Pictures of You: Ten Journeys In Time is a unique collection of ekphrastic stories. Each tale responds to a photograph from the 20th century, each photograph taken in a different decade. While Pictures of You undeniably probes the themes of impermanence, transience, memory and legend with a deft hand, at times Rory MacLean’s desire to experiment outweighs the narrative, meaning not all of the stories hit their mark emotionally. Having said that, Pictures of You is certainly a distinct and interesting approach to engaging with history: blending imagination with fact, the concrete details of a photograph with what we feel or sense is implied in the picture.
Structurally, this collection has been expertly pieced together. The introduction eases us into the premise: we discover how the collection came about with the author’s enigmatic receipt of a key to four million amateur photographs, as well as some interesting reflections on how photography has changed the documentation of history: ‘Then with the first shutter’s snap, forever had ceased to be the preserve of the elite’ (p.11). From then on the stories are interwoven not only with the photographs but also conjunctive passages from the author reflecting on his efforts in the archive, his trips to learn the history of the real places in the photographs, the meaning behind it all. These discourses remove the stop-and-start syndrome most collections suffer from, effortlessly ushering us from one tale into the next. Though, it must be said, at times I felt like Rory MacLean was straining for meaning, and indeed, revelling in the meaningfulness of his own work: ‘I didn’t want to cool their stories in fiction, giving them grand Hollywood finales – boy meets girl, triumphs over evil, lives happily ever after by the sea in Brittany – but I did want their common actions to have, in the black-and-white reality of the archive, a last, enduring moment of imagined significance’ (p.124-125). Perhaps it would have been better for a second writer to have penned the reflections on the stories to avoid this conflict of interests.
The stories themselves are, for the most part, well crafted. Rory MacLean taps into a range of voices from a shy concubine in the eponymous ‘Pictures of You’ to a Communist executioner in ‘A Sense of Duty’. By far the most powerful stories in the collection are ‘My Brother Mongo’ and ‘Spirit in the Wind’, both of which unashamedly explore deep spiritual themes. ‘My Brother Mongo’ enters mythic realms, exploring the delicate balance between rationality and religion with a breathtakingly convincing narrative voice. The imagery is dreamlike and hypnogogic, from the eerie gods envisioned by Mongo and his mother, to the surrealism of characters like Miss Kareyce; the culture of the small town Bamileke in which ‘the dead are not dead, but live on in the hearts of the bereaved’ (p.44) is so vividly conjured it is as though the author was really there in 1987. Perhaps one of the key strengths of the story is that it is equal parts imagination and research; the culmination of the tale is undoubtedly supernatural, and yet, within the mysticism of the past and the context of an entirely different religion of ‘the earth spider’ (p.31), this feels utterly plausible.
‘Spirit in the Wind’ is perhaps the most satisfying story in this collection in terms of its narrative journey and the catharsis we experience at the end of the tale: re-imagining the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1970 as an act of profound spiritual rebellion culminating in a terrible sacrifice. Again, Rory MacLean nails the voice of the Ohlone reporter who goes over to the island to write about the occupation, as well as that of Pop, the caretaker who still lives on the isle long after its closure. The imagery is lethally precise, the kind of pin-point prose you might expect of William Gibson: ‘In the ghostly darkness savage, scalloped sheets of rain beat against the island’ (p.61). The power of the writing effortlessly evokes the supernatural undercurrent, which is, at once, an exciting crux of the narrative and its conclusion as well as an insight both into the myths of Alcatraz, which has long been thought haunted, and Native American belief. Is, perhaps, the ferocity of the elements’ attack on the isle metaphorical of the way in which the Native American people have been persecuted by the American, or is it spiritually symbolic of ancestral wrath, a failure? ‘We were at war’ (p.49). These intriguing questions are raised and, if not answered, explored to a satisfying degree.
Other stories in the collection do not have such emotional and intellectual impact. Though it is only natural in any collected work we should prefer some stories/pieces over others, I cannot help but think the problem is not so much to do with personal preference but Rory MacLean’s excessive experimentation. For example, in ‘Record of Game Felled’, the story is written like a series of entries in a journal, recording the numbers of animals felled by hunters. This is overlaid with narrative of the outbreak of World War I. The only problem is that the journal entries never really go much beyond recording animals shot, and so we don’t get a sense of character or the human cost. Perhaps the numbers of ‘game felled’ are symbolic of the soldiers killed, but if so, it is a poor euphemism given the millions slaughtered in during the early stages of the conflict. In addition, it is difficult to know what the message or intent of the story is; Marcel and the narrator hunt, the war breaks out and Marcel goes to war, the war ends, Marcel lives through it. Where is the narrative arc for either our journal-writer or his friend Marcel?
Arguably, narrative arc is not the point of any of these stories. They are, after all, purportedly ‘real’ – though Rory MaxLean brilliantly observes that were he writing ‘fiction’ his obligation to the real would be even greater. G. K. Chesterton once observed ‘The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible’ and that is certainly, beautifully the case with many of these stories. Yet, we are told in the final author note: ‘Here are ten photographs, ten lives; remember them’ (p.178), a kind of existential command that absolves the stories of requiring a beginning, middle, end. This, at least to me, is unsatisfying. Stories work because of structure, not despite it. Ultimately, we do not care about people or places purely because they exist or existed once. A snapshot is not enough, and a short story is not a photograph however vivid its imagery. We need to identify with the people in these stories, even if that is identification via our sheer fascinated repulsion; that which is alien can also, paradoxically, be a means of identification, as MacLean so brilliantly demonstrates in ‘A Sense of Duty’, where the protagonist Vasili Ilych shows us depraved human depths coupled with the truly pathetic, and this draws us into the narrative in a compelling way. There is so much to be admired in Pictures of You: character, depth, insight but there are frustrating elements too. The final story, ‘I Am’, is from the perspective of a Siberian forest, and while its ecological message is welcome, if oppressively obvious, it once again suffers from a lack of a point or narrative. It has tons of atmosphere, but no real sense of purpose.
Pictures of You is bold and ambitious, certainly to be admired. It is, without a doubt, one of the most striking ekphrastic works I have ever read, though not successful at all times. I would certainly recommend this collection to anyone who has an interest in history, religion, the politics of the war, photography and in broader, more prosaic terms: art, the synthesis of visual and written elements, graphics. If you are looking for powerful stories, Pictures of You certainly has them, but just don’t expect every story to entirely satisfy.
Rory MacLean is one of Britain’s most expressive and adventurous travel writers. His twelve books, including UK best-sellers ‘Stalin’s Nose’ and ‘Under the Dragon’ and most recently ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’ (a Washington Post Book of the Year), have challenged and invigorated creative non-fiction writing, and – according to the late John Fowles – are among works that ‘marvellously explain why literature still lives’. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He has written and presented over 50 BBC radio programmes and worked on movies with Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Rory divides his time between Berlin, London and Dorset.
Pictures of You: Ten Journeys in Time was published by Bone Idle Books on 28th February 2017.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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