Shadowplay (Ellipsis Press, 137 pages) by Norman Lock, is the 2010 Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award recipient. Lock’s novella is a dense fable, mixing magic realism with self-reflexivity. The entire story is given to us in miniature at the beginning, such that the novella itself is really a constant retelling–a folding and refolding–rather than an unfolding. A shadow puppet master named Guntur falls in love with Candra, who comes into his theater one day to buy puppets. When she dies of typhoid fever six days later, he falls into despair for many years, until finally he understands how to enter the world of the dead, through his shadow art, to abduct her shadow, bringing her back to the theater where she becomes his prisoner for many months. Desiring to return to her “unsayable dreams,” Candra decides one day to step outside the theater, dying again instantly. Although Guntur wants to go and get her back yet again, this time the gods will not allow it, and he dies as his theater is set ablaze by the oil lamp that had cast the shadows on the story-screen. This plot unfurls slowly: it starts, stops, returns and starts again, usually with a new detail, or sometimes less detail, sometimes abstracted, sometimes enlarged. The effect is of narrative feathering, one moment being layered on top of another until the whole body is finally covered.
Guntur’s life as puppet master is filled with but few ornaments, which are brought out to decorate the narrative again and again, creating a feeling of ritual. When the puppet master, or the dalang, is not speaking the theater is quiet, except for the sound of a wasp (always there was a wasp) rattling among the dry rafters; Guntur falls in love when he hears one wooden bangle on Candra’s arm fall against another; Candra comes to visit the dalang only because she wants money to buy blue cloth to make herself a dress; Candra’s hands are blue because she works for a cloth maker, stirring a vat of indigo, lime and molasses; Candra remembers her childhood when, with her father the fisherman, she would let out the sail and steer toward the horizon of the Java sea; In a fever, Candra dreams of drowning in shadow; The wind carries the scent of the cinnamon grove and memory of Candra to Guntur. These are some of the main images that repeat and which, for the better part of the story, we cannot go beyond, as with the horizon. And because of the repetition, we can say that there is only beauty until about three-quarters of the way through the book. Nothing new happens until then.
The denouement occurs in Guntur’s dream when he finally realizes he can go beyond the empty forms of traditional narratives (having learned them to supernatural extent) and now can imagine a new story. This is hubris, nevertheless, and he will pay for it. In the six days that Candra had known Guntur, she had told him her story as the child, sailing ever toward the horizon (beyond which, legend held, lay the island of the dead). Guntur takes her story and makes it his. It is impossible to cross the horizon, but Guntur imagines how when he dreams the story of her death:
And the boat sped toward the horizon even as the sun began to pull itself up…. The black sea lightened, turned gray, then blue. The horizon trembled, and the sea round the boat now resembled a vast indigo cloth, which a wind’s rough handling had creased.
The horizon trembled as if in nervous expectation, for the girl was steering a course for it that no power on earth could deflect. Implacably, she was making for the horizon; and contrary to all mortal experience, it did not recede. The horizon line to which she steered remained as if fixed to the spot on the earth’s watery bulge where first her eyes had detected it—black against the night’s lesser back, with here and there a lingering star. The horizon did not fall back in order to keep between it and the approaching boat a constant distance. Instead, the boat closed on it…
Guntur dreamed that the sea at last stopped its ceaseless motion; the waves lay down and the wind, which had been blowing from every corner at once uncreased the indigo cloth before returning to its caves at the ends of the earth.
Here we have a spectacular moment in the narrative when the pace, that had been all jammed up like a paper accordion, takes off as does the small craft with a full sail. Having dreamt how to get to the island of the dead, Guntur then invents the story that will actually take him there.
That night Guntur traveled to the edge of the Java Sea and built a boat there just as he had seen it in his dream of Candra’s island. When he had finished, he and Arjuna [a puppet through which Guntur acts] dragged the boat into the water and, pushing it beyond the waves, climbed aboard. Guntur rigged a sail cut from the white cotton story-screen, and the boat leaped over the stiff-backed sea toward the horizon. Although they were accompanied by singing fish and the odor of cinnamon, Guntur could not cross the unmoving horizon; the boat shied like a horse from a hurdle. The boat tacked against contrary winds and came at it again and again, but always the boat gave way and could not hold its course. …
[Later, he] remembered that the sea in his dream had seemed an intricately patterned cloth, dyed indigo….. Guntur recited these words,
‘The sea resembled an indigo cloth, which a wind’s round handling has creased.’
And the air softened…the horizon trembled and let them pass.
These passages are pure prose poetry, and the longer narrative, in which these moments occur, serves the purpose of providing the context in which these moments can be understood fully as poetry, as being interwoven in a pattern that simultaneously gives meaning and makes all meaning into shadows. Lock’s Shadowplay is a masterful rendering of the life of one story teller, trying desperately to fit within the intricate pattern of tradition, daring to transcend it by embracing it too much, until he is finally becomes a shadow in the story of “The Woman With Blue Hands.” Lock’s novella is an enchanting ritual of forms whose beauty will linger in the memory for a very long time.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Naked Singularity (2003).