Reviewed by Gregory Papadoyiannis
123 pp KERNPUNKT Press
“The fabulous dead are like dust. They sneak into everything. And the more you dust, the more they spread and merge with each other and change shapes and cover everything and creep inside your nostrils and then into your lungs and then into your blood, under your skin, until all mirrors reflect only their faces.”
—Andriana Minou, The Fabulous Dead
In her thematically linked short story collection, Andriana Minou leaves us no room for misreading her intentions. Brahms, Julius Caesar, Lewis Carroll and many more fabulous dead characters appear in this book in ways equally justified and absurd as the author treats them with the strange intimacy often encountered with visitors to our dreams; an intimacy that is fragile, mercurial and often fateful to the outcome of the dream, an intimacy that offers the only way to follow the thread through the labyrinth of our dreams. This is the only method of experiencing the power of a narrative that neither relies on, nor is dismissive of, historical truth yet seems to be playing a game of parallel probabilities with the lives of those “fabulous dead” in question, a game that extracts any trace of tragedy from their deaths. But the tragic, as well as the comic, are constantly floating between the lines in any case.
Even if you’ve never read Andriana Minou’s other work, you will immediately realize this is an unusual book, a world of storytelling which you enter at your own risk. If you don’t find the title, The Fabulous Dead, enlightening enough, the opening story of the book, “The Skyscraper Queen in Rumours Motel,” introduces you to the fictional world the author has created:
I feel so carefree when I spend the night here, a puppet in the hands of someone I have invented in order to be invented by them. Because living is no laughing matter. Who bears to drag this body, further weighed down by every fragment of self on top of it, until the end? Who has the patience to assemble this dreadfully clockwork chaos?
Arguably, it is precisely this “dreadfully clockwork chaos” that she is trying to assemble throughout her book, yet she is not playing by the rules of reality, but by her own storytelling rules instead.
Through an unavoidable playfulness of true talent, the author successfully pretends that she is simply narrating a preexisting narrative, novelty concealed behind the pretension of tales already told. The author pretends she is rooting around, rediscovering old stories only to challenge us to discover new ones. Magic realism, surrealism, postmodernism, noir and, of course: poetry, poetry, poetry. Her choices and influences are easy to trace at first glance, yet it is hard to predict the degree to which each genre permeates her poetics and unexpectedly crosses paths with other genres only to finally create a style that is entirely hers.
Even though there is nothing new under the sun, the reader is frequently blindsided by unexpected literary devices within this life-giving darkness Minou has invented. For example, in the opening of “Just add water,” we are instantly immerged in a literary space in between the blurriness of dreams and the ruthlessly real:
I dreamt that I had dreamt of what I would be dreaming. When I opened my eyes, Lewis Carroll was asleep next to me, on the green fainting couch. A set of china was set on the tea table. The tea was getting cold in the teapot. The teacups had obviously been used, lipstick stains highlighting the tiny cracks on the brims. With my fingertip, I picked up one lemon cake crumb from each saucer. The pink roses decorating the porcelain were still buds when I opened my eyes, on the green fainting couch, right next to Lewis Carroll. My eyes are stinging; two tear marshes had been sprouting on my eyeballs. Lemon cake on the tongue, salt in the eyes; remnants are always a certainty, even when it comes to tearful tea parties.
Although the title doesn’t bare a promise of uplifting stories, the reader is still left with an alternative:
they may choose the life of anyone they like…Perhaps, to become yet another fabulous dead.
A bit like the choice composer Lully is faced in the short story, “Passacaglia,” where he must decide whether he prefers his gangrened foot be amputated so he can continue his life as someone else or to die and stay loyal to his deepest desire: his love of dancing.
Mssr. Lully, snap out of yourself, you could be whatever in the world you wished, just choose something, life is great and definitely more important than our choices…Mssr Lully, come to your senses, live, become someone else, and live…Yes, Lully could have become whatever he wished. And all he wants to do is dance.
Is this a morbid book then? That would make sense since it is about dead people. But I suspect the author’s answer might as well be “not as morbid as it would have been if it were about the living.” After all, one might argue that the fabulous dead have been blessed with interesting lives and remarkable deaths, such as the death of pop singer Claude Francois (aka Cloclo), who was accidentally electrocuted in his shower while changing a light bulb. But even this ultimate moment is reinterpreted in poetic terms in order to acquire dimensions that transcend each invented or real story. In “The Revenge of Cloclo,” the famous singer’s actual death is tragicomical; re-experienced by the main character of the story, the leader of revolutionary organization, Bouche Fermée, whose life’s purpose is to sabotage an absurd musical dictatorship in his hometown because Cloclo’s songs are constantly being played through speakers in all public and private spaces.
Certainly this book, which looks like a tribute to death at first glance, is also one of the most optimistic—and definitely not mournful—pieces of literature I’ve read in the last few years. It is also noteworthy that the writing is neither narrative—even though it narrates—nor conventionally poetic—even though nothing is more poetic than the author’s reinvention of words and phrases one thought they were familiar with.
Ultimately, the writing as well as the characters are drifting between fantasy and reality, historical facts and fiction, while the author chooses with a somewhat ritualistic precision, words that sustain the reader within the realm of dreams:
It is such a relief, not being obliged to live your own life, simply letting yourself rely on someone else’s choices…Then, when they grow tired of disguises invented by others, they may choose the life of anyone they like. Even their own life.
Is there a reason to read this book now? Yes, because in Minou’s The Fabulous Dead we are not obliged to live our own lives. When life, as well as conventional writing, becomes tedious, we need some sort of death in order to retrieve the pleasure of reading. And there is no chance we can achieve this if we don’t let go into something different; in this case, a book that dares to be idiosyncratic in order to connect with the reader on a collective yet intimate level.
So we do let go and let her initiate us into unusual poetic rituals, which, at first, appear as paradoxical stories about death but finally become the only possible way of speaking about life and existence. We let her prove to us that not all things have already been said; at least not in the way we would like them to. And surely they have not been said through this amalgam of often—but not always—black humor, glittering horror, love of death and love of life. The lives of The Fabulous Dead are floating someplace between their poetic death and the reinvention of life. Life returns through the adventure of death only to remind us through these pages that there’s also some good news: Life is not just what we see. Thankfully, it’s also what we read.
A book about dead people that speaks about life, a writing style that uses prose to create poetry, stories that explore the notion of identity through its distortion. Is the author creating a literary world of paradoxes? Perhaps this is the only possible way a text referring to invented lives and fictional deaths of people who don’t exist can exist. But this in itself doesn’t constitute a reason to write a book, let alone a book that must be read. The paradox is created through redefining not only life and death but redefining writing as well. In an ocean of books that replicate conventional forms of writing, in a world that publishes itself more and more, yet rarely exposes itself to anything that defies the norm, The Fabulous Dead bares a unique signature as well as the freshness of the new amongst the not-so-metaphorical ashes of the old.
Can death be entertaining? Perhaps not, but, literarily speaking, The Fabulous Dead may offer you the pleasure of a book you have unknowingly been looking for.
Gregory Papadoyiannis is a playwright, scriptwriter, translator and fiction writer from Greece. His works include the play, The Situations, which was awarded a national prize for young playwrights by the Greek Ministry of Culture. His fiction has been published in Stories for our Time and The Future anthology published by Pale House Magazine. His short novels and a short story collection were published by Strange Days Books, where he currently works as an editor and translator.