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The Book of LiverpoolReview - The Book of Liverpool
A City in Short Fiction
by Eleanor Rees and Maria Crossan (Editors)
Comma Press, 2007
Review by Robert Cheeks
Apr 7th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 15)

I chose to read and review The Book of Liverpool simply because the city in question, Liverpool (Great Britain), shares in part the same name as my hometown, East Liverpool, Ohio.  It was something of a pleasant surprise, having chosen the book for reasons that may be construed as less than pragmatic, to discover that I'd stumbled upon a literary gem that will share a niche in my library with M.R. James, E. F. Benson and a cadre of Anglicans who made it their business to pursue the nexus between immanence and transcendence in a world experiencing the upheaval of an ideologically driven anti-doctrinal revolt.

Eleanor Rees, one of the editors, in her introductory remarks indicates that the city reveals itself as "still haunted by ghosts," which is part, and only part, of the what these ten authors present in their mythologies.  More importantly, I think, what they express in their stories is the conscious or unconscious need to explore the concept of "place" as it pertains to the drama of man's existence. In this instance the "place," at least in its mundane interpretation, is the sundry environs of the city itself.

Partially destroyed by German bombing raids during the war, the city was rebuilt by meliorist mayors and town councils in an mimetic effort to follow their American cousins into the cultural sterility that is always the bitter fruit of progressivism. That which the Nazi's, bureaucrats, and politicians took from these authors they seek to reclaim, in an effort to avoid the horror of T. S. Eliot's "heap of broken images" portrayed so vividly in his The Waste Land.

The relationship of "place" and existential consciousness is one of a ground in the continuing tension of existence. "Place" exists in a duality that serves as a respite in the ongoing movement from mortality to immortality and as a repository, where the mythopoetic imagery of existence and the afterlife find shelter. It is the existential expression of what "was," experienced as an ideal, and what is hoped for in the experience of reality. "Place" then serves as an anchor in the drama of humanity, as a redoubt against the pathological efforts to discredit the traditional myths without which man is cast into a "spiritually disoriented mode of existence," and is forever lost.

Frank Cottrell Boyce's story, Permanent Granite Sunrise, perfectly and sympathetically captures the phenomenon of place in its relationship to being. The protagonist, one Ronald Brady, is an apprentice to master bricklayer Tony Backland, and together they work in the construction of a cathedral that is to be a grand, Gothic, monument, not to some saint, but rather to the Son of Man.

The cathedral symbolizes the "place" that nourishes, strengthens, and shelters being in its tensional existence within reality. Except this "place" was special in the world of "places," for the cathedral symbolized the possibility of a consubstantiality, of a metaleptic communion of man and God, and consequently exists not so much in the mundane world as in the moment best described as the intersection of time and the timeless.

Soon, however, the war erupted and the men, including Mr. Tony Backland, volunteered. By 1942 Ronald, too young for service, is the last workman daily toiling among his bricks and mortar, and seeing to the work begun by his master bricklayer. Tony never came home from the war. Ronald managed to finish the crypt and it was roofed but then, sometime after the war and with money in short supply, the diocese decided to halt construction of  the "old" cathedral and replace it with one made of concrete, steel, and glass; in other words construct an architectural abomination that accurately symbolized the derailed dogmatism that had captured the church.

Throughout the ensuing years Ronald finds himself driven by the idea that he had "something to do," a something that on occasion he remembered "was to build a cathedral." He eventually entered into employment as a tour guide at the new cathedral

spending much of the tour with disinterested tourist in the old crypt he and Tony had built and when he did venture into the new part of the cathedral he spent his time telling them "what was supposed to be there," much to the consternation of his employers.

When the Provost took him aside to explain that the tourist came "...to see something that is here, not something that isn't," Ronald replied honestly that, "The thing that isn't is the point of my life."

The story reaches denouement when one day a young man among the throng of tourist, shows a decided interest in Ronald's lecture and stays on after the others leave. He reveals himself to be the son of the Master bricklayer who met his demise on the beaches of Normandy. Ronald takes the young man downstairs into the crypt to show him his father's work; his arches, the walls, the groins that "his dad had built, (he) described the quickness of his hand and the accuracy of his eye."

"He made his mark alright. He made this. And he made you." Ronald says, quickly explaining how the old cathedral was to be built: its columns, cupola, narthex, altars, and dome.

"He just kept talking," Frank Boyce writes, "and as he talked he had a sense of shedding, of losing something, of finishing something. And suddenly in the big man's eyes he saw the cathedral was there, where it was meant to be -vast and weightless, taking up the space where something else should have been. A cathedral invisible to all the busy, fleshy lives because it was built of air-the appropriate material for anyone and everyone who had lost someone, something, sometime. A cathedral  that was rising as he spoke into the empty space left behind by every loss, rising like a permanent sunrise."

Mr. Boyce is pointing to the concept of "place" as an active element in the "sensorium" of consciousness, a doorway that connects the reality and non-reality of human existence and provides the opportunity to recover that tension in a world reduced to doctrinaire existence and propositional metaphysics. His contribution stands as a singular literary achievement.

All of the stories offered in this unique collection are established on the ground of "place," and alert the constant reader to that which has been lost in the inexorable march of "progress" and time. From Tracy Austin's sympathetically written Wide-Eyed, where we find a heroine of the first order in her "Gran," a sagacious ancient determined to restore her corner of the human community to its rightful order, to James Friel's Something You Don't Have to Deserve, a plangent cantos to love experienced ex post facto we find a collection of stories, rightly called myths, that set aside the ideology of the moderns for an excursion into the experience of reality, acknowledging the wisdom  of T. S. Eliot's refrain in his Little Gidding,

                              We shall not cease from exploration

                              And the end of all our exploring

                              Will be to arrive where we started

                              And know the place for the first time.

                              

© 2009 Robert C. Cheeks

Robert Cheeks is a freelance writer living in Ohio. His recent work has appeared in Philosophy Now, The University Bookman, Crisis, Touchstone, and The South Carolina Review.


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