Monday, April 4, 2011

REVIEW: The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington

I’d never heard of Jesse Bullington before stumbling across The Enterprise of Death, so I had the pleasure of entering into it with no expectations. To be honest, I’m not sure having heard of him previously (or having read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart), would have made a lick of difference. This is the kind of book that beats you over the head, robs you of your expectations, and then forces you to watch as it tears those expectations to shreds, stomps upon them, and gleefully urinates upon the mess . . . all while you nod delightedly and ask to do it all again.

Yes, this is a wonderfully messed-up book, set in a wonderfully messy world, that comes across as a mixture of Terry Gilliam’s most surreal, Tim Burton’s most unusual, and Clive Barker’ most sexual . It’s a book of nightmares and fantasies that are as much the Brothers Grimm as they are the Marquis de Sade. This is a darkly cynical tale of human history, told not by the historians (and not even by the victors), but by the sad souls forced to live out its cruelties and delights, armed only with an unflinching eye and a very dark sense of humour.

As readers, this is a story that demands of us an empty stomach and an open mind, as it repeatedly gives rise to open eyes and open mouths – as often in delight as in disgust. The world of The Enterprise of Death is one populated almost entirely by the scum of society - soldiers, slaves, eunuchs, prostitutes, and criminals without an ounce of morality between them. Even those characters who don’t revel in evil and brutality are often casually cruel, and at least amoral, if not immoral.

Of course, when the choices available are between the supernatural horrors of zombies and vampires, and the all-too-human horrors of necrophilia, bestiality, and cannibalism, it’s really hard to fault the characters for not being paragons of virtue. They are, however, disturbingly endearing characters (particularly Awa and Monique) with whom we are more than happy to tag along on this journey through the horrors of the Inquisition, even if we’d prefer not to shake hands at the end of said journey.

The only thing that initially bothered me about the book was the writing style. The story regularly leaps between past and present, a narrative device that is further confused by frequent jumps in viewpoint from one character to another. As far as the language goes, it’s a story that’s written in a 15th century style (with some quirky turns of phrase), but full of very 21st century dialogue (that, at one time or another, is guaranteed to make every reader blush at least once).  Yet, despite the contradictions and confusions, it all works . . . once the story comes together in your head, it holds fast for the duration.

Quite possibly the strangest book I’ve read in a very long time, it’s also one I find myself thinking about reading once again (something I rarely do). I’d love to get my hands on a physical copy, to smell the ink, to feel the paper, to suffer the weight of it in my hands, and to get lost in the experience of reading. Perhaps too dark and morose for a beach read, I suspect it would be an entirely fitting read for a hot, stuffy, candlelit room during a violent summer thunderstorm. While not for everybody, if the subject matter and storytelling style present any appeal, then it’s worth investing the time in a read.

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