A Furious Oyster by Jessica Sequeira is an odd book about people who come back from the dead during storms, leaving ghostly remnants in the rain data which can be recorded, interpreted, and published. Well, that’s its setup at least. Although you might expect such a premise to deliver a horror story, what Sequeira gives us instead is a literary sketch of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971 and passed away shortly thereafter.
The book is part paranormal fiction, part literary biography, and part discourse on bivalves. Until you begin reading, it seems impossible that such a combination should possibly exist. You aren’t supposed to make up biography, after all – especially not of someone famous AND definitely not pertaining to posthumous activities. Nor are you supposed to make a paranormal story where everything is more or less real. And that doesn’t even account for the discourse on bivalves component, which is poetic rather than scientific in nature. But let me just say, infractions against acceptable literary modes of conduct inclusive, it is a Very Good Book.
Now that doesn’t mean it will be beloved by everyone. A Furious Oyster is arty, weird, and a touch academic – in a wry sort of way that nevertheless remains unintrusive to the last. Those obviously can be good or bad, depending on your tastes. Some people do not like art, weirdness, or the academy. It also has beautiful, beautiful prose. Some people do not like beauty, or, frankly, prose. But say you do like any or even many of those things! Even so, perhaps its topic will still put you off from giving it a go. After all, here are things that are important to the story that I knew nothing (or next to nothing) about before opening its pages:
– Chile, the country. It’s history, topography, and people inclusive.
– Chilean poetry in general, its literary reception, its scholarly quarrels.
– The poet Neruda in particular.
As a reader for this particular text, my ignorance was basically monumental. And yet, I never at all felt like this was a barrier to enjoying A Furious Oyster. There are many reasons for this, I think. The story’s weirdness helps. I mean, if you’re in for ghost storm data as a conceit, why not be open to Chilean poetry as a context? It is simply not a problem at all if you accept it as another strangeness. Then there’s the characterization. Neruda may be gigantically famous for many people, but the character Neruda works just fine as someone I’ve only now met. Also, the text follows different perspectives among its ‘storm’ fragments, sketching the ways Neruda’s poetry touches other lives, all of which are well characterized and conceptually interesting. Even knowing nothing of the specifics of its topics, the story guides the reader, and never once slips into a pedantic mode that punishes them for not knowing. The emphasis throughout is on benevolence (frank, not fuzzy), especially towards whoever has come to have a look.
And then there is the prose itself. Playful, profound, and pitch perfect. Sequeira’s craft is simply superb. Take, for example, this passage about visiting Santiago’s National Museum of Natural History:
In addition to the contents of the exhibition itself, other elements of the building were mirrored, from fire extinguishers to heating vents. Two glass boxes had also been set up in direct opposition to one another, on facing sides of the building. If I hadn’t already noted other parallels, this secret concordance would have escaped me. What other features had eluded my attention?
One of the glass boxes was called ‘Colecciones’, the other ‘Investigaciones’. Invisible to each other, two conservators were hard at work restoring dead animals: the first focused on bringing the glint back to a bird’s eye and stiffening its wings in the simulacrum of flight, the second turned her attention to a bit of hare’s fur under the microscope, while the hare itself remained mounted on a stick beside her, trapped in the eternal artificial movement of a leap.
For a while I continued to walk in circles, passing one, then the other, several times, before at last I stumbled out into whatever is the opposite of a cold labyrinth.
Stunning. Big Ideas (the opposition posited between curation and analysis) put forth in familiar, if stimulatingly unusual, imagery. And that final sentence! The turn back to the observer herself, transfiguring the intellectual wrangling of abstract thought into the absurd physical reality of stumbling around inside a building — sinking, near infinitely, into the morass of dialectic philosophy (the walking in circles of thesis, antithesis, synthesis), yet still managing the final perfect turn when the narrator breaks free, only to find the outside world twisted into a shadow (whatever the opposite is) of the labyrinth she has escaped. Marvelous. And there are many, many such instances of concise perfection in Sequeira’s use of language and the flow of her storytelling. What a pleasure.
Will A Furious Oyster find an audience? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that, quality wise, if you put it on a college syllabus and called it a classic of literature, it would have no problem keeping such company. (I’ve made and taught such syllabi, if you doubt.) If anything, Sequeira’s talent reminds me of Günter Grass. Just as interesting, but nicer. But that’s neither the here nor there of it. Right now this is an underground offering, fresh and new, barely in print, and it’s still up to people to discover it.
All told, there’s just enough oddity in this work to set the stage for playful vitality, a furious creation that is both impossible, but clearly not. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that A Furious Oyster is highly unlikely in a most enjoyable way.
A final note on this text’s existence:
It is a slim volume, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals, an independent press run out of Manchester that by all accounts is basically a bootstrap operation. They only make books physically via Amazon’s print on demand service. I found out about the press first, and wanted to see what level of quality they were producing. Obviously, with this review, I would say they are capable of stunning.