Melting Point by Baret Magarian

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Melting Point’ is an odd collection, to say the least. Though here, ‘odd’ isn’t to be taken as a negative, rather, what makes ‘Melting Point’ so strangely enjoyable is its oddities – it’s whispered moments of surrealism and shouted moments of the humorous absurd. Magarian is a lyrical author, who fuses and blends his prose in twists and turns of imagery and imagination. At times it’s a lot to stomach, you almost hanker for a simple sentence. But perhaps that’s the beauty of Magarian and ‘Melting Point’, in that, nothing about it is really all that simple.

The theme that threads itself through each piece is that of humanity – of life and all that it harbours. Yet whilst the theme is a constant, no two stories are the same, and the imagination from which Magarian unearths each piece is a joy. Nothing is quite what it seems and nothing is repeated, not at least, in a narrative sense, nor in genre. Sci-fi bleeds into surrealism which bleeds into drama which bleeds into the downright strange – you get the idea. The characters contrast, though there is the sense that all their lives are somehow connected by the bewilderment that is life.

Fourteen stories feature, and whilst I could harp on about each, the stands out of the collection examine the range of Magarian’s ideas. ‘The Watery Gowns’ sees the otherworldly make itself known. Kirsten is a diver – someone who only feels truly ‘complete, truly whole and peaceful’ in the ‘underwater chambers’ of the sea. The prose here is gorgeous.

‘Underwater everything was lighter, friction was robbed of its power to hurt, weight was dissipated. Maybe that was why she loved to dive…’.

It’s Magarian at his descriptive best. Kirsten decides to dive out to a local shipwreck alone where unexplained magic reveals itself to her. As she sets her hands passes her hands through a tear in the hull ‘she was engulfed in a reverberating sound […] she was deafened, stupefied.’ The power of the moment changes her, proven something to herself that she cannot know. It opens her up to something new, though just like Kristen, we’re never quite sure what, other than the sensation of placing her ‘hands inside a shipwreck.’ Magarian has the knack for capturing slices of unexplainable life where everything in you realises and recognises a change – what? We can’t always know. It’s a wonderful piece.

Elsewhere absurdity of some degree takes hold. ‘Clock’ and ‘The Ball’s visit both, the latter climaxing to a comical ending, though the reveal that leads to a ‘backdrop of blood and madness in the midst of dishes of spaghetti and polenta’ is quietly heart breaking. The protagonist Salvatore – a man who ‘touched his balls’ to ward of evil, learns that the child that has changed his life for the better isn’t actually his. Melancholic as it is, it also begs the question many of us face, and a situation many fall victim too – using another’s existence as reason to better yourself. What happens then, when you realise that the other is no property of yours?

Magarian questions life constantly, and never more in ‘The Rich and the Slaughtered’ and ‘Erasing the Waves’. The former is a dinner of the wealthy which ends in a reveal – ‘Lady Rathmere began scolding the waiter, telling him off for not giving the wine enough time to breathe’ What pettiness, what indulgence […] here we are seated amidst absurd levels of comfort and luxury […] and there, at the polar opposite, in scattered places throughout the world, a dark, dismal hell exists’. ‘What a blood-soaked mess is life. It’s all so unnecessary.’ Well, quite.

Erasing the Waves’ ponders similar musings of life. Two friends meet – one a journalist, another a famous Hollywood star. They go out to dinner and explore the vapidness of celebrity and what it means to be known. Though at times it appears elaborate for the sake of it, Aaron, the celebrity in question, offers worthy points of contest. He is stabbed and for whatever reason, it rejuvenates his career – ‘Maybe there was a connection between that night and the subsequent flowering of my career. Or maybe there wasn’t’. And that’s true of everything is it not? Is it all coincidence or was it meant to be? We can’t ever know. Again, the prose is lyrical, and again you almost wish Magarian would take pause for a moment. Although, maybe I don’t wish for that at all.

The final two pieces ‘The Fever’ and ‘The Opiate Eyes of the Buddha’ close ‘Melting Point’ out in fitting style, again presenting us with more questions than answers about life, though the latter tale offers more concrete conclusions than the other thirteen stories.

The Fever’ is a strange tale that takes its surroundings and turns them, well, into a sort of weird fever dream. Our protagonist is trusted with a package that he has to transport to Los Angeles. At first, it’s a mystery as to what lays inside, and whilst the reveal that the package is in fact a transcript falls somewhat flat at first, Magarian pulls it back when you realise the author has ‘the CIA and the FBI’ opening files on him. Suddenly, the transcript is more potent. Yet from then on the tale falls into a heady mix of dream and reality – ‘drenched mixture of unreality and mental depletion’ as our unnamed protagonist makes it to a motel. Bizarre moments occur, all resulting in the question that has been posed in different forms throughout the collection – ‘What was I doing with my life? What kind of life was it?’.

The Opiate Eyes of the Buddha’ pulls into a similar realm, though the bizarre is swapped for heady reality. Two English sisters – Katherine and Katja, are in Sri Lanka. One is decidedly more cynical about life than the other. They question the forces around them – ‘maybe it’s the legacy of the famous tsunami’ – but on the surface everything is smooth. Buddhism is thread in brief moments, a taxi driver for the sisters explaining ‘Buddhist they believe your actions in this life are deciding your next life, so we try to be good, try to be kind, so in next life we do not return in bad form’. It’s a known message; actions have consequences, and actions lead the sisters into a maelstrom a few pages later when a local mob/gang show up at their hotel on Christmas Eve and leave it bloody, to say the least. Katherine takes the lead to save them both, and then once again questions are begged – ‘How do you explain it? Divine intervention? Why were we spared?’. Yet the ending is more concrete and serves as a fitting moment to close out ‘Melting Point’. Many times has Magarian posed the unanswerable, but here Katherine makes a discovery. ‘She perceived in a grateful moment that she had been snatched perhaps from a life of perpetual questioning and wandering, there on that beach, on that arrival or departure point that the night had propelled them towards, two young women, stumbling, uncertain, but touched by beauty, and, finally, by grace’. The piece is one of the strongest in the collection, the prose passionate – the narrative once again authentic.

Magarian has a unique voice that makes ‘Melting Point’ so utterly readable. Expected the unexpected – and though at times I felt some pieces were clipped too short of a truly meaningful ending, ‘Clock’ and ‘The Visitation’ the only two I would truly ascribe that assessment to – overall the collection is authentic and imaginative. There is little chance you could predict where Magarian’s pieces might end up; a skill many writers I would hope would wish to possess.

Melting Point is published by Salt and is available here.

Baret Magarian

Baret Magarian is of Armenian extraction, from London, and lives in Florence. His creative writing career started at an early age when he found it convenient to make up school history essays rather than learn facts by rote; he is still quite lazy and creative. In London, he was a freelance journalist, published fiction in many magazines, wrote book reviews, features, and articles which have appeared in all the major British broadsheets.

Baret has interviewed such diverse figures as Peter Ustinov, the brilliant actor-director and raconteur, John Calder, iconoclastic publisher of eighteen Nobel prize winners, and Salman Rushdie, the celebrated novelist. He has worked as a lecturer, translator, fringe theatre director, actor and nude model. He is also a composer of piano music that is in the vein of Jarrett and Alkan and draws on the tonalities of Armenian music.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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