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.

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