Tuesday, 30 August 2016

New Links

Dear all: worth noting a few new magazines and blogs that've been added to the sidebar, including the excellent Prac Crit which I have just stumbled across during my digital peregrinations.  The current issue is particularly worth a butcher's, as it includes an excellent interview with Matthew Welton, whose long awaited third collection, The Number Poems, is due from Carcanet any time soon. 

Monday, 29 August 2016

Polishing Night's Stones - George Ttoouli and Simon Turner discuss, at length, M Night Shyamalan's The Village

ST: This is worth a gander. I genuinely thought we were the only two people left on the planet to give credence to any Shyamalan post-Signs (I've still yet to see The Lady in the Water: my misgivings haven't quite been overcome by your enthusiasm), but it's a nice surprise to read someone who's an enthusiast for The Village. I still stand by my assertion that it's his best movie.
GT: Yeah, I get it. But note how the article kicks off with the declaration of preference for his most genre-obvious films. And then tries to reappraise The Village from genre terms: genre films are 'for the love' / escapist, rather than political.
The author also makes some really crude assumptions about how some films 'mean something' and others don't. I stopped reading at: "It’s not just a cheap gotcha moment like the end of the recent The Visit, a film that, as enjoyable as it is, is about nothing at all." When is a film ever about nothing, ffs?

But your prompting me with the article sent me to Shyamalan's website, which, frankly is utterly typical of his work: an attempt at total immersion, which you have to squint at to hide the sellotape and string holding it together in places because either the studio/web company weren't given sufficient budget to execute that vision (The Happening) or the makers are tongue-in-cheek enough to know that a little bit of exposed architecture reminds us we have to sustain our inner child in order to enjoy life (Signs).
The website, if you haven't looked, uses a point-and-click house navigation system, with a crow guide, to interact with each of his films. Each room (on the first/ground floor) offers a template set of information about his films up to 2009: Night's favourite dialogue; his favourite scene (as video); how stressed he felt while making it; the 'theme'; the point he thought the film was a failure (!); and a couple of other details.
"Mmm . . . forbidden berries."
The picture you get is of a creative person who is both inspired by failure (I think it quotes him on this in one of the upstairs rooms) and also sent into periodic bouts of depression by public reception. And there's a couple of heartwarming moments where he claims he wants to stop making films for 'them' and 'me' and only make films for 'us'; and one where he self-portraits as an art house filmmaker, who turned to genre out of a sense of failure. But really, that's the problem: he's an arthouse writer/director who enjoys genre as much as he enjoys Hitchock's suspense thrillers, or whatever.
It's a weird insight, but chimed with the feeling I've had all along that the vast majority of critics have so far failed to engage with his films with a level head. The marmite approach - you either love or hate it - doesn't allow for careful appraisal, most of the time. The Village, for example, is not a genre film; on the website, he describes it as a romance. Yeah, that's what I dug - the monsters are just allegorical threats between the lovers. If your world is so unsafe, how can you love?
And Lady in the Water (website says he wanted to call it Story at one point - which would have been SO MUCH better) is wonderful, but it has some unfortunate moments: the critic is too indulgent for my tastes and breaks the spell completely. (Though he admits to ripping off Wallace Shawn's role in The Princess Bride for that scene, which is cute.)

And I was seriously disappointed that he selected that scene for his 'favourite' on the website, instead of the scene where Giamatti monologues about his family while trying to heal Story. Which is one of the most moving scenes in cinema I've ever sat through, without a doubt (it's making me tear up again just thinking about it).
Yes, they're all piecemeal. But that's part of the joy, part of the arthouse tendency. I feel like his films give me permission to interact, to make sense of the logic. Maybe that was a drawback in The Happening, though really I can't remember much of that film, it lacks the set pieces of earlier films.

Signs was the one I felt most successful at sustaining those rough edges. Sadly, again on his website, I found out he wasn't happy with the alien costumes (he wanted them to border on invisibility, like "lizard octopuses").

But for me, when the hand appears under the pantry door, with those silly fingers like a sewn together costume, I couldn't help feeling the whole thing was the product of Gibson and Phoenix's characters, a narrative they'd made up to try and explain something to the kids about asthma, about terrorism, about losing their mother. And then the story starts to take on its own meaning for the men, which is a mirror of the way meaning is supposed to work in an arthouse film.
As an aside, Lady in the... No, I'm going to call it Story, has a lot more faith in an external 'truth' - the characters get the interpretation wrong at times, collectively, and the critic is punished for it. That's perhaps a weakness in the films - that they don't consistently allow for doubt and multiple interpretations. And that's borne out by his website, where at one point I read something about his desire for everyone to agree on whether they like/dislike a film. That's perhaps the genre side of what he's doing conflicting with the arthouse side.
The parts of his films that stand out for me are set pieces primarily about family, not the jump scares of Sixth Sense, or The Village. The emotion in The Village is massively heightened when they open the box. Up to that point, the film is deceptive, sure. But that deception is a classic magic trick, there's nothing wrong with that - playing with expectations.
Anyway, that's a long enough rant for now. I still haven't seen The Visit. I want to, but I'm suspicious of its genre leanings, as with most of his films. Only this one wears its horror producer on the trailer and that kind of puts me off - I couldn't be bothered with the banality of Paranormal Activity and so on.
ST: I see your game: you're trying the lure me into a demi-intellectual conversation that we can bang up on Gists and Piths as a stop-gap until such time as we've written something people might actually want to read.  Dirty pull, old man!  (Addendum: it also feels indicative of our current anti-contemporary modus operandi - 18th century watercolourists? Books from the 60s?  Three year-old email chains?  Unsettling pictures of Patrick Swayze?  We got it! - that we're about to launch into a detailed symposium on a movie that's 12 years old, and which only a few people actually liked the first time around.  I can feel the theoretical click revenue just rolling in.) 

Anyway, to the meat of the matter: I shared your concern with the article - particularly with the 'some films don't mean anything' canard: in this context it's worth reading A O Scott's discussion of the criticism he received for a not-entirely favourable review he gave of The Avengers, in Better Living Through Criticism, which I've enjoyed a great deal recently - but in its defence, it is a feature on a horror-specialising website, so the genre elements were inevitably going to be given precedence, right? 

That said, I'm with you re: the ways in which Shyamalan's movies have been read (or misread, wilfully or not).  It struck me today that MNS is a sort of forerunner to Chris Nolan: they're both indie-esque film-makers who've found mainstream success, they both use genre as a means of expressing their particular obsessions and narrative strategies, they're both auteurs in a studio system, which is impressive in itself, and they're both clearly indebted to the art-populism that Spielberg does so well.  They're also both prone to a degree of narrative over-determination, a micromanagement of plot and atmosphere to such an extent that characterisation, or characterisation as we've commonly come to expect it, is denuded or underdeveloped.  Heavy exposition, a symptom of that hypertrophied narrative urge, is also a recurring vice for both. 

But where Nolan's films are pretty universally praised to the skies, MNS is (or was until very recently) persona non grata.  It's also worth noting that Nolan gets away with a lot of the same stuff that MNS has been panned for over the years.  If the twists in The Sixth Sense and The Village are a little creaky, Nolan's deployment of final act volte-faces owes just as much to the Scooby Doo / Twilight Zone tradition as MNS.  I'm going to keep these Nolan twists free of narrative context, as I'm not sure how much of the recent Nolan you've seen, but here are some prime examples:

"Ah, but it turns out his wife wasn't dead after all!"
"Ah, but it turns out that he was stuck behind the bookcase all along!"
"Ah, but it turns out, maybe, that he's been dreaming this whole time!"
"Ah, but it turns out his lover was the big bad all along!"
"Ah, but twins!  Ah, but quantum physics!"

Those are the big ones, and anyone who knows and loves Nolan's movies will accuse me of wildly traducing his corpus to make a point, which indeed I am.  But the point still stands, which is that if any of these twists were appended to a MNS movie, they'd be critically trounced.  (Indeed, the twists would be the springboard, the essential justification, for the trouncing).  Whether that trouncing is fair or not is a moot point: what matters is context.  In the context of a Nolan movie, The Village's ending would be fine, most likely, with no controversies, no suggestions that he'd egregiously dropped the ball and irrevocably scuppered his career (this is the gist of the Guardian review of The Village that came out at the time; Roger Ebert was even tougher, apparently).  You're right about the 'marmite' response eradicating nuance, but it interests me that the marmite response should be so prevalent here. 

A conjecture: boring art is never divisive, and favours consensus.  Best Movie Oscar syndrome: it's not usually the 'best' movie that wins - even though we can't really quantify something as qualitative and subjective as a value judgement - but rather the movie that's likely to cause the least upset: hence Kramer vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now, Ordinary People beats Raging Bull AND The Elephant Man, Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas, Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction, and more recently, The King's Pissing Speech won out in a field that also included Black Swan, Inception, The Social Network, True Grit and Toy Story 3.  'It's alright' is the death-knell of genuine creative production, and the fact that MNS used to elicit this marmite response (and continues to, if the critical response to The Visit is anything to go by) is a measure of his value as a director.  Discuss.

GT: Me trying to goad you?! I thought you were dangling the bait at me, knowing my weird soft spot for him. But yes, we need a more clickbait title than 'Polishing Night's Stones', which, frankly, sounds like some kind of vampire poetry porn. 'Everything you've secretly felt about MNS's films in 14 (un)easy bullet points?'
Yes, your point about Nolan and the weird unforgivable air MNS has attracted is very relevant. I noted, going through the wiki page, that the only fluff post-Sixth Sense is [Story], which still just about broke even. Generally speaking, he's a good investment, as long as he's not left with total control. I'd imagine Nolan also needs the reins on.
But I wonder if it's also to do with the familiarity of the narrative arcs. Nolan's films almost unequivocally tend to track the rise and fall and rise again of a male protagonist (even the 'twins' scenario). They have very often easy to follow focal points and conflicts. There's rarely a sense of you not being able to follow the central point.
Maybe the way MNS's films wear alternate between wolf/sheep costumes is troubling for some. Hence his slip ups, his risk-taking, appears less forgivable? I don't want to make this too much about the demands of 'genre fans' vs. 'normal fans' - that's crude and elitist leverage.

That is, however, a very real fear in MNS, by the accounts I can read from his website and elsewhere. It might be that the fans can smell his fear, or they can at least identify when he is pandering to what he perceives as their genre tastes, and that's just condescending. Perhaps it's a matter of confidence...
But that then leads me to a weird thought. Do any of Nolan's male protagonists make actual mistakes? I mean, like, make the wrong decisions? I don't mean wrong in the sense of the impossible decisions set up - like a memory-damaged tattoo canvas who can't make right decisions because of a disability; or the impossible decision of who Batman must save.

(Even that Pacino cop film in the ice (name escapes, can't be bothered to look it up [it's Insomnia, you lazy good-for-nothing: S]) is, from what I remember, set up so all the mistakes happened before the film - it's an atonement film.) When trouble besets them, those Nolan heroes respond with violence, with more muscle; with defter wit, intelligence, technology. They fight fire with nukes.
The characters in MNS are the opposite: they demonstrate weakness, they cry, they are humbled and show humility. Against violence, most often, there's a collective response, a sense of the need for community to help overcome obstacles and also to share in the grieving process. The powerful characters, when they exercise power, are dangerous, wrong, or unhinged.
I guess what I'm driving at here is that of the two directors you've picked, one expresses far more conventional ideas of masculinity and power than the other. And perhaps that exploration of weakness is what attracts me to films like Signs and [Story]. It's offering an alternative mode of being in the world to toxic masculine values.
So, yeah, excuse me, I'm off to play zombie games and burn ants with a magnifying glass for the rest of the afternoon, but I'm glad you get to air your Nolan fixation in public. It's been a while. Though I am a little surprised by your closing point: 'boring art is never divisive'. Which, against your earlier comment about Nolan's films being pretty much 'universally praised to the skies', suggest you've achieved some healthy distance?
Local council politics, Skeksis-style.
ST: Surely the prospect of vampire porn's always a vote winner, particularly among the cellar-dwelling nerds who make up the majority of our readership?  Anyway, I was sort of favouring 'The Skeksis come to Trumpton: Revisiting The Village', or something similarly confrontational, although that feels a little mean-spirited given how fondly I feel about the movie under discussion.  (This is particularly true having rewatched it, and finding myself surprised at the emotional heft it still has, which is something that happens again and again with MNS, much against my will and better judgement - it's certainly what leapt out at me most when I saw The Sixth Sense for the first time, for example: once the scares have abated, you're left with a surprisingly heartfelt story about damaged people finding solace and emotional recuperation through the narrative of post-traumatic therapy.)    

Onto your other points: I'd disagree on the notion that Nolan 'needs the reins on', as he's generally seen as very safe pair of hands, bringing movies in under budget, which is pretty unheard of when you're talking productions of that scale, and reeling in moolah to an almost unprecedented extent.  I'd say, too, that his two weakest films so far - Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, much as I love them - were problematic at least in part because the reins were on: TDKR because studio expectations were so immense, and Interstellar because it was a kind of inherited project (Spielberg was initially scheduled to direct), and the optimism of the film's premise was never an easy fit with Nolan's worldview, to my mind, which prior to it, seemed to be getting darker and more cynical with each passing film.  (I'd also disagree with the notion of his male characters not making mistakes: there's a strong case to be made that The Dark Knight Rises ought to be retitled The One Where Batman Fucks Up, Repeatedly, but I guess they couldn't get that past the Warner Bros. marketing department.)      

Anyway, back to Night, and the matter of narrative arcs.  I take your point about genre expectation maybe creating a false aura of betrayed hopes around his work, and it's certainly true that the marketing for The Village definitely played up the horror side of proceedings, rather than the slow, textural recreation of the 19th century that forms the backbone of the film; that is, indeed, its real subject.  But even without those expectations being played with and undermined, The Village is rather a tricky piece, never quite settling or allowing the viewer any kind of traction on proceedings.

Interestingly, in one of the special features on the DVD, MNS mentions the notion that he disguises the film's key protagonist until the final third of the narrative; that events unexpectedly clear a space for Ivy to step forward as the heroine, and we're suddenly in the midst of a narrative arc we didn't even know was being signalled until that moment.  Which is to say, that even before we've taken into account the monsters, the post-9/11 allegory of fear and ideology, the narrative rug-pulling, etc, etc, he's already dead-set on subverting expectations, camouflaging one mode of storytelling within the carapace of another.  That's probably one of the things that gets critical and popular hackles up, I'd imagine.

But it's a strange combination, isn't it, of narrative tricksiness and emotional sincerity?  That might also help situate some of the reaction to his work, particularly during / after The Village: that one can't be at the same time a serious artist with a capacity for emotional heft, and a fire-side storyteller who's more interested in wowing the audience with his box of tricks and keeping them dangling on the hook with the promise of 'what happens next?'.  I would contend that you can in fact do both, that there isn't a contradiction in those narrative modes in any way, and that The Village is the proof.  That may put me in a minority of one, or three at any rate, but I stand by it.   

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Rochelle Sibley - Adventures in Yiddish (4): Learning Yiddish in the digital age

Despite frequently and loudly wishing that I’d started learning Yiddish sooner, I am beginning to realise that I began at the optimum time.  As much as I regret that I didn’t get the chance to study Yiddish literature at university, learning Yiddish back then, before the internet had really evolved, would have been a very different experience.  Although Yiddish is a language without a country, it has instead found a virtual homeland online, and many of the resources that have helped me to learn the language have only really come into existence in the last five to ten years.

The resurgence of Yiddish has resulted in a variety of online publications that double up as excellent teaching resources.  Top of the list is the amazing פֿאָרװערטס, aka the Yiddish Daily Forward, a Yiddish language newspaper that has been in circulation since 1897, but whose online version is updated daily.  What makes the פֿאָרװערטס website so helpful to the novice language student is if you click on any word in any of its thousands of Yiddish articles, you see its English translation.  Of course, you can achieve the same effect by sitting with a page of Yiddish and a dictionary, but it’s the speed of this online process that creates the advantage.  I’ve tried translating from Yiddish to English with dictionaries and with the פֿאָרװערטס word search facility, and the latter is not only faster, but by typing out the words to search for them I learn them more easily. Admittedly, you need to use an online Yiddish keyboard to do this, but even so the online process is far quicker than me flipping through a paper dictionary and getting distracted every time I find a familiar, funny or obscene word.  The joy that I felt when I first read a paragraph of פֿאָרװערטס without clicking a single word was absolutely unparalleled.

פֿאָרװערטס also has a fantastic array of videos, audio recordings and other multimedia resources, so that you can hear Yiddish being spoken in all its variations.  While the Yiddish I’m learning is the standardized YIVO version, there are still people speaking Yiddish dialects from all over Europe and beyond.  It’s one thing to know that there are differences between Litvak Yiddish and Polish Yiddish, as well as between Hasidic Yiddish and Ashkenazi Yiddish, but it’s another to actually hear them.  It also means that if you want someone to show you how to make sorrel soup and matzomeal pancakes, you’re set.  Not that פֿאָרװערטס has the monopoly on videos in Yiddish.  Thanks to Youtube, I can watch entire films in Yiddish, as well as having proof that James Cagney could speak Yiddish like a pro (not really a surprise given that he grew up on the Lower East Side).
And then there are the books.  As I’ve discussed previously, the UK Yiddish scholar is pretty boned, book-wise.  Thankfully, we live in a digital age, so although getting paper copies of books in Yiddish is a struggle, there is an alternative.  The Yiddish Book Center, probably my favourite book-related institution on the planet, has ensured that Yiddish texts remain accessible despite their scarcity.  Forget Jaws or E.T., as far as I’m concerned, Steven Spielberg’s greatest contribution to the world is the Digital Yiddish Library that he funded.  This means that anyone anywhere can download over 11,000 digitised works of Yiddish literature, all for free. For this, I can even forgive Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, although that’s probably because I haven’t watched it.  While nobody can pretend that a pdf is the same as holding a real book in your hands, it’s so much better than nothing.  And if you run out of steam with the reading, you can even listen to native Yiddish speakers reading some of these classics out loud, thanks to the Center’s Yiddish audiobooks.
Even in the past 18 months, there have been new Yiddish resources appearing online.  אין געװעב (In geveb), an online journal of Yiddish literature, translation and pedagogy, is one example.  Many of their articles can be read in both Yiddish and English, so it’s perfect for the novice Yiddishist, while seeing contemporary scholarship on Yiddish language and culture is pretty heartening when you’re living in a Yiddish-less town. 

I think that this is most encouraging aspect of the online Yiddish community: it is clear evidence that twenty-first century Yiddish is very much of the moment, rather than being a historical echo of some lost age.  Without these digital resources I wouldn’t know about the ways in which the language is evolving to respond to societal change, or be able to listen to Yiddish metal, and I certainly wouldn’t know how to make vegetarian gefilte fishSo while it would be wonderful to already have 20 years of Yiddish learning under my belt, I suspect it would have been far more difficult and discouraging to have begun all this in a pre-digital world. Now, I can listen to Yiddish podcasts on the bus to work and watch Yiddish films on my laptop whenever I want, so that the language is in the world around me rather than just being sounded out in my head when I read.  All I have to do now is make sure my next mobile phone can cope with the Yiddish alphabet, and there should be no stopping me.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Simon Turner - The Three Rs

All poems rely to an extent on repetition:
rhyme (to give just on example) is simply repetition
that’s fractured in contact with syntax; whilst repetition
in the pantoum is raised to the nth degree.  So, to repeat:
rhyme (to restate my first example) is simply repetition
imbued with variation; and that same variation
in the pantoum is raised to the nth degree.  Let me repeat:
poems (and pantoums especially) rely on repetition
combined with variation, and it’s that same variation
which fuels the engine of the poem under construction. 
A poem (this pantoum especially) relies on repetition,
although here it’s the play of semantic alternation
that’s the real engineer of the poem under construction. 
At the risk of repeating myself: poems are a form of verbal interjection
which, combined with the play of semantic alternation,
remodel the world as logocentric contraption. 
At the risk of repeating myself: poems are a kind of verbal intellection
of the contractual fracture of syntax; whilst repetition
is a model of the logos as a series of concentric contractions. 
All poems rely to an extent on repetition. 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Lubin Tinbags

"Poetry is seeking to make not meaning, but beauty; or if you insist on misusing words, its "meaning" is of another kind, and lies in the relation to one another of lines and patterns of sound, perhaps harmonious, perhaps contrasting and clashing, which the hearer feels rather than understands, lines of sound drawn in the air which stir deep emotions which have not even a name in prose.  This needs no explaining to an audience which gets its poetry by ear.  It has neither time nor inclination to seek a prose meaning in poetry."

Basil Bunting, 'The Poet's Point of View' (1966), reprinted in Strong Words: Modern Poetry on Modern Poetry, W. N. Herbert & Matthew Hollis, eds (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2000): 81

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Shotgun Review #1: Moorcock's Modem

GT attempts a new quickfire review series...

Michael Moorcock's Modem Times, 2.0 (PM Press, 2011)
Prose (fiction, essay, interview)

Time taken to read: approx. 2 weeks on and off
Time taken to review: 1hr 48min

Where found: a bookstall at an academic conference in Durham, July 2016

Transparency: I became a fan of Michael Moorcock's writing in my teens, through the Elric series, the Tales of the Eternal Champion and that kind of thing. The prose versions, not the graphic novels, though I think one of the compendium editions I read included a comic series or all of the comics, it was a long time ago.

Then I hit university and fantasy and SF were drummed out of me as 'un-literary'. Faith restored by: a random conversation with Alan Wall about how he was jamming guitar down the phone with Moorcock; reading some of MM's articles in the broadsheets; China Miéville's stint at as a colleague breaking down some of the academic snobbery in the workplace; picking up several second hand titles, including a first edition of The New S.F. in a (now closed) second hand bookshop in Atherstone and discovering just how intelligent and politicised genre writers could be.

I paid for this copy, price on the book is $12 (the press is based in California) I think it came to £8, so bought for full price(ish).


At a conference last month I discovered PM Press has series of titles called 'Outspoken Authors'. One of the UK PM Press reps was fronting a stall of their books, along with a selection of syndicated anarchist press titles. I'd been paid that month and needed a pick me up.

The series includes Ursula LeGuin (which I also purchased, mainly for its inclusion of some of her poetry), Terry Bisson and Kim Stanley Robinson, for example (fuller list on their website). It might as well be called 'Anarcho-Socialist Fantasy/SF Authors', though that might narrow the audience, but it wasn't just the politically left/left-field genre writers that attracted me.

The editorial approach for the series is fascinating. Each book is slim – the Moorcock only about 100 pages, the LeGuin, a little over 80 – and contains a strange mixture of prose, poetry, then an interview between the author and another writer, and a thorough bibliography to close.

The LeGuin (which I'll be reading next) opens with a short story, 'The Wild Girls', then a short essay on reading habits and corporate structures in the States, then some poetry, then another short essay on modesty, and the trademark interview, this one conducted by Terry Bisson. All the titles seem to have this similar approach: a 'curio curation' in a format that you rarely find in major publishing houses.[*]

So to the Moorcock: the opening piece of fiction, Modem Times 2.0 is a Jerry Cornelius story. I've heard of the character/series but I've not read any of the books, so this was a deep end immersion in something highly, beautifully disorienting. Cornelius, according to the blurb, is an “assassin, rock star, chronospy and maybe-Messiah” and the narrative is full of geo-hops and time-travelling confusion. It's totally dislocated from conventional spatio-temporal fixities or realism; Aristotle's probably turning in his grave at the misuse of his unities.

It's also about the second closest thing to a serial poem in prose I've encountered (Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is the closest). The story is delivered through three sections: Living off the Market, Katrina, Katrina! and The Wheels of Chance. Each section contains numbered segments, each with a bizarre title, e.g.: 'Home Alone Five', 'They want to make firearms ownership a burden – not a freedom!' and 'The new XJ – luxury transformed by design'.

Beneath each title the sections provide one or two quotations, mostly drawn from contemporary magazines like the New Statesman, PC Magazine, Popular Science, Time... The sources are more diverse, some spilling over into fiction, one or two suggesting to me they're made up.

To give you an example, the opening of part 10, in the first section (Living off the Market):
The Epic Search for a Tech Hero

The penalties in France will be much higher than in Belgium. The fine for a first offence will be 150 euro. And a man who is found to have forced a woman to wear a full-length veil will be punished with a fine of 15,000 euros and face imprisonment. The crackdown on the veil has come from the very top of the political establishment, with President Sarkozy declaring that the burqa is “not welcome” in France and denouncing it as a symbol of female “subservience and debasement.”
—New Statesman, May 31, 2010

         Maria Amis, Julia Barnes, and Iona MacEwan, the greatest lady novelists of their day, were taking tea at Liberty one afternoon in the summer of 2011. They had all been close friends at Girton in the same class and had shared many adventures.
Yes, really. The section is hilarious, not least for conjuring a vision of the three enfants enneyueses of English letters in drag, sipping tea, like a British remake of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. (To be fair, Moorcock is much more generous about, at least, McEwan, in the interview). But how the hell do you make sense of the title, the epigram and the actual piece of narrative? And how does it then add up with the fragments of Jerry Cornelius' narrative?

A short answer might be, It doesn't. A longer answer needs to acknowledge how rare it is for prose to attempt what poetry does more regularly. The principles at work in the story are more familiar to me in say, surrealist poetry, which tries to increase the energy of metaphors by increasing the distance of association between objects placed in syntactical relation and then strengthening the bond by eschewing simile: 'the telephone is a lobster' is a hard leap demanding some work from the reader, but also pushing away from easy meaning into disorientation as meaning.

Modem Times 2.0 reads like a barely-linked collection of flash fictions, unless you start piecing together your own experiences with the episodes, asserting your own moral position in the mess. Which, frankly, isn't that far off something Robert Tressell might have demanded of his readers, is it? It's just the technique, the strategy, flips off convention and moves along quicker than you can scroll your twitter feed.

Take it a step further, remove some of the scaffolding of traditional progression (sequencing, linearity, etc.) and you're forced to treat Moorcock's story with some of the time-hopping logic it loosely seems to describe in Cornelius' experiences. Trying to make sense of the disconnects between titles, quotations and narrative, or from narrative section to narrative section, I felt my brain spawning several new neural pathways through its unlit slums.

Which isn't to say there aren't concessions to familiar narrative patterns. Loosely speaking, certain themes recur as holding tropes: the story opens with Jerry's seemingly Dickensian (though actually a post-World War II London setting that may or may not be rooted in autobiography) Christmas Eve run through the market for a turkey as a boy. This recurs later in ways that suggest the adult Jerry is recalling a particular childhood Christmas for whoever he is with at the time, and then arrives in full in the final section, “Christmas 1962”. These sticking points provide a sketchy, pseudo-beginning-middle-end format to an otherwise chaotic anti-narrative structured by untrained monkeys playing frogger on a roller coaster.

I could go further into this – the geo-hopping clearly connects loosely with Moorcock's own transient life between Britain, the States and France – the associations with Ballard, particularly The Atrocity Exhibition era experiments with serial structures (in the manner of poetic seriality) in fiction – the way the interview at the end elucidates something of the moral and political challenge Cornelius presents to readers as a character concept – but it would be like trying to over-describe a quark. You'd lose the sense of thing.

It is hilarious at times. And it's morally and politically challenging: it brings to light certain horrific positions we've taken for granted at a mass social level, which, through displacement into semi-fiction, unveil as political narratives of hate. It exposed, for me, something of the mercilessness of subjugation to political power I go through in daily life: the inability to stop the hate speech of Trumps, the debt-leverage of banks, the terrorists, the madmen on trains in Munich, or the cool, just-following-orders psychosis of government agencies, be it demonstrated by military agents of murder or intransigent bureaucratic agents on national border fronts.

Moorcock certainly doesn't offer solutions; this is firmly in the category of fiction trying to capture (as I remember Ballard also once declared of his writing) the experience of living today, not some past-tense retro-porn. As he says in the interview with Terry Bisson, “Cornelius does what fantasy heroes can't do easily. I wanted him to confront contemporary stuff... and readers are only invited to examine his actions from their own perspective of events.”

To round off in non-linear fashion, the middle section of the book is a brief essay memoir by Moorcock. Only six pages, it's an interlude between the Cornelius story and the interview. But it's a vital little window, letting in air and space to what's gone before, picking up some helpful points about Moorcock's style (he can do conventional, and very fluently) and his influences and collaborations – Ballard, M John Harrison, Iain Sinclair, etc. – as well as a sense of the autobiography that manifests in the undercurrents of the Cornelius story.

There's a sense, from the whole book, that you're being given a difficult text to deal with, but also, afterwards, a debriefing, or pep talk, to contextualise the mayhem. It's a rare thing in experimental writing to be given context in the publication: normally it's a head first plunge into chaos and nothing but your wits to wrestle your way through a book with. (I'm partly thinking of a couple of other experiments I've read this year and nearly gave up on – Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood and Édouard Levé's Autoportrait.)

And, lastly, I have to mention the design and execution: it's a beautiful series, slim, carefully chosen paper stock and simple, appealing cover design, featuring a red band an inch in from the spine either side and a black and white portrait of the author on the front. The text is clean, well-edited, beautifully typeset. A delight – a vital series if you want depth from your fantasy and SF reading, but more than that, these books are a fascinating archive of untraveled roads for some great writers of literature.


[*] As an aside, I've noticed a kickback in academic publishing in recent years against the standardisation of publication formats for intellectual work. You've mostly had only two options: a 90,000 word book project or a journal article of 6-8k words. The empty space between has led to a lot of hot air or over-boiled density. While there are one or two new mid-length series in the big presses now (Palgrave Pivot, for example), it's really the indies that are leading on this: Fitzcarraldo's essays or Capsule Edition for example.