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Book Review – Memento Mori by Daniel King

Memento Mori is Perth writer Daniel King’s first collection of short stories. Published by Interactive Publications, it was Highly Commended in the Best Fiction category of  IP Picks 2010. This collection represents more than two decades of work in the short fiction form, with the earliest of these stories having been published in 1986. Despite the range in publication dates, King’s work demonstrates a remarkable consistency in approach and theme, and as such Memento Mori reads almost like a patchwork novel, each story a square of fabric in the overall quilt.

The earliest stories contained in this volume, “Tim’s Howse” and “Myths of the K-Mart”, both feature narrators grappling with some sort of mental illness. In “Tim’s Howse”, Jim’s world begins to fracture when he discovers something ‘behind’ the jigsaw pieces he has been assembling, whereas in “Myths of the K-Mart” Mark is entranced by the ‘maze game’ that threatens to consume his mundane reality at any moment. While interesting experiments, neither of these stories demonstrate the clarity of King’s mature work.

The title story, “Memento Mori”, is more representative of King’s ouevre. In it, Professor Ken Rivers grapples with his domineering’s wife desire for him to submit to cosmetic surgery, and finds himself increasingly retreating into the confines of his dresser. The plot thickens when both Rivers and his wife magically regain their youth, with unexpected and unpleasant consequences. This story also features the first of King’s metafictional games in this volume, in which a poem, also titled ‘Memento Mori’ and written by ‘D.K.’, informs the narrative as a whole. King’s technique is to take what initially seem like straightforward ideas, such as the quest to regain youth through cosmetic surgery, and push them through to often harrowing extremes. What begin as little more than thought experiments, often explicitly stated as such by the protagonists,  quickly provide unexpected and often violent consequences.

Two stories, “Martial Arts” and “Venerean Arts”, help to illustrate the shifting nature of reality immanent in these stories. In the former, Dan and Coria both study Taekwondo, and Dan is writing a story, ‘Martial Arts’, which is supposed to be about martial arts but mainly features a series of giant gas tanks. It goes without saying that the gas tanks end up making an appearance in Dan King’s reality. In “Venerean Arts”, Daniel has recently broken up with his girlfriend Mimi, but the estranged couple still see each other at Taekwondo. To heal the dispute with his former partner, Daniel seeks to formulate a ‘Venerean Arts’ where pleasure, rather than pain, will be the underlying principle.

It was here, upon finishing this pair of stories, that I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s seminal work of ‘condensed novels’ The Atrocity Exhibition. There and here, names of characters are subject to change from one story to the next, but the nature of the relationships seems much the same. One of the singular joys of reading is that it creates a portal into the mind of another person, or persons, but in drastically condensed form. Reading these stories in the space of twenty-four hours creates a dizzying snapshot of the author’s mode of thinking through recurring themes.

One of my favourite stories in Memento Mori was “A Dream Holiday”, in which Ian and Lydia decide to take their next holiday at an airport. Figuring that they can have all the experiences of travelling without the associated risks, the couple end up retreating into a closet and then into their own minds in a manner that I found to be deeply Ballardian. A similar progression is at work in “Significant Other”, in which Matt realises that he actually doesn’t need his partner Elsie to return for him to experience the best of her.

King’s work could be regarded as speculative fiction of a kind, but it is only in a handful of stories that these elements are particularly noticeable. One such story is “I Turn You On”, in which the nine year-old narrator discovers that his reality is not our own. Something odd is also at work in “Open to the Sky”, in which strange telescopes stand between the protagonists and comprehension of their place in the universe.

Memento Mori‘s final story, “Catenary”, is also one of the best. In it, Mr King donates several hundred dollars a week to various charitable organisations and helps to save a couple from a wrecked car. His good deeds are counterbalanced, however, by the fact that he keeps another man, Will, prisoner in his dungeon. This story poses the question of whether it is better to maim the masses and aid an individual or vice versa most elegantly.

You can read more about Daniel King and his work here and here.

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