to have a look, it turns out that the entire "left side of his face in fact has gotten smaller and grown flaccid, wrinkled, like the skin of an elephant."  Eventually, the entire left side of the man's body shrinks, followed by the right, leaving "nearly all eye" and vanishing into the horizon at "the speed of light."  But this is just the tip of a very strange iceberg…

Many of the protagonists of these tales seem to be lost in a sort of hazy, unpleasant dream from which they cannot wake.  For instance, in "the albino inside you" (written in second person), the "you" figure is sure that he has seen a white-colored apparition flit by, and he convinces himself that the apparition, when it again appears, will take the form of a "tall and heavy" albino man who will be waiting for him in the bathroom.  He obsesses on the idea, though the albino is never there.  Later, "you" becomes convinced that this albino exists within himself as a sort of evil alter ego, and that he might encounter (and be forced to confront) him anywhere: on the streets, in a café, etc.  Much of the story is set in Vienna, there is a young psychiatrist character, and individual dreams are both described in detail and analyzed, suggesting that much of what "you" are experiencing could indeed be part of a diseased (Freudian) dreamscape, or else a symptom of madness.  And what to make of the fact that there is a character named Frau Braun, not to mention that "you" is fairly certain he has glimpsed an angel's "right wing"?

The albino is not the only apparition-perceived or otherwise-to appear in the collection.  At the end of "smoke," the protagonist Rauch, whose house has been struck by lightening, realizes that he himself has died and become a ghost.  The first hint of this comes when a man wearing black looks straight through him at a coffee shop.  He flees the shop in terror and, once outside, sees his old friend who had died months earlier approaching with outstretched hand, a sure sign that both are phantoms.  Another "tail/tale" in which the protagonist-in this case also the narrator-realizes that he is in fact dead is "father," though here there is a curious and clever swapping of personalities/bodies reminiscent of the ending of Poe's famous döppelganger tale, "William Wilson."  The narrator eventually realizes how similar his father's hands were to his, as well as the shape of his nose and the look of his skin.  And so:

Disturbed, perturbed, I want to check this, hope it's untrue, get up, walk over to the mirror on the nearby wall, stop, look, stand stunned, aghast! -There, staring at me out of the leaden surface, out of the florid, floral, ornate, golden baroque frame is my father's face-not his likeness, spit and image, but exact, his actual face, him!  So it's not I who stands in front of the mirror but my father, that is I am the father and not the son! (265)

From the get-go, the narrator of this episode seems quite confused; he cannot, for instance, remember that his father had died twenty-six years ago.  Similarly, the narrator of "the pain machine"-which plays with the French word for bread ("pain") and the English word "pain"-does not remember very many details about his own situation.  The opening line begins: "I was for some reason in Puerto Vallarta-I can't remember why-and found myself at a garden party…"  This uncanny sense of not knowing how one has arrived at where one is pervades many tales in the collection, and lends to them an uncertain, oneiric quality.  What the narrator here discovers is that what he had thought to be a bakery van (i.e. where "Pain Machine" would translate to "Bread Machine") is in actuality a vehicle in which the "white object in the window" is a man who screams while being tortured, the sound of his voice pumped through a loudspeaker for the sake of "entertainment," though he, and others like him, never receive "much more than the minimum wage."  The tale reminded this writer of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," though here the twist is even more cruel when one considers that the underpaid, presumably third-world workers alluded to voluntarily subject themselves to the worst forms of torture for such little money (the screams, the narrator says before he realizes that they are in fact screams, were "reminiscent of Eastern singing-Arabic or Indian-but harsher, with passages in it more like moans or screams of pain than music").

Another "political" tale is "lenin's brain," wherein Wally Uhland buys an item during a Columbus Day sale for only $1.90 that turns out to be a human brain.  He wonders whose it is and determines, after thinking about it for a time, that as it couldn't be Whitman's or Stalin's, etc., it must be Lenin's.

Lenin?  Yes, he thought Lenin's brain had been removed from his body.  The body was embalmed and lay in the Kremlin, so the brain must have been removed…. Old Egyptians removed all internal organs of bodies they embalmed…. And he was almost certain he had read that Lenin's brain had been carefully studied. (114)

Having made this discovery, Wally then proceeds to become just like Lenin; he has dreams of Lenin's Russia, grows his beard in a similar fashion, fixes himself cabbage soup, and, finally, takes a trip to St. Petersburg ("Leningrad"), where he all but forgets how to speak in his native tongue, English.  (By the bye the brain, which rots despite refrigeration, is eventually dumped into the trash.)

The other tales are equally unique and surprising; one can expect to encounter missing fingers, roses tattooed on foreheads, earthquakes that go on and on (and that seem to be related directly to a character's state-of-mind), an acrobat named after the author of the Sherlock Holmes series who spits fire and tries to make his body form a perfect cube, a boy obsessed with peeking-and eventually crawling (much like the boy in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum)-under women's skirts, and, finally, a yellow streetcar that has no name (to desire) and whose destination is tenuous, at best.

The collection in its entirety is both cohesive and utterly satisfying.  One way the short works are tied together is through (realistic or artificial) nature imagery: a great number of these "prose pieces" end with the sun, the horizon, the sea.  Another device employed is that many of the names of the protagonists start with the letter "R," e.g. Rooke, Rauch, Rick, etc.  (It's impossible not to think of Roark, from Tarnawsky's previous collection, as not also belonging to this family of Rs.)  Finally, all of the prose works in the book are relatively short-the shortest being the "bookend" pieces at 5-6 pages each, and the longest running about 40 pages-and all have a particular "feel" or atmosphere or style to them, despite the range of subject matter, wildly divergent imagery, differing POVs, etc.  This makes the collection read almost like a loosely-told novel-in-stories: nothing here is random or extraneous, nothing misplaced.

Tarnawsky's 24 "prose pieces" are at turns strange, intense, hilarious, erudite, sur / ir-real, uncanny, symbolic, thought-provoking, disturbing, sexy, horrific, delightful… The book is truly a box of surprises, and if you haven't yet read one of Yuriy Tarnawsky's sui generis novels or collections, it is a great place to start.  Short Tails is anything but short on innovation and originality; in fact, it's one of the most original works this writer has read in ages.


About Yuriy Tarnawsky (from the back of the book):

Yuriy Tarnawsky has authored twenty collections of poetry, seven plays, eight books of fiction, a biography, and numerous articles and translations.  He was born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the West.  A linguist by training, he has worked as a computer scientist specializing in natural language processing and as professor of Ukrainian literature at Columbia University.  He writes in Ukrainian and English.

His books include the novels Meningitis and Three Blondes and Death, as well as a collection of mininovels, Like Blood in Water, all from FC2, and Ukrainian Dumy, a translation of Ukrainian epic poetry published by Harvard University.


About Marc Lowe:

 Marc Lowe is the author of a chapbook and an e-book, both from ISMs Press (2010).  He lives in Japan with his wife and baby daughter.