Cover of The Prisoners Gains a Blurred Skin
The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin
Nicholas Playford

has some of the stylistic flamboyance, the pleasure in the texture of language, which is like Beckett
s early fiction
Brenda Walker, Australian Book Review
zooms in like a camera to reveal the micro world underlying the macro
Pamela Eade McCasker, Overland

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Nicholas Playford - now Avatar Polymorph - is a masterful writer. His fourteen tales of the imagination, of bizarre transformations, are in the tradition of Poe and Borges. Fringe citizens of Australian society are revealed in ways which haunt us. His microscopic vision of how the senses affect his characters transforms our perception of their lives.

He looked at Curtis’s face, examining the pores of his skin and the sliced bristles on his chin. On a scale of millimetres the phenomenal world became tangled.

These stories are subtle and innovative. They are clinically satirical and have a miniaturist visual style. His Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide are places we have not yet seen. The ontological flux of the everyday is suddenly revealed as overwhelmingly fantastic.

The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin is the work of a rational being contending with the tumult of emotion. If his world is seen through a magnifying lens, that lens is also trained on us.

The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin was the first title released by Black Pepper.

Cover painting Spain (1950) by James Gleeson
ISBN 187560619X
Published 1994 (released 1995)
169 pgs
The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin book sample

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Encircling the Rose Garden
The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours
The Unbidden Prism of Desire
Orientation of the Cinder-track Horizon
Examining the Audacious Edifice
Through a Magpie Come Words on Fears of China
The Skimmer Upon the Perceptual Sea
The Fragmentation of Tyres
The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin

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Fantastic Fictions
Brenda Walker
Australian Book Review, February/March 1995

Apparently Jules Renard’s final journey entry had a lasting influence on Samuel Beckett. In Deirdre Bair’s book on Beckett the story reads: ‘Last night I wanted to get up. Dead weight. A leg hangs outside. Then a trickle runs down my leg. I allow it to reach my heel before I make up my mind. It will dry in the sheets.’ The scrupulous notation of bodily sensation which Beckett enjoyed is also one of the unusual qualities of Nicholas Playford's first story collection, The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin. The style is less concerned with intimacy than with cumulative detail, with precision. There is often a scientific rather than an emotional conviction in this work, though the work does have emotional depth. Playford also has some of the stylistic flamboyance, the pleasure in the texture of language, which is like Beckett's early fiction, before he moved towards austerity.

My favourite story is ‘Whale’, dominated by the great and threatened shape of a terminally ill grandfather. The grandfather is part of an experimental drug program. The side effects of the drug have already killed two participants. These side effects are a physical manifestation of the horror of ageing: primarily skeletal growth and distortion, as if the very structure of the loved body must finally grow huge and twist. The bulk of the dying is more than physical. The observing grandson cherishes and resents the dying man. There is tact and resilience in the grandson’s conclusion: ‘I looked down at the water and the wooden supports beneath the long ramp of the pier and wanted to hug him but could not. I clutched the tough fence.’

‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours’ is another strong story, this time about labour, physical deprivation and significance. Three exhausted workers sort unidentified pellets in a shed in the Adelaide hills. They are isolated from the factory and the community - from the sites of production and consumption. They have no idea of the product’s function. An industrial accident poisons the atmosphere, which seems to liquefy, then harden into stone. Having refused an underhand rescue offer from the son of the factory manager the workers are enclosed in stone. The last narrator defies a final, ambiguous consolation:

As the substance hardened I began to lose the sensation that it was pushing against me. It was as if we were floating in another dimension, bereft of all senses save touch and pain. I was not thirsty, and my hunger had left me. There were no disasters left and no expectations, just the stone, come from some reckless folly beyond our understanding. The world narrowed to the warmth of my comrades and the beat in their blood vessels, things without change.

The irony of course is that in this atmosphere bodily warmth will change, the workers will die.

Solidarity occurs in a fatal industrially misproduced solidity which blinds, deafens and prevents movement, indeed, workers ‘lose the sensation’ of resistance. Escaping with the bosses is impossible, even if workers are invited to escape, yet worker solidarity is not effectual.

Several stories explore situations of helplessness. One of these is ‘Examining the Audacious Edifice.’ Sub-headings indicate the emotional territory: Imprisonment, Suspicion, Inertia, Difficulties, Apathy, Action, Future, Perplexity, Loss and Catastrophe. Each heading has a brief quotation from what I assume is a Tarot guide, as if to suggest the inevitability of the imprisonment etc which follows. There is an ironic play, too, between the fantastically exotic Tarot predictions and the more prosaic story:

This crowns him; in the World, reversed, a naked woman holding two scrolls .floats in the sky, tresses of her long hair suspended in ignorance of gravity, surrounded by a wreath and partially hidden by an unfurled length of snow-coloured silk.

He lay on his bed and wished that he could sleep. He liked the accommodation but was concerned that he was too dissimilar to the two women who lived with him. Both were office workers and less than twenty years old.

Though tactically prosaic, the story is not uneventful. A man feels uncomfortable with his house-mates, they have little in common. Misinformed police raid the house, looking for narcotics. The door is smashed, possessions are exposed not only to strangers but to a fierce and authoritative dog. The tentative hopefulness which the character has brought to the household is fractured, there is to be no social place for him and he leaves for the isolation of a hostel. Like much of the writing in this collection. ‘Examining the Audacious Edifice’ is a tense, sad, powerful story.

Many of the stories are about sexual estrangement through active betrayal, indifference or complete misunderstanding. This is where Playford’s precise notation of sensation is most apparent and where it most obviously contributes to the general effect of distancing and isolation. These narrators are not lovers, they are watchers and classifiers:

I firmed my caresses, attempting to assert my socially defined masculine role; though not brawny she was strong, and her body stipple. I took in her scent, the celebration o f her arousal - I knew that we were going to have sex, and with that intimate knowledge I became conscious of my penis, a hardening tube within my underwear, minimally wider at its base, and touched the roughness of the brim of my tongue to hers, tasting her saliva.

In another story the narrator claims that ‘The rush of the haptic overwhelmed me.’ There is no sense of overwhelming tactile involvement, but rather of objective notation. This estranging precision extends to the non-sexual. In one story the narrator clears his throat, ‘swallowing the gelled secretion of my salivary glands.’ Here he scrutinises involuntary interior processes. The final story describes a man who is so emotionally disassociated that he abandons his species, becoming a bird.

There is considerable diversity in these stories, yet what they have in common and what they offer the reader is a perception of the actively fantastic - as in the transformation of species - or the part that language can play in the edginess of social detachment and Cartesian internal division. There are dangers in writing about these issues, including the danger that the fantastic will become abstract or cryptic, and the notation of estrangement will estrange the reader. Yet social detachment and internal division are the issues of Beckett’s early work and it will be interesting to see where they take Nicholas Playford’s fiction.

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Terry Dowling
Science Fiction, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 May 1995

Another debut collection appears here, not because its 14 stories are patently genre (few fit the popular definition - by way of an experimental drug, mysterious stones, a suggestion of psychic vampirism, transformation into a bird) but because of a focus, a set of narrative modes, sensibilities, perceptual postures if you like, which, as in the work of Borges, David Brooks, Gerald Murnane or in J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, bring the reader to a shift in viewing the commonplace fundamental to the genre.

These aren't always easy stories to enjoy, with detached delivery and often passionless accretions of detail: ‘Her pink tongue had been visible, the detail of its tissue like cellular stucco’ or ‘his sunburnt hands swung the dimpled steering wheel from side to side, its oscillations an encoded rhythm, a different map of the city.’

But when the technique works, as in the title story, this intense objectification - and fantastication - of context does alter ‘the nature of comprehension,’ attuning us to how we each put reality together for ourselves.

Still, as the young handyman in ‘Hinges’ reflects, an audience is ‘a valuable thing.’ One can only wonder if the audience can be beguiled long enough for any of the book’s very real gifts to emerge.

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Pamela Eade McCasker
Overland, 140, Spring 1995

Nicholas Playford’s new collection of stories, The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin, teases the reader with its sense of dislocation. Many more questions are asked than answers given. In ‘Encircling the Rose Garden’, a story written rather confrontationally in the second person, the protagonist, contemplating a rose garden while struggling to accept the cooling of her lover’s passion, is asked by the narrator: ‘How many thorns can you see? Thousands? The information is before you but you can’t assimilate it.’ The author’s writerly eye zooms in like a camera to reveal the micro world underlying the macro one: ‘The burn marks running down his deltoid... tell of when you ate halva together.’

These stories’ sense of physical location is as sharp as the emotional landscape they inhabit is foggy. In ‘Hinges’, Harry, apparently employed to renovate an old house, is actually being put to a far more sinister use.

Playford further undermines our belief in his own vividly-drawn realities by throwing the reader off-balance with metaphysical data which makes nonsense of certainties. In ‘The Fragmentation of Tyres’, a spectral hitchhiker warns Emily: ‘our minds are potent, they can turn dream into bland reality’.

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New Fiction on the Bookshelf
Marcus O’Donnell
Melbourne Star Observer, 27 January 1995

From the opening tale in this impressive collection of stories we know to expect the unexpected; we immediately feel in the real world but slightly askew. Written in an unsettling second person address, like a letter from an omnipotent stranger never sent, the story charts the dissolution of Ursula’s relationship with Timothy through the metaphor of a garden where every rose holds a memory of their relationship. There’s a story of the menage a trois between Regina, Thomas and Toby where Thomas’ academic interest in terrorism imaginatively takes off. Then there’s the story of a schizophrenic cleaner who sits in a cupboard in total darkness for much of her day, watching bizarre and violent visions. A bungled police drug raid on a Canberra group household is related through the structure of a Tarot reading, playing with notions of fate, force and the violence of destiny.

Playford has worked in both state and federal government bureaucracies, and his family is famous for its involvement in politics, perhaps as a consequence, his language is often that of a bureaucrat. It follows a certain precision, as if each word has been chosen and placed for its absolute correctness. This often works as an ironic counterplay to the surreal events described, but it can work to undermine the full emergence of particular characters. There is a sense in which Playford needs to become more playful and discover a range of voices to suit his range of characters.

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Veronica Sen
The Canberra Times
, 22 January 1995

Eerie and disturbing, Nicholas Playford’s The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin consists of short stories as unusual as the collection’s title. Many of them set in Canberra, they reveal characters in off-balancing and heightened situations, such as dealing with soul vampires, other people’s nervous breakdowns, weird physiological changes and strange fantasies.

Playford seizes attention with his exploration of alienation and perversity and of the bizarre potential of seemingly normal events. Even though obsessive detail and circumlocution are often germane to the character - ‘I was unhappy with her presence in the geomorphology of my cerebrum’ - there is also a tendency in the stories towards stilted expression and striving too hard for effect. He is best at his most simple, as in a story set in the gardens of Old Parliament House.

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Synapse, December 1994/January1995

One of the first publications from a new fiction imprint, Black Pepper, this collection of short stories is immediately striking for its cover alone. It features a painting by the great James Gleeson - visceral, Jungian, surrealist and haunting. The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin is imbued with a similar mood, of brooding and nakedness.

It has several unusual features. Nearly all the stories are set in Canberra or Adelaide, rather than the larger metropolises. Playford takes full advantage of the physicality of the locations, and the works take on the quality of cinema. Interestingly, his super-realism and strong narrative drive compensate for a use of unsual states of mind. He makes consistent and teasing references to schizophrenia.

‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours’ deals with a near future in the Adelaide Hills where three women slave under an eternal summer. They flee an industrial accident which turns the air to sludge, to something solid, and yet they live. Playford’s concern here is not to construct an alternative world but to flesh out metaphors - for the migrant experience, and the commonality of human suffering. It is a rhapsody about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.

This collection is strong meat, and requires the reader’s attention. While the book has its share of sarcasm and pessimism, one is left feeling rewarded, as Playford is searching for systems of moral truth. A good start for the Black Pepper imprint.

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Jeff Wearne
Bloodsongs, 1995

Tall and lanky, with dyed-blond hair and steel-rimmed glasses, Nicholas Playford is a familiar figure among the bohemians and literati that still haunt, like pale ghosts, the now yuppified pubs and cafes of Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Intense, articulate and serious, 33 year old Nick discussed his first book of short stories over a beer at Rhumberallas. It is a handsome paperback, the first from Black Pepper, a new imprint publishing innovative Australian fiction and poetry, with a striking cover painting, the first of his works to be used this way, by James Gleeson, the now aging master of Australian surrealism. Nick describes his stories as ‘fantasies about the nature and perception of being’ that us ‘states of mind bordering on the schizophrenic to illustrate metaphorical ideas.’ His precise and microscopic descriptions of our constructed urban environment, with its ordered rituals and stylized sensations, reveal this world to be unreal and bizarre. When emotion breaks through into this rational universe it transforms and liberates. In several stories the ending of relationships becomes a freeing from psychic bondage, from being ‘trapped in otherness.’

The deceptively dead-pan ‘Hinges’ is a sinister tale of psychic vampirism. 'The Fragmentation of Tyres’ is a hallucinogenic nightmare in which a woman driving from Canberra to Melbourne is pursued by the spectres of a lesbian hitch-hiker and a deranged motor mechanic. Another piece realtistically tells the true story of an unjustified police raid on a shared household. Anyone who has had this unfortunate experience, and there are quite a few of us, will relate to this one.

Two stories stand out. In ‘Orientation of the Cinder-Track Horizon’ infidelity and sado-masochism lead to a revelation of love, and the title story, ‘The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin’ is an occult tale of transcendental mysticism, set in modern Canberra.

J.G. Ballard is an important influence, particularly The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash expositions of the perversions and pathologies latent in modern life. Nick told me that Canberra, where most of his stories are set, was like a landscape straight out of a Ballard story, with its ‘antiseptic beauty’ and obsessively planned artificiality. To illustrate, a few story titles; ‘The Skimmer Upon the Perceptual Sea,’ ‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours,’ ‘Examining the Audacious Edifice.’ But if you are looking for innovative and ambitious modern Australian fiction, this unusual collection should satisfy.

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