This work by Scottish s/f and weird fiction writer, Douglas Thompson, presents itself simultaneously as a novel and short story collection. Perhaps it's neither. To me, it seems like the contents of Thompson's head tipped out onto the pages and riffled through by a team of neurosurgeons who have teased out the rough thread of a narrative. Reading 'The Suicide Machine' I had the impression of something both confessional and deeply self-exploratory. There were times I wanted to cry out: "No Douglas, you don't have to tell us that, not if it's upsetting!"
N A Jackson (Nick Jackson) is the author of two collections of short fiction: "Visits to the Flea Circus, Elastic Press, 2005 and "The Secret Life of the Panda, Chomu Press, 2012. His fiction reviews can be found on The Future Fire and here.
However, more often than not, Thompson seems to enjoy blending life and fiction until there seems to be no difference. To what extent it is truly autobiographical, I couldn't guess but Thompson begins by evoking the spirit of his late brother and proceeds to unburden himself of his guilt over his brother's possible suicide as well as to delve into memories of his mother's last years and his troubled relationship with his father. There are details of such poignant simplicity that make it impossible to believe they are invented; then again there is a vein of surreal humour and adventure which preclude any taint of the maudlin.
In 'Our Father the Sea" Thompson explores his feelings about his father in painful detail: "I remember telling him I loved him once, and he became pale, looked mortified. His response was: I wish you wouldn't say things like that son. It makes it sound as if there's something wrong." In a story about a man who can't deal with emotional attachment, these touches of bleak humour are the chiaroscuro of Thompson's painterly style.
As Thompson proceeds to exorcise his guilt and grief over these significant relationships, a series of narratives unfold into each other. Like the stories of Borges, these narratives seem to have a kind of limitless depth, leading off down apparent dead ends to bring us back again by a circuitous route to the main story, which might be said to be the story of Thompson himself and of his father, mother and brothers. There are other characters but sometimes these change into different people half way through a story, like the female characters in 'Bach's Marionettes'.
The titular suicide machine forms the most substantial portion of the book. It tells of a strangely sentient machine with mysterious origins involving a Russian dissident physicist and his psychic lover. The story seems to lead us back in time but then delivers us neatly back to the present day. At times Thompson seems to play with his reader, like a cat with a mouse: 'You thought the story was going to end like that, but no, it's going to end like this!'
One of my favourite stories is 'Towards Nature' in which a young man inherits a house in the South of France, which he sets about refurbishing and rebuilding. With each renovation, the house and garden become more closely integrated so that it eventually becomes a mini version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with giant carnivorous pitcher plants, which supply the story's element of horror. There's a particular appeal for me in this fabulously inventive story, keeping the reader in suspended disbelief whilst flouting the rules of science and nature.
In 'The Great White Trump' the author rather excels himself with a political satire tinged with the dour Scots' humour that is rather a Thompson trademark. The narrative takes a surreal turn with the appearance of a gigantic eyeball (the eye of God) rolling around the streets of Glasgow, as good a metaphor as any for our disorientation and cynical disbelief as we watch political events unfolding. Powerless to influence events all that can be done, Thompson suggests, is to send them up. And this he proceeds to do. An image of Trump as a huge white balloon floats over the city, when it bursts, the narrator finds a blond wig in the gutter: "I tried it as a hearth rug then as a mop head. It was a cheap American import, unfit for purpose and finally fell apart altogether the next morning."
The final story/chapter 'The Riddled Man' combines elements of time travel and psychogeography in a reiteration of the main themes of the book. Written in the first person, Thompson casts himself as the wormhole-ridden result of a scientific experiment in space-time exploration and particle physics. The wormholes manifest themselves as sores upon his body which, probed, stimulate memories: "See this patch behind my left ear? I rub this and find myself walking along the ridge of some Scottish Highland mountain at twilight…". This, I think, is what most interests the author: the relation between memory and consciousness and the physical world. It's conceptually interesting but creates a tricky balancing act between narrative coherence and the kind of free-association that gives these stories their filmic quality. In this final piece, Thompson treads a fine line, wandering here and there through the halls of memory until, abruptly, we are back in real-time: "As I finish reading out loud, I realise that my mother has fallen asleep some time ago."
My main feeling is that this is a lovingly-crafted tribute to a family in the final stages of disintegration. It is sad and reflective but also seeks in a strange way to reunite the family through a process of fictionalisation or a fusion of story and reality, past, present and future. And ultimately what does narrative coherence matter? The book, like its beautiful cover design by Pamela Tait, is an amalgam of story and factual detail that has the ability to charm, entertain and horrify. Shapeless, shape-shifting and slightly intoxicating.