From Dalkey Archive Press
The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Vol. XXVII, #3
Conscious/Unconscious, by Michael Hafftka
reviewed by Joseph Dewey

Midway through Michael Hafftka's weirdly alluring matrix of episodic narratives (I hesitate to call them short stories as they defy virtually every assumption of the genre with hip audacity and confident savvy), our narrator finds himself wrestling with a particularly nasty porcupine, its savage pelt of prickly quills ever threatening, until, in the logic appropriate to a dream, he understands that now he must strangle the porcupine, does so, and then slips gratefully into a heavy sleep. Across fifty-six such vignettes, which exist tenuously between memory and dream and move with a kind of associational logic, Hafftka, an accomplished neo-expressionist artist for the past thirty years, catapults us, with this collection, his first venture with narrative, into a fairytale world of Jungian imagery charged with Freudian implication, a symbolic landscape of winding staircases, stone towers, lush fields, quaint cottages, and forbidding forests. With Alice-like temerity, the narrator moves about the dreamscape, his journey recorded in flatline prose delivered without exclamation even as the narrator meets one after another mysterious, inexplicably threatening eccentrics who are distorted by carnal itches and/or by unspecified emotional woundings. We share these confrontations with the narrator/artist who comes to reveal an evolving complex persona struggling with the unsettling implications of a series of irresolvable contemporary dilemmas: the relationship between sexuality and destruction; the appalling implications of the appeal of violence and the wellspring urges we share to do injury to others; the deception of appearances and the discomfortingly speedy process by which the familiar morphs into the strange; and above all the role—and challenge—of the artist whose inspiration and vision necessarily derive from shadowy and forbidding interior realms where we are ultimately most (in)human. Ably enhanced by twenty-seven original black and white drawings that are beautifully reproduced to reveal the Goya-esque dimensions of Hafftka's sensibility, these stories—part ironic parable, part fractured fairy tale, part skewed allegory—do not engage or entertain so much as haunt, lingering like the fragmentary recollection of a cryptic dream.