by David Madsen

Have a laugh. Go on. Think of the last truly funny thing that happened to you, and let your hilarity throttle those inhibitions. Need a touch of stimulation? Okay, how about the one where the trouserless amnesiac, the eminent psychologist and the obese guard find themselves traveling by train to an unknown destination? Not heard that one? Of course you haven’t: it’s the opening of David Madsen’s latest annal horribilis which arrives loaded with ample reasons to snigger, chortle and generally poke fun at those indulging in sexual practices of the Carry On variety.

      If you come to Madsen’s work fresh, with no prior knowledge of his deliciously lewd Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf, then leave all preconceptions of humour being a contact sport at the door. With A Box of Dreams you’ll laugh, out loud, even in the most solitary of situations.

      Fine lines flow freely from the author’s depraved imagination. Not just literally with easily quotables like, “Once it was an all-green menu – beans and peas mainly – and I spent the night farting myself into a coma,” but also in the sense of the divisions between opposites that create true comic frisson.

      On the one hand you have base drives of violence and sex (a whole lot of sex) rubbing anatomy with the more cerebral notion of ‘reality’ versus the alternate world of dreams. In contrasting these two themes, Madsen opens up a royal road to the nebulous location of Schloß Fluchstein. Within the labyrinthine corridors of this gaudy edifice, titillation – tempered by abhorrence – pushes the reader into witnessing events while practically peeping between their fingers. Take the instance where Malcowitz, the sadistic train guard mentioned earlier, tells of a recurring dream in which he is tempted to bed by a voluptuous maiden. Mere seconds after he climbs on top of her, the woman transforms into “the most repulsive wrinkled hag you could possibly imagine,” and tells him that if he doesn’t consent to sex every night from now on he’ll never wake up again. It’s like the bathroom scene from The Shining with an equally chilling lack of empathy for the character being seduced/violated. Alongside horrors like this, psychology – embodied in the decrepit character of Sigmund Freud (“I am not that Sigmund Freud”) – battles with the counter belief system of religion while both establishments suffer a royal lampooning as the tale progresses. As does academia in opposition to the rural ‘ignorance’ that many of the provincial characters of Schloß Fluchstein exhibit. The ancient professor Bangs is in the process of compiling his Unus Mundus Cubicus – a Madelbrot set of cubes upon which “every statement of explanation as to the meaning of a thing” is recorded. When the theory is countered by the central character’s paradoxical argument, “perhaps the answer is: there is no answer,” the old duffer promptly throws himself out of the nearest window in despair. A none too bright move in anybody’s book.

      Even the artifice of writing itself comes under comic scrutiny as we’re led further and further into the somnambulist environs encountered by Hendryk – the everyman styled hero of the piece. As a writer caught within his own dream, he discovers that he has the power to change reality merely by putting pen to paper. However, this being the capricious territory of the unconscious, his ego driven schemes rapidly begin to unravel, resulting in the world spiraling into nightmare. In this warped limbo of oppositions, the language of dreams becomes the drive that hurries the plot forward. By turns, Hendryk is robbed of his trousers, forced to conduct a packed seminar on the art of Yodeling and made to eat nothing but bread for days while also having his sexuality questioned by practically everyone around him. And yet, amid all this confusion, Madsen never loses sight of the importance of constructing solid, believable characters – including those that are sketched – to counterpoint the chaos that surrounds them. Even with the delivery of the killer twist to the adventure, the author refuses to let you easily shake off the lives of the people you have so recently encountered. It’s as if a part of you becomes inexorably trapped within the book as the final page refuses to turn. Saying that, there are times when a lazy use of imagery or description results in the odd tawdry passage – way too many rheumy eyes for this reviewer’s liking, and the cliché of dust motes ‘floating and sparkling’ sits at odds with Mr Madsen’s obvious linguistic playfulness elsewhere. Still, the cracks are hairline and, ultimately, Madsen manifests himself between his words like some rampant Terry Pratchett preaching to the deviant.

      A Box of Dreams is a wonderful tale within a tale, a dream within a dream that will instantly transport any fan of Dedalus back to its initial signing: The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin. But where Irwin’s fascination with the esoteric and cabalistic confines of 15th century Cairo obviously borrows heavily from classical sources, Madsen’s dreamworld is more Eddie Izzard than Scheherazade. Wickedly crude and yet critically smart, highly complex and yet Weetabix simple to digest… They say that opposites attract and, in all honesty, nthposition have been all over this like some kind of bad – possibly sexually transmitted – rash. Buy it and, as Madsen’s heretical dwarf Pepe would say, gnothi seauton – know thyself…