Leon Rooke's Fabulous Fictions & Peculiar Practices, his new collaboration with artist Tony Calzetta, sets out to be an unabashedly unique and eccentric collection.
Its fictions take on an eclectic range of form and voice, from a self-important bank president haranguing his employees, to a wife explaining to her husband how she spent the night in another man's sleepshirt, to an old man being dragged into grocery store departments by lascivious young employees. Some of the pieces are almost recognizable as short stories, but others are formally closer to monologue, drama, and poetry.
Each is written in response to Calzetta's vivid images, some included in black and white, some in bright primary colours, some even in a fold-out page reminiscent of a children's book. Details from the images are repeated as thematic elements in multiple places, varying wildly in size. They are sometimes inserted as bounded illustrations on individual pages, sometimes set as illustrations at the end of chapters, sometimes allowed to bleed through the margins, seeming to encroach on the text.
Beyond this multiform content, the collection is also explicitly presented as being peculiar and unconventional. The "Production Notes" describe the project as "an uncommon idea", and Robert Enright closes his opening essay by slyly comparing the unique creativity of the book to the divine act of creating the world. He calls the collaboration between Rooke and Calzetta "a fabulous vision: dystopic, generative, monstrous and mutable."
Such a self-consciously eccentric approach has been the ruin of many books, but Rooke manages it with easy dexterity. His prose never feels forced into the curious forms that it assumes, but rather engages the images playfully, without becoming determined by them. Rooke's language flits between one voice and another as if on a whim, like a favourite old uncle doing impressions for the kids, taking on whatever persona is best suited to tease or provoke or amuse.
Like much of Rooke's writing many of these pieces beg to to be read aloud – preferably with voice performances – even more preferably with voices performed by Rooke himself. They are forms much suited to his strengths, allowing free range to persona and dialogue, to the whimsical characterizations that he so often creates in his longer prose, but without the narrative restrictions.
The book may not be as unique a project as it imagines itself to be, but it deftly showcases the unique strengths of Rooke's writing, which is a prouder accomplishment anyway.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press and the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press.
He has written a children’s fantasy book called Lindy, a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry called These My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. He has also edited an edition of G. K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill. His criticism and poetry have appeared in CV2, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.