The Two Lives of Edward Hopper

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The thirty-odd stories in Ken Nash’s collection The Brain Harvest present a variety of styles, themes and arguments. There are elaborate, developed narratives with detailed characters and plots (as in “The Cello Garden,” the fictional account of the life and fate of a beautiful cellist Anna Leibowitz), and there are sketches in a few rough brushstrokes (“Making Babies” and “My Lobotomy,” two very different, yet eerily funny renderings of amorous failures). They feature real-life characters and narrators trapped in surreal or unreal states and situations (e.g. “Maurice Utrillo” who achieves an epiphany of space, surface and depth when observing a commonplace wall); but they also brim with completely fictional or even fantastic characters in equally surreal situations (for example, “Anima Husbandry,” a three-page description of a wife’s dismantling and packing her husband into a suitcase for a trip to Paris). This blending has as its combined effect not only the defamiliarisation of the real, but the equally unsettling familiarisation of the unreal, ultimately posing the question of whether one can or indeed should distinguish between these two in a fictional world such as Nash’s. Equally unsettling is the basso continuo that prevails underneath the episodic brevity and constant shifts in narrative perspective performed by these tales: Nash’s preoccupation with language and the bizarre names inhabiting and describing both the natural and the corporate worlds. To take but two examples, there are the “Cambodian Vine Rattan, Sinai Braided Sea Grass, Singapore Cane, Burmese Celery Hemp, Uyghur Cave Moss” in “Baskets,” or “afternoons watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Cantonese, and evenings watching bootleg videos or playing high-stakes mahjong, while chain smoking Mann Si Fat cigarettes” in “The Hostage.” Nash’s manipulation of the particular and the minute has all the attention for the bizarre and the ability of evoking the grotesque. In terms of analogues and precursors to Nash’s “playful and quick-witted style,” Clare Wigfall’s cover blurb speaks of the “maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme.” To those one can plausibly add Nash’s avowed influence of the labyrinthine structures of Jorge Luis Borges and the evident presence, behind the eerie waft of the everyday turned into the grotesque that hovers over the collection, of Prague’s chief literary revenant, Franz Kafka. Described by the Prague Post as “an eclectic, deceptively witty collection of short fiction that represents the crystallization of one of Prague’s most resourceful and imaginative English-language writers” and commended by Wigfall as a collection whose every short story is “distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness,” Brain Harvest is a richly imaginative and  heterogeneous collection.

Read The Two Lives of Edward Hopper here