In the new book, In the Time of the Blue Ball, pseudonymous author, Manuela Draguer brings us three stories about Bobby Potemkine, a P.I. in an absurd world.
Meet Bobby Potemkine. He’s a private investigator of sorts in a world with no shortage of mysteries—a world built on mysteries, in fact. The time is long ago, Bobby explains, when moons and balls of color took the place of hours and years: “the train was one yellow ball late this morning,” you might hear. And yet the time also feels like an apocalyptic future: buildings destroyed by meteors, transit rails twisted toward the sky, a persistent darkness.
There are other prehistoric, or maybe far-future, features to this world. An orchestra of flies plays instruments like the nanoctiluphe, with its “rosewood cranks and nickel-plated pistons.” Flocks of bats (or “battes,” as they’re called) taunt other species from the air.” A wooly crab named Big Katz carries sacks of the ocean with him on trips to the city, where he spreads it over the streets and “foam fizzles on the sidewalk; waves break against the first floor, swashing and swishing and throwing pieces of wet ice and spindrift onto passersby.” Animals talk, people float, nocturnal soup vendors roam the night, and these oddities are merely part of the world fabric: nothing about them surprises Bobby, though everything surprises us.
In the Time of the Blue Ball is a collection of three Bobby Potemkine stories translated from the French by Brian Evenson. Manuela Draeger (the author’s pseudonym) has written a series of the stories geared toward young adult readers but are also popular with older adults. There are recurring characters, most notably Djinn, Bobby’s musical dog, and Lili Niagara, a bat with black braids who captured Bobby’s heart long ago (and still holds it now).
All three tales take the form of quests. In the first, titular story, Bobby goes looking for Lili Soutchane, the inventor of fire, after she disappears on her way to the market to sell pots of the valuable stuff. But the search turns quickly into a series of digressions, the longest involving the orchestra of flies, and Draeger seems more intent on piling up otherworldly tricks than putting Bobby on any actual adventure. The imagination on display is wide and dream-like but, as with many dreams, without much meaning.
“North of the Wolverines” follows Bobby on a trek to save a noodle named Auguste from being eaten by a child. Here the journey starts to gel, with the accumulation of helpers, including the wooly crab and a tiger named Gershwin. We get a few fine moments of surreal play, as with the spreading of the sea, and a sense of mission as the crew marches forward, breathing “air charged with bits of kelp. That gave us vitamins, and courage in our bellies.” The journey still rambles and digresses, but we begin to understand Bobby’s place in this world, particularly his loneliness and longing for Lili Niagara, his batte love. When she flies close to him, his reaction is simple and complete: “I capsized.”
The third tale is remarkable. “Our Baby Pelicans” starts with the small creatures appearing all over the city. They are perfect babies: cute, motionless, free of smell, “without ever whining or burping or leaving any droppings.” And when one shows up in Bobby’s apartment, he sets off to find where all the mothers have gone. The city offers him little assistance: the old police station is half-burned and full of mud, and the only trace of a police presence is a woman who lives in a supermarket behind crates of old fruit. His quest raises an important question: who can make sense of this world? “But what are you saying, my Bobby?” Lili Niagara tells him. “You’re the sheriff!” Bobby does find a resolution to the pelican problem. But the case also leads him to a keen awareness, despite the carnival of characters around him, of his isolation.
Draeger’s stories, at their most trying, are concerned with seeing how strange the world can be. At their most successful, though, the fantastic elements serve the larger mission and enhance the very real desire for connection that Bobby, in this limbo of darkness and winter and blue and red balls, realizes is the only mystery worth solving.