back to REviews
Review by Christopher Morris

Imagine a world in which war is waged behind a curtain: one in which the combat zone is separated from civilian areas by an enormous black wall. This wall, composed of stone, driven by unseen mechanics, functions on impossible principles of physics. It is capable of roaming, for one thing, and of adjusting its size to accommodate the war that rages within. If the war is going well, the wall shrinks to expose more civilian land; on the other hand, if the war is going badly ...

The hero of Mark Howard Jones's short novella, "Against the Wall," is Natase, a battle-weary soldier, who is, perhaps surprisingly, female. A sniper, she excels at exterminating stray enemy Astrakh soldiers. As the story begins, Natase is summoned to meet her commander, who orders her to delay her two-week leave to go on a mission to meet with a "seer," a witch-like woman whose psychic powers may or may not be able to reveal the enemy's plans. Readers who think they have a handle on where the story is going from here are in for a big surprise. This mission, while dangerous, proves to be only a trivial diversion for Natase, whose real adventure begins, oddly enough, when she finally gets to go on leave. Jones, it turns out, is more interested in the psychological effects of war - particularly the distinctions between the mental states of soldier and civilian -- than he is in a simple science-fiction adventure tale. Still, there is excitement and tension in this tight narrative, but they appear in less-than-obvious places. With skilled sleight-of-hand, Jones is able to take the readers' expectations and use them for other, more profound purposes.

While Jones's subversive strengths are on evidence here, I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the writing itself: at times his sentences are clumsy, with tendencies both to be vague and to overexplain. However, the story is structured well and moves quickly, and Jones's facility with character proves to be the selling point anyway -he's unusually facile with psychological ramifications of his surreal developments.

It's very easy for a surrealist story to be so disengaged from reality that it can no longer function as fiction -- that is, it's easy for a surrealist author to string together long chains of nonsense, and less easy for that nonsense to have any real impact on the reader. Jones, much of whose work is in the surrealist vein, has always been able to maintain an unusual amount of psychological realism in his stories. In "Against the Wall," Jones anchors the bizarre with an undercurrent of genuine emotion and with an almost allegorical symbolism. In my view it's his most successful tale.