A new voice in fiction: Ariadne & Other Stories
92 pages, Paperback
By Ruth Osman
August 24, 2003
AN artist must speak for his generation. It is as simple as that. The beauty of their becoming, the painful fragility of their passage, must find expression in his work or he is unworthy of his vocation. In ‘Ariadne & Other Stories’, a compelling and varied array of issues finds its voice … and what a voice it is. Ruel Johnson, the author of the award-winning anthology, handles each theme with a dexterity that brings out its hidden radiance, like light passing through a prism. The result is a refreshing kaleidoscope of emotions and tensions, from anger and betrayal to love and acceptance.
He starts us off on the darker side of the spectrum. ‘Killing the Kitten’ explores a betrayal so profound that the persona walks off into a shell-shocked world. And Johnson gets a chance to show us what he’s really good at: such an intense exploration of the persona’s psyche that it is projected unto the reader’s. In the last paragraph of that story, we do more than empathise. We are the man walking down Camp Street; his pain leaves an acrid taste in our mouths, and his frozen world is our own.
And there are others: tales told with a slight blue-grey tinge of regret. In ‘Ariadne’, for example, a self-assured young man acknowledges his loneliness and need to a woman who might have filled the spaces within him. Of course, she isn’t there; he is speaking to her memory, a fading and sepia-tainted version of what she had been to him. And of course, we understand. Our lives, too, consist of overlooked opportunities and moments where, too late, we discover the frailty in ourselves. Johnson’s sense of craft is evident here. He paints the persona’s voyage of self-discovery with a light hand. No emotion is overdone, not even the loneliness. The persona retains his prepossession with self. And when he walks offstage, although he is decidedly more human, he is still Narcissus.
‘Hero’ also explores past relationships and the residual threads that, try as we might, we could never disentangle from the fabrics of our lives. But here, the loss is deeper, more personal. There is no philosophising, no attempt at self-exploration. The persona, at one point, is simply overwhelmed by the sense of failure and loss that he keeps hidden deep in his sub-conscious and that finds its expression only in his dreams.
In ‘Blacka’, a man faces up to the decay of his childhood environment and to the Whitmanesque notion that death is the one inevitable factor in life. But he is not alone in this realisation. The corruption of his ‘Never-never land’ and the eventual degradation of his gang of ‘Lost Boys’ mirrors the Guyanese experience so well that we cannot help but nod in agreement. And it goes deeper than nationality. Johnson shows us that humanity is by nature fragile and transient. “It is up to us,” he reminds us, “to live … the best we can”.
Not all of Johnson’s stories carry such a dismal theme. ‘April’, despite its dark underpinnings: past betrayal, racial tensions and social unrest, is essentially a story of redemption and of love that refuses to conform to societal pressures. At the end of this one, we know that the world, despite its occasional descent into barbarity, is a beautiful place and our hearts echo the persona’s hope and happiness.
And then there’s ‘Knock’, an ode to the virility of youth and to the all-encompassing nature of poverty. In this story, told from the point of view of a young man with a passion for ‘small goal football’, we realise that racial barriers are nothing more than illusions passed down from generation to generation. Our capacity for humour and the tenacity with which we hang unto life, despite the social constraints - these are the things that matter and that make us all brothers.
The profundity of the themes explored in this anthology is matched by a well-developed sense of style. At times, Johnson’s voice assumes a lyrical, poetic timbre that will not be ignored. Its effect on the reader is intensified by the writer’s obvious knowledge of the language and how it can be crafted to meet his ends. When describing intense emotions such as passion or fear, for example, Johnson disregards the grammatical rules that were drilled into us at childhood. He refuses to use the full stop to separate ideas. And there is no attempt to create sentence structure. Instead, we are plunged into a river of sensory impressions and half-finished thoughts. Johnson, without apology or explanation, carries us straight into the persona’s flow of consciousness, and we are made better by it.
His voice, as beautiful and compelling as it is, sometimes loses its potency. “The artist,” Gustave Flaubert writes, “must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.” It is here that Johnson falls short of the mark. His brushstrokes are sometimes so heavy that we miss the essence of the picture. One is almost led to believe that he does not trust one’s intelligence. Any sensitive reader would prefer inferences to outright declarations. What is not said can have as much meaning as what is. The writer must trust his craft and the reader’s ability to draw out such hidden meaning. Johnson has yet to show his mastery of that particular skill.
But we forgive him. His talent is such that we can do nothing but forgive. After all, we have a lot to look forward to. If Johnson can glean such a work out of his 22 years of existence, we can reasonably expect much better in the next 20.