Erik Hofstatter’s Soaking in Strange Hours is a story you don’t so much read as ravish. It’s meant to be plundered, its images and verbal treasures pillaged. This is form pitted against its own content, the erotic and the erratic rendered in a unique reef of language teeming with macabre delights: “Eyes dark and loaded like cannons toasting midnight. Murder grew fat in the circus of her mind. I dropped my eyelids. A terminal curtain for a crying world.” It’s hard to tell metaphor from narrative fact. In Hofstatter’s world, conceit overlays reality, locking them together in a strange, inescapable relationship.
As Tristan Grieves sits drinking on a shipyard bench, a young woman named Liene slips next to him, offering a drink from her flask. Her arrival in the story is unique. In fact, Liene doesn’t arrive but is revealed as already having been there beside him. How long had she been there? Perhaps always, haunting that moment, that bench, waiting.
Their first exchange recalls, remarkably, “Amazing Grace”. ‘Liene’ derives from Greek roots, suggesting torches, light, or even the sun itself; like alcohol, the sun is both sanitiser and intoxicant. Tristan sentimentalises her, or perhaps his own past, wishing to see her eyes “at the bottom of a whiskey glass”. He recognises immediately that her body incarnates lost loves and, wary of the power this has over him, tries to walk away — does he really believe she will let him? — but the object by which he sentimentalises her becomes her weapon. He sates the fire of his ageing passion with alcohol, but alcohol poured onto fire makes it burn all the more.
Perceptions of the world aren’t autonomous constructions for Tristan. His language suggests a fragmented consciousness: a passive accumulation of sensory inputs more than a coherent subject position. He doesn’t recognise, but allows recognition to strike him. The language constructions feel prenatal, a composite of sensations and sensory inputs without the structure of cultural accumulation. “Moss hands breached. They pulled our boat away from land barons digging for their worm wives. My eyes were abyss realms.” Tristan’s mindscape is a paradise of free association, so much so that it begins to pull the narrative itself into its orbit.
Liene is thus the catalyst of this story: past lover reincarnated, but also the muse of past works screaming into the void that is the creative process. Perhaps Tristan then is the shell of the artist, the form of a man recovering from the bender of his creative outpouring. He more than performs the sallow poet; his narrative output is highly stylised in both metaphor and metaphysics: “Daylight geometry. An optical illusion. Loki of the glass.” Every paragraph contains its own array of metaphor-laced images, casually strewn through its sentences like so many shards of broken glass.
A mysterious woman, a missing person, subterfuge, late-night meetings at the docks; among other things, Soaking in Strange Hours plays with genre in a way it’s tempting to term poem noir. Overtones of crime fiction can be felt like the aftershocks of an earthquake, but this is a derelict detective story (and one without a detective): a mystery that solves itself, where the pieces are put together before they can be laid out on the table. It traverses in paradox, creating progress and then knocking the whole thing down again. It’s an edifice built on shifting sands, a narrative crafted from the vapour of verbal mirages, like the lingering smell of alcohol on one’s breath. Hofstatter denies us the satisfaction of narrative progress.
The story closes with Tristan wishing once more to meet Liene’s eyes at the bottom of his whiskey glass, perhaps furthering the cycle of death and consumption. It’s never clear whether this is a story of a cycle that breaks, or a cycle that progresses through breakage. The narrative certainly recycles itself, leaving Tristan more or less where he started. As he says near the story’s close: “I had to be smarter than feelings.”
Not all readers will appreciate the density of metaphor or the elusive meaning of Hofstatter’s images. For plot aficionados, Soaking in Strange Hours may not rank among your favourites, but for gourmands of language and versified prose, this volume pops like the cork of a ’59 Bordeaux.