Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 12, 2006


By Dan Rhodes

Canongate. 191 pp. Paperback, $13

Cupid, the poster-cherub of Valentine's Day, represents love at its most happy, even childlike; his gifts, after all, are candy and flowers. But Eros -- Eros is another matter. A demonic god, he asks for nothing less than human sacrifice. Yearning, despair and madness, the ecstasy that leads to self-destruction -- on these he feeds, as hapless victims cast themselves into his all-devouring fires. We do well to avoid the dark god's notice.

The heroes of Dan Rhodes stories are never so lucky. For the truth about love is that it never comes, or it ends, or it changes into something horrible. Mere heartbreak is usually the best we can hope for.

In form, Rhodes's stories resemble magical-realist fables or grim fairy tales. The style is seemingly artless, deliberately flat, sometimes even clichéd. There's a kind of deadness at the heart of his sentences, as though all the emotion had been beaten out of them. If a zombie could write, it would sound about as lively as Dan Rhodes. Here, for instance, is the author at his most scintillating and upbeat. A distinguished architect, now elderly, thinks back on his life:

"There was always something there to stop him from coming even close to fulfilling his visions. His work was highly esteemed and he picked up a stream of plaudits and awards, but this meant little to him for he knew his best work had not been seen. As he grew older he slowly became resigned to the sober truth that the buildings in his mind would never be lived or worked in, would never be visited by streams of people from all over the globe, and would never decay into magnificence. As his confidence faded he tried to immerse himself in day-to-day work, to forget all his hopes and think of only the realistic, the attainable. It was no use. The visions remained, entire vistas of his own creation, but they had come to mock him like monstrous nightmares."

Alas, those visions grow all too warmly real when the professor spends an hour interviewing a pretty French student and realizes, too late, how much he has missed of life. By the end of "The Carolingian Period" we recognize a close cousin to Thomas Mann's elegy of erotic unfulfillment, "Death in Venice."

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love opens with this comparatively serene story of regret. In another, though, a young man falls in love with an old and wrinkled wood-witch, whom he sees as entirely beautiful. She insists that he pluck out one of his eyes and replace it with a glass one to prove his devotion. Needless to say, he hesitates -- and she suddenly starts to seem ugly and decrepit. Would such a sacrifice enable him to regain his vision of her beauty, would the loss of an eye help him to lose himself again in the blur of love? This is not a comforting tale.

Nor is "The Violoncello," in which a young Vietnamese man, unable to win the affection of a cellist of unearthly serenity and loveliness, finally relinquishes everything but his soul just for a chance to feel the touch of her hand. In "Landfill," an ordinary bloke accidentally discovers a fairy-like woman obsessed with trash and waste. She, he grows certain, is his destiny. And, sorrowfully, she is. In "The Painting," a Botticelli-like picture does more than merely beguile all who view it. And in "Beautiful Consuela," a married woman destroys her past self to test her husband's love. "Lives devoted to beauty," said the art critic Kenneth Clark, "seldom end well."

In every one of his eerie stories, Rhodes quietly, inexorably ratchets up the reader's anxiety. In "Mademoiselle Arc-en-ciel," he alternates the dismemberment of a rabbit with thoughts of lovemaking. In another tale, a character says, "You can't have love without sacrifice. Every lover there has ever been has had to lose something they hold dear, to give up a part of what they are to the one they're with. . . . Being with someone will always involve killing little pieces of yourself, having a clear-out, moving on. I know. I've killed so many little pieces of myself that there's hardly any of me left." Heedless, helpless, the doomed are always trying to prove their love, viewing disappointment or indifference as a test, hoping that persistence, relentless fidelity or complete self-abnegation will bring them happiness. As Rhodes aptly sums up one of his protagonists, "He was in love, and no longer his own master."

Rhodes is proclaimed on the cover of this book "the best new writer in Britain" (the Guardian). This is sheer hyperbole, but there's no denying the visceral power of his contes cruels . They stick in your mind, and the more you think about them the richer and more disheartening they become. Rhodes does, however, periodically relieve his usual deadpan gloom with black humor -- "she was wearing what looked like a car seat cover" -- or with unusually memorable metaphors: "His tongue turned to pâté at the sight of her." His endings, though, almost always come as shocking surprises, which is why I've been careful to avoid revealing too much about them.

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love is a powerful and impressive collection but very, very bleak. It's probably not the book to give your sweetie on February 14. You'd do better to stick with candy and flowers. ยท

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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