Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer God and Monsters

By Eileen Loh-Harrist and Leonard Gill

MARCH 29, 1999: 

Original Bliss , By A.L. Kennedy, Knopf, 214 pp., $21

Helen Brindle is slogging along through life, which — since she lost her faith in God — weighs heavier with each passing year. Marriage to an abusive husband isn’t helping the situation, and so Helen turns to the ministrations of a self-help guru named Edward E. Gluck to help her rediscover her faith in something beyond the tangible.

So begins one of the most bizarre love stories contrived in recent years — a story between the isolated, emotionally deadened Helen and Gluck himself, a pornography addict who wishes he were a “nice guy” like Jimmy Stewart. The two meet when Helen follows the famous pop-therapist to Germany and corners him after a lecture. Gluck hones in on her loneliness and despair as parallel to his own, and quickly reveals his disturbing proclivities to her. When Helen returns to her life in Glasgow, the two find they can’t leave each other alone, thus setting the stage for a confrontation with the volatile Mr. Brindle.

In Original Bliss, A.L. Kennedy weaves a taut, urgent tale of obsession, human frailty, and the simple desire to connect with someone or something outside oneself. Gluck and Helen are kindred spirits: Both have lost the ability to reach out to others, and both appear to have little hope of reclaiming that ability. Helen believes that if she rediscovers her “original bliss,” her faith in God, she will be cured, and she turns to Gluck’s self-help method, known as Cybernetics, which Gluck effusively promises his audience will work for anyone. But he’s got a secret: Gluck himself is a slave to pornography, using it as a substitute for human contact, and Cybernetics hasn’t helped him one bit.

In Helen, we readers immediately understand the major influence that has made her into a walking zombie (the violent husband). But Gluck’s character — and what led to his dependence on the “shifty, plain brown packages” that arrive in the mail daily — remains more elusive. We’re led to believe he has a perhaps abnormal preoccupation with his mother, but that just would seem too easy, no?

The major flaw of this otherwise impressively crafted novel is, in fact, what makes it tick: Kennedy’s tight yet lyrical narrative style, which unfortunately leaves the reader wondering at times about the characters’ motivations. Mr. Brindle, in particular, remains one-dimensional. As a whole, however, Original Bliss captivates the imagination by invoking those dark corners of the human psyche out of which we prefer to remain. It’s a disturbing, yet oddly gentle and ultimately uplifting love story, and reading Original Bliss is kind of like watching The Jerry Springer Show: You can’t help but feel better about yourself. Don’t read it if you’re offended by hard-core sexual references, and don’t leave it around where the kiddies can get to it. — Eileen Loh-Harrist

More Monsters from Memphis, Edited By Beecher Smith, Zapizdat Publications, 324 pp., $14.95 (paper)

An anthology that packs in 32 short stories by an assembly of would-be, could-be Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers is bound to be a mixed bag, but in the case of More Monsters from Memphis, local attorney/writer/editor Beecher Smith’s follow-up to his macabre collection Monsters from Memphis, the mix isn’t so much from good to bad generally as it is from bad to worst regrettably, with these very notable exceptions:

In “Soft Snares,” Charlee Jacob spins a web of Beale Street voodoo that closes on a strong, surprise note more practiced writers would envy. In “Blues-Born,” Tina Jens finds a solid voice and gets some momentum going for her blues-woman at the crossroads before a cop-out of an ending. In “Old River Mouth’s Seed,” Bill Eakin works up an imaginative conceit concerning a monstrous Mississippi “channel cat” and just about carries it off. In “Until Hell Calls Our Names,” Wil-liam Gagliani writes of “bluecoat zombies” at the close of the Civil War and does so with a confidence to make an Ambrose Bierce sit up in his grave. And in “Mister Pigman” — together with Gagliani the best of the lot in More Monsters from Memphis — George Guthridge, writing from Dillingham, Alaska, imagines a metamorphosis in the wake of the wrecked steamboat Sultana and does it to turn Ovid himself green.

What does it mean that three of the best stories in this sprawling collection have to do with the Mississippi River and not with the Pink Palace, The Pyramid, Elvis Presley, Memphis (Egypt), the Halliburton Collection at Rhodes College, and the weirdness that is suburban, east Shelby County? I haven’t a clue but that’s the case, and for bringing Gagliani and Guthridge to my attention, Beecher Smith has my thanks. — Leonard Gill

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