'The word forever probably doesn't mean much to you, does it?' Albert said. 'Numbers are important in the city, are they not? Measurements of space, measurements of time...'
p.34 in Strungballs
By Mike Russell.
In Strungballs, we are introduced to ten-year-old Sydney, who has just received his first Strungball. What is a Strungball? It is a red ball 3cm in diameter and with a 12cm string, which gets inserted in a robot-made 4cm x 4cm x 4cm space in everyone’s chest. Why do people have Strungballs? Because you are an ‘Other’ without one, so ‘once a Strungball has been inserted it must never be removed’ (p.16).
All the pallid, white-gowned residents of this novella live inside the Sphere of Flesh, a continuous circle of rooms numbered 1-999. The sphere is constantly repaired and maintained by the cubes of flesh removed from their chests. Everyone is very robotic in manner and speech, everyone has the same living space and everyone seems to be perfectly at ease with their ‘good’ life. That is until Sydney meets Albert, who scoffs at the existence of ‘Others’ and dislikes Strungballs, claiming that in world where measurements of space and time are important, there could be a path that leads to infinity, but to get to that path you must live without Strungballs.
Naturally, Sydney removes his Strungball and he is immediately hit with a wave of questions: “Why is everything?...Why am I? Why?” (p.40) and a need for something. Terrified he puts his Strungball back, but he cannot forget what he experienced without one. He returns to Albert’s room, only to find him presumably dead having pulled off all his Strungballs by attaching them to a hook and jumping off a chair. Sydney removes his Strungball again and throws it out of the Albert’s window, but in remorse jumps out after it.
After taking down a robot nurse who attacks him, Sydney gouges a hole through the Sphere of Flesh and escapes into a white landscape akin to a desert. Now here the novella takes a dramatic shift to the very strange. Looking back, he discovers the Sphere of Flesh lives inside an inside-out male giant. This giant suddenly wakes up, cries out and a red forest sprouts around his feet. On exploration, Sydney discovers that the red forest contains two hearts and that the trees themselves are veins. He also finds an identical Syndey, who has escaped from a female inside-out giant who has just arrived on the scene, and becomes one with him. Inside her, there was an identical city to the one Sydney came from.
The two giants have sex and the two cities merge to become one. Within minutes, the female giant gives birth to a giant hermaphrodite baby. All the city residents get turned to white dust when the baby looks at them, as do the baby’s parents when the baby is satisfied.
This must be one of the weirdest books I’ve read and I’m still not 100% sure what to make of it. I was intrigued by the first half of this book, I thought Russell was creating a surreal yet honest example of consumerist society, with the Strungballs representing all the gadgets we today perceive as ‘good’ and ‘must haves’. The idea of ‘others’ is a very old and common perception in society, but in this case it took on a more folkloric form as no one had ever seen an ‘other’ despite knowing about them.
All the dialogue is simple and I thought purposely robotic. There is no character development of any kind as there are no characters. There are names on a page, but the characters themselves are surface-scratches. This might have been the point, but without any depth or engaging qualities, I found it had to care about the story, especially when it took its weirder turns.
I found the second half of the book extremely frustrating, as I could not see any point to what was taking place. When it got to the giant sex, I completely gave up trying to make sense of this book. The promotional cry at the very end of the book urges readers to ‘spread the strangeness’, which made me wonder whether the point of the book itself was to simply be ‘strange’, without any discernible plot, characters or depth. If this is the case, then we must ask the question as to whether we can accept this kind of work as being simply strange rather than being poorly written. Where do we draw the line? Do we have the right to draw one? No would be my answer, I believe we should write whatever we choose, but even then I cannot say Strungballs was a good piece of writing. I found it frustrating, ridiculous and there were several plotholes that I would still argue as being the result of poor writing rather than strangeness.
Why didn’t Sydney feel the need to ask those ‘why’ questions BEFORE the Strungball was inserted and then removed? There were ten years of Strungball-less life before then, which begs the question why don’t children get treated as ‘others’ if an ‘other’ is simply someone who doesn’t have a Strungball? Why don’t children mass together and ask these questions if they are free from the Strungball’s calming robotic influences? How can Sydney’s parents see the giant’s gentlia if their windows all face inwards towards the sphere of flesh and not outwards towards the giant’s skin? Russel writes that the sphere transforms into the giant, but then without the sphere of flesh the city wouldn’t exist, as it seems to be that the city and the sphere are one?
I will not ask questions as to ‘why’ any of the story is the way it is, there must be some suspension of disbelief for any surreal work of fiction. However, some explanation would have been helpful to the reader. In Bonespin Slipspace by Leo X. Robertson a lot of surreal, unexplained events take place, especially towards the end of the book. However, we are given some hints as to why: we are inside an insane murderer’s head, who had created a way to trap victims in his internal pocket dimension. Again, hows and whys don’t come into the equation, but we are given at least some strands of information. In Strungballs, we are constantly refused this information. I thought at first the book was looking at consumerist society, then I thought it might be a big metaphor for reproduction, but by the end I frustratingly gave up trying to find a crutch in this story.
I would recommend this story to anyone who likes the strange, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants a good novella to read, as I’m sad to say I had to conclude this novella wasn’t for me. However, Goodreads is filled with fairly positive reviews of the book, so maybe it was a matter of taste.