In preparing for the writing of a review, what I normally do is go through the book in question and underline any bit that jumps out at me, writing things in the margins like, ‘Ooh, lovely bit of description’, or, ‘Emotive. Nice’.
Well, my copy of The Murenger and Other Stories is now a right state. Underlines galore. Let me just get this out of the way: Jon Gower writes beautifully. Full of blazing imagery, the descriptions, sometimes long, musical, eloquent passages, sometimes brief gunshots of disarming clarity, are gorgeous. My many underlinings of his words were slightly tinged with jealousy. Moths ‘skirtle in, weaving ghost tapestries with the soft needles of their flutter…some zizzing to death on open flames.’ That one got a double-underline. Skirtle!
It would be a disservice to reduce this collection to just a series of sparkling lines. Jon writes about real, mundane people doing absurd things – in Oology, a conservationist living in a caravan in the Highlands (where, ‘a twitcher from London had got so excited by seeing two crested tits in a glade in Aviemore that he had had an aneurysm on the spot’) embarks on a car chase of sorts, tailing a man – ‘a scourge, a nemesis’ – known to collect rare eagle eggs. And the ending (which I won’t spoil) gives us exactly what we want.
In ‘Sonata Envy,’ a story where you can really sense Jon enjoying himself, a mediocre composer resentful and jealous of those more talented than himself, enlists the help of an assassin to bump off his competition. ‘Let there be some infectious yellow marmalade clogging the canals of the inner ear,’ says the embittered narrator, of the ears of other composers, ‘a thick gunk suffocating the cochlea. Gooseberry jam, thick as mucus, rich with irritating seeds at the end of the Eustachian tubes.’
Some stories go beyond absurdity, entering into the realm of magic or witchcraft, especially so The Murenger itself, my favourite, which is affectionately based on Ye Olde Murenger House in Newport, a pub where probably most Welsh writers have done a reading at some point in their career. In this story the pub is a bizarre, tripped out place with a portal for time travellers (‘We’re talking sidereal time here’), a witchy physic garden full of herbs and plants, and a ‘spectral butler’ who floats around the catacombs having ‘unbutlery thoughts’. Oh, and a pub cat that might or might not exist, ‘brought in by a sailor who had sailed six seas and had traded the twisting cat in a hessian sack for intercourse with a monk’.
There is witchcraft present in Skin Hue, the first story, too, though this comes with more of that absurdity – a woman opens a sun tanning salon in Caerphilly and a witch curses her enterprise. The witch here is ‘Steve from Gala Bingo’. I like the fact that Jon writes about women who open sun tanning salons in Caerphilly, serving Prosecco at the grand opening, without any mockery. He swipes aside the low-hanging fruit and works to give his characters convincing inner lives – in this case, allowing Steph, the protagonist, to make fun of the colour chart that compares skin hues to old church doors and plywood – ‘For the woman who wanted her skin to resemble an IKEA kitchen chair, thought Steph. Plywood, for fuck’s sake.’ Little touches like that.
Best of all, this story features one of my favourite lines: ‘“My pubes are on fire!”’ Thank you, Jon.
I got the sense, reading these stories, that Jon has a lot of inside knowledge about the things he chooses to write about (especially birds). Either he does and he’s good at sneaking it into the text, or he doesn’t but he’s very good at research and sneaking it into the text. As a result, his stories flow with a casual confidence. There is real craft here. At times Jon gets self-indulgent with his lyrical, expansive wordiness. But he totally gets away with it.
There may possibly be some unifying theme that bonds all these stories, but I wasn’t really looking for it (being too wrapped up in the language), and also, I might be a bit too dense for that kind of thing. One thing that became apparent to me, however, was the sneaky, clever little links between most stories (I noted these in the copy as ‘sexy linkage’). Short Stay ends in a cave and the following story, The Mind’s Menagerie, begins with, ‘He examined the rims of the ice cave…’ I won’t spoil anyone’s fun by pointing out the other instances – most are less obvious and therefore more satisfying to spot. Have a go.
Such sexy linkage tells me that Jon has put a lot of thought into the placement of these stories. And if he’s put thought into that, then you know he’s put thought into everything else. Here is a writer who knows exactly what’s he’s doing. Nice.
The Murenger and Other Stories is published by Three Impostors press and can be purchased here.