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Richard Dadd in Bedlam & Other Stories
Alan Wall

Richard Dadd in Bedlam & Other Stories
Alan Wall
Secker & Warburg
London 1999

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Our perceptions of time and its passing provide the dominant theme for this enterprising collection of fifteen short stories, published at a time when the globe’s preoccupation with the coming millennium threatens to become even more obsessive.

Appropriately enough, Wall’s cast of characters (mostly first person narrators) occupy locations at the farthest removes of past, present and future. But the author’s ambitions in this respect often clash with the format in which they are expressed. The conception of, for example, A to Z and Logical Positivists is too rudimentary to sustain the ideas that inform them. On the other hand, certain millenarian and epistemological ideas articulated in other narratives are often difficult to grasp and infect the style with a conceit that the author is, on occasion, struggling to suppress. This is most evident in Intelligent Terminal, a sci-fi tale that cries out for unfavourable comparison with William Gibson. The knock-about style and ironic humour of Pig Man of Gandara is too reminiscent of an out-take from The Life of Brian to convince. Two other stories (Great White and Outside the Law) are constructed with an abruptness that gives them the appearance of stage directions for larger compositions.

In general, however, it is impossible to deny the existence of a formidable skill at work. It is a real delight to come across such captivating openings that adorn Underneath the Smile, An Old Man in Florence and The Painter. Wall possesses a consistent flair for producing a memorable metaphor (‘Her fingers were like insects mating in the air.’) and originating instant environments through vigorous imagery (‘Dead meals scattered over the pavement. A multi-ethnic gastronomic morgue’). I also found the joke about the Vienna Circle and the Vienna slice irresistible. But Wall is at his best in his creation of characters whose personalities are both corroded and distorted by their inability to come to terms with the onrush of time. Rembrandt Dying, The Painter and Richard Dadd in Bedlam are the most successful in reflecting this failure and the inability of relationships and, in particular, art to obviate it. These characters have no other comfort except millenarianism or madness. One can’t help being reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s warning: ‘Art isn’t enough. Art lets you down.’ The consolation or otherwise of art is deserving of a much larger canvas than Wall allows for here, but it cannot be doubted that he possesses the necessary talent to undertake such a task.

Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse


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