Reviewed by Joshua Bligh
A playful, brutal, dreamy, sticky slideshow of fables and images told with the eye-winking charm of an impromptu bedtime story
More serendipitous ekphrasis than direct collaboration, The Villagers is a collection of short stories (and a poem or two) by Derek Owens written in response to a collection of paper collages of the same name created by Caroline Golden in 2009. For each piece of writing, there is a visual counterpart composed from snippets of everyday objects arranged just so that the viewer cannot but anthropomorphize these alien constructions into people, complete with personalities and life stories waiting to be revealed.
The stories waft off the page like fairy tales, rock back and forth like a rambling grandparent, shimmer like a silver-tongued incubus whispering into your ear at night. Each story centers around a different “Villager” collage, with names ranging from the normal (“The mariner”) to the cosmic (“The lunar king”). Some of the fables curve around dark corners of reality, the air heavy with esoterica redolent of Jorge Luis Borges (especially “The notetaker”), and others jump off the pages in neon chaos to make Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland look sedate by comparison. The point is, the stories are multifarious, and each new installment brings a new vibe and rhythm without a moment of predictability or staleness to be found, escorting a new Villager into the light long enough for us to see into what unexpected life Owens has breathed into them.
A first major success of the collection is that it avoids the high-brow sentiment that can often insinuate itself into mixed-media works. Instead, Owens’ literary responses to the collages of Golden maintain a humble playfulness that keeps the reader constantly guessing and wholly invested. As soon as I would finish one story, I would already have the hook in me for the next one, insatiably curious about who the next Villager would be and what world would be brought before my eyes. Golden’s collages are just as much a part of this anticipation as the stories. Both artist and author succeed on their part in drawing the reader-viewer in, and the moment you bid farewell to one Villager, you cannot wait to meet the next, with Golden’s collages serving as a diving board to cast yourself off into imaginative worlds.
The sheer variety between stories makes this short work feel far more expansive than its 140 pages might seem to contain. The tone dips into the macabre (“The reliquary”) only to soar into something psychedelic (“The gardener”) without any of the stories fitting quite into a single labeled box, and nearly every space between is filled by one of the other Villagers, together occupying a breadth of style and tone that makes up for any loss of narrative cohesion through pure novelty. This consistent ability to keep the reader on their toes (or simply bowl them over with surprise) is maintained throughout the project, and is a feat of fabulous creativity.
This collection is for anyone who has ever lain upon a grassy knoll and conjured tales from the shapes of passing clouds. But, with its more experimental leanings, the stories diverge from traditional structures or plotting, though this could not detract from my enjoyment. The characters, in all their wild trappings, find their appeal less in being well-rounded and more through their sheer uniqueness, through the ever-unpredictable turns that Owens’ mind would take in bringing Golden’s wonderful collages to life.
A line from one of Owens’ stories, “The courier,” captures much of my feelings of the collection. That is, “It is all no longer exponential but rather post-hyper-exponential.” The stories multiply out in every conceivable direction, taking you to places one step removed from run-of-the-mill logic and universes away from our own for a memorable ride. The Villagers is a small collection holding an expanse within it, waiting for the right reader to come along and stare wide-eyed as the space unfolds.
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