Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Allure of the Surreal Bookshop

When I was growing up, the bookstore that I went to most often was a used bookstore called Book Isle.  I loved it because I could take books I no longer wanted and trade them in for credit to get new books.  But even more than that, I loved it because it was full of potential, full of possible treasures.  I could walk into either one of the chain bookstores in town, with their bright lighting, neatly organized shelves, and glossy magazine racks, and I would know exactly what I could find on their shelves.  But at the Book Isle, amidst the piles of books in dark corners smelling slightly of mustiness, anything was possible.

I'm guessing that many people have a similar bookstore that they know and love, which is one of the reasons that Claude Lalumière's The Door to Lost Pages is initially so appealing.  Lalumière's book is a collection of short stories, tied together by a common theme--a bookstore called Lost Pages that sells books that are otherwise lost to the world.  Lalumière takes the feeling of many used bookstores that actually exist, that is, the feeling of possibility and treasure-hunting, and pushes it just a bit farther, adding magic, multiple threads of reality, and dark, erotic overtones, creating what one character thinks of as "the allure of this surreal bookshop."

While this initial idea of a magical bookshop is certainly the hook that draws the reader into the collection, it is just one of the ideas that is central to Lalumière's book.  In the first story in the collection, we meet two children, both about 10 years old, who are disconnected from all those around them.  The boy, whose name we don't learn until late in the story, finds Lost Pages and becomes obsessed with a set of encyclopedias in the store that offer up the possibility of multiple worlds existing at the same time.  When reading about Troy and Gilgamesh, for example, he "made no distinction between history and mythology."  In fact, he tells us,

I was more than happy to accept that these often contradictory readings of the past were all equally true, that reality was not flat and linear, but complex and multidimensional, allowing for many versions of the same events to exist simultaneously.  For many pasts to lead to the same present.

Later, he says,

And I believed everything I read.  It was all too fantastic not to be true.

It was this passage, I think, that sold me on Lalumière's collection of stories.  Because as much potential as a bookstore has, the books within them have more.  And in this passage, Lalumière also hits on what makes fantasy literature so powerful--because it is so fantastic, so impossible, we know that something at the heart of it must be true.

Of the stories in The Door to Lost Pages, this first one was my favorite.  After the story of the two children who are both drawn to Lost Pages, the stories get progressively darker, touching on nightmares, madness, and homelessness.  There is also a heavy sexual element in many of the stories as well, and while I enjoyed the darkness of Lalumière's stories, they seemed to rely too heavily on sexuality to create this darkness.

For the most part, The Door to Lost Pages is an intriguing collection of intertwined stories that combine philosophy, nightmares, and a few postmodern narrative tricks.  It's a collection of stories perfect for anyone who loves bookstores, and books, and the excitement--and danger--that lie within.

By Jen Miller