Finger : Knuckle : Palm
by Ariana Den Bleyker
LuicidPlay Publishing, May 15, 2014
It’s a thrill and a treat to read a writer who isn’t afraid of pushing their reader to the edge by testing their audience’s limits. Only by being stretched further than we think we can go do we experience new and original ideas/feelings. The writer in such an instance needs to take their reader out to a place where there are no stars, where they must rely only on the unique strength of their singular vision to try and light the way. Despite the presence of cited Biblical quotations which often remove the reader from the text, Ariana Den Bleyker’s New Wave Fabulist Novelette “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” (available from LucidPlay Publishing) is an original and edgy work. It allows the reader to experience a hypnotic journey into the depths of an anonymous consciousness through immersion, a bold sense of exploration, and a carefully constructed set of recurring images and opposing dualities.
“Finger: Knuckle: Palm” intricately creates an immersive world which makes the text become the thing it describes. Samuel Beckett said once that James Joyce’s “writing is not about something, it is that something itself.” In fact, the very best art achieves this distinction. The Christopher Nolan film “Memento” makes the viewer truly experience the memory loss from which the protagonist suffers. The audience does not simply observe his ailment because they also participate in it. Without making too audacious or lavish a comparison, “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” produces a very comparable effect. It cannot be consciously stated that this novelette is about a journey into the depths of the subconscious mind because reading “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” makes one feel that they are immersed in that journey themselves. Yet, because this work is something and is not about something, we do not have the usual expository paragraphs and explanatory dialogue to set things up, let us get our footing, and explain what is happening before it happens.
For these reasons Ms. Den Bleyker’s story might very well be a journey into the unconscious, or it could have several different natures altogether. There is a dictionary definition of “hypnosis” given at the story’s outset. This might hint that the story is set inside the head of someone being hypnotized, but such an observation is purely circumstantial.
The dialogue which makes up a vast majority of the story works in a similar way. At first glance it seems as if there is an outside voice asking probing questions during some kind of a guided meditation session, and the responses (which house most of the story’s action) belong to the person narrating. This could very well be the case, but since none of the dialogue is attributed definitively to a specific speaker (or speakers), a number of interpretations become possible. There could be one person guiding another through a hypnosis session. A single person could be having an inner dialogue as they sit quietly, lose consciousness, sleep or dream. Or, in more abstract and mystical terms there could be many disembodied voices guiding one consciousness towards a final epiphany in some outer realm. The basic fact is that here the reader is simply dropped into the story and swept along from the outset by Ms. Den Bleyker’s clear prose and strikingly surreal imagery. Because the words and events described in the story are so clear while time, identity and place are all so elusive, reading “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” feels a bit like having the rug torn out from under your feet, throwing you off your balance and causing you to fall down a deep tunnel for a distance you can’t estimate, towards a conclusion you cannot see, predict, or even imagine. This produces a very special sense of thrill and wonder that suitably compliments the inwards journey created by the text.
This is where the only fault in the work announces itself; Ms. Den Bleyker’s repeated use of cited Biblical quotes interrupts the flow of her novelette and momentarily removes the reader from the immersive quality of her prose. At the beginning of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” and at the end of each mini-chapter there appears a quotation from the Bible cited by section, chapter and verse. Admittedly, this practise does add a certain dimension to the story and in some cases compliments the text. One example occurs at the end of the chapter titled “Crawling” where the final sentence of the chapter reads “gasping for air, I throw myself against the boards again and again, slump willingly onto the floor.” This flows logically right into the Biblical quote that follows it, which reads “then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear-Job 11:15.” That said, the subconsciously surreal qualities of this work have already given it nearly infinite depth and meaning. It does not need another layer of depth added on. Furthermore, one of the biggest strengths of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” is its immersive qualities. The reader feels submerged and cut off from everything familiar as they tumble down through the story, not knowing where they may land or what they will encounter in this strange place. This is a very special sensation that should be cherished and nurtured. By interrupting the flow of this journey with quotes from the Bible (a very identifiable and easily contextualized text) the author wrenches the reader’s heads back above water before re-submerging them and forcing them to begin their downwards journey all over again. At this point the reader loses the full thrill of the accumulated awe they might experience if they had been allowed to fall uninterrupted to the story’s end.
The anonymity of the dialogue which comprises “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” gives Ms. Den Bleyker’s story its power. Who is speaking? How many speakers are there? One, two, more…? This creates the confusion and uncertainty needed to sustain a feeling of awe. That careful setup is thrown off balance by putting attributed quotes alongside the anonymous voices of the text. Perhaps this practise would have worked better if Ms. Den Bleyker had inserted religious quotes into her novelette without attributing them to their Biblical source. In such a case the quotes would mix in with the unattributed quotes already making up the story; probing questions, biblical wisdom and subconscious explorations would then all mix together into one mass of dream experience.
There is another criteria that the best art seems to follow: it doesn’t simply take the reader from point A to point B. Instead it adds a third step and goes well beyond B, to a place where all pretense falls away, nothing can be predicted and one’s mind becomes truly free and open to the endless possibilities of imagination. Most works of fiction stick to the journey from point A to point B, probably because it is just so comfortable. For fear of delving too far into analytic abstraction, giving some examples might help this claim. “Breaking Bad” took a mild mannered high school teacher and turned him into a ruthless drug kingpin (point A to point B). “The Hobbit” took a simple creature and brought him into maturity. Furthermore Bilbo moves from extreme safety to extreme danger and ultimately back to extreme safety (in this example the narrative moves from point A to point B and back to point A again). “Requiem for a Dream” carries three characters from a delicate existence to brutal obliteration. Macbeth begins The Scottish Play as a noble, honoured warrior and ends it as a hated villain. These works follow the A-B example, or sometimes the A-B-A example. They carry characters and places from sin to redemption, grace to tragedy, rags to riches and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this, but a higher level of art pushes the formula one step further.
In the case of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” we begin with a blank, peaceful slate. In its prologue and first section some kind of consciousness becomes aware of itself. During the prologue it “knows,” “sees,” “smells,” and “feels,” nothing. It is told to start from the “beginning.” During the first section subtitled “Digging,” the consciousness comes awake in a clearing at dusk. It holds a shovel and is told by a raspy voice to “start digging.” This very much feels like a beginning. We go on and encounter various events that seem like complications (a gruesome and literal or metaphorical scene where the narrator cuts off both its hands, for example). Finally the reader arrives at a scene which very much feels like an ending. After two thousand words, in a section titled “Licking the Flames,” the consciousness passes into “another realm.” In this place it is hot, there’s “a smell of metal on metal, a burning, though not like fire, not like brimstone.” Fear and a deep voice fill this realm. The narrator says this feels like hell, although it is not (once again, a definitive sense of time and place proves elusive). The consciousness embraces its fear and floats. It is touched by flames and a thousand thorns until its eyes melt over its face.
Traveling via shovel from a clearing in the woods to this subterranean realm of suffering and transformation feels like a complete journey, one that could make a perfectly fine short story if the narrative simply ended there. It could be a cerebral and personal spin on Dante’s trip into the inferno. But here the reader might glance at the rest of the novelette only to realize that they are approximately twenty percent finished “Finger: Knuckle: Palm.” Where could things possible go from here? Where could Ms. Den Bleyker take us where it won’t feel like she’s pointlessly backtracking to middle grounds between the clearing and the inferno?
Thankfully, like Dante Alighieri who took his “Divine Comedy” past the final level of hell and into the fantastic reaches beyond it, Ms. Den Bleyker becomes one of the few writers who are willing to go past a simple two step general plot. She takes her piece from point A to point B and goes one step further, into the stratosphere of imagination beyond that. When readers come out of the “Licking the Flames” section of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm,” they should get a distinct feeling of “alright, strap in, we’re heading into the true unknown.”
And like the star gate sequence of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this is exactly where the story goes. “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” proceeds to hurtle through vividly surreal mini-chapters, each with a distinct atmosphere, a vivid setting and grotesque symbols (“there’s blood pouring out from between my thighs. I reach between them with my hands. A cold hand reaches back”). This reviewer feels an intense urge to break down and discuss each brilliant setting, but giving in to such an urge would make this review absurdly long. In lieu of such analysis, let it be said that while the central consciousness of the story progresses through these settings, guided by outside questions, a mysterious dark figure emerges who seems to be following the protagonist.
What Ms. Den Bleyker does so well here is that she keeps the reader from getting lost in her maze of dream logic. Too many surreal or avant-garde authors do not provide the reader with an arc that drives them forward and encourages them to continue reading. As the story of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” goes on, more and more connections become apparent between the protagonist’s consciousness and the recurring dark figure. As a result, their paths begin converging in a V shape, as opposed to running on parallel roads that never meet or lead to a climax. The anticipation of reaching that point of convergence (where the reader may discover more about the connection between the dark figure and the protagonist) propels one to read on.
For example, in the “Crossroads” chapter the dark figure appears in the back of the protagonist’s car, indicating a distance between them as the figure pursues the main consciousness. Later, in the “Aphrodite Rising” section, the protagonist mentions that its breath is becoming raspier. This is quite reminiscent of the story’s start, where the external voice that urges the protagonist to begin digging is characterized as “raspy.” This indicates that some connection might exist between the protagonist and the dark figure. Further on, the dark figure engages the narrator in a non-consensual sex act in the “Forceful Union” chapter. This latter scene appears to be a brutal rape, as the protagonist’s nose breaks and it gains bruises on its skin, but our reaction to this is thrown off balance when the narrator notes how its own body shakes “with a pleasure that shouldn’t exist” and how its lips eventually emit a sigh with no protest in it, acknowledging the pleasure it feels. In fact, the “Crawling” chapter contains a scene where the dark figure forces the protagonist to their knees and they both “look into each other’s eyes lovingly.” This even and constantly teetering balance between pleasure and pain and love and fear keeps the reader guessing. This prolongs the feeling of suspended uncertainty created at the beginning of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” which allows the reader to tumble without friction down the fictional rabbit hole created by Ms. Den Bleyker. Each of these images also hint more and more that a special connection exists between these two “characters.” With the paths of the narrator and the dark figure getting closer and closer together, Ms. Den Bleyker sets up a thrilling climax at which the reader cannot wait to arrive.
For fear of creating a horrible spoiler, this review will refrain from describing, analyzing and talking in depth about the climax that occurs when the paths of the dark figure and the central consciousness converge. Suffice it to say that a tense and physical confrontation ensues during which defining lines become blurred in a way that can only happen when two paths/spirits/minds totally collide.
At a certain point trying to get a lock on what this story definitely means becomes pointless. This is a novelette of dualities. Strong physical interactions occur within the highly cerebral/ethereal context of the text. Acts of pain or villainy are interpreted as pleasure/joy and vice versa. Like a tennis ball bouncing eternally between two well established players, the reader is never allowed to fall totally on one side of the net. This is also a highly surreal novelette. Symbols and situations constantly appear and dissolve before reappearing and reforming into new meanings in a very fluid way. Specifically, the image of a “hand” appears over one hundred times after the narrator describes gruesomely severing their own hands near the beginning of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm.” Such an emphasis on hands could indicate how someone might feel their way through the dark when eyesight has failed them, as the protagonist may be metaphorically doing if they are engaged in a hypnosis session, a guided meditation, or if they are just a disembodied consciousness. In such a case a loss of hands may indicate total blindness and confusion. Or, the way that hands constantly reappear after they have been severed could represent the inability to escape a distasteful aspect of oneself or one’s past.
Again, the possibilities are many and any attempt to pin this story down becomes pointless; “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” is a New Wave Fabulist Novelette that really needs to be experienced rather than analyzed. Despite minor quibbles with how the included Biblical quotes pull the reader out of the text, Ariana Den Bleyker’s churning surreal imagery, her immersive world, her fearless sense of exploration, and her carefully constructed dualities ensure that this novelette is a trip worth taking. This reviewer’s advice for getting the most out of “Finger: Knuckle: Palm” from LucidPlay Publishing is this: let go. Enjoy Ms. Bleyker’s beautifully formed sentences. Appropriate them into your natural breaths and heartbeats. Unhook your mind from the urge to obsess and understand every detail. Remember what sticks and let the warm waves of her prose wash over you. Take the probing questions in the text as diving bell kind of moments where one might pause and reflect before swimming further into the story. Let the waters of the novelette carry you organically towards the dreamy climax of convergence naturally and patiently lying in wait for you, past the end, one step further, in the stratosphere of imagination beyond.
About the Author
Paul Edward Costa has published poetry and fiction in “Yesteryear Fiction,” “Timber,” as well as in the York University college magazines “MacMedia” and “The Flying Walrus.” He also has work forthcoming in “Thrice Fiction.” At York University Paul earned a Specialized Honours BA in History and a BA in Education. He currently lives in Mississauga, Canada, where he teaches high school with the Peel District School Board.