Reviewed by Jack Messenger
The Water Rabbits
by Paul Tarragó
ISBN 9781326986674, Oct 2017, Paperback
Reading The Water Rabbits by Paul Tarragó is something like the literary equivalent of touring an exhibition of contemporary art, at which we are made to confront the unfamiliar, the secretive and the inscrutable. We wander through the galleries, alternately perplexed and intrigued, distracted and stimulated, occasionally consulting our watches and wondering if that fire extinguisher attached to the far wall in magnificent isolation is in fact an exhibit. Afterwards, probably over a meal and a drink, we struggle to process the experience and find things to say that sound remotely insightful and intelligent.
Reviewing books is an odd occupation and a presumptuous one. Subjective responses and evaluations can be dressed up as objectivity (whatever that is), while the reviewer poses as a kind of invisible Everyman who speaks for us all. Alternatively, subjectivity can be allowed to strut its stuff, the reviewer parading his or her feelings and awarding merit stars on the basis of sublimely unexamined preferences and prejudices. Perhaps neither of these extremes is preferable to the other: context is all, and what works one day will fall apart the next.
The Water Rabbits exposes the limitations of the review process to an embarrassing extent. It is entirely artificial to read this book from cover to cover more or less in one sitting. It is doubly artificial then to sit down and think of things to say about it. The Water Rabbits needs to be read in small doses; indeed, its stories, dialogues and occasional poems and photographs are arranged in small doses. Sense needs to be made of each individually before the collection can be grasped as a whole. Even then, that grasp will probably prove elusive, requiring another attempt later in life.
Fortunately, Paul Tarragó ‘heartily believe[s] that a reader can assume a substantial and active role in the meaning-making process … so any difference in understanding seems quite reasonable.’ Reading is certainly a highly creative act involving a wide range of seemingly contradictory means and ends. We forget how miraculous it is and just how big: most of the time, the hard work it entails is hidden from our own sight, so that all we see are our immediate emotional responses. The Water Rabbits brings to consciousness our search for meaning while we read, rewarding and frustrating that search in equal measure.
If anything unites the pieces in The Water Rabbits it is humour. ‘The Bombardier’, for instance, is interspersed with user-reviews of the Bombardier slow-cooker, pitch-perfect in tone and faulty orthography:
Technically, it cooks to fast on a high setting. Very bubble mixture when cooking. So the glass lid is always misty. Therefore, you cannot see the food clearly, as advertised. I have also noticed that my phone is ‘tingly to the touch’ when placed near (though am not definitely sure whether phone or cooker is doing this).
In the eponymous story/dialogue, a police officer has been assigned to a teaching programme:
Henry has realized by now that keeping order in class is very different from the streets. There you could draw from a range of implied threats – incarceration, arrest, fine, forcible detention, even shame – but in school it was more like dealing with embassy officials: everyone had some kind of diplomatic immunity and was operating under a different Rule of Law, one which he was only hazily aware of.
Hazy awareness – the feeling one has when one intuits something just beyond one’s capacity to perceive or understand it – is another major concern, and is perhaps representative of the reading experience itself. In the same story we are told:
The enigmatic turn of the image sequencing suggests there are links that we have missed, or allusions that have been badly articulated.
Appropriately, one of the pieces in The Water Rabbits is called ‘Pattern Recognition’. Throughout the collection, characters – insofar as they are characters at all – strive to find patterns, to hang on to understandings, clarity, details, while constantly assailed by doubts and distractions. They participate in conversations that stalk agreement but are continually sidetracked by stray thoughts and random interruptions. Even the apparatuses they use to record and create – particularly cameras and the very fabric of film itself – eschew technical certainties and open themselves to multiple interpretations with each tiny adjustment of the equipment, each micro-decision of the user. Truth may be socially determined, but that determination is hard to come by.
Here and there, and most importantly in ‘The Water Rabbits’ and ‘Absence of Monster’, a focus on the mutability and indeterminateness of human systems of classification and appraisal suggests that what we call monsters can be something else entirely, or else two things at once. The morphology of the monstrous varies according to proximity: if this particular rabbit does not possess webbing between its toes then it cannot be a water rabbit and, hence, cannot be dangerous; if these monsters are microscopically small and unthreatening when clinging to our clothing, how dangerous do they become when they grow large and run off to hide in the woods? And are they still a threat when they send us considerate letters containing helpful advice? Systems of classification are culturally inflected, as is the very vocabulary of our taxonomizing (cf. Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings 1957).
The Water Rabbits will not find a vast readership. It is too wilfully absurdist, too playful, too unconventional. It refuses to compromise and rebuffs our friendly overtures. It even resists assessment: like it or loathe it, or like some of it and loathe the rest of it, it keeps its secrets so well that we are unable to tell whether or not they are worth the keeping. Is it really about anything at all? Does it have to be? Our answers will depend on our monsters.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more at https://jackmessenger.co.uk