by: Frankie Metro
Perhaps it’s with no uncertain amount of irony that the name of the narrative character in Youssef Alaoui Fdili’s: The Blue Demon, translates to “Chosen” in Arabic and “Victory of the People” in Greek.
“Briefly stated, my name, in Arabic, is Mukhtarr. In Spanish, Nicolas. On a boat, I prefer that people call me “Nickel.”
Considering there is no concrete declaration of the time period involved with the story, a reader could easily imagine that this particular voyage could have occurred around the same time as Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, perhaps earlier:
Regardless of the intrigue found in the concept, the execution of the 71 page plot leaves something to be desired. I can easily admit that I am a huge stickler for punctuation and grammar in print material. In a market that is ever-turning their efforts toward e-readers and Kindle owners, print material, no matter the avenue, should maintain a certain level of professionalism when it comes to proper edits and proofreading. I knew, before reading this book, that it was published through the publish-on-demand site Createspace, so I didn’t go into this book expecting flawlessness by any means. But between pages 4 & 5 alone, I found somewhere around 10 punctuation errors.
“What” he said, looking me dead in the eye.
“Then why, sir, have you chosen to work on ships for a living.”
A few were chuckling.
“Because it’s the best way I know to earn money for a time without spending it.”
“Fair enough. But how do you survive on a ship at sea. Tell me that.”
“I work in the galley. And I can also stand night watch when everyone else needs to sleep.”
That statement seemed to meet with no small amount of satisfaction.
Upon first encountering Nickel, the reader may get the notion that he is a pathological liar or con artist. At least, he doesn’t seem sincere or really believable as a character of the book, but more like a character of the author’s under-elaborated imagination.
“How did you get here!” he pounded his fist into the table.
“I signed on at the port. I’m sorry but I don’t remember seeing you there. I think the Captain had already boarded. Yes. I remember now. You were also aboard, operations were underway, there was a situation near mizzen, I wasn’t sure, but then, because my gaze was in that direction at the time, the man just pointed and told me to board.”
A lot of effort was poured into naming the numerous characters of the all-male Spanish convoy. But aside from any sort of significance found there, they generally fall flat beyond their titles, cognomens and physical descriptions.
“The Captain is awake,” stated the Captain, stepping down into the lounge. He was a man a bit taller than most, strong in the shoulders, dark in the face. He looked like he’d been through his share of troubles and now, in his later years, kept mostly to himself and the first mate.”
The exclamatory statements and pace of the dialogue read like awkward comedy scripts.
However you can see a mediocre attempt at narrative detail that was commonly used by more familiar authors such as Thomas Pynchon etc.
“I can spot rocks in the blackest night from the way the water’s surface breaks up the starlight. I imagine I can see rocks straight down through the mass of water, hanging like limpid blobs. I tell myself I can see them. Sometimes, I tell others I see them.”
It’s just too difficult to latch onto the focal object’s relation with the moment, which makes the whole ordeal feel like nothing more than superficial facts built around a tentative patience for key conceptual base.
“Once we were done. dawn broke. Handsley had most of us go down and hang in our bunks. we chatted, smoked, slept. I slept a good long time.”
Particularly curious to me was the separation of chapters IV (THE KELP FIELDS) & V (NIGHT WATCH), considering that both chapters combined are less than five pages and break mid- paragraph to start again.
*pg. 13 (end of Chapter IV):
The Captain was bound to introduce a plan. I figured a week or so of banality could be part of his plan, allowing us to rebuild our strength and our senses.
*pg. 14 (beginning of Chapter V):
But the warm days and gelatinous waters had a way of wearing down our senses. We began to doubt our perceptions.
Taking into account that the adjective gelatinous wasn’t used until 1712
( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gelatinous ) it’s safe to assume that the time period of the story is supposedly set in/around the 18-1900’s.
But on the back of the book, Youssef claims that The Blue Demon is written:
“For fans of classic sea tales, neo Victorian, steampunk and horror.”
With what little familiarity I have with the “steampunk” genre of literature and film, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were certain era-based conventions that were either overlooked or altered for fantasy appeal. http://www.steampunk.com/what-is-steampunk/
The fact that this was a dialogue driven book–filled with more than enough obscenely awkward moments of discourse–made what I first considered a brisk read a 4-5 month affair. Every time I would pick it up to continue forward, I found myself completely sidetracked by the underdeveloped presentation. Beforehand, I had considered the Createspace route for projects that have been sitting idle. But after seeing this, I have to say that I‘m more skeptical about the self-publishing outlets available to independent press writers today.
I didn’t want to leave this book feeling like I was swayed in one direction because of typos and grammatical errors. So, in place of dragging this review out for another 5 months, I lent it to a nice married couple in the neighborhood and asked for their impressions of the book.
They asked that their identities remain anonymous, even after I told them:
“There’s no way the author can find you. Besides, he’ll probably come looking for me after this is over.”
For sake of their requested anonymity, we’ll call the husband: H and the wife: W.
W: There are no women in this story. Why? I see only mention of them in distaste or absent dreaming. Like right here: “I finished my shift and slept soundly without incident. I dreamt of women and their bodies. The sea was a body and desired us to be within her.” That’s literally the most that women are mentioned in this thing. What the hell man?
H: How many fainting spells can this guy have before they throw him overboard for being a pussy? I mean, I get it. Agoraphobia and whatnot. But still, the dude is always being carried around somewhere by other guys. It may have worked better to make him a homosexual or mental patient. Just saying.
W: On page 27, they’re convinced that ghost heads are talking to them from the kelp.
“…here ghostie ghostie!” snickered Antonio.”
I felt like it was a bad episode of Scooby Doo.
H: I got stuck here:
“I noticed his shirt rippling wildly over his midriff. On a
calm night. Like every night.”
“His shirt rippling?” said Handsley.
“The creature’s tentacle matched Bola’s shirt exactly, but kept
the effect of moving water. Out of the water, it looked like
W: Typically H is a little homophobic, but even I was a little curious about all the “hulking Montoya”s, the grunting, and all the shirts coming off.
“Take off your shirt. We’ll cut your shirt into broad strips like
this and tie the swords down flat on your forearms. Now that’ll hold!”
Chapter XII should have been titled Fighting Testicles instead of Tentacles.
And another thing. The narrator keeps saying: “Blood of God!” Who the hell says this? There’s no way to tell the historical timeframe. If these people are Spaniards, why not write: “sangre de cristo!” in italics?
W: And how is it possible by any means to choke to death on seaweed? I mean come on. I understand that it’s fiction or whatever. But feasibility should always play a factor in stories.
H: I’m sorry man. She gets this way about books all the time. You really shouldn’t have given her this one.
W: Fuck you H! He wanted to know what I thought, so I’m telling him.
I know I already touched on this, but the only living female in this entire book is the creature. The narrator’s crude references to women may be appropriate for that time in the world, whatever time it is. But when I see expressions like: “Son of a whore!” and no other female representation aside from a monster eating people’s brains, I don’t know. I’m not offended. Just irritated I guess.
H: Thanks dude. Guess who won’t get much sleep tonight. She’ll be going over this stuff for hours.
W: Most of the dialogue is largely redundant, action-derived, and either over/under punctuated with exclamation points. It’s written like a poorly thought-out Hollywood action thriller with an all-male cast, swords, guns, fist fights.
H: And no one considers setting the monster on fire before the end! The synopsis says something about how Nickel’s shipmates have to learn to trust him in order to make it out of this thing, and it felt like the reason for that, was because it was his idea to set the creature on fire. I mean, they thought of blowing it up, and that didn’t work out. But nowhere did anyone, before the end, think, “hey, fire…”
W: Subtle hints of gay bondage. Penetration from behind, from the front, in the guts, in the eyes.
“I heaved my burning spear deep into the monster’s pupil. There was little resistance.”
“I grabbed the rim of its eye and held on tight. I noticed our crews’ spears landing on the surface of the creature’s body from up close.”
H: You know, all that bullshit aside and disbelief not suspended, the story itself, or at least the concept, was not an excruciating read. It could be longer in order to better develop the characters. The author succeeds in conveying the nuances of the seafaring lifestyle. But it would have been better to include an index or footnotes or something.
W: I think the author could’ve employed his own background into the writing a little more and the story would’ve read more authentically. He did go to all the trouble of telling the reader about his ethnicity on the back.
It’s almost trying to be Old Man in the Sea:
H: I was thinking R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps.
W: See. I’m glad you said that, ‘cause I was thinking this would be an excellent book for junior level readers. There’s no excessive mention of drugs or sex, little cursing… If the grammatical issues were fixed and the story was stretched out and revised, it could make a good tool for emerging readers.
H: Even with the whole: “Son of a whore thing!”?
W: Even with…
When discussing this novella with my wife, of course the question of whether to publicize this brutally honest review in light that it may offend the author came up. In order to see it in clearer unbiased context, I asked Lindsey if this were Henry Miller, if this were Tropic of Cancer, and, let’s say that Henry Miller had some preconceived notion that T.O.C. was going to be banned in the United States… let’s say Barney Rosset founded Grove Press in 1931 instead of ‘51, and he started off in France, and 3 years later Henry Miller writes this novel, and instead of Obelisk it was Grove that he signed with, and Barney says, send this book to Unlikely Stories: Episode IV, and Henry Miller asks what the fuck a computer is or a time machine for that matter, and Barney says nevermind, let’s publish it, but beforehand I want to get a review from this website. Henry looks at him for a second and asks if he’s high, and neverminds himself, and says that he’ll sign over the rights, but if what Barney Rossett says is true and his book is going to be banned in America, then he wants a damn good review from this punk ass retard in New Mexico, or else he’s signing with Obelisk, but will have Barney over anytime if he’s hard up for cash or a roof to put over his head, then-
would that affect your, Lindsey’s, outlook on Henry Miller today?
A guy is adamant about having you review his book. He sends you a copy, and says what: “I hope you don’t take a shit on it?”
I guess it all matters on whether you and Barney Rosset are friends on Facebook…
Excellent point. In fact, it was Facebook itself where I found a great interview with an author I am unfamiliar with, named Anis Shivani.
Although the titles of the two cited volumes didn’t immediately grab my attention, (nor the long self-absorbed q & a session) I did find one answer very intriguing and seemingly relevant to the current debate, at least in terms of how social media sites have skewed the rules between solicitation/promotion vs. honesty/review.
When asked: “Is Facebook good for you?”
Anis replied that:
“Facebook has allowed me to make connections with writers it would otherwise have been difficult to get to know, given the fact of wide geographical dispersion. The best thing is when those initial connections soon become real-life interactions. But Facebook extracts a high cost in terms of constant distraction. You face an endless stream of pseudo-confession which really doesn’t put writers in their best light. Beyond a certain number of close friends it becomes impossible to say anything personal or real without offending someone. Facebook has turned into a self-promotional vehicle where only positive, optimistic, ebullient feelings are allowed, where emotions are instantly converted into acceptable mush which passes somehow for honesty and sincerity. I haven’t posted anything personal for years, once the number of friends exceeded a certain count. You can’t do that without inviting misunderstanding. So while I’m grateful to have engaged with many writers which otherwise would have been difficult, I’m looking forward to the day when I can deactivate my account. I think on the whole social media has been negative for writers. Nothing is worth the slow erosion of privacy. We should all disengage and invalidate this latest capitalist enterprise trying to suck up our energy and precious words and thoughts. And write poems instead. “
While this certainly wasn’t a dry poetry collection by any standards, The Blue Demon, more conclusively the experience of reviewing the story, did provide for more contact with its author. Youssef is a profoundly deep individual who offers an inspiring dynamic of what he coins “Victorian” essence with bare, callous vernacular. I enjoy his general body of work and am even set to publish one of his poems in the first issue of a new publication I co-edit come March 15th. http://kleftjaw.weebly.com/submissions.html
So in writing this and being in more contact with Youssef as a result, I was deeply troubled at the prospect of leading this review into the recycling bin.
*Lindsey aptly reminded me that:
“Sometimes, the author loses interest in seeing the review at all, when he finds out the results are not favorable. He’s uninterested in any critical feedback., even if it would help him in the long run. He says what: ‘I’ll rewrite it. Thnx.’ How do you make it better if you don’t know what’s wrong?”
For the sake of future endeavors, whether they are projects we are both involved with (separately or conjointly) I hope that this is not the case with Youssef…
*coedited by: Lindsey Thomas-Citizens for Decent Literature Press: