Barry Webster's The Sound of All Flesh comes alive on the page
Montreal author Barry Webster is a classically trained musician, a pianist to be precise, and in his writing, that fact couldn’t be made more clear. The Sound of All Flesh, his first published compendium of short fiction, is ruled by rhythm, breathing imagery in and out like the dependable lungs of an accordion.
Generally, Webster’s prose is poetic and impressionistic, at once astutely precise in its terminology and amiably amphibological in its impact. The main thrust through his narratives is the visualizations he conjures; phrases like "we sink to the floor to suck the dirt from carpet fronds" resonate with a power that carries readers effortlessly through the more functional sentences until the next enveloping image a few lines down. Though published in book form for the first time here, Webster’s words have been printed in a variety of Canadian journals, including Matrix, Dalhousie Review and Fiddlehead; he has been short-listed for a National Magazine Award and the CBC-Quebec Prize.
The accomplished collection starts off with a challenge, the most obtuse and formally ritualized piece of the 12. The Royal Conservatory at once makes homage and denigrates that most prestigious of musical institutions, composed like a musical partition-in-the-making: founding elements are listed at the beginning, to then integrate into harmony at the end. The piece’s parts are rich and laden with a very particular humour that laces its way through the book, but to grasp it as a consumable piece of prose requires a certain effort.
Subsequent stories confirm Webster’s great ability at simply, less self-consciously, telling tales. My favourite could possibly be Laughing Forever, the story of a poor boy who promised himself he would never laugh, lest he expose himself to the demonic will of the world’s clowns. The horror in the story attains mythic proportions: "Monstrous, blood-webbed eyes, mauve pupils that stab and impale, the oblate nose obscenely moist, wound-red, emitting a deafening HONK when touched, the mouth lipless as a skeleton’s, beige teeth flat as tombstones, the gaps between which fingers can be caught, shredded or severed, and no hair on top of his head but, on the sides, heaps of poisonous, pink mould, his trumpet-mouthed ears full of hook-headed fuzz brittle as the hair on tarantula-legs." Yikes! Bozo will never look the same.
The pieces range from very straightforward (the travelogues Believing in Paris and Capturing Varanasi) to playful, extraordinary and surreal (A Piano Shudders, The Innocence of Water, Circles). In the balance rests the sense of a lifetime of words and notes melting into one another on the page.