Review: The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children

By B.A. Campbell

Connell, Brendan. The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Chômu Press (2011). 266 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1-907681-04-2.

“Use noble words, an arsenal of words, exquisite words – treasure up old poems in your mind, for they will add to your compositions a patina of antiquity….”

So says the poet Anacreon within the first pages of Brendan Connell’s latest short fiction collection, The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Though the advice is intended for the young Polycrates, soon-to-be tyrant of the Aegean island Samos, it could easily serve as a self-assessment of Connell’s own prose.

Within the bizarre, grotesque and often depraved histories that follow, you will find an opulence of strange phrases, exquisite and antique words, zealously sought out. You will also find a force of images to disturb and horrify, the most loathsome of which concern themselves with the seemingly innocuous circumstances in which we daily find ourselves. You do not know the horror of the automobile, for example, until you’ve read “Molten Rage”:

“…streets a river of strange monsters – great engines encased in husks of metal – slobber black oil over the corrupt pavement and fill the air with their shrieks. Indeed, the entire human race seemed enslaved by an insatiable mechanical hunger – men willing to kill, not only each other, but babies, old men and women, in order to feed these creatures in whose bellies they perched like half-digested herring.”

Passages of this kind, brimming with an exquisite pus of words, grow like tumours from the book’s folded recesses: unexpected but inevitable. With this collection of diverse tales – of fin-de-siècle artists who use human eyelids as canvases, thirteenth-century hermit popes half-mad with lust and hunger, ruthless big-game hunters, mustachioed billionaires in drag, and motorcycle daredevils in contemporary America – Connell has proved himself a master of the grotesque, in the sense that the man at the circus holding a whip is master of the lion.

Like the lion-master, however, Connell can do little to make the wildness of his language any less daunting. This is a book that will challenge you, confront you with inarticulate strings of adjectives in the midst of an otherwise lucid narrative, with maddening ellipses that seem to cut out the essential organs of the tale being told.

“The Slug”, about a handsome and fortunate man who purposefully evolves into a thing obscene, contains sections that are nothing more than a single, evocative sentence or fragment, with no context offered. Section V: “Some carnivorous fish; a city on fire.” Section VIII: “The colour of vomit.” XVIII: “A roaring crowd of maniacs biting each other’s fingers off and afterwards drooling long strands of pink saliva which falls to the ground like webs as rockets go off overhead, lonely sparks expiring in overdoses of nausea.” If the thought of deciphering these cryptic fragments entices you, then the book needs no additional recommendation.

Not all of its challenges, however, are in its opaqueness. The opening novella, “The Life of Polycrates”, stands apart from the rest, not for its complexity, but for its non-reductive simplicity. It is a (mostly accurate, from my limited knowledge) history of the noble rise and inevitable corruption of a Greek ruler. With constructions such as “that malleable and ductile, that precious yellow metallic element” to describe gold, or Polycrates’ daughter Eriphyle, “shallow-eyed long-necked Eriphyle”, its cadences effectively mimic familiar classics such as the Iliad and Odyssey.

The prose here is not particularly difficult and the subject matter exerts its own fascinations, but the novella feels squirmingly difficult to pin down. The apparent lack of any obvious postmodern “twist” or winking irony leaves one feeling, strangely, as though one is missing something, despite the enjoyability of the story.

It is also not as immediately arresting as the delicately rendered grotesqueries that follow. Front-loaded, as both the first story of the collection and the one from which it draws its title, it could potentially dissuade readers less interested in eccentric Greek rulers than, say, the seductively repugnant imagery with which the second tale, “Collapsing Claude”, oozes.

Perhaps the most repulsive tale of cuckoldry ever told, if you can call it even that, “Claude” might have been a smarter choice to introduce the collection, with passages like this one: “Her breasts were distorted and flagging mounds of flesh; her skin-tone an overfed pink, like that of a sow. A hunched up beast reminiscent of an overgrown worm,” leading inevitably but abhorrently to graphically described scenes of sexual desperation. No matter how you feel about such gems of glittering filth, the novella “Polycrates” will leave you ill-prepared for their arrival.

Aside from this quibble of construction, Polycrates is a gorgeously repugnant book. It can be a weighty burden: the nihilism and vitiation found in the book’s darkest passages can quickly become stifling, even for those with a constitution for such things. There is seldom any catharsis to be found in the lives of these horrible people that often end as horribly as they began, descending head-first into cesspits of their own device. In their relentless, if seductive, decadence, they are less cautionary tales than exhibits of the seduction of decadence, itself.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to recommend a book that offers up such delicate morsels of perversity with a style so singularly lyrical and evocatively powerful as Connell offers here. There will be lines, images, stories that you will wish you’d never read…and you’ll seek them out, each as eagerly as the last.

If ever there were a book of abjection, a book that exerts a mesmeric pull while the contamination of its sentences warn you to stay away, to leave the page unturned for fear of things that cannot be unseen – if such a book exists, it is this one.

The Life of Polycrates is available from Amazon.com.

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