#176 Sexual treachery vs. friendship
First published October 4, 2017
Jazz riffs from a leaky lifeboat…
Useless Things (REDACTED)
A novella. By Charles Tidler
Ekstasis Editions. 124 pages. $19.95
reviewed by John Moore
Last seen nine years ago in Charles Tidler’s novel, Going to New Orleans (Anvil Press 2004), the itinerant, deranged horn-player named Lewis King is now pursuing a comically perverse love affair with the lubricious Ms Sugarlicq in Useless Things (REDACTED) (Ekstasis $19.95). Now on the cooler shores of Victoria, the passions of our protagonist still run hot as a W.C. Handy riff.
Into his late sixties, Lewis is trying to acquire the sage-like calm supposedly conferred by age and wisdom, but his mojo ain’t workin’. His current squeeze, Lostlove, has dumped him for a pedal-jock he refers to as Bicycle Boy. He is one of those obnoxiously athletic dudes who roll on European racing bikes and show off their junk in tight black spandex shorts that a guy Lewis’s age would describe as ‘panty-girdles’.
Despite her sexual treachery, Lostlove still wants to “be friends.” Lewis reacts the way most of us do when mustered to that leaky lifeboat.
Much of this story explores the way phone answering machines, caller ID and building access control systems are used as tools of power in relationships. Lewis employs them all as a way of punishing Lostlove by controlling and reducing her access to him.
The title? Well, achieving serenity by refusing to be distracted by useless things is a basic teaching of Lewis’ chosen spiritual master, the 13th century Chinese sage, Wumen Huikai, Mumon to the Japanese, compiler of zen koans and author of The Gateless Gate, who once wrote, “If useless things do not hang in your mind, any season is a good season for you.”
Ironically, it is “things”, techno-gadgets, that initially appear to give Lewis more control of his life, eliminating distraction created by emotions, the ultimate “useless things”. It’s a nicer irony of the novel that the virtual armour of our social-media-saturated society turns out to be tinfoil when human beings confront each other in the flesh.
The redactions embedded in the text are more than just a gaff to make the pages visually interesting. Crude horizontal blots of black ink are familiar to generations of readers used to perusing redacted documents, from the Pentagon Papers to files accessed under freedom of information acts and Wikileaks.
Employed as a narrative tool in fiction, the blackouts reflect Lewis’s struggle to reduce his emotional suffering by redaction. The redactions in Useless Things subtly but significantly progress from truly irrelevant brand and place names at the beginning of the novel to emotionally-loaded words and phrases by the end.
The short novel is a card-cut challenge to writers to prove that less is more. Sixty thousand words is a verbal straight-jacket that leaves little wiggle-room for the leisurely plot and character development too often indulged in by contemporary novelists obsessed with narrative style, psychology or Point of View; 19th century concepts that still seem to be the stock in trade of many creative writing programs.
Charles Tidler’s strength as a novelist is that he is a dramatist by trade, a working playwright whose tools are Dialogue and Action, a small but effective kit marked Show, Don’t Tell in non-redacting High-Liter. 978-1-77171-200-2
John Moore writes from Garibaldi Highlands.
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