Friday, September 12, 2014

"Radiant against colossal dark"

"...a privilege of the haunted, radiant against colossal dark. Loud as can be."
I only knew Karl R. De Mesa because he was the lead editor for the Filipino horror fiction anthology from the Strange Series trilogy, Demons of the New Year. This is the first time I have ever read a fiction work of his though I've seen two of his collected essays in the shelves of the nearest bookstore from where I work. I've already been captivated by a certain Filipina fictionist (Eliza Victoria) since last month, and I figured that I could still make room for one more, especially since De Mesa has a very intriguing literary background (he works as a journalist and is also a musician), and seems to share my passion and almost scholastic interest for tarot card-reading. This collection of his is composed of four novellas, each mind-boggling and intricately written, all of them somehow interrelated with one another.

The first noticeable thing about De Mesa's prose is that it more than matches the strangeness and otherwordly quality of his plots and characters. The descriptions are potent and have a hard edge to them are not always a pleasant or an easy thing to peruse through. From the very first story entitled Angelorio, De Mesa's world of fiction seems to be overcrowded with unknowable creatures, each with a unique perspective to share. I haven't read a story as fun and yet just as confusing as this one, honestly. I was taken into very surreal landscapes and seemingly paranormal events as seen through the eyes of two characters; a rich man/former junkie with a terminal illness who wishes to make an unexpected deal with the creature that lives in this mysterious club called Club Angelorio; and a veteran photo journalist, hoping to make a comeback by capturing some of the club's more prestigious and even mythical aspects.

I have enjoyed reading this story a lot even if the last few scenes leading to that anticlimactic ending were confounding. It certainly felt like I was missing something (which, luckily enough, was a purposeful direction by the writer himself. The next stories have a vague connection with this first story).

Still, there was no reason for me just yet to connect things yet. The second story, which is the titular New of the Shaman of the collection, was probably the most interesting of the bunch, given its literary style where De Mesa made use of fictionalized radio interviews, television news coverage, newspaper clippings, etc. as the vehicles to tell the story. I have never read anything like if before save perhaps Chuck Palahnuik's Rant (which, from what I recall, is composed of pages of pages of witness accounts about a certain person of interest) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (on the aspect where the events unfold in Gotham through the news coverage to give the effect of urgency and realness as the violence escalated in the city, as if the readers are the citizens themselves). That's exactly how the second story made it seem and it was a very invigorating reading experience because of that, considering I myself have a broadcast journalism background, so it was fun for me to read a fiction story through the use of scripted dialogue alone.

Basically, News of the Shaman follows the media coverage of the trial concerning a very famous 'shaman' (medicine man) named Don Cruez who allegedly murdered the legal representative of a certain powerful business corporation (that was also clashing with said shaman because Don Cruez is a self-proclaimed freedom fighter and activist who had been trying to take down said corporation). The most stand-out aspect of this story had to be the radio interviews hosted by a leftist station who seemed to politically align themselves with Don Cruez. I think it's safe to say that this story is the one with the most striking style because it wasn't prose which made it really enjoyable to read.

The third story once again featured the photo journalist from the Angelorio story as its sole narrator. I must confess that as disturbing and grim as Faith in Poison was to read, something about its overall appeal did not click with me. It's probably because I never liked the narrator in the first place, although very interesting and gruesome stuff happen around him and to him as I read this story. Something about it feels very out-of-place though but it's by this story that I also made some connections with the first two (though News of the Shaman feels like a story written to establish the setting and socio-political atmosphere that De Mesa imagined the Philippines has become; where shamans and occultists have become a sort of separate entities of the state who would challenge corporations and even the government itself; a very beguiling concept but I only wished it was established more).

It was only by the last story that made me change my mind about my rating for this book. I originally wanted to give it three stars and two of those are mostly for the second story which I maintain had a great sense of style with its experimental take on telling a story through the use of scripts and interviews alone.

Now Bright Midnight mixes both prose and that said style. We get excerpts from a certain biography which included interviews and then we move ahead with an actual story in prose format. The story follows the rise, fall and reunion of a rock band called Shadowland (they were featured in one of the radio interviews in News of the Shaman where the lead singer Miguel showed staunch support towards the shaman Don Cruez). What I loved about this story is the fact that I finally cared about the characters. Each band member was put in a spotlight and it certainly felt like I was watching one of those VH-1 documentaries about fallen musicians who were so talented and yet so tortured all the same. The tortured artist in question is the lead guitarist Joaquin whose death was such a personal blow for the band and its members on varied personal levels. It was beautiful and sublime, the way this particular story built up and unfolded. There were genuine moments of sadness, loss and discord among its characters that I truly felt for, so I was very much invested when they decided to do a reunion concert for their fans and as a tribute to the late Joaquin whose music had a that kind of magic (both as a metaphor and a literal manifestation) which had touched their lives in ways that can only be expressed through a performance of the lifetime.

De Mesa, a musician with an indie band himself, showcases his understanding about this kind of life and career choice, which made his characters very easy to relate to and sympathize with. He also took the time explaining the wonders of musical instruments and the people who have the skill to play them, infusing both informational texts and literary interpretations with a a delicate, symbiotic balance.

In a nutshell, News of the Shaman is quite exceptional in its storytelling and definitely something you must read if you're into quirky, experimental speculative fiction. I'm definitely interested enough to check out the author's other works.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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