Twelve Collections and The Teashop by Zoran Živković

Reviewed by Lara Buckerton

Twelve Collections and the Teashop cover

People keep the freakiest stuff. For Rune Tapper, it's barf bags. Nothing else will do. This other man, Graham Barker—he's my go-to guy for belly lint. Me, I collect aid flows to the developing world. I intercept them and organise them first by recipient (I have over a hundred capital transfers originally intended for Ghana) then by donor, then by type (tied, untied, debt relief—which everyone tells me shouldn't count towards my collection at all, but screw em). It's harmless.

None of the characters in Živković's Twelve Collections collect barf bags or controversial lint (or aid). Some hoard the equally freaky—fingernails, deaths—but none of them attain Tapper's or Barker's micro-celeb status. Živković's not really bothered with the half-assed enthusiasm of a cresting fad, or even with the evolution of enduring subcultures of enthusiasm. This is probably because even minor public eminence is likely to distract from what Živković really is interested in: the deep moral and political dynamics of Collecting Stuff.

Collections are harmless, right? It's one of their conspicuous virtues—we come and peer into the collector's murky world, fail to understand it, tut and shake our heads, but ultimately we approve of it, as a kind of monument honouring—not exactly the Unknown Oddball himself—but the social tolerance which allows him to thrive. But what if collections aren't evidence of liberalism and diversity at all, but of a levelling, decontextualising waste? What if collections don't have a special life of their own, but a special death of their own?

If these sound like ostentatious questions, they're balanced by the spare and graceful way in which Zivkovic investigates them. The tales are quite slight—sixish pages, usually—and very moreish. There's something a bit mannered about Zivkovic's prose (an effect of translation perhaps?)—"stay there, all the way till lunch time," "avoided by a hair"—but chaste and clunky is a fitting style for the quietly comic, fantastika material. Fiction which relies on keeping its readers' interpretative machinery switched on will hardly want to hypnotise them with rhetorical pyrotechnics. The time is everywhen, the place is everywhere—or at least everywhere blandly Euro—and the protagonists are all pumped full of Everyman jelly. Stylistically, faux naivety is your only man.

Nor will such fiction really need to rock out plot-wise. There are thick traces, in almost every tale, of a pair of generic devices so distinguished that you might almost call them clichés—Science fiction's "aah-aah-creation-turned-against-its-maker" is one, fantasy fiction's "ooh-ooh-pact-with-the-devil" the other. The reader of Tweve Collections is still entranced and tickled by a stream of incident, but her excitations generally derive from a world of nuance. As the formulae become increasingly familiar (the collectors of tangibles are collected by their collections, anybody who hands over an intangible tends to feel ominious regret), more significance attaches to the little stuff—the manner, the mood, the colour, the detail—and to the cobweb of connections unfolding underneath the tales.

And the idea is, you can only put up with so much skin, and bulge of sneaky offal, before you must rip all it up to see how things connect beneath the surface. Michael Moorcock explores this sort of depth-hermeneutic, fabulist, belle lettrist tradition in his name-dropping (but really sharp) intro. It is perhaps best saved until after the fiction. When the twist is not a localised veer from expectations, but a gentle, pervasive twistedness in representation—a twist of tale, not tail—almost any commentary can start to seem spoilerish. (The same might be said for the rest of this review, so now's the time to do your soul-searching about that).

So, it's common to think that this kind of fiction "invites interpretation." That, supposedly, is its beauty—that you can read so many things into it! Moorcock, for example, thinks that "the number of the tram they board, the name of the street they enter, the sell-by date on the food they buy is never revealed to us. This can be irritating to the Anglophone reader, if the writer is not very good. But in the hands of a fine writer, like Živković, the technique is used to superb effect. Far from obscuring meaning it offers many meanings" (p. xiii). (Compare, if you like, the carefully-vague RPG Lacuna, Part I).

Park benches, paper, cake shops, meh!—you seem to say—give me arsenic-green Primal Truth and its geosynchronous orbital treasuries of Moral Profundities!

The only problem with this is that the supposed plurality of meanings risks becoming the only permitted meaning. The tales risk having But One True Interpretation, which is the sentence, "there are so many ways to interpret them!" The drift into universality can also be the drift into irrelevance and cod profundity. There's nothing terribly wrong with being constantly titillated by interpretative possibilities, without ever developing any of them. It's just ... a bit of a waste. And Twelve Collections is very interested in things being a bit of a waste.

There's another story in the book, by the way—"The Teashop"—which forms a kind of coda or bonus track. A "novelette" according to the blurb, it's not many more than twenty pages. It forms a kind of, oh, a kind of iterative anthology of melodramas, I guess you'd call it. Taken on its own, it's either very exciting or a bit tedious, I can't make up my mind. (Can you get "bittersweet excitement"?) Should it be taken on its own, though? The book is a kind of collection itself. What's the status, in this collection, of "The Teashop" and Moorcock's intro? Are they trespassers, gatecrashers, misclassified? Are they glass cabinet, edifying sticker? Or are they—"Technically the banana is actually a berry—those surprising additions which only an expert collector would know to look for?

Twelve Collections has already been given an interpretive strip-search: it's been made into a TV series (which I haven't seen), a conversion which is likely to force some hard interpretive choices. Let's give it something more of an interpretive sponge-bath.

The lives that spill out over its pages seem to be saturated with moral mistakes big and small. Živković's collectors fall into two groups—befuddled jobsworths, who collect tangibles (fingernails, photographs) and coercive delegates of supernature, who collect intangibles (deaths, days). The other main kind of character is someone who has something collected from him.

The collectors of intangibles are indistinct figures. They have a faint jubbly flamboyance about them, just visible across a mist-filled distance. Their cajoling is equivocal, in accordance with pact-with-the-devil etiquette, their clarity phony. They speak forked-tongue-in-cheek, but with a kind of briskness belying their contempt. "He quickly took a matching handkerchief out of the bathrobe pocket and wiped my face. Then he went back to the desk, put the glass down, walked to the other side and sat in the chair. His head dipped below the top of the chair back. He inverted the hourglass. The sand in the upper chamber started to seep into the lower chamber" (p. 73). Most are suggestive of the jaded connoisseur, hungering and discriminating from the shadows. One or two give the sense of being the procurement element of a larger malevolent or amoral organisation.

Sometimes a character's mistake is merely that he resists too little, or too much, the hunger of such a figure. The Blasphemous Bargain situation has some things in common with another—First Contact, which Živković wrote his Master's thesis about. Whether it's tentacles or brimstone, encounters with the awesome Other are freighted with unusually high risk and reward, and any data there to assist the chump in his decisions are sparse and often toxic. (The way Živković seems to search for the bare bones of such situations reminds me of William Gibson's 1981 story "Hinterlands," a brilliantly succinct contribution to the myth). My sense with Twelve Collections' Blasphemous Bargain/First Contact stuff is that everyone finding himself in such a set-up makes pretty much completely the wrong decision.

"Tangible" and "intangible" are Živković (and/or his translator's) terms, but he seems to have chosen his examples precisely to make problems for his categories. How tangible is an e-mail? An autograph? Is a story tangible? Tale no. 7, "Stories," can be read as a struggle between two collections—the otherworldly collection and the writer's oeuvre—to claim a single item. This struggle is partly a struggle over how tangible (or in what ways) this item should be. And it feels connected with another item that doesn't quite fit into its set—"The Teashop" is also preoccupied with stories.

Maybe it's this desire for categories of thought that are too ordered, too tidy, which leads so many of Twelve Collections's characters into so much morally ambiguous activity. They tend to trust the categories the intangibles collectors hand them: the things that are valuable, and the things that aren't.

The tangibles collectors are not beyond censure in this respect. These men are technocrats, not geeks. They are certainly capable of evil, the kind the political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes as "banal." (As the poet Kevin Nolan puts it, "Suppose we boil him?" (Loving Little Orlick, Barque 2006, p. 76). Sure, it's wrong to shoot the messenger, but suppose we just peeeeel her?).

As it happens though, few of Zivkovic's collectors have any big effect on the people around them. Rather, their main mistake seems to be petty, relentless waste. There's obviously something missing from these men's lives. So what is it? Moorcock helpfully sketches a background of post-Soviet influence. Perhaps what these haughty losers lack are the lulz, perhaps what they forget are the highly-evolved virtues of modern Capitalist Man. They should be putting themselves out there yo. They should be courting risk, exercising existing freedoms, inventing new ones and fighting for them. They should be stylising and restylising themselves, exploring different identities, different appetites, different appetitive communities. They should be getting in one another's faces. One collector buys himself a camera, but only ever takes one kind of picture (himself, looking dignified, grave and cordial). One subscribes to scientific journals, but is unable to learn anything that could force him to rethink a few fundamentals. Their common fault is their pathological inability to consume commodities properly. One begins to like love poems, but soon breaks them down into individual words.

The men whose dreams, days, deaths, hopes and so on are added to eldritch collections are the flip side of the coin: the tangibles collectors are unable to properly consume, they're unable to properly produce and sell. Sometimes it's clearly not their fault: and the intangibles collectors could be linked allegorically with some form of authoritarian collectivism. As the great French liberal Benjamin Constant would have it, "commerce inspires in men a vivid love of individual independence. Commerce supplies their needs, satisfies their desires, without the intervention of the authorities. This intervention is almost always—and I do not know why I say almost—this intervention is indeed always a trouble and an embarrassment. Every time collective power wishes to meddle with private speculations, it harasses the speculators. Every time governments pretend to do our own business, they do it more incompetently and expensively than we would" (from De la Liberté des Anciens Comparée à celle des Modernes, a lecture Constant delivered in 1819).

This interpretation of Twelve Collections—as Capitalist apologetics—has some clear weaknesses. When the collector of newspaper clippings is shocked to find that "in one hundred twenty-five and a half billion years there would be no more galaxies or stars or planets," (p. 57) he doesn't direct his anger at God, or lack of God, or the galaxies and stars and planets, or at himself, or at his social world and the attitudes it contains towards apocalypse—instead his problem is with the newspaper article itself. So he writes the editor a snooty letter. Yes! Winning! The collector of photographs feels he can possess certain moral traits (dignity, gravitas and cordiality) if he only possesses a bunch of photos in which he looks like he does. Poor Mr. Pavek, who collects spam, also thinks he has to answer each one ("His replies were short and official, as befitted correspondence with people he didn't know personally" [p. 68]). He takes every message at its face value, unable to spot the intricate, largely-automated spam ecology it sprouts from.

These mistakes—and I think most of the mistakes in the book—are covered by the term reify. To reify means, more or less, to treat part of a complex flowing process (usually a social process) as though it were a distinct, autonomous object. Such an analysis is traditionally the provenance of critics of Capitalism, not its defenders. Karl Marx, for example, who was extremely iffy about Capitalism, argued that money and the commodity form conceal "the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects" (Das Kapital, Pt. 1 Ch. 1). As Moorcock succinctly alludes, "Our very spirits become confused with the things we buy" (p. xiii).

The transactional character of all these grand encounters would certainly sicken a conservative social critic, whatever the economics in her appertif. People are buying and selling dreams? Days? Deaths? Oh mankind! Surely, some secret ingredient of social glue should allow human relations to be more than just a sequence of contracts, more than just the eternal tidying up of resources and interests? Something should allow the spontaneous, the unaccountable, the original, and the selfless to play a part?

Tradition, God and decency are the usual candidates for the origins of this something. None sit comfortably in Živković's world, but perhaps certain distinctively human capabilities—to dream, to love, to be curious, to invent, to tell stories—could take over from them. Such things are what distinguishes us from animals, they make, say, Triple H better than a prairie vole.

On the intangibles side, a conservative like Edmund Burke would point to the formless solitude of so many of Zivkovic's characters. These guys are naked before power, without any support networks, without any intermediate powers, without any sense that other people have any stake in their intimate being. None of them stop to think "hey, what would my folks / kids / wife / lover / friends / colleagues / wise crinkly elders / lovely churchy people think about this? Would they want me to give up a dream / a death / a day?". There are dodgy tendencies within such thought, obviously, but if Edmund Burke had written "Reflections on the Recent Terrorist Attack in America" he would not necessarily have blamed gay marriage.

So we've had interpretations amenable to free market fundamentalists, to Leftists and to social conservatives, in their most stereotypical incarnations. There's a kind of nihilist option as well. The tangibles collectors may roll like they roll not despite it being a waste of their time, but because it is a waste of their time—time they can't admit is limited. Wasting your whole life is part of deluding yourself that you're never going to die, an anti-memento mori. These men's nihilist interpreters may advise them, "live each second as if it's your last—think of a flower, or kiss your own elbow, whatever you can get through in that time—if you like, or don't, or whatever, but whatever you decide to do, make sure you do it staring into oblivion."

It's a fine line between a sponge-bath and a bloodbath, and so on. I'll add just one more interpretation, the one that really does it for me. Twelve Collections, under this last interpretation, is a satire of liberal society, but from a liberal perspective—albeit restless, anxious and full of doubts. The ideas Twelve Collections endorses are also the ones it criticises. Maybe it's not surprising that in a time some are characterising as post-ideological or post-political, a lot of the satire going around concerns itself with the limitations inherent in the leading brand of world-view—not with partisan participation in a clash of world-views.

I'm using the word liberal in a broad way, by the way, and not in the weird way it gets used inside American politics. This liberalism likes to make as many things as possible "translateable" in some way ... it likes to make things swappable, commensurable, available, transformable, public, accountable, plugged in, online, buyable and sellable, etc., etc., etc. It likes to empower individuals to enjoy and improve this gloopy prosperity however it gratifies them, with as little interference as possible, to let them swim around in it and fling it around and make stuff out of it. The old skool alliance between liberalism and democracy comes from an attempt to dissolve even the power differentials between Citizens, by turning them into formally-equal, anonymous Electors, whose interests are synthesised into the gloop of public policy by their elected representatives.

Given all this, liberalism is obviously apprehensive of the fundamentally various character of human value, of the possibility that things exist—days and cake, perhaps?—which cannot be exchanged for one-another, cannot be inscribed into a single equation, not by any sequence of intermediaries. At least, not fairly. It is terrified, in short, of finding bones under the gloop, or not finding them till it's too late and we're all of us choking to death.

Liberalism is moreover alarmed that its darlings, its flagship social phenomena—contract, consent, trade—may be hollowed out and used as masks by raw, unabashed power ... like when ambiguous bargains must be struck, blindly, with preternatural thugs.

It's haunted finally by the possibility that its own cantankerous defense of private freedoms may result in tragic waste, as individuals exercise their private freedom in, say, the assiduous collection of toenails. What's the solution? I don't know. It's rare that a really good critique comes bundled with a really good solution (often the latter would make the former obsolete, or at least obvious), and Živković is admirably restrained, and doesn't try to offer easy fixes where he hasn't really thought of any.

The reserve and pithiness does mean Živković omits some of the more positive aspects of collection. Aren't some things are safer on the shelf than freely circulating? What if days, dreams, stories, deaths etc. weren't simply put in jars, but traded to and fro to run up their price, producing a massive overvalued "dreams bubble," inevitably bursting and necessitating an enourmous tax-payer bail-out? There's also the role of the collection as valuable (there's that word again) commemoration, as a version of what would otherwise be lost. Finally, collectors can knowingly and meticulously vandalise organic social processes, and thereby stage their own social criticism. Collections feel like social gestures, like they're trying to communicate. They can pose and provoke. They can even have a feel of protest about them. To my ear, the statement which many collections seek to make sounds a lot like howling. You could barf in Rune Tapper's barf bags and see how he takes it—but, in a way, aren't Rune's barf bags already barfing into you? Mm.

Živković is pretty smart, though comparisons with Kafka or even Borges or Bernhard are premature at least. The fasttracked absurdity of Paul di Filippo meets the accessible intricacy of Haruki Murakami? Comparisons are tough. Check him out.

Lara Buckerton is a poet and critic. She lives in Newcastle.