New Statesman review: ‘Darker With The Lights On’, David Hayden (Little Island Press, 2018)

David Hayden’s stories are, by and large, dreams, or in any case are told as if they are dreams. At the end of one or two you half-expect a worried coda: “What do you suppose it means?” Like dreams, they have nagging motifs (foxes, damaged hands and, most of all, teeth: chattering, breaking, sprouting, falling out) and like dreams they are haunted by oblique fears – of death, of alienation, of losing innocence or sanity.

The framing of this debut collection by Dublin-born Hayden is insistently absurdist. Men (and they are mostly men) rock up in strange cities to face double-talking receptionists or enigmatic secretaries. Pilgrims travel through landscapes pitched somewhere between late-Sixties Bob Dylan and John of Patmos. A couple of stories make cerebral – or cerebral-seeming – play with quirky conceits: “Hay” concerns a mine flooded by the miners’ tears; in “Reading”, a pair on a railway station platform posit an afterlife in which everyone is trapped within the last book they read. The latter in particular is good, chewy fun.

When, in “The Bread that was Broken”, Hayden lingers on the charred, dead body of a young man served up at a dinner party (“bloodied bows of ribs showed through … the skin and bent fingers a glossy charcoal…”), or when yellow maggots are seen “fizzing” in the jaw of a fox in “Memory House”, it seems that the author, in time-honoured modernist style, is attempting to discomfit the reader. The effect, however, is too artistic to be viscerally grotesque.

Two stories, side by side, read like didactic exegeses on the surrounding texts. They are both lectures. “How to Read a Picture Book” features Sorry the talking squirrel, also known as Max Liebowitz, and combines zaniness with a fast-talking treatise on words, pictures and narrative:

Sometimes there are two stories being told at the same time… Between the time of your beautiful incomprehension and the moment that you finally lose the will to see goodness you’ll be able to see both stories and find the two of them funny.

“Play” – the more successful of the two – comprises a rambling and ultimately tragic lecture on the subject of its title and a wisecracking chorus of student hecklers.

The unwary or unwitting reader is often wrong-footed by Hayden’s habit of signing off a story on what feels like a punchline, only without the “Aha!” moment (or indeed the “Haha!” moment). The timing and balance suggest resolution but it remains elusive. No curious reader minds feeling lost or baffled or even unsatisfied, but these inconclusive conclusions can feel like a taunt.

We’re being asked – by Hayden’s capital-A Absurdism and carefully intelligent style, by the publisher’s minimalist design and prestige paper – to take on trust the weight of the intellect hidden within these often baffling stories (“Sometimes people practise concealment for their own amusement,” says Sorry the squirrel). We are encouraged to believe that this is work that will repay study, but at times it does little to invite such close reading. I wasn’t inclined to spend long rootling for meaning in the numbing philosophical skit “An Apple in the Library”, or in the folklorish “Limbed” – which of course isn’t to say that it’s not there.

There is some terrific work in here. The raking hallucinations of “Dick” (“Dick is buried up to his belly on a cold shingle beach”) provide perhaps the best example of how Hayden’s raw surrealism can muster an unexpected emotional gut-punch. There are forceful explosions of imagist prose. The odd line of everyday idiom (An unpleasant woman on a bus has a “Face twisted up like a cat’s knitting”) is a welcome intrusion. “Mareg” and “Last Call for the Hated” are darkly witty cryptics. The wonderful story “Remains of the Dead World” inserts a Ted Hughes-ish crow into a twin narrative of apocalypse and madness (a passage wherein the crow wears the narrator’s father’s dentures – “I didn’t know crows could get cold, only I found out when I heard the teeth chattering” – is among the best in the book).

Darker With The Lights On will send many readers skidding along the spectrum between “I don’t know what this means” and “This doesn’t mean anything”. Yet it would be foolish to approach this complicated book with the conviction that all puzzles have solutions and all symbols have counterparts. Sometimes, a mangled fox really is just a mangled fox.

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