Tuesday, 14 January 2014

!Leonardo Mind for Modern Times by Donnie Ross

review by Bill Kirton
This was a new type of reading experience for me, incorporating flash fiction, extended narratives and a structural organisation intended to reflect the themes it explores. Yes, it has stories, characters, relationships, specific locations, conflicts and the usual ingredients of fiction but they’re shifting entities, sometimes recurring through the chapters as motifs, changing identity, even changing from a specific flesh and blood individual to a genetically and mechanically engineered avatar. The stylistic registers used, too, vary from the frankly demotic to the uncompromisingly intellectual, even managing to include a whole section written in an invented language best described as Norwegianised Scottish. Overall, it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and often very funny.

It's at times a challenging read, but it repays you for persisting. Its principal narrative elements are music (both in the making and playing of instruments), art, sculptural methods and artefacts, language, academia, anaesthetics, surgery, psychiatry, genetics, history and prehistory, philosophy, autobiography, sex, time and humour. But the reader is led very gently into these meditations. The book opens with a video of an installation made by the author. It’s made of plastic and copper and the hand-held camera zooms in to the sculpted faces, catches the pulsing effect and poses the question ‘What’s this got to do with the book?’

There’s then a preface which tells us this is ‘a semi-interactive novel’, which ‘begins with a series of seemingly unconnected short stories, interspersed with other materials such as videos, photographs, audio clips, paintings and drawings’. And, while I may have made this sound like a trial, these stories are a series of short, very accessible, self-contained narratives with no pretensions. The sketches, photographs and other non-verbal elements which separate them continue to challenge our perceptions and ask similar questions about their place in the narratives as they force us to bring different perspectives to bear on the ‘reading’ experience.

As the book develops, the disparate threads of the preceding narratives are brought together to ‘explain’ some of them but mainly to analyse how creative thinking works. Its general thrust is that creative thinking stretches the norms, actually reshapes reality or offers an alternative one. ‘The point,’ writes the author, ‘is that the human mind is worth more investment in time, development and interest than we commonly seem to have time, motivation or education for.’

He fuses the infinite and the local, the eternal and the instantaneous, macro and microcosm, high style and vulgarity – all in the cause of creativity. The !Leonardo mind doesn’t accept limitations. Make no mistake, the book is challenging but the challenges are to the reader’s own creativity and willingness to make choices.