1862 ‘Part of the spectacle’
Naked Defiance: A Comedy of Menace
by Patrik Sampler
Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 2023
$19.00 / 9781554202003
Reviewed by Steven Brown
A Comedy of Menace is the subtitle of this fine novel. Although it can be looked at as menacing comedy, there’s a lot else going on. Naked Defiance is also an arcane and elaborate fiction. It’s elusive and complicated. Subversive is another word. The storyline is absurd and the characters are ridiculous, but the reading experience is compelling.
The author begins with literary devices. “Patrik Sampler” states in an introduction that he works as an editor for a publisher. This publisher has inherited another publisher’s back catalogue and with it a lone manuscript accepted for publication, unedited at the time of the publisher’s demise, and never published. The new holder of manuscript’s rights decides to publish it and assigns the editing task to none other than “Patrik Sampler.” But isn’t he the author of the book we hold in our hands?
Sampler runs with the device. The title of the unpublished manuscript is Naked Defiance. It purports to be the story of Naked Defiance, a small group of performative “art radicals” who were active for five or so years at the turn of the twenty-first century. As any sign of the name of the author has vanished for reasons unknown, its new publisher, needing to assign an author, chooses its assigned editor’s name “because it just made sense.” That’s the story, anyway. And what we hold in our hands is proof that this selfsame editor, “Patrick Sampler,” was amenable to the idea. Fiction has sprung a leak and is dripping into reality, but “Patrick Sampler” seeks to emphasize that he is not the real author of Naked Defiance.
Who is the author in this story within a story? The introduction by “Patrik Sampler” is followed by a Foreword supposedly written by the actual author. This author explains the extensive research he undertook to arrive at the story of Naked Defiance. He interviewed surviving members of the group and the deceased members’ families. He has changed all names. He relates that to tell the story of the group he has assumed the persona of Florian Moore, not the writer’s actual name, of course, whose perspective the story is told from. At one point the character Florian Moore adamantly and repeatedly insists that he, Florian Moore, and no one else, has written this memoir. He is the author and we’d better believe it. Uh, okay then.
The group is “anti-authoritarian,” with goals to “challenge the spectacle of capitalism” and its “miserable logic” by being “insurgents of the marvellous” in the hope of producing “unsettling quotidian surprise.” How is all this to be accomplished? By carrying out “actions” amounting to strange, public behaviours either individually, paired, or in groups. These actions are pointless and meaningless except to the people carrying them out. “Actions” are written up at group meetings, put in envelopes, and distributed randomly. At one meeting the group decides to be naked at meetings. (Hence Naked Defiance or ND.)
This is no everyday group of activist agitators; these people are a little strange. And then some performers are stalked during their actions. There are a few incidents. The stalker wears a disturbingly life-like animal mask. Sometimes it’s a horse head mask, sometimes a civet’s head.
The society is which Naked Defiance carries out its actions seems quite familiar in some ways. At other times it’s dominated by decay and oppression. The police are not your friends. Florian Moore, “real” author of the story (according to him and supported by a note to his publisher inserted into the manuscript and retained by “Patrik Sampler” for publication along with the rest of the text), states that he has “censored whatever you can’t have in a story in this country” and also “deleted any direct criticism of the government.” Meanwhile forests are burning outside the unnamed city where significant areas are “low rent and partly abandoned.” And the planet’s climate appears to be taking a steep nosedive.
Despite the air of apocalypse the city has a cosmopolitan vibe. The members of the group have flamboyant names. Their “charismatic” leader is Ganbold Mirzoyan, of indeterminate heritage, possibly Mongolian. Ganbold has a sister named Altantsetseg “Alia” Vynnchenko. Haruko Rusakova used to be Agnieszka Møller before she married. She changed her first name because she wanted a completely new start and chose “Haruko” because it was her great great grandmother’s name. Her great great grandmother was “attached to the Japanese delegation to Denmark” back in the late 1800s. That’s what Haruko claims. Then there’s Solomiya Gura, Zephyr Young, and Brnóp Green. Erika Kaiser left the group because she felt it wasn’t radical enough. She commits to being a vexatious shopper, anathema to store managers. Florian Moore sits down for an interview with Xenakis—just Xenakis—a coldly calculating police officer with a friendly, professional manner. He’s a copper, but he’s read Michel Houellebecq, the prominent contemporary French writer. Not every cop can say that. Meanwhile, “tire” (as in car tire) is given the British spelling, “tyre.” Maybe just to add to the fun.
It’s interesting that Jorge Luis Borges, the renowned Argentine writer, is mentioned at one point along the many throughways of this work. Initially, one is reminded of Borges, one of the pioneers of surrealism in literature and creator of complex imaginary worlds. Patrik Sampler, the one who resides close to Vancouver, has been a contributing editor to the surrealist journal Peculiar Mormyrid and devoted much of a postgraduate degree to Japanese author Kōbō Abe. So it’s no surprise his approach is going to have an unconventional tilt. Unlike Borges, the many obscure and semi-obscure references to people and events in Naked Defiance, a feature of the narrative, turn out mostly to be based in fact although the overall tone of this novel is just a little bit ripe. Even so, Patrik Sampler (aka “Patrik Sampler”) makes a brilliant, inventive literary effort.
It’s a decidedly chilly, emotionally neutered world where these characters exist; there’s no sign any possess a sense of humour or any apparent self-awareness. They’re unselfconsciously weird. An action performed by one of the “comrades” has comic potential, riding the subway without pants, but it does get the individual arrested. Then Ganbold Mirzoyin is arrested and things begin to spin away.
“Books have ruined my life,” jokes Steven Brown. A professional in the book trade for years, he’s managed to retain a deep and abiding passion for books and first rate literature. He was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Ontario and British Columbia. Vancouver is home these days. His reviews have appeared in Canadian newspapers, a literary review or two, and he has donated reviews to good causes. He’s written a couple of novels he’d like to see published. Editor’s note: Steven has recently reviewed fiction by Taslim Burkowicz and Rhonda Waterfall.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster