Matthew Battles does not write stories that move, develop or unfold. He creates worlds that hiss, snap, and rattle, and decorates them with objects that brood in black, glassine silence, or crumble into dusty revelation. Characters are left to grab at scraps of reality sent whipping about them at hurricane force. Ideas "run faster than memory can sieve them from the flow," leaving vaporous reverie to fill the vacuum - dogs populate trees, demolition men bear holy forgeries, and a slick dark box siphons off synaptic vibrations.
The thrill and anxiety of the Uncanny is the engine of this debut collection by rare book librarian and cultural critic Matthew Battles. He invents a new Creole, one that combines the baroque grandiosity of 19th century industrialist with the sleek grandiosity of the 21st technologist. Traversing musty libraries and austere technology conferences, Battles quietly but ruthlessly discloses the beauty and grotesquerie of our present times, our infatuation with the New and our nostalgia for the Old both lovingly depicted and then slowly roasted on the spit.
In "The Dogs in the Trees," man's best friends deliver an enigmatic rebuke. The protagonist of "The Sovereignties of Invention" is enthralled by a gadget that plumbs the depths of the stream of consciousness. In "The Manuscript of Belz," a librarian ponders the glamor of the book and the bloody limits of cultural experience. And "the Gnomon" seeks in Internet culture the same dark energies limned by Poe. Each story within "The Sovereignties of Invention" waits, still, dark and deep, to yield its unique shock of uncanny truth - the only choice is to dive in.
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About the Author
Matthew Battles writes about culture, science, and technology for the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Globe, the London Review of Books and a host of other publications, and is a founder of HiLobrow, an online magazine of critical culture named one of the best blogs of 2010 by Time Magazine. His first book, Library: an Unquiet History, was translated into six languages. He lives in Boston.
Read an Excerpt
The Sovereignties of Invention
By Matthew Battles
Red LemonadeCopyright © 2012 Matthew Battles
All right reserved.
The Dogs In the Trees
THE FIRST SIGHTINGS of dogs in trees were reported not long after the Fall equinox. Early rumor came in the form of videos shot at arms’ length on cell phones and hastily uploadedgrainy, shaky, shot with cock-angled intensity, the palsied depth of field swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves. I regarded these links with bemused curiosity, reloading and watching again in a couple of instances to search for telltale lumber or wires or other evidence of trickery. But no more than a week had passed before I witnessed the sight firsthand. In a great pin oak by the corner of my street, in the crook of a heavy branch full thirty feet off the ground, a greyhound brown as bark stared at me with that expression of mingled curiosity and resignation which so many dogs are wont to wear.
I stood beneath the dog for some while; its coat of dark brindle blended into the background, and I had to blink to separate figure from ground. The tree itself was a beautiful specimen, which surely had stood in the district since long before the first houses had been built. It would have seen and survived the clearing that turned a tangled wood into an estate of copse and meadow, would have witnessed the subsequent laying out of streets, their pavement in wood and brick and macadam, and the rise of homes that rivaled but did not overmatch its ever-spreading height. Thanks to the clumsy landscaping of the bank along the road, the oak now rose out of the earth seemingly at mid-trunk, without the arched and mossy root-flare a tree of such stature usually exhibits. Rising out of the ground at its full circumference, the tree seemed as if it might reach down any number of yards through loam to bedrock or beyond to root in worlds beyond reckoning, dimensions in which clay and loam were transparent as the air into which the tree’s top jutted. The canopy still held its full complement of barbed and elegant leaves. Tiny acorns lay all about on road and lawn alike, ground on the pavement to a soft brown flour by the passage of cars. A stately oak, as the formula goes, a neighborhood tree utterly unremarkable but for the prodigy of a dog, sleek and pacific, nestled amidst the buttresses of the canopya prodigy out of which the wonder of the tree itself seemed to erupt, seemed to speak. A prodigy in any case for the lack of evident means by which the dog could have assumed its seat; for no steps, no rope-and-pulley setup, no basket or bungee were visible. Nor was the tree’s tightly furrowed bark marred by any trace that claws would have leftas any canid climbing to such heights would needs have fought a terrific battle, would have done itself and the tree great violence. But the dog, although somewhat discomfited by the precariousness of its position, showed no other sign of disarrangement or dis-ease. As I stood far below it broke off staring at me, yawned, stretched, turning its head demurely and dropping into the kind of haunch-raised crouch that greyhounds seem to prefer. The great branch ever so slightly shivered to its leafy ends, signaling the shift in weight, the tree registering the unavoidable empirical quiddity of a dog in it midst.
After standing for some time beneath the dog in the tree, I summoned the consciousness to pass beneath and continue on my way to work. In the office where my colleagues and I ran a small free daily journal, the trickle of reported sightings already had captured our attention. Having been the first to witness the phenomenon (at any the first to admit to it), I was assigned to cover a situation that was growing stranger and more engrossing by the hour.
Late one afternoon, on the strength of numerous testimonies, I made my way to a nearby park. Most of the land there, which stretched between two boulevards flowing with traffic, was taken up by a pair of ballfields separated by a grove of trees that following a low narrow bourne through which a bit of slime might trickle on soggy winter days. This day was dry, however, and the trees, mostly Norway maples, stood tall as their bright leaves spiraled down to gather in drifts in the long grass. Hanging like ornaments amidst the boughs, a veritable pack of pooches in all shapes and sizesnine dogs of various breeds, sizes, and agesregarded their growing audience of humans with innocent eyes. Wedged into lichen-spangled, deep-foundationed crooks were a sleek Labrador and what I took to be a malamute; further out, a spaniel set its branch swaying with the wagging of its tail; in the next tree a wiry-haired mongrel with a lazy eye looked down over its wedge-shaped snout; and two Pomeranians, white as down, seemed to float like clouds netted in the woody tangle. At the farthest extent of several limbs bobbed a cockeyed chihuahua, a trembling poodle, and a pekingese, its hair flowing over the end of the branch almost decoratively.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
From the author of The Library: An Unquiet History comes the wonderful collection of eleven short stories to be found in The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012). Matthew Battles' crisp prose is a pleasure to read, and he uses it to build a series of fantastic (and fantastical) scenes that demand to be savored. I forced myself to read just one story at a sitting, so that I didn't tear through the book too fast.Dogs in trees, ugly unicorns, soul-sucking machines, mysterious manuscripts, even very dangerous Wikipedia edit-wars are the stuff of Battles' stories. But what he does with them is always unexpected and always a joy to experience.I feel like this is one of those books i will come back to often, to read stories from again and again.