Rose Mulready unsettles the reader from the very first page of her 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella winning novella, The Bonobo’s Dream: a birch tree listens; a young boy, James takes off his “drawing harness” and looks out of a glass window, touching it then licking his finger, tasting it; on a smaller scale, his goldfish sing inside their own glass bowl, and we’ll soon see this echoed in the life of James’s family inside their house, and the whole city beneath its giant glass dome. The novella reveals itself as a speculative fiction from this first page, with more details being teased out in the pages that follow. James’s needy mother, Suzanne, comes in to see him, and she “smells of her morning dose”, which holds echoes of Aldous Huxley’s soma (“a gramme is better than a damn”). Aquila, James’s philandering father, a talented and well-known artist, considers the word ‘umbrella’, “meaningless now, an anachronism”, presumably because of the dome. He arranges to visit his mistress Antoinette at a hotel that is “only a short catazoom’s ride away”.
So yes, this is a speculative fiction, and one in two parts: Fishbowl and Black-Beaked Birds, but it also a deep and affecting literary fiction; we’re in a fantastical and unlikely post-apocalyptic world, but it’s the wonderfully realistic and humanly flawed characters that really drive the book forward. Circling each other in their home, self-medicating, living an unreal domed existence somehow disconnected from the reality of their situation, this family comes to life as we learn more about them. James’s sister Charity is coming to visit for her birthday, and tensions are expected. When his mother Suzanne comes in to see him and asks if he loves her, she laughs at his concern for his fish, “as if they’re real”, then leaves:
He goes to his dresser and gets out their powder and they carol gaily at the sight of it but his hands are shaking so much that most of it goes over the floor and they gulp up what they can and then spiral down to the bottom of the bowl and lurk there, half hidden in their weeds.
The artificiality of James’s fish echoes a wider unreality—or denial—that pervades the first half of the book. For James,
When he’s in his room it’s alright. But then he has to come out and he’s lost again, sucked into their orbit.
For his mother, Suzanne, feeling that she’s been overdoing her doses and that no ones listens to her,
And who should she blame? He [Aquila] is convenient for her. His fame, this house, the comfort, the safety: convenient. She circles him like a dead moon around a planet, a moon that’s long ago forgotten why it spins.
Few concrete details are revealed about the nature of this post-apocalyptic world, and Mulready’s writing exemplifies ‘show, don’t tell’ in that all the details we glean are shown to us as incidental elements of this family’s everyday life as they orbit each other and prepare for Charity’s party. Aquila “doesn’t like to talk about the End-of-Days”, so we’re spared the boredom of exposition through dialogue, and instead it’s the comic absurdity of him attempting to source genuine ingredients to bake a ‘genuine’ cake that betrays the denial and detachment from reality of these characters and the citizens at large. When Charity arrives, it’s with her new boyfriend Edward, and we’re forewarned that he may be “a shock” to her parents. Indeed, Charity notes with satisfaction that Aquila is “glue-pale, [and] looks sick with shock” as they enter the room.
I wouldn’t like to expand much upon the plot from here, but suffice to say the second part of the novella stretches out beyond ‘The Fishbowl’. The ending feels slightly hurried and I somehow found myself yearning back for the perfect set-piece of the first part, but that’s silly—the plot must move on, and perhaps my yearning reflects one of the important themes of the book. Anyway, move on it does, bringing a satisfying dose of self-realisation for each family member. In the characters of Charity and Edward—and indeed, all of the characters—this novella (in the blurb’s own words) probes “the limits of what it means to be human”. Mulready deftly blends satire, playfulness and comedy with deceptively simple sentences that occasionally open up in moments of great beauty, making this a superbly-written literary speculative fiction. If we must categorise it…