The Overly Imaginative Storyline

A Review of Stephen Moles' 'The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable: Or Beneath the Burnt Umbrella'

There are moments in Stephen Moles’ The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable: Or Beneath the Burnt Umbrella where you can begin to see it coming together. A sequence of paragraphs begin to flow in a logical order that you can follow, or a name repeats enough times that it sticks in your mind, or a theme recurs in a way that suggests a plot. But those moments are few and far between, and most of the book is little more than nonsense.

Most Wretched Thing ImaginableThe crux of the story -- as much as one can call this work that describes itself as a “modern-day Book of the Dead” -- is the language of birds, called bwords. Moles posits that birds are moral receptacles, collecting the most terrifying or haunting of human experiences and holding those events inside themselves. Their squawks and chirps are actually an expression of their pain at keeping mankind’s secrets. The unnamed but much harangued narrator takes part in a mission to observe and catalogue all the bwords.

Littered throughout the text are references to culture. The Beatles’ discography makes frequent appearances, as does Shakespeare. In one passage, he melds biblical passages with banned swearwords. Religious rituals and funerary rites or beliefs also serve as a recurring backbone for the story, being tweaked and referenced throughout the book. Moles leaps back and forth between his birds, pop culture, and death rites, tangentially linking them at best and rapidly switching courses in a way that is disorienting at worst. The result of this mash-up of ritual, language, and culture is an exhaustingly self-indulgent book. 

At the website Beard of Bees, Moles’ work is described as “uncategorisable”. That certainly applies to The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable, a book that ricochets from an expository voice to surrealism to something that is reminiscent of postmodernism. But what it truly is, when all is said and done, is an extension of Moles’ elaborate universe in which he has placed the bulk of his work. The Dark Meaning Research Institute, which features into the book and has the narrator pursued by the authorities, is Moles’ creation, a scientific endeavor designed to uncover what he calls “dark meaning”, or a force unrecognizable to the literary world that influences the way works are interpreted. At the publisher Sagging Meniscus website, it is described as “a group of parasemantic investigators and quantum linguistics pioneers who are currently working on a way to blast him off the page and turn him into the world’s first zero-person author.”

When looked at through the lens of Moles’ previous work, including Paul Is Dead (about a man named Paul McCartney) and The More You Reject Me, the Bigger I Get (a brief book comprised entirely of its own rejection notices), the framework into which Moles’ latest book is published is at least slightly more clear. Moles is not a writer whose work can stand alone; it all relates back to a larger, staged persona that hinges on literary pseudo-radicalism, linguistic gymnastics, and ultimately ego. 

Undoubtedly there will be some to whom this non-linear, even non-narrative book appealing. There are moments of lyricism, and there are turns of phrase that are genuinely well done. But the book in its entirety is a non-sequitur built on non-sequiturs, the sum reflecting the parts but never getting past them to grasp as something larger.

Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her interests include literature, history, feminism, and politics. You can find more of her writing at brideyheing.com and you can follow her on Twitter @bridey_heing.