There are some writers who somehow don’t fit in anywhere. They have a world all of their own and arrive fully-formed, their literary influences an unholy and often indecipherable blend of multimedia tropes and feelings. They usually get great reviews and poor sales, but they obsessively persist in following their unique flightpath through the bookish cosmos. They are the literary UFOs: strange but fascinating phenomena seen by very few.
When sightings of them reach a certain level of notoriety they become "cult" authors (like the sulphurous Derek Raymond, profiled here recently by Sarah Weinman) but most fall by the wayside long before that. I hope this post can shed a little light on two unjustly obscure UFOs.
Jack O’Connell is an American writer who has until now been relegated to the uncertain limbo between crime writing and mainstream literature. He has so far written five novels, which have all been showered with praise by the likes of James Ellroy, the New York Times and others, and the ghosts of Kafka, Joyce, Chandler, Greene and Pynchon have all been invoked by reviewers, but he still remains an acquired taste. But what a taste!
All his books are set in the fictional city of Quinsigamond in the US’s Massachusetts rust belt, a metropolis of rotting buildings, a thriving red light district, the notorious Bangkok Park, home of the bottom feeders and the lost of modern society, and a grander quarter now in dusty decline.
Bleak? Not at all, O’Connell’s books are also a splendid and exuberant celebration of life – and plotwise, absolutely gripping. His debut novel Box Nine (1990) was about the invention of a super drug, and the wars between local gangs for its possession, a policewoman on the track of the drug’s inventor, her twin brother who is a mailman, a Chinese linguist and a throng of oddballs embroiled in a veritable web of romance and violence.
Wireless (1993) returned to the same bizarre territory, with the voice of a night DJ punctuating a baroque waltz of the damned. Skin Palace (1996) is also one of the best books about film I have come across, a tortuous and tortured tale about Quinsigamond’s surviving cinema.
His next effort, Word Made Flesh (1998) plunged into the unremitting darkness of Europe at war and the scars it leaves on today’s Quinsigamond inhabitants. Hingeing on the desperate quest for a book printed on human flesh that has survived the Holocaust, the novel tackles major themes. In my view, a masterpiece, but also a book that disturbed a lot of readers (and sold badly) which goes some way to explaining why it would take another decade for O’Connell to publish another novel.
This is this year’s The Resurrectionist, already out in the USA and appearing in the UK this winter. Well worth the wait. We are still in Quinsigamond, this time with holy bikers high on a cocktail of curious drugs; a shady clinic where experiments are being conducted on coma patients; the love of a father for his son and a gallery of deformed circus freaks in search of their saviour. And much more in the way of the bizarre and the touching. But it all makes sense. No one does the improbable like O’Connell.
My other candidate for your (re)discovery is from New Zealand. Chad Taylor was born in 1964 and has also published five novels. An earlier one, Heaven (1994), about the relationship between an architect and a stripper who can foretell the future in parts, was filmed but never released in the UK. Where O’Connell is wide screen baroque, Taylor is a minimalist whose equally tortured characters populate a world where silence and night form a disconsolate backdrop for their musings and meanderings across a landscape of bleak, concrete cities.
But what they have in common is a profound empathy for the losers in our midst and an acute sense of place and the bizarre in everyday life. Shirker (2000) is, ostensibly, about a man seeking odd antiques as he criss-crosses an unknown city, his past colliding with his present. It is also about anomie and how characters fail to connect with each other. Not quite a crime book, but certainly a mystery.
The follow-up, Electric (2003), takes place as power is cut in a city reminiscent of Auckland – as the characters fumble in the dark and miss each other both figuratively and metaphorically. Nothing very much seems to happen, just couples coming together and undoing in real time and in memory, but the thin plot grips like a vice as you identify with one of the characters and then another.
Departure Lounge (2006) is his latest novel and within a few pages you are unmistakably back in Chad Taylor land, a country I imagine cold and drear and metallic, where a plane crash and the uncertainty about its survivors poisons the life of all the struggling characters.
Where O’Connell usually has a multitude of characters and peoples every inch of the reader’s mental screen, Taylor is sparse and damn economical. But both have a unique vision, a personal universe that stands out amongst today’s novelists. Initially seen briefly as crime writers, they never truly fit the genre and have now moved on to another realm altogether, a rarefied one which I urge you to investigate.
More in the Guardian