fri 06/12/2019

Irenosen Okojie: Nudibranch review - twisted and funny | reviews, news & interviews

Irenosen Okojie: Nudibranch review - twisted and funny

Irenosen Okojie: Nudibranch review - twisted and funny

A bold and inventive collection of short stories nourished on the darkest of thoughts

A slippery, exuberant authorIrenosen Okojie © Dialogue Books

Visceral, gaudy, alien, otherworldly to the point of being almost improbably imaginative, the nudibranch serves as an appropriate figure for Nigerian-British writer Irenosen Okojie’s muscularly surrealist prose. Look up a picture of one if you haven’t before: the nudibranch is an exuberant, kaleidoscopic variety of sea slug. In the story that gives her newest collection of short stories its title, Okojie provides a short definition of the creature, which serves as a kind of epigraph: "Soft-bodied, marine gastropod molluscs which lose their shells after their larval stage. They are noted for their often-extraordinary colours and striking forms." The mollusc itself materialises only fleetingly in the tale that follows, as the shape  the smoke  of its pluralised image. Yet it curls about the story’s outlandish festival of sensuality, lying latent in its melodrama.

The goddess Kiru arrives at an island populated by eunuchs who have gathered for the ceremony of Haribas: a carnival of lovemaking. Morphing into the shapes of different women, she seduces these men, and eats their hearts:

Catching him unaware, she sticks her fingers into his chest, melting flesh. The charred scent rising up to their nostrils as a pattern of smoke unwinds from his chest shaped like small nudibranch. She reaches through bone, a blueprint at birth washed away by the pumping of blood. … She runs a finger over [his heart], over the pumping rhythm she has already caught with the damp folds of her vagina.

Much as the nudibranch disturbs our sense of form and propriety, Okojie’s imagery flexes between oneiric referent and corporeal junk. The body is a site of grotesquery and fascination, and tongues and lungs are strewn about the stories, along with other entrails. In this story, the carrier pigeons overhead “mimic the sound of a lung sinking, chasing an echo thinking they can catch it.” In ‘Grace Jones’, which follows the troubled history of a Grace-Jones impersonator from Martinique haunted by dreams of gutted houses, cake ingredients and cardboard boxes, Okojie’s protagonist notices “tongues in the wine flutes, floating then curling mid scream, sinking to the bottom” as the draughtsman of her nightmares stalks waking events. ‘Filamo’ is propelled by the seditious intent of a severed tongue, which drives a community of time-mangling monks to maddening silence and bloody destruction:

Inside the Abbey, a tongue sat in the golden snuff box on an empty long dining table; pink, scarred and curled into a ruffled, silken square of night. The previous week, the tongue had been used as a bookmark in a marked, leather bound King James bible.

Nudibranch by Irenosen OkojieAs this makes clear, Okojie’s imagination is frequently funny, and defiantly weird. Her slippery stories are not bound by logic, time or place; both within and between tales she dives between the genres of fable, dystopia, allegory, lyrically conceived realism, and horror. “Magical realism” is a label that has been applied loosely to her previous work – including the award-winning novel Butterfly Fish (2015) and her first collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular (2016), whose success led the Guardian to name this book as one of its most anticipated reads of 2019. Yet her energetically fantastical portraits – often of women negotiating dramas of struggle, vulnerability and dominance – also bear a resemblance to Mark Fisher’s understanding of the “weird” in The Weird and the Eerie, which signals “a particular kind of perturbation”, both compelling and repelling our attention, allowing us “to see the inside from the perspective of the outside.” Dream logic: a travelling chef who discovers a fossil that becomes a woman; a traveller recently returned from a trip to Sydney who disintegrates into liquorice, “black, gleaming, edible, sweet.” Or stillborn babies “brought to life with technology”, tethered to artificial umbilical cords, who have to be recharged every two weeks. “It is the irruption into this world of something from the outside which is the marker of the weird.”

But it is also true that, in the wrong context, the nudibranch is at risk of appearing ridiculous – guilty of a certain showy ostentation. Sometimes Okojie’s stylistic vaults stretch too far in their quest for originality: “Edwin’s low timbered voice had been like a liquid concoction my limbs were drawn to, our shadows rustling in tepee tends for seeds suffering for heat stroke while we wandered.” Or in ‘Point and Trill’, perhaps the weakest of the collection: “He turned to Bronwyn who was staring out the window at cloaks of darkness shifting off undulating green mounds into restless costumes”.

Nudibranch is nevertheless a bold and inventive collection which follows the dark places of our thoughts, as the same time that it is witty, wondering and mischievous. Certainly, it adds depth to Okojie’s comment that she “tend[s] to operate from a place of curiosity as a writer rather than authority” – daring us to see the nudibranch in the shapes of the everyday.

@jess_payn

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