It's a book that does things to my head in the best way, a book where each section has its own unique rhythms and place, but that builds on the sections by featuring recurring characters and themes as it goes along. If nothing else, I have to say the closest thing I've ever read is either the Zhuangzi or the works of Ryu Murakami (with their own brand of meditative gorn), and Connell manages to distance himself from those works pretty thoroughly just by dint of being a lot more bizarre.
In the end, I'd suggest reading a little of this one to get familiar with it. While it's a fantastic book that gets inside your head in just the right way, it'll definitely take a little to get the rhythms down.
More, as always, below.
"The creature was my lobster before she was your wife. I am in a position of precedence."
Jottings from a Far Away Place is a series of...well, let's call them "pieces," each composed of several numbered, loosely related sections. While there is sometimes a narrative that covers several sections, each section is usually a new idea on the same theme of the piece. The sections vary wildly in both content and style; one section might feature a small philosophical anecdote between two moles, and then the next one might feature a description of physical intimacy bordering on cosmic body horror. The individual sections might be poems, or single-line maxims, or longer-form parables, or in a few cases, lists. Each one creates an odd, disorienting, and sometimes vividly violent whole, sometimes seeming like a loose collection of variations on a theme, other times seeming like something approaching a specific point.
But something odd begins to happen the more of the pieces one reads. Characters make reappearances in different sections, characters including two monks who are trying their best to worship a bizarre goddess, Romans, a corrupt priest and his servant, and others still. Themes also reappear, including people ingesting a substance that causes their fingers to grow into "tentacles," self-mortification, and dismemberment. Things weave in and out, creating a larger tapestry of absurd and sometimes unsettling work. There are also a ton of hidden jokes, references, and shaggy-dog stories, some of which don't become obvious until pieces way later in the book, While each piece in the book stands on its own, the book as a whole is an entirely different and equally enjoyable work. A twisted, occasionally scatological, absolutely Lynchian work that seems to run on dream logic, but let's face it, that's sort of the point.
I called the book "fun" up there, and that is entirely true. Even at its goriest or most downbeat, Jottings from a Far Away Place has a sense of fun to it. Actually, this is kind of similar to a lot of Taoist works-- certainly Bridge of Birds (which has been said to be written in a Taoist style) and Zhuangzi* play with things all over the place and have their own weird brand of fun, all in service to what they're trying to say. The way Jottings does this is best illustrated by Madhusudan and Vishvatma, two characters who take divergent paths while seeking a way to worship the Green-Complexioned Adho-Mukhi and achieve spiritual enlightenment. Without giving too much away (it's a long build with a nice finish), the book follows the story for a relatively long time over multiple sections, each with their own point, but all leading to a final point, one that works as both a culmination to the journey, and a punchline to the story. Even some of the darker passages come off as darkly funny, like the story of the "Indian God" in one of the earlier sections.
It's also very, very vivid without losing its dreamlike tone. There's a section with Countess Erzsebet de Bathory** that becomes very disturbing while filling the pages with concrete details like the servant's skin being the color and consistency of moldy cheese, and (in a call back to an earlier piece) Bathory's fingers being similar to tentacles (or perhaps they are tentacles?). The "Indian God" section does a lot with atmosphere to create a picture of a young man's worship of Kali that contains such acts as sleeping on a mattress strewn with tacks and involves livestock mutilation, all while he doesn't completely understand what he is worshipping, saying "Praise be to the Indian God." There's an entire section that I feel ready to admit squicked me out a little involving a man searching for ugliness and getting hollowed out by his intended paramour, all because while it didn't necessarily include all the details, it included the right details.
In the interest of fairness, though, I have to mention that while I had a great time with the book, I have to warn that it's possible to become lost in the language and I found myself occasionally snarled up in it. Also, the fragmented way the book is written in might not be for everyone. I, personally, loved it. I just feel like I should warn my readers that it's easy to become tangled at times, and some pieces need to be digested or contemplated a little, or read over more than once. But that's an objection easily overridden by simply reading it in whatever style one feels comfortable.
In the end, Jottings from a Far Away Place is an amazing, unique book full of bizarre experiments with language and twisted, dreamlike essays that both stand on their own and form an excellent, cohesive whole. Brendan Connell does an excellent job melding the more playful Eastern philosophical style with the gleeful, dark-edged absurdity of Western surrealism, and anyone looking for a unique experience should definitely give this one a go. I look forward to seeking out other things Connell has done, and hope that Jottings makes it into more hands.
- Blue on Blue by Quentin S. Crisp
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
AND MANY OTHERS
*This book marks the only time I have ever said "I might need to reread Zhuangzi for this one."
**Only reason I know how to spell her name is because of the Sunn O))) song where they locked Malefic in a coffin.