Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2005

Hymns to Millionaires by Soren A. Gauger

Hymns to Millionaires
Soren A. Gauger
Twisted Spoon Press, Prague
179 pp. $13.50
(Reviewed by Jason Stuart Ratcliff)

If there is a common thread loosely drawn through Soren A. Gauger’s story collection, Hymns to Millionaires, it is madness. “In a mad world, only the mad are sane,” is the famous and now semi-clichéd quote from filmmaker Akira Kurosawa—Gauger’s twist on this aphorism being (to summarize and not quote), “To the mad person, it is the world that is mad.” By the last tale it becomes very clear that we have not been dealing with a string of regular fellows narrating crazy circumstances, but have made the mistake of taking our information from the crazy fellows themselves.

This collection contains three or four flawless and brilliant gems, but for the most part it is hit-and-miss. This is a bigger shame when one considers that just about everything wrong with it is a matter of either syntax or style. Gauger shines the most when he’s got his eyes open, describing imagery and scenes, some of his descriptions vivid as can be, as here:

Man eating is man at his most misshapen and grotesque man the pointless assembly of ligaments fatty tissues and gelatinous organs bundled up in a swath of rubbery skin.” 

But in other places, especially where he wanders into the abstract wilderness of the conceptual, Gauger seems to struggle against language more than utilize it:

At least everything started with Ms. Moore, as if she were a center point from which my otherwise barren thoughts would drift in steady elliptical orbits, always to swing back to the same invariable with a magnetic irresistibility, a seemingly counter- geometrical veer towards the heart of the matter, that is to say . . . it should be abundantly clear at this juncture that I was losing control of the central control mechanism . . .

Such addling language is just one example of the bloated verbosity that this writer can fall into in the quest for his better moments.

Then there is the mannered style in which Gauger writes, which gives his work both some of its greatest charms and its biggest failures. Using highbrow words like masticate instead of chew, a sometimes ostentatious vocabulary, and a feeling of stuffiness in the characters are stylistic consistencies here. This works for the most part, giving his characters a kind of straight-man-amidst-insanity feel, and where it does not become too prominent it feels comfortable and hits the ear with a certain grace. But in several places it degenerates into bombast and melodrama, an example being the following from the title story, “A Hymn to Millionaires”:

“Enough!” I eventually cried, tears dribbling down my cheeks and pooling on my outcropping chin, all my wagers lost, reduced to a meager shambles, “I will bet the deed to my properties!” Clayridge raised an inquisitive eyebrow. He stood up from the table and stared down at me, a fallen nobleman. “Perhaps I had better wend my way home,” he said flatly. I shook with fury, my eyes flaming like coals, “Leave!” I cried, “May I never again see your cadaverous frame in my home!"

If this is some subtle parody against the narrator himself (perhaps an intended “bad writer narrator”?) there is not much to make us aware of that fact. It seems strange that passages this bad would end up in a published work unintentionally, but all indications are that this simply slipped under the editor’s nose. As I said above, Gauger’s mannerisms are consistent and usually give one a feeling of sympathy with his characters, lending them a sane aspect in the extremely odd worlds in which they wind up. Abandoning the mannered style altogether would not be wise of Gauger in my opinion, but he needs to be merciless when it comes to editing out the over-the-top paragraphs that creep in during composition.

Another tip that would help shore up this collection’s faults is the concept that there is a difference between using otherwise unimportant detail to create a rounded picture of a scene, and employing random expansions on every idea after the manner of a senile woman’s speech. These passages  are rare for the most part, and totally absent in many of the stories; however, sometimes Gauger sounds like a writer with ADD in his endless unpacking of every nook and cranny in each scene and character.

Overall there are more virtues than faults to Hymns to Millionaires. The faults are mostly on the level of language and style, while the virtues lie in the wholeness and singularity of idea in each story’s significance. In “Mr. Delfour’s Other File,” the story initially seemed rambling and weak, but the meaning of the whole became clear in the last two paragraphs; at that point it all came together—philosophically, not in some cheap plot twist. Many of these stories are illustrations of cognitive points that we are given enough (and just enough) clues to tease out of them. Gauger seems to always know just how his stories will end (or perhaps, more accurately, what they will say) from the very first sentence. “Green Tea” is one example, where the opening paragraph lauds the idea of human free will in strong, substantive language: “Men on the moon, for God’s sake,” being proof that we are in control. It ends with the narrator’s extramarital affair that is ambiguously either the denial of free will or its ultimate outcome and proof, probably the latter. Also to his credit, Gauger employs the usually fatal “and it was all a dream” device more than once, and manages to pull it off with more than reasonable success.

Had Gauger taken a more critical eye and a sharper pen in editing, rewording and fine-tuning this collection, it could have been quite an impressive book. As it is, we can still recommend it, but not with an overabundance of applause or enthusiasm.

– JSR –