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‘Charcoal’ by Oli Johns

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Oli John’s book, ‘Charcoal’, due to be published by Eight Cuts on November 1st, could be shelved along with the work of Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Sartre, but it’s probably best placed alongside Camus  in the absurdist section. However, it’s also genre-defying. It’s literary certainly. It’s possibly, at least partly, autobiographical. It’s contemporary, erotic, noir, ironic. I can’t define it – it defies defining. JUST READ IT. As with all ‘good’ art, it requires active engagement and there will be as many interpretations as there are readers.

But I’ll do my best to give you some idea of what to expect.

First some personal background – so you know what I brought to my reading of the book.

I’ve suffered two bouts of depression – the first was post-natal and the second was post-cancer. Both occurred at times when I ‘should’ have been happy – after all, in the first instance, I had a new baby daughter and the second time, my cancer had just been confirmed as in remission.  Both bouts were due to a combination of biology and life-changing/threatening events. I was fortunate to receive appropriate medication and therapy. I recovered.

Mental illness is as life-threatening a disease as cancer. 

I’m also sure even the most mentally robust and least introspective of people have moments where life seems meaningless or they feel worthless. It’s also part of our human frailty to doubt ourselves. Those of us who are kept purposefully busy enough, who have a network of supportive people and have reasonable levels of self-esteem, mostly manage to keep on keeping on. Good physical health, a family to raise, a rewarding job, an absorbing hobby,  a loving partner, loyal friends and a curiosity about what life still holds – any one of these things can help us to keep fear and stress at bay.

BUT what if our minds get sick? What if the job is unbearable, or the people who should care about us don’t, or we find ourselves despicable? What if all that toxicity unravels us? Or what if we succumb to biological and chemical changes that upset our moods, emotions and rationality? How do we cope with daily life and its pressures? How do we find our way back? How do we get healed?

“It is/was like that for me too” – surely amongst the most reassuring and moving words a person can hear. They’re a marker of recognition, affirmation, shared humanity. And if the speaker has since recovered from whatever ‘that’ was, then they are words of hope to the vulnerable.

And sometimes ‘insanity’ is the only sane response to an insane world.

Reading the inner monologue of the narrator of ‘Charcoal’ led me to many intense, sometimes painful, moments of recognition, and I wanted to tell him “it was like that for me too” – to offer hope.

This is a brilliant account of an unravelling personality. The charcoal of the title refers to using the substance as a method of suicide – i.e. by burning it in a confined space so that it uses up all the oxygen.

The story is told by a first-person narrator in the present tense. Author and narrator are both called Oli – but the question of how fictional the tale is, is an open one.

The text is mainly single lines and sentences. The effect is intense and claustrophobic. The prose is hypnotic; the atmosphere sombre and fearful and the tone self-deprecating – right from the off with the apparent ‘quotes’ about the book.

 The reader is forced to put logic and rationality to one side and to just ‘be’ with the narrator and see things as he sees them.

At the beginning, Oli, the narrator – a stressed out, burnt out teacher who’d rather be a writer – is living alone and working in Hong Kong. He’s considering methods of suicide – even going so far as to experiment with the charcoal method in a hotel room. Then the story jumps forward a year and gets progressively darker. The narrator becomes increasingly paranoid, psychotic and disorientated. He cannot cope with his teaching job or relate to his colleagues. He becomes fixated on a Korean model who has committed to suicide. Even although she’s already dead he believes he can save her. She becomes real to him. She moves in with him for a time before disappearing and then reappearing throughout the narrative.

He is also obsessed with existential philosophy. He tussles with the work of Bergson and Deleuze – with concepts of time and theories of personality. After all, if you can get your head round, and go with the theories of these guys – abandon Newtonian laws and take the Einstein quantum view – then the possibilities are infinite. If time is merely movement and not a one way track – then maybe Oli can save the model. And maybe Oli can just ‘be’ – no cause, no effect, no regrets, no recriminations, no dread.

As for Oli’s writing, he wants success yet he also fears it. He wants recognition but is desperately scared of exposing himself to criticism and failure. He ponders upon the plight of writers who peak with one great (often the first and sometimes their only) novel. He thinks particularly of Fitzgerald and the ‘The Great Gatsby’. He realises that achieving success can be double-edged – because having achieved it – what’s the point in continuing to strive? He refers to Camus’ assertion that life’s about the rebellion and not the revolution. But it’s not the answer he’s seeking – because what if he never finishes anything, never has any success – that would be depressing and depression leads to…

And so it goes.

The book raises all the big questions – questions of core identity – is there even such a thing? It’s life, death and the whole damn thing.  There are no pat or trite answers.

It’s a slim volume – a novella really – but has the scope and feel of a much larger work. The author is fearless in his honesty about the human condition and our potential for self-destruction – the reader has to admit – yeah, I’ve had these what if moments too, moments of reckless fascination – what if I just jump in front of the train, let go of the rope?

 The flashes of humour and of hope – such as the graffiti episode where he asserts that ‘real art is not presented but found’, the admissions of weakness – for example when he admits to just wanting something simple to read – all add a bit of warmth to what is often a bleak landscape.

Reading this book, you may also long for something simpler – BUT – you’ll probably find you can’t put it down either. It stays with you, calls you back, forces you to take a look at yourself, forces you to accept there are more questions than answers, that control is an illusion and the only constant is change.

This is glorious writing – Camus with added warmth and humanity and a dash of uncertainty, philosophy wrapped in and woven through ‘real’ life. In the end Oli has to accept he can’t save the Korean model from herself. He also admits he doesn’t know where he’s going – none of us do – and everything in life, as in art, is open to interpretation. But the important thing is he IS going on and the reader can only wish him well. Perhaps, as Camus said, meaning in life is to be found through simple persistence. 

Johns is an incredibly talented writer – gifted not only with the required depth of insight and self-awareness that is vital for any artist but also with enough humility to be an excellent communicator. What you make of ‘Charcoal’ will be down to your effort and interpretation – as with any work of art. All I can guarantee is that it will be worth the effort.

Available as an ebook for £2 now or as a paperback for £6 from November 1st 2010 – go to http://eightcuts.wordpress.com/collaborate/coming-in-2010/charcoal-by-oli-johns/ You can also read the first chapter there.

Author: writeanne

Writer, teacher, wife, mother and grandmother; I'm a Scot living on the Isle of Skye; I blog in order to engage with my readers. I blog about life in all its variety, richness and wonder. I'm mostly bewildered but have occasional flashes of insight...

3 thoughts on “‘Charcoal’ by Oli Johns

  1. Pingback: Reviews! | eight cuts

  2. Anne thank you so much for this review , and for putting it in such a personal context.

    ““It is/was like that for me too” – surely amongst the most reassuring and moving words a person can hear.” -yes, that’s SO true

  3. Pingback: Lift off!!! | eight cuts

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