Over Christmas I read my friend Stephen Osborne’s book Ice & Fire (Arsenal Pulp Press), which is also a Geist Book, and felt I was reading a handshake: familiar and new. I knew many of the stories, or versions of them, and, indeed, was in one or two of them (and in the introduction), and this added to the effect of being touched by something known and strange.
In the introduction Steve writes that the stories “are true in the ordinary sense of that word, but how truthfully they are told is for others to judge”: so I kept this idea firmly in mind while reading, considering myself one of these others, and it is from within this feeling that the idea and sensation of a handshake entered the picture. Since it was the religious season of my culture, and hands play an important role in the significations and practices of the official religions of this culture, I kept watching them, and thinking about them, and wondering how one could be, or was, or could once have been touched by a book. When the priest raises the gold-embossed Bible above his head and then lowers it for his companion priest (I’ve forgotten the exact terminology) to read at chest—read: heart—level, out loud, within earshot of the congregation, there is this sense, at least a fleeting one (I went back to Mass to check this out) of the word momentarily becoming flesh, and the hands play a significant role in this because they are gesturing all the time (the congregation’s, as well as the priests’) giving substance to the words, and vice versa, and it is in this mode of thought and action that we receive the spirit of meaning and, we imagine, the meaning of spirit.
Steve’s stories defy reality as we are grown comfortable in having known it; they also fly in the face of reality: the other image I had while reading these tales, fables, epigrams, moral remonstrances, was that they are like a face moved very close to mine. They are in your face even as they are distantly spoken by what Mary Meigs, in her back cover endorsement, calls “an almost invisible narrator”; and it is this breathy combination of distance and time, familiarity and utter strangeness, that makes the stories true, for me at least, in both the ordinary and the extraordinary sense of that word.
I write this not in the voice of one of the book’s characters, nor that of Steve’s colleague on this magazine’s editorial board, but as a reader who felt both touched and looked upon, gazed at and moved in that way which we all oddly and intimately desire, and can sometimes grasp in that season when something in this culture is said to have been born, and text about it given.