-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Reviewing J Bradley’s Bodies Made of Smoke is is rather a challenge when you haven’t seen Highlander: The Series. A quick internet search after having read the novella explained a few things that just didn’t seem to fit with the internal logic of the story, but there were still many things that I had the sneaking suspicion would have made far more sense if I’d had the background knowledge from the TV series to have put them in context for me.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novella – with its rapid sketches flitting between scenes of corny love poetry composition, brutal duelling, mysterious midnight acquisitions of substances in Mason jars and odd commemorative papiermache heads with ‘cum faces’ hidden under beds. The deceptively slight, script-like construction of the novella packs in apparently disparate storylines taking places across centuries that weave in tighter towards the novella’s climax in a vicious (and confessedly, at times baffling) duel.
Gods, mortals, immortals and fate are dealt with in a swaggering, sexually charged and often crude tone. The very opening of the novella lays it out for us (and is an original take on the opening voiceover lines from the Highlander series, the internet informs me):
‘With enough Clan MacGregor in me, I’m all fuckin’ Highlander. That’s right baby and I know that ass ain’t hallowed, so tonight there can only be one in that ass. There can only be one.’
This sums up the concerns of the novella for us nicely; we are at once given the in-your-face, sexually domineering tone of voice while also, for those well-versed in the Highlander series, given the key to unlock many of the mysteries of the text – for example why the two central characters, Sarah and Tom, engage in the ritual beheadings that lead to them being investigated by the police. For an uninitiated reader like myself this is one of many mysteries that engaged me with the story, and introduces a detective-story element, but not one that seems to be satisfactorily resolved.
Some of the time-travelling scenes also jar slightly; we are introduced to the classical Greek Gods Hephaestos and Atropos and given the back stories in little snippets that lead up to their modern day incarnations. For example, Hephaestos’ desire to be immortal and cheat death, in the form of Atropos, in the modern times of unbelievers by concealing themselves in the human bodies of our central characters (amongst apparently many others through the ages). We are taken back to Roman times when their power is on the wane as their identities are being transformed, then suddenly thrust into their secretive modern-day guises of mysterious ‘pocket universes’ and objects imbued with great powers, and their having to make use of humans as ‘meat puppets’. While giving vital context, the tone of the classically set scenes just aren’t as convincing or dynamic as those set in the present day.
In contrast to the classical construct of gods playing wantonly with mortals, we have the defiant responses of the human characters to having being ‘hijacked’, in Sarah’s case by one of another gender, creating bizarrely comical schizophrenic moments as they challenge their actions:
You will not have sex with that boy.
“Why not? Afraid you might like a dick inside of you? I thought Greek men were into boy-on-boy action.”
The mortals, yes, but not us. You will not have sex with that boy. Sex with a girl on the other hand…
Sex is a big force behind the text- sex as defiance to the gods that control the mortals, but also sex as the means to reproduction and immortality. Complicating this we also have human relationships, parodically parody distilled with an analysis of Sarah’s bizarre needs balanced against her sexual performance by Tom:
“Well, there’s a law of averages where x is based on hotness and fuck skills and y is how fucking crazy they are. If x exceeds y then stick with them. If y exceeds x, get out”
As humans, Sarah and Tom seem to be searching for one another, attempting to find The One. How much of this is down to their romantic inclinations and how much of this is controlled by the gods for their own ends is hard to tell. We have sketches where Tom is being given professional advice by a love coach as to how to approach Sarah and keep her interest, balanced against wonderfully corny and disturbing love poetry written by the pair, including the unforgettable line ‘When we hump, I want to be your neck stump’.
And it is these beheadings and the papiermache heads, tokens of the killings, that are for me so difficult to analyse; are they killings because of Sarah’s strange fetishes implanted into her as a child by a god that forced her to watch Highlander every night? Because these particular lovers weren’t The One? Or were they killings enacted by a god as punishment for Sarah defiance in having sex with these men? Or were they killings to eliminate the possibility of this lover being the one who is inhabited by Atropos, the Threadcutter and feared rival?
In sum, the form, tone, content and mystery-driven storyline with tantalising ellipses drew me in and I enjoyed reading this piece sometimes because of, and sometimes despite its in-your-face crude sexuality. However the heavy reliance on knowledge of cult references is a stumbling block for readers trying to unpick the meaning of certain actions and relationships. In my view a novella, as a condensed work, can legitimately be slight in its writing while hinting at depths that are skimmed over. But when these depths are whole works that are, or at least seem to be, key to unlocking the mysteries of the text at hand this is frustrating. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps the playing with Highlander is just a facet of character development for Sarah and doesn’t have a wider meaning for the story as a whole, but it does destabilise my analysis of what’s going on based on my understanding of the story as a separate entity. However there is still a lot of enjoyment to be derived from the modern day placement of an age-old epic duel, the bizarre wooing and sexual role-play and the defiant sexuality of the protagonists.