Thursday, 1 November 2018

A Review of Creatures of Near Kingdoms

Hey, Zedeck (& Sharon) made a book.

(Disclosure - I know this guy.)

Click to buy.

Pick up the book in your hands.

It's light, pages near-translucent. Strong black marks of monochrome pictures show through the text from the un-flipped page beyond.

The cover is luxuriant, a royal purple, it flexes and flops in your hand. The urge to bend it is near-irresistible!

It is written in second-person like cookbooks, choose-your-own adventure texts and a handful of literary experiments. Very fancy and unusual!

Who is the "you" in the book? You seem to change gender (by inference at least) and job and circumstances of life but it seems like almost all of these yous are Malaysian, alone at the moment of encounter, probably not beyond thirty or under twenty, generally educated, and reluctant to talk to others about what you (they) have experienced.

Many yous have a garden. There is always something strange in the garden. It is rarely a good thing.

You begin to realise that writing this review in the style of the book may have been a mistake. There are now too many yous. The protagonists of the book are many shadow you's, the you writing this is another, the you reading (and editing) this a microsecond after your cognitive tide has washed a finished fragment into being is arguably yet another you, and all the you's reading the finished review are yet another shadowy multiplicity of yous.

An even more difficult question is who is the person addressing the 'you' in the book? They are as vague and omniscient as a Gygaxian sage, and as tricky as a riddlemaster. A lot of these fragments involve the narrator slowly revealing something to the second-person protagonist. It is rarely a good thing.

(Run protago-theys! Run from the page before they get to the last paragraph. You have rights!)

This book is by two people.

One is anxious, slightly silly, enmeshed in the minutiae of daily life, except more absorbed in a kind of dream of daily life where things are not quite themselves. They are anxious about their garden (the garden is a major character), and a range of progressive political matters about which they feel largely helpless. They are either familiar with the scientific jargon of biology, or like reading books with those words. This must be Sharon, you think.

The other is completely silent and communicates only through the carving of smooth black lines, like woodcuts, except probably not wood. They are fond of bold and impudent animals, concerned with dream images and complex baroque patterns. You assume this one is Zedeck.

As usual, even though the book is only half text and is also half art, its easy to talk about the text (text always wants to be transformed into more text, like a happy virus) and hard to talk about the art, which gets shunted off to paragraphs like these while the reviewer tries to grapple with it.

The patterns are one thing, and even though the method of creating them is explained at the back of the book you still cant work out exactly how many of them work. Your eyes have looped the lines and been unable to find the repeating cores. Possibly you are visually stupid.

You like the large, charismatic, singular cheeky and mildly threatening animals the most. Though you think that probably the patterns might be 'better art', whatever that is. You are aware that you have pretty basic tastes in art and the patterns are strange and complex and might well have some kind of life beyond the context of this book, you imagine them proliferating over walls and laptop backgrounds, on tiles and the pieces of games.

The artist likes black, which you approve of, and does not fuck about adding the fiddly bits of shit which mediocre (in your opinion) people confuse with 'realism' and 'quality', which you also approve of. There is no digital trash in the backgrounds or layout, praise the gods.

Some of these images are near-heraldic, some could be scenes from storybooks and legend, some could be T-Shirt designs, (there should be a 'Crowned Dugong' T-Shirt on Redbubble by now you think), they are strong, singular, thick with character and identity, requiring no reference to make sense of them.

You could read the book backwards, silently, letting the pages fall open so the rhythm went image-text-image, the eye catching the image first, only then looking to the text. It would be a different book with a different pulse.

The book is full of creatures and plants and most of them (surely) are imaginary. Its actually pretty hard to tell. Some of these could easily be real plants and creatures from Malaysia that you don't know about. Do they really have their own local syrup plant? Is Agarwood a real thing?

It occurs to you (that is the you writing this, and reading it as you are writing it, not the other you who is the main character in the book) that this is probably a very different book if you are Malaysian, or just live in SE Asia, and of you are not.

A lot of these creatures, plants and situations are part of a network of subtle inferences and references which probably make very different sense if you are familiar with the environment and politics of Malaysia. To someone there, this might be like a kind of imaginary map of a real place, with everything tilted a little, but still familiar, a shard or lemon-twist of recognition. You imagine urbane Malaysians raising their eyebrows to each other over cups of rich coffee; "Ah yes, of course, a 'lantern squirrel', an artful re-contextualisation of something something something..."

But you, (the you you, not the other you) have no idea if there actually are lantern squirrels, real ones that is, or things like them. Do they have Dugongs in Malaysia? It seems like something they would have, probably not sentient ones though. You could google it but that seems like cheating somehow.

So for you, the book is twice-reflected. There is an extra hovering layer of interpretation. And also a lot of it is just the impression of someone in a cold grey place reading about a bright warm place (you actually feel a little colder in comparison when you read). In the place of the book, things are always growing, everywhere, and more than here, and there are lots of different animals, again, you think, more than you have around you.

You wonder if that might be orientalism? Does it only seem that way because you are familiar with your ecosystem and this one is cherry-picked and strange (and largely made up)? Only statistics will be able to work that out. You are sure someone on a blog is working on it.

Plus there are definitely no pigs under your house.

The extra layer, or double gleam of unknowing, either doesn't hurt, or helps you feel like you know the place in an intimate way. There are lots of fragments of life that would never show up in any story you would read. You feel like you know what its like to be in a traffic jam because of Buffalo, to worry about parking your car beneath rare and aggressive species, to wake up prickling because of lizards, pigs under the house. Complex meanings in relatives gift-plants, an aggressive bioform on the beach, neighbours with ritual problems.

And of course, finding something complex and penumbral growing in your garden. Then worrying about it. You feel like that might happen every day.


  1. I want to buy this. I also want to do it using something secure (https://) and in English, only because I can't figure out how to buy it without a translation proxy!

    Is there anywhere else I can pick this up?

    1. You could try contacting Zedeck here or on G+?