Review by Bill Kirton
I need to start with two necessary disclosures. The first is that Donnie Ross, the author of !Leonardo Mind for Modern Times, is a good friend and has been for years. The fact that my review of it is positive and admiring has nothing whatsoever to do with that friendship. It would do a disservice to the book as well as question my own integrity if the views I express were anything but honest. It’s true that the book is at times intellectually demanding and the knowledge that Donnie’s intellectual curiosity and honesty surpasses that of anyone else I know may have made me more tolerant and more careful in my analysis. I hope that’s not the case, but none of us knows how far subjective elements colour our thinking.
The second disclosure is that this is my first ever experience and review of a book which uses mixed media to convey its messages and/or meanings and so it presented me with unfamiliar reviewing challenges. So it was a new type of reading experience, incorporating flash fiction, extended narratives and a structural organisation intended to reflect the themes it explores. Yes, it has 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.
As I said, it’s a challenging read. 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. The author himself acknowledges the potential difficulties and offers as his justification the regrettable fact that his ‘meditation’ probably won’t be ‘to the benefit of all’ because we’re all frightened ‘of achieving anything some vacuous cunt might term elitist’.
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.
The stories begin with a satirical, tongue-in-cheek sketch of an aspect of the commercial world of automobile design. It mimics the essential absurdity of consumerism and advertising but it does so using sound, which is to become an important element in later narrative developments. The next piece of flash fiction conveys very neatly and simply the impossibility of knowing what’s going on in another person’s mind. Events are open to multiple, sometimes conflicting interpretations. There’s the melancholy feeling that something desired is always going to be out of reach. Immediately, though, the next story brings a contrast as the slight frustration of the previous relationship, which had seemed largely cerebral, is replaced by a very funny physicality as a female cellist climaxes as she plays, thereby causing serious damage to her instrument.
The contrast with the following story, Sky Blue, couldn’t be more stark. Like many other episodes in the book, this is autobiographical and tells a harrowing tale about a child in hospital. It’s simply told but it conveys very powerfully the old dichotomy between inner beauty and outer ugliness and how people’s intolerance of difference makes them blind to what’s beneath the surface. It’s also the introduction of the two disciplines of surgery and anaesthetics which, while inextricably combined in the operating theatre, seem to engender very distinct attitudes in terms of ethics and compassion. The story’s about perceptions and our inability to overcome stereotyping. It’s also about the abuse of power and the rigidity of people’s self-awareness. It asks fundamental questions and suggests that ‘normal’ people who only love superficial beauty without valuing the totality of the person could themselves be classified as disabled.
Sex and music combine again in the fifth story, a very funny description of sex between obsessive-compulsives which ends with the words ‘Shortly after the 17th iteration, she screamed the tones of a B flat minor seventh flat five chord: B flat, D flat, E, A natural. Root position, half diminished: it was time to sleep’. It’s a surreal piece but its use of physicality, mental processing and music are strong indicators of the emergence of the book’s principal themes.
Guess Who, the sixth of these opening stories, is a brilliant, self-contained piece of writing which charts, subjectively, all the basic cellular and other processes from conception to birth and beyond in meticulously observed physical detail but filtered through the perceptions of whatever me is coming into being.
The stories continue to open up variations on the themes which have been established. Then, in chapter 11, they stop to make way for The Ejsberg Saga, a strange, perhaps self-indulgent diversion in which the author has lots of fun creating the Norwegian/Scottish linguistic mix we mentioned earlier. There’s a video of him reading the saga which would have had more impact if it had been louder but it does give a sense of the semi-Chaucerian feel of the sort of language he’s inventing. It’s a very funny version of the story of the Viking invasion of
a historical aside which anticipates, albeit with its tongue firmly in its
cheek, the historical sweep of the next phase of the book. Scotland
And this phase is the one which gives the book its title and brings together the disparate threads of the preceding narratives to ‘explain’ some of them but mainly to analyse how creative thinking works. It’s prefaced by a frankly autobiographical note which integrates different streams of creativity, more specifically, the creativity of the author himself. Its general thrust is that creative thinking stretches the norms, actually reshapes reality or offers an alternative one. ‘The point,’ he writes, ‘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.’
There are, as the author tells us in the preface, two versions of this fusion of the book’s themes. This isn’t an example of the author prevaricating or being indecisive; it’s consistent with the underlying dynamic that mixes the physical world and its phenomena with the relationships between mind, the appearances of things and what we call reality. Everything, from sexual pleasure and loss of self to the world of thinking and emotions can only be known by the mind. There may well be an objective reality but it always has to pass through the social, historical and personal filters of our perceptions. And these perceptions are enhanced, liberated by creativity.
The figure of Memus, whose conception and birth we followed earlier, takes its name from a Scottish village but the stress is clearly on the ego as expressed in the Me syllable. Identification of Memus with the author is difficult to resist and yet his ‘adversary’, Findo Gask, also shares a name with a village so there’s a conscious depersonalising of both characters. This is emphasised when Memus is revealed as Memus44 – the subject of an experiment which fused human DNA with that from a swallow. The move into a world of time-travel, fantasy and science fiction (the text resists easy categorisation), allows for extended asides on both broader and specifically personal themes. For example, there’s a powerful swoop through prehistory from pre-Neolithic times through the Bronze Age, the Roman invasion of
Scotland and forward into a future many millions of years
hence. Alongside that, however, are other accounts of isolated personal
experiences which are obviously seen as formative events in the author’s past. At
one point, there’s even a photograph of a letter written by the author’s
They’re part of a kaleidoscope of impressions, events, reflections, projections, episodes, imaginings, memories, all of which the narrative seeks to incorporate into a single, unique texture to make of them a unified, comprehensible experience. It explores the relationship between motion and stasis, external indicators and internal states. And it does so by exploiting such themes as the material practicality of making musical instruments and the abstract qualities of the sounds they produce.
But it’s the close cooperative co-existence of surgery and anaesthetics that provides the most powerful direct examples of the complexities of the relationship between internal and external ‘realities’. In terms much cruder than those used in the book, the contrast is between the self-evident physicality of surgery and the apparent alchemy of anaesthetics. In the minds of most people, the two disciplines are inseparable and yet their practitioners and their practices are worlds apart. The scalpel divides flesh, excises actual material. Its effects are clearly visible. But gases are exchanged at micro-cellular levels and, as well as sustaining the life processes, can change perceptions, work on brain functions, induce mental states and feelings. Yes, both are essentially physical but, as metaphorical instruments, they offer the writer very different possibilities. And, in case we were in any doubt, the writer reminds us on more than one occasion that he was (and, of course still is) an anaesthetist.
In the end, most of the threads are drawn together. The stories of the first part are revisited, inserted unchanged into a new context which proposes relationships between them. There isn’t a Damascene,
Eureka moment because there is no
such thing as a single meaning. The fragments are drawn together – self-contained,
individual pieces which become reabsorbed into an overall narrative which is a
meditation on the processes of perception, thought and creation. The ultimate
impression is that the writer has enjoyed revisiting some aspects of his past
and is haunted by others, but that all of them have their place in his
conception of creativity. 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.