Friday, January 12, 2007

Ewige Blumenkraft

Robert Anton WilsonOne of my complete, all-time, supergenii God-like heroes died yesterday. One of the few writers who succeeded in pulling my mind out through my posterior, kicked it around the room, and stuffed it back in the wrong (or perhaps the right?) way round, filled with new and glittering ideas. Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the mighty Illuminatus! Trilogy, and its blinding appendix, the Principia Discordia, author of Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, the Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy, and a host of other thrilling, mind-bending, confusing and enlightening literature died at home after a long illness.

If you’ve never read Wilson, it’s hard to imagine the sheer density of knowledge, wordplay and allusion present in his work – although a Joyce fixation gives some clues – or the humour of the man. I for one still believe that Dolphins can not only talk, they can travel through time and have created a canon of epic poetry that far exceeds our own in emotion and complexity. Wilson revelled in invented and revealed religions, most notably Discordianism, and formulated endless libertarian, anarchist manifestoes, including the resounding Celine’s laws. He taught me to laugh, question, and look for the fnords. I’ll try and post some of the best jokes over the weekend.

Wavy Gravy once asked a Zen Roshi, “What happens after death?”
The Roshi replied, “I don’t know.”
Wavy protested, “But you’re a Zen Master!”
“Yes,” the Roshi admitted, “but I’m not a dead Zen Master.”

Every man and every woman is a Pope. Hail Eris!

[UPDATE] So, I never did post those jokes, but if you want to know more about RAW, this article is a good place to start – links to obits, remembrances and more.


tags: Authors + Death + Personal History | permalink | 1 Comment

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jack the Stripper: Paul did it

While we are semi-officially still on our annual August hiatus (try saying that with a mouthful of candy floss), we did appreciate a happy confluence of interests in Saturday’s Grauniad: Chris Petit’s review of David Seabrook’s Jack of Jumps. In the follow-up to his much admired (by Petit’s mate Sinclair, unsurprisingly) All The Devils Are Here, Seabrook looks at the not-quite-as-famous-as-the-other-Jack “nude murders” of West London in the mid-60s, which we’ve mentioned before in the form of Brian McConnell’s superlative (and better-named) Found Naked And Dead.

Petit clearly enjoys the book, appreciating its hard-won evocation of London as a “a city haunted as much by a lost popular culture as by its missing souls.” However, he makes virtually no comment on the facts of the case: an opportunity not missed by Stewart Home in his review of the book (as elaborated upon at a recent 3:AM event). Home considers Seabrook’s version of events both improper – he implicitly accuses an untried, and very possibly innocent, man – and unoriginal: the main thrust of the book is culled, uncited, from an old Times article.

Home also points to an earlier review of Jack of Jumps in the Grauniad‘s sister paper, The Observer, wherein the reviewer takes issue with Seabrook’s “rancid” and “lip-curling” distaste for the victims. Two reviews so far apart are unusual, and as much as we love Petit we can’t help but note that he is, like Seabrook, a Granta author.

This increasingly forensic examination of the details of past crimes brings to mind Alan Moore’s ruminations on the obsessive ranks of ripperologists he joined to write From Hell. What Petit considers “forgotten, luminous detail” (citing “On this occasion she bought a bottle of Lovibond’s Vat 30 whisky”), Moore, in the appendix to From Hell, sees as strip-mining the field, tracking over the same turned-over earth until it becomes a quagmire. Repeated investigations cross-reference one another, the amount of information increasing but it’s value dropping, forever trapped within the same area, in the manner of Koch’s snowflake; for the ripperologists it is Whitechapel, 1888, for Seabrook, McConnell, Home and others it is Hammersmith, 1964-5. Such an approach is not too distant from Petit and Sinclair’s filmic aesthetic either: the grainy close-up, the lurking camera, an attempt by art to recoup the damning immediacy of CCTV.

As such true crime accounts multiply, they increase the likelihood of others being attracted to the field. Just as it took decades for the Ripper crimes to start to auto-generate ever wilder potential murderers – the initial Jews, butchers and local psychos graduating to the police force, society painters, royalty – so it has taken 50 years to actually name a scandalous (i.e. conspiratorial, establishment) figure in the Hammersmith killings. We may now expect to see others piling in, the boundaries of West London expanding to envelop the smarter ends of Town.

For instance, it’s not hard to see how the hookers and coppers of the nude murders could be tied to that other defining trope of 60s London: the Fab Four. Much like the Ripper murders, the Hammersmith killings stopped abruptly, and in both cases criminologists professional and amateur looked to contemporary obituaries to explain such a sudden and unusual cessation of violence. Only a few years later, rumours began to surface of an even greater conspiracy: Paul Is Dead. Paul McCartney, Beatles’ guitarist, departed this earth scant months after the last known killing in West London, decapitated by the windshield of his Austin Healey on the streets of St John’s Wood. We think we should be told.

*

Update: For the sake of completeness, we also found this little piece of puff by Iain Sinclair in The Guardian’s summer reading recommendations (scroll down). And yes, we know Paul played the bass (see comments).


tags: Authors + Death + Debate | permalink | 6 Comments

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Unfortunates

The Crown

Last night’s Value This Man event was a grand success. Even though events beyond our control forced us to spend most of the night skulking around outside, it was fantastic to see so many people assembled in one place to pay tribute to a favourite writer. Salman Rushdie wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much, but pretty much everyone else did.

The Crown

The panel, or whatever they were, from left: Philip Tew, author of B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading, Jonathan Coe, author of the Samuel Johnson prize-winning biography of B.S. Like A Fiery Elephant, Paul Tickell (hidden), director of the film adaptation of B.S.’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, and David Quantick, journalist and enthusiast (his review of Malry here), who was invited out for a drink by an audience member during the Q&A.

The Crown

And on the right, Johnson’s widow Victoria, who graced us with her presence. Yes, the Crown is that shiny (Hey! It’s a really warm evening! Let’s sit in a gold-plated box for three hours!), and yes, it was so well-attended we had to sit on the floor.

Particular plaudits must go to Paul Ewen, Lee Rourke and Andrew Stevens for setting up the event, especially the latter who pulled it off on the night with such aplomb. Keep an eye on Through A Glass Darkly for the hotly-rumoured next event.


tags: Authors + Events | permalink | 1 Comment

Friday, July 21, 2006

OMFG! Pynchon!!!

Sorry. But little enough of stunning excitement happens around here. Other than, you know, surgery, sexual perversion and concerted attempts to completely annihilate beautiful, millenia-old cultures. So the announcement of a new TP novel in December is reason to celebrate.

True to form, nothing is being given away. Will Pig Bodine ride again? Will there be chapter-long discursions on lightbulbs and mechanical ducks? Will there be ninjas? All signs point to yes. The man himself has released a few hints, which (and this might just be me, but…) could apply to pretty much every one of his books. But hey. We don’t really want novelty. We want ninjas. And weed. Lots of weed.

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

–Thomas Pynchon

*

And in other news, STML favourite Tom McCarthy finally makes Pseud’s Corner


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Monday, June 19, 2006

Blood and Guts, again

As we lay upon the slab last week, biting down on the leather strap and waiting for the sawbones to whip out the furious appendix, we thought two things:

  1. Why ‘The Whittington’? God forbid, will the future force poor invalids to be carved up in a hospice called ‘The Livingstone’?
  2. And yes, yes, I shall turn again.

Turn again to London, to South London (gesundheit), to the old ancestral pile, to recuperate in the June sunshine, with the parakeets chirruping in the pear tree and Test Match Special drifting gently from the potting shed. And what better companion in our malingering than le Carré, so timely plucked from the oak-panelled library, with its oft-beaten generations of STMLs gazing sternly down from dust-shadow’d walls? Etc.

Having originally thought The Constant Gardener to be some kind of pre-posthumous paean to the country garden, we were pleasantly surprised by the Ralph Fiennes/Rachel Weisz version, which placed the operations of big pharma within the context of global geopolitics, and even more impressed by the Bond-gone-bad movie adaptation of The Tailor of Panama, which chronicles the possible fallout of intelligence sources gone bad. The idea of one dodgy source misdirecting the offensive capacities of the entire Western world rings true from Osama bin Laden to Hussein Chalabi to Mohammed Abdul Kahar, proving that le Carré has lost none of his bite and is due for re-reading.

A Perfect Spy is an obvious candidate for such an approach: praised by Philip Roth in The Observer as ‘The best English novel since the war’ (1986, btw), acclaimed by the New York Times as the work of ‘the perfect spy novelist’, it chronicles, in Dickensian detail, the life of Magnus Pym, potential defector, and his father Rickie: conman, raconteur, bon vivant. Scenes reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow hinterland – châteaus under occupation; black stocks of fruit and booze; trade in women and scraps of intelligence – alternate with mittel-Europe at the height of the Cold War: drab colours, colourful sex lives, bursts of encrypted traffic satellite-bursted from the roofs of snowclad embassies. We devoured it in a weekend – although we had the benefits of the bathchair and the parasol.

Are these books read now? What is the purpose of le Carré’s pre-Glasnost thrillers – except to show up the hideous idiocies of genre classification? A Perfect Spy, A Small Town in Germany, the Smiley books, all read now as deep, incisive critiques of men and women at the edge of their beliefs and their identities; the backgrounds against which they operate fade into obscurity just as the lakeland or maritime backdrops of nineteenth century novels seem irrelevant to us compared to their interior dramas. We don’t read them, as they were originally read, for insights into the realities of our time; nor do we read them now, like Fleming or Forsyth, for nostalgic thrills; we, and they, have transcended such political concerns.

That said, of course, le Carré’s own motives may not be so sure: his own MI6 career was destroyed by Kim Philby’s defection, which provided the central narrative for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A Perfect Spy is, apparently, his most autobiographical work: the character of Rick Pym refracted through that of Richard Cornwell, le Carré’s father, “an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values” (Lynn Dianne Been, John le Carré).

Excuse us. Morphine has clouded our judgement. We do not need to cheerlead such a talent. Read le Carré: for fun, read spies, for truth, read Gardener. John: don’t die; not yet.


tags: Authors + Personal History | permalink | 2 Comments

Monday, May 8, 2006

Petit mort

“A duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London.”
Thomas De Quincey, quoted in Chris Petit’s Robinson

“It would be a symptom of this new age that people and things and witnesses would be paraded before the world, would be told this was how it happened, and guilty men and culpable countries would be served up for its hostile delectation, but truth would be the first victim of the explosion.”
Chris Petit, in The Passenger

How to react to the news that Chris Petit has a new book out, bearing the straplines ‘The thinking man’s Andy McNab’ and ‘TERROR HAS A BOARDING PASS’? This is Chris Petit, director of post-punk Brit road movie Radio On and author of (amongst other things) essential London noir Robinson, yet these titles appear nowhere in Petit’s works as listed in Passenger. This is a big fat airport novel bearing the same name as one of our great talents, one of Iain Sinclair’s ‘reforgotten’ (an excellent Indy article on the two of them here): intriguing.

Robinson, published in 1993, most strongly recalls Patrick Hamilton and the dissolute effects of wallowing in states of alcoholic and psychological abandonment, as the un-named narrator is drawn into Robinson’s seedy underworld. Robinson is a kind of Luther Blissett for Iain Sinclair’s reforgotten club, a key who is picked up and put down, edged out of the frame or focussed tight in on. He is undoubtedly behind Vaughan in Ballard’s Crash, director of autoerotic fantasies (a beautiful girl in calipers appears in Robinson too). He remains forever out of reach in Patrick Keiller’s London, a lingering trace left on the city, always just ahead of the narrator’s perambulation. He is even further away in Keiller’s sequel, Robinson in Space. He shares traits with ‘Norton’, and all the other Sinclair alter-egos, including the bookseller Dryfeld. For Petit, Robinson is a persuader, a character of such magnetism that others will follow him to the furthest reaches of his perversions, the man in the pub who ends up invading Poland. Like Jake Arnott’s Harry Starks, Robinson remains a potent figure because his own motives are never stated. He is always sexual; as a shadow, he allows blackness to seep into the frame. This is not the territory of the airport novel.

Still, The Passenger is definitely Petit. In fact, he has spent the last few years cutting his own niche in the thriller genre with books such as The Human Pool, which investigated the dodgy deals done as the Third Reich broke up at the end of the Second World War – the repercussions of which are still felt in The Passenger. After a classic thriller opening of Pan Am Flight 103 disintegrating over Lockerbie (and we’ve suddenly realised where Tom McCarthy got it from), we’re soon driving at night across a rain-lashed Britain with No-first-name Collard, who arrives at the crash site believing his son Nick to be among the passengers. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA turncoat, Margaret Thatcher and a mysterious girl are all involved, but stranger things are afoot. The ‘story’ of the bombing, Collard finds, is just that: a tangle of threads which lead to American intelligence – still in technical ‘occupation’ of West Germany – to Jordanian agents, Israeli-sponsored Terror cells, to the British spy ring of Philby and Burgess, to Graham Greene, spy-turned-novelist and possible Vatican agent – threads which knot and weave in unlikely places. Petit is clearly well-read on the subject of Lockerbie but Collard is less well informed, stumbling from set-up to set-up, used, lied to and spun.

Initially, it’s possible to think that Petit has turned his back on Robinson because Robinson’s own time has come: he is no longer the backroom figure making cheap, arty porno and pronouncing that “Abolition of any privacy should be the price of fame”; he’s making Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs and reading Heat. In 1993 and Robinson, ‘sleaze’ means “grimy sheets, penises, vaginas, mouths, rectums, a sofa for a bit of variation, and a rubber plant for decoration.” In 2006, ‘sleaze’ means politics. But therein lies a connection, of sorts: the glacial indifference of airport lounges, business hotels, Home Counties estates and Frankfurt skyscrapers cover the same psychological terrain as Robinson: unnamed and unreliable narrators, obscured figures, ciphers, paranoia.

The official version of Lockerbie – Megrahi, Cyprus, the Libyans – is relegated to a footnote here, the story extends in all directions: everyone is culpable. Paul Foot is an obvious source, as are biographies of spies, manuals of fieldcraft. In the final analysis, Lockerbie is just a sideshow, a brief spark in the endless wars of information and influence played out behind the scenes. A ghoulish twist, which would be meaningless or worse in lesser hands, feels like a posthumous echo of Robinson himself, last seen dangling from a barbed-wire fence in the Essex countryside. If he is not dead, he could be anywhere.

*

P.S. The Lerts among you will have noticed some tidying up around here in recent days, mainly with the aim of giving more prominence to the Linklog on the right: links likely to be of interest to the discerning STML reader. If anyone has any problems with the new layout, please let us know. The ‘Previous’ button at the foot of the page should be working shortly too.


tags: Authors + Reviews | permalink | 5 Comments

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Scotch Tape

Don’t you love surprises? Some anonymous benefactor* sent STML a copy of Sigma Films’ rather good Alexander Trocchi: A Life In Pieces DVD in the post. No note, no return address, and sustained by a mere 8p of postage – bizzare and bizzarer.

A Life In Pieces was originally broadcast on the BBC in 1996, and directed by Allan Campbell and Tim Neil, authors of the biography of the same name available from Canongate/Rebel Inc, and includes such wondrous footage as Trocchi shooting up for an NBC news piece in 1963 and berating a poet onstage at the 1965 Poetry International in 1965, Allen Ginsberg nodding out in the stalls. Contributors include William Burroughs (“Alex could find a vein in a mummy”), Jeff Nuttall, Irvine Welsh (surprise), Leonard Cohen (in shaven-headed-monk mode, recalling an episode in Montreal when he went blind in the middle of a major intersection because Trocchi had told him that a “ridiculously large” dose of Opium was perfectly safe) and Terry Southern, who recounts Trocchi telling him proudly that he had “just cooled off a bust with the fuzz” by pimping his girlfried Lin to his arresting officer.

Sigma Films are a Caledonian outfit which “aims to produce independent and internationally appealing films and believes in the importance of creating a sustainable film industry in Scotland.” They’re the people behind such recent gems as Dogville and Trocchi’s own, Ewan McGregor-starring Young Adam. Their name, of course, comes from Trocchi’s sigma: A Tactical Blueprint.

*

Researching the DVD, we came across Literary London, “the first and only journal to provide a common forum for scholars and students engaged specifically in the study of London and literature”. Their Iain Sinclair special issue is just out.

* Look, if it was some kind of drunken conversation, I’m sorry. I don’t remember. Please get in touch and remind me. Mystery solved. Thank you.


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Monday, February 13, 2006

You’re gonna need a bigger boat

Peter BenchleySo, farewell then, Peter Benchley. You assured that generations of us can never, ever swim in the sea without a nervous tremor in our stomachs, turning to pant-shitting terror if we so much as brush up against some kelp. Ta for that.

Then again, you also gave some of us our first taste of literary lovin’. In STML’s school library, the most thumbed books were a copy of Benchley’s classic Jaws and some appalling James Bond ‘tribute’ wherein 007 had his balls coated in pig fat and hung out for wild dogs (please, someone else remember this).

Benchley’s original novel concerns itself more with the amorous adventures of Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie) and Chief Brody’s wife Ellen. His clumsy seduction (“Some women have really tight ones.” “You sound like a comparision-shopper.””Just a conscientious consumer.”) is not exactly unwelcome (“That’s supposed to be every schoolgirls fantasy… To be a… you know, a prostitute”), leading quickly to a somewhat disturbing climax in a nearby “Kleenex and spit” motel:

A vision of Hooper, eyes wide and staring – but unseeing at the wall as he approached climax. The eyes seemed to bulge until, just before release, Ellen had feared they might actually pop out of their sockets. Hooper’s teeth were clenched, and he ground them the way people do during sleep. From his voice there came a gurgling whine, whose tone rose higher and higher with each frenzied thrust. Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper’s countenance had not changed. His teeth were still clenched, his eyes still fixed on the wall, and he continued to pump madly. He was oblivious of the being beneath him, and when, perhaps a full minute after his climax, Hooper still did not relax, Ellen had become afraid – of what, she wasn’t sure, but the ferocity and intensity of his assault seemed to her a pursuit in which she was only a vehicle.

Hooper’s frenzied intensity carries the others repeatedly out to sea, until the moment when Brody is given his last chance to look in the eye the man who cuckolded him:

The fish broke water fifteen feet from the boat, surging upward in a shower of spray. Hooper’s body protruded from each side of the mouth, head and arms hanging limply down one side, knees, calves, and feet from the other.

In the few seconds while the fish was clear of the water, Brody thought he saw Hooper’s glazed eyes staring open through his face mask.

Benchley aspired to higher literary ideals than the airport thriller, and the book shades in the grey areas that summer blockbusters bleach out. In the film, Quint (Robert Shaw) goes down for his cruel and unusual attitude to life (which, given the whole Indianapolis thing, seems a bit harsh), and cheery, beardy Hooper lives to dive another day. In the book, Hooper gets his righteous comeuppance, Quint is the victim of cruel, black fate, and only Brody, the one good man in Amity, gets to swim home.


tags: Authors + Death + Film + Sex | permalink | 1 Comment

Monday, January 16, 2006

Keep from me, God, all forms of certainty

Did you hear Michael Moorcock on Front Row this morning? He called the modern English novel “mingey”. Legend.

Jerry CorneliusThe occasion, of course, is the long-awaited appearance of the final volume of Moorcock’s ‘Pyat Quartet’ series, featuring the bisexual fascist polymath and anti-semitic Jewish drug fiend Colonel Pyat. STML has yet to embark on this particular journey, despite being a massive fan of Moorcock’s Mother London and it’s follow-up King of the City, as well as the ludicrously cool Jerry Cornelius, one of literature’s greatest adventurers. But having read the blurb for the latest Pyat, The Vengeance of Rome, we’re off to pick up a couple:

Hero-worshipping Mussolini, [Pyat] enters the dictator’s circle, enjoys a close friendship with Mussolini’s wife and is sent by the Duce on a secret mission to Munich, becoming intimate with Ernst Rohm, the homosexual Stormtrooper leader. His crucial role in the Nazi Party’s struggle for power has him performing perverted sex acts with ‘Alf’, as the Fuhrer’s friends call him. Pyat’s extraordinary luck leaves him after he witnesses Hitler’s massacre of Rohm and the SA. At last he is swallowed up in Dachau concentration camp. Thirty years later, having survived the Spanish civil war, he is living in Portobello Road and telling his tale to a writer called Moorcock.

Exploring the sources of the holocaust is one of the key preoccupations of the series, and in the Radio 4 interview Moorcock relates his own anecdote of antisemitism, travelling on a steamer to New York with a bunch of Russians and Germans. He laments his own inaction on that occasion and makes a call for personal responsibility: “I don’t think governments are responsible for anything. Even if they’re Nazis, they’re representing a sizable chunk of the population.” (Or words to that effect: STML’s note-taking skills are rather impaired before the Lapsang’s kicked in. The full programme should be available here any minute, as well as being replayed at 9.30 tonight.)

Moorcock is in conversation with fellow beardie Alan Moore at RADA on Wednesday night, but tickets have sold out. STML has a grandmother for sale if anyone knows how to get hold of one.

[And in a great day for R4, they also did PKD.]


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Thursday, December 8, 2005

England Prevails

If you don’t read comics, it’s a bit like that Time Out Dance Special they did a while back. You know that there’s a whole ‘nother art form out there, that’s mystifying and heartbreaking and wise and terribly, terribly beautiful, you just don’t know anything about it, and fucked if you’re buying tickets to the ballet.

Well hold up there pilgrim: there’s something you can do about it, right now, and you can do it in the privacy of your own home. You can go buy some Alan Moore, and get on. STML, shamed by the upcoming moving pictures version, got hold of a copy of V for Vendetta from Gosh Comics, just one of the fine sequential art venues littering our fair city.

Alan MooreIf you don’t know Moore, he’s one of England’s great bearded visionaries, and even though he lives in virtual hermitage in Northamptonshire, he loves London. From Hell and V for Vendetta carve up the capital in Sinclair-ish ways, butchering it in the former, dynamiting it, with unpleasantly contemporary resonances, in the latter.

What the graphic art format allows is an utter disregard for genre, style and the accepted version of history. Their pariah status in the literary community means that they can knowingly step outside both critical pronouncements and popular expectations, borrowing furiously from both the mainstream and the underground, from art high and low, from painting, pop music and pornography. From Hell takes from Sinclair the magical city aligned by Hawksmoor and the Dyonisiac architects, from Sickert the dark imagined murder rooms of Camden Town, from Hogarth the vaudeville of the rookeries, from Blake their hidden divinity. The well-worn path of the Ripperologist is, in his own words, “strip-mined to provide material.” V for Vendetta picks up and runs with Pynchon’s endless enigmatising; Orwell’s all-seeing, all-hearing, government; and the earthy English legend of Guy Fawkes, who Moore seeks to restore from the pyre to his central place in English self-mythology. There is no plagiarism here: simply the riffing on all frequencies of a joyously disturbed, unfettered mind. In the afterword to V, Moore describes a crucial stage in its development, before he and David Lloyd ran down the central image of the Popish Plotter:

One night, in desperation, I made a long list of concepts I wanted to reflect in V, moving from one to another with such a rapid free-association that would make any good psychiatrist reach for the emergency cord. The list was something as follows:Orwell. Huxley. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” “Catman” and “Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” by the same author. Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Nightraven. Batman. Fahrenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of Science Fiction. Max Ernst’s painting “Europe After The Rains.” Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere of British Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin…

Any writer who can move from Bowie to Max Ernst via Batman in seven “free associations” deserves an audience. But Moore’s interest is not only in literary and cultural illusion: he wants to score politically too. For Moore, England is a corrupt state, enslaved to a despotic, decrepit Queen in From Hell, enthralled by a fascist dictatorship and its pervasive media in V. From Hell rages against the inequalities of class unchallenged in the Victorian era and embodied, literally, in the Whitechapel murders (while bemoaning the loss of history’s visceral reality: Gull, Moore’s ripper, time-stumbling into a modern, computerised office, asks of its occupants: “Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?”). V is more explicit, condemning Justice atop the Old Bailey for having “an eye for a man in uniform” and the population en masse who encouraged and voted into office “a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics,” citing an all-engulfing anarchy as the only solution to impassive, craven and cruel governance.

Sir William Gull, in 'From Hell'
Watchmen, Moore’s fantastical rewriting of the All-American Masked Crusader, does similar things to American history and the canon of the Golden Age. That it has been his most critically successful work and is cited as the first instance of a comics ghetto-buster highlights the US bias of the comics world (David Lloyd, in a sarcastic aside during V‘s genesis, suggests calling the strip “‘Good Guy.’ That’s how he signs his name: ‘Good Guy’. Good for US appeal, right? Logical.”) and its inherent conservatism (Watchmen, unlike From Hell and V has not made it to the big screen, on grounds of narrative and, some suspect, political complexity). But even writing within the constraints of the genre, as in the groundbreaking Swamp Thing or in his additions to the Batman legend in The Killing Joke, Moore gets away with murder.

All of these books are excellent reads, as is his series of linked stories The Voice of the Fire (described by Iain Banks in The Guardian as “a neglected masterpiece”), and his (even more) experimental graphic works: A Disease of Language, a new collaboration with Eddie Campbell, the artist on From Hell, is out in January: a graphic rendition of Moore’s “visionary, highly personal magic based performance art pieces,” according to Gosh!. Get on.

[Need some tunes while you’re reading?
Try The Mic, STML.com’s new MP3 feed.]


tags: Authors + Comics | permalink | 1 Comment

Thursday, November 10, 2005

All is Love

Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi
A Guardian article by the well-travelled William Dalrymple (author of the excellent From the Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali, among others) reveals that the best-selling poet in the United States in the 1990s was not Frost or Whitman, or any European versifier, but Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order of Sufism and composer of verses now, if reports are to be believed, set to music and used as the soundtrack to Sarah Jessica Parker’s workouts. The shame is that Rumi’s work is now almost forgotten, if not deliberately suppressed, in much of the Islamic world; the order which he founded outlawed by Ataturk in 1925, ironically, in an attempt to make Turkey more ‘western’. (What is it with cross-cultural confusion this week?) Dalrymple touches upon the sources, much debated, for much of Rumi’s work: his love for his favourite disciple, which can be understood both within the framework of Sufi teaching, and without. STML, for whom the Sufi Meditation of the Heart is a shamefully infrequent source of joy, would like to recount a little of his life…

Jalal al-Din Rumi, Sufi mystic, poet, and dancer, was born in Balkh (then in Persia, now part of modern Afghanistan) on September 30th, 1207, and moved to Konya (now in Turkey) when he was a small child. By the time he was six years old he was having visions, engaging in philosophical discourse, and fasting.

At Konya he was exposed to Sufism and in 1230 he began a nine-year initiation into the Sufi brotherhood, thereafter becoming a spiritual master. He was nicknamed Mevlana, which means ‘Our Master’, by his disciples.

In 1244 he met and fell into a passion for the dervish Shams al-Din Tabrizi, a “rare beauty wrapped in coarse black”. As the shahed (the disciple who incarnates the Divine Beloved) of Rumi, Shams inspired desire “to exalt the soul”. Shams convinced Rumi to discard his dusty theological texts and begin to experience life to the fullest.

They left Konya, living in the desert together in “close communion and discussion of mystical philosophy”. The disciples of Rumi became extremely jealous of their closeness – there is an echo here of that “disciple whom Jesus loved” – and persecuted Shams, forcing him to flee their desert hermitage.

During the separation, Rumi wrote a great number of poems describing their love for one another and their mutual love of God, in the form of ghazals, the traditional Persian poetic form of couplets sharing a rhyme and refrain.

“Be drunk with love,” he wrote, “All is love. / Without performance of love there is no access / to the Loved One.”

In Arabic, ghazal literally means “speaking with women”, but in Persian and Urdu it has a different meaning: it is the last melancholic cry of the deer cornered by hunters. After Shams came out of hiding in May 1247, he was murdered by the jealous followers of Rumi.

For forty days after Shams’ death, Rumi, putting on mourning robes, a white shirt open at the chest, a honey-coloured wool fez, and rough sandals, began a whirling dance of lamentation and love around the the poles in the garden in which Shams had been killed. From this dance emerged the sama, the trance dance ritual which is central to Sufism.


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Friday, September 23, 2005

Is it about a Bicycle?

The Third PolicemanIt’s already been mentioned elsewhere, but it’s a busy weekend, with STML planning on celebrating an important anniversary by falling asleep on, in or under a number of bars, so we’ll just have to go on and on about The Third Policeman like everybody else.

Apparently, the book is due to be “prominently featured” in the next series of Lost, which I am reliably informed is a kind of serial for the televisual apparatus (the latter being one of the many, many things STML lacks but does not lose sleep over).

The Third Policeman is an astounding novel, and possibly one of the hardest known books to summarise. It concerns a man, who wakes up in a place, and there’s some policemen, who are obsessed with bicycles, and he’s an academic, or something, in turn obsessed with a philosopher called de Selby, who believes that night is caused by accretions of black air, like smoke… It is definitely a murder mystery, whose intent is stated on the first page but which is not resolved until the final lines, it is also a meditation on crime and punishment, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth and scientific discourse, a reimagining of Einsteinian phusics, and a treatise on the correct use of the bicycle, with special attention paid to the relative merits of the pad versus the disc braking system. In short, unclassifiable. Also, hilarious. Once read, it is not easily forgotten.

However, the book was not always seen in this light. In 1940 it was rejected by O’Brien’s publisher, Longman, who had successfully published his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. Their rejection stated: “We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.” Fools. Despite being plundered for material for the later, and much inferior, The Dalkey Archive, the full manuscript was finally published, tragically posthumously, in 1967.

FlannO'BrienBut this is only part of the story. “Flann O’Brien” was merely the best known pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, journalist, satirist, humorist and devotee of Joyce (which makes him only the second greatest Irishman in history – but still the funniest). O’Nolan also went by the name Myles na gCopaleen, under which name he published a regular column entitled “Cruiskeen Lawn” in The Irish Times. “Cruiskeen Lawn” was written originally entirely in Irish without English, then alternated between the two, and finally stabilised in English with Latin, Greek, German and combinations of all four. O’Nolan originally got the column by starting a series of literary arguments with himself in the letters pages of The Times, and fighting them out from behind a wall of pseudonyms. The editor, after indulging this for some time, tracked him down and offered him a job.

The resulting columns are masterpieces of humorous writing introducing his readers to the likes of “the brother”, “the da”, The Myles na gCopaleen Research Bureau (a dig at various Irish institutions), the Plain People of Ireland (a dig at pretty much everybody) and Keats and Chapman, two roving poets who’s shaggy dog adventures always ended in an appalling pun.

In honour of Brian O’Nolan’s would-be 94th birthday on October 5th, STML will from Monday until Flannday (possibly excluding, but not exclusively so, weekends) post daily excerpts from Myles na gCopaleen’s collected works, which are ill-represented on the interweb. Come back soon to enjoy the fruits of Myles, and remember: forewarned is four-armed.

*

Extract 1: My Claim
Extract 2: Keats and All That
Extract 3: The Drinking Laws
Extract 4: Trink
Extract 5: Keatsiana
Extract 6: The Catechism of Cliché
Extract 7: More Keatsiana
Extract 8: Miscellaneous (& Competition)

*


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Friday, September 16, 2005

So It Goes

Vonnegut
One of STML’s all-time favourite glacier-fighters, the great Kurt Vonnegut, author of such seminal works as Timequake, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five, has a new book out. Having nearly died in a house fire in 2000, and suffered the loss of his entire personal archive, Von’s humour certainly hasn’t got any less black. Reviews have been mixed, but you can get a fairly good idea of the tone of the book – a collection of pieces written for the alternative journal In These Times – from the hand-lettered inserts between chapters, sampled below and available online here.

STML, for one, hopes that the old master, who will be 83 this November, gets some more fiction out before he himself becomes mustard gas and roses…

Vonnegut_confetti06

(Via Rake).


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Monday, September 5, 2005

Heading South

Terry Southern

And so to Word On The Street at Chapel Market again, and the indescribable delights of a first UK edition of Candy (1958, UK Ed. 1968) by Terry Southern & Mason Hoffenberg, a book best described by Mr Southern himself:

God only knows what’s been said about the Genesis of Candy, but the true account is as follows: There’s a certain kind of uniquely American girl who comes from the Midwest to Greenwich Village—cute as a button, pert derriere, full wet lips, nips in eternal distension, etc., etc.—and so full of compassion that she’ll cry at card tricks if you tell her they’re sad. Anyway, I wrote a short story about such a girl—how she befriended a humpback weirdie to the extent of wanting him “to hurt me the way they hurt you!” Everybody who read the story, loved the girl—all the guys wanted to fuck her, and the girls wanted to be her—and they all said: “Yea Candy! Let her have more adventures!” So I put her in a few more sexually vulnerable situations—with her professor, with the gardener, with her uncle, with her spiritual guru, and so on. And this friend of mine, Mason Hoffenberg, read it and said, “Why don’t you have her get involved with a Jewish shrink?” And I said, “why don’t you write that part?” So the great Doc Irving Krankeit (and his doting mum) were born.

Living in Paris at the time—the mid-‘50s—the book soon became the talk of the French Quarter, and it came to the attention of Maurice Girodias at the Olympia Press, publisher of Lolita, Naked Lunch, and the works of Beckett, Ionesco and Henry Miller, among others. Southern again picks up the tale:

Well sir, Mr. Maury Girodias had what you might call a “house o’ porn operation extraordinaire.” A man of infinite charm, savoir-vivre, and varying guises, he was able to entice impressionable young American expatriates, such as a certain yours truly, to churn out this mulch by convincing us we were writing Quality Lit! Not only did the Hemingway types succumb to his wily persuasions but (would you believe it?) young American girl-authors as well! Cute as buttons they were too! Darling blue saucer-eyes and fabulous knockers with nips in distension! Marvellous pert derrieres and full wet tremulous lips, the kind that quiver and respond… but I digress.

Candy is certainly a sympathetic heroine, although her increasing degradations—more Justine than Candide for horny American college students—leave her little more than a pawn in the lusty paws of various sweating, palpitating, utterly out-of-control males, whose pronouncements—”Going at it like a pair of HOT WART HOGS!!! HORSING ON THE FLOOR! HUMPING UNDER THE BED! GROUSING ON THE GOODIE!”—differ little from Southern’s own interview style.

Candy

In fact, Candy is essentially a comedy of sex manners just as Dr. Strangelove (1964), Southern’s most famous creation, is a comedy of political manners—although his trademark hysteria is still very much visible in the latter: “NO FIGHTING IN THE WAR ROOM!” Despite it’s salacious history, which included much banning and un-banning and an all-star flop film, the book contains very little that could be categorised as erotica, let alone porn. It is regularly hilarious, although not nearly as funny as Southern’s greatest creation (IMHO): Guy Grand, Trillionaire Trickster and hero of The Magic Christian (1959, UK Ed. 1965).

“I started reading The Magic Christian and I thought I was going to go insane… it was an incredible influence on me.”
– Hunter S. Thompson

The Magic Christian does what Candy did to Puritans, and Dr. Strangelove did to the military-political complex, to just about everybody. Grand gives away $100,000 dollars to the people of Chicago, but they have to wade into a vat of boiling cow-dung to get it. He incites riots, “the Jewish, Atheist, Negro, Labour, Homosexual, and Intellectual groups were on one side — the Protestant and American Legion on the other, the Catholic group holding the power” (no one comes off well). He persuades The Champ, legendary boxer and national hero, to throw a match in the most fruity, effeminate manner possible (“I can’t stand it!”), and in the book’s most sublime sequence, sends his man Gonzales to the dog show at Madison Square Garden:

He joined the throng of owners and beasts who mingled in the centre of the Garden, where it was soon apparent that his boast had not been idle—at the end of the big man’s leash was an extraordinary dog; he was jet-black and almost the size of a full-grown Dane, with the most striking coat and carriage yet seen at the Garden show that season. The head was dressed somewhat in the manner of a circus-cut poodle, though much exaggerated, so that half the face of the animal was truly obscured.

The true breed soon becomes clear, however:

As Mrs Winthrop-Garde pulled her angry little spitz forward, while it snapped and snorted and ran at the nose of Gonzales’ dog, an extraordinary thing happened—for this was what Grand and Gonzales had somehow contrived, and for reasons never fathomed by the press, was to introduce in disguise to the Garden show that season not a dog at all, but some kind of terrible black panther or dyed jaguar—hungry he was too, and cross as a pickle—so that before the day was out, he had not only brought chaos into the formal proceedings, but had actually destroyed about half the ‘Best in Breed’.

The Magic Christian

As well as being one of his time’s foremost satirists, Southern was a contributing editor to The Paris Review and one of the founders of the New Journalism, whose articles on the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which lead to his appearance as a key witness in the trial of the Chicago 7) and “the whole Bay of Pigs thing” were highly influential. He also helped inaugurated American independent cinema, co-scripting Easy Rider (1969, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), and had a hand in The Cincinnati Kid, and, unsurprisingly, Barbarella (The Magic Christian was filmed, poorly, in 1969, with Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr). He never got too far from the manic, however, and Now Dig This, an anthology of his writings collected by his son Nile, includes a proposed scene for Kubrick’s Rhapsody, which he made over a decade later as Eyes Wide Shut. Southern challenged Kubrick to “go the comedy route” and recounts the Tom Cruise character’s “more amusing than amorous” encounter with a female patient at his gynecology practice, ‘Miss Hooded Clit’.

The war on “Quality Lit”, or indeed, any quality at all, continued, but not without due care and criticism. Southern, along with Gregory Corso, was one of the people who persuaded Maurice Girodias to take on Naked Lunch, and his critique of William Burroughs stands as testament to his own ideas about what writing should achieve, both for self-expression and for general enlightenment:

No one writing in English, with the exception of Henry Miller, has done as much towards freeing the writer (and tomorrow the reader) of the superstitions surrounding the use of certain words and certain attitudes. It is probably true to say that what Burroughs has done is to up-date Joyce, in American idiom; and, if so, Nova Express is to Naked Lunch as Finnegans Wake is to Ulysses. It is poetry of the most consummate control:

“Muttering in the dogs of unfamiliar score—cross the wounded galaxies we intersect—Poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading—Migrants of age in gasoline crack of history—Explosive bio advance out of space to neon . . . the important thing is always courage to let go—in the dark.”

For those who fail to see “form” in this, and are disturbed because of it, one may conclude only that they see in life itself a “form” which has eluded philosophy from the beginning of time.


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Friday, August 12, 2005

The Tower of Babel

Samuel R. Delany

How cool is this man? Damn cool, and I don’t just mean the beard. He’s Samuel Delany, multiple winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, as well as a respected writer of literary fiction, autobiography and criticism.

I recently got my hands on a copy of Babel-17, one of his masterworks (for which he won his first Nebula in 1966), and indeed included in that grand SF series. Excerpt follows…

“Look, you and I are going to talk about something. But first I have to teach” – she stopped – “the brain something.”
“What?”
“About you and I. You must hear the words a hundred times a day. Don’t you ever wonder what they mean?”
“Why? Most things make sense without them.”
“Hey, speak in whatever language you grew up with.”
“No.”
“Why not? I want to see if it’s one I know anything about.”
“The doctors say there’s something wrong with the brain.”
“All right. What did they say was wrong?”
“Aphasia, alexia, amnesia.”
“Then you were pretty messed up.” She frowned. “Was that before or after the bank robbery?”
“Before.”
She tried to order what she had learned. “Something happened to you that left you with no memory, unable to speak or read, and so the first thing you did was rob the Telechron bank – which Telechron Bank?”
“On Rhea-IV.”
“Oh, a small one. But, still – and you stayed free for six months. Any idea what happened to you before you lost your memory?”
The Butcher shrugged.
“I suppose they went through all the possibilities that you were working for somebody else under hypnotics. You don’t know what language you spoke before you lost your memory? Well, your speech patterns now must be based on your old language or you would have learned about I and you just from picking up new words.”
“Why must these sounds mean something?”
“Because you asked a question just now that I can’t answer if you don’t understand them.”
“No.” Discomfort shadowed his voice. “No. There is an answer. The answer must be simpler, that’s all.”
“Butcher, there are certain ideas which have words for them. If you don’t know the words, you can’t know the ideas. And if you don’t have the idea, you don’t have the answer.” […] “Don’t you see, sometimes you want to say things, and you’re missing an idea to make them with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist. And it’s something the brain needs to have exist, otherwise you wouldn’t have to beat your chest, or strike your fist on your palm. The brain wants it to exist; let me teach it the word.”

The book is set in the corner of a much larger space-opera war scenario and relates the poet Rydra’s search for Babel-17, a mysterious language linked to a series of sabotage attacks. The book is tacitly concerned with the linguistic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. Quicker definition: the words you have to describe the world define how you experience it.

It would be tempting to go off now into a long discussion of why books with long words in them make your brain bigger, and why people who only read childrens’ books are essentially autistic, but I’ll demur.

Sticking to the point, Babel-17, as well as being a great story in its own right, is a fantastic example of the way great science fiction takes one small but clever idea and runs with it, extrapolating theories across galaxies or tweaking the world slightly and making it a more fascinating place.

Having gobbled up Delany’s Sci-fi, I intend to turn my attention to his literary works. Reading Babel-17, I got a strong sense that there was a powerful and dissonant sexual undercurrent to the work – the teams of navigators on the starships are made up of bisexual ‘triples’ – and I didn’t have to look far to have this confirmed. Delany has been out for many years, and his autobiographical description of life as a black, gay science fiction writer living in an open marriage, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village won a Hugo award in 1988. Many of his other novels, including Dhalgren (1975), The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1995) are sexually explicit and sometimes outright pornographic, and much of his criticism deals with and in Queer Theory.

Well, I’m off down the Fantasy Centre. See y’all in September.

babel-17

[Oh yeah, and whatever you do, don’t google image search ‘Samuel Delany’.]


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