Ray Fracalossy’s “Tales From The Vinegar Wasteland” is a strange and wonderful book with a surreal/absurdist sensibility akin to a painting by Magritte. Many other comparisons come to mind — J.G. Ballard, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. are all kindred spirits to this dream-like tome that explores (in a semi-serious, serio-comic manner) life and death, destiny and the presence of (or lack of) God. There is a subtle wit that leaps off every page and the book has a rhythm that draws the reader into a rabbit hole that leads to many bizarre and imaginative situations that have the fabric of believability.
Fracalossy is a self-described writer of absurdist fiction, and this short novel (and the delightful stories that complement that novel) is best experienced on one’s own. The reader will find his/her own wicked bits of wordplay to mull over like moments from a dream. The dream-state is a necessary part of the razor thin plot and there are passages that lead back into themselves, like an Escher staircase. And yes, I did find the typo alluded to in the beginning of the book.
The unnamed narrator is living a quiet life of desperation. He buys fake fruit (because it lasts longer) and makes tea with a bag that turns into a spider and begins to crawl up the string. The reader encounters his various friends and acquaintances: Anton, a man whose face is disappearing, Gregory, who has an apartment with a room that doesn’t exist, a neighbor who keeps screaming, and Margaret, a woman the narrator pursues who may or may not make the best sandwiches in the world.
My favorite scenes/images include: the armless men flying kites in the park, a woman taking her egg for a walk and the Library of Incoming Books (which contains blank books that writers are encouraged to fill).
Another character that plays a recurring role in the novel is Rudolph Ransom, who has written a book called “What You’ll Never Finish,” which no one has ever finished. Ransom is deceased, but that doesn’t stop him from interacting with the protagonist.
The chapters have weirdly comic titles like “My Head is a Paintbrush” and “Buddha’s Uphill Bicycle Race.” One that stands out to me as central to the narrative is “Chapter 39 Minutes.” Here dreams merge with dreams and with reality to induce a heightened paranoia. “I was certain I had sunken into total madness,” the narrator intones. He also observes: “Yes, I decided, perhaps I am simply dreaming. That would explain much of this. But what does one do when finding himself awake within a dream? How do you awaken with absolute certainty, knowing the dream has ended.” Indeed, this book (published in 2006) could best describe the recent film “Inception” by Christopher Nolan. It’s life and Fracalossy’s world imitating and prophesizing art, like a section from the novel. Pirandello would be proud.
“Life was a slow mad torture,” “Chapter Nearly Invisible” declares, “never making sense, never connecting any dots, never showing any great sense of rhyme or reason. It could easily fit the bill for Hell … What was the point of all this? What’s the meaning of life and death?” This is everyman’s existential dilemma (the everyman compelled to self-examination, that is).
Everything comes to a conclusion that brings the narrator a modicum of solace, but what that solace entails is for the individual reader’s interpretation. Ray Fracalossy’s book is a wonderment, a tightrope walk, a grain of sand in the brain, a trip into a dream-state that grips the reader like a strait-jacket.