Review: By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends by J. David Osborne (Swallowdown Press; 2010)

7 Oct

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I started reading By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends in a bit of a haze. After reaching about the 60% mark, I decided I must’ve only been half paying attention…and I was a bit lost. I decided to consult some synopses. Was this book really worth my time? The reviews were unanimously stellar, many comparing the book to David Lynch and Clive Barker. Also: many of the synopses focused on the fact that, eventually, an escape from the Siberian Gulag would be attempted with a “calf” (a prisoner to eat/cannibalize should the Siberian wilderness prove barren of nourishment). Putting emphasis on this element of the plot adds a bit of sensationalism (which, oddly, even the book’s editor (Jeremy Robert Johnson) reinforces in his afterword). Although an excellent scene–and perhaps the most lucid/thrilling/suspenseful in the book–it is but a silver of what the novel contains, and this novel is hardly a much of a suspenseful or traditional book at all. In other words: I loved it.

Even the aforementioned prison-break scene ends with a surreal mythological flavor (I won’t go into specifics since this is also the end of the novel). The novel is a bit like a puzzle, albeit an exquisitely tightly constructed one. So if you, like me, find yourself a bit lost the first time through, don’t be ashamed; just start at the beginning, regain your footing, and allow this beguiling little work to enfold you within its enchantments like a modern day Pedro Paramo.

One often feels as though one were tumbling through a George Grosz or Mark Chagall painting…in that it features a sense of charged/conflicted history but with a fantastic element (a man picking lint out of the ventricles of his heart or a serpentine shaped light escaping another man’s throat). Shark teeth, little women in shirt pockets, obscene tattoos, whale bones lodged into thighs. Even Diego Rivera is mentioned. Talking chalk writing, humming placentas, barbed wire growing and thrashing like venomous horror movie vines, ingrown (into ear) shoelaces, and haunted mines are just a few of the other images that will leave an imprint in your skull with a swift boot-kick to the face.

You feel like you’re reading an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel at times, yet then something very strange or whimsical happens–like an angry guard growing shark’s teeth or an officer beating her lover with a vodka bottle instead of making love as they then both derive immense pleasure from the sadism (shark teeth growing, eyes shifting to a devlish shade)–and we return to the harsh prison camp reality…yet at the periphery: a kind of electric fan of insanity continues to hum and blow, threatening to unravel and distort all of the officers’ and prisoners’ conscious and unconscious experiences there. Dreamlike scenes when a wounded prisoner fights with an officer while urinating all over him and his wound (by whale bone) would be one such scene to support the previous thesis.

Hallucinated voices over the radio, feelings drifting through a netherworld from someone far away (“warm and red feelings”). Throats that can suck souls. Fantasies of cannibalism Dreams of holding a stick attached to a decapitated head while feeding it apples. A marvelously strange and original book. This one will last.

check out By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends

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