Stephen Moles posits that birds are moral receptacles, collecting the most terrifying or haunting of human experiences and holding those events inside themselves. Their squawks and chirps are actually an expression of their pain at keeping mankind’s secrets
Stephen Moles, The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable: Or Beneath the Burnt Umbrella, Sagging Meniscus Press, 2016.
Stephen Moles’ remarkable novel The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable could be described as any of the following:
A modern-day Book of the Dead which uses important events from relatively recent history (such as the Mayerling Incident and the Eastern Air Lines Flight 375 crash) and elements of popular culture (such as the Beatles and Shakespeare) to give expression to the same basic narrative found in all the ancient funerary texts from around the world.A semi-autobiographical novel about the author’s work with the Dark Meaning Research Institute and his efforts to stop their ground-breaking parasemantic findings from being appropriated/suppressed by the authorities.A sister publication to Moles’ previous novel, Paul is Dead, offering insights into the book’s main themes (such as how to create a Möbius-strip-style twist in one’s life story and make contact with an alternate self).A poetic work in which the imagery (which has its own grammar and syntax) tells the story instead of the words: the entangled symbols are brought to the fore to such an extent that the reader is able to see the unconscious beneath the partially visible surface narrative and decide on the full literal meaning of it (rather than the other way around, as with all most books, where the literal meaning is made explicit and the underlying meaning remains partially or completely hidden).By whichever corner it is picked up, no matter how gingerly, what will be uncovered is an endlessly inventive and delightful work of wit, ingenuity, personal charm and no little substance.
There are moments in Stephen Moles’ The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable: Or Beneath the Burnt Umbrella where you can begin to see it coming together. A sequence of paragraphs begin to flow in a logical order that you can follow, or a name repeats enough times that it sticks in your mind, or a theme recurs in a way that suggests a plot. But those moments are few and far between, and most of the book is little more than nonsense.
The crux of the story -- as much as one can call this work that describes itself as a “modern-day Book of the Dead” -- is the language of birds, called bwords. Moles posits that birds are moral receptacles, collecting the most terrifying or haunting of human experiences and holding those events inside themselves. Their squawks and chirps are actually an expression of their pain at keeping mankind’s secrets. The unnamed but much harangued narrator takes part in a mission to observe and catalogue all the bwords.
Littered throughout the text are references to culture. The Beatles’ discography makes frequent appearances, as does Shakespeare. In one passage, he melds biblical passages with banned swearwords. Religious rituals and funerary rites or beliefs also serve as a recurring backbone for the story, being tweaked and referenced throughout the book. Moles leaps back and forth between his birds, pop culture, and death rites, tangentially linking them at best and rapidly switching courses in a way that is disorienting at worst. The result of this mash-up of ritual, language, and culture is an exhaustingly self-indulgent book.
At the website Beard of Bees, Moles’ work is described as “uncategorisable”. That certainly applies to The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable, a book that ricochets from an expository voice to surrealism to something that is reminiscent of postmodernism. But what it truly is, when all is said and done, is an extension of Moles’ elaborate universe in which he has placed the bulk of his work. The Dark Meaning Research Institute, which features into the book and has the narrator pursued by the authorities, is Moles’ creation, a scientific endeavor designed to uncover what he calls “dark meaning”, or a force unrecognizable to the literary world that influences the way works are interpreted. At the publisher Sagging Meniscus website, it is described as “a group of parasemantic investigators and quantum linguistics pioneers who are currently working on a way to blast him off the page and turn him into the world’s first zero-person author.”
When looked at through the lens of Moles’ previous work, including Paul Is Dead (about a man named Paul McCartney) and The More You Reject Me, the Bigger I Get (a brief book comprised entirely of its own rejection notices), the framework into which Moles’ latest book is published is at least slightly more clear. Moles is not a writer whose work can stand alone; it all relates back to a larger, staged persona that hinges on literary pseudo-radicalism, linguistic gymnastics, and ultimately ego.
Undoubtedly there will be some to whom this non-linear, even non-narrative book appealing. There are moments of lyricism, and there are turns of phrase that are genuinely well done. But the book in its entirety is a non-sequitur built on non-sequiturs, the sum reflecting the parts but never getting past them to grasp as something larger. - Bridey Heing
Stephen Moles, Paul is Dead, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2015.
Paul McCartney is not a celebrity himself, but works on the edges of that industry, unhappily toiling away at a tabloid devoted to famous deaths and the public's ongoing fascination with them. But one day he discovers a mysterious red button on a back wall of his new house, which when pressed causes the immediate death of a celebrity sometimes half a world away. And what does this have to do with the eyeball in a glass jar that his biggest fan has recently mailed to him? Find out the darkly hilarious answer in this full-length debut of British absurdist author Stephen Moles. A rousingly bizarro exploration of fame, identity and mortality, this novella will make you laugh and cringe in equal measure, a perfect read for existing fans of Will Self or Chuck Palahniuk. You might not think a book about death would begin with the word "life" written 27 times in a row, but then you have yet to enter the strange but compelling world of Paul is Dead. Best approached with caution and with tongue firmly in cheek!
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Paul is Dead is another of those standard, typical, run-of-the-mill novellas about a beret-collecting British journalist named Paul McCartney (no relation) who keeps an eyeball in a jar and works for a celebrity gossip rag that fetishizes A-list deaths and utilizes room-sized computer keyboards that contain every word in the English language. It’s got one of those regular, normal, everyday plots where the main character moves into an apartment full of free-roaming turkeys (who may or may not be exacting revenge on all humanity) and a mysterious red button, enigmatically labelled “DO NOT PRESS” which Paul uses to make a fortune gambling on celebrity death dates.
That old chestnut.
As if this showcase of organized absurdism weren’t enough, Stephen Moles also draws source material from the Beatles’ “Paul is Dead” conspiracy. This theory (still widely believed by fans called “Cluesters”) asserts that the real Paul McCartney died in a car wreck in 1966 and was swiftly replaced by a sound-alike look-alike named Billy Shears, which saved album sales and transitioned the Beatles into the Sgt. Pepper age. The hypothesis has been challenged and tested by photographic facial recognition evidence, haunting backmasked lyrics, and suspicious album cover symbolism. For example, in the background of the Abbey Road cover is an in-frame Volkswagen with a license plate reading “28IF”–how old McCartney would have been IF he were alive for the album’s release. “IF” is also the final (and only) word of Moles’ terminal and haunting Chapter 28.
While the Paul McCartney in Moles’ story isn’t exactly replaced by a duplicate, the parallels come through a series of bizarre e-mail correspondences which lead him to believe he may not in fact be his original self. While this can be a complicated subject to explore in seventy-one pages, Moles negotiates this territory well through his expert use of third person narration and his full and complicated secondary characters.
First, there’s Jenny: Paul’s lovably hateable office-mate, who provides a perfect contrast to McCartney’s misanthropism. Jenny’s dramatically vapid musings on which actors are “amazing” and which movies “changed her life” provide lovely, relatable moments of workplace hilarity (Plus she’s got a great rack). Then, there’s Ramon, a long time fan of Paul’s articles in Celebritality, and Paul’s only friend. Ramon–like Paul–is existentially unsure and can only prove his existence by sending Paul bizarre packages through the mail.
Even the minor characters are thick with meaty backstory. While visiting Computers in the Clouds, a panoptic internet cafe towering over downtown Norfolk, Paul is served by a waiter with a toe-thumb and a flair for over-sharing daddy issues. When a newspaper columnist discovers Paul’s big payoff after the untimely deaths of Amy Winehouse, Peter Falk, and the Macho Man Randy Savage, he invites himself into Paul’s home and is staunchly casual, despite Paul’s ramblings about psychic friendly-ghosts and the eyeball in the jar.
And the turkeys. Don’t forget the turkeys. In one of the most memorable passages of Paul is Dead, the narrator describes the mating ritual of a particularly virile male bird:
A fanning of the tail feathers then followed, accompanied by loud gobbling, before the turkey stamped its feet on the dirty floorboards and turned in circles as part of an erotic dance to attract females. What Paul found most fascinating was the way its head, snood and wattle changed colour so rapidly, displaying whites, blues, pinks and reds in quick succession. He felt slightly uncomfortable watching the sexual scene unfold at first, but he reminded himself that the animals didn’t share his embarrassment, and even if they did, the fact that he had been observed so often by the turkeys in the act of gratifying himself meant he’d earned the right to witness this sex show.
As demonstrated above, Moles’ ability to sync language at the sentence level with the subject matter of the text is another strength of this novella. Whether writing about the natural or lyrical world, the author is meticulous with words. Moles even describes McCartney’s irregular heartbeat as syncopated in 7/4 time–which, of course, matches the unusual time signatures of “All You Need is Love” and Pink Floyd’s “Money.”
While Paul is Dead may not ever rise to “Bigger than Jesus” status, Moles should be commended for accomplishing so much in such a small space. Each sentence is as packed as Shae Stadium 1965, the prose marches with a momentum as robust and unusual as our main character, and the absurd plot is a delightful distraction from the larger question at hand:
Money. Money. Money?
Love. Love. Love? -
Stephen Moles: The Schrödinger’s McCartney Experiment
Stephen Moles, The More You Reject Me, the Bigger I Get, Beard of Bees, 2015. download (pdf)
Editors write letters rejecting a book called The More You Reject Me, the Bigger I Get, and thus bring it into being because it is made up of their rejections of it. They also, in effect, reject their own writing.
Stephen Moles is the author of many uncategorisable works which are part of an effort to be the first dead author to inform himself in writing of his non-existence. He is also the founder of the Dark Meaning Research Institute.
Stephen Moles is the author of seven books, including Paul is Dead (CCLaP) and The More You Reject Me, the Bigger I Get (Beard of Bees), as well as many other shorter pieces. He regularly carries out undercover literary assignments aimed at both fighting the centralisation of meaning and bringing about the linguistic singularity for the benefit of society. Stephen is also the founder of the Dark Meaning Research Institute, a group of parasemantic investigators and quantum linguistics pioneers who are currently working on a way to blast him off the page and turn him into the world’s first zero-person author.