‘The treachery of stories and words’ – Dust and Other Stories by Paul Rooney

Paul Rooney is an artist who often works with text-based materials. Looking at the publication credits, many of the pieces in Dust first appeared in other forms – as video or sound works, or different kinds of written text. Now they’ve been brought together in this collection, a joint publication by Akerman Daly and Aye-Aye Books.

Voice is a key concern in these stories, and perhaps especially the extent to which the ‘voice’ of a story can be trusted. In ‘Towards the Heavenly Void, a musician with a sideline in mediumship finds himself channelling the voice of Les Dawson – or at least of someone who claims that the comedian we know as Les Dawson was someone with whom he swapped lives, whilst the man who’s ‘talking’ went off to South America in search of Che Guevara. Rooney captures the tone and character of one of Dawson’s monologues, leaving us with layers of voice that – as the tale’s ending symbolises – evaporate when you try to unpick them.

Rooney also makes use of different textual forms in Dust. ‘Transcript’ (a collaboration with Will Rose) purports to document a Q&A session between Rooney, Rose, and a film-maker. The talk soon gets maddeningly and entertainingly out of hand with audience interruptions, which dissolve the text into a clamour of voices – all overlaid with the interventions of the anonymous transcriber. It’s typical of Rooney’s playful approach that, as a character, the author says nothing; though of course his words are all over this piece.

Other stories have more conventional structures but come at the author’s concerns in equally effective ways. ‘Words and Silence’ tells of a call centre worker who creates elaborate personas for herself when making calls; eventually her imaginings threaten to swamp her view of reality. ‘The Kendal Iconoclasm’ turns a spy thriller into a tale of existential horror: its characters know they’re in a story – they can see it being typed out in front of their eyes – but not who the writer (or writers) are. Rooney’s protagonist tries to exert some control as he heads up the motorway, but he seems not to realise just how deeply enmeshed he is in the story – there’s no escaping from this escapist fiction. It’s just one example of the treachery of stories and words, as seen in so many ways throughout this collection.

Any Cop? Yes – taken together, the stories of Dust are an interesting exploration of voice and text. And Rooney’s diverse approaches means that there’ll always be something different on the next page.

 

David Hebblethwaite

 

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