The Weirdest Show on Earth

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– Seahorses certainly aren’t the strangest thing in Raymond Roussel’s mind.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m a fan of rather strange narratives. Magic realism, absurdism and surrealism all get a hearty thumbs-up in my books. If you were to tell me I was about to read a book that was too outrageous to be truly enjoyable, I would probably splutter, “too outrageous!?”

I also never would have expected such a novel to be a 1914 offering, from long before all the literary flights-of-fancy and experimental whimsies of the 1960s onwards. Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus is that book however, and it is truly redonkulous.

The premise: Famed inventor/scientist/curator Canterel invites a group of guests to come see some of his scientific curiosities in the grounds of his country retreat Locus Solus. The narrative is focalised through an unnamed guest, as he is led with the group to witness a variety of bizarre experiments / artworks.

Firstly, we are shown a baked-mud statue of a child complete with plaques evoking a medieval folktale. After zooming out from the statue, we are greeted with the tale of its construction by indigenous African tribes, and then we jump to 11th century France to be treated to a bizarre tale about inheritance and dreams that is illustrated in the plaques.

The artwork is therefore explained in terms of the stories and histories that it evokes and that led to its production. This is the main framework of Locus Solus: we are shown a ‘curiosity’ and then the narrative leaps back to all of the histories, folktales and events that lead to its invention.

This is rinsed and repeated six times, for each of the inventions that Canterel unveils to his guests. It’s important to keep this structure in mind, because the inventions are going to get a whole lot weirder than just a baked-mud child with some engravings…

The guests are next shown a bizarre pneumatic air-balloon that guided by pre-determined air currents, creates a mosaic out of human teeth. If the weirdness sounds intriguing, it is Roussel’s prose-style that renders it tedious. This contraption is described in painstaking scientific detail for around twenty pages. We are told about the chronometers on it, the properties of the materials used in its construction, the process through which the teeth were extracted from willing volunteers. All of course detailed using the unrelatable terms of early twentieth century science.

After the scientific detail has been taken care of, you get treated to the folkloric detail. What is the picture of the mosaic this machine is making? Well, it depicts an event from a Norwegian fairy-tale contained in a rare tome about a princess being turned into a bird and protected by a floating globe of water. This tale is wrapped in another fable, since it is read by an imprisoned kidnapper in Norway several centuries later. Wheels within wheels. You get the picture.

The craziness continues to escalate, demanding more and more from your ability to suspend disbelief. This is obviously the process through which all fiction works to some extent; if we were constantly trying to assess its truthfulness and point out inconsistencies, literature simply wouldn’t have any appeal. But this is what I think Canterel is playing with in this novel: how much B.S. is a reader willing to put-up with?

I don’t mean this in a flippant way; I believe this is a worthwhile literary experiment and tells us something about our capacity for belief and the demands we make on veracity. Canterel’s contraptions are outrageously absurd, we know that, but they are introduced through the dual means of painstaking scientific accuracy and rigorous historical grounding. All the usual methods that we use to determine validity are applied to the most unimaginable creations. The reader who wishes to dismiss the novel in terms of scientific inaccuracy (from an early 20th century perspective) can’t fault the method: but the madness is nevertheless still glaring.

So, Roussel’s creations manage to fuse the most insane surrealist art and science together; which is an impressive feat given the traditional polarisation of these two camps. The 1959 ‘two cultures’ debate that had literary critic F.R. Leavis foaming at the mouth against science-advocate C.P. Snow was yet to happen, but similar issues are evoked by Roussel’s novel. Can artistic and scientific methods be reconciled? It would appear that they can in the world of Locus Solus, but only when applied to the most bizarre of inventions.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this novel then. But is it enjoyable to read? For the most part: no. Even if we can get a sense of what Roussel is trying to achieve through his clunky, tedious style, it doesn’t make the novel enjoyable or even rewarding on the whole. It is certainly amusing and downright bemusing at points, but this doesn’t balance against the verbose methods of justification that Canterel employs.

Despite the persistence required though, it is hard to argue that this book isn’t unique. It will truly stretch the limits of what you thought fiction could conjure up. Before tackling Locus Solus, you’ve got to ask yourself a few questions:

Do you want to see a skinless cat swimming in a diamond-shaped water tank electrocuting a severed head so that it recites political speeches?

Are you curious about why a reanimated corpse would weave a miniature bonnet out of pear-fibres for a porcelain baby Jesus?

Ever wanted your fortune told by a cockerel that communicates by coughing up blood onto a miniature easel?

Ever wondered what would drive a man to create a ruler out of bacon?

If so, Locus Solus awaits…

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