Also at 3:AM: a short piece on Luke Brown’s ‘I just can’t even’ debut.
Archive for June, 2014
How autobiographical is Anneliese Mackintosh‘s debut? Reading it, I kept hoping: not very. Her protagonist Gretchen was gang raped at eighteen. Her father died young and her mother attends orgies in Soho dungeons. She failed a PhD, almost died of a renal abscess, became an alcoholic, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had a string of relationships with predatory and inept males. You keep thinking: it has to be fiction. No one can be that screwed up!
But I’m making the book sound like a misery memoir, which Any Other Mouth certainly is not. Studying in America and getting so drunk she falls asleep on the steps of Capitol Hill, playing lovers off against each other in a vegan commune in Lenton, travel, sexcapade and laughter – Gretchen’s is despite everything a life well lived. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories, of formative moments that make us into the person we become – interwoven, yet standing alone, everyday and universal, and yet unique. The style is contemporary, and discursive. Look at the chapter titles. ‘Google Maps Saved My Life’. ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This’. ‘Your Alter Ego Does Not Exist’. The pain is worn lightly, even played for laughs, as in the twelve-step plan ‘How To Become An Alcoholic Writer’: ‘Keep writing those haiku, and after each 5/7/5, don’t forget to take a big old swig. The sort of swig that makes your stomach lining burn, and that screaming in your skull into more of a grim whisper.’
It’s also worth watching Mackintosh’s interview with the writer Socrates Adams:
AM: No one would publish my novel about a girl who gets in a lift at Tesco’s and ends up in the prehistoric era… No one would publish my novel about a character who wears glasses and takes the glasses on and off at significant points in the novel.
SA: Was that the main plot development?
AM: It was called ‘Glasses’.
In Manchester writers there is a healthy sense of the ridiculous allied to an easy replication of the human music people make when they talk. (I should say that I met Anneliese on one or two occasions, she came to the city as I was leaving.) It’s well placed in the here and now, But there is also an exactitude and an economy to these stories that resonates. This is from ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This’:
On the way to work, I sometimes think: what if this is it? What if this is the world? Just this strip of space I can see on the way from home into work, and from work back home – what if this is everything? These are the only streets, the only cafes, the only job centres, the only canalside gastropubs, the only churches. And these are the only people.
Most of the time, I find this thought reassuring.
Notice the style: not one unnecessary or extraneous word. The candid existentialism informs all of these stories. The economy is maintained throughout the collection no matter how bizarre the content. It’s personal, but never self-centred. The chapter ‘Someone Else’s Story’ is told as her parents as young lovers; the final chapter imagines Gretchen becoming old and having children of her own and waiting at the door on weekend nights, a great final story, elegiac and moving. Any Other Mouth is not flawless. There’s an occasional lapse into cliché (does anyone still wear shellsuits, or use zimmer frames?) and a certain tweeness that for some reason most Manchester writers have. But this is a superb piece of work from a genius of the personal who nevertheless understands that personal is not the same as important.
The twist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is visible from the opening page. The story features a group of teenagers at a boarding school. It’s a positive atmosphere, the characters gossip, mess around, generate thrills and happy memories. The twist is that the characters are clones, second-class citizens created purely as support systems for healthy organs which will be harvested, one by one, for donation to natural born humans. It’s a dystopian horror, full of undertones and grisly shadows. Stephen King or Ray Bradbury would have done this in five thousand words. Ishiguro spins it out into a novel.
Not that it fails as such. I particularly liked the way that some of the teachers looked at the characters with fear and revulsion – the way people react to big spiders in the house towards late August, an instinct towards life you feel shouldn’t exist but somehow does. Another fine detail is in the artworks and pathetic trinkets that the clones collect. A cassette tape counts as a big find. The book is supposed to be set in the late nineties, but feels like rationing-era. A hinterland of long empty roads and disused hostels. The only sign of life is a billboard of an idealised office environment, the kind of thing you see in temp agency literature. It could be that all clones get is fishheads and barrel scrapings. Or it could be that, in this world, despite medical and technological advances, there’s nothing going on and no one’s particularly happy.
Which brings us to the science. What is this place? Like any respectable literary novelist having a go at science fiction, Ishiguro is non-specific. There was a ‘war’, a ‘scandal’. Keep it general, you hear him saying as he types. It’s only the hacks who get into names, places, dates. But Ishiguro doesn’t seem to realise that designers of systems go for efficacy. If you can grow replicate people purely as to generate healthy organs surely you can just grow the organs in a petri dish and avoid all the expense, hassle and tedious debates on The Moral Maze? Science tends to make things easier, and less painful. (Would you rather attend the clap clinic in 2014 or 1914?) And surely no government would ever sanction such cruel and mindless butchery of… ah, but then you come up against Leonard of Quirm, casually designing ‘a weapon of such destructive power, it would render war meaningless, as no one would ever dare use it.‘
The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s other big novel, also chronicled empty lives, but there was glamour there. I didn’t realise this on first reading, but Stevens loves the glamour of submission. Burnish, great import, matters of global significance – Stevens throws away his life, his love, his family for this rush. It is the rush of submission that moves the great wheels of power as surely as the tyrant’s desire to crush the human face beneath his jackboot. But the clones of Never Let Me Go don’t seem like they want to submit in the formalised (and yet somehow passionate) way of Mr Stevens. They just want to continue their little lives. However – and this is made explicit – it can’t happen. The narrator Kath is only in her early thirties and all her friends are dying and nothing’s going to change that. ‘Poor little creatures,’ says the clone boss. Exactly! Ishiguro is almost sadistic in this. He’s like a children’s author in this intent to make his readers cry. If you want the blue bird of happiness to take a shit on your head – Ishiguro’s your man.
What Ishiguro demonstrates in this book is there’s no great spark, no divine breath that animates the empty flesh. Life is matter, that’s the glorious truth, but in this novel it makes the sadness unbearable. The ‘deferral’ that Kath and Tommy ask for won’t be granted to us either. For no matter how many good memories we experience, how many cassette tapes we collect (or MP3s, come to that) we all end up on the table sometime. We’re the children of the damned, and playtime is over.
(Apologies that the science is so wonky in this. I’m a literature graduate: I don’t have to know how things actually work.)
– Alabama 3, ‘Mao Tse Tung Said’
There’s a famous saying upon revolution, the origin of which I forget, that goes something like: the revolution doesn’t come when the dictatorship is at its worst and has everything locked down. The revolution comes when there is a loosening, a relaxation, of state power, where there is a space, to breathe – to get perspective.
Ivan Klima, the Czech writer and playwright, was thrown into Theresienstadt as a child and was just thirteen years old when the war ended. ‘This is merely speculation,’ he writes, ‘but whatever the reason for my survival, I can take neither credit nor blame for it. In this abominable lottery, I had drawn one of the few lucky numbers’.
Among many other horrors, the twentieth century introduced the phenomenon of ‘survivor’s guilt’. Why should I live, the survivor asks, when many good and brave people died? When the question should be: why did these terrors even occur? Klima doesn’t ask it. His aim is to give an accurate record of a time where life was easily lost. There is a stoical feel to the prose.
Theresienstadt was not the only tragedy of the writer’s life, although it took the young Klima a while to realise it. Klima’s father was a doctrinaire communist who welcomed the Soviets as a liberating ally. Whenever friends or neighbours pointed out Stalin’s abuses, he raged and spun about English and French colonialism. Inevitably he was dragged in front of a people’s kangaroo court, accused of sabotage, double-agenting and all kinds of scoundrel things, and kept in solitary confinement for nine months. Instead of fighting the charge, he spent years trying to become ‘rehabilitated’. His son comments: ‘They certainly gave you an idiotic excuse.’
After Stalin’s death came the loosening. The 1956 Communist Congress brought something amazing: criticism of Uncle Joe’s legacy. The Klimas huddled around a radio in shock as Krushchev detailed Stalin’s murder lists and torture of prisoners. Klima’s aunt, who spent many years in the Soviet Union, began to speak:
When she was working in Czech broadcasting at the Moscow radio station, people she was working with would be there one day and then gone the next, and no one dared ask where they were or what had happened to them. No one dared even pronounce their names. And if one of the disappeared had happened to write a book or an article, not a word of it could be cited, and the book was immediately removed from the library and destroyed. Merely cracking a stupid joke or just laughing at it was enough for the security forces to come for the unfortunate person. Sometimes the police would come that very night and sentence him to ten years in a camp in Siberia. Or he would disappear completely, and at most his family would receive a package containing his clothing.
Why didn’t you tell us this, Klima asked.
Because I lived through it, the aunt said.
Klima’s main phase as a writer came at this time of slight loosening. The dictatorship had lost its peak and knew it, they couldn’t go back, but at the same time the authorities could not embrace total liberalism, and freedom of expression, because that would mean the unravelling of everything they had worked for. We think of censorship as something grand and inquisitorial. But the corrupt, sclerotic and exhausted satellite states, in their monitoring of writers and artists, could only manage a mediocre literalism where fictions were crafted by committee. The historian Keith Lowe writes:
One of [Klima’s] main themes is the huge gap between the way the state portrayed the world and reality as he experienced it. The much-vaunted youth brigades – groups of young pioneers sent to work the fields – turn out to be a bunch of disillusioned, depressed teenagers, whose only ambition is to get drunk and escape to the West. Party functionaries portray themselves as dedicated idealists, but all they do is travel the country chasing women. Construction workers spend their days drinking and playing cards, while state-approved authors are put up in an 18th-century chateau, where they eke out their days pretending to write.
Or as Klima puts it: ‘In all branches of human activity, the average has always prevailed over creativity or even genius, and there has never been a dearth of proficient frauds.’
Writers today pursue the perfect conditions for writing, through expensive courses and retreats; debates are had on how to balance the writing life with commitments to day jobs and families. Klima’s situation, where he needed to produce good work without getting arrested or murdered, was an even trickier balancing act. His play The Castle is about an elite who live in a fabulous castle ‘cut off from all hardships and worries. They hold empty conversations about the people they serve and the work they do, although it is clear they do nothing at all.’ One day a corpse appears on a table, and a stranger appears to investigate. The strange man summons a doctor who in turn calls in the police. The play is a sort of Czech An Inspector Calls and was performed at the Vinohrady Theater. It took a week for the authorities to catch on and the council banned all advertisements for the play, not understanding ‘that such a prohibition was the best kind of advertisement, and the play was always sold out’.
‘And yet there is something distant, almost dreamlike, about this book,’ Lowe says. ‘The Europe we live in today feels so different to the Communist world he describes: it seems almost inconceivable that totalitarian regimes like this were still in power, in the heart of Europe, a mere 25 years ago.’ But perhaps this dreamlike distance is something contributed by the reader – our sense that all this is ancient history and can never happen again.
Can’t happen again?
Can’t happen here?
There’s a piece by Bidisha circulating on Facebook. In it she complains about tattoos. ‘Nearly all world cultures have had tattoos,’ she writes. ‘They represent adulthood rites, warrior marks, artistry and beauty, tribal identification, victories won, journeys undertaken. They have represented both belonging and marginality; individuals on the edge, pillaging, hustling, grifting.’ Now? Now everyone’s got them. Footballers. Vulgar people who smoke tobacco out of roll bags. Tattoos is over. Because The Guardian said so.
There are two literary clichés about tattoos. 1) People get drunk and get tattoos which they later regret. 2) People get tattoos of Japanese characters that turn out – arf! – not to mean what the people think the characters mean. This article is in fact a study in cliché. It is contained within the Guardian cliché subgenre of ‘This popular thing, that you thought was cool, is actually stupid and/or evil and this is why.’ There is yet another cliché – the cartoon of future nursing-home residents comparing ill-advised body art. Says Bidisha: ‘My generation will be at the NHS at 80 getting our gammy legs seen to while doctors try to find a vein under the faded, stretched, misshapen detritus of our unartistic body art; a postmodern mash-up of badly translated Chinese words, bungled Latin quotes, dolphins, roses, anchors, faces of favoured children or pets, and Japanese wallpaper designs.’
Oh I don’t know. I think my generation will have problems enough in fifty years without fretting over a badly dated anklet. God knows what the world will be like by then. And really, if a permanently painted area of your skin surface is your biggest regret, you’ve done pretty well (or badly, if you look at it another way). It could be that what you want now won’t be what you want in ten years. But have we not demonstrated that the fantasy of the perfect body is like the fantasy of the perfect society – a lie, a glammer, something destructive. Who leaves a beautiful corpse these days? Who survives a world of UV rays, dust particles, sharp edges, long hours and junk food? Learn to love one’s imperfections. Particularly the self-inflicted ones.
‘Our bodies are coinage,’ said the poet Stephen Dobyns. ‘Spend it. Fling the coins upward, hear them jangle on the street.’
‘It took fourteen hours! I fainted three times’
I can’t resist a response to Mark Thwaite’s lament for the literary blogosphere in the Guardian this week.
Mark begins by recalling the early promise of bookblogland:
I felt I was joining a real community of dyed-in-the-wool bibliophiles. And, moreover, one I believed had radical possibilities: if the book review pages hadn’t quite shrunk to the pinched state we find them in today, they were hardly in rude and rigorous health. Not only that, but when serious books were reviewed they all seemed to me to be of a type I call Establishment Literary Fiction, the kind of literary fiction that wins prizes, and which mostly leaves me cold. I wanted to review books I felt weren’t being given the credit or publicity they deserved. Writers like Gabriel Josipovici, Gert Hofmann, Enrique Vila-Matas, Peter Handke and Rosalind Belben…
My hope at the time was that countless blogs would emerge that would prove an untested thesis to which I’d long cleaved: that the attempt by the mainstream media to contain the intelligence of the average reader by trivialising their seriousness could be resisted, and that blogging would prove that readers had far more sophisticated tastes than the broadsheets presume.
Blogging, I hoped, would prove to be the start of a renaissance in long form critical writing [.]
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! But what exactly went wrong? Mark is candid – long form critical writing turned out to be too much work. Result: ‘even committed bloggers like myself found it hard to knock out long, incisive reviews on a daily – or even weekly – basis.’
Understandably, we often filled our blogs with linkbait. If a nice review or post went up on Monday, perhaps Tuesday and Wednesday would simply be a comment directing our readers to something good elsewhere in the blogosphere. Actually, this felt good. This was OK. This was community-building. Bloggers linked to other blogs and praised other bloggers; the MSM (mainstream media) could be ignored.
As Mark explains, this new, lighter model was undermined by Twitter, a more effective forum for contextualising links. He writes: ‘the linkbait proved to be part of the lifeblood, and blogs started to wither on the vine – mine too for a while.’
He goes on to say this:
When I started blogging, I felt part of a community that linked and supported and shared, and which, for a moment, seemed like it was really going to jolt the complacency of the MSM. Whilst the number of bloggers has continued to increase, my sense as a blogger is that the renaissance in the literary critical essay that I hoped to see just hasn’t happened… despite the sterling work of some, an army of amateur literary essayists has never arisen.
A few points.
When blogging really took off in the early 2000s people said it would eventually supersede print writing. For a number of reasons that hasn’t happened. Although print has declined, it still has supremacy of status and the weblog has simply become an adjunct to the newspaper and journal. At a time of accelerating technology the form just is not going to have the impact it once had. It is just one thing among many. Mark’s somewhat dated terminology (‘MSM’ anyone?) indicates that he hasn’t absorbed these changes as well as he might have.
However, the eclipse of blogging by microblogging doesn’t mean that the long form critique has died out. You can read superb long essays in the LRB, the Literary Review, Biblioklept and The Workshy Fop and numerous other sources. It is, as so often on this subject, a matter of personal taste.
I used to read Mark’s blog, even contributed to it at one time, and also used to read some of the blogs he links to. They drew on a small pool of revered authors and I found the writing overly prescriptive, self-referential, and often vituperative against the bloggers’ supposed enemies (in the ‘MSM’ and elsewhere).
A response by ‘obooki’ caught my eye:
Perhaps, after all, having contempt for anything outside your narrow range of interests and sneering at anybody who diverged from your views and interpretations, wasn’t the best way to build a community.
As they say, I couldn’t possibly comment!
Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s news events, I see that the old rogue Jeremy Paxman has stirred up some trouble on the poetry scene when he made some controversial remarks while judging the Forward Prize.
Shelley had it that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, and that ‘poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds’.
For Jeremy Paxman, though, it is an art form that has ‘connived at its own irrelevance’, as he believes that poets today have stopped talking to the public and are only addressing each other.
Paxman called for an ‘inquisition’ in which ‘poets [would be] called to account for their poetry’, appearing before a panel of the public where they would have to ‘explain why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it, because it would be a really illuminating experience for everybody’.
There is a lot of good commentary on this: from Padraig Reidy, in agreement, and from the brilliant and gentle George Szirtes, in disagreement. Although I don’t share the somewhat aerated response from professional poets, I do not believe there is a mechanism that prevents the general public from reading and enjoying poetry. The texts are not in Latin, or locked behind glass. You can read, write and see poetry for very little financial outlay. Of course, there are loads of obscurantist bores, but there are those in every field of artistic endeavour.
The issue is: is complexity necessarily elitist? Further maths is complex. Physics is complex. You can still sign up for an engineering course at the local college. You might not get to fly the space shuttle, but maybe there’s a reason for that?
There is all kinds of poetry. There is complexity that is just abstruse, and complexity that is like a song. It’s all out there.
Ironically, part of the reason people are turning away from poetry is that there are too many Arts Council slam nights full of performers doing bad stand up comedy masquerading as poetry. This alienates the audience which, being a poetry audience, typically wants serious stuff rather than scatological jokes and audience participation.
I say this as someone who goes to poetry nights regularly. Poetry done as performance can be superb. But then there’s the open mic section. I remember one open mic guy who, prior to the start of the night, was sitting by us and spent half an hour going on to his companion about the rejuvenating qualities of yeast intake. My girlfriend is a scientist and kept texting me saying: ‘This is bollocks.’
When it was his turn to read, this open micer read a poem complaining about people who had college degrees. The point of the poem I think was that having a degree is elitist and bad (which I thought was a bit harsh considering this man looked old enough to have grown up at a time when higher education was basically free).
He then said that he wasn’t getting paid for his poetry and berated the audience for donations. There were no takers.
‘Get a job,’ I said (inside).
So let’s have an inquisition or poet X Factor by all means but a) can it not be paid on public money and b) don’t expect big ratings.
‘Our one weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear. Two weapons! Surprise, fear and a populist critique that will generate headlines. Three weapons! (continues)’