Quentin S. Crisp's Remember You're a One-Ball! Reviewed

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Quentin S. Crisp, an author of several well received collections of weird fiction, can have many labels applied to his work, but perhaps the most deserving today is "daring." His new novel, Remember You're a One Ball! published by the start up Chomu Press, is long on courage and marinated in unease. There is a dare in each chapter, to follow Crisp all the way to the bitter conclusion, across the painful landscape of human cruelty and social taboo. Trying to resist this challenge does little good, as the mystery of the book's monstrous conspiracy is so outlandish and so awful that the pages will keep turning in hope of redemption.

Remember You're a One-Ball! plunges deep into a hidden world, and casts a glowing lantern on one of society's ultimate untouchables, a cast so hidden and unspeakable that many overlook their very existence: the One-Balls. Men who have lost a testicle seemingly live a spectral existence, and this quiet half-life could possibly work out okay for them and the rest of society. But Crisp's literary excursion pulls the curtain back. Anonymity is not an option here. His world is one where the One-Ball is exposed, and put on exhibit in a zoo called society, where a series of horrible contrivances and reminders make it impossible to forget--even momentarily--that his victims are One-Balls.

The One-Ball experience comes to us through the tormented filter of Ramsey Blake. This introverted narrator's outsiderness is established early in the novel, and it serves as a useful perspective for Crisp's social explorations as well as a sympathetic conduit to observe the One-Ball drama. Blake's melancholy existence--made so by a sharp sensitivity to the human condition and his own alienation--leads him into a teaching position at his old school. Up through this point, the novel is an interesting catalog of social observations and anxious misadventures as the introspective Blake trudges unenthusiastically forward in an attempt to conform to the old cliche of "fitting in." However, after a troubled boy named Norman enters his school, an unguessable and gruesome conspiracy is discovered. The great, sinister plot unfurls itself from inside Blake's childhood memories and adult investigations, and Crisp does not relent from scraping the seafloor of despair before Blake's terrible revelations about himself and his world are returned to the shadows in an almost Orwellian conclusion.

At times, it hurts to follow the themes of this book: child abuse, psychological and physical torture, and a society so unredeeming that one wishes they could avoid being a part of it, until realizing, horribly, how close Crisp's fictional relations mirror the world outside his novel. Fortunately, his fluent and imaginative style helps the bitter medicine go down...if not with pleasure, than with literary ease. Crisp's treatment of his troubling subject matter with real seriousness is also appropriate, as it emphasizes the One-Ball's existential horror and contrasts with the jester-like existence he occupies for his torturers. Further, describing the One-Ball's case sees Crisp doing his best to shape the novel into stylistic equilibrium, and on this account he succeeds. Despite being the central attraction, the prime source of anguish, and the pariah, Crisp's One-Balls are presented with marginal distance between them and the reader, and this is for the best. The book might otherwise verge on being too disturbing without this balanced perspective.

For the record, there are no ghouls or ghosts in this horror story, only men and women, students and instructors, but that does not detract from its frightening and strange character. Whether it was intentional or not, certain events in Remember You're a One-Ball! carry a fantastical edge, while others exude a flavor of hyper-realistic social commentary. For instance, Ramsey Blake's grim everyday confrontations reek strongly of common drudgery and awkwardness. Most readers will not be able to force out thoughts of their own strained labors and relationships here. Later, a certain "game" played by two children, Harley and Samantha, takes on a sense of otherworldly perversion by Crisp's skillful prose. The mini-nightmare and oddness of its imagery is ethereal.

Yet, this novel's strangeness and its ultimate strength truly rests on its characters. The pitiful Norman, the forever broken Harley, the unassuming arch-demon schoolmaster Jeffries, and the masochistic Samantha compose a flawed and disturbing cast that is all too human. Many of Quentin Crisp's characters, by their participation in the book's wicked conspiracy, seem rigidly villainous--at least on an inaugural read. But the unsettling conclusion wisely leaves readers to wonder about complex definitions of villainy and cruelty, and if Blake's final responses to his past cloud the novel's denizens (and perhaps ourselves) in a cloak of hopeless gray.

Moreover, the book carries an eerie undercurrent of psychological submission, a theme whose reception may differ wildly among readers depending on their attitudes and interpretations. Though the story's main driver is a resistance effort mounted by Ramsey Blake, it seems that Crisp's world is a suffocating one. Characters try their damnedest to go-along-to-get-along, but what happens when the going ends up getting them? This is a question the novel inevitably poses to any who pick it up. On the other hand, Crisp's environment is bleak and practically unstoppable, but there appears to be a certain appreciation for resisting the novel's nightmarish "system" which so effectively mirrors our own. The author suggests that although outsiderness may not be ideal, it is useful for evading society's worst offenses, even when it also magnifies them to a nearly unbearable level.

There is a forceful dissection of social roles and mechanisms in this book, but Remember You're a One Ball! does not moralize. It reads more like a calm expose on all forms of cruelty, stunningly energized in sections by Quentin Crisp's wonderful prose and sensitive attention to the accursed lives of outcasts. There is a magnetic power in its themes that will adhere and unsettle the psyches of all readers who complete this journey. Like the whimsical childhood lyrics that act as a recurring scourge to the One-Ball, Crisp's latest novel calls on readers to Remember-Member-Member its warnings and revelations, and its author's name as it establishes him as a more important writer than ever in the surging field of strange fiction.

-Grim Blogger

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