Melting Point, by Baret Magarian, Salt Publishing, 224 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1784631970
In “The Fever”, one of the compendium of short stories in Baret Magarian’s Melting Point, a courier collects the manuscript of a novel from an address in Lincoln, Nebraska, for delivery to an editor in Los Angeles. During a break at a motel in the Mojave Desert (“I needed a shower, a bed, some kind of sanctuary for a few hours”), the courier waxes lyrical about the author of this novel, an “Elvis of literatur” who writes on an Olivetti, “squeezes out masterworks like a chicken lays eggs” – and disdains, of course, not only the good offices of the US postal service but also electronic mail and all the paraphernalia of modern communications technology.
The greatest fear – at any rate, of this reader and writer – is that the precious manuscript will be lost by the courier and will be revealed as the sole copy in existence of a Great Novel. But nothing so conventionally horrifying will do for Magarian, who instead bestows a life upon the manuscript which is by turns hot and icy-cold to the touch. “It was insane, it had been driven mad by its contents.” Nor is even the existence of a living manuscript the most prominent aspect of “The Fever”, for a great many other events (by turns otherworldly, sexual, terrifying, murderous) take place in the course of what is by no means a lengthy short story – and not one of these events is in any way conventional.
The clue, as they say, lies in the title, for the stories in Melting Point are indeed much preoccupied with processes of disintegration. Philosophical, spiritual, formal, imaginative, ethical – the molecules positively fly apart, page after page. Sometimes this disintegration indicates a loss of confidence as much as of ethical moorings: in “Crime and Bread”, a woman who would appear to be doing well enough for herself nevertheless loses her head just sufficiently to steal a Toulouse-Lautrec poster she has noted in a shop window and coveted to the point of unreason. How will she remedy such a dangerous and unethical situation? Certainly not in a way that indicates any satisfying point of closure: instead, this unreason continues “furtively” to the bitter end, as the melting continues apace.
The protagonist in “Crime and Bread” does not merely shoplift the Toulouse-Lautrec poster: instead she opts to smash the shop window – and not with a brick but rather a bottle of expensive Glenmorangie whisky. The story is clustered with many other indicators of a comfortable life – dishes of unctuous moussaka, goblets of rich red wine, glossy magazines filled with photos of modern furniture and Japanese gardens – and the woman’s unhinged behaviour in spite of her evident creature comforts suggests the emptiness of such bourgeois significations. It is a theme continued throughout the book, as the consumption and commodification of late capitalism are examined coldly and found wanting. The context of these stories shifts from the Greek littoral, to an expensive restaurant where the airy talk is all of Hollywood success, to the leathered sofas and comfort of the Royal Automobile Club – and Magarian’s characters appear to crave and value the very material success that such backgrounds indicate. There is always, however, a lesson to learn: stability and worldly success are projected ceaselessly, but such contexts are invariably revealed as unstable.
Indeed the reader learns rapidly to expect just such epiphanies: and while these may manifest in guises startling or unconventional, they reveal – ironically, given the ostensibly free-wheeling movement of these stories – a fundamentally systemised character to Melting Point. While its stories differ starkly one from another, the unexpected inevitably becomes fully expected. In “The Opiate Eyes of the Buddha”, the longest and last story in the collection, two self-absorbed young English tourists lounge on a deserted and apparently idyllic Thai beach: their holiday is about to be impacted by not a much-referenced tsunami, but certainly a tsunami-like swirl of violence and trauma; and as a result they will learn a thing or two about the meaning of life. The musings that will follow this experience, however, are hardly life-altering: “I am the blue-print, my atoms came from those stars, I am connected, and so I have nothing to fear, in a sense. In a sense.” There is of course an implication that such fuzzy New Age thinking is as much as can be expected from such tiresome characters, in spite of the recent shocks they have experienced; but such flatness is dispiriting.
More immediately engaging, perhaps, is the sequence of short pieces that stud the central section of the volume. “The Balls” tells a tale of “this guy Salvatore, a fruit and vegetable seller in Florence with a raging temper”. This story, lurid and gorily corporeal though it is, derives its real strength from other sources. We are provided with “a backdrop of blood and madness in the midst of dishes of spaghetti and polenta”, but this is ultimately the tale of an ordinary life, a tragedy, a chastening experience, a possible redemption. It is arguably the most powerful story in the collection, and it provides a telling indication that Magarian’s writing can be quite powerful enough not to require a heavy dressing of surreality.