Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Homeric Age

Heroes are unfashionable these days, but we are unrepentant in our reverence for Wilfred Thesiger, last of the great explorers, as he is dubbed by Alexander Maitland’s recent biography. Born in Addis Ababa to British parents in 1910, by the time he was twenty Thesiger had tracked animals in the bush, crewed on Icelandic fishing boats, attended the coronation of Haile Selassie, the “colour and savagery” of which left a strong and abiding impression on him, and planned and led an expedition to discover the source of the Awash river, deep in the closed Sultanate of Aussa. The latter trip, into one of the last blank spaces on the map of Africa, took him through the lands of the Danakil, one of the Horn of Africa’s most fearsome tribes, who took pride in castrating their defeated enemies (using their traditional curved dagger which, this author can attest, they still carry today).

One of those lives that simply could not be lived today, Thesiger’s took him first to the now-infamous Darfur region of Sudan as an Assistant District Commissioner in the 1930s, about which he spoke fondly and where he, among other things, raised twin lion cubs as house pets before shooting them on their first birthday “for their own good”, and undertook arduous week-long treks on horse and camel to outlying stations which were to prepare him for his future journeys. The war saw him a key player, alongside Orde Wingate, in Gideon Force, which liberated Abyssinia from a particularly brutal Italian occupation – and, notably, returned it to Abyssinian rule shortly thereafter – as well as in the famed Long Range Desert Group.

After the war, Thesiger became famous for his books documenting his double crossing of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Arabian Sands, and his time spent among the peoples of Southern Iraq, The Marsh Arabs, alongside numerous other works. Arabian Sands is an extraordinary book, capturing the magnificence of one of the least hospitable places on earth (as seen below), together with informed, passionate but unsentimental portraits of its Bedouin inhabitants. The Marsh Arabs is in much the same vein, including startling portraits of the grand reed architecture of the marsh peoples and boar hunting among the waterways. Both are testaments to a vanished, destroyed world: the Bedu irrevocably changed by the arrival of motor vehicles, the marsh arabs by the Ba’athist draining of their lands, which, despite now-stalled restoration attempts in the aftermath of the Second Iraq War, are now less than one tenth the size they once were.

Thesiger published his own autobiography, The Life Of My Choice, in 1987, a wonderful read for the adventurously inclined, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty short on anything approaching feeling or emotion. This only served to inflame our more prurient interests, largely because for us there has always been a constant and undeniable homoerotic motif running below the surface of much of Thesiger’s work.

Whether it is the intense friendships with other boys at prep and public school; the beautiful, otherworldly figures of his Nuer porters in the Sudan; his constant companions in the Empty Quarter, Salim bin Ghabaisha (right) and Salim bin Kabina; or his extended family of Samburu houseboys and servants in Kenya in his later years; Thesiger’s pen, and camera, seem to linger over male adolescents and young men wherever he travels. Despite this, and his notable lack of a wife, he maintained an aura of hardbitten asexuality throughout his life, up to his death in 2003.

Now comes the authoritative biography by his friend and amanuensis Alexander Maitland, and we read it, we must shamefully admit, desperate for new information. We were not disappointed, but the information we came to – and which, for once, we have no desire to spell out here – left us with a bitter taste in the mouth. Thesiger could be overbearing and occasionally cruel but he was in no way a bad or unpleasant person, and it is clear his sexuality was formed early in such a way as to make him reject most intimate contact for the rest of his life. On second thoughts, we would rather not have known this.

We can’t blame the biographer for this: it is his duty, and probably the most telling detail about an otherwise fairly straightforward and plain-speaking man. That the rest of the book is made up of daily minutiae and extensive quotes from Thesiger’s own writings – which, to be honest, we have and have read already – does not help matters.

We’d be very happy indeed if this post, which we’ve been meaning to write for ages, got one more person interested in our hero, but we’d advise against the biography. For the life, read the auto-version. For the expeditions, read Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs and The Danakil Diary, and for the stunning photographs (which illustrate this post, courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum) see Maitland’s far more enjoyable contribution to the legend: Thesiger: A Life in Pictures. Many, unprurient, pleasures await.

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Friday, July 7, 2006

Ever increasing difference

Extraterrestrial Sex FetishIf sexual fetishism is fuelled by forbidden and unattainable desires, then the ultimate sexual thrill must be love for the extraterrestrial, literally that which is not of the earth. Mercury de Sade, “male, Caucasian, thirty years old, unmarried, computer programmer”, suffers from such a condition, pathologised as Exophilia. From the fact that this condition exists, and that the tabloid papers regularly contain stories of Earthlings being molested or worse by little green men, but there is no record of the reverse, the author concludes that one of three things must be true:

  1. Extraterrestrials do not exist.
  2. Extraterrestrials exist, but they do not visit Earth.
  3. Extraterrestrials exist, and they do visit Earth, but they avoid exophiles.

Such is the kind of thinking that characterises the extraordinary, brilliant Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish from the creator(s) of Supervert, which marries centuries of thinking about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life with Sadean wit and imagination.

Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish is not a novel, but a collection of interleaved case histories, categorised according to the methods of set theory, and consisting of Alien Sex Stories (ASS), Methods of Deterrestrialization (MOD), Lessons in Exophilosophy (LIE) and Digressions and Tangents (DAT). It can be read linearly, or reordered according to the will of the reader, in the manner of BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates.

ASS is a stream of sexual vignettes: Mercury de Sade’s encounters with imaginary, potential lifeforms, such as the cunnilinguistic beings of Pi in ASS 16, whose females are both sexual and semantic objects. Each female stands for something, and communication is achieved by fucking the desired symbol. “In this way, a simple statement such as ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ required at least a threesome, and heated arguments would culminate in orgies that bordered on senseless babbling.” But their vocabularies are necessarily limited by the availability of sexual partners, and exophiles such as Mercury de Sade would be rewarded for introducing new lexical objects by being allowed to frolic in the pastures of speculative discourse, a joy for the exophile “insofar as metaphysical propositions were formulated through acts of creative sodomy and abstruse areas of aesthetics were illuminated by variations in the sadistic treatment of nubile alien girls.” Mercury de Sade plunders the constellation camps of a horoscopically divided Earth to bring fresh Virgo girls to Pi, arranging them in increasingly distorted positions to educate the Pis in the concepts of art and literature.

In the MOD set, Mercury de Sade befriends a young woman, Charlotte, and we follow his frustrated attempts to turn her into Ninfa XIX, the 19th in a series of alien substitutes which he uses to satisfy his cravings for extraterrestrial sex. Such endeavors are ultimately unsuccessful, because Charlotte is incontrovertibly human, and the logical conundrums that result serve only to deaden Mercury de Sade’s passions. “Does Mercury de Sade not intend to make an alien out of her somehow? Well, but how? Where do you begin? You can’t saw off her hands and replace them with tentacles – or rather, you can, but how do you know aliens have tentacles? If you attach tentacles to her arms, might you not just succeed in making her into an octopus? Isn’t there a tremendous failure of imagination here?” Still, Mercury de Sade can perhaps gain some benefit from the fact that Charlotte’s abusive, hated father is the billionaire owner of a flotilla of satellites, their positions and access codes stored in the computer in an office to which she has access…

LIE contains the author’s meditations on the history of exophilosophy, beginning with the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras’ theory of the plurality of worlds. Anaxagoras believed that the moon was inhabited and that the first life fell to earth from space, riding in on comets and asteroids, a concept that later scientists would christen panspermia. The notion of the plurality of worlds originates in the concept of mind or nous existing independently of matter, and since mind gives order to the universe, it must be coextensive with it. Exophilosophy moves on, through, inter alia, the theories of John Locke, who introduced the question of whether aliens and man could communicate as one of the tests of his assertion that all ideas derive from experience, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose characteristic pessimism admitted the possibility of extraterrestrial life, but concluded that if it exists, it must be “as despicable, boring and inane as life on Earth.” Ultimately, the author sees exophilosophy, like its less exotic brother, falling out of favour to be superceded by the exosciences, in a line that stretches from Galileo and Kepler to Carl Sagan and beyond, and by the relatively modern psychological doctrines of Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich, who devoted whole books to the consideration of flying saucers. Ze notes, however, that, much as theology does not require a deity in order to thrive, so exophilosophy may continue regardless of contact. (One of the benefits of reviewing a book of interrelated, endlessly rearrangeable texts is that the reviewer cannot commit the sin of the ‘spoiler’: all endings, all climaxes, are but starting points for new and different readings.)

DAT, finally, sprawls out along non-aligned pathways of exotheory; here contemplating the novelty of extraterrestrial intelligence and the potential for the introduction of entirely new political systems and philosophical enquiries that are not merely extraterrestrial but altogether extra-planetary, there examining the cognitive theories of brain vs. computer, and the argument that the brain of the programmer, the future brain, slowly becomes a computer as it strives to eliminate all error, even that of thought and action.

Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish, as literature, is an attempt to attain escape velocity, to blast off from the dead lands of Western writings to explore new realms of intellectual and sensual endeavour. A treatise on UFOlogy, a novel of ideas, a radical reconceptualising of science fiction (which the author terms truth falsified), an overview of all Western thought, an extremely dirty and occasionally violent book, and much more besides, it is one result of Supervert’s stated aim to evoke a “unique combination of intellect and deviance. Perversity for your brain. Vanguard aesthetics, novel pathologies.” We look forward to reading the next instantiation, Necrophilia Variations, whose interests are perhaps encoded in the closing passages of ESF: “The vast distances of interstellar space can only be crossed by a being with incredible endurance and longevity… does this not also mean that, if exophilosophy ever does achieve contact, extraterrestrial life will not be living?”

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Man in hiding Booker Prize

Without a sword, I govern the people with good words.
– from the Ruhnama of Turkmenbashi

What is it in the dictatorial make-up that makes you go: “Monday, work on bunker; Tuesday, invade neighbour; Wednesday, make ill-advised statements about nuclear ambition; Thursday, write novel”? Some recent examples have been Saddam Husseins’s last publication, Be Gone Demons!, sales of which suffered due to bomb damage, despite the author’s previous million-selling form; and Radovan Karadžić’s The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night, written while on the run from the UN’s War Crimes trials yet still nominated for Serbia’s highest literary prize, the Golden Sunflower. Neither, unfortunately, are available from Amazon.

Saddam’s last effort continued much in the vein of his previous books: a refiguring of the history of Iraq as a struggle between the noble Iraqi tribes and their arch-nemesis, the odious yet immortal Jew Ezekiel. Ezekiel delights in meddling with the affairs of Arab states and inciting war between them – although not without the connivance of the lazy and avaricious Arabic élite. When Ezekiel seizes power in Iraq following the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, it falls to Selim, “a pure, virtuous Arab… tall and handsome with a straight nose,” to take up arms in the name of the resistance. Selim routs Ezekiel with the words “Be gone, Demons!”, but his enemy soon returns with US backing in the form of the vogueishly-portrayed Roman Empire. Once again, the enemies of Iraq are put to the sword and Ezekiel and the Roman king retreat, to find that the Arabs have set the twin towers of the Roman capital on fire.

While Saddam clearly saw himself as the war-like yet righteous ruler of his tribe, Karadžić is more of a quiet man. Reports of The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night are mixed: one source claims it details a love affair set in a thinly-disguised Sarajevo, while another has it set in a prison in the run-up to the Bosnian war. The novel apparently reached the publisher through ‘secret channels’ (those incensed by the fact that an accused war criminal is free to write at all should check the Finding Karadžić blog), and all 1,000 copies sold out at the Belgrade book fair in 2004.

Karadžić has previous published a number of books of poetry, which have garnered much politically-motivated praise, and have latterly been cited as evidence by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal of his genocidal intentions. In his fascinating paper, Is Poetry a War Crime?, Jay Surdokowski draws an equivalence between Karadžić’s poetry and his ultra-national radio broadcasts, public addresses and manifestos to suggest that poetry is a legally valid means of adjudicating a man’s mind. Included among the evidence acquired by the ICT is a video of a unique poetry reading: Karadžić and Eduard Limonov, Russian nationalist and eXile columnist, exhanging stanzas atop Mount Trebevic while loosing shells from a field gun into the besieged city of Sarajevo below. It’s not exactly Bookslam.

Karadžić’s poetry is described as inhabiting “a psychic landscape of eerie and illogical violence” and embodying a “paramilitary surrealism.” In particular, a fatal lack of irony is discerned in the poet’s longings for the military life – notably in the poem Goodbye, Assassins: “The gentlefolks’ aortas will gush without me./The last chance to get stained with blood/I let go by.” – enough, at least, to make the ‘warrior-poet’s work admissable in the International Court.

And now it’s the turn of another famous fugitive to make his mark on the written word – although, this time, it is unlikely that the pursuing authorities will need to subpoena the muse in order to make a case. Martyrdom Press (Islamabad, Kabul, London) has issued The Islamic Millennium (ISBN: 0954006356), claiming to be one of the early literary efforts of Osama bin Laden. Unlike the violent struggles of his fellow-travellers in the Axis of Evil book club, bin Laden’s bucolic future fable is more akin to JG Ballard’s Hello America, in which a band of sailors visit an abandoned, desertified USA. A thousand years into the future, the good ship Zluthulb hoves to off the coast of an unknown island. In a wide bay, a gigantic statue stands many times higher than the ship’s masts, and behind it rises a forest of ruins, great iron structures and temples with pointed roofs. Only the wise narrator can explain to his companions that they have chanced upon the once-great city of Nhu-Yok, capital of the ancient Mehrikans, who left so little to posterity that their very existence has almost been forgotten:

“There was nothing to leave. The Mehrikans possessed neither literature, art, nor music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quick-witted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell. Even women, both of high and low degree, spent much of their time at bargains, crowding and jostling each other in vast marts of trade, for their attire was complicated, and demanded most of their time.”

The narrator admits that much, if not all, of the scientific and technological knowledge which made the Mehrikans great – “The very elements seems to have been their slaves” – was lost along with them, but maintains that their successors have been spared the indignities which were their price: restless activity, ceaseless noise and industry, social conformism, ill-fitting clothes, and educated and unblushing women.

After a number of semi-comedic adventures clearly intended as satire on the strange and hilarious customs of the West, wherein the crew of the Zluthulb are seduced into drinking alcohol by a ghostly party and have an unpleasant encounter with an animal resembling a skunk, the brave sailors defeat the last survivor of the Mehrikan race in close combat, and set sail for home, intending to present the latter’s skull to the museum at Teheran. What the narrative does suggest is a far more optimistic and inevitable approach to the future than either Saddam or Karadžić: the enemies of bin Laden’s people will not run rampant through his lands but will instead be consigned to history by their own arrogance and greed. Of course, such a work may be dismissed as juvenilia, but given others’ literary form while under duress, we may expect more despatches from the Tora-Bora press yet.

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Friday, June 9, 2006

Le soleil brillait et les oiseaux chantaient dans les arbres

Whoops, ten days. What happened? Oh yes, there was some drinking involved. More hangovers. A trip to Berlin. A lot of lying around. It happens. Summer arrives, and all that stuff that seemed so important when you were cooped up all winter just kind of fades out into blue, blue sky. Get a bicycle. Go to the park. Take a book. And some beer. And some reefer. This is the season for sitting down and finishing a book in one go. Life’s Greatest Pleasure™.

Just Like TomorrowAfter too many books that should have been for teenagers and somehow sneaked into the Adult Fiction section, we’ve been reading books about teenagers (in fact, one of them’s written by one) that actually make us happy. We mentioned Faïza Guène’s Just Like Tomorrow back in January, in the same breath as the book which will no longer be named and the despicable Tourism. Who knew then that it would turn out to be the most enjoyable of the three?

We were interested not just because of the author’s age and background (she wrote the book when she was 16ish and lives in the Parisian banlieus – still, despite selling 200,000 copies in France), but because the original contained heaps of Verlan, the arabicised backslang of the streets, and the translation promised to be interesting. The translator, Sarah Adams, has learnt herself a fair amount of British street slang – ‘bare’ for ‘very’, the posh-sounding ‘oh my days’ for, well, ‘fucking hell’, even ‘the ends’ for her part of town – but it’s not very intelligently used: it just crops up every now and again, sounding a little strange in Doria, the narrator’s, bubbly monologue.

Still, who cares. It’s summer. Doria’s pretty engaging, and her meandering tales of life in the suburban highrises are compelling. It’s not often we’re confronted with the realities of Western European poverty in mainstream lit, but matter-of-fact descriptions of looking through Red Cross donations to find something that won’t get you laughed out of school, and knowing there’s no other choice, have a way of pulling the reader up short, as do tales of domestic abuse hidden by families and neighbours from patronising social workers; the bullying, exploitative nature of immigrant employment; and the all-too-common blight of illiteracy. But somehow, sunlight creeps in through the cracks, and makes this a really enjoyable read, undersold and misrepresented by the cover quotes from Elle and Vogue. Guène’s next book is out in France in August, and should prove a pretty interesting follow-up, one way or another.

We won a signed copy of John Bennet’s excellently-titled Sea Otters gambolling in the wild, wild surf over at Londonist. To be honest, we had pretty low expectations, but, as we may have noted before, sun, beer, and spliff do wonders for the humours, and we spent a few hours on our roof terrace chortling happily to ourselves.

A quick note. When we say “roof terrace” we mean the bit of downstairs’ ceiling that sticks out further than ours’, and can be accessed if you remove all the screws from the flatmate’s PVC window, take out and set aside the entire pane, and, using two precariously-balanced chairs as makeshift ladders, clamber through. This should only be attempted once all necessary supplies – rug, cushions, book, several cans of Red Stripe, dub albums, stereo speakers – have been gently lobbed through, and the reverse, when you muct climb back in without breaking anything and reattach the windowpane, now in semi-darkness and slightly the worse for wear, shouldn’t really be attempted at all. But hey, it’s summer.

Sea Otters… concerns the travels and travails of Felix, who despite being the same age, give or take a couple of years, as Doria, couldn’t be more different. Something of a prodigy, he’s taken his A-Levels early and is waiting out the summer before University when he finds a stunningly obscene statuette (it involves an otter…) in the local Pound Shop. His haphazard determination to find the origin of this MacGuffin takes him to China (as in ‘Made in…’), where he’s threatened by gun-wielding plastics factory owners, and then on to Japan and the US. It’s all kind of ridiculous but you can’t help but feel for Felix as his bored, English, middle-class eyes are opened to all sorts of places and people, and, in between the homesickness and the repeated interjections of ‘Whatever’, a little of the wonder of travel is delightfully outlined. Whatever. It’s summer.


P.S. On another funny tip: check out new boys Old Street Publishing, specialising, for the moment, in out-of-print humour releases. We’re particularly intrigued by Boner Friday’s Wanking Trilogy (Wanking for Beginners, Intermediate Masturbation and The Advanced Onanist). This seminal (geddit?!?!) work is forthcoming in 2007, and we hope to bring you more soon.

tags: Reviews | permalink | 1 Comment

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

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The return of Derkaderkastan

Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani is released today, heralded by a flurry of reviews and extracts in the papers, and, as committed STML-watchers will know, we had quite a lot to say about the book some time ago, here, here, and here. And then we shut the hell up, because we realised we’d been taken in by the same towering pile of hype and bullshit as everyone else, and felt sheepish. Bad us.

Still, it was even more depressing to open the Arts sections of various broadsheets over the long weekend and read the same reviews – and virtually the same opinions – of the same ten-or-so books in EVERY SINGLE ONE. With hundreds of books released every week, it remains astonishing how successful the PR people at Random House, Hodder, Penguin, Bloomsbury et al are at shoehorning their books into the papers (below graph from last week’s Publishing News).

Previous week's reviews

While there is undoubtedly a debate to be had about whether reviews actually sell books (most signs, it has to be said, point to No), it can also be asserted that without any reviews at all, literary titles (as opposed to genre fiction or topical non-fic) stand little or no chance of making an impact. So, without trying to sound like a whining small publisher (but succeeding all the same), it’d be nice if journalists would cast their nets a little wider, and not just review the last thing Random House took them on a junket for.

Of course, the main journalistic incitement for reviewing one of the big boy’s releases is knowing that everyone else will be doing it, and you can stick your oar in too. So you can read our review of Londonstani over at RSB now.

[Update/SPOILER ALERT: There’s more discussion in the comments]

tags: Publishing + Reviews | permalink | 10 Comments

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Enter the Exit (a late Valentine)

“… one can offer to Venus in many a temple; I will be content with the most mediocre; you know, my dear, near the Cyprean altar, there is situate an obscure grot into whose solitude Love retires, the more energetically to seduce us: such will be the altar where I will burn my incense… Nothing can betray a girl from this quarter, however rude or multiple the attacks may be; as soon as the bee has left off sucking the pollen, the rose’s calix closes shut again; one would never imagine it had been opened… in one word, ‘tis the mystery’s asylum, ‘tis there where it connects itself with love by ties of prudence… Need I tell you further that although this is the most secret temple it is howbeit the most voluptuous; what is necessary to happiness is found nowhere else, and that easy vastness native to the adjacent aperture falls far short of having the piquant charms of a locale into which one does not enter without effort, where one takes up one’s abode only at the price of some trouble… and those whom reason compels to know this variety of pleasure, never pine after the others…”

So believes the Marquis de Sade, writing in Justine, and so too does Toni Bentley in The Surrender. Bentley is a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, author of Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal and several other well-recieved, if minority interest, books about ballet and ballet dancers. Suffice to say that noone was expecting her to pen a 200-page hymn to anal sex, but that’s what she’s done.

The Surrender by Toni BentleyBentley gives us a potted history of her life and her sexual history – boyfriends, breakdowns, and the occasional breakthrough. She details threesomes and her collection of crotchless panties (“It is perhaps no surprise, given my theatrical background, that props, costumes, and ceremony became increasingly essential components of my newly expanded private life”). But nothing compares to the arrival of A-Man, and the transcendence that follows: “Bliss, I learned from being sodomized, is an experience of eternity in a moment of real time.”

Bentley does not shrink from addressing the thornier issues of her predilection: the book is awash with tips for following in her footsteps, which, while interrupting her rapturous tone, are a worthy inclusion: “I know that when some of you hear anal sex you see nothing but shit – shit, shit everywhere. Shit on the bed, shit on his cock, shit on your ass. I am here to tell you it just isn’t like that.” This is necessary stuff: when homophobes and other sexual reactionaries respond to increasing sexual freedoms with words like ‘buggery’ and ‘sodomite’ they are reacting specifically to the idea of filth, dirt and sin we connect with the anus. Bentley explicitly refutes this, finding, not shit, but God in her ass.

Proselytising aside, Bentley includes such gems as Kenneth Tynan’s observation that it’s “Odd how nineteenth-century literature is sealed off at both ends by an anal scandal: Wilde up Bosie’s bum, Byron up Annabella’s”, and plenty of her own blasphemies: “Like Sir Richard Burton entering Mecca, he is the first Westerner to have infiltrated the tangled jungle of my bowels, my uncharted territory, the heart of my darkness.”

For Bentley, anal fucking is about submission; her total emotional enslavement to A-Man and, more specifically, “his cock, his balls, his asshole”. Unlike Catherine Millet’s Sexual Life…, whose similarity lies in its explicit intimacy and lack of titillation as well as its emphasis on freedom in all its forms, Bentley adores A-Man above all others, despite the loud protestations of non-monogamy and the sharply circumscribed bounds of their relationship. In fact, the book far more closely resembles Anita Phillips’ A Defence of Masochism in its attempt to ‘top from the bottom’; to restore to submission its exalted, religious meaning.

Ultimately, The Surrender is as much about obsessive love manifested in obsessive sex as it is about ass-fucking. But Bentley fervently believes that this is necessary: “I feel every one could be the last, and so every one contains all I have. Fuck on the edge. Suck on the edge. All ways.”

tags: Reviews + Sex | permalink | 4 Comments

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Screw what’s normal

As you’ve surely noticed by now, STML is rather fond of Metronome Press, the English-language publisher set up in Paris by Clémentine Deliss, and not just because they shamelessly chucked a couple of free books our way. No, we like them because they promote their books unequivocally as art, a rare thing in fiction these days. That they don’t have to rely on the whims of the booksellers and the great unwashed to survive in these hard times is paraded in the list of patrons at the back of each edition, much to the chagrin of others.

Even the great Pete Ayrton himself, founder of Serpent’s Tail, had to be reminded on Front Row this evening that culture is not the same thing as market goods, and that what sells is not a barometer of taste. He lamented that only in Britain is “a local prize” (the Booker) deemed more worthy that the Nobel, but it is not our place to moan about the lack of money or celebrity afforded our corner of the arts, but to find new ways to ensure that it is made available and, if nothing else, survives. It’s what wealthy patrons have been enabling in the arts for centuries, and if the market won’t support this stuff, we’d better find someone who will.

Thank you then, Mr Harold Falckenberg (Hamburg), Mr Antoine de Galbert (Paris), one Anonymous Patron (Barcelona), the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (France), the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (the French again, we presume), the American Center Foundation (New York) and the Hessische Kulturstiftung (Frankfurt) for their generous support without which we would not have had the pleasure of Phyllis Kiehl’s Fat Mountain Scenes, or any of the other Metronome titles.

Fat Mountain Scenes is a story about an exclusive diet clinic, the Weiko Sud, where the fatties (her words, not mine) have taken over the asylum. Ebba, a new arrival, is just settling into the bizarre but surprisingly unstressful routine, which includes regular self-administered blood tests, sharply sloping dinner tables, and paper punishment suits for those who put weight back on (they stick to sweaty folds of skin and chafe until they rupture…), when a new physician struggles up the 180-step entranceway and attempts to institure a new regime. What follows is a cross between Lord of the Flies and Fat Camp, as Dr Tense’s followers square up against the mysterious Dr Sago, unseen head of the institute and gatekeeper to its mysteries.

While certainly not as experimental in form (Remainder, Stunning Lofts) or stunningly resurrected (The Young & Evil) as other Metronome titles, Fat Mountain Scenes still gets successfully under the skin, leaving a sense of deeper secrets buried beneath the flab than even the narrator reveals (although to what extent this is due to the translation – see here) – is unknowable). The connections with Kiehl’s other work, described as “plump, textile sculpture” which manifests when “the more extraordinary visual elements of her stories renounce their status as printed matter” must be fascinating – please let STML know if you find any examples…

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Is it safe blud? Is it safe?

Gautam Malkani - LondonstaniSo, (yet another) novel that everybody’s been talking about (see previous articles on STML, and at the Guardian), Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, finally lands on STML’s doorstep – well, the first third anyway, in a kind of advanced taster deal.

If you remember, the book was the big event at last year’s Frankfurt book fair where it was the subject of a fierce bidding war, clinched by a six-figure sum from Fourth Estate’s Nicholas Pearson. Malkani himself – a Cambridge Graduate and editor of the FT’s Creative Business supplement – has not as yet appeared much in public, but with the amount of promotion waiting to swing into action ahead of publication in May, the post of celebrity author, desired or not, is beckoning. All of which is meaningless of course, unless the book lives up to the hype.

Luckily, the first part of the book, at least, certainly does. Narrated in the kinetic and authentic voice of Jas, the least secure member of a desi gang, the novel takes us inside the souped up Beemers of Hounslow’s mobile phone-boosting asian kids and the internecine battles between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. The joke is that the Beemers and the phones all belong to their mums, they can’t help but fancy Muslim girls, and life is a constant negotiation between the local racial and criminal faultlines and “complicated family-related shit”, which often necessitates a break from rumbling to pick up Aunty-ji’s prescription from Boots. Nevertheless, the mobile jacking operation is clearly headed into riskier territory, and only the intervention of an old teacher saves the lads from yet more police attention. As the first part comes to a close, the exasperated teacher, desperate to understand their withdrawal from the multicultural society that is supposed to be built in their image, makes a deal to win them back – promising, among other things, to introduce them to a fellow Indian who has made it big in the City. Here the taster ends, but it will be interesting to see if Malkani can convincingly pull off the clichéd figure of the well-meaning white teacher while maintaining the (frequently hilarious) bad-lads appeal of his characters.

[UPDATE 2/5/06: For the last word on Londonstani, see here.]

Londonstani is one of several fascinating second-generation novels appearing this year – ones set in a noticeably different milieu to their predecessor Zadies and Monicas. In April, Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal’s Tourism hails from – but quickly exits – Southall, the rival desi neighbourhood to the north of Hounslow, and is described by the publisher as “a filthy, unflinching and politically incorrect take on modern Britain”, with a be-titted cover to match. The rather more serious Just Like Tomorrow by Faiza Guene arrives from Paris, and answers a question posed by STML back in November as to the possibility of translating novels, like Malkani’s, written in the deep, rich slang of the immigrant culture where the indigenous spoken language meshes with one or more imported tongues, as well as layers of US influences and text-speak. Just Like Tomorrow, wildly successful in France last year under the title Kiffe-Kiffe Demain, was written in Verlan.

Verlan is the language of the French banlieus, the high-rise, largely Arab estates where Just Like Tomorrow is set. Its origin is in the linguistic wordplay of Arabic, fitted to local French slang, whereby words are reversed – voiture flipped and shortened to tourv, the classic flic for cop turned to keulf. Its origins as both an expression of identity within an immigrant community and as a code for disguising communication from institutions of social control make Verlan a powerful narrative tool.

It should also make translation damn hard, and the English translator of Just Like Tomorrow, Sarah Adams, recently told Radio 3’s The Verb how she looked to the local slang of Brixton, where she lives, for inspiration – emphasising that while she has tried not to simply swap one immigrant culture for another, she looked for an authentic “urban street language in a developed western country. You want something that sounds authentic and not translated.” Her efforts will be going up against our home-grown urban slang in June.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Cunning Stunts

Lovely Metronome Press recently sent STML some books and the latest issue of Metronome magazine, which comprises a sheaf of ‘teaser’ magazines in the style of Maurice Girodias’ promotional jazzmags for the Olympia Press. These feature extracts from the Metronome Press titles, as well as specially commissioned texts and images, which form an impressively varied, if expensive, collection.

Far more affordable at a mere £6.99, their paperbacks continue to astound. Tom Gidley’s Stunning Lofts tells two tales in alternate chapters (and, rather helpfully, alternate typefaces): the slow descent and disengagement from society of an urban planner, and the tribulations of a homeless man on the streets of London. What makes the form particularly intriguing is that although the conclusion is quite predictable half-way through the book, this does not lessen its impact or make the story any less compelling. The tension is maintained by a structure of numerous short chapters, each containing some minor revelation, altercation or imaginative event (a pile of office papers billows from the architect’s balcony across a run-down, East End square; the vagrant wakes in Finsbury Park, surrounded by beer cans poking through the newly fallen snow). The accompanying mental disintegration, the ease of dropping out of society and out of mind, is brilliantly evoked and sustained.

Stunning Lofts is in fact extremely close in style to another Metronome title, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, much lauded in these parts. The exact dimensions of this style are hard to define, but it is characterised by a couple of strong narrative tics. Firstly, there sounds a strong tone of detachment exemplified by a refusal to name narrators and a seeming intention to provide as few details as possible about their personal histories, and only the most perfunctory and scientific about their present lives (in Stunning Lofts occasional references are made to a disastrous old relationship, but when the narrator spies his former lover in the street, he flees in panic, and no more information is provided). This is echoed in the deadpan descriptions of rooms and streets, the bland recitation of street names and locales, if such things are mentioned at all.

Secondly, there is a focus on process which is typical of conceptual as opposed to narrative or descriptive art. The latter is hardly surprising. Gidley and McCarthy are both artists and curators who deal regularly in the conceptual (McCarthy’s International Necronautical Society claimed in its first manifesto “That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” – a claim we missed in our original review of Remainder but which suggests a possible rereading of that book as an exploration of limbo, a Jacob’s Ladder-style approach to the afterlife). While turning away from the more lurid excesses of so-called ‘experimental’ fiction (see Steve Mitchelmore’s recent post for arguments on this), both artists are clearly engaged in radical work, both attempting in the tradition of conceptual art to make the book more artifact that object – a piece to be viewed from more than one angle and with the viewer’s full interaction – and striving to outstep traditional narrative while still retaining the recognisable form of a novel.

That both are successful speaks volumes about the way in which the currents of contemporary literary taste are in thrall to the same reactionary, middle-brow knee-jerkery that greets each new evolution of the conceptual in the visual arts. Is it to be hoped that Metronome represents a new kind of publisher, one more equivalent to a curator, who will guard, support and exhibit such work in the face of market indifference? We will have to wait and see.

We’ll return to these themes, perhaps, in a forthcoming review of the fourth and final of Metronome’s current list, Phyllis Kiehl’s Fat Mountain Scenes.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Third Flower

A doll does not believe in itself he thought it believes in its dollness I have the will to doll which is a special way of willing to live my poetry may merely be a way of dolling up and then it may be the beginning of ego I think I would be practically nothing without my poetry unless a DOLL my homosexuality is just a habit to which I’m somehow bound which is little more than a habit in that it’s not love or romance but a dim hard fetish I worship in my waking dreams it’s more a symbol of power not a symbol inducing pleasure but exemplifying it not a specific symbol no I am not a fairy doll.
The Young and Evil by Charles Henri Ford & Parker Tyler
So speaks Julian in The Young and Evil, the second of our books from the still satisfying Metronome Press. First published by Paris’ Obelisk Press in 1933, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s surrealist text deals in love and queenery in the bars of thirties New York, as a coterie of beautiful, mascara’d boys fall painfully in and out with one another, and, to an actually far lesser extent, society.

A year later, from the same city and the same press, issued Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, whose cunts and pricks, which shocked the world, were well in evidence by page four. Ford and Tyler, a year ahead, are onto the Lesbians by the fourth line. What worlds these were, with such things in them.

Ford and Tyler’s achievement, much like Miller’s, is to give a mythical, heroic aspect to the gutter lives of their characters, and, more lovingly than Miller, fairytale titles to their games. They inhabit a world where, at the best of times, too much tea is drunk, damsels are asked to private parties and magistrates, at the point of crisis, bid them go, and hand back the eyebrow pencil. The grinding poverty of everyday life is utterly forgotten.

The sun didn’t shine white but the sun shone. Karel slept, loving neither flowers, animals nor music. There was no clock in the place. Louis found cigarettes and gave Julian one. Louis sat at the table and wrote with pencil on a piece of yellow paper. Julian looked at the floor strewn with cigarette butts, a broken victrola record and some glasses. An empty gin bottle stood at Louis’ elbow and another lay at his ankle.
Don’t you know that poems shouldn’t be written after sexual excesses said Julian.
Louis said that is when I always write.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

“Gun’s goin off

John Sandoe BooksIt takes a lot to draw STML into the Western Lands – but, ah, what perfumed gardens await us there! Wide boulevards and fragrant airs abound; even the light is brighter and clearer. And such people as you would marvel to behold! The quality of their vestments has to be seen to be believed. In all truth, it was not garments but the promise of fine Spanish cheeses that brought STML to the King’s Road, but I digress.

Entering John Sandoe Books in Blacklands Terrace is a bibliophile’s dream: everything is right. In tiny rooms, fat hardbacks are stacked ten deep on the tables. Upstairs, the paperbacks are stored in standing cabinets on rails, pressed together like archives. Their wheels squeal, seeming almost to giggle, when you part them. And so they should, when their straining shelves contain such sweet delights.

Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, first published in The New Yorker in 1997, practically threw itself off the shelf. Such a topical tale should not be missed, if only so you can be smug by the time the movie arrives. (It’s only 58 pages.)

It’s a gem of a story, and quite beautifully told. Sixties ranchers Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar come together for one glorious summer on Brokeback Mountain, “gettin paid to leave the dogs babysit the sheep while you stemmed the rose”, in the words of their unimpressed employer.
Out on the range
The years after are spent mostly apart, but there is never any doubt of the seriousness or depth of feeling, even if neither man is prepared to speak outright.

“You know, I was sittin up here all that time tryin to figure out if I was – ? I know I ain’t. I mean, here we both got wives and kids, right? I like doin it with women, yeah, but Jesus H., ain’t nothin like this. I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy except I sure wrang it out a hunderd times thinkin about you.”

There is no happy ending to the tale, but there is the time lived, the meetings in dusty, rodeo towns, the fishing trips – “that line hadn’t touched water in its life” says Ennis’ sad wife. What is central to the tale is Proulx’s skill in detailing that which makes such a life possible, hence believable, and actual.

Years on years they worked their way through the high meadows and mountain drainages, horse-packing into the Big Horns, the Medicine Bows, the south end of the Gallatins, the Owl Creeks, the Bridger-Teton Range, the Freezeouts and the Shirleys, the Ferrises and the Rattlesnakes, the Salt River range, into the Wind Rivers over and again, the Sierra Madres, the Gros Ventres, the Washakies, the Laramies, but never returning to Brokeback.

This extension of life into the old lands of other myths is the key to rereading and retelling, to seeing in old places and old people a life lived but untold, until now. There is a duty to uncover stories from the past as they become relevant in the present.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

About the accident itself I can say very little

As much as we hate to admit it, STML is a sucker for hype, and the buzz around this title, the excellent You Are Hear interview with the author on Resonance last week, and the backstory of an interesting new press, means this one was a shoe-in for a review.

Tom McCarthy is the shadowy figure behind the International Necronautic Society artistic/theoretical collective, while Metronome Press, an offshoot of Clémentine Deliss’ Metronome art magazine, styles itself on the avant-garde mixture of high art and low porn publishing practiced by our old mate Maury Girodias, of the Olympia Press. (The Metronome books are all published in Paris, in English, and are currently available from arty outlets like the ICA and the Serpentine bookstores, as well as the usual online sources.)

Remainder concerns itself with the holy grail of the artist (particularly those who, like McCarthy, work mostly at the conceptual level): the moment when their creation steps over into the ‘real’ world and becomes an actor rather than an object in it. The struggle to achieve this is embodied in Remainder‘s protagonist, who is in the process of recovering from a serious but unspecified accident, for which he has been paid a very large sum in compensation. Bored by his old life, which has been rendered both incomprehensible by the accident and unnecessary by his sudden fortune, he struggles with the age-old dilemma of authenticity in everyday life, the sensation that while everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, he is merely pretending, acting out a part; and doing a pretty bad job of it at that.

To counteract this feeling, he begins to use the compensation money to create elaborate re-enactments, first of half-remembered people and locations, then of more concrete events – an incident in a garage, forensically researched crime scenes – and finally of meticulously realised fictional events. The scenes are analysed down to the finest grain: the light in a corridor specifically “higher, sharper, more acute”, a Brixton roadway “like an old grand master – one of those Dutch ones thick with rippling layers of old paint, [the tarmac] old, fissured and cracked.” Only within these rigorous playlets can he sense himself becoming ‘real’, even while it becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that he is in fact becoming more and more ill. Danger signs multiply, but he is egged on by his ever-present support team of logistics staff, designers and architects, built up over the course of many months to handle his increasingly maniacal requests.

It is only when, in a surprisingly shocking denouement, the re-enactments finally cross over, cease to be mere copies and become authentic, creative acts, that this support fails, and he takes control of the world back; both the world of the re-enactments, and the ‘real’ world from which he has been absent so long.

Remainder is a novel about the desperate attempts of artists to affect an indifferent world, and the dangers of narcissism and tragedy inherent in them. It is a novel built up of loops, refrains and reflections, that rewards multiple rethinkings and reworkings, but it is not without humour, or humanity (although lovers of cats might not take kindly to some of the treatment meted out). With the kind of dull stuff that passes for literature these days, it’s about time some real artists stuck their oar in.

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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.


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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.


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

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