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Book Review: Metrophilias by Brendan Connell

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Alex wants to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep:

The static of carnal kisses did not effect his wearying flesh; and he craved jolts. The static of human = too low a voltage. He wanted the electricity of the entire city coursing-throbbing through him. Jaded jaded each day requiring stronger stimulation / violet wand / transcutaneous electronic neurological stimulator / plasma globe / cattle prod. Need for stronger stimulant.

Need for stronger stimulant. Cut plug from air conditioner. Caress wire. Strip end of wire naked. Strip end of wire naked. Caress naked wire. Naked. Plug in. Pause. Naked. Touch. Tzzzzkk! Touch. Tzzzkk! Toes! Calves. Zzzkk! Heating of body tissue… Burn… (“New York”)

Elsewhere in the scattershot minimalism of the 36-city set Metrophilias, Brendan Connell’s tales of misery and imagination, assorted and sundry bolts from the bookish blue, big city ways hold stirring sway for many seeking amenities and necessities. In the chapter/city “Zurich,” Ernest Wyss, the lead flavorist at Zwingli Corp, a trend setter who had invented the “spicy-clovey-smokey flavor so essential for artificial bacon, and whose mountain mint was considered a masterstroke, was about to fool mother nature in a big way – with something that emitted a faintly sweet odor of melons and goats, yet. And in “Quito” ladies’ man Oswaldo Cornejo Tobar comes to find he can’t resist “a certain fragility” in women, so he starts to haunt hospitals, buzzing like a “deranged bee” from one broken flower to the next, seeking out women in neckbraces and casts, those “prostrated beings who had need of a man to help remove their itching.”

The character Oswaldo will find no such fragility in the main character of the standout story “Kinshasa.” The Congo’s largest city and port on the Congo River, the festering and open wound that is Kinshasa has no electricity, sewers, or running water. It does, however, have up to seven million crowded inhabitants, mostly impoverished, living in violent conditions. There are dance bars for escape, full of petty thieves and bootblacks — and this particular night, the seductive and then some Bicha, who dances and flirts and accepts one man’s offer to slip into a room in the back.

But is she merely giving into further throes of passion when she shatters beer bottles on the ground, strips herself naked, and throws herself on the floor: “Bicha lays there sprawling, a writhing blotch of skin, splinters of glass working their way into her back, behind. … ‘I am your flesh dartboard!’ she cries.” Keen on perforation, she wants to be drilled into, punctured, pierced, dressed in barbed wire, sewn to her lovers, desires to copulate with razors and spikes…

As the list grows more graphic, more bestial and impersonal, this Iggy Pop Princess increasingly stupefies her stooge, giving him more than pause: “Come on,” she cries, “what are you waiting for?”

In cohesive contrast within Connell’s collection of one to three page bursts of three dozen urban tales, the more subtle and inscrutable “Vancouver” features young, enigmatic Georgi as one “obviously of nervous temperament.” That might be an understatement pertaining to the vaguely Norman Batesian figure sitting in the park reflecting upon the “her” that will always be and “that head of long black hair; dark as iron oxide, or the soil of mars. Yes, her body might very well have been repulsive; and that face, as a skull might look bound in soiled linen. But what did it matter? Fibers, tendrils, gossamer…” Still, Georgi had grass in which to sit, “bushes in which to hide” and time in which to think back to the previous times — and previous recoveries from deathly fevers, “eyes glazed and wormed with threads of carnation.”

Of course, romance is always in the air in the city, but if the pointillistic off-kiltered Metrophilias is there to celebrate it – and it is frequently shovel-ready — it’s not the garden variety, standard issue love that is produced. Love is not only blind, it’s downright discombobulating. In “Kiev,” for example, Malevich, a pensioner who earned a little extra through scavenging and rag picking, found and fell, so to speak, head over heels in love with a “severed head” of a woman. In the sacred city and gleefully subversive chapter of “Florence,” the religious Geronima’s first awakenings of womenhood were accompanied by religious devotions as she gazed upon what she saw as the divinely phallic true cross, and having “no need to gaze on man,” sometimes Geronima would cast amorous glances toward the cross, take it down and press it to her bosom, undress and fondle it and…

In “Edinburgh,” officers respond to the suicide of a civil servant who killed himself because of – now I’m presuming here – unrequited love of the letter W. “Oh how I would like to bury myself in its undulations! Every time I write it – WWWWW – I feel a spasm of longing! A longing which, alas, can never be satisfied” says the suicide note. “Those two overturned mounds, so eloquently resembling the dangling breasts of a woman – or then again, like legs flung in the air. That esurient spike which rises up in your middle. Oh,” the note continues, “pornographic letter! W! The culmination of all that is beautiful in this world. If I could only impregnate you…”

If the spirit is in question in “Edinburgh,” the flesh is never weak in the expression of Connell’s gratitude to glutton-hood, “Manila,” where Miss Fernandez reigns supreme in an enclosed mansion, though she lives “a stone’s throw away from poverty” and her “agitation was always connected with meat meat = flesh = scent.” Always ready to gorge herself on a variety of meat products, half-raw and well-done, the always randy Miss Fernandez, if she didn’t leave the grounds of her estate to prowl for a young buck or two, would send out a servant for a little grab ‘n’ go, such as “Rizal, who now stood nervously before Miss Fernandez.“ It was not too long before the simultaneously seductive and impulsively ravenous Miss was in a “carnivorous trance” and shoving fried calf-livers into his mouth and kissing him as she chewed. “Like a blooded hound she grew more frenzied, maddened;” the narrator states, “hurled herself upon the young man, wound her limbs around him like an octopus decapitated parlor game inspired fatty strands lust carabao + lips + murmur in liver sauce venado plunge wild loin.”

Not every story works in Metrophilias. Some of the half-page tales are too short for proper development, starting from nowhere with no where to go, more properly considered vignettes or gags. But even a few longer stories like “Thebes,” for instance, which is two and a half pages (though it seems like three!), falls flat. “Thebes” is set at an earlier time period than any other chapter in the book and is about the king of Egypt who is enamored of noses, and goes in search for a bride with a protuberant proboscis. It is a predictable, foreshadowed, simply-told narrative, that is as plain as the, um, nose on your face.

On the other hand, there are more hits than misses, more along the line of “Warsaw,” an eerie creep-out that keeps you guessing until the last sentence, which lets you in on the post-op secret of a man who has just come home from a clinic for some mysterious elective surgery — most elective, indeed.

Of course, the ugly truth is stranger than fiction, but the succinct approach necessarily given a one-page treatment of a real-life incident augments the impact. From “Moscow”:

“Silence in the court! You ate him but did not murder him?”

“I ate him.”

“Do you often eat people?”

“He wanted me to eat him. We corresponded. He came to my house and I ate him.”

“You corresponded?”

“I advertised in the Novoye Vremya and he answered. I wanted to eat someone and he wanted to be eaten. We met at the Ferris wheel at Gorky Park. He was very nice and we got along well. We walked and had coffee together and then I took him up to my apartment.”

“And you murdered him.”

“No. I cut off one of his fingers. This one… the thumb. He bled a lot but it was good. I fried it in oil and ate it.”

“He did not mind?”

“No. He wanted to try.”

Connell deftly keeps readers on their toes with ricocheting styles and lopsided storylines and by his willingness to experiment with structure, language, theme and control over how he evokes a gut reaction – that’s all you have time for after the initial readings. Corresponding tones from poignancy to black humor will abound and bounce around. Many of the stories will definitely be worth a second look, and might undergo different assessments, though the modicum of the mundane that floated by earlier may stay the same. Nevertheless, if you are the “Happy Wanderer,” you’ll want to pack Metrophilias to take along for the parallel universe leg of the trip.

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