Ash Cinema is a triptych novel about loving and dying, about creation and destruction, about chasing ghosts and making them real. Regressing through time from the fires at Cannes’ shore to the trees deep in america back to the west coast sunsets, Sebastian Falke’s visions and dreams haunt the future that forgot him and his handful of films lost to time.
In poetically flowing prose, the author introduces us to three grief-stricken characters. These individuals are tenuously connected by their knowledge of an elusive and controversial film maker. One of the characters was deeply in love with him, while the other two similarly experienced intense relationships that have been lost in time. Each of the three desperately reaches out to find that bond that exists beyond the physical. Through writing, art, music and film, communications are released, reaching with yearning tethers to those departed. This is a beautifully written novel that explores the connection between the living and those who have been irreparably lost. It is a love song to a tie that cannot be severed.
Cinema, film-making, and music become parables for the emotions that rage in the three different lives and I found myself going along for the ride, sucked into a stream of emotion that made for a compelling read. There were lines I read over and over, just to grasp at the details, the way Rathke blurs the intersections between life, cinema, and tragedy.
"The ocean of the past, I still hide from so much of it and rely on all that I don't run from. Everything before him, I waited for the nightmare to end, and it did when he accepted me into his arms. It was a new birth, a new life, but it flashed too briefly and left me with only these rabid bits of time that eat me, these memories that haunt me, but he, the ghost I need, remains lost."
Ash Cinema too will haunt you for days after reading.
Edward Rathke walks a tightrope through most of Ash Cinema. I kept waiting for the pacing to collapse, for the stylized writing style to become masturbatory rather than merely indulgent. It was a waveform that seemed perpetually about to collapse.
But it doesn't.
That's the damndest thing. He never goes overboard and for all its ambition and need to describe thoroughly abstract concepts it never wallows in any one notion long enough for me to lose my patience. Rathke explores some pretty big concepts, and in attitude almost seems like a tiny dog trying to bite a giant beach ball, and yet you can't help admire the determination and effort. For a literary novel he does an excellent job of not boring me.
Maybe it's because of my recent interest in blues artist Robert Johnson, but I can't sympathize for the issues of all three protagonists, who all have a tie in some form or another to elusive experimental artist Sebastian Falke. Falke's films as they are described sound like the most utterly squirm-inducing, watch-checking sort of movie experience, but the story really gives you a sense of why these characters are drawn to the work all the same.
It ends on a surprisingly complete note. Normally I just consider the end where the novel stops, so when I actually find myself satisfied at the close of a novel, it's noteworthy. Mr. Rathke has created a complete work here, one which is well worth the time of any reader.
Ok, so I really want to describe how good this book is, how much it moved me. I am certain to fail miserably, but here it goes. A tryptic used to beautifully convey stories of love and loss that really strike a chord. Very dreamy and intense, it will speak so loudly to anyone who has felt that otherworldly, once in a lifetime kind of love. A long gone movement in avant-garde cinema and art connect the three stories with connections between many of its' important figures. Writing is a tool used in the present to "recreate the past and bring it back to life." The quality of the writing, the prose and the pacing were all stellar. I was amazed that it never faltered nor went overboard with the emotional intensity being what it was. In short, I will be haunted by the memory of this one for a while, much like the characters in the book are in their own way.
Ash Cinema tangentially addresses the life of the fictional avant-garde filmmaker Sebastian Falke, from three very different perspectives: an old man who once collaborated on Falke's films; a woman who was formerly the platonic lover (lover, that is, in everything but the physical sense) of a writer who was obsessed with finding Falke and his long-lost films; and the teenage girl who was Falke's lover at the very end of his life. Though (tangentially) about Falke, the book is really about grief, longing and trying to bring lost loves back across decades through writing about them. The book is haunting, obsessive, mournful and yet somehow triumphant, and eloquently and passionately written. A thoroughly impressive debut novel from a very talented young writer.
I hovered over the 4 stars for this book. I usually give 5 stars for books that I know I will go back to read time and again, but 'Ash Cinema' is something I felt would be diminished for me if read it again. I remember feeling similarly impressed by the movie 'Brazil' and vowing I would never watch that again either.
I gave Ash Cinema 5 stars because I do believe that what Rathke pulled off here is, as the rating system puts it, 'amazing'. I'd like to think he worked incredibly hard to make the prose interesting and unique, but there's a quality about it, a poetic flow that suggests it just oozed naturally out of him. And I think the nature of the subject matter demanded this: a significant part of it was the painful angst of lovers pouring out their need to reach each other across a vast gulf through letters. And if that idea seems ordinary to you, that's because I haven't explained the context, and I won't, because I don't believe in spoilers. Suffice to say there's a mythic and timeless ebb to the relationships that showcases Rathke's dreamy imagination perfectly. The barriers of death are meaningless in the world he has created. I absolutely love this kind of thing.
To me, this was a beautiful haunting told in perfectly chaotic prose.
Putting aside the skillful lines of the prose for a moment, the emotion of this novel is what impressed me most. It came across so forcefully to me, so pure. It felt like the pages, and the psyches of the various three narrators, was bleeding as I read. Reading was actually emotionally wearying, but cathartic. All three stories, tremendous loss and the unquenchable need to reclaim, blew me away. And, getting back to the writing itself, the literal lines of the prose are pretty impressive as well. The three sections are uniquely tailored to the particular narrator and that narrator's particular loss, but they share enough similarity to work into the cohesive whole. Regardless of which narrator, the writing itself is energetic, surprising, and interesting. In short, I'm impressed.
A variety of ghosts haunt the reader in Ash Cinema. Each of the three narrators has lost a love to death and led to reconnect with them through writing. Though they never know each other, all of their lives are somehow affected by the obscure, avant-garde filmmaker Sebastian Falke.
Rathke does an amazing job of bringing the reader into these lives that have been saved by love and shattered by its loss. And for a story that deals with such weighty themes, it's not bogged down by romanticized depression and moping. We are shown the consequences of loving as deeply as they have, and we come to understand their loss. Rather than depressing, I found it to be a clever testimonial to the power of human connection and why it is one of our most profound human experiences.
The narration style fits the book so well, as it is often as ethereal as the ghosts in its pages. Each story is told in a first person narration that is more about a feeling than any particular image. As I read their stories, I felt like I was in that piece of the mind that narrates the events of our lives and creates a story to make sense of it. It was a really profound experience. More than being told a story, I felt like I was living in these parts of the narrators' lives.
Ash Cinema does a great job of many things, but one of my favorite is its use of art and its effect upon people. More than just entertainment, art in Ash Cinema is a catalyst for action. People don't just see the films of Sebastian Falke and go about living their lives. Even the rumor of his films' existence is the impetus for a lifelong quest. Most everyone derides his work, but the power of his films echo through generations for a small number of people, and lives are brought together and broken apart because of them. That's the power I feel the arts have in my life, and it was refreshing to see them have such an impact in the lives of these characters.
There's not much to critique in this book. If anything, the first of the three stories is a bit slow and involves someone who spends a good deal of time alone, which lends itself to prose that is a bit indulgent to sensory feelings that didn't add much to the story. But things pick up quickly, and before the end of the first story I was completely engrossed. The second and third stories are much stronger and even manage to make the first story stronger in retrospect.
It's impossible to describe much of the plot of Ash Cinema without doing it injustice, so I won't try. I will say that this was an engrossing story, and that it deeply affected me. I know when I look back at this book on my list of books that I read for 2012, I will be reminded of the strong impression it left on me well after finishing it.
Beautiful prose, beautiful story, beautiful book. Moving stories of life and death, love and loss. I bought a physical copy, but you can download the ebook for free on Smashwords. I'll be keeping a close eye on anything Rathke does in the future.