This review was written for The Contemporary Small Press.
“The mind is a slope and the words run off like water and who knows where they go?” (from ‘Memory House‘)
With an abundance of imagination through surreal and unbounded worlds beyond and beneath the world we inhabit, Darker with the Lights On is like taking a train in the dark, the carriage so brightly lit that you struggle to see a world you know is there, beyond the pane of glass. You cup your hands around your eyes and press your nose against the window, trying to see into the darkness, only to be confronted by your own reflection. You cannot see past the ghost of yourself. If only they’d turn the lights off, so you might see clearly the world outside. It is this strange juxtaposition of sense, sensation and rationalising that Hayden captures so brilliantly in this collection.
“The dark was outside, thick and blue, while in the dining room light glinted off silk and silver becoming general glitter that, if seen from the night, would have signified a happy party.” (from ‘The Bread that was Broken’)
Hayden inhabits nowhere places and nothings as intrinsic parts of life. He asks what it means to call somewhere a place and what it means, in fact, to say or do anything at all.
“The train travelled through quiet places with unused piles of gravel, abandoned cars, hard patch farms […] Michael paid close attention to the gradual aggregation of the city, trying to discover the point at which nowhere became somewhere.” (from ‘Last Call for the Hated’)
The stories are works of metafiction that assert the idea that the most radical, surreal, illusory imaginings can be brought to the page:
“Words are just mute smudges until you know what they mean, and when you put them together they can tell all manner of things. There’s plenty you can’t say with words. You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking and hiding.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)
Hayden constructs pockets of hyper-reality that are nonsensical and radiant: “When you die – when you die – you revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your… demise” (from ‘Reading’). It is writing that reaches for the depths of our minds’ possibility. It asks: what can be imagined? Beyond sense, rationality, logic. On reading, I admit, I became confrontational, annoyed, indifferent, dozing off. How dare you, Hayden, try to test the limits of my mind! But I caught glimpses, symbolic moments of meaning, which pulled me in, and continue to do so. Mine was the response of a reader tired, rushed, distracted, shut off, but I fought the shadow of myself to find ways into the text that Hayden offers wholeheartedly.
“I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down.” (from ‘Memory House’)
Much lies dormant beneath the juddering page inflicted with Hayden’s prose, poised to ambush the reader with its brilliance. This is writing that it is a pleasure to write about – to think about with as much vigour as if it were your own. That is what it asks of you: to be curious, clenched and to grapple with consciousness in the act of reading.
“Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)
Often returning to the first line in the last, each story picks words out of themselves, repeating and filtering down its own language. Time is a curious factor throughout, how it passes and how it is experienced. Each story balances philosophical, psychological and physiological elements, and contributes to the balance of the collection as a whole. Not a balance serene and unwavering, but a struggling and unstable attempt at equilibrium that is inexplicably human.