I should begin this review by telling you what David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On is, but that would be denying its purpose, or its meaning, or its purpose to me, as told by a squirrel with a post-graduate degree (or just enough wikipedia browsing—mine) in post-structuralism. “I should have started with pictures really, because pictures are just like the world. Aren’t they? A picture of an orange means an orange… Words are just mute smudges until you know what they mean, and when you put them together they can tell all of manner of things.” Yet pictures abound in Darker With the Lights On if that’s all you’re looking for. Maybe it should be all you’re looking for, these images, because, “There’s plenty you can’t say with words.” This is what David Hayden, aka A Squirrel, told me.
So, why would you look for pictures in this collection, and why does this book damn everything about…
People seem to have appreciated the “lyrical depth,” the “modernism,” and “original”-ity. Others have appreciated the “imagery.” Yet, to say this is not to say much about the meanings at work in this volume. If you’re looking for imagery, deft prose, and even confusion I’m sure you’ll find it.
There is ample description throughout every story, enough to overload. But it’s not layered, in the sense that one sentence follows the next; that one description comes after another. To layer description is to build a tower, or perhaps a pyramid, where a solid foundation allows for growth, another, and another, all coming to a point or perhaps a pinnacle. Instead, Darker With the Lights On is a stream. It’s not never-ending, the stories do end, they have to, that is the nature of a story (in some circumstances), but while within this, then that, the sentence I’m in, the, “I’m not,” now the next, now it is—this is—but forgetting what was, because, here’s another, the stories become a part of you, at their best.
For many this novel is what it is, and it does that superbly. It simply, “is.” This may be enough; an author with a ‘name’ demanding attention, stopping readers dead—important readers who make and set tastes—with no real ability for them to address anything other than their arrest. A valuable contribution, in writing—and perhaps in readers—but completely denying the depth at work in favour of a seemingly simple response to inability.
The purpose of Hayden’s writing is not to build; something implied by any number of reactions; trying to build something out of the beauty of prose, the most immediate aspect of the novel. The prose is not beautiful, unless truth is beauty; unless truth is experiencing. But truth can also be a horror. And whether beauty or horror, or more true; experience, it is something we must reckon with, which we must perceive. Hayden’s stories speak of the room that’s darker with the lights on. And what is darker with the lights on? To answer a question Hayden answers—to me at least—to answer boldly; me foolishly taking a stab at meaning; reality, experience, is occluded by meaning. Reality is darker with understanding. All the flows and diversions of life become confusion—or at least ‘darker’—when we try, and fail, to lock them into appreciable identifiables: and here we are with post-structuralist squirrel again. And why this book is so damning of the publishing industry, and language, imagery, but not understanding.
The damnation of stories is the damnation of communication, is the damnation of having to publish this, a very worthy book, which is a damnation of having to make these stories worthy. Hayden’s mind is often at work—and sometimes curtailed—at least in some of these pieces. Or is it my mind—sometimes curtailed—at work?
In an early story in the collection, “The canvas is dry. The crowd stop sucking and stand up one by one and turn towards the mountains and the chab, chab, chab.” Words fail. The story demands sound, or the feeling of sound, more than words. The, “chab, chab, chab.” is the desire for the words to be unfettered. For Hayden’s drive is all this book is—a never-ending drive to be told as ‘drive’—to be communicated in acceptable terms for you and me, but at his best it’s a drive to be true to himself. At his worst he is constrained by a drive having to be told—by publishers, editors, or demands of others; a demand placed on him by a seeming self— words not simply achieved, or understood, but somehow to be imparted to you or me.
In a story towards the end Hayden unleashes unabated knowledge, this drive foregoing the demands curtailing. Except it’s not in the response of a narrative, as that would be giving in; it’s meaning-without-meaning; image-without-consideration of narrative-that-is, that simply-is, up until the end; when we, or Hayden, is presented with themselves. Hayden is finally unleashed from putting meaning to us, in Golding, in not giving meaning to the story (which does come) and simply lets the furled unfurl, “There were no dreams. All happened. Senses came from nature but not sense, cause but not action, time but not story. There is, was, only this voice. This, her telling.” Except he knew this all along, in every telling of the story. For once it’s not conceit in having to be telling to us, it’s indulging of the Hayden-self.
Darker With the Lights On damns publishing by somehow being published; damns storytelling in denying narrative; and damns language by having more than meaning; and so saves language, storytelling, and publishing. It’s a collection that comes into the flows of the mind and shows us we need not package our perceptions, our fears, our understanding for others, least not for packing up to readers who barely make sense of their own perceptions, fears, and un-understanding for anyone but themselves.
I do, however, object to Hayden’s accusation of damnation in the final story; Cosy. A man, wakes, then sits down, and wakes again. And at the end he hates himself. I would question whether we ever wake—or woke—from the comfortable breakfast we (the man in the story) hated, in sitting and withdrawing, “a pipe, a flopping wallet and a box of matches. He sucks and fills and lights and sucks and sinks back in a cloud of sweet umbrous smoke. The piano plays on.” From the oppressive heat we built around us, from the reading of this collection. This is the dream the comfortable-but-disturbed man fell into, maybe (or not) came out of, maybe never had anything else of. To not know between dream or reality is immaterial. We continue on and our comfortable slippers, comfortable smoke, and reading of Hayden’s stories, whether real or not, they happened, whether we hated them, or not. Yet that this questions the distinction between hateful world or hateful nightmare, the difference between the dream of a book that hates itself or living celebration of a mind that has to be meted out, at the last of 208 pages, is the problem, or I would say, ‘success.’ This book, and this final, capstone story—this having read 208 pages—is the stuff of living, perhaps of dreaming, but neither consideration is incorrect. This is all of life, in that it’s some of life, and when it lives for me—and maybe sometimes for you—it is a fact, taken slowly, or quickly, awake or asleep, and as much your or its existence—it is fact.
Darker With the Lights On is not a book that explains the world, rather it explains how we appreciate not just the world, but fear ourselves, and live with ourselves, and experience the darkness we have to see when the lights are on. Worse (or better) it explains that when the lights aren’t on we see ourselves in brightness. But, actually, we’re not that bad. And this is what makes this story and us so very much worthwhile. We simply understood it without needing to be told, but, hey! telling it is half the fun.