A Wagon Full of Devils
An absurdist novella about the irresistible urge to create art and the fear of failure
Anton Valens is the author of a small, but finely wrought body of work centred on antiheroes and their constant struggles with life. In the posthumously published novella A Wagon Full of Devils he lampoons the pretentious art world while at the same time showing how much beauty there is to be found in things other people tend to dismiss as banal or insignificant.
‘Somewhere in this impenetrable mist, Stanley and I had grown close, but the exact circumstances that set this process in motion, which, incidentally, progressed at a tectonic pace, can no longer be ascertained.’ The two men in the novella A Wagon Full of Devils have been friends for almost a quarter of a century. Neither of them has a family, nor have they been particularly successful in their careers. The narrator is an artist who has worked at a succession of odd jobs. The other man is Stanley, a dancer and the caretaker of a squat called Breeding Ground which he is trying to keep safe from developers and the local government. He is registered with social services as being a ‘Dancing Activities Coordinator’.
But it turns out Stanley has harboured dreams all his life of making it as a singer. After secretly honing his craft for years, he is ready to venture into the limelight. He considers a passage in the I Ching about ‘a wagon full of devils’ to be a nudge from the universe: the time is ripe for a solo performance at the Breeding Ground. Stanley tries to enlist the help of the narrator, who is to be his lighting technician, doorman, tea server, photographer of pillbugs (the pictures are to form the backdrop to the performance) and, above all, provider of moral support. The narrator agrees to help, intrigued by Stanley’s creative enterprise: ‘The focus he brought to the task frightened me but also fascinated me. An unsinging, I thought to myself: it was as if he was giving birth to the song while strangling it at the same time, moaning and pushing, huffing and puffing.’
What follows is a series of hilarious performances by an inimitable – and unintelligible – singer, as his humble assistant does his best to make the evenings run smoothly. Few people turn up and they respond with bewilderment and heated debate, and yet somehow Stanley’s performance is a success.