Buy Hymns to Millionaires from Amazon.comSoren A. Gauger
Twisted Spoon Press ($13.50)

by Kathleen Andersen

In this debut collection, Soren A. Gauger uses the language of an earlier century to create eleven entertaining stories that—in their presentation of a world in which cause and effect have been unlinked, in which narratives loop or spool forth continuously—could only be contemporary.

Taking full advantage of the pulpy pleasures offered by stock characters and situations, Gauger gives us madmen raving against their nemeses in decrepit castles, bumbling academics, psychiatrists undergoing their own breakdowns. Solitary creatures, one might write himself notes to remember his identity, be hospitalized in a ward for "miscellaneous" cases, bet the deed to his property on a single hand of cards, or act blithely on a murderous impulse.

Their lives are described with detachment, in precise, highly mannered sentences, which sound as if composed to a metronome. Each line conveys the ironic distance with which these narrators witness themselves, no matter how visceral their experiences are. On ordering a meal in a foreign language and being served a "very large portion of hot oily tripes," one notes fastidiously: "The very smell was enough to make my sensitive throat go into convulsions." When following a female companion through a crowded fairground, another comments, "I kept up for a few minutes but then from the corner of my eye I saw what looked like a beheading taking place on a stage to my left." Looking back, he finds something apparently almost as disturbing- a carnival game "encircled by young men whose wolfish grins exposed rows and rows of sturdy teeth masticating bread and meat."

Gauger's detached style lends itself to a humorous leveling of events of extremely different magnitudes, as well as to a passion that seems to follow logically: prose driven to probe the nature and limits of narrative, of "story." This questioning, taken up with utmost seriousness and great imagination, leads to a wealth of action and details, yet to few conclusions. Although the reader—having read many pieces about, say, insane gentry, before—may assume certain knowledge of these stories, any expectations are sure to be frustrated. The narrators reveal that, while their experiences can be expressed with perfect clarity, it is impossible to force them to cohere, to pull significant moments out from any others.

This can at times be seen quite literally, as in "Mr. Delfour's Other File," in which asking a man a question, no matter how simple, leads to an endless search for the sources of an answer. Other stories are more conceptually complex. In "The Unusual Narrative of the Odessa Conference," a Canadian professor traveling to Eastern Europe to attend a conference of the International Society for the Promotion of Educated Discourse finds himself again and again on the same flight to Odessa, despite arriving and having a series of increasingly intricate adventures involving repetition and metamorphoses: each narrative line suddenly ends when he hears certain words or falls asleep, returning him to the airplane. This journey, in which he becomes more and more confused about his own identity and even humanity, has apparently lasted for five years, and ends with the speaker finding solace in whatever resolution sleep offers.

The collection's intense self-consciousness can at times be wearing—who is interested in a character who reads a book on Applied Narratology, knowing that he is caught in a convoluted plot? At its best, however, Gauger's concern with form moves beyond cleverness, and illuminates.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005