And All Those Bright Little Things

When Vanessa Onwuemezi won the White Review Short Story Prize in 2019, the aesthetic principles of her project were outlined: This was to be prose that was confronting its own poetic limitations, where the narrative — not plotless modernism, but modernly plotless — was frequently to elope into lyrical embellishments usually reserved for balladic folklore and to commit itself to this while disregarding the risk of seeming arch, aloof, or flowery. In so doing, the writer flings her bouquets of old yellow fibreglass with noiselessly sinister laughter in the face of the austerity and minimalism of the modern short story form. Her work sometimes resembles, in brief, a file-corrupt recording of purgatory.

            there is no meaning. Hanging a picture on the wall

            I           give         a little too much force to my thumb skin

            breaks under pressure an orb of blood              red       red to

            dark red           to dry red        to skin         to iron     to rust      to

            heat       to sweat         to yesterdays as we move, we move.

It was her story “At The Heart of Things” that won her the acclaim of the White Review and that is located as the terminal piece in her début collection, titled — with an obscurity that again somehow avoids its own cliché — Dark Neighbourhood.That “somehow” is a modesty that borders on the audacious and therefore forgives a plethora of potential sins that have long been pinned on the board of what-we-talk-about-when- we-talk-about-writing-fiction, which frequently lists lyricism as one of its cardinal faults. But what Onwuemezi achieves in reclaiming the lyrical form is done through melding it with a surrealist abstraction that might otherwise seem to be of yesteryear and that, through this reverse seance, is injected with the brightness of the new.

            A moan.

                        And I had to leave my chair, alone in the green           green


                        The boy was bleeding from his side, eyes of gathering

            water       blind pools iridescent          lungs a well draining

out of life        a gurgle deep.

My hands on his stomach (exposed with shirt pulled

upwards where he had dragged the body across the

slabs) and felt warmth and trembling and wet, blood

sweats the wound.

            ‘Young man,’ I said, ‘my man.’

Onwuemezi confronts this phobia for lyrical abstraction with a perseverance that, as it must, becomes an innovation where innovation has been decried. Intrusions into the prose, digressions and divagations, wanderings that are neither musings or explorations, but the slow process of searching for the glow of the exit-sign in a room where the lights have gone out: These aspects of Onwuemezi’s writing hazard meshing the story in a text too convoluted and labyrinthine for its subject matter’s own good, much of which is realist in tone. A man witnesses a death in his (seemingly English) neighbourhood and goes searching for answers. A drifter in the American West kicks around motel rooms and falls unrequitedly for a sex worker. A novice cleaning lady in a Spanish hotel confronts the reality of her working life amid personal grievances.

What this should suggest is that Onwuemezi’s writing is not an act of avant-garde style-over-substance, considering the tropes with which she is working. The realist narratives are rechartered through the style for which she opts. It’s the fragmentation of the tropes she handles that gives the book its oral (or aural) quality: that of hearing a well-known fairytale distorted by the speaker or listening to a classic filtered through layers of deteriorating tape-loops. Knowing-how-it-will-end is a knee-jerk response, but that the best stories are those in which the end is inevitable is an aphorism that still holds together under duress.

            I lie down next to her with a pen in my hand, and I’m

            ordered onto my knees to fill in the missing punctuation

            of this long scroll. Yellowed edges and musty of old.          

           Pen a nightmare to operate but I must: full stop, colon,

           semi-colon, speech mark, open bracket and close

           bracket, forward slash, comma, exclamation mark,

           question mark, apostrophe, dash, quotation mark and

           every error sends me to the beginning again. Mark after

           mark, endless and I feel it, every moment of it. My mind

           is dragging somewhere behind me.

           The cigarette burns down and she’s green       gone.

There are two tales being told in Onwuemezi’s stories: the narrative of the writing and the writing of the narrative. Though self-reflexivity is an innovation repeated unto death, the tales in the collection succeed in validating the notion that every work is the parable of its own creation. Feeling the struggles of Onwuemezi’s characters is also feeling the writer’s struggle of putting the right words together in more-or-less the right order. Each time reality is intruded on by recollections, or augmented by fantasy, the writer’s own di- and ab- stractions are reflected in the writing itself, the poetic pauses artistic gaps as much as narrative ones. Private tragedies, unavoidable as they must be, are made enigmas of cinematic image and literary dissolves.

            Ursula loves me

she loves

the way sunlight


the exposed parts of me

                        and my insides are warmed

                                                                        by its touch

sometimes            it burns

her love will burn a hole through me

There’s an argument to be made that poetry succeeds in reaching the points where prose can no longer be forced to stretch, and a supporting testament in Onwuemezi’s lapses into lyricism. That the sublime is depressingly elusive is a facet of experience Onwuemezi distils. Moments, glimpses, lights. They pass. Out of ruptures of coherence, a beauty is gleaned that isn’t given the name or the sharpness that beauty must be conventionally allowed to possess. Her tales lend themselves, through their occasional obscurity, to this kind of ponderousness. Something in the blueprint of a narrative concerning a Born Winner OD’ing on crushed pills on the floor of his office as his life is played in retrospect is inclined to a L’Innommable-esque contemplation of liminal existence and all those bright little things that transverse it, fast and nameless as they are.

            Where is she? Somewhere behind my back and

            knowing I can’t turn around. Light hangs above my head,

                        a draft              it swings a little,

shadow passes over the wall

revealing, crack in the paint.

A siren runs past, through my mind.

I am the siren now, a wave flung into the air.

There is a slightly sophomoric tone to the collection at times, the sensation of feet searching for the earth that dried, caked, and fell away underneath them, a tone translucently reflected in the elliptical and digressional prose. Onwuemezi, though, pulls it off, and the result is decidedly and impressively more nascent than it is amateurish. What feels like the progress of the collection might be better understood (or appreciated) played in reverse, the reader an acid-casualty searching for meaning in the vinyl grooves of a secret track: from the last story, which was Onwuemezi’s first success, a commuter’s tale of concussion and remorse, backwards to the first story, a narrative of criminal comradeship between two women who occupy a borderland in space and time. The collection, played in retrograde, becomes a steady undoing of reality, and a map of an emerging writer’s accomplishments.

A Nietzschean quote prefaces the collection as its epigraph, though it’s attributed not to the philosopher but his speaker, Zarathustra: “Night is also a sun.” In the collection’s eponymous story, denizens of an obfuscated world gather under floodlights, described as illuminated day and night, concealing both waxing moon and rising sun, the children born there clueless as to the significance of such celestial objects. Light upon light is darkness, Onwuemezi writes. And following this logic of inversion and erasure, maybe the book would have been better named after what feels like its most intimate story — Bright Spaces — in which a letter seems to address itself innocently beyond the grave. If Onwuemezi is making use of fragmentation, it seems to be with the purpose of shining a torch through the cracks. The book lights over dark neighbourhoods, but the spaces it navigates, occupies and dwells in, for a time, are made to flicker brightly, to glow.

Dark Neighbourhood
By Vanessa Onwuemezi
160 pages, Fitzcarraldo Editions

About Joshua Calladine-Jones

Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and the literary-critic-in-residence at Prague Writers' Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, Freedom, The Anarchist Library, and Literární.cz. His short collection Constructions is to be published by tall-lighthouse in 2021.

Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and the literary-critic-in-residence at Prague Writers' Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, Freedom, The Anarchist Library, and Literární.cz. His short collection Constructions is to be published by tall-lighthouse in 2021.

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