To Record and Be Recorded

Ruby Cowling, This Paradise

Boiler House Press, 223pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781911343554

reviewed by Jon Doyle

A dinner party. Sarah is an artist going through an obsessive if unprofitable fixation on the larval and pupal stages of moths. Ray is a fellow guest invited by optimistic match-making friends. Satisfied with her self-imposed middle-aged solitude, Sarah is mildly alarmed by the situation, though finds Ray genuinely curious about her work. More surprisingly, she finds herself interested in his computing job, where he works on something termed persistence. ‘A quality your data gains when you tell the machine to save,’ he explains. ‘That is, make a record, until which point it doesn’t exist.’

So goes the disarmingly pleasant encounter central to ‘Mating Week’, a story from the midway point of Ruby Cowling’s debut collection, This Paradise. Sarah’s made peace with her artistic isolation, just her and her Lunar moths and unsaleable paintings, enjoying the freedom of subverting expectation in favour of invisible eccentricity. But something about her encounter with Ray pulls at a thread within this logic, some inevitable force in human interaction that sees her self-built identity slowly unravel through no choice of her own. ‘What if,’ she wonders, ‘just by meeting someone, you’ve left a record of yourself on their mind, so now you exist whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing you can do about it?’

This idea runs through most of Cowling’s semi-speculative stories, exploring how technology, politics and other people both instigate and influence the persistence of one’s identity. ‘Edith Aleksander, b. 1929’ finds its eponymous character shaped by the violence of her history, to the degree that dancing with her grandchildren is inseparable from being made to dance for the Kommandant as a teenager in 1942. ‘I would have loved to have had wings,’ she declares, seeking an escape from the memories that form her. ‘I could have soared […] Wings would have excused me from having to be present in the world.’

Written in a distinctive two column style, ‘The Two-Body Problem’ presents twin sisters as a single consciousness split into two. Though Esther and Stella grow apart, become individuals of contrasting character, they find themselves drifting back together in moments of need. It is as though the sisters are external hard drives for one another, sources to which each can return when lost to remember the essence of their true selves. ‘Some force holds us, balances us, makes us one,’ Stella explains. ‘Our own private source of us.’ When separated for too long, the protagonists drift toward a nothingness. As Esther puts it, ‘Things starts to feel urgent, as if they’re closing in.’ Without their respective sisters in the world, without the back-up with which they can reset and reboot, the women find their identities slowly disintegrating. Because, in This Paradise, to survive is to transfer data, to record and be recorded.

Just as Sarah has no control over the manner in which she becomes ‘saved’ by her encounter with Ray in ‘Mating Week’, another experimental story ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’ highlights that fact that we can’t assume we are recorded correctly. Our nuances may be flattened into simplified or plain incorrect versions, our true selves lost in transcription. The story follows two protagonists in London in the wake of a Tōhoku-esque earthquake in Japan – Yukako, a Japanese news presenter reporting on offensive remarks made by a UK politician’s wife in the wake of the tragedy, and the wife herself, Susan, who amid the media storm is rebelling against her husband’s support of a new nuclear energy deal. ‘I would emphasise that the meaning given to my words after the event was not in any way the meaning I intended,’ Susan tells a press conference. ‘In fact, it was quite the opposite.’

Another example of Cowling’s ambitious use of text on the page, the main narrative is supported by a variety of supplementary notes, from text messages between Susan and her husband to news scripts read by Yukako from the scene, as well as tweets from both her professional and personal accounts. The additional text presents different versions of the women, their characters as recorded in cyberspace. ‘Some days this world feels very very very big,’ tweets Yukako on her personal account moments, just after sharing cold statistics on her professional page. The vulnerability Yukako shows here is at odds with the objective and clearly spoken on-air persona, just as Susan’s idealistic character clashes with the image of callous privilege that is being projected by the news. ‘There are subtleties that aren’t worth explaining to the press,’ Susan explains to her daughter after being challenged over her portrayal. ‘They’ll just make it up anyway.’ Although on opposite ends of the media focus, both women are projected as reductive facsimiles, characters at odds with the people we come to know through the story. In their inability to reclaim their nuanced selves, Cowling uses her protagonists to suggest that these images not only compete with the real but defeat it. To return to the idea of persistence – that is, characteristics that outlive the process that created them – existence is not supported by the recorded form in the digital age but supplanted. The simulacrum coming to replace the genuine.

The vague awareness of this haunts the collection, creating a subconscious fight between excitement and dread as each character wrestles with giving in and fighting back. Nowhere is the tension clearer than in ‘Biophile’, narrated by an online casino game designer who inadvertently becomes addicted to the games of a rival company when researching their products (‘We had to admire PlayHouse: their games owned you’). Her family are concerned she is withdrawing into the digital world, yet the more time she spends immersed in the bright lights and cartoonish charm of her games, the more she desires to return the corporeal basics, imagining herself buried alive and gradually returning to the soil in an ecstatic organic exchange. Having perfected the slick, superficial generation of digital life only to find it empty, she desires something more physical, more tactile, more disgusting and strange, even if that means being slowly devoured by microorganisms so that her life force might nourish some other part of the ecosystem.

With its hyperreal feel, ‘Biophile’ is indicative of Cowling’s style, presenting worlds uncomfortably familiar if not quite our own. Some stories perform the telescoping from normal to strange within only a few pages, like ‘Eliminate Toxins and Increase Blood Flow’ which starts with a kind of sitcom irreverence and grows abruptly horrifying before settling back into a near-realistic groove. The climate breakdown of the title story feels speculative but only in a temporary sense, a snapshot of some inevitable point in the not-so-distant future brought forward in warning. Taking the bizarre cruelty of austerity and cranking the dial a few more notches, ‘Flamingo Land’ performs a similar trick, presenting a world governed by a kind of ideological penance – where suffering is required for health and prosperity. Marrying the twin obsessions of public wellness and finances, families are given benefits according to their own physical condition, the money they receive inversely correlated to their collective BMI. Cue crash diets, self-starvation, voluntary organ removal. Here, self-worth is governed by state-captured data, the recorded versions of ourselves as we appear on government records.

With a mother incapacitated by the removal of semi-vital organs and a father bewildered by the entire situation, teenage narrator Tom is left to steer the family through the DWP’s Assessment and avoid the dreaded Special Arrangements, which would see them rehoused separately. Failing to comply with the arbitrary benchmark despite their absurd efforts, Tom is forced to cook the numbers, though the ploy is found out and their pay is cut. Unable to commit to the ascetic no-snacking lifestyle, the sister Beth thinks everyone blames her for the family’s continued poverty. She says that everyone wishes she were dead. ‘It killed me that she had so many friends,’ Tom says, ‘attracted all that love for being who she was, while we all silently punished her for the same reason.’ She eats not because she can’t stop, but because she won’t stop, won’t betray herself in pursuit of some generic ideal just because some government agency has her head over the barrel. ‘Maybe she sat in the telly room and ate,’ the narrator continues, ‘but it wasn’t laziness, I suddenly realised, it was an act of giant rebel energy.’

Far from the dramatic overcorrection of ‘Biophile’, the form of protest presented in ‘Flamingo Land’ is modest and mundane, a perseverance of human nuance in the face of the generalising force of wider systems. It is living in spite of, in opposition to, the flattening ubiquity of statistics and data. ‘You know what?’ Tom says, eventually joining his sister in her act of rebellion. ‘I don’t care, because no-one, not even the people with the power, can force things to be exactly the way they want them to be—not always, maybe not ever. With This Paradise, Ruby Cowling offers a call-to-arms, an urgent encouragement to breathe complexity back into a human experience made simple. We will be recorded, we will be flattened and reduced. But we can record too.

Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. His writing has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Cardiff Review and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames.