Go West: An Interview with Jonathan Evison

Jonathan EvisonRooted in the history and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here rethinks the epic American novel for the 21st century. Dan Coxon talks to the author about the difficulties of selling his American vision overseas. Portrait by Keith Brofsky

For a New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Evison has remained remarkably true to his origins. Those who are familiar with the literary scene in the Pacific Northwest – and particularly in Seattle and nearby Bainbridge Island, where Evison has made his home – will undoubtedly have crossed paths with him at some point. At times he seems to be the connective tissue that holds Seattle’s growing literary culture together, and it’s not unusual for Evison to appear unannounced at readings and events around the city. Speak to any author in the region, and you’ll almost certainly find that they know ‘Johnny’.

When it came to selling his novel West of Here overseas, however, Evison has encountered more resistance. The market for a sweeping, widescreen novel about the Pacific Northwest wasn’t immediately apparent, and publishers repeatedly shied away from committing to such a locally-rooted epic. Luckily Evison’s bold, energetic style of storytelling was enough to win them over, and West of Here is now – finally – heading east across the Atlantic.

You’ve just had a pretty incredible year, including the release of West of Here in the US and your first appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists. Has this brought any major changes with it, or is life pretty much the same as before?

This year was a dream come true. Life is the same but even better. In spite of all the touring and other public stuff, I’m dealing with less financial anxiety, so I have more time and energy to focus on my art, which is bliss. Also more time to chase my boy around. And a cabin in the mountains to inspire me.

But really, I’ve been living the dream all along. I’m simply grateful to have the work, the focus, the sense of purpose writing provides me. As odd as it sounds, I get a little wistful when I think of all those late nights in Kinko’s collating stories and packing them in envelopes, and sending them off like little packages of hope – even though they invariably came back as form rejections. I was perfectly happy living off pot pies and cheap beer. I just like being in the game, you know? Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be so rich that I could finally buy that thirty foot inflatable duck in sunglasses I’ve always wanted. That would look badass in my yard.

You’ve been in a variety of ‘games’ over the years… radio host, comedian, punk rocker. Do you consider these to all be part of the same progression? Or is your career as a novelist totally different to what came before?

I’ll be honest, all the other stuff, besides the punk bands, was just stuff I did because nobody was publishing my novels. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 18 years old. Nobody published me until I was 40. And I’m still considered a “young” writer – ha! I learned a lot writing screenplays, writing comedy, doing talk radio – stuff that has informed and instructed my writing in various ways, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. If it weren’t for my career in radio, I’d probably have a couple more unpublished novels sitting around.

West of HereWest of Here has been a huge success in the US, but it’s taken a while for it to be accepted overseas. Why do you think this is? Did you always intend to write such a region-specific novel?

I’m perversely proud of the fact that every single non-English speaking European country dismissed West of Here as “too big and too American.” After all, I did set out to write a big American novel. If I would have written a big Chinese novel, I doubt this would be the case. America literature just isn’t considered as relevant as it used to be. Fine. Whatever. Neither is Bordeaux wine or German engineering. Or clogs. That said, the themes in West of Here are universal – personal destiny, national identity, reinvention. I’m a believer that if the themes are universal and the characters live and breathe, nationality shouldn’t get in the way.

Do you think American literature will have to change to remain relevant? Or is this, in fact, the time to turn back to the classics?

America is in the throes of a massive re-invention, and I think it will make for fascinating literature, and if the rest of the world is smart, they’ll pay attention. What is our national identity now that we’re no longer the world’s producer, that we’re no longer at the head of the world order? What is our new idealism? How will we adjust to a new standard of living? Politically, how will we restructure and reform from within? These are huge questions!

Whitman and Emerson used to talk about the “American Experiment” – and guess what? It’s still a big experiment! I think American Literature is poised for a big comeback, and I think the west, particularly the northwest, is going to be the nerve center. Between myself and Patrick DeWitt and Vanessa Veselka and Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter and Jim Lynch and Joshua Mohr and Jenny Shank, etc, etc, I think over the next decade the world is going to see an incredibly rich and dynamic body of work coming from the American west.

Did you purposefully set out to write a big Pacific Northwestern novel with West of Here? What was the original inspiration?

Oh yeah, I totally set out to write a northwest epic. The Olympic peninsula is a fascinating and rugged place. I wanted to write a story about how the land shaped the people, and how the people shaped the land. My goal was to write a sprawling egalitarian novel which would subvert many of our accepted notions about history, and to frustrate readers expectations about what we expect from “historical” fiction. I didn’t want to write historical fiction – I wanted to write a story about history and how it works.

And do you feel that you succeeded in achieving that? I know that I loved the book, and it dealt with many of those ideas – but I also know that the writing process is a complex one, and the end result isn’t always what you originally set out to achieve.

To be honest, I feel like I accomplished more than I set out achieve. That said, not everybody gets it – including some critics. Readers who lose sight of the big picture run the risk of getting lost in this novel. The first 175 pages might feel like one character introduction after another. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, you’ll begin to see all these characters and story lines converge and coalesce. In order to create the effect I was going for, I had to have 70 characters and 40-odd points-of-view – that was the whole point! History is not some linear progression peopled by a few great men, history is the sum of all the small vividly realized moments in each of our lives, and how they interact and relate to one another. History is connections and convergences and shared themes.

Can you talk us through your writing routine? Where do you write, when, how many drafts… and has this changed much as you’ve progressed and changed as a writer?

For me, discipline is the key. I approach writing like an athlete. Some mornings I don’t feel up to the task, but I strap on my trainers nonetheless and do my workout rain or shine. My optimum writing day begins at about 5am., that quiet hour when most of the world is still asleep and I don’t have any distractions. I’ll write until about noon. That time literally seems to pass in an instant. If I can write a page a day I’m feeling pretty good. I like to spend an hour in the evening going over the day’s work with a red pen – making notes in the margins and whatnot. I begin the next day by addressing these notes. That way I’m never stuck, I always have a starting point. I’m an obsessive revisionist. I must write 20 drafts of stuff. It’s never finished. At some point somebody just has to pry the manuscript out of my hands.

I know you’ve been working on edits of your next novel over the past few weeks. Has that process changed for you at all, now that you’re with a bigger publisher? Have you found that your approach towards edits and rewrites has changed over the years?

Nah, my approach is pretty much the same as always. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors, and also with an agent who gives great editorial. The key is to work with people who want to help you make the book that you want to write the best book it can be. I’ve heard horror stories from writers whose editors try to make the novel their own. I was fortunate enough with West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to work with the editor of my choice, Chuck Adams. When I was entertaining offers, I talked with each of the editors at great length about WoH, and Chuck was the guy who best understood my vision for the novel and how to make it better.

All About LuluYou’ve used the places you’ve lived in as the settings for your two novels to date: the Pacific Northwest (West of Here) and California (All About Lulu). How important do you think it is for authors to draw upon the environments that have influenced them? Do you think you’ll stick with these settings, or do you have plans to write further afield?

I’m going to Alaska for research on my next novel, but part of the novel will still be set here in Washington. I’ve got a bunch of notes for a novel that takes place in Montana, too. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Baja. Mostly because I want to live down there for a year and get fat on fish and tequila.

Is it too early to ask about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving? What was the inspiration for it, and when can we expect to see it on shelves?

Galleys for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving are going to print any day, and the novel will be released in October 2012 in the States – not sure about UK. It’s a very different book than West of Here. While West of Here represented a huge technical challenge for me, TRFoCG was a huge emotional challenge. It’s a coming-of-middle-age about a male nurse in crisis. Without talking too much about the subject matter, I’ll just say that the novel really took a lot out of me emotionally. In the end, it’s probably my funniest book because it had to be. I’m really excited to get the novel in people’s hands because I feel like it’s one of those novels that’s going to be cathartic for a lot of readers.

Not that you asked, but I’m almost finished with another novel now called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is another departure in that it actually employs something of a thriller apparatus to frame 16 different limited points of view. I’m really excited about this one, too. I thrive on pushing myself into new and uncomfortable places as a artist.

Do you think it’s necessary for a writer (or any artist) to keep pushing the boundaries of their craft in that way? Or is that more of a personal decision to keep things fresh and interesting?

I don’t think it’s fair to make it some kind of general edict, but as an artist, that’s certainly what I’m after. I want to be developing tools as I go along, surprising myself, frustrating my own intentions, learning, facing new problems all the time. Otherwise I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes this can make novel-writing an excruciating exercise that leaves me totally exhausted, but I feel like it’s always worth the effort in the end. Especially for the reader. They say hard writing makes for easy reading and I believe that on every level. I do think there is a danger of alienating your readership at times, or at least those readers who have certain expectations for a specific artist. But I can’t worry about that. I just need to keep pushing myself.

I know that you’re constantly reading new writers, and you’re noticeably active in the writing community. Whose books have you particularly enjoyed over the last year?

I read two Ron Rash books this year which really impressed me: Serena, and the forthcoming The Cove. I also read two by Stewart O’Nan this year: Emily Alone, and the forthcoming The Odds. These two guys are among the best American novelists working in my mind. I’m also a big fan of Dan Chaon, along with Adam Ross.

And finally… you’ve interviewed a lot of authors yourself over the years, so what’s your favorite question to ask? And what would be your own answer?

Hmmm. I guess I don’t have a favorite question. I suppose if there was one question I’d ask every writer it would be: Why do you do it? Why do you endure all the heartache and frustration and financial duress and existential discomfort that comprises devoting your life to writing novels (which people may or may not ever read)? And I guess my answer would be that it makes me a bigger person – a more expansive person, a more understanding, thoughtful, empathetic person. A better problem solver, a better husband, a better dad, a better son, and a better friend.

James Sallis: Drive

Reviewed by Declan Tan

James Sallis DriveIf Camus had been at all interested in the crime or noir genre, then you could imagine he might produce something vaguely comparable to James Sallis’ novel Drive. Trotting in at a similar duration to Camus’ classic The Fall, Sallis also plays with the unfolding napkin of time in this narrative, in what he might be hinting is the only time-signature we’ve come to understand, that of film – intercuts and reversals, flashbacks and action sequences. Cinematic, in a word, which seems understandable that it was made into “a major motion picture”, as my copy reminds (yes, I’m five years too late). But that word ‘cinematic’ wouldn’t really give enough of what is due when considering Sallis’ steady metronomic delivery. He is far less erratic than a camera-toting Hollywood director, or his subsequent intercut-loving editor.

The story follows a character known only as Driver. Driver works in the movies. He also works on the occasional heist or robbery, for all of which, it is made clear, he wants only to do that one thing that he is known for. We learn that following some severe familial disturbances, young Driver’s mother has been institutionalised. Then as a teenager, he goes out on his own, leaving his foster parents’ home, taking their car, moving to Los Angeles to find work. The plot opens in medias res, blood running on a bathroom floor, before weaving back and forth through the young man’s troublesome upbringing in Phoenix, then onto his successes amongst the movie crews, and his neighbourly relationship with a Latina and her four year old son, at a point in his life when he does the closest thing to ‘settle’ that he can manage.

In the movies, the stuntman is a stand-in for the actor and the actor is a stand-in for the person. Who the person is a stand-in for seems to be a question unanswerable but posed in Sallis’ Drive (the tenth of his thirteen books), the narrative can be read straight or taken as a mini-handbook for modern alienation. This double-removal from filmed reality, a removal in itself, is the ghostlike angle that Sallis works from when he assembles the body parts of his character, Driver. A kind of fleshy ghost haunting the LA landscape, he can only been seen by a few people. That word that has been attached to his work, “existential”, chimes on every page, possibly for good reason. There seems a kind of two-lane flow of traffic where the prose can be read either quickly as an entertainment or, if it is to be taken more seriously, as a darkly philosophical tract. Then the action takes on a meditative slant, the story of a man chased by time. We’re given a neo-Western gunslinger, just one that never uses a gun. Instead he’s reworked into a driver, a slick operative of that other of man’s modern machines.

Driver does not think, only acts. Always taciturn, he is attempting to reach the state of ‘grace’ where thought or meditation is transcended. In between he drinks, makes deals with presumptuous men, pays them back.

There is that feeling that Driver’s story is fabricating unplanned as it hums along. Intentional or not, this method does give the text a kind of wandering, unpredictable quality that is both intriguing and admirable. The form functions well with his theme; Sallis has a style akin to that of a Cormac McCarthy, or a printed-word Coen Brothers production; the familiar voice of a wizened cowboy sipping bourbon in the darkest recess of a grotty, empty saloon, whispering old-timer wisdom about the nature of existence, the slew of time. But Sallis writes as if in slow bursts of energy, with a feel for narrative and rhythm that stays fresh by returns, intervals and intersections.

And setting much of this in Hollywood, a place Sallis seems to agree is as vacant and empty, even nihilistic, as its fame-hunting inhabitants, a city of life-substitutes, full of avaricious death-ready hollow men, is no mistake. His hero too is suited to the wide-open highways of Los Angeles, the reliability of the streetlights leading irreversibly to an eventide of gunshots, throat-slices and getaways. The sheen that Sallis gives to his world’s reality wraps like aluminium foil over his prose. There seems to be an idea in his head that has formulated into the novel. What the message is, is hidden, but a story emerges.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two of them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.”

His Driver is involved and not involved in life, there and not there. And the sudden violence of Driver’s actions when they happen, often shocking in retrospect, read as if they are not happening at all, or happening too quickly to mean anything in the ‘grand scheme of things’. A blip. Everything is written in unceremonious and unrelenting measures, where one note is equally as important as another. Driver, like Sallis’ other creation, Lew Griffin, creates himself from nothing. He is meticulous and careful. Assembling his life as if assembling a gun. And when the violence is done with, the lessons follow:

Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.

Hell with it. Either they’d figure it out or they wouldn’t. Most people never did.”

One short chapter after another, Sallis delivers the occasional asides on the Hollywood system, its producers, writers, and stars, with a cast of recidivist poor people that are the only real ones worth saving. No, it’s not revolutionary, but it is entertaining:

TV’d been turned on but blessedly you couldn’t hear it. Some brainless comedy where actors with perfect white teeth spoke their lines then froze in place to let the laugh track unwind.”

Drive reads as if it was a bit of fast fun in between other projects. Which makes it all the more impressive. This is genre-fiction elevated somewhat by a writer who is clearly familiar with the genre that he is subverting. Sallis doesn’t believe in the long manipulation to wrench out a little emotion from his characters. He achieves it quite smoothly without really showing you how. He dashes off a backstory of a character, and his future, in a single breath. Sallis doesn’t try to con you into believing there is more depth than there is. He lets you decide. And he’ll let you decide again when the sequel, Driven, arrives in 2012.

Mapping the Wilderness: An Interview with Alexi Zentner

Alexi ZentnerSet in the harsh forests of the Canadian wilderness, Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, Touch, draws upon mythology as well as literary convention. Dan Coxon finds that its author is rooted in the power of traditional storytelling. Portrait by Laurie Willick.

For a debut novel, Alexi Zentner’s Touch has already earned a startling number of accolades, including nominations for the Giller Prize and the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Awards. These nominations are less surprising, however, once you open the pages of Touch. Zentner has managed to craft one of the most compelling stories of hardship and loss to hit bookshelves in recent years, coloured with mythical encounters that might have been lifted straight from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The combination of his characters’ bleak, hand-to-mouth existence and the fantastical events that underline their lives is both refreshingly new and shockingly traditional, and has led to the coining of an entire literary subgenre – mythical realism. Canadian by birth, but currently living in Ithaca, NY, Alexi Zentner has handcrafted a new literary landscape for the frosty wildernesses of the North.

How (and why) did you settle on the title Touch? The connection to the narrative isn’t immediately obvious, but it suits it so perfectly!

I usually know the titles of stories or books I’m working on early in the process, and the same was true of Touch. The impetus of the book was an image of a girl trapped under the ice. I was fascinated – terrified might be a better word – by the idea of having somebody you loved so close to you and yet to be unable to help them, unable to even touch them.

When I first started writing Touch, my daughters were younger, and though I think, as a father, the feeling never quite leaves you, I was acutely aware of just how dangerous the world can be, and how little, ultimately, I can do to keep my daughters safe. You never want your kids to get hurt in any way, but it’s almost worse when you can see it happening and can’t quite get there in time to stop it, and that is part of why that image stuck with me.

It’s interesting, because I have been asked about the title, and it was never something that I questioned. I had that title before I was more than a page into it. Almost everybody reacted positively to the title, although my French editors had to change the title to The Woods of Sawgamet, since Touch didn’t really translate well. I do think the title fits well, though. Aside from the image of the girl trapped under the ice – something that almost every reader has said stays with them – there are all of the different ways in which characters touch or fail to touch each other. Obviously, that’s in a physical sense, but also in the way that stories are passed down and changed from generation to generation, and the way that somebody who is long dead and gone can reach out and touch somebody else through myth and memory.

Do you find that your fiction tends to develop from single images in this way? Or do your stories generally spring from a different impetus?

My fiction always comes from an image, a first sentence, or a situation. Very, very quickly, that impetus is surrounded and shaped by characters and settings, but I’ve always had to have that spark to build the fire. I was given an assignment for the Canadian magazine The Walrus to write a story that had to follow five rules selected by another author, and it wasn’t until I had the first sentence that I had the rest of the story. I know that other writers can do it, can pick a theme or a character or even a place and just build a world, but I need something to hang it on to avoid ending up with a character study.

Weather and physical conditions affect a large aspect of what happens in Touch, from the first chapter onwards. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Is this an important theme for you?

I don’t spend as much time outdoors as I’d like. Part of it is a simple laziness. As much as I love hiking and camping and being outside of the city, I’m not particularly good at getting myself to do it in the first place. It’s usually my wife who suggests we take the dog and the kids for a hike, and after I grumble about it, I end up asking why we don’t do it more often.

Before I had kids, I used to spend a lot more time in outdoor pursuits. I actually met my wife because we both rock climbed, and there was a period of years where I lived in the American Midwest, and going rock climbing outside of a gym meant driving anywhere from three to seven hours. After work on a Friday we would pile into a car and drive to Kentucky. We’d set up camp at three in the morning, grab a couple of hours sleep, and then climb until we could barely lift our arms.

Now, we live in a smaller university town, and part of what I like about it is the ability to find spaces where I can still feel like I might be alone. I try to take trips to parts of North America where there is still wilderness – or, at least, the feeling of wilderness – but the city I live in has pockets that feel more untrammelled. As a writer, the appeal of locations that are more removed from big cities is that they strip things down for the characters. In Touch, and in the novel I just finished, The Lobster Kings, which is set in a lobster fishing village on a small island, the decisions that the characters make have real ramifications. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the city, you get cold. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the woods outside of Sawgamet, where Touch is set, you can die.

I would never argue that weather or landscape serve as characters in and of themselves, but they can have profound impacts on the decisions that characters make. In a story, setting is simply the stage upon which the characters play their lives, but if that stage is a place where the natural world has a certain dominion, it can amplify the actions of characters. In Touch, in particular, this is true, and I found that the world I created in Touch was one that I was very drawn to.

I should add that, as a writer, I find the natural world is where I prefer to be. I’m not particularly precious in my writing habits – give me a laptop and a pair of headphones and I can write anywhere – but I envy the idea of having some sort of a cottage on the ocean or in the mountains, somewhere hard pressed against the natural world where I could write for part of the year.

TouchA lot has already been made of your use of myth and fantasy in the book, and you’ve coined the term ‘mythical realism’. Can you explain what mythical realism means to you, and why it attracts you?

On a base level, when people hear magical realism, they think Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I admire Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera is still one of my favourite books – but I’m not trying to ape him, and I use the term mythical realism at least partially to distinguish what I’m trying to do from his work. Magical realism is very strongly associated with the landscapes and traditions of central and South America and Europe, and I think that when you take those frameworks of magical realism and just map them over a different culture and landscape you end up with a work that is a palimpsest; the ghostly images of those other cultures and landscapes show through your own work.

There are plenty of writers who have created interesting work this way, but I’m trying to do something new. I’m trying to wrestle with the questions of myth and storytelling, trying to figure out how it is that in my cultures and landscapes – Canada and the USA – stories become myths, how the vastness of the North American landscape and immigrant experience shapes who we were, who we are, and who we will become. I actually think that in the past year there have been a number of books that are experimenting with mythical realism, fumbling with trying to figure out the role of myth in our cultures. I’d argue that as far as literary trends go, we went through a painful period of detached irony as the main driving force for writers, and that one of the things that I want to do is to try to reclaim the sense of wonder that I think all readers strive for.

Look, what I really want to do is to try to tell good stories, to give readers the chance to lose themselves in a book, to remember what it was like as a kid to hear a story and to believe in something greater than ourselves. Mythical realism is something that should be woven throughout a book, in the same way that myth and story are woven through our lives, not just dropped in like a parlour trick. I don’t want a reader to think, “oh, that’s beautiful.” I want them to feel it. And if that means that, as a writer, I need to risk being overly sentimental, I’d rather risk that than risk nothing at all.

Which books stood out to you as being in this vein? Are there any particular writers you admire right now?

I hesitate to speak for other writers, because I think that not all of them would agree with my assessment of their work as mythical realism, but there is a new generation of writers who are including myth and magic in their work in an unapologetic way that is completely different from the way it has been used in magical realism. As for writers who I admire right now, it’s kind of an endless list. One of the great things about writing a book is that it gives you a chance to meet other writers. Both Peter Mountford (A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism) and Alan Heathcock (Volt) had books come out around the same time as Touch, and I both admire their work and was glad to have brothers-in-arms to talk with as the publication process moved forward.

You’ve recently returned from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and while I know that many American writers rate it highly, I’m sure that readers elsewhere have no idea what it is. Can you explain Bread Loaf for us briefly, and give us some insight into what it’s done for you?

I love Bread Loaf. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a conference for writers that takes place near Middlebury, Vermont. The campus – and outpost of Middlebury College – is within sight of Bread Loaf Mountain, hence the name. The conference is about ten days, and consists of workshops in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as readings, craft lectures, and other activities. The entire conference revolves around the written word. It’s a bucolic setting that’s in a part of the USA that I love, and it’s an incredibly intense period of focus on writing. I think, because the campus is sort of isolated, it’s a heightened experience.

I’ve been twice. The first time was as a work-study scholar. The work part of it is that you work as a waiter during the conference, which is pretty demanding on top of the packed schedule, but you become very close with your fellow waiters, all of whom are picked for their “promise” as writers. This past summer I went as a “fellow,” which meant that I assisted the faculty member in workshop, taught a craft lecture, and gave individual consultations. More than anything, what it’s done for me is help me to become close with other writers, so that no matter where I travel or what festivals I attend, there is usually somebody there that I know. It’s a way of making the writing world smaller and friendlier.

Do you think writers are naturally driven to seek each other out? Or are we more private, solitary creatures?

Reading teaches you how to be alone, and any successful writer is also a reader. I need a certain amount of time to myself, and find that when I have house guests or am staying with somebody else for an extended period that I end up hiding out in my room so that I can read or write.

That being said, I also love hanging out with friends and enjoy doing literary festivals. I like doing panels and am comfortable on stage, and I love teaching and being in front of a room. I need a balance of both. I love meeting other writers, because it’s such an odd profession and it’s nice to have other people who understand what it means to be alone at a desk. Part of it is that other writers are also readers, and I love talking about books and literature. I’m not sure that I necessarily seek out the company of other writers – because I have kids and don’t teach right now, I have a large group of friends who aren’t writers – but I do enjoy the company of fellow writers.

Still, after every trip, every conference, every festival, no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m always happy to get home again. To get to the point where people want you to come and talk about your book you have to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself.

You strike me as someone who loves telling a story. What’s the attraction to storytelling for you? Do you think the nature of storytelling is changing at all as we move further and further into the digital age?

I don’t think the digital age changes storytelling. That’s the short answer. That makes for boring columns, however, and it’s a lot easier to freak out and write about how the internet is changing everything, how storytelling is dying – but we are hardwired to respond to stories. I realise that the way that stories are conveyed is changing, but the human need for stories isn’t. Stories are how we figure out who we are as humans, both individually and in the aggregate. We seek out information so that we can know things, but we seek out stories so that we can feel things.

I love telling stories, but honestly, what I like even more than telling them is being told them. I think that most writers – most storytellers of whatever ilk – follow that path because at some point in their development they came across some sort of a book or a movie or even a piece of music that captured them, that made everything fall away. I’d argue that reading in particular is important. Aside from the idea that stories help us figure out who we are, reading teaches us how to be alone, how to be comfortable with ourselves.

For publishers, there are business model concerns. I can’t even pretend to understand the business model of publishing and making films. Speaking specifically about movies, it’s frustrating to me to see the amount of absolute shit that is produced, the number of films where the budget for fake blood has to be triple whatever they spent on writers. I’m personally quite happy to go see an action movie, but I’d say that about half of what I see could have been made a lot better if I’d been given the script and a weekend to rewrite it. Story comes first. Story comes last. True for books, true for movies. The movies and books that stay with us do so because they tap something inside of us. I don’t care how it’s delivered – though an e-reader, a real book, on a movie screen, on your phone – what matters is that there’s something that captures the reader/audience.

I know you’ve just finished writing The Lobster Kings… is it too early to ask for a preview? Will readers see similar themes to Touch, or is it a departure from your first book?

It’s set off the east coast of North America on an island that is actually contested territory, neither Canadian nor American. It’s told from the point of view of Cordelia Kings, a lobster fisherman (though she’s a woman), who is one of three daughters in a line that can trace itself back to the first white settler on the island, Brumfitt Kings, who was both a fisherman and a painter. There are Shakespearian undertones – which is probably evident from the name Cordelia, though this is certainly not a retelling of King Lear – and mythical realism: the Kings carry both a curse and a blessing through the generations. I think that The Lobster Kings is very different from Touch, and yet it will still feel familiar to readers. So it’s both a departure and similar.

The Colour of Money: An Interview with Peter Mountford

Set against the backdrop of South America’s poorest economy, Peter Mountford’s first novel is a smart read on the human side of economic, political and ethical dramas. For the author it was also a long road to publication, as Dan Coxon learns. Portrait by Jennifer Mountford

Peter Mountford by Jennifer MountfordIn a literary landscape dominated by celebrity memoirs and vampire soft porn, Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism, stands out like a shining nugget of gold. Telling the story of equities analyst Gabriel de Boya as he collects information on Bolivia for an unscrupulous hedge fund, it’s a novel that feels both steeped in tradition and undeniably of its time. As Gabriel wrangles with his conscience and falls in love, Mountford uses his plight to comment on the political situation in South America, the financial bubble of 2005 just as it was about to burst, and the ethical implications of our Western culture of greed.

It’s also a fantastically good read, and it’s little wonder that the literary world has taken note of Mountford’s achievement. Marrying thriller and romance aspects with unashamed political and financial commentary, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism is one of the most exciting novels to have come out of the current financial crisis to date–and it’s all the more remarkable for being a debut. Peter Mountford currently lives in Seattle, where he is writer-in-residence for the Seattle Arts and Lectures programme.

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

I started writing by accident. I was 11, I think, and I had this very ornate daydream, but I couldn’t keep track of it all, so I started writing it down. Next thing I knew, I had 50 pages, a novella. When I was 14 I outlined a fictional diary of Vlad Tepes, the medieval prince who was the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Needless to say, I was slightly out of my range with that one and it never came to be.

As an undergraduate, I studied economics and international affairs, and then I went and got a sensible job at a think tank writing about international economics. But I was already a writer, I just didn’t know it. I was sneaking off to write fiction, and the way I was looking at the world, the way I was cultivating and maybe even hoarding interesting life experiences–it was as if I was doing research, and I think I sort of knew it. So, after a couple interesting years being a policy wonk, I quit and started reading Nabokov, Annie Proulx, Milan Kundera–dozens of other great writers. And I started writing three to four hours a day, seven days a week. I haven’t stopped.

Now, mind you, that was 2002 and my ‘debut’ novel was published in 2011.

So what was your journey to publication like during that time?

After embarking on the writing life with lots of youthful vim and vigour in 2002, I began to encounter what’s known, in the business, as the real world. And it was humbling, if not to say crushing. I wrote huge volumes of fiction and got lavished with rejection. My first acceptance for a short story came in 2006, when I was 30 years old. On the plus side, it was an acceptance to the anthology Best New American Voices 2008, but still. By that point I’d collected about a thousand rejections (I keep them all). I’d written and abandoned two-and-a-half novels, and 20-some stories–at least a thousand pages of fiction that will never see the light of day.

In the summer of 2005, my writing turned a corner. I remember it vividly. I was in the middle of the MFA program at the University of Washington and I went to Ecuador for a few weeks, feeling very dejected. The first year at the UW had been a deep low-point. I got savaged with rejection and some very demoralizing critiques. It really broke me down. I began to realise how much higher I needed to aim, how much better I needed to be. At the end of that year I had a very revelatory class with David Shields, who said something to the effect of: ‘Do you really just want to be this dutiful craftsman, creating these quaint stories that are totally antique, totally separated from the world we actually inhabit?’ He said he couldn’t stand to even read that stuff, and I had to admit that I felt the same way.

That summer, Shields got me reading J.M. Coetzee. I went to Ecuador and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read. And when I came back, I was a very different kind of writer and it was obvious, immediately. Within a year, I’d started winning some awards and fellowships and grants. I started publishing in some well-regarded literary journals. In fact, most of what I’ve written since then has been published.

A Young Man’s Guide… reminded me strongly of Graham Greene, specifically the combination of exotic setting, intrigue, and an underlying discussion of everyday morality. Did Greene influence you at all?

Yes, Graham Greene absolutely was a huge influence. In many ways, I more or less aspire to write like he did–both the so-called diversions and the weirder stuff. He was obsessed with God, seemed incapable of not writing about God. I think I’m similarly obsessed with money, how it operates in our planet and in our minds–I set out to write a story about my granny and I end up with a story about money. Other writers I adore include Deborah Eisenberg, Milan Kundera, J.M. Coetzee. Nabokov. And scores of others, of course. The list could go on for days. I’m reading Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists right now and it’s tremendous.

Young Mans Guide To Late CapitalismMoney is one of those topics that great literature often deals with (like love, or religion) but it seems that modern writers are sometimes afraid to address it, or they wilfully avoid it. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, recently. It seems that literary-minded people have quietly agreed that finance is somehow not central to the zeitgeist. Money is a deeply taboo subject, obviously, and all the more so among people who consider themselves to be artists. Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, also, and they’re not thought of as sexy. A lot of writers I know are proudly dismissive of economics–they paint it boring–it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters.

That is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and money are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not an abstract subject. It’s not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of–well, everyone. So, yes, I think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often in literature.

The foreign location feels like a big part of A Young Man’s Guide… too; it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. How early did you settle on Bolivia as your setting? Why that country in particular, and South America in general?

I’ve travelled a lot and most of my writing therefore concerns people living in or visiting foreign countries. It’s not a conscious thing, but I suppose I think that when you’re away from your comfort-zone, your home, you have a slightly heightened perception of things, and it casts your own community, your circumstances, in a radically new light, so it can be an awakening. I like having that space as a kind of foundation for a story. That change in perception is all the more true if the place is extremely different, like Bolivia, rather than, say, England.

Bolivia’s also the poorest country in South America, and it’s a bit intense, a bit too hardcore for most people. Not a big tourist destination. So I liked that. And it’s gorgeous, like you’re on the moon–the moon with shantytowns.

And, finally, and maybe most importantly, Bolivia’s history is a near perfect example for the overall experience of countries that were colonized and brutalized by the Europeans. Their history is heartbreaking. It’s occasionally bizarre beyond belief, too–they lost their coastline in a war with Chile over bat guano, which Bolivia wanted to tax (it contains a useful ingredient in gunpowder). There are countless other surreal milestones, like when someone traded a vast swath of oil-rich jungle with Brazil for a nice white stallion. But beneath it all there’s a harrowing history of Northern-hemisphere-dwelling people, mostly Spanish–although the US certainly did its part during the Cold War, in particular–siphoning natural resources from the land without properly compensating the Bolivian people. In Bolivia this aspect of their history it’s referred to ruefully as ‘El Saqueo’–the sacking.

Having spent so long writing about Bolivia (and talking about it in interviews!) do you feel a stronger bond with the country than you used to? How did writing about it change your relationship with it?

When I started writing the book, I was very interested in Bolivia, and I thought its history was gorgeously bizarre and also very apt, a kind of perfect model for the corrosive long-term effects of centuries of colonial pillaging. Now, I love the country and feel a very personal connection to its people. I have a Google alert on Bolivia and so I now read the news about the country daily. Also, I’ve been very heartened by the responses of Bolivians who’ve read the book, because it’s not the most flattering portrait of the country–but I’ve been contacted by a number of Bolivians who told me that they felt I’d captured La Paz perfectly.

I know you teach creative writing in addition to producing your own work. How do you find that it feeds back into your own writing? Is it an integral part of being a professional writer today?

Richard Ford was in Seattle the other day for an event and an audience member asked him what he liked most about teaching, and he replied, ‘The money.’ So, yeah, it’s an integral part of being a professional writer, especially if you’re not writing bodice-rippers. If you’re writing books that take years to write, the kinds of books that don’t sell very well because they’re ‘difficult,’ then teaching is probably how you pay the rent.

There’s another reply to this question, of course, one that talks about how inspired one gets by one’s students, but that’s nonsense. Or, if someone says it sincerely, they’re probably not much of a writer. I like what David Foster Wallace said about this in a Charlie Rose interview, he said something to the effect of, ‘The first couple years it’s really revelatory, you learn a lot from your students and it’s a very hard experience. Then, once you’ve seen a few thousand undergraduate stories, it becomes just another day job and you no longer learn anything at all from it.’

I like teaching because it gets me out of the house, and it generates some income, and I like the act of talking about writing–that’s why I’m friends with a lot of writers, and when I teach I get paid to have those kinds of conversations. Also, it’s very fun to discover a writer who is fucking amazing and doesn’t know it yet. Some woman, say, who does data entry at a medical supplies company, and I get to inform her that she’s ready to get published, and that she should get in touch with a top-shelf literary agent in New York City at her earliest convenience. That’s fun, but it doesn’t happen that often.

If you were given a time machine that allowed you to go back and tutor your younger self, what advice would you give to the younger you? Or are there any particular skills that you’d tell yourself to work on?

I’d tell myself to aim higher, stylistically, intellectually–in every way. Like so much fiction by beginners, mine felt like the writing of a person who just wasn’t working hard enough, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. If a sentence isn’t doing several jobs at once, it’s probably dead weight. I’ve heard that there’s only one rule with writing: never be boring. I like that, the writing needs to be fucking riveting, one way or another. I’d add that authenticity is very important–if you’re not writing about something that really matters to you, deeply matters to you, it’s probably going to feel a little trite.

The Set: An Interview With Roger Ward

Vanessa Libertad Garcia interviews actor, author and pioneer of Australian gay culture about his novel The Set

Roger WardIn 1969, the Australian public would know Roger Ward’s face from TV shows like Skippy. Less than a year later, he would gain tabloid infamy thanks to Frank Brittain’s film based on his novel The Set. Originally a candid look at sexual revolution sweeping the country’s teens, the screenplay jettisoned much of the material to focus on the gay and lesbian aspects of the story. It became a sensation and a huge success. Ward later went on to appear in cult classics like Mad Max and has now published the full text of the novel

What were the defining staples of “the heady days of Australia’s sexual revolution”? How does The Set embody them?

The late 50s/early 60s was a time of abortion, unwanted pregnancy, and shotgun weddings. Where getting the birth control pill when it did arrive, meant a demeaning trip to one’s local doctor. It was a time when sex was never discussed in public and if a young man wished to buy a condom he went to a chemist or drug store, an experience that put them into a lather of perspiration. And even though the age of consent was 16, an unplanned pregnancy meant shame, humiliation, and estrangement from your family

I have tried to cover this humiliation, this shame, and have attempted to describe the terror felt by a teenager facing sex during the 50s and 60s. There was no birth control pill until 1961 and even then it was available only through prescription to married women and there was no words of wisdom or information from one’s parents; a situation that led to Tony’s inability to offer Carolyn a permanent and secure relationship and certainly no desire to go ‘all the way’ for neither one wanted pregnancy, a common fate during that time.

Common because the revolution had started.

It began through adventurous and oversexed teenagers such as the go getting Leah who was prepared to offer her body as a stepping stone to the top of her profession. By Louise, Paul’s first girl friend who was European and had an open mind toward all things sexual.

Sex was a constant with Peg, having been forced into wedlock at 16, she was frightened her daughter Carolyn may have inherited her genes, and her mind floated between a mother’s angst at her daughter enjoying the same pleasures of the flesh that she had at the same age and her dismay that she may be ‘doing it’ with Tony, the young man she also dreamt of seducing.

Later, because of his inability to rise to the occasion when he entered the trap she set, Peg feels free and at ease with the world because she now knows this callow youth could never initiate sex with her daughter. She moves on then to enjoy her more experienced partners.

Paul also experiments with sex, firstly with the provocative Louise and then with various men. His homosexual bent having come to the fore when the deed was forced upon him, but after overcoming the shock he enjoys the act and sets about procuring it.

Tony also disregards his initial fear and attempts to go ‘all the way’ with Carolyn but when her fear overcomes her desire, he drifts toward his latent interest in Paul.

I feel I have shown, in the attitude and actions of my characters, a gradual relaxation of the built in sexual fear, held by most, as the book moves from the late 50s into the early 60s.

Comparatively, how do the struggles of the GLBTQ community differ between Australia 1970 and Australia 2011?  What were the major struggles then and conversely, what are they now?

You’re talking 1970s because that was when the film was released. The film rights were actually sold in 1967 and the book that it was based upon was written in 1960 onward from notes and diaries created from 1954. So my observations were not from the 1970s but from the 50s through to the late 60s.

However I can still answer your question.

Historically the gay community has been hounded for an eternity. And a person of that persuasion was, at that time at least, considered to be some sort of freak, someone to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, derided, beaten up, ostracized, even put to death. And ironically, while I was in the French outpost of Tahiti writing the first pages of The Set, the National Assembly of France declared homosexuality a “social scourge” and urged the government to take action against it. Although a light did begin to glow at the end of the tunnel when in 1961, in a move possibly leading to the acceptance of my own material for film, a television station in San Francisco made and broadcast The Rejected – a documentary on homosexuals. So the change started to begin even then. It continued, in Australia and throughout the world to eventually cause the police department in New York City to change its policy of police entrapment of gay men, and rescinded its hiring practices designed to screen out gay people. And after the Stonewall riots in late June 1969 many within the emerging Gay Liberation movement in the US saw themselves as connected with the New Left rather than the established homophile groups of the time and the words “Gay Power” became a defiant answer to the rights-oriented homophile movement.

This power swept the world and those with homosexual tendencies began to gain a voice and threw off the cloak of shame that was traditionally worn and ‘came out’ as it were.

They were the true pioneers of the movement and have opened the flood gates of acceptance that have allowed the young people of today to kiss a same sex partner in the street, to hold hands, to cuddle in public, to hold highly esteemed positions in the corporate and public world and to marry their same sex partner. So, to my mind, the struggles of GLBTQ of today are minimal to what their forebears have been through.

The Set coverWhat were the risks you faced in releasing the film The Set in 1970? Is there any risk in releasing the novel version of The Set today? Do you anticipate any societal scrutiny or backlash?

I felt no risk when I sold the film rights because the book is of a sociological nature, covering every aspect of life, adventure, the seeking of a career, family relationships, social behaviour, heterosexuality, nymphomania, older woman attracted to a younger man, and of course… homosexuality. It was only when the producer indicated the book was too large to be filmed in its entirety and that he would have to cut it that I had reservations. And it was not because of the demand, “I want you to lift every homosexual reference from the book and write a screen play on that”. It was the fact that my baby, the book I had spent almost ten years creating was to be cut to the bone. That my years of work would be relegated to a 130-page script, that was the thing what worried me. I was worried further when, upon arriving on set for the first day of filming, I discovered that the script that I had diligently written had been re-written and toyed with by not only the producer, but by his 24-year-old third wife and also Elizabeth Kata who had written the book A Patch of Blue. I was devastated to see the ruination of a previously polished and highly tuned script and spent my short time on set leaping in front of the camera’s yelling, “Cut! That is not the dialogue”. It got to the stage that the actors were ignoring the director and coming to me in a clandestine manner to ask for interpretations and the correct lines to say. Understandably the director was angered by this and I was packed up and sent out of town on a phony publicity tour so a lot of the film went through without my input or salvaging and ended up in what I thought at the time was a ‘cringeworthy state’. So the risks I faced at that time, and they were real risks and they did eventuate, was one of being a laughing stock, of being embarrassed for creating such a badly written script.

Understandably, but in a way, viciously, the film was slaughtered by the press. Although thankfully, and through the loads of publicity we had received during the making of the film, the general public were keen to see it and it became one of the highest earning Australian films of that time. Ironically, it has now become a cult film and enjoys Film Festival Showings through out the world to hand clapping and cheering young gays.

I now look forward to redeeming myself with the book. I certainly do not fear any backlash and would in fact welcome it if it came because the book is a true diary of the 50s and 60s, written at that time with the thought processes and mentality of one who lived them. So the only scrutiny I may receive will be from the ‘Literary Set’ who may think my raw descriptions of sexual intercourse, particularly the male-on-male and the female-on-female, although delicately done, may be pushing the boundaries. But I wrote the book to entertain, to inform and to illuminate. And I used the thread of both homosexuality and of the life saving movement, although poles apart in terms of subject matter, as a manner of education. Only a few know of the intricacies of the homosexual mind or of what they do behind closed doors, and only a few know of the fears and the dangers faced by the Australian Surf Life Saver and having had experience, either practical or by observation and research of both, I used them as a thread for the narration of the book.

I am pleased too, to have waited this long to publish, for had I taken the poorly paid offers to do so during the 70s, the book would have gone out as a contemporary novel. Now it is released as an historical, true diary of the 60s and gives an insight to the young readers of today how youth lived in that day, and to those of my own age, it will bring back so many memories of the way we lived and of what we thought.

What affect do you believe the film The Set has had on Australian GLBTQ culture? What affect do you believe the novel The Set will have on today’s Australian GLBTQ culture?

I know the film liberated a lot of young men, particularly when it was released. I know because I receive letters and emails even to this day from people who are now established businessmen, and even one from a New York lawyer, who thank me for allowing them to know that their feelings and instinct was not abnormal and that there were others out there like them. The film, they tell me, was a release, an opening of a door to lead a liberated life.

And in these later years, I notice young girls are coming to view the film as well, even though there is only a fleeting reference to lesbianism in the film they cheer and clap every time it is mentioned. They tell me, after the showing, that they absolutely love the film. So it has given many young men and possibly a few girls, a look at the sort of life they previously only fantasized about. It has given them the courage to come out of their shells and seek what they want. During these later screenings, I’m talking from 2000 onward, both males and females come to me to express their dismay at the manner the homosexuals of the day were treated.

The film has also been used as research by Ricardo Peach for his thesis that gained him his Doctor of Philosophy. Ricardo compared the homosexual life in Australia to that of their counterparts in Africa and commented that The Set was the first film to depict homosexuals as everyday people with regular jobs and an accepted appearance without the usual mincing outrageousness usually depicted.

And a Harley Street Psychiatrist asked to view the The Set by a censorship body in the UK came back with the reply, “Normal people acting in a normal manner”.

The book, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by all. It is not, I hasten to add, a gay and lesbian work. Although, I am happy to note that the gay and lesbian brigade in both the UK and Australia have taken it on as their own. It is also a general read for everyone who enjoys a page-turning yarn. Although I do surmise the younger generation of gays who now roam freely and without fear of prosecution or violence, will be appalled by the treatment of homosexuals in the book and of the clandestine efforts they resort to in an effort to protect themselves.

I really want the book of The Set to be taken as a work of entertainment, not as a drum-beating Gay Liberation scribe but, on the other hand, I want the gay reader to enjoy the work and to revel in the fact that their gender is being used as an everyday part of life, which it is, and has been, since man began.

What do you mean by: “The big screen adaptation of The Set could only ever hope to be a shadow of the real story”? In what ways does the novel adaptation expand on the real story that the film version could not?

No film, adapted from a large novel, can ever depict that story as the writer envisaged it. Disregarding the budget, no film can realistically be longer than two hours and it is obvious that if one squeezes a 500-page novel into a 150-page script, something has to give. And surmising we could do a 500-page script and shoot it as well (we’re getting into the mini series here), the thought processes, and the innuendos described by the author for his characters cannot be depicted on the screen, perhaps the actor may try to convey it, but it is not the same as having it spelt out in black and white print. But having said that, I do want the film to be remade and by God I’m having offers coming out of the woodwork, but this time I am being ultra careful as I will not allow the film to be made with the same embarrassment I experienced in 1970. As I mentioned before, I am leaning closer to doing a mini series because I do wish to cover every aspect of the content that is explored in the book.

You’re celebrated for playing ‘tough guys’ in action films such as Mad Max – acting work that has inspired Quentin Tarantino to call you “a legend”.  Ironically, most of your films appeal to a predominantly heterosexual male demographic. Has being an ‘out’ gay male actor made it difficult for you to land these roles? What bearing has your homosexuality had on your acting career?

The procurement of my acting work has always been based on my appearance and my ability to do the job. Fortunately I started acting at a very young age and because no matter what one does, be it cooking, needle work, performing operations, or pulling teeth, one is surely going to improve with experience, so by the time television came to Australia and with it the feature film, I had cut my teeth on stage work from the age of twelve, standup comedy from 14, educational radio drama from 16 and interspersed this with training from an off-shoot of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, weight training and martial arts. So by the time I was asked to audition for film and television, I was highly trained and experienced.

One’s sexual preference should not affect his ability to play the role he is offered. After all, gay or not, one is first and foremost an actor. And, in my own case, I have now performed in more than 80 feature films and over 2000 television roles, plus probably 50 stage plays in which I have played the gamut of hero, monster, womanizer, drag queen, boxer, wrestler, incestuous father, stroke victim, truck drivers, policemen, cowboys, bikers, and a serial killer. I have performed comedy, horror, drama and Shakespeare and never once was my sexual preference ever raised.

What do you say to other ‘tough guy’ gay actors who are contemplating staying in the closet to ‘protect’ their acting careers?

That has never been a problem in Australia, although I do believe it is an issue, or at least it was during the 50s and 60s and into the 70s in America. And I know of a number of actors over there who were forced to hide their preference during that time. Although I do believe it doesn’t matter now. Homosexuality is widely accepted in the streets, in the home by fellow family members and by big business, so why shouldn’t it be accepted in the world of make belief. In fact it appears to be a trend and a social high if one, particularly in the entertainment world, is supposedly gay.

There are a lot of tough guys out there, some in the film business others in areas of entertainment such as wrestling, boxing, martial arts, football, who happen to be gay so a sexual preference “does not maketh the man”. So I have no comment to make to anyone who wishes to hide their sexual preference, actors or not. I do remember though, when I first came to Sydney from my home town of Adelaide to break into the ‘big time’ and was called to see a well known producer. He greeted me warmly enough but after he had eyed up my rather attractive female companion whom I had chosen to take with me, he commented, “I do admire you Mister Ward, coming here, as a man, to try and break into films”.

So maybe being gay may have well been the way to go.

But I did pretty well anyway. Eighty films, 2000 television shows… That producer by the way, I think he’s forgotten it was me that he insulted that morning, because he’s now one of my biggest fans and a constant employer.

Do you plan on writing any other GLBTQ-focused films and/or novels? What projects are next on the horizon for Roger Ward?

Yes, I am working on a sequel to The Set, it will revolve around the five protagonists again but this time they’ll be in their 20s and it will be set in the USA, based around the film world.

I also have a trilogy based on two brothers who are war correspondents, and right now I’m looking for a suitable publisher or agent. They contain high action, romance and comedy. The first of them opens in Iraq and moves to New Zealand. While the second features New Zealand and Tahiti, and the third is set in New York and Iraq.

My other writing credits, films, documentaries, mini-series and TV specials are little known, hidden as they have been behind a pseudonym, as it was discovered long ago that despite the establishment not objecting to a gay actor playing the heavy, they did draw the line when that same actor dared to write a novel or film.

So I’m coming out now!

The book of The Set is now available in book shops throughout the UK and Australia and can be purchased from Amazon. It is also available as an ebook.


Superman: Earth One (DC Comics)

Reviewed by Kes Seymour

Superman is an ideal. Superman is perfect – there’s nothing that he can’t do; he will always overcome any challenge (he even managed to come back from the dead in the 1990s) and this is why people love him. But it’s also why writers have struggled to create new ‘interesting’ stories about the character over the years; how do you write an engaging story about a character that can literally achieve anything? This is the difficulty that faces J Michael Straczynski in trying to present a different take on a Superman story for a new generation of readers.

In his introduction to Superman: Earth One, JMS shares his feelings on what the Superman symbol has come to represent. For him, the iconic ‘S’ means that all things are possible, and he is right – the Superman symbol stands for inspiration. Superman should motivate, be an ideal to which we should all aim towards and create a sense of hope and wonder. And not just because he is faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap a building in a single bound, but because he knows what the right thing is to do and always overcomes. People should like Superman, because there simply shouldn’t be anything unlikeable about him. Superman isn’t like the rest of us – the clue is in the name – he is a Super Man.

And yet, despite all the incredible things Superman can do that we can’t, he doesn’t remain distant or unknowable, but remains a character we warm to. This alien visitor from Krypton is arguably the most human super-hero there is. He is not fighting the good fight because his parents were gunned down in front of him when he was a child, or is on a single-minded mission of justice; he is being a hero because he can and because of the caring, loving virtues installed in him by his adoptive parents. Superman has never been ‘alone’ à la Bruce Wayne; he had an ideal family environment surrounded by friends and family; a perfectly ‘normal’ upbringing that most readers can relate to. We all want to be Superman’s ‘pal’.

Unfortunately, in trying to find a new modern take on the Superman mythos, JMS has removed all that makes Superman so unique in the first place. This young Superman is full of doubt and insecurities, and comes across as not a little selfish and petty, just like us mere mortals. There he is, on the cover of the graphic novel, looking all mean and moody, eyes glowing an angry red beneath his hoodie (his hoodie for god’s sake…) not reassuring us, but carrying on like a sulky Kevin the Teenager type who just happens to have the ability to fly and the power to level mountains – could there be anything more terrifying??

In his effort to make this current day Superman relevant, JMS has forgotten what makes Superman super in the first place and decided instead to make him grim and gritty. If I want this then I’ll read a Batman comic. We even have Clark Kent brooding over his father’s grave at one point and are later told that Clark’s mission on Earth is to “avenge the murder of his homeworld”. Seriously? Superman’s task is to avenge the destruction of Krypton? So he isn’t being Superman because he knows this is the right thing to do, he’s only being Superman out of vengeance? This alone was enough to make me want to put this book down and never look at it again.

I essentially spent the whole time reading this graphic novel simply waiting for Superman to behave like Superman and not like a tortured emo brat who sees his powers as a curse. This is not the reason why this character has been so enduring for almost 80 years!

I understand the need to make a character with a long, convoluted history accessible to new readers and to have a stand-alone story that anyone can read, but not at the expense of what made the character so popular in the first place.

Marvel Comics successfully modernised a lot of their heroes ten years ago, with their Ultimate line, starting with Spider-Man. Yes, a lot of the Spider-Man story was brought up to date, but the basic building blocks of the character were kept in place. They didn’t need to change what made this character already great, they just needed to start again without the clutter of a convoluted history that would put off the casual reader.

And this is what makes Superman: Earth One feels like such a missed opportunity; to show new readers what made Superman so awe-inspiring in the first place, to give new readers that sense of excitement that JMS talks about when see the Superman symbol. After reading this graphic novel I just can’t imagine any kid being inspired to throw a bed sheet around his shoulders and leap about pretending to be Superman which is a real shame.

A final word about the art – this is a graphic novel after all. Shane Davis’s pencil work is serviceable, if not a little dull. Metropolis itself looks quite striking, although there are times at night it resembles more of a dangerous Gotham (“it gets kinda dicey around here some nights”… sigh…), and I wish we got to see more of Davis’s take on Krypton which looked suitably impressive. The real problem lies with the lack of energy and motion in the action scenes – everything looks too static and pedestrian. When I had finished reading this I couldn’t remember a single stand-out splash-page, or an iconic Superman image. And is too much to ask to see Superman smile, just the once?

With monthly comic sales in decline I sincerely welcome any attempt to draw new readers towards the medium. The fact that this graphic novel has been a best-seller will hopefully mean that more people will go into comic shops. But for accessible, told-in-one stories then please consider Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns or the astonishing All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, both of which retain the joy and wonder of Superman without resorting to angst-ridden clichés and an uninspiring, un-super Superman.

Branching Out: Peepal Tree Press

Peepal Tree Press is dedicated to expanding the Caribbean library and keeping it in print. Spike interviews its founder Jeremy Poynting

Working out of the Burley area of Leeds, Peepal Tree Press has been a vital hub of independent publishing for just over 25 years. Founded by Jeremy Poynting to specialise in Caribbean writing, the company has expanded to include a significant amount of Black British titles: “Our focus is on what George Lamming calls the Caribbean nation, wherever it is in the world”. Poynting’s interest in Caribbean writing was kindled through a friendship with Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo at Leeds University in the mid-60s. Doctoral research in Caribbean literature led to his first visit a decade later. According to Poynting’s account on their website (see below), the Peepal Tree was seeded in 1984, when Guyanese author Rooplall Monar needed a book printing and there was no paper to be had: “I volunteered to organise the printing of a small run (400 I think) back in England… Backdam People became the first Peepal Tree publication, ‘typeset’ on a daisywheel printer and printed in the evenings in the college where I worked… Sadly the Guyana dollar was devalued from about $8 to the £1 sterling to over $100 to the pound just after these were sold. There was another lesson about the intricacies of export, one that was reinforced later when our former US distributors went bust, and when a certain Trinidadian bookseller skipped off the island with her new American husband, leaving her large debts behind”. But Peepal Tree survived and Backdam People is still in print.

Since then, the press has continued to bring new authors and poets to a wider audience, in addition to relevant memoirs, historical studies and literary criticism. They publish over 30 titles a year. I first came across them with Karen King-Aribisala’s tricksy, beguiling novel The Hangman’s Game but the range of titles is broad. In fact, Peepal Tree is as much an act of curation as publication. Along with Backdam People, they are dedicated to keeping more than 250 titles in print. As the poetically-named Hannah Bannister told Caribbean Book Blog: “Someone once said that being a publisher is a bit like being a midwife and I think that’s true, but I also have the privilege of supporting the books right through to their old age”. In 2009, this policy led to an ambitious and generous proposition: The Caribbean Modern Classics Series. The idea was to restore missing items to the Caribbean library, as Poynting explained on its inauguration: “Anyone looking for important Caribbean novels on Amazon will know that much of the writing published from the 1950s through to the 1980s is out of print… Over the next three or four years we plan a series of at least 60 titles, and then we will add to it as other key titles disappear from print”.

The piece goes on to make some crucial points about how books (and records) are the repositories of individual and collective cultural memory. It reminds me of Island’s commitment to keep Nick Drake’s records in print, despite poor early sales. Peepal Tree is investing in the future of their books:

these are the books that first captured me for Caribbean writing almost forty years ago. Then it was still possible to find nicely jacketed first editions of virtually everything for the fifties onwards for a couple of pounds, or buy new copies of Wilson Harrises or Andrew Salkeys from New Beacon Books or, if not originals, reprints from the old pre-Pearson Heinemann and Longman days, (before the accountants got in). Rereading those books carried me back to those times: memories of Orlando Patterson as a fiery young orator in the occupation of the LSE in London in 1967; treks to 2 Albert Road (before New Beacon moved) and long discussions with John La Rose in the kitchen upstairs; books read to a soundtrack of Don Drummond on horribly but atmospherically crackly Studio One LPs (and Toots, Desmond, Max, and a not yet global Bob Marley).

Peepal Tree Press receives financial support from Arts Council England. The following interview with Jeremy Poynting took place just as the latest funding announcements were being made. The company has been included in the National Portfolio with a financial increase for 2012. This will allow them to expand projects such as Inscribe, a creative and development programme for Black and Asian writers. The e-newsletters sent out by Adam Lowe (a novelist himself) are a valuable digest of book-related news. Taken together, Peepal’s contribution is immense and it would be impossible to replace 25 years of growth, roots and branches. The tree is an apt metaphor. It remains to be seen how the loss of funding will affect less fortunate organisations.

I read the excellent interview with you last year at the Caribbean Review of Books site, so I know how you Peepal Tree is approaching its Modern Classics series. I wondered how the process of finding contemporary writers works?

In the earliest days this was mainly through contacts, writers I knew who I thought were good, who had unpublished novels or collections of poems. Now we get more submissions than we can almost cope with in terms of finding the time to read them. There are always some (in addition to what we commit to) that if we had more editorial resources we might take on, though in truth we’re pretty much always at full stretch in terms of our schedules. So we don’t have to find writers, they find us, though I keep monitoring what is appearing in Caribbean literary journals, and we get recommendations from established writers regarding their protégés. In the earliest days our output was almost wholly Caribbean (including writers who were based in the UK or North America but who wrote as Caribbeans), but in more recent years we’ve also built a Black British segment of the list.

This has grown further since we took on a writer development role funded by the Arts Council, called Inscribe, developed initially by Kadija George and now also involving Dorothea Smarrt. Inscribe has become an imprint where we focus on chapbooks for writers who are heading towards full collections. Our poetry editor, Kwame Dawes, who is based in the USA, is also heavily involved in running writer development workshops in Jamaica, and several poets have come to us through this process. The other fact I’d note is that over the past half-dozen years we’ve had writers submit to us who have had publishing contracts with the big multinationals but obviously did not sell enough copies and were dropped. So there’s a mixture of building a reputation for high quality work that attracts writers, and the negative push from mainstream publishers who are only interested in anything Caribbean or Black British if they can sell it to a predominantly white, mainstream readership. Just recently, for instance, a number of novels came to us when MacMillan Caribbean dropped adult literary titles they’d already contracted.

As publishers like Heinemann, Longman and Faber have dropped a lot of their catalogue, has Peepal Tree become the global authority on Caribbean literature now or are there other publishers performing a similar role?

Yes, we are the major publishers of Caribbean literature. There are a few publishers in the USA who have dipped their toes in, but almost always with a focus on American-based writers, publishers such as Akashic, Red Hen Press, and Greyhound Press, but with only a handful of titles each. There are two serious publishers in the Caribbean – the University of the West Indies Press and Ian Randle Publishers – who publish roughly the same number of books a year that we do, but both concentrate on the academic market and scarcely touch fiction or poetry. Obviously the mainstream hangs onto a few big names – Faber with Walcott and Earl Lovelace, and our colleagues at fellow independent presses Bloodaxe and Carcanet have a few good poets on their lists.

There has been a long relationship between Britain and the Caribbean. Has this relationship changed much recently? How could we nurture this relationship more in Britain? Part of Peepal’s mission is to keep books in print. Do you have a reasonably clear idea of print run in advance? Do you tend to print in bulk or wait for more frequent reprints?

I think the truth is that the relationship between Britain and the Caribbean is a pretty defunct, amnesiac one. The killing off of the BBC’s Caribbean service is a symptom. Since the end of the Cold War the Caribbean has not even had the dwindling strategic importance that prompted a degree of interference and access to some fairly slender resources. The ending of preferential duties on sugar and other agricultural produce at the behest of US global free trade strategies is another symptom. Occasionally bad things come out of the Caribbean such as hurricanes and earthquakes, the occasional threat to tourism such as the Dudus affair, but as a region it is of virtually no economic significance except for tourism and the scandals of off-shore banking. Reggae obviously made powerful connections, (since there was an active Black British reggae scene as well), but recent musical exports such as Rihanna bring little by way of regional culture with them. This is obviously not how it should be and it is something that concerns us. There are important institutions such as the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, but I’d certainly hope that slavery wasn’t the only point of remembrance. There’s an absence of cultural flow from the Caribbean that’s in marked distinction to the flow from India, and I think because of that and the generally negative reporting of the Caribbean, there’s a younger generation of Caribbean heritage people who don’t really feel any great sense of connection. There are obviously exceptions, but I think the absence of cultural flow denies a potential enrichment of the lives of both Caribbean heritage people. The Caribbean classics series was in part inspired by that absence. We don’t really have the resources to do more, but we do what we can to raise profile, but principally to try and build a community of interest via our website and e-newsletters.

We used to make our own books, but now use a really good digital printers. This helps us keep books in print without tying up capital in stock. Our initial print runs are not usually more than the 500 mark, but then we may get reprints at a 100 a time as often as needed. It’s not POD, but it really helps cashflow, schedules and minimum stock maintenance. We still have stock from 20 years ago – before we realised that lower unit costs were worth nothing if stock wasn’t turning over.

Although I’m sure are asked this all the time, I couldn’t find an account of why you called the press Peepal Tree? There are many stories around the plant, I wondered which had appealed to the most?

The peepal tree (ficus religiosa) was brought from India to the Caribbean by indentured labourers and nativised there. In Indian villages it was often the tree at the centre of the village where people hung out, stories were told and that pattern was repeated in the Caribbean. So the idea was something that symbolized a transplanted culture, the connection with story-telling and the obvious pun. At the time I established Peepal Tree I was also making the point that the Indian presence was very much part of the Caribbean at a time when that was sometimes denied. At the beginning of our publishing, there was an more of an emphasis on the Indo-Caribbean, but always with the intention of diversifying in the way we have.

I read your comments regarding ACE in November. Is the funding landscape any clearer for publishers like Peepal now? With cuts to areas like the World Service, do you think Britain is beginning to squander the richness of its relationship with other cultures?

I’ve just learnt that our own funding has been increased, but there are some very regrettable rejections of other’s funding bids. I think as a group, regularly funded publishers were able to get across our case for our position in the literature ecology, and at least air the case for fiction as well as poetry. What happens will, I suspect, depend on who wins the argument that will almost certainly take place between the regions and head-office/London. I think that the Greater North regions (Yorkshire, Northwest and NorthEast, which contains a significant independent publishing sector) will fight for what they have against a degree of London-centrism (though one important Yorkshire publisher, Arc, has been abandoned). The context is that there isn’t currently a fair spread of literature organisations and there are new organisations applying for portfolio inclusion. Undoubtedly some funded independent publishers will be cut, though they will still have access to lottery funding. ACE is understandably nervous at the minute, so whilst there is still some support for what they called “international work”, the emphasis is currently very much on “public benefit” and that is very closely restricted to England. In terms of the BBC, British Council and I fear increasingly the Arts Council, relationships with other cultures tends to follow economic opportunity. Brazil, India and China are hot; the Caribbean is not!

You might want to come back to me on this later when the dust has settled a bit more…

Many major publishers are in trouble at the moment. What do you think they could learn from Peepal’s way of doing business?

Not a lot, I suspect in terms of the huge divergence of purpose. We try to operate in as efficient a way as possible in terms of maximising sales and holding down costs, but our basic model is about doing books that we believe will have a long shelf-life, so that whilst we can’t promote books to the level that the mainstream does, we don’t suffer huge returns. The commercial model is a speculative, gambling one. The one success will pay for the failed speculations. We depend heavily on the contribution of our backlist to contribute to our sales income. For us books are never just commodities, though we try to make them as desirable objects as possible.

Peepal is involved in projects such as Inscribe, does it help to meet your public (and future authors) face to face?

Very much so. Meeting our readers at launches and readings is almost always encouraging and we get quite a bit of response from the e-newsletters Adam sends out. Though we are never market-led, we do take the trouble to find out what our core readers think. For instance, recently we have been surveying our e-mailing list on their feelings about e-books and paper-books.

The Modern Classics series is the perfect statement for Peepal Tree and an inspiring act of curatorship. Do you have any other ambitions?

Yes. I plan to launch a shameless crib of the old Penguin modern poets idea – a generous selection of three poets in one 120-page uniform collection – but ranging across the Caribbean and Black Britain, with one current established poet, one recuperated, and one emerging. My other ambition is to do something about the gulf that exists between academia and the wider Caribbean reading public – wherever they are. Our readers are people who read for more than just diversion, but to explore themselves and their world. Too much critical writing has lost touch with such concerns and become impenetrably self-regarding.

The Caribbean Modern Classics Series:

  • Wayne Brown On the Coast & Other Poems
  • Jan Carew Black Midas / The Wild Coast
  • Austin C. Clarke Amongst Thistles & Thorns
  • Neville Dawes The Last Enchantment
  • Wilson Harris Heartland
  • George Lamming Of Age & Innocence
  • Roger Mais The Hills Were Joyful Together
  • Edgar Mittelholzer A Morning at the Office / Corentyne Thunder / Shadows Move Among Them / The Life and Death of Sylvia
  • Elma Napier A Flying Fish Whispered
  • Orlando Patterson The Children of Sisyphus
  • V.S. Reid New Day
  • Garth St. Omer A Room on the Hill
  • Andrew Salkey Escape to an Autumn Pavement
  • Denis Williams Other Leopards / The Third Temptation

New and Forthcoming Titles:

  • Jamaican author Andrew Salkey’s 60s quartet for children: Drought / Earthquake / Hurricane / Riot
  • Alecia McKenzie Sweetheart
  • Una Marson: Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Alison Donnell)

Further Reading:
Peepal Tree Press website and online shop
Interview with Jeremy Poynting
at The Caribbean Review of Books
Adam Lowe’s website
New Beacon Books

Creative Caribbean Network

Leader: The Group Mind and Collaborative Communities

Jason Weaver goes in search of the creative city and loses himself in the collective mind

Where does creative work originate? Anybody who has worked collaboratively can tell you about the mysterious processes at play. The excitement and flow of a creative project appears psychic at times. When things are going well, serendipity seems predestined. Participants will remember events in a different way, a different order, with different emphases and agencies at work. Even with clear notes and documentary evidence, there will be gaps in recall and it is not always clear who thought of what. It is a sobering lesson in the partiality of human cognition. During such periods of concentration, individual differences give way to something ‘other’ – a product of distinctive input but catalysed into an utterly new synthesis.

In 1977, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs collaborated on a book called The Third Mind. This series of essays and experiments explores this idea of a shared consciousness, riffing off T.S. Eliot’s line “Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ (and citing Ezra Pound’s editorial influence on ‘The Waste Land’). For Gysin and Burroughs, collaboration introduces mutually unpredictable elements, taking each individual to a creative territory they would not have reached alone.

Whilst such collaboration is central to certain art forms, musical improv, for example, there is an economy of scale at work here. Larger creative communities can coalesce and even catalyse at particular points and in particular places. The Italian Renaissance in Florence, Paris in the 1920s or the Weimar Republic are obvious examples. Matt Ridley explains this in terms of exchange. Ridley is a controversial figure, trained as a zoologist and non-executive chairman of Northern Rock bank in the period leading to its collapse, he is also the author of The Rational Optimist and his engaging talk ‘Deep Optimism’ outlines his argument that exchange allows ideas to ‘have sex’: “The effect this had on cultural evolution was exactly the same as the effect the invention of sex on biological evolution. Because the invention of sex accelerated and made cumulative for the first time genetic mutation and evolution… What sex does is it allows the species to draw upon the genetic inventiveness of the whole species, not just its own lineage. And exchange has the same impact on human culture”.

As with The Third Mind, this collaboration takes invention into some surprising places: “Every technology we use is a combination of other technologies, other ideas. The pill camera is my favourite example. It takes a picture of your insides as it goes through. It came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer”. A parallel in the arts would be the Siobhan Davies’ 2006 dance work In Plain Clothes, choreographed in collaboration with an architect, a linguist, landscape designer, and a heart surgeon. In fact, Ridley’s notion of exchange is quite radical, and demonstrates how many acts are unconsciously engaged in a giant collaborative effort. To illustrate, he compares two objects sitting on his desk: an ancient axe he keeps as a memento and the mouse he uses for work.

The axe was made by someone for himself. The mouse was made by a team of people for me. They got together one day and said ‘Matt Ridley needs a computer mouse, let’s make him one’. How many of them were in that team? There were hundreds, thousands, I think there were probably millions. Because you’ve got to include the man who was growing coffee in Brazil to feed the man on the oil rig who was drilling for oil, whose oil would be used for the plastic, etc, etc. They were all involved in this cooperative enterprise to make me a computer mouse. They were all working for me. In the old days, you got rich by having people work for you, quite literally. Louis XIV – it’s a fair bet he didn’t make that silly outfit for himself. Louis XIV had 498 people to prepare his dinner every night. But here’s a bunch of tourists going round his palace in Versailles. And each of them, when you think about it, has 498 people preparing his dinner for him tonight. They’re working in bistros and cafés and restaurants and shops all over Paris, but they’re ready at an hour’s notice to drop everything and prepare a meal for one of these people. They’re working for him in just the sense that people were working for Louis XIV.

This resonates with Brian Eno’s idea of the creative potential of the collective, which he has dubbed ‘scenius’: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of genius”. The brilliant loner is inserted back into the cultural context that made their work possible. Shakespeare is the conduit for England’s expanding wealth and horizons in the late 16th century, whilst Beethoven’s exhaustive exploration of form was made possible by the patronage of the Austrian Empire. As Kevin Kelly says (in a short essay ‘Scenius, or Communal Genius’): “Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work”. Kelly cites literary examples like The Bloomsbury Group, but also the mountaineering ‘hackers’ Camp 4 and the MIT engineering lab Building 20. He concludes that such environments share four nurturing factors:

  • Mutual appreciation – Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques – As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success – When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties – The local ‘outside’ does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.”

In spite of these discernible trends, collective collaboration remains a fragile and mysterious chemistry, on a larger scale, perhaps, but still reminiscent of Romantic theories of inspiration: “The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers… What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL IT. When it pops up, don’t crush it. When it starts rolling don’t formalize it. When it sparks, fan it. But don’t move the scenius to better quarters. Try to keep the accountants and architects and police and do-gooders away from it. Let it remain inefficient, wasteful, edgy, marginal, in the basement…”

I’m reminded of Talk Talk at work in the studio, as recalled in Phill Brown’s book Are We Still Rolling? With sufficient finances from previous sales, the band locked themselves into the studio for months at a time: “At this stage only Mark appeared to know exactly what the desired result was. As with Spirit of Eden, we worked in almost complete darkness, with an oil projector in the control room and the odd red light in the studio… Also, as nothing was planned and we were playing by the rules of chance, accident and coincidence, we needed to try out almost every idea and combination of sounds before we knew we had the right part or texture”. Record companies were kept at bay with the inevitable backlash once the albums were finished: “Much later in 1997, we discovered that the album Laughing Stock had been deleted in the UK a few months after its initial release”.

However elusive creative communities may be, it hasn’t stopped people trying to establish and plan them. There was more to ‘Cool Britannia’ than embarrassing photo opportunities. It signalled New Labour’s commitment to creative industries in the UK and a recognition that British culture was a hugely successful export. In fact, successful post-punk record labels like Rough Trade had been the very epitome of the Thatcherist small business revolution – an irony gleefully explored in the quasi-corporate image of PiL, BEF, Scritti Politti and other bands of the early 80s. By 2007, UK creativity had become the model for how the entrepreneurial business should operate, something local governments were keen to encourage. The question became ‘how do you turn a city into a creative hub?’ In my home town of Brighton and Hove, 1 in 5 of local business was involved in the creative sector, as a slew of reports testified. Richard Florida began to talk about a ‘creative class’ that migrated to where the action was.

The business of culture and the culture of business were beginning to blur. Venture capitalist Paul Graham was also in search of that magical collaborative community in his 2009 essay ‘Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe’. A startup hub, it seems, shares much of the same traits as its cultural counterpart and Graham’s guidelines are similar to Kelly’s. Invest but don’t impose too many rules: “If you want to encourage startups in a particular city, you have to fund startups that won’t leave. There are two ways to do that: have rules preventing them from leaving, or fund them at the point in their life when they naturally take root. The first approach is a mistake, because it becomes a filter for selecting bad startups. If your terms force startups to do things they don’t want to, only the desperate ones will take your money”. Attract talent to your city to seed and influence subsequent generations: “Don’t try to do it on the cheap and pick only 10 for the initial experiment. If you do this on too small a scale you’ll just guarantee failure. Startups need to be around other startups. 30 would be enough to feel like a community”. Encourage the free exchange of ideas. “For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world… Interestingly, the 30-startup experiment could be done by any sufficiently rich private citizen. And what pressure it would put on the city if it worked.” Graham also emphasises the necessity of a good university as the incubator of collaborative culture. We might think of key art institutions such as the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College and their enormous influence on culture as a whole.

However, despite the focus on the creative industries over the last 15 years, reports repeat the same problems with investment. Business models break down because art is not subject to the same economics as other products and services. Whilst Warhol’s Factory was an efficient production line, creative output is rarely so functional and cannot guarantee a sufficient rate of return. Investors and producers are completely at odds with one another. In fact, art is often precisely antagonistic to wider economic values, being a space to question and examine them. The appeal of Berlin or Leipzig or Warsaw as creative communities is the inverse of investment, it is cheap accommodation and empty spaces to colonise, just as it was in the New York of the 70s. Commercial and cultural hubs can look very different.

If exchange of ideas is equivalent to the invention of sex, coming online means we’re at it like rabbits, cross-fertilising like the last days of Rome. However, some habits are yet to change. Certain art forms are more inherently collaborative than others but novels are still a somewhat onanistic activity. Gysin again: “While the history of painting and the plastic arts shows them generally to have been a collective affair in their conception and their realization — even after the notion of the artist-paradigm came to dominate every other mode of representation — literature has been a solitary practice, an ascesis, a withdrawal, a prison of words. Collaborations in this domain were rare. If we except certain accidental associations, the value of which is open to question, we find that few works have been composed as the result of a joint effort”. Furthermore, whilst authors see the internet as a brave new platform for marketing, the loss of editors and the whole network that previously contributed to the writing of a book makes it perhaps even less collaborative than before. Although widely criticised as a crude and exploitative exercise in branding, I’m rather intrigued by the James Patterson franchise. It may have broken the norm of the individual author. Things change in unpredictable ways.

It is often said that we live in a golden age of television. The attraction and potency of writing for HBO, AMC, even The Simpsons could be exactly down to the collective experience of working around the table with the very best, the scenius. As Deadwood reached its final series, you could practically sense the writers urging each other to greater daring, to push television dialogue into places it had never been before. I’m convinced that the poor state of cinema this year (overwhelmingly remakes, sequels, and spin-offs – production-led scripts) is the result of this. Hollywood’s loss is TV’s gain.

Communal creativity is neither as sublime nor as elusive as Kevin Kelly implies, but pimping ideas online and through meet-ups is not collaboration either. It’s gossip. The time of heavy investment in the arts may be behind us (at least in the UK) but the creatively curious owe it to themselves to seek out and connect with others. With pooled resources and in shared studios, collaboration is simple and it is everywhere. Three heads are better than one.

Explore Further:
Matt Ridley’s ‘Deep Optimism’ talk at The Long Now
Kevin Kelly’s ‘Scenius’ essay
Paul Graham’s essay
‘Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe’
A literature review around the culture and creative industries by Justin O’Connor

James Gould Cozzens: Morning Noon and Night

An essay by Pedro Blas Gonzalez on the pleasures of the physical book and reading James Gould Cozzens, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and writer out of time

On a recent trip to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my all time favorite bookstores. I have been visiting that wonderful store for 23 years. The place has thousands of books: hardcover, rare, and first-editions that the average reader who only reads best sellers cannot even suspect exist.

I always get excited when I climb the movable ladders that hook around the shelves in this marvelous bookstore. I feel great anticipation of what I will discover this time around. This is a place where patience is highly rewarded. In old bookstores one encounters the feel and smell of old volumes, but also a living history of where we have been as people. 

Opening books that I may not intend to purchase, but which are alluring nonetheless, I begin to feel my heart pulsating faster. There is nothing more boring for this reader and book collector than the sterile and predictable shelves of bookstores that only sell new books.

Whenever I visit a bookstore that specializes in old volumes, I always look for books and authors that I have been after for a long time. I am also excited by the sight of books, editions, and authors that I have never encountered. I welcome this positive tension. I often feel pity for those lost souls who today easily get turned on by those nonsensical, electronic-book gadgets, and other such aberrations, which are strictly designed for non-readers. 

I find the idea that books and their authors show come to us to be one of the great fallacies of our age. This is a rather laughable and lazy notion. Imagine people who think they are entitled to be loved; the day-to-day tortured existence of those pathetic people who demand that love should come to them.

People who actively seek knowledge, those who are not intimidated by the often unsavory backbone of truth, and who cherish making connections between this-and-that aspect of human existence, such people never expect knowledge to come to them. Reading is no different. Knowledge is not a right that is conferred on us by nature or the managers of bureaucratic utopias. 

If we want a drink, we go to the banks of a river or we look for a well. This is quite simple. Otherwise, we perish. This is all part of the fundamental understanding that reality is nothing other than resistance to our every whim, passion, desire, and aspiration. This is also what makes life so enjoyable for those who understand and cherish the nature of this all too human resistance. Ours is an age replete with pointless ironies, isn’t it? 

Finding other readers to converse with today is a rare thing. Genuine readers are actually rare gems. They are as rare as the mythical white buffalo, unicorns, or sirens. Often, when I come across another reader, I get the strange sensation that I am starring into an opaque mirror, or that I am in the presence of a ghost. 

Rummaging through the shelves of the Toronto bookstore that is replete with old hardcover books; I came across some very interesting first editions that I had been searching for: Hemingway, Dos Passos, O’Hara, and several books by James Gould Cozzens that I didn’t own. 

I have always been a consumer of works of literature. I find Polish writers to be some of the best exponents of genuine ideas, writers who can achieve this with much beauty, and who do so without recourse to pedantry.

English literature, especially the romantic and metaphysical writers, has excited me since I was a young boy. In addition, American literature, particularly the era pertaining to the “lost generation,” that group of writers that was virtually invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, showcases a great deal of sincerity and truth that stands as a testament to the dignity of the individual – in any future age. 

Writers, like the aforementioned, have much to offer us today that remain valuable in helping us to understand ourselves as free and autonomous individuals. I find such writers to be the must interesting. These writers navigate the intersection of philosophical reflection and literature like very few others in modern literature. It is in this same bookstore that I first encountered Kingsley Amis and his letter-writing friend, Philip Larkin.

 Imagine my delight to find Cozzens’ novel Morning Noon and Night. This is a 1968 first edition that has an impeccable dust jacket and pristine pages. The book has been kept in a virtual time capsule. 

Beyond the physical appearance of this lovely edition, this novel is highly desirable to me, because it is a superbly original work. This is a rather intricate work: a novel posing as memoir, a philosophical essay that asks, “Is it all worthwhile?” or an anti-novel, as some critics have referred to it. Morning Noon and Night, is anything but conventional.

By the time Morning Noon and Night was published, in 1968, those who embraced radical ideology were seen by some as having reached the zenith of cool. Cozzens and his books certainty did not exude coolness, if we are to believe his critics, the denizens of social mayhem and revolution. Cozzens was savagely attacked by ill-willed, partisan critics. He was crucified as an Eisenhower-era traditionalist writer by politically-charged and lazy critics who cared little to actually read his books.
Henry Worthington, the protagonist, is the founder of a consulting firm. He narrates how he came to be the man that he is, what understanding he extracted from human reality as a young boy, his experiences with other people as an adult, and just what it means to live and die.

I dare say that Cozzens is a more engaging philosopher than the vast majority of those who possess advanced degrees today in that noble discipline. Reading Cozzens carefully sends me reeling with excitement. He reminds me of the lofty possibilities that literature can attain to. I rejoice in witnessing that philosophical reflection is alive and well. Cozzens is not tainted by the shameless sterilization and moral/spiritual castration that institutions of higher learning subject philosophical vocation today. 

Worthington relates to the reader what life is like for him, what it has been, and the realization that he has lived, as if in a dream. The novel begins: “I have been young and now I am old”. Henry Worthington then goes on to say that old age does not necessarily deliver one to wisdom, but he assures the reader that, in his case, this indeed is the case. Worthington and Cozzens are both that rare example of men who know their own mind. This is as difficult an undertaking as it is a solitary task.

 In many respects, Cozzens enlightens us about an age that has not been our own for a long time now, and which, regrettably, will likely never return.

There is tremendous pathos in Morning Noon and Night. However, this is not the cheap, gratuitous, and fashionable sadness that socially/politically motivated individuals promote in our own time.

This novel reminds me of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Both works display profound courage in getting down to the nitty-gritty, those difficult to swallow moments of human existence, which no popular appeals to utopia can assuage. 

Cozzens does not give us soothing pills to alleviate our spiritual emptiness. On the contrary, he seems to say: “If you are willing to ride along with me, let us then take a walk through fields of natural resistance to all our sophomoric whims.” 

How many of us are sincerely willing to embrace this challenge?

What a pity that men of honor, those few souls who can deliver us to truth, must perish. What a shame that fewer and fewer men today are capable of taking their place.

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is a writer and philosopher who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He has written Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset’s Philosophy of Subjectivity; Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy; Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay; Dreaming in the Cathedral and Ortega’s ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man.

Structure and subatomics: Don DeLillo, Underworld and the new historical novel

Jason Weaver revisits Don DeLillo’s premillennial opus of paranoia and baseball.

The title of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld alludes both to living under the canopy of the bomb and to a world beneath us, more specifically a hell. DeLillo has publicly stated that he wanted to write about the ‘secret’ history of the Cold War: ‘… people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated. Documents lost and destroyed. … I think we’ve developed a much more deeply unsettled feeling about our grip on reality’. As Peter Knight states (in Everything is Connected: Underworld’s Secret History of Paranoia): ‘Underworld creates a sense that there are larger forces in our lives over which we have no control, but which refuse to coalesce for more than a moment’. In one sense, this is the underworld of the title, a subterranean history, which is of hellish consequence; a narrative that shapes us but remains out of reach. Yet, the name also punningly compacts numerous meanings, which are ready to flare up and collide like fissile atoms. Whilst we might immediately pull out references to the book’s content – black market gangsterism as underbelly of capitalism, Eisestein’s ‘lost’ masterpiece as symbol of Cold War dialectics, the god Pluto’s connection to plutonium and the bomb, to name just a few – it is primarily in the connection of these themes that the name functions. That the title can be so loaded with references, which interact within the novel, is itself maddeningly complex. A clear sense of what the title refers to begins to break down. As Underworld obsessively demonstrates, everything connects in the end, and this absurd extension of Forster’s dictum is also hellish, in that the book is rhizomatically structured to the point of overdetermination. The meaning of the novel seems to be that meaning breaks down under the weight of infinite connection. This sense of a secret history and the overdetermination of meaning collide in the title to further complicate the equation. The underworld, then, is a place of impossibly complex interrelations over which we can have no clear grasp.

However, Underworld is a very long novel, particularly for an economical writer like DeLillo, whose previous work Mao II checked in at a quarter of this length. The premise that meaning has lost its meaning would be an indulgent one for the 800-odd pages of the work. It is the contention of this essay that DeLillo has started with the widespread sense of this premise (according to the quote above) and that the novel is an attempt to work through this idea. It is ironic that the sheer size of the book, amongst other things, promises a meaning, or a statement, which DeLillo intends to problematise. In fact, notions of the spatial are thematised within the novel, as we shall see, and it is typical of Underworld that the structure should interact with content in this way. Again, it is significant that the title also refers to location.

In a Rolling Stone interview of 1988, DeLillo outlined the controlling paradigm of his fiction:

It is … my sense that we live in a kind of circular or near-circular system and that there are an increasing number of rings which keep intersecting at some point, whether you’re using a plastic card to draw money out of your account at an automatic teller machine or thinking about the movement of planetary bodies. I mean, these systems all seem to interact to me. … The secrets within systems, I suppose, are things that have informed my work.

But they’re almost secrets of consciousness, or the ways in which consciousness is replicated in the natural world.

Although this statement is two decades old, it is a pretty clear description of a principle which organises Underworld. There is, however, a very important proviso. The quote promotes a reading of the work in terms of historical linearity. That the rings of intersection are increasing indicates an evolution that might tempt us to equate this change with the waning of the Cold War. Peter Knight differentiates between secure and our contemporary insecure paranoia. To some extent, this is borne out by the text, but it does not take into account the particular treatment of time and history in the book. By Underworld, history itself is caught in the circularity; looping, spinning backwards, connecting at dislocated points. It begins in a present tense 1952, switches to a past tense 1992, and rewinds through the decades to finish in an unspecified cyberspace. What, we might ask, is the present location in time? Furthermore, the novel itself loops, echoing jokes, images, and figures of speech in its epilogue and introduction. The text works to undermine any clear sense of historical linearity or progression.

On the other hand, we might see this as evidence of an ontological rupture between ‘our’ world and the Cold one, the lack of resemblance between the teenage Nick Shay and his middle-aged characterisation seen as further proof of this. Yet we come back to the over-abundance of connections between the two eras: the passage of the baseball through the years, for example, or the fact that the novel is bound together by the 1950’s ‘Manx Martin’ interludes.

For Brian McHale (in Postmodernist Fiction), the postmodernist novel is characterised by the foregrounding of ontological dilemmas. For example, inconsistencies between the ‘real’ world of the reader (or the material status of the book) and the ‘text continuum’ (or ‘imagined geography’) of the work are exploited to produce a kind of restless ‘flickering’, which calls into question issues of ontology around the fictional process. McHale uses the metaphor of ‘worlds’, which might impinge on one another, but cannot ultimately make sense when they come into contact. Clearly, McHale’s metaphorical war of the ‘worlds’ begs a comparison with the locational nature of DeLillo’s underworld, particularly when considering the two ideological ‘locations’ of the Cold War. Here, surely, are worlds that fail to ‘add up’? Yet, DeLillo chooses not only to emphasise the connections between East and West, but also to complicate them entirely. The dialectic, for example, a defining model for the Soviet system is played through the very construction of the Cold War binary, reaching a synthesis whereby East and West collaborate on a waste disposal method using underground nuclear blasts. The bomb that symbolised Cold War disjunction survives its historical context and alters its meaning. Furthermore, Eisenstein’s aesthetic use of dialectics is turned against the Soviet state in Eisenstein’s Unterwelt, the 1970s screening of which twists its Cold War iconography into a bizarre spectacle of American pop culture that actually manages to reinforce the politics of the film. Interpretation becomes rapidly hazardous as connections multiply and the core strand of argument is compromised by possible, competing routes.

In this way, the dialectic is raised to the level of the novel’s structure, appearing to offer clear paths of argument that cannot be sustained. Thus, the competing paradigms of the Cold War states become organising elements of the book, literalising these ideological themes. However, not only are these models locked in an incompatible competition, they also merge into one another, and even swap places. The very construction of the Cold War is shown to be connected in secret, minute ways. The novel is punning on an atomic level of connection. Not only are the Cold War nations linked, but the Cold War itself is hard to disentangle from the post-Cold War era.

The ontological dilemma that McHale illustrates is an ‘impossible’ one. Two necessarily discreet worlds exist in the same space. DeLillo’s Cold War worlds are doubly impossible. They are both independent and identical, defined and so merged that they cannot be prised apart. This certainly does not contradict McHale’s model, but his is founded on the idea of disjunction as the contemporary paradigm, whereas, according to DeLillo, the defining modern phenomena all demonstrate connectivity, whether they be the ecology, the internet or globalised capitalism. The epilogue, ‘Das Kapital,’ works with each of these examples and Underworld, as a whole, takes this connective paradigm at its word and fashions the new novel from it.

Critical reactions to Underworld have been contradictory. What each account shares is a common sense of anxiety, a tentativeness or general haziness about what it is that DeLillo has written. Philip Nel asks: ‘… is DeLillo’s work modern? Is it postmodern? Or would a term like “twentieth-century literature” suffice? For Timothy L Parrish, ‘DeLillo has surrendered to film the power once attributed to the novel’, despite the fact that the novel can rescue history from its confusions. Whilst we can confidently state that the novel is ‘about’ Cold War paranoia, what exactly does that mean? DeLillo’s language seems to offer a reading of society, his characters are very articulate theorists. When Nick and Donna discuss sex, for example, both present abstract ‘meanings’ which take in religion and fiction. DeLillo’s style is constructed around a series of apparently clear statements. Yet, critics seem to have a difficulty in constructing a satisfying account of the book.

Furthermore, interpretations seem to proceed with the assumption that Underworld is DeLillo’s stab at a ‘big statement’, thereby encouraging the search for a coherent reading. Even critics who have branded the novel a failure, have done so under the tacit agreement that Underworld attempts to embark on such a mission, even to the extent of reintroducing the unfashionable idea of the grand narrative. In keeping with the Cold War theme of secrecy, the ‘meaning’ of Underworld has been treated as a puzzle to be pieced together from scraps of information.

The publication of the book, on the cusp of 1997/98, has its fictional counterpart in the novel itself. A lost Eisenstein film, Unterwelt, has surfaced and is re-premiered at Radio City Music Hall:

It became the movie people had to see. A nice tight hysteria began to build and there were tickets going for shocking sums and people rushing back from the Vineyard and the Pines and the Cape to engineer a seat.

Just a movie for godsake and a silent movie at that and a movie you probably never heard of until the Times did a Sunday piece. But this is how the behavioural aberration, once begun, grows to lavish panic.

“But will we actually be able to sit through it?” Esther said. “Or is it one of those things where we have to be reverent because we’re in the presence of greatness but we’re really all sitting there determined to be the first ones out the door so we can get a taxi.”

With an irony typical of DeLillo’s writing, Underworld became a similar media event, a ‘must-see’ zone of something resembling desperation. ‘Lavish panic’ was certainly on display at the author’s London reading in January ’98, where a large celebrity headcount packed into the TUC Headquarters and the evening became vertiginous due to the confusing sensation of being present within one of the author’s own fictional scenarios. The tone of the audience replicated the reverence of Radio City Music Hall and the whole affair was charged with a palpable yet indefinable ‘importance’.

The novel’s publishers hitched Underworld to the millennial Zeitgeist, such as it was, simultaneously pitching the book as contender for the Great Novel of the American Century, as a summation of the Cold War, and as a sneak preview of the New World Order. Advertising, as DeLillo’s books tirelessly iterate, fuels ‘panic’ with a highly- charged vocabulary such as this. The Times did a Sunday piece, of course. Underworld‘s timing, on the threshold of two world orders, its dense structure, its overarching subject matter, its sheer size, all conspire to give the novel an aura of gravitas. It came packaged as a big statement and has consequently been read as such. Such disquiet is indicated by the ironic subtitle of John N. Duvall’s 1999 essay: ‘DeLillo and the moment of canonization.’

For some critics, the ‘reverse’ mimesis of DeLillo’s novel, the fact that life imitated the work, is seen as evidence that the book has no critical distance from that which it critiques. Yet, DeLillo has already fully documented such processes in Mao II, in which the novelist Bill Gray is lost behind a public reproduction of himself. As a ‘sequel’ to Mao II, Underworld is unlikely to replicate the problematics already discussed in the former novel, particularly as DeLillo has often spoken out in defence of the novel, such as when he told DeCurtis (in the Rolling Stone interview) that history needs fiction as an organising influence. Instead, the question becomes one of what DeLillo is offering in the act of writing, what is the novel there for, if not a necessarily absorbed social critique?

It is worth noting how DeLillo’s narrative style is almost entirely imitative of the characters’ speech patterns. Third person accounts describe in interior monologue. Thus, as the narrative voice roams around the ballgame, it shifts from character to character. The descriptions of J Edgar Hoover, for example, employ the FBI Director’s anxieties about himself. Even the affirmative statement that ‘capital burns off the nuance of a culture’ can be attributed to Nick Shay (although where the voice is located once the narrative moves into cyberspace is more difficult to ascertain). However, what we can draw from this, is that each statement is filtered, once removed from any ‘pure’ statement DeLillo might make. Consequently, we should be wary of even the clearest statement in the book. Most critics, however, have pulled their interpretation from what the character’s say, assuming that we are left with little else. Each has then tried to differentiate between ‘true’ and ‘false’ statements with regards to what DeLillo himself has said or the structure of the book. When Parrish, for example, aligns DeLillo with J Edgar Hoover or Nel argues that ‘Klara’s longing for a Cold World Order seems requited by the book’s intricate structure’, each foregrounds the words and actions of the characters, as if each were a moral personification in a didactic theatre, all at the expense of the novel’s more intricate framework.

We have already noted, however, that Underworld is overdetermined, connected to a circular infinity. Each statement is somewhere countered by its opposite, destabilising any argument we might wish to make from the content of the book. Again, the Eisenstein episode is archetypal, in that it seems increasingly to dissemble, the more it is studied. In addition to Unterwelt being twinned with DeLillo’s novel, we are also offered a 1930s Hollywood film called Underworld, a typical noir thriller about the Mob. Thus, we have the product of communist aesthetics turned against the Soviet state (Unterwelt), twinned with a capitalist movie dramatising the underworld of the free-market economy. These filmic contradictions are later dramatised within the novel. Nick Shay and Brian Glassic are flown to a Khazakhstan (where Eisenstein has possibly shot Unterwelt). The date is unspecified, but the narrative implies that this is the near future. The bomb is now being employed in a capitalist venture to dispose of the waste generated by capitalism. Elements in the novel collapse: a joke from the 1950s of the prologue is retold here; Shay, who has an affair with the married Klara, confronts Glassic over his affair with Marian. In fact, the novel dramatises the complications inherent in an apparently straightforward model of A versus B. Charles Wainwright, an advertising executive on Madison Avenue retells a story about one of their campaigns:

The agency was still in shock over the Equinox Oil campaign. … Fill up two cars with premium gasoline. One with Equinox, the other with a leading competitive brand. … White car versus black car. Clear implication. U.S. versus USSR. … We thought the Soviet embassy might lodge a complaint. We looked forward to it. Free publicity. What happens? We get complaints all right. But not from foreign governments. We hear from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We hear from the Urban League. We hear from the Congress of Racial Equality. Because the white car beat the black car.

DeLillo takes this theme of black and white and literalises it. It appears everywhere, from the texture of the Eisenstein film to demarcation of ethnic zones in New York. In the prologue, Cotter is aware of his blackness in streets around the ballpark, it influences his behaviour; he is followed by Bill Waterson, who suddenly becomes aware of his whiteness in Cotter’s black neighbourhood. The black and white theme is played through the image of the chessboard, which Matt Shay is learning to play and is, of course, a major battlefield for Cold War supremacy. Furthermore, the black and white theme is taken to the structural level of the book itself. Whilst critics have noted the importance of the images which punctuate Mao II, the design of Underworld has so far gone unremarked. The front cover, in black and white, is shown in negative on the back. The six main parts of the book are broken up with a succession of full and half-black pages. Each of the three ‘intermezzo’ sections, concerning the black Manx family, are bracketed by black pages.

Underworld is a novel that complicates ideas of causality, built from the detritus of culture, where no element is too minute or too unconnected to be included. Critics who try to construct a causal argument from the text, fall prey to this web of connectivity, and can only advance by employing a massive repression of such minutae. In short, critics of Underworld interpret the book by denying the very secret history the novel seeks to reveal. Critics are left with the kind of faux choices invoked by the characters in response to Unterwelt: ‘Was Eisenstein being prescient about nuclear menace or about Japanese cinema?” It is the preconception, based on a received trope, that Eisenstein must be prescient about something that conditions the response to the film. At one point, Esther, whose critical faculties are thoroughly mediated in this way, claims: ‘”I don’t need to see the movie. I already love it'” Similarly, the aura of significance around DeLillo’s novel conditions the expectation of a statement about the times we live in.

So, is Underworld a postmodern statement about the impossibility of interpretation, the massive structure merely an ironic comment on novels which would promise a social critique of narrative certainty? Furthermore, is Underworld a failure? A novel made up from the detritus of culture and destined to become part of that same build up of garbage. For Parrish, ‘the very success of his narrative mimicry leads readers to worry that he is an impersonator co-opted by the narrative forms that he replays’ and ‘suggests how difficult it is for DeLillo to succeed in being both innovative and in control of his fiction’. Parrish’s DeLillo uses postmodernism to deconstruct itself in order to restore the status of the artist and seek transcendence in technology. According to Philip Nel, ‘In its richly layered language and careful structure, Underworld is DeLillo’s most “high modernist” novel to date; however, it also draws on avant-garde techniques in a more subtly effective way than his previous work’. For Paul Malty (in ‘The Romantic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo’) ‘to postmodernize DeLillo is to risk losing sight of the (conspicuously unpostmodern) metaphysical impulse that animates his work’.

The confusion of responses towards Underworld is a faultline in comprehension that DeLillo mirrors in the Unterwelt passage. That we are intended to draw a parallel between the fictional film and the fiction itself is clear, not only in their shared nomenclature. Both novel and movie share certain stylistic techniques, although DeLillo uses the comparison ironically to deflate his own ‘masterpiece':

Overcomposed close-ups, momentous gesturing, actors trailing their immense bended shadows and there was something to study in every frame, the camera placement, the shapes and planes and then the juxtaposed shots, the sense of rhythmic contradiction, it was all spaces and volumes, it was tempo, mass and stress.

In Eisenstein you note that the camera angle is a kind of dialectic. Arguments are raised and made, theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter – there’s a lot of opposition and conflict.

It is in this ‘opposition and conflict’ perhaps that the critical difficulty lies. DeLillo has said of an earlier novel: ‘It seems to me that Ratner’s Star is a book that is almost all structure. The structure of the book is the book’. Similarly, Unterwelt is to be interpreted formally, its subject matter is incomprehensible otherwise – ‘… the film was embedded so completely in the viewpoint of the prisoners that Klara was beginning to squirm’ and ‘The plot was hard to follow. There was no plot’. We have already encountered both problems with regards to Underworld. Although very different in treatment and effect, both novel and film employ some kind of dialectical form rather than the straightforward ‘statement’ which appears to be on offer. In fact, as with Ratner’s Star, the subject matter and the form co-exist more or less equally. The montage described on the screen is not only worked into the very language that DeLillo uses to describe this event, but throughout the very structure of the book itself, which employs a broad collage of voices, modes of discourse, locations, ideas, forms of address, narrative styles.

Such a conflation of both narrative content and technique is the overriding organisational principle of Underworld. At the simplest level, the novel tells us that ‘everything connects in the end’ and this becomes part of its organisational system. In this sense, we cannot divorce the novel’s contents from its formal context. Everything in Underworld co-exists on two interconnected axes. It is as if the content of the book is a dramatisation of its formal principles, rather than the structure of the novel supporting the content as we might otherwise expect. Underworld obsessively refers to its own structure. Its collage style is echoed not only in the Eisenstein film, but also in the rain of torn paper that showers J Edgar Hoover at the baseball stadium. This in turn suggests the bric-a-brac nature of Hoover’s secret files and the invisible history they contain. The complex interplay of themes derived from black and white point to the design of the book itself, which uses an arrangement of black and white pages to organise the material. Reading as a postmodernist, we might expect such techniques to foreground the books own fictionality, its status as a material text and not a window to the world, but Underworld‘s narrative tone does not support this. The book displays none of the textual tricks and slippage that would accompany such a self-undermining work. In fact, DeLillo works at a kind of sharpened mimesis and is known for the way in which his works seem to actually ‘frame’ reality, how public events can come to seem like a ‘Don DeLillo moment.’ Ryan Simmons, for example, has noted the uncanny appearance of the Unabomber several years after DeLillo drew parallels between terrorism and authorship.

The content of Underworld relinquishes its primacy to structure. This is where the ‘meaning’ of the novel might be located. That there can be structure in this field of overdetermination, undermines the sense that we began with, the sense of a hellish underworld which offers us nothing stable. We might even go so far as to say that as content is an echo of the structural elements in the novel, which the characters are shaped by such structures. Analogously, the secret forces that shape the inhabitants of a Cold War culture are both structured and recoverable. In this sense, Underworld is indeed engaged, as Knight states, in the process of cognitive mapping offered by Fredric Jameson as a means to work through postmodern paralysis. We have already noted a spatial and historical dimension to DeLillo’s work. These are the two fields that Jameson claims are in need of ‘recovery’.

However, the notion that DeLillo’s writing offers a template for existence, in the manner of Baudelaire’s aesthetic argument that art justifies the world, supports the claim that Underworld is a work of modernism. The use of montage in Underworld, for example, has been interpreted as evidence of this. Philip Nel effectively differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ modernism:

DeLillo’s recent work, and especially Underworld, should be considered part of that “revolt” against “domesticated” modernism. But because his artistic development has roots in both “avantgarde movements” and “high modernism,” we can see in a work like Underworld a bridge between “modern” and “postmodern.” I would go as far as to say that, by relying on a modernist avant-garde (such as Surrealism and Dada) to engage the politics of postmodernity, DeLillo’s recent fiction in general challenges the validity of the modern-postmodern binarism.

The problem is that the opposition to binarism, whether it be represented by black and white or as a challenge to modernism versus postmodernism, itself functions within a dialectic framework. To oppose binarism reinscribes the dialectic under opposition.

As we have seen, however, by playing Unterwelt against Underworld, the novel does employs modernist techniques ironically only to foreground its own structural architecture. Part of this organisation is ‘the sense of rhythmic contradiction.’ Here, DeLillo does not simply tell us that ‘theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter,’ he also demonstrates it in the very act of comparison. Underworld both engages in dialectics and problematises the dialectical procedure. The equation is not one of simple opposition to binarism. In fact the novel places binarism and anti-binarism in dialectical opposition. Furthermore, each dialectic offered in the book is connected to every other, so that something resembling a rhizome of dialectics is constantly at work. Underworld is an unusually active text.

Despite the range of narrative voices, DeLillo’s style often employs the indirect internal voicing familiar from early modernist experiments in fictional consciousness. All the same, it is highly questionable as to whether any of DeLillo’s novels are interested in the dramatisation of psychological motivation. Characterisation, in the traditional sense, seems barely to be an issue at all. The population of Underworld is made up of theoretical speculative discourses, each with a worldview, a tone of voice and a proper name. Amongst the polyvocality of Underworld, however, there is a modernist voice. Indeed, the structure of the book also, at times, appears particularly to imitate Joyce. The book has something of a circularity with images of children playing in the street both opening and closing it. Sentences are echoed (‘He speaks in your voice’). The final aerial narrative echoes the final passage of The Dubliners in ‘The Dead,’ whilst this novel begins with ‘The Triumph of Death.’ Nel has noted how the final word ‘Peace’ may imitate The Wasteland – never mind the preoccupation with garbage and waste in Underworld.

We have noted Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping. Underworld is literally an attempt to map a shifting geography. The novel abounds with maps of white spaces, of territories that are neither one thing or the other, that have changed name, changed nationality, changed ideology. Nostalgia for the apparently monolithic stability of the Cold War is demonstrated as the result of a mythic memory. We cannot hope to fix the boundaries on the map because borders melt under capitalism. But, we can map the movement of capitalism and, in doing so, diminish the hellish sense that history is out of control. Thus, the mapping process is not so much one of space, but of movement in space. Underworld begins with a boy running into a baseball ground, a restless narration that shifts from person to person, a ball that travels from the pitcher, to the bat, into the bleachers and out into the world over time and space. Movement in space. Thus, one of the novel’s organisational paradigms is the theory of relativity, Einstein’s connection to the bomb. DeLillo foregrounds structure, to undermine the notion that structure is now impossible but, like the internet, this structure is not static. DeLillo’s cognitive map is in motion.

In More Brilliant Than The Sun, Kodwo Eshun, employs the analogy of Motion Capture:

… in films like Jurassic Park and all the big animatronic films, Motion Capture is the device by which they synthesize and virtualize the human body. They have a guy that’s dancing slowly, and each of his joints are fixed to lights and they map that onto an interface, and then you’ve got it. You’ve literally captured the motion of a human; now you can proceed to virtualize it.

Underworld makes a similar move to capture the subatomics of history in motion. It is an attempt to sweep up the detritus of the (post)modern era with a literary technology that can begin to frame it. DeLillo has commented on the relation of fiction to history. Underworld is a historical novel, in the lineage of War and Peace. But, rather than employing the realist methods of this novel, it employs the emerging paradigms of the contemporary, documenting history not only in content but in the very application of these techniques.

In short, Underworld is a work of contemporary ‘history’ which does not offer ‘meaning’ in the ‘traditional’ sense of the word. It is not so much an ‘argument’ or a dialectic that demands synthesis. Talking to DeCurtis about the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo has stated: ‘I think we’ve come to feel that what’s been missing over these past twenty-five years is a sense of manageable reality. Much of that feeling can be traced to that one moment in Dallas. We seem much more aware of elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos since then’. DeLillo cannot offer a manageable reality, but he can offer a sense of it, in structure.

Sources can be found at Literary Criticism of Don DeLillo and at the Don DeLillo Society.
Gary Marshall’s review of ‘Underworld‘.
Chris Mitchell’s review of Kodwo Eshun’s ‘More Brilliant Than The Sun‘.

Ian Rankin – A Question of Blood interview

Greg Lowe

Original interview with Ian Rankin on the publication of A Question of Blood and the re-issue of Watchman.

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Not many punk rockers will tell you it was a copper that made them what they are today, but bestselling British author Ian Rankin is an exception to this rule. He owes his livelihood to one Detective Inspector John Rebus, a hard-nosed Edinburgh cop who works on instinct, plays by his own rules, and is the central character of Rankin’s novels.

With 23 books, sales well into the millions, and the 1997 Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Gold Dagger (the Oscar equivalent for crime fiction) for Black and Blue, under his belt, Rankin has come a long way from his childhood in a coal mining town in East-Central Scotland. In his first Thailand interview, the author tells New Arrivals of his long struggle for success. He explains how he created and developed Rebus’ character to portray the realities of contemporary Scotland, and discusses his latest books, A Question Of Blood and Watchman.

From an early age, reading and writing played an important part in Rankin’s life. First and foremost as a source of inspiration and escapism. “Reading helps nourish your mind and develop the intellect. It helps take you to other places,” he says. “I grew up in a place that didn’t have much hope about it. There wasn’t much happening in the economy, the shops were all closing down, but I could escape inside my head.

“I could become a pop star when I was writing song lyrics, and I could become a superhero by drawing cartoons. I could become anything I wanted to be. The problem with is that sometimes society tries to knock that creative stuff out of you. You’re told to stop, get a job, get married and die. I think that reading is part of the process of staying young.”

In his youth writing was a passion kept close to his chest, hidden behind the closed doors of his bedroom. It was only in the final year of school that he let the cat out of the bag.

“I came second in a national poetry competition. That was the first inkling that any of my classmates or teachers or my parents got that I was actually writing,” he says. “It was a bit embarrassing really, it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to do with my background.”

Not one to be put off by such things, he moved to Edinburgh in 1978 to study English at university, and found instant satisfaction in his choice.

“It was such an exciting place to be, because you were surrounded by writers, people who wanted to be writers, and people who were excited by literature,” he says.

Music is Rankin’s other passion, and his knowledge of it is evident in the eclectic tastes of the characters he creates. This, combined with his natural flair for writing, didn’t translate into successful musical accomplishments of his own though.

“I was in a punk band for about six months, and we were about the second worst punk band you’d ever seen. I was on vocals. I didn’t actually play an instrument, and singing would be putting it too strongly,” he laughs.

Putting music aside, Rankin focussed on his studies and, after graduation, took up a PhD on Edinburgh writer Muriel Spark, author of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. At this time Rankin had started writing his own fiction and after two years of research found himself in a quandary.

“I asked myself, ‘What would she [Spark] want?’ Would she want just another little red thesis that would sit in a dusty library, or would she want me to write books?”

Opting for the latter, he ditched his studies and penned three novels in three years. The first, a dark comedy set in a Scottish hotel was never published. The second, The Flood, a story about his background, was printed by a local publisher. An agent who picked up one of the few hundred copies sought Rankin out and landed him a contract with a London publisher for his third book Knots and Crosses, marking the arrival of Rebus.

With this Rankin took the first steps on a long road to literary success that would eventually place him alongside the likes of Iain Banks and Irving Welsh, as one of Scotland’s leading contemporary authors.

Back then the wheels of the gravy train were turning rather slowly. “I had one of the longest apprenticeships in fiction,” he says, adding that it took a number of years and five or six Rebus books before he started earning a crust.

Despite years on the breadline, being supported by his wife while he tried to balance a career as an author with fathering a young family, Rankin has done all right. A darling of the British fiction scene, he is on numerous web and radio interviews and Rebus is now a popular television character.

His new home in South Edinburgh, where authors JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith are neighbours, is a testament to this success. But he tries to keep his feet firmly on the ground, taking joy in the fact that the success of Scottish authors like himself provides an inspiriation for a new generation.

“There’s a new generation of Scottish writers who have seen through people like me, that you can actually earn a living from writing. The also realise they don’t have to write like Muriel Spark or Irving Welsh. My next door neighbour [McCall Smith] writes crime fiction set in Botswana.”

Today, 13 novels on and 15 years older, Rebus has developed too. He still lives in the same flat in Arden Street that he did in the beginning, and readers have become attuned to the foibles of a cop who doesn’t mind riding roughshod over other peoples emotions in order to get what he wants. Each novel sheds more light on the unknown areas of his life, and at the same time, his friend and colleague, Siobahn Clarke, becomes a stronger, more prominent feature in the novels.

“Rebus is a kind of dinosaur. He’s one of the old school of cops who worked by instinct and were given a free reign to investigate a case as they saw fit. He really feels that he is the last of a dying breed. He’s surrounded by people who are younger and university educated, people who know how to operate computers.”

“However, the things that make him a good detective make him a very bad social human being, because he investigates other people’s lives like a voyeur. He does that as a defence, because then he doesn’t have to look at the problems in his own life.

“But that’s just the kind of person he is and it makes him a very good cop because once he gets involved in a case he won’t give up until he’s worked it out. But a lot of his friends and family have been pushed away over the years because the job gets in the way.”

Even creating Rebus had its problems for Rankin. Wanting to learn more about the machinations of policework, he sought advice from Edinburgh’s chief constable and was told to visit a police station and talk to a couple of detectives. However, in a bizarre twist of fate, this made him the prime suspect in an ongoing investigation.

“The detectives asked what the book was about. I gave them the story which was about a kid being abducted. It turns out they were investigating the abduction of a child, so I became a suspect. They thought I’d come in with a spurious story and that I was the person who’d actualy done it.

“I was the only suspect for while. I was probably too young and naive to be worried, but they eventually got the guy for seven murders. I was glad I wasn’t fitted up for that one, but I’m probably still on file somewhere.”

Nowadays Rankin boasts a large number of the boys in blue as avid fans, and he’s more likely to be pulled over by police wanting an autograph than an arrest. He puts his popularity down to getting the office politics right. “There’s a lot of bitching and backstabbing,” he says. “It’s a real ‘us versus them’ mentality.”

However, Rankin says that the greatest compliment was from a copper who couldn’t read his books. “He said it was no fun reading my books, because it was too much like work. I was really pleased by that.”

While he doesn’t want to get too close to the police and have his books seem like a PR exercise for them, Rankin wants Rebus to be a believeable, realistic character. Compliments from the law enforcement profession reinforce that he has succeeded at this.

“I think they like the fact that Rebus isn’t some kind of superman who flies in, solves the case, then flies out again. The cases have repercussions for him.

“If you investigate a murder, it stays with you. You don’t bounce from one murder case to the next unchanged by what you do.”

Rebus also breaks through the stereotypes that Scotland is all about malt whiskey, tartan and bagpipes, and portrays a realistic, earthy view of modern day Edinburgh.

“What interested me was the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the place. The fact that to the casual visitor it was a place of tradition and culture.

“They’d come to Edinburgh and see the castles and museums, but they wouldn’t see the run down housing estates, or the problems of drugs, prostitution and crime rings.

“There was this other side to the city that people weren’t writing about in the days before Trainspotting. My plan was to show this side of Edinburgh, to look at a living breathing contemporary city with contemporary problems.”

While Rankin made Rebus’ address real, choosing the flat across the road from his student house, he did encounter problems from fictionalising parts of the city.

“I had to decide early on just how real the city was going to be. In the early books I fictionalised a lot of places. A lot of the bars and areas have fictional names and Rebus works in a fictional police station.

“After four or five books I decided to burn down his fictional police station and put him in a real one. The Oxford Bar [Rebus’ local in the books] came into it solely because that’s where I drank anyway,” he says, adding that he has been given a few free beers by the bar’s landlord ever since.

The early Rebus books were sold with the kicker “Unlikely to be recommended by the chief constable or the Tourist Board”. Rankin’s war to put Edinburgh on the map has paid off.

Far from complaining that the books portray a dark urban underbelly that damages the city’s image, the Tourist Board has come on-side and now runs ‘Rebus Tours’ — where fans can be guided around key sites and scenes from the book. Furthermore, the current chief constable has gone as far as putting in print that he could do “with one Rebus on the force”.

Both Rebus and Rankin have come a long way in the past 15 years or so. However, with Rebus only five years away from retirement, what will happen when he reaches 60?

“Rebus exists in real time,” says Rankin. “In book one he was 40, now he’s 55. In Scotland, police have to retire at the age of 60, but I don’t know what I’m going to do.

“I could end it all, I could carry on with Siobahn as the main character. I could stop the clock and carry on with Rebus, or go back and investigate his early years.”

While Rankin professes no “grand plan” for Rebus, he does admit to having a guiding principle for determining. whether it’s time to give the cop the chop. “I come to each new book and think, ‘Have I still got his voice in my head, have I got anything new to say about him or Scotland through him?’“If any of these cease to be the case, then it’s time to stop right there.”

The books:
A Question Of Blood
Tragedy strikes when ex-soldier Lee Herdman enters a local school, shoots two students dead, injures another, then turns the gun on himself. Rebus is intent on finding out why the murders took place, convinced that it wasn’t just another squaddie gone postal. He’s also dodging questions about why he just left hopsital with bandaged hands and the con who was stalking Siobahn Clarke turns up dead in a fire.
Rebus discovers he’s personally attached to the killings, and in unearthing Herdman’s past in the SAS, he’s haunted by his own army experiences — something the military investigators who turn up on the scene are happy to play on.
Rankin explains the motivation behind the novel. “A lot of soldiers came back from the first Gulf War changed men. Wife beaters, murderers, and some suicide cases. Part of the book is about this. How the army trains men to kill, and then sends them back home without switching them off.
“But I also had this general theme of outsiders and the periphery of society: teenagers who don’t want to fit in, they take the extremes just to be different; other people like these disaffected soldiers; and even Rebus himself. I wanted to look at how these people are viewed. ”

Welcome to the world of British intelligence officer Miles Flint in this fast-paced thriller originally penned by Rankin in 1986.
Flint operates as a surveillance officer for British intelligence. However, his life as a voyeur is drastically changed when a suspected assassin slips his net and knocks off an Israeli businessman.
Set amidst an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign in London, our Scottish-born protagonist suspects foul play and makes his own investigations into the possibility of a mole or double agent. However, in the world of intelligence paranoia is the name of the game, and he himself is hauled in for questioning by his superiors. With each step Flint is further drawn into a dark conspiracy. One more operational cock-up lands him with a final chance to to redeem himself, taking him into the lion’s den itself — Northern Ireland.
“I was living in London when the bombings were going on. It was really quite terrifying, ” says Rankin. “But it provided the background for the story. “Flint is quite like a writer, insofar as he watches other people, records what they do, and writes it up in a report. It was really interesting transforming his life as a voyeur into something more active, and much more dangerous. ”

Originally published inAsia Books Magazine ,January 2004

Tony Parsons – Stories We Could Tell interview

Greg Lowe

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Tony Parsons

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Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, sprinkled with love and betrayal, plus the odd smattering of violence, forms the basis of Tony Parson’s novel, Stories We Could Tell — a familiar setting for the man who made his name in the 1970s writing for England’s seminal rock publication NME, and a tale which isn’t lacking in autobiographical parallels.

Inspired to become a music journalist, because writing and music were the two things he loved most, and, as he says, “a music paper was the only kind of paper that was prepared to give me a chance”, Parsons embedded himself in the post-Hippy generation, personified by the rise of punk rock.

In his early career he followed anarchic enfants terrible like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, while not being averse to mixing up his musical tastes with the diverse sounds of David Bowie and The Who.

It was a mad time.

“The life I lived at the end of the 70s was 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – you can only do that for so long,” he muses. “I was glad to get out before I was 25, and happy to get out alive.”

There’s no doubt that for Parsons now, life at 50 trundles at a much slower pace than it did amidst the chaos of the 70s. But while it may lack the buzz of hitting the town every night, going to gigs and regularly breaking stories of obscure bands on the brink of success, it’s hard to deny that these former days have left him rich in experiences – ones which have sparked more than the occasional literary inspiration.

His latest offering puts the author’s bacchanalian history to good use, as he explains.

Stories We Could Tell is as autobiographical as my other books, which means some of it is made up, some of it is almost as it happened, and a lot of it is exactly as it happened – especially the stuff about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s usually the most unbelievable stuff that’s true.”

Set in the summer of 1979 the book focuses on a hippified music journalist Ray; an aging rock star Dag Wood who cuckolds his friend Terry’s girlfriend Misty; and the Dagenham Dogs, a gang of violent groupies who follow the Sewer Rats, a band much maligned by a writer called Leon.

Set against the backdrop of the Silver Jubilee and Elvis Presley’s death, the lives of this disparate group become entangled and mutually explore the limits of their own freedoms.

While he says he writes with no real readership in mind, he thinks Stories We Could Tell will appeal “to anyone who knows what it means to be young”.

“The reason I started writing novels is that some themes and thoughts need a full-length work to explore them fully,” he adds. “It is my way of making sense of my world.”

So how has Parsons and his world changed over the years?

Well, while he is still true to his musical roots, the man’s tastes have broadened in the last three decades and now includes, blues, country and reggae, as well as rock and soul. He is inspired by the new British Ska explosion, in particular a band called The Beat, but laments the way the media today thrusts bands into the limelight before they are ready.

“In the past, a band – although this is also true for painters, writers, anyone doing something creative – would be ignored for a long time and given a chance to hone their style.

“That said, the UK is still a hotbed of creativity and I am constantly amazed at the number of great bands we produce.”

In spite of his years of rubbing shoulders and getting sweaty with many of the musical greats of the last three decades, he’s clear as to what his greatest life experiences have been.

“The birth of my son and my daughter passes everything else. And beyond the miracle of birth, the thing I remember most is seeing the Cormorant fishermen of southern China.”

In terms of reading, Parsons’ influences have changed over the years. He cites Ian Fleming’s James Bond books as favourites, age seven, JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye as a major influence as a teenager, along with the work of F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and puts Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the best read of all time, calling it “a timeless love letter to freedom”.

Currently he’s reading Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, “to increase my understanding of those murderous bastards,” as he puts it. An apt choice considering how London was recently rocked by suicide bombers.

Paradoxically, some positive developments have spawned by the terrorist campaign, he says.

“At the moment everyone is united – I actually think that it has improved race relations here, because most sensible people know that the majority of our Muslim community hates the terrorists as much as anyone else – and of course there were Muslim victims among the dead of 7th July.

“I think it will go on for a long time, but London survived the German bombers, it survived the IRA and it will certainly survive these Islamic nut cases. If the history of London teaches us anything, it’s that Londoners cannot be bombed into submission.”

Parsons’ says the police response in bombings’ aftermath was “brilliant” and he much admires their “almost Sherlock Homes-type” detective work.

While this newfound respect for the boys in blue may seem strange for someone who lived and documented the excesses of the smash-it-up, brick-chucking anger of the 70s – stranger even than his plan to pen a love story– he still retains some of his Punk ethics – namely a deep disrespect for politicians.

“They all disgust me,” he says. “I have a problem with any kind of authority.

“I would have made a good caveman.”

Originally published in 2005

Arthur Nersesian – The Swing Voter of Staten Island

Dan Coxon

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‘A Novel By Arthur Nersesian, Author of The Fuck-Up’ proclaims the cover of The Swing Voter Of Staten Island. It may not be the world’s greatest claim to fame, but it’s certainly a notable one. The Fuck-Up, in addition to having one of the best slacker-lit titles ever to have been put down on paper, has garnered something of a cult following since its publication in 1997, and rightly so. It’s hard to improve on Hal Sirowitz’s succinct opinion that the The Fuck-Up was ‘Trainspotting without drugs’, and it had almost as large an impact on underground literary culture as Irvine Welsh’s career-making hit.

In comparison, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island is a big disappointment. It sees Nersesian branching out from his usual witty observations of New York life and trying his hand at dystopian satire instead. The novel is still set in New York City, but this is not the cleaned-up NYC that Rudy Giuliani is currently trying to use as his passport to the White House. Instead Nersesian presents an alternate version of the metropolis, constructed in the Nevada desert for military training but now used to house – or, rather, imprison – all the social elements that the current regime has deemed undesirable. Its inhabitants have split into two political factions, the Piggers and the Crappers (no bonus points for guessing which parties these are supposed to represent), and its urban battleground resembles Giuliani’s worst nightmare. Life is necessarily complicated in a city where everyone’s got an axe to grind.

Into this hellhole Nersesian throws his protagonist, the oddly named Uli. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t his real name, as somewhere along the way he’s acquired a severe case of amnesia – all he remembers is a set of instructions to assassinate someone called Dropt, which cycle over and over through his mind as if he’s been subjected to the worst kind of hypnosis. As events spiral beyond his control he finds himself lost in the grotesque urban maze of the new New York, staggering from one bizarre encounter to another with very little idea of what’s actually going on.

Unfortunately Uli’s confusion is also the reader’s, and while Nersesian has shown himself to be a master of contemporary urban satire, his touch is not so delicate when it comes to dystopian fantasy. While it’s admirable that he wants to expand his repertoire, there’s much to be said for sticking to what you do well. With The Swing Voter Of Staten Island he tries to construct an Orwellian vision of an alternate America, spiced up with some of Philip K Dick’s political paranoia, but all too often it falls short of the mark. There are some nice touches amid the jumble of images, but too much of the imagery strikes a false note and ultimately there’s too tenuous a grip on reality for the average reader to buy into Nersesian’s fable.

It doesn’t help that this book finishes mid-story, with a follow-up promised later in 2008. Having battled through almost three hundred pages, it’s not unreasonable to expect at least some kind of resolution – although many of the characters are so two-dimensional that most readers may not care about not finding out what happens to them.

Like much dystopian and utopian fiction, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island works well as a philosophical and political treatise, but it fails as a novel. Maybe the second instalment in the series will rescue it from the literary slagheap of failed experimental fiction – only time will tell. In the meantime we can only hope that Arthur Nersesian recovers some of his trademark wit and ditches the political fables before his next outing.

Dan Rhodes: Gold

Dan Coxon

Since he burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with Anthropology, a collection of surprisingly poignant super-short stories, Dan Rhodes has made something of a reputation for himself. A self-confessed ‘miserable git’, in 2001 he announced that he would no longer be writing fiction, having grown disenchanted with the publishing industry. In 2003 Granta magazine listed him as one of their Best Young British Novelists. His inclusion on the list was justified with the release of his first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, a curious blend of charm and brutality loosely based on the Eric Knight book (and 1943 film) Lassie Come Home. I say loosely, because in this version the heroic canine gets kicked to death. I did warn you that it’s brutal.

Following his ‘retirement’ Little White Car was published under the rather transparent pseudonym Danuta de Rhodes. The story of a French girl who thinks she’s accidentally killed Princess Diana, the book exhibits some of the same quirky humour as his debut, albeit with less brutality. His third novel, Gold, has just been published by Canongate, and with Dan’s real name returning to the front cover it looks as if his retirement is well and truly over. The tale of a half-Japanese lesbian who’s uncannily good at pub quizzes, it’s brimming with the quirkiness, humour and occasional tragedy that first brought him to Granta’s attention. The tag of ‘Best Young British Novelist’ now looks remarkably prophetic.

I meet Dan for a cup of coffee in his Edinburgh home, the ‘miserable git’ actually turning out to be a very congenial host. Unshaven but undeniably cheery, he seems to be in a much happier place than he was five years ago. I start by asking about his choice of lead character for Gold. In Timoleon Vieta the main character was a gay man, and now in Miyuki he’s crafted a very convincing lesbian. They’re a pair of interesting choices.

‘Well it wasn’t really a choice,’ Dan explains, ‘those characters just came to me and I liked them, and wanted to write books about them. People often ask me that question, actually. One day when I’m older I’ll go through my books and draw a sexuality pie chart of all my characters, then I’ll just be able to hand that over in response to this question. Out of five books I suppose I’ve had a gay lead character and a lesbian character, but if you take Anthropology and Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love they’re very much boy-meets-girl books. So, just like the characters I suppose, there’s no political agenda, or even a great deal of reflection, behind using them.’

Was it difficult to find a convincing female voice, though? Both Little White Car and Gold have female leads, and in the past male writers have been known to struggle to create convincing female characters. In both these cases the end result is remarkably believable, but did he find it difficult writing as a woman? ‘No I didn’t. It’s just the same, although I do have a gender consultant who I run things by. She’ll point out if I’m making glaring errors. Which I often do, of course.’

It’s noticeable that he started out writing short stories, with the collections Anthropology and Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, but we’ve now had three novels in a row. Does this mark a permanent change in direction? ‘It didn’t really start that way, because my first three books overlapped a lot. I started Anthropology third, finished it second, and it came out first. Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love I started first, finished it first and it came out second. The dog book [Timoleon Vieta Come Home] I started second, finished it third and it came out third. So there’s a bit of a jumble there. I sort of wrote them together, really.’

Across all of Dan’s books, short fiction or novels, there’s a strong vein of humour closely entwined with the brutality and tragedy. When I mention this he agrees that it’s a big part of what he’s trying to do. ‘I always think I’m writing comic fiction,’ he tells me, a wry smile on his face. ‘A lot of people disagree with me, but that’s what I think.’ So does he work hard to make the humour work, or does it just pop into his head ready-formed? ‘Well it kind of pops out and then I have to work on it, because most of the gags I put in my books are actually a bit crappy and have to be kicked out. I put a lot in just for the sake of it, to keep myself amused, and they wouldn’t work for the final version, so I do have to do drafts where I take out almost all the gags. Some of them find their way in. Maybe one day I’ll write a book without any jokes in, because some of my favourite books are very, very serious.’

His books often seem to turn up in the Cult sections of bookshops, perhaps because of this unusual blend of humour and tragedy. I ask Dan if he sees himself as a ‘cult’ writer. ‘I certainly didn’t set out to be a cult writer. I was hoping to sell millions, so I wouldn’t really call myself a cult writer. Although I suppose you can be cult and still sell loads, can’t you – like JD Salinger, I think, is still regarded as a cult author. But I think quite often ‘cult’ can be a euphemism for low sales. My sales are okay, so I can’t complain. You don’t ever really know who’s reading your books, that’s one of the weird things about the biz. Sometimes I go out on the road and do readings, and the people who turn up are a complete cross section. They certainly don’t strike me as being cultish in any way.’

Talking of books that sell millions, Dan has been quite outspoken in the past about the quality of some of modern literature’s big-hitters. More than just a case of sour grapes (Timoleon Vieta won both the QPB New Voices Award and the Authors’ Club First Novel Award), he has some valid points to make about the output of certain literary prizewinners. ‘I think a lot of big literary authors take themselves so seriously that they end up churning out work that’s critic-friendly and prize-friendly,’ he explains to me, ‘but it’s actually just boring. For me. I know there’s an enormous audience for it but I find a lot of literary hard-hitters to write quite boring stuff. Whereas I’m as influenced by telly and comedy and music as I am by book writers. And what I’ve taken from those things, I think, is that you just have to keep the pace going, you have to keep things toe-tapping and entertaining.’

It’s interesting that he compares his writing to TV rather than other modern literature, as it’s a nod towards popular culture that some writers seem reluctant to make. I ask him why he thinks this is. ‘A lot of writers seem to think that their books somehow inhabit a different universe from TV and film and music, but in real life they don’t, apart from a miniscule proportion of the population who are solely devoted bookworms. I think most people, when they get home of an evening, they’re going to choose between reading a book, going to see a film, watching telly or listening to a record. And I think that’s where books slot into people’s lives these days. At least that’s how they slot into my life. I’m very excited actually, because I’ve just got the first series of Sabrina The Teenage Witch on DVD, which I’ve been waiting for for years. I’d been wondering when they were going to finally release it, and it’s arrived. So I’m very, very happy about that. And I’ve finally been able to throw away my VHS collection, which has freed up several cubic metres.’

Which brings me (almost) neatly on to his music taste. In previous interviews he’s often referred to The Smiths as a major influence, but the S-Club Juniors also crop up from time to time. ‘Well I object to them on every level,’ Dan says defensively as soon as I mention the mini-Clubbers, ‘except they did one very, very good song. That’s my official line on the S-Club Juniors. If you must know the title of the song, it’s ‘New Direction’.’

It seems likely that The Smiths had a larger influence on Dan’s writing style, though, their songs blending humour and melancholy in a similar way to his books. ‘Well, they sing about life don’t they,’ he replies when I point out the comparison. ‘I grew up with The Smiths, I got my first Smiths album when I was twelve, and I think Morrissey’s a shining example of somebody who should have shut up shop before the well ran dry. I don’t understand how he could listen to his old stuff from The Smiths’ days and then listen to his new stuff, and think that his new stuff is anything other than plodding and dreary. The last album I got of his was You Are The Quarry, which was, bizarrely, heralded as a return to form. But you’ve got to wonder whether those reviewers have actually heard The Queen Is Dead. I think the old Morrissey has been kidnapped and is in chains somewhere, and there’s this impostor out there on the road.’

Luckily for us, Dan Rhodes still looks like he’s the genuine article, despite his new cheery disposition. Gold is sure to win even more glowing reviews for one of Britain’s best young novelists, and hopefully there will be more of the same to follow. Assuming that he doesn’t announce another retirement, of course.

Whose mind isn’t on gold these days with the blitz of TV, direct mail, and radio ads trying to convince us to sell gold jewelry for cash?

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil: George Saunders

“…Saunders manages to amuse, entertain, and shake out thought on a great variety of subjects, and does so in a subtle, sideways style which could so easily be annoying but isn’t…”

Ben Granger

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George Saunders
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Someone once wrote that producing comedy is a far harder art than penning tragedy. Shockingly, I believe it was a humorous writer who made this selfless observation. Whether accurate or not, what certainly is true is that whimsy is a surprisingly tricky ingredient to get the right measure of in writing. A tad too little and the result is weak and insipid, a dab too much and the brew is overbearing. And either way it is very, very easy to come over as smug. Think of the output of Punch in the 80s or a great deal of Radio 4 comedy today to see feel the horror of what can unfold. So when a writer gets it right, praise is due.

In his satirical fantasy novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil published in 2005, and his short story collection In Persuasion Nation published in 2006 (and now reprinted together), Saunders hits the spot, lightly yet accurately.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (hereafter referred to as Frightening) is a dreamlike fairy story, twisted rotten. It tells of the plight of the inhabitants of Inner Horner, “a nation so small it can only accommodate one citizen at a time”. The other six citizens must wait their turn in the Short Term Residency Zone in the infinitely larger surrounding country of Outer Horner. Already existing at the sufferance of their benevolent surrounding power, the Inner Hornerites incur the wrath of the bounteous yet growingly impatient surrounding benefactors, when their small patch of ground sinks further into the earth.

“What are your people trying to pull?” said Larry.
“What’s that part of a guy doing in our country?”

“Our country shrunk” said Elmer, digging nervously in the dirt with his octagonal shovel-like receptacle.

“Oh please,” said Freeda, “You expect us to believe that? Our country never shrinks.”
“Decent countries don’t shrink,” said Melvin.” They either stay the same or get bigger.”

Irked at this taking advantage of their good nature, the Outer Hornerites come under the spell of the demagogic Phil, a mesmeric megalomaniac whose brain is constantly falling out of a rack at the side of his head. Each character in the story, incidentally, seems to be a kind of polymorphous, multilimbed humanoid/vegetation/mechanical hybrid, their peculiarities mentioned only in passing.
As I said, such whimsicality can very easily become trying. Political parables, which this story undoubtedly is, have their own pitfalls, and can be dreadfully preachy and forced.

Frightening evades both traps with its deftness of touch, its opaque absurdism side-stepping both the overly didactic and the twee. Imperialism, the vile hypocrisy of rich states imposing draconian migration restrictions on poorer neighbours, American arrogance, anti-immigrant populism, all these are undoubtedly alluded to, but seasoned with a healthy dose of cartoonish Dada-lite which kill off the sense of worthiness and disorientate enough to make you wonder whether what you have read has made any sense whatsoever.
Above all, it is just genuinely funny. The portrayal of the media’s role in fascistic Phil’s rise is fantastically portrayed, in both senses.

Looking out, Phil saw three handsome, well groomed, squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles.
“MAN REGARDS STRANGERS IN STREET!” shouted the first man.
“What are you guys doing?” asked Phil.
“MAN ASKS QUESTION, EXPECTS ANSWER!” said the third little man.

The humour in here is equal parts the satire and the absurdity, and such is the tone Saunders carries off with skill throughout. The ending of the story has the weirdly enchanting quality of a genuine fairy tale, yet with enough darkness to freeze the spine. A funny but chilly bedtime.

With In Persuasion Nation, Saunders’ tone diversifies massively while still retaining its core, a mock-simple critique of the wrong turnings of the America of today. It consists of a series of stories, mostly set in an unspecified near future where a creepy combination of consumerism, codification and bigotry hold sway. Some are simple one-line jokes writ large but writ well. “My Amendment” describes a citizen’s belief that not only should Same Sex Marriage be banned, but also “Samish Sex Marriage”.

I implore anyone who finds themselves in a Samish Sex Marriage: Change. If you are a feminine man, become more manly. If you are a masculine woman, become more feminine. If you are a woman and are thick-necked or lumbering, or have the slightest feeling of attraction to a man who is somewhat pale and fey, deny these feelings and, in a spirit of self correction, try to become more thin-necked and light-footed….

Sometimes the world described is not distinct from the present day at all. “The Red Bow” chillingly describes how mawkish emotional pressure can drum up mob violence as a small town turns psychotic following a child’s death. At the other extreme “Jon” tells the tale of teenage breakaways from a sealed- Brave New World-esque bubble environment, and is told in a stilted future-speak language.

At its most surreal, “Brad Carrigan, American” describes a cartoon sit-com of the future, one of whose characters becomes self-aware and has to be destroyed. Touches such as the raining of corpses bring it closer to the fairy-tale nature of Frightening, but with the macabre cranked up higher.
It’s a quality of Saunders’ writing that while the tone and style itself doesn’t usually alter too much; spare, droll, wry, and precise, it can not only describe a vast variety of worlds and situations, but convey and create a great array of moods within this language too.

Satirising is high on Saunders’ agenda, but his commitment to creating an authentic emotional atmosphere is higher. In “My Flamboyant Grandson”, the bewildered hero is desperate to bring his gay 7 year old grandson to one of the latter’s favourite musicals, and is in turn harassed by a weird byzantinne bureaucracy of officials with sinister technology seeking to punish him for not viewing enough adverts in the process. The snipes at bully-boy capitalist consumerism are enjoyable, but it’s the warm relationship at the story’s centre which is both its core and its most entertaining aspect, as is the intention.

In both the novella and short story collection Saunders manages to amuse, entertain, and shake out thought on a great variety of subjects, and does so in a subtle, sideways style which could so easily be annoying but isn’t. Its unobtrusive nature, its essential lightness of touch, makes it fall short of any claim on greatness, but on its own terms it succeeds, quite triumphantly so.

Charles Bukowski : Bukowski: Born Into This

Pedro Blas Gonzalez

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Charles Bukowski was a solitary man and a courageous writer. Without daddy’s money to deliver him into high places or the protective cloak of a godfather, Hank forged his way through the world with the sweat of his brow and the calluses on his hands.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that his readers can afford him is that of being a self-made man. Publishing houses, literary magazines – or otherwise – and academic circles are all rife with opportunists, an unlimited supply of self-promoters, bigots and moral lilliputians. These are all fine examples of the relative and selective relativism that defines the radicalism of late-modernity. Bukowski felt the wrath of all of these entities throughout his life. But he had talent, and the rest, as they say is history.

Bukowski’s story is one of genuine sentiment, determination and a stubborn will that refused to become objectified by the resistance that the world offers all true visionaries. He went at it alone. An underground, cult writer who did not readily attain popular acclaim until the last decade of his life, Bukoswki’s body of work is a testament to the working man – not the straw one that is prostituted as a “theoretical” entity – but rather one that like Eric Hoffer, actually worked for a living. He was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920.

When asked when he realized he was a writer, he answered: “Nobody ever realizes they’re a writer. They only think they’re a writer.” He began writing when he was thirteen years of age. He continues, “I just found a pencil and I started writing. And I filled this notebook full of words. This was the first time the mechanism exposed itself.”

Bukowski: Born Into This is a documentary that follows the trajectory of the writer’s life until his death in 1994. Directed by John Dullaghan, what we encounter in this film is an unadulterated and edgy look at the writer of Post Office, Women, Factotum, and Hot Water Music.

The film follows Bukowski through the 1940s as he traveled the country gathering life experiences, through his initial attempt at journalism in L.A. City College, his poetry readings at San Francisco’s City Lights Poets Theater, the women in his life and culminating with the final months of his life. We witness Bukowski reading a poem that touches any sentient person’s nerves: “It’s not the large things that send a man to a madhouse. Death, he is ready for, or, murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood. No. It’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to a madhouse…”

Whatever we come to think of the man, he readily acknowledges that the best compliment he can receive is that he was “a good duker.” Taking the exigencies of life in the chin, he never backed down from adversity. In the end, we are reminded that, “What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.” This is the true-to-life wisdom of a man who lived out a very difficult dream, and one who never came close to benefiting from a silver spoon.

The film takes the major events of Bukowski’s life and makes them bare. The viewer is treated to the story of his first published works in Harlequin Magazine, its editor, Barbara Fry later becoming his wife. We also witness the hard times, how he lived on one candy bar per day. We come upon Bukowski’s resolve never to quit even though he encountered rejection after rejection. Consider his wisdom as displayed in his poem Oh, Yes: “There are worse things than being alone but it often takes decades to realize this…and there’s nothing worse than too late.”

We also laugh along with Bukowski’s stubborn refusal to be anything but his own man. His struggles with the now well-known U.S. Post Office job that he took in 1952, his having to work evenings, and his will to write during the morning. Admirable too, is his relentless will – sending out poems daily and getting rejected – while he earned his living as a truck driver.

Bukowski was rich in worldly knowledge. Consider his well-adjusted, don’t-tell-me-bedtime-stories understanding evident in the following lines: “There is enough treachery, hatred, violence, absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day. And the best at murder are those who preach against it. And the best at hate are those who preach love. And the best at war – finally – are those who preach peace…”

Bukowski had very little patience for laziness and people who do not meet the difficulties and demands of life head on. He disliked hippies because of their bourgeois, pampered refusal to get their hands soiled by work. His upbringing during the depression had given him a sound appreciation of the toil that people who do not cut corners undergo throughout their lives. Bukowski suffered a great deal from the resistance offered him by naysayers. His Notes of a Dirty Old Man columns first appeared in a little magazine called Open City. When this folded in 1969, he continued his column in the L.A. Free Press.

Finally achieving critical and financial success in the last decade of his life – his major break coming at the hands of John Martin, publisher of Black Sparrow Press – we are privy to the life changes that the older writer underwent. No longer as tense and defensive as he once was, Bukowski now seems more introverted, the wisdom that he earned now being something that he kept to himself. At the end of the documentary we do not see the effects of his alcohol-induced profanity any longer, as that persona is slowly put to rest. In the end we watch him dealing with leukemia, which eventually took his life – an episode that his readers will easily recognize in the interplay that takes place between “lady death” and the protagonist in his last novel, Pulp.

Paul Neilan: Apathy and Other Small Victories

Jayne Margetts

Okay, so I listen to Thom Yorke, and enjoy reading books about people living with a gun pointed to their head. Call it entertainment, or living vicariously through others; apathy, black humour, a touch of the politically incorrect and make me laugh out loud, in these dark and here troubled times.

I remember with nostalgia digesting the contents of Chuck Palahniuk’s stomach in his debut novel Fight Club, and wondering why the hell he even bothered to rise in the morning. It was visceral and exciting to see the stirrings, of my own apathetic generation. They say it’s always easy to recognize one of your own, and it was, in the end.

Misguided beacons of hope, in oceans of relentless despair and revelation. Second-by-second bytes of surrealism, drip-fed to you through a plasma-coloured tube. Navel-gazing, in a nutshell. So now, we bomb the shit out of each other, devise ingenious ways of blowing up aircraft, with liquid explosives, paperclips and an iPod, or otherwise inhabit “hi-density Jpod clusters,” at the end of the world.

Three cheers for nihilism, and for making a profession out of not giving a fuck, when underneath we do, more than most. For desiring a cloak of pathos and invisibility and yet being cursed with the contradiction, of needing a public stage upon which to vent it all. I’m human, so shoot me. Riotously funny sometimes, it hurts.

Apathy And Other Small Victories, by Paul Neilan. Angst plus equal parts sublimated anger, life seen through the grime of a Greyhound bus window, disposable culture and disposable life…

“If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panoptican Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick…”

Shane is a regular ray of sunshine, one click away from voluntary euthanasia. He doesn’t inhabit space as much as make the odd guest appearance. There’s his sadistic, corporate-climbing shag buddy, who would have been better suited to Interrogations Officer at Guantanamo, and a deaf dental assistant who humiliates him at every turn {the fact she winds up dead, is no surprise}.

Shane makes fun of retarded people, more out of boredom than malice and puts the spunk back into corporate space. Temping has never been so much fun as it is, played out in a disabled toilet

“I began to develop a bathroom narcolepsy so that whenever I sat on a toilet I’d start nodding off, even if I wasn’t tired. I was Pavlov’s mongoloid third cousin from that other experiment. His name was Iggy. He died forgotten and alone”

And sex? Well, try this.

” And then there was some sex. Technically, at least. Mechanically speaking, it was sex. Really we were just naked and smacking into each other. We were like two dead fish being slapped together by an off duty clown, swinging us by our tails, both of us slippery and cold, our eyes open and glassy, looking away. That’s about as passionate as it was…”

The supporting cast are equally as reverent, with their lust for life. Dr Weinhardt, dentist, who suffers “episodes” after his head is slammed in a bus door, a landlord, whose tenants service his wife, in lieu of rent, and a neighbour who may, or may not be having improper relations with that guinea pig… We’ve met them all before in different guises, when the soulless shall walk the earth, I think is how it goes….

So how do you define apathy and other small victories in a cubicle world?

With comedy, satire and everything in its right place. Neal Pollock (Never Mind The Pollocks) crowned Neilan heir apparent to Camus and Bukowski’s throne, all existential-ham-on-rye, and really, it’s fitting.

Naked ambition through a looking glass darkly, from a deeply cynical and troubled mind.

“Buy this for anyone you know who cries in the shower, who drinks in the morning, whose life only has meaning when they’re asleep and dreaming that they’re somebody else. They will find comfort here. And if they don’t, it’s not your fault. They’ve always been this way. Some people are just all banged up. Good for you for trying to help. You’re a great person. Give yourself a hand.” {as related to Matt Borondy, Identity Theory}.

The humour’s crisper than a winter’s day on Planet Global Warming, and there’s no background “credentials” to speak of, either, well, if you discount scribbling in journals and fine- tuning the delicate art of talking to oneself… Neilan remains a sort of virginal, blank page, an enigma, dredged from the basement of Insurance Company hell, and soaked in the manna of there’s-definitely-something-in-Portland’s water supply. Three cheers for Palahniuk, Sampsell and the next in line….

Paul Neilan.

Elementarteilchen – the film of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised :

James McConalogue

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This film is terrifyingly humbling, sexually polite and bravely mundane in its philosophical exploration of the fragility pervading human love. It is packed with the warmth of the everyday trials of love and passion.

This film, directed by Oskar Roehler, follows Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Les particules élementaires (Atomised), published in 1998 – a provocative erotic novel which won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2002.

As with Houellebecq’s philosophical novel, Roehler’s film pursues the personal histories of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, through their experiences of love and religion. It presents a cross-section of their lives from the vantage point of their respective mid-life sufferings. Given the nature of the modern atomized society, the film questions the meaningless pursuit of love for Michel and Bruno. After their birth to a deranged, cult-dwelling, sexually liberated mother – typifying the ideals of the hip 1960s lifestyle – Bruno becomes a libertine, Michel a molecular biologist. Through tragically amusing life episodes of masturbatory fantasies, failed sexual endeavours, inevitably disastrous relationships, joining spiritual-sexual cults, scientific rationalism and the irrationality of cultish personalities, the novel and film have both philosophically re-evaluated the chaos and irrationality inherent to the contemporary world.

Before watching the film, I heard an interview on Radio 4 in which Tim Lott optimistically exposed how the film diverged from the book, depicting “the triumph of love”, being “good natured”, “lacking in shock value” and not to mention “the end of the book was rewritten.” His message seemed to be: it deviates from the book but not necessarily for the worse. Having now watched the film, I tend to agree. The film diverges from the book to produce a distinct and humbling tale on the fragile nature of human love.

When I first heard the book was in preparation for a film-production, I despaired. It was to be directed by Oskar Roehler. How could it be possible? The methodology of the novel switches between the totalizing and fragmentary histories of Bruno and Michel exploring their tenuous links with social and sexual realities. How can this be achieved in film? I recall that Amores Perros (2000) beautifully delivered this fragmentary effect in a Mexico City tripartite story climaxing and coming together in a horrific car accident – but this original script was intended for cinema. I was sure that the adaptation of Houellebecq’s novel would prove to be difficult, possibly disastrous. The director knew of the difficulties in his task. “We had to figure out what the characters were going through without giving the whole thing too negative a flavour. If you are going to make a film you should at least try to portray some passion for life”, said Roehler to Picturehouse cinemas.

After walking from the cinema, still in rapture with the film, I began to think of Tim Lott’s ruminations expressed earlier on Radio 4. He believed that the film had almost been “Hollywoodized.” I can agree with him to some extent. The tale of sexual misadventure was portrayed as the ageing fragility of human love, the cold and grave overtones of Houellebecq’s characters are replaced with the pop classics such as Don McLean’s American Pie, the music of T-Rex and the Rolling Stones. Then, the original gothic cynical comedy in the book transform into light-hearted jaunts at Bruno’s Neanderthal-libertine outlook … However, these are not criticisms. They are a cause for celebration since this peculiar tale of two half-brothers, offering a cross-section of their mid-life love crises, is an amazing and refreshing insight into the chaotic, the humanity, the passion, the love and the death inherent to everyday human experience.

The storyline clearly attaches itself to a doctrine of Freudian conservatism. Possibly enlightened by Freudian insights that childhood development in the first five years of life later determine our subsequent experiences and that our adulthood neuroses are traceable to stages of early psychosexual development, much of this film is obsessed with that skeletal plotline. In real life, both Houellebecq and Roehler were rejected by their mother’s and placed within the care of their grandmother’s so an important place has been given in the film to how important the nuclear family really is, and the disastrous consequences that ensue after its fragmentation. It is deeply “conservative” as such since it imagines that the original attachments of Bruno and Michel were distorted in childhood, leading them to a fate of failed sexual endeavours and an isolated outlook. The breakdown of the nuclear family inevitably led to their disastrous sexual relationships and future lives. In the film, this is portrayed in several scenes, particularly as the drunk son, Bruno curses his dying mother on her deathbed for what he witnesses in childhood as her sluttish hippy abandonment of the family.

The entire plot – from start to finish – is caught up in a Sophoclean fatalist tragedy in which Michel conquers the inheritance of scientific rationalism. (Since Michel works as a molecular biologist in both German and Irish scientific laboratories during the film, the majority of the film appears in spoken German with English subtitles but on location in Ireland, he is filmed speaking English). Through his calculations at a biological laboratory in Ireland, Michel proves the possibility and practice of artificial reproduction which will lead to the progress of the human species. The film’s tendency to dwell on the fatalism of the characters does not suppress the humanity or chaotic indeterminateness of their lives. As with John Steinbeck’s novels, through introducing the character’s to unbearable social ruts in which to live, it is always clear that something has to give or break down – including Bruno’s sanity or Michel’s continued virginity. As a trial on the fragile conditions of everyday human love and the dilapidated standpoint of rational man, I would recommend this film to those with a bent for the bizarre.

Michel Houellebecq: The Possibility Of An Island

James McConalogue

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“The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear.” – M. Houellebecq, The Guardian, 2005.

As Houellebecq continues his literary voyage through the irrationality, hedonism, and chaos of the modern world, his most recent book questions the possibility of human love in the not so distant future, providing that refreshing je ne sais quoi that I have been longing for among many contemporary literary talents.

In a nutshell, The Possibility of an Island reveals the story of a stand-up comedian, Daniel, and the personal narratives of his cloned descendants thousands of years after the end of mankind as we know it. It examines the fragmented histories of the clones, projecting and reversing its subject through history.

After thousands of years of earthquakes, disaster and war, the earth has become a wasteland and the human race a savage pack of animals. Thus, the modern world has, in the full light of modernity and reason, fallen into barbarism.

The cloned descendants of Daniel exist in a safe compound with the luxuries of preservation, social reproduction, cloning and constant modification of human beings. From Daniel1 through to Daniel24, and Daniel25, each begins to speculate on what it means to be and live like Daniel (the original human) as perceived through his diaries. In particular, the focus is on what Daniel and previous clones mean by ‘love’ and ‘sex’ in their diaries and recollections. Even though Daniel, the original human, struggled with the notion of love, he knew of it. His futuristic clones eventually have no grasp of love as they live sedate in their preserved environments.

It often approaches a novelistic critical theory as each successive Daniel clone looks upon the previous Daniel’s in a critical and reflective way to realise the joys and limits of these pre-existences. Through the perceived experience of eternity and immortality (the promise of cloning), the subsequent potentiality of love, or believing in such a concept, meets its demise.

The title itself is never fully elucidated upon. However, through Houellebecq’s esoteric poetry clues, the reader is led to understand that the “possibility of an island” equates with the “possibility of love”. In one of the final chapters, a modified neo-human reflects on a poem written by Daniel (a human), the final verse of which is:

And love, where all is easy,
Where all is given in the instant;
There exists in the midst of time
The possibility of an island.

Concerned, as the entire book is, with the possibility of love, it charts the reflections of Daniel’s descendants through various “neohuman” communities in an attempt to comprehend love in its debt to fleeting snippets and moments in history. He typically paints relationships as they come and go with temporary and varied reflections – in his typically humorous-cynical style.

The tales of sexual perversion, including his obsession with genitalia, are as transparent as in his previous novels – particularly Platform, Atomised, and Lanzarote. This is no bad thing. Houellebecq clearly has a talent for putting to paper the short-lived nature of sexual relationships. In fact, the entire book is clearly a testament to the possibility of love in light of the fragmentary, chaotic and tragic condition of history. Of course, not everyone will enjoy his descriptions of sexual acts – you name it, oral sex through to orgiastic fondling – and it is best to know your friend well if you are about to buy it as a gift for them.

A redeeming feature of Houellebecq’s sexual odyssey – as with the journey through Bangkok’s sexual tourist culture in his earlier book, Platform – is that the events are frequently related to ageing. This gives his experiences a touch of humility. The events are not told through the eyes of pure and perfect sexual barbarism and savage passion. Houellebecq’s text is a perfect reminder that glorious sex never lasts and something always goes wrong (especially as Daniel grows older). This, I felt, was related to a larger theme in the book – the capacity for future generations to experience their limitations through the study of previous ones. After all, it is only through the examination of Daniel’s history that Daniel1, Daniel24 and Daniel25 begin to struggle with the idea of love in their increasingly loveless semi-consciousness.

Following Houellebecq’s court case in France in 2002, subsequent to the author being tried (but then acquitted) for inciting racial hatred, one would expect an equalled level of anti-religious sentiment. There is, but it is well directed through the telling of a history of a new religion throughout the book. This is achieved by reporting Daniel1’s commitment to Elohimitism. It represents the largest fraudulent commercial religious dogma the world has ever seen and in principle, it stands for nothing. It sweeps across the globe quicker and more forceful than Christianity. Its promise is eternity. It holds that each person’s DNA will be frozen after death and each will be reborn when suitably developed technologies of the future rise. If you sense overtones of George Orwell here, be advised, it smacks of Orwellian critique – Houellebecq exchanges the political dogma of “Big Brother” for the omnipresent religious dogma in the neohumans, the “Supreme Sister”.

Houellebecq is concerned primarily with chaos. The writings of Houellebecq – including his latest novel – essentially assume a world of chaos. The conscious perceptions of characters relate to the impeding doom and chaos of an uncontrollable social world. In this chaos, his tragic characters exist within a culture of liberal individuality but are viewed as debauched rats offered the consolation of short-term love in modernity. In essence, people are a random collision of elementary particles formed loosely in space and time, heading towards an ever-increasing chaotic world.

There is such a feeling in his own philosophy that the liberal state, a makeshift society, ideology and individual have achieved such a grand place in the modern world, that from their very birth they have transcended the things that made them – that is to say, they become the essence of an uncontrollable dominating chaos encroaching over his fatigued, battered and sick-of-life characters.

The picture of chaos is the natural sense in which irrational man deals with the space in which he is chaotically thrown yet depressingly determined. Houellebecq sticks fast to the notion of determinism – especially with regards to age – in spite of his theory of human beings acting as elementary particles floating in the irrational world of religious schisms and ideologies. All religion is undermined in his novels, portrayed as the workings of irrational man. Rational philosophy, thus, provides false hopes. The philosophy of the “irrationalists” on the other hand – with citations of Nietzsche on almost every other page – is the centrepiece of Houellebecq’s philosophy. Indeed, it should be: if there is no sense of irrationality, criticism, stupidity, ignorance or even reaction towards rationalised ideologues in the modern world, then the chances of exposing the true humanity of a character is very slim.

With its peculiar taste for irrationalism and chaos, I would recommend this book to anyone searching for that missing something in modern fiction.

Alexei Sayle: The Weeping Women Hotel

Ben Granger

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It is wise to greet novels by comedians with trepidation. It should go without saying the qualities needed for performing comedy are not necessarily the same ones needed of a novelist, but say it I must, because it doesn’t seem to stop most of the jokers trying. The results aren’t always awful, but the general record is patchy at best.

The most successful either go in for an entirely different frame of reference and content from their comedy (Sean Hughes’ It’s What He Would’ve Wanted is a pretty good example of this), or else effectively give up any pretensions to being a novel whatsoever and just accept that they are an extended offshoot of the artist’s routine (such as Harry Hill’s enjoyably demented Flight From Deathrow.)

All too often they aim between these two goals and end up in mediocre no-man’s land. One stray example is Adrian Edmondson’s The Gobbler, a particularly drab effort I read some time back. The bewilderingly massive-selling output of Ben Elton is another. Don’t get me started. Read Gary Marshall’s old review of Blast From The Past on Spike – ‘hear hear’ is all I’ll add.

It shouldn’t surprise that Alexei Sayle’s forays into fiction have been very different from the general offerings of the Praetorian “alternative” old-guard of 80s comedy from which he sprang. The hectoring Scouse of this intellectual yob was always different. It’s a cliché, but a cliché with much truth that the 80s comic elite were essentially Oxbridge Footlights liberals, and in essence establishment to their cheeky white teeth. Sayle was a very different animal, more acerbic and acidic. His working-class Jewish Communist background made him simultaneously more intellectual and more down to earth – he never seemed at home with the others. Even when he was on The Young Ones, his bits seemed tacked on, as indeed they were, scripted by him, featuring him.

As befits a more vicious style, he always seemed to have the best killer one-liners to my mind too. Favourites included

“I used to help write a listings paper called What’s On In Stoke Newington. It was a big piece of paper with ‘FUCK ALL’ written on it”

“There’s only one thing worse than British films -and that’s germ warfare”

“Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a wanker”

and my all time fave:

“They laughed at Arthur Askey – and history has proven them wrong.”

Sayle has been a full time writer rather than comedian for over five years now. This is his second novel in that time, after two books of short stories. It’s time for him to be judged on his merits in that field.

The book centres on Harriet, an overweight, underconfident, nervous and dissatisfied clothing repair specialist; her thinner and haughtier control-freak sister Helen, and Helen’s space-headed husband Toby, all of whom dwell around the latte swilling dinner party set of North London. As Helen and Toby live their successful existence acting as representatives for the charity Warbird -which rescues rare birds from areas of genocidal conflict – Harriet hangs around them like an over-sized spare-part, dispirited and despondent. During one of her numerous and fruitless visits to the gym Harriet meets a strange young fitness instructor, who comes to induct her into a strange and secret martial art, which results in dramatic transformative effects upon her life.

To reveal much more of the plot would be to spoil the surprises as they appear. What is safe to say is that as the events of the novel unfold, a picture of modern day suburban London is lividly and vividly painted, its transitional intransigence captured in spiky vignettes. The inner-life of the frustrated characters at the centre of this atomised zone are fleshed out with a sense of detail sharpened against the absurd yet with a sparse melancholy at their centre.

Taken from his previous life writing absurdist sketches, but redirected rather than just rehashed, is the setting of the mundane and the exotic side by side, philosophical quandaries tailing off into black-humoured social observations.

Sayle has said his literary hero is Evelyn Waugh, and there’s certainly a strong streak of the mentor’s misanthropy here. A plague-on-both-houses mentality ladles out scorn to both the professional bores at its centre and the lumpen-English and desperate immigrants that surround them. The bile-filled persona of old is intact, and blasting its spray over the whole sorry scene of the metropolis.

Amongst the perceived rubbish aspects of modern life that get it in the neck are town planners, dinner-parties, method actors, pseudo-spiritualists, sanctimonious and ineffectual charities, “gastro-pubs”, wannabe gangsters, misguided community carnivals…But a guilty joy from the book is when the narrator is having a vicious go at targets that you really think don’t deserve it.

In a droll stab at the middle-class Left’s attachment to all things Latin American, Sayle manages a terrific conceit with the twisted character of Helen. She fixates on a famous Hispanic puppeteer who is persecuted by a Pinochet style dictatorship in her childhood (his puppets themselves facing the firing squad in an act of ritual humiliation), and thereafter this figure becomes her “conscience”throughout her life, a representative of all that is good and righteous in the world who benignly guides her forward. What should be an admirable quirk becomes her most insufferable characteristic, as the wise, humane revolutionary she conjures up merely parrots her own self-justification. The actual, aging article himself turns up in her life, a jaded, lecherous, cynical, parody of her expectations, destroying her self-image. A typically nice and nasty touch.

There is light and shade amidst the black barbs to bring the scenes to life, and for all the vitriol there is adept characterisation at work too. Exaggerated in some respects they may be, but the characters never sink into caricatures. Sayle is not one of the great prose stylists, but he is skilful in describing his characters’ inner-lives, in unearthing the defining absences that make up the essence of a psyche. The very sparseness of style here brings out the blank desperation well.

The descriptions of Harriet’s pathetic desire not to offend, the strange mental tics of Toby, and the desperate social-grandstanding of Helen are shown to perfection. Sayle is good at grasping out the littler and grimier things that eventually make up what we are. As one example, the sinister gym teacher ponders on how the false expectations of others have distorted his sense of self:

It was kind of stupid that Harriet thought anybody at Muscle Bitch, least of all him, held any qualifications, unless you thought looking nice in a tight polo shirt counted as a qualification. ……The bright clear blue of his eyes, the sharp, straight line of his nose, the firm cut of his mouth, made him look really, really, really intelligent. Patrick thought, turning his head from side to side in the pitiless light of the shaving mirror, that if he didn’t know the ordinariness of his own mind he’d ask himself for advice on all sorts of difficult and baffling matters.

Snide digs abound, but the author is not just digging up dirt, but getting his fingernails under real people’s lives, and showing the soiled underneath. Some things never change: Sayle tangentially knocks from one topic to the next, questions go unanswered. But a story is told here and told very well, amusing constantly, and leaving a cold feeling of truth behind.

Alexei Sayle has passed the test and managed that rare transition from decent comedian to proper, good, novelist, as opposed to a passable one. Don’t say it too loud though. We don’t want to encourage more of them.

Jack London: The Iron Heel

When it comes to accolades for the most lauded prophetic dystopian satirical novels of the early twentieth century, there’s no doubting which are the big two. The hyper-Stalinist all-surveillance paranoid nightmare of Orwell’s 1984, and the distorted DNA-as-play-doh playground of Huxley’s Brave New World. Occasionally Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We gets a look-in as a curio, a minor precursor to both, appearing as it did in 1920, long before that of Huxley (1932) and Orwell (1949). There is one however which always gets passed over, despite being written before both the others, way back in 1908, and overlooked, despite being written by one of the most widely revered American authors of all time. That novel is Jack London’s The Iron Heel. In and out of print for decades, The Iron Heel has finally been republished in the last couple of months by Penguin UK.

Orwell’s warning about the grotesque parody of socialism offered by Stalin and his acolytes which plagued the twentieth century, and the grim auger from Huxley on the eugenic, anaesthetic aesthetic threatened by scientific consumerism which stalked both this century and the last have been analysed, critiqued and celebrated to death. There is, however, a third more straightforward great evil of the modern age. The rich crushing the poor, the propensity of the forces of capital – when vicious push comes to deadly shove – to react with the most monstrous and tyrannical violence against the organised labour which seeks to grab more of its fair share from them. The evil that led to the bloody regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and their tin-pot descendants. This was prophesised just as uncannily in Jack London’s long-neglected novel.

The action of the book begins in the years immediately following when it was written. Labour relations in the USA are plunging as rapidly as the economy, while the thuggery of big-business against the unions increases in turn. Goons break limbs at picket-lines as families go hungry. No fiction there. Poverty spreads apace, and slower but just as surely does the Socialist movement of America (strange fantasy it may seem now, but as London wrote, the US Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs, was growing rapidly, at one point gathering over a million votes even as its leaders were being jailed.)

The book is written as the memoir of Avis Everhard, wife of labour leader Ernest Everhard who comes to lead the workers’ insurrection. Avis is the daughter of a prominent US academic, and begins her account as the pampered intellectual circles her family frequents find it a delightful parlour game to invite Ernest for debates, much as panel games will have the token revolutionary on our TV screens today.

Ernest, long-suffering, self-taught and assured union man has steely determination and razor intellect. He rips their arguments to pieces, and the smug smiles subside. In the final confrontation he manages to get one more forthright and honest plutocrat to admit the truth and discard the flannel. In the end their power over the worker has no moral basis and must be set in steel –

“In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched.”

“It is the only answer that can be given” replies Ernest.

“Power. We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for right, for justice, for humanity can ever touch you. Your hearts are as hard as your heels as they tread upon the faces of the poor.”

Avis is entranced not only by the power of Ernest’s magnetic charisma, but also by the unpleasant but unassailable truth of the frightful poverty which, as he points out, props up her own classes wealth. She begins to notice the wretched poverty, only streets from where she lives. The scenes of misery are jaggedly drawn, once again, without any need for exaggeration from what London saw daily with his own eyes.

We see both the Everhards and the wider union movement as a whle as they’re wrenched to snapping point. As America’s oligarchs realise the conflagration to come is a fight to the death, they stealthily cast off the flimsy pretences of democracy. They organise into the great Dictatorship of the Iron Heel. The bloodiest repression seen in humanity’s history ensues.

The novel’s narrative skilfully shifts focus from the small scale to the large and back again, the snapshots of poverty signifying the minutiae of the bigger vista. We see as the dictatorship takes hold it does so steadily, creepily. The insidious little signs -the silencing and ostracising of academics, the blackening of the names of campaigners, – are shown as Avis’s father is hounded from his job, and a reformed priest the family know is hounded into a mental institution. The icy paranoia of the witch hunts is evoked chillingly. With the thug gangs bought from the criminal caste by the ruling-class to pummel dissent – the wonderfully named "Black Hundreds" – the paramilitary paratroops of future Fascism are equally well predicted. He even got the colour right.

The story continues to centre around the Everhards as the years go on and the Iron Heel kicks in. Congress is suspended, dissenters are machine-gunned. Scenes of conflict on a gargantuan scale ensue, interspersed with the individual intrigues within. The desperate hopes of the revolutionaries are evocatively told in between the details of their struggle. There is indeed no compromise up until an apocalyptic finale.

As prediction, satire and warning, The Iron Heel is in many ways more prophetic than either 1984 or Brave New World. Orwell merely exaggerated, exemplified and hypertrophied elements of a Stalinist dictatorship which had existed for decades, while the ruminations of Huxley set still further in the future remain something of an allegory. London was describing with exactitude a streamlined mechanised totalitarian dictatorship, backed by big business, specifically designed to crush the labour movement, when no-one dreamt of such a thing, and which would not actually be in place for decades.

Of course his vision was vastly off the mark in many ways. America managed to crush a far weaker socialist presence by far less draconian methods, and real fascism arrived on another continent. But then we’re not currently living in a post-nuclear dictatorship with cameras in our living rooms, and no-one’s being bred in tanks yet either. He got a lot more right than he got wrong.

In The Iron Heel London laid bare the whole machinery of a mechanised dictatorship, of the class-based mass murder to come, and did so during a pastoral, pre-First World War era when the worst nightmare most Western audiences could imagine was a cavalry-charge. The novel was ridiculed at the time in popular reviews because of its bloodthirsty “sensationalism”. Even London himself may have intended the grotesque blood-bath he portrays in the novel’s later chapters -the full-scale warfare between the haves and the nots – as more hyperbolic warning than prophecy. These scenes do indeed curdle the blood and wrench the gut, and may have seemed like fantastical pornography at the time. But they’re no Somme, and they’re no Auschwitz. The grim reality dwarfed even his savage imagination.

In other ways, it is not such a mystery why The Iron Heel has been passed over in favour of its rivals in dystopia. As a novel of ideas, as an imagining of intricacies into the minute grim possibility of the future it does not live up to them. There is no innovation to excite the troubled imagination as much as the telescreens, doublethink, Room 101 and Big Brother of Orwell, and the mandatory happiness, Soma and biological caste-system in Huxley. Being more narrowly political than either it does not lend itself to flights of speculative futuristic fancy. No-one is likely to base a reality TV show on one of its observations.

Orwell himself noted that there was a strong streak of the Social Darwinist in London, a sadistic revelling in the cult of violence and the survival of the fittest. Given that London was sadly prone to the most vulgar white supremacist racism too, his failings could well have turned him to Fascism were it not for the strength of his commitment to the working-class cause. Race itself is almost absent from the novel altogether, a good thing given London’s proclivities, though an obvious and glaring blind-spot in a novel about an American class-war. A curious fear of “the mob” when pushed to its limits is in evidence too, the auto-snobbery against workers who don’t follow your cause:- the perennial flaw of theoretical socialists.

Far more importantly though as a novel, by the test of plot, persona and prose it is not up with London’s best either, and in that sense too falls well short of Orwell or Huxley. The cult of personality London indulges in sadly undermines the characterisation of the hero Ernest Everard, who is ever-so-slightly too much of the Nietchzhean superman to convince, even given his occasional endearing awkwardness. He veers too close to an icon in a Soviet mural. There is a slightly stilted characterisation in other main players too. In the grand epic of human destiny being described in book less than 300 pages long, people come can close to being ciphers, including the narrator Avis herself.

There is no doubt that as a convincing and holistic piece of writing, The Call of The Wild, that thrilling adventure story which also laid bare London’s Nietzchean sadism, is a better read, more deserving of its ubiquitous place on the world’s school curricula, and a better example of London’s gift with the written word.

The Iron Heel is a great deal more than an insightful piece of propaganda however. London always writes with a stern poetic vividness. Both stark and lurid, passage after passage in the book grasp so hard it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The narrative is charged with honest emotional energy, and it convinces as a blood-curdling thriller too. This is a short novel dealing with an enormous scope of ideas and events, essentially attempting to dramatise a Marxian analysis of US society. Yet there is never a dull moment. London has the gift of investing the forays into theory with the same excitement as exists in the scenes of bloody conflict.

The “footnotes from the future” device tagged at the end of each chapter (in which we discover Avis’ memoirs have supposedly been discovered in a future socialist age) give the novel a lighter satirical edge too, off-setting the book’s occasional slouch into portentousness.

And while individual characters may stray near caricature, in the bigger picture London possesses a rather more nuanced insight into the psychology of those at both ends of the class conflict. The workers are the heroes of course, but London does not shirk on the corrupting and brutalising effect revolution inevitably has on its agents. And, even more importantly, he recognises that the ruling-class are not just crooks and thugs. They’d be a lot easier to deal with if they were.

They, as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. It was their belief that if they weakened, the great beast would engulf them, and everything of beauty and wonder and joy and good in its cavernous and slime-dripping maw. Without them, anarchy would reign, and humanity would drop backward into the primitive night out of which it had so painfully emerged…….This was the beast to be stamped on, and the highest duty of the aristocrat was to stamp upon it. In short, they alone, by unremitting toil and sacrifice, stood between weak humanity and the all-devouring beast; and they believed it, firmly believed it.

Many is the Fascist and war criminal utterly convinced they have humanity’s interest at heart but scarcely has it been so well put.

The Iron Heel then is a flawed but fascinating read, undeniably entertaining, and containing some of the most deadly insights of the last century. By one of America’s best known writers too. This book is a landmark, and has been ignored for too long. Here’s hoping its republication by Penguin will see it gain the wider readership it deserves.

Niall Griffiths: Wreckage: Sifting The Wreckage

Kenn Taylor

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Liverpool, often noted as a city of poets, songwriters and playwrights, has produced surprisingly few novelists. One man too go against the grain of this is Niall Griffiths. His intense and often brutally dark novels, punctuated with an absurdist sense of humour, tell the story of those existing, often forgotten, on the edge of society. They’re written mostly in dialect, and are set against the mixed background of the Welsh landscape and Liverpool cityscape – in all their glory and all their horror. Despite having written five novels, selling thousands of books and having had his work translated into five languages, he has received little recognition in the city he was born – perhaps because of a mixture of the controversial subject matter of his books and the fact that he now calls Aberystwyth his main home. He returns to the city often, however, and imminently is back in Liverpool for a significant period, having been commissioned to write a non-fiction book about the ‘real Liverpool’.

I visited Niall in Aberystwth for a chat and a few drinks in the pubs of the seaside town.

Griffiths was born in Wendle Street Toxteth, later living in Netherly. He began writing “basically since I had the motor function to pick up a pen”. He says he was influenced early on by the oral tradition passed down from his Welsh speaking grandparents: “There were not many books in the house but it was full of stories.” In a household lacking literature his early creations were often of a strange fantasy nature involving, amongst other things, giant crabs. “Where it came from I have no idea, it’s just always been there and it needs to come out, if I don’t write for a day I feel like an absolute wretch, it’s almost like kind of having to justify my existence.” An early, and profound, influence was Welsh writer Ron Berry: “I think when I started to read books they gave me a way of dealing with a terribly confusing world. When you read, say, for an hour, you’re away from the world -but you’re also very much here, especially when you are reading very worthwhile literature because it should be telling you about the world outside your window.”

At the age of twelve his family emigrated to Australia, one of the ‘£10 Poms’ that left the UK in their thousands; but due to the homesickness of his mum they returned 3 years later. With little money – having had to pay a full return fare – they were helped to find a house to rent by a relative in West Kirkby, Wirral, where Niall attended the local Grammar School. Often singled out and treated differently by some teachers because of his Liverpool background. He left school at 15 and went through a series of menial jobs including cleaning muck spreaders. Recalling: “I did a bit of work in any kind of job and all that taught me was I didn’t’t want to do any kind of proper job, that’s one of the reasons I returned to study” He studied for A-Levels in Birkenhead, Later moving back to Liverpool, living in Hope Street in the city centre and various other spots. “I was just bumming around the city till I was twenty-two and left to study, I’ve traveled around Britain ever since, I’ve always come back though and it always feels like home like.”

He finally settled in Aberystwyth, returning to his Welsh roots. He first fell in love with the Wales when as a teenager he was sent Snowdonia on an outward bound course by a judge after a series of petty crimes. This much maligned policy actually seems to have had the desired effect on Niall: “It showed me how silly I had been and it gave me a creative outlet for my energies.” And it instilled a love in him which remains to this day: “I love climbing – well, walking up. On top of a mountain is such an amazing place to be; it’s almost like being close to God in a way, especially if you are on your own. Incredible. That said it’s fucking brutal as well, nature, birds of prey, full of death. Living in the country isn’t very nice. You leave your house and walk down to the shops and it’s all very pretty looking around but you look down and there is an animal torn apart, I wanted to capture that side of nature in my books too.”

He originally moved to Aberystwyth to study for a Phd. Having to work as a building labourer to support himself, he became annoyed at wealthier students entirely supported by their families – yet less interested than he was – and Griffiths drifted away from his course into a world of week-long parties and binges on drink and drugs. It was then he began to write what would become his first novel, Grits. Published in 2000, it was a book about the flotsam and jetsam of the UK washing up at the end of the railway line in Aberystwyth, trying to escape their problems but only taking them with them. It was well received both critically and commercially: “I got all kinds of people at my readings from people in cravats to people with facial tattoos”.

His next book, the provocatively-titled Sheepshagger, dealt with its disturbed Welsh anti-hero Ianto’s struggle to deal with his identity after his family home is bought by incomers-with murderous consequences. Perhaps his most ‘Welsh’ book, this one was ironically written – for the most part – whilst he stayed in his girlfriend’s flat on the edge of Toxteth. His last three books have either been set in Liverpool or covered characters that, like Niall and many others, have made the journey between the city and Wales. Kelly + Victor is an intense tale of the extremes of love and life in Liverpool at the turn of the millennium, whilst Stump and his latest Wreckage dealt with a wide cast of characters living and dying at the lower end of society’s ladder in both the city and the countryside. .. Griffiths is currently working on two non-fiction books. One of these deals with the ‘£10 Poms’ system of Aussie immigration that he and his family went through, and the other – about ‘the real Liverpool’ – is published by an independent Welsh press for whom he wrote of ‘the real Aberystwyth’. Because of this he is planning to move back to the city for a period of time this year to get to know the city once more and look at the massive changes that are currently taking place. He says: “Writing a book about the real Aberystwyth was one thing – it’s a town of 20,000 people – but with Liverpool where the fuck do you start?”

There are many links between Liverpool and Wales, an issue examined extensively in his novel, Wreckage. “I’ve started to explore those connections. Liverpool has always been called ‘the capital of North Wales’. For a lot of people there Cardiff is a foreign city, it was Liverpool that was their city”. In the light of the Capital Of Culture win, Liverpool bid to host some of the events of the national Eisteddfod, being one of the few places the festival has taken place in outside of Wales in the past. But this was met with fierce opposition by some. “I think that is ignoring the Welsh heritage in the city and also the Welsh influence on the way the city is today. You did have one of what they call the arch druids coming on the local news going ‘No it’s a Saesneg city’ which to me is just fucking bigoted.”

And the Capital of Culture win? “Well, it’s a double-edged sword isn’t it? It will bring money into the city but only if it will make money back for those who invest.” He recalls a conversation with the Glaswegian writer James Kelman about that city’s win of 1990: “He said it brought in a load of money but since then the social problems in the city have only got worse because the so-called scummy people got pushed out to the estates which never got cleaned up.” “Culture of course is not just art galleries and restaurants, it’s also graffiti and terrace chants and a lot of people forget the grassroots bands, independent publishing presses and everything. They want to focus on culture that is acceptable and saleable, the kind of stuff they talk about on the fucking Late Review”. But it’s not all bad: “I don’t think it will make this kind of hidden culture die down though. It should become stronger to react against it. You just want this sort of stuff to be recognised sometimes you know, but we would be foolish to expect anything more from this sort of scheme.”

Niall has been noted and praised for writing against the perceived wisdom that a pared down, economical writing style is best. He instead mixes the dialogue of different dialects with classical techniques and often highly-charged, poetic prose. “In terms of dialect, and this is something that I have got from the Welsh, is that their politics and identity is all bound up in their voice, in the Welsh language and accent. So I have kinda taken that and looked at all the politics bound up in language and how you speak. In terms of using classical devices I want to cite the stories of local, often poor people, voices that are often not heard. I wanted to give it an epic quality, and one way of doing that is to look back at epic writing.”

I ask if by portraying in his novels life at the lower end of society, he is trying to highlight social problems. “Yeah definitely – both in Liverpool and here as well. For a small town it has a big drink problem, drug problem, homeless problem. It’s often forgotten that these kind of problems don’t just exist in cities. Aberystwyth has all the problems of a city, but also the different the different areas and cultures that make cities interesting places to live.”

His characters often seem to be searching, desiring and fighting for something that they can never quite grasp. Why is that? “I think we live in extreme times, certainly extreme psychological times. People are absolutely aching for things which are not there, for some kind of spiritual fulfilment.If society does not offer any outlet for that, then it will come out in violence, it will come out in any form of extreme experience. So that’s partly it, but I suppose in another more powerful way people are just yearning for some sort of recognition.” I ask him if this is why he, like his characters, has spent so much time travelling: “If you have kind of artistic ideas that is often linked with dissatisfaction and you can think that it is because of where you are that you are dissatisfied and want to move out though that is often misguided. When you reach it it’s never there of course but it’s the journey that counts, that’s how you find yourself.”

In addition to the ‘real Liverpool’ and ‘£10 Poms’ books Niall is working on a series of short stories, a novella and is planning his next novel. A busy man, he must have favorite moments in his work he’s proud of regardless? “Grits is very personal so in some way that’s my favourite; it terms of pure structure, Kelly + Victor. I like Stump too, and Wreckage – that its so barley controlled” He laughs. “That’s all my fuckin’ books isn’t it?” “In terms of favourites I suppose I hope I’m never happy, never write a master piece and keep writing. If I did I think I would probably wither away and die.”

Wreckage by Niall Griffiths is available in Jonathan Cape paperback for £6.99

Flipron: “Fancy Blues and Rustique Novelties”

Released in 2004, this one’s a campy, theatrical pot of alt-noir French café wallpaper and off-Broadway Rocky Horror enunciated in the Cribs-like accent of common English swine. There’s a Dresden Dolls influence at work, which could have gone without saying given the copycat environs of today’s major-label-lottery alt scene, but there are sufficient other signs of life – dingy piano, baseball-park Hammond and accordion layers combine with Wheatus guitars and Yellow Submarine tomfoolery to drum up in-your-face Cirque de Dementia odes to drinking and how badly they detest their motherland. Order at Tower Records

Suhayl Saadi: Psychoraag

Nick Mitchell

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NM: First of all, congratulations on Psychoraag, a wonderfully ambitious and enjoyable novel. What was your inspiration for telling the story of Zaf?

SS: Thanks very much, Nick. It’s great to be talking with you. The inspiration for writing Psychoraag primarily was music and song, both in the sense of songs and in the sense of the musics of people’s lives/ life stories, etc. In this respect, the author is a kind of griot and shaman, combined. Also, a feeling for of history and place – Glasgow/ Scotland and Pakistan/ India – something I’ve wanted to write about in full-length fictional form for a long time. Plus, states of altered consciousness, overlappings of the self, this kind of thing. An efflorescence of liminality.

NM: To my mind, this is the first significant literary expression of Scottish-Asian culture. Did you find the role of ‘trailblazer’ especially challenging, or was this of little consequence to you in the writing process?

SS: Psychoraag was the first ‘Scottish Asian’ novel. However, it wasn’t my first novel. In the early 1990s, I had tried to write a novel around some kind of ‘Scots Asian’ nexus, but I didn’t have the craft then to be able to do that. I became interested in other areas and wrote around those for a while and honed my craft. Then, in 1995-96, I wrote The Snake under the pseudonym, ‘Melanie Desmoulins’. ‘Melanie’ means ‘black’ and Desmoulins was after Camille Desmoulins, the C18th French Jacobin poet and revolutionary, so: ‘Black Desmoulins’. The novel was a literary erotic fiction and was influenced by Bataille, Nin, Aragon, Appollinaire, Reyes, De Sade, Kosinski and others, as well as by classic erotic texts like The Perfumed Garden, the Kama Sutra, etc., except I tried to turn it around (physically as well as metaphorically!) so that it would be from the woman protagonist, Lucy’s point-of-view and with her being able to influence events. It was published by Creation Books in 1997 and is still widely available second-hand on the web. I’d also begun a much longer novel around the late 1990s, which I’ve only recently completed and so Psychoraag was penned in fits and starts within that scenario, between 1999 and 2003. I try to do something new with everything that I write. I find this fun!! That’s why I write, basically because it’s fun, although it’s damned difficult and complex and yet like love perhaps it doesn’t feel like work. So I am a trailblazer to myself, always. Whether or not society views me as that doesn’t bother me overly. However, I see little point in attempting to mimic what’s already been done very well by others. But I mean, I didn’t write Psychoraag thinking, “Halleluia! Now I’m going to write the first Asian Scottish novel!” No, it was an exploration as it always is. I was conscious that I wanted to evince viewpoints that perhaps had not been put onto the page before. Discomfiting things about which polite society avoids talking, or even thinking. It’s something I’ve thought about, that another Scottish writer, Alexander Trocchi also wrote erotic fiction – although he went to France to do it! But back in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t aware of this – or of him.

NM: Psychoraag is a roller-coaster of moods and sensations, veering from euphoria to dejection and soul-searching. One of the most powerful scenes, I thought, was Zaf’s encounter with junkie ex Zilla. Were you wary of the novel being labelled ‘cult’ or ‘alternative’ because of the drug references?

SS: Yes, I was wary of that. This kind of creative tension has as much to do with tone as with actual narrative and tends to come up particularly during the editing process, I mean both while I’m writing it and simultaneously thinking about what I’m writing and also when I’m actually editing various drafts of a text before anyone else has seen it. I wanted to avoid a kind of hip approach. There was also the ‘Trainspotting’ ambience, especially around the late 1990s, which was quite different from the one I was trying to conjure and I was conscious of this, too. I wanted something emotionally and intellectually engaged, not distanced, but right there, in the flesh and blood and brain. I wanted to push things to their logical (and illogical) conclusions, into the realms of paradox and to see what emerged. Maybe some kind of truth, who knows? I didn’t want to have this ‘cool’ attitude. I wanted a wild poetry. Without glorifying the whole thing, to use a jazz parallel, I was aiming at a late-Coltrane feel, or a Bitches Brew vibe, or an Albert Ayler solo duende and not at a polished, Kind of Blue package. There are drug abusers in all communities and sometimes in South Asian communities the problems tend to be swept under the wall-to-wall carpets. There are many reasons why someone might abuse and degrade themselves and I wanted to explore that desperation through a character. Of course, Coltrane destroyed himself, didn’t he? So did/ do many black artists. Self-destruction and creativity, what swings this see-saw? The answers lie in society/ history/ the economy/ spirituality and also deep within in the human brain. I wanted to deal with the unspoken things. For example: the long dynamics behind some mixed-race relationships; racism in Asian society; self-hate; the Indo-Pak thing; the Muslim thing; the class thing. I also wanted to voyage through the links between various musical cultures and evince some of the exciting historical and contemporary diversity within South Asian music and song. On another level, the psychedelic references allow another route to exploring states of altered consciousness through fiction. Pushing realism to its limits and almost – but not quite – bursting the seams can be a powerful way of delivering fictional prose. I wanted to puncture pre-conceptions. I set Zilla’s entry to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

I understand you were born in England but call Glasgow home, and the Glaswegian accent featured in Psychoraag is both convincing and unrestrained. In this respect, the most obvious influence on your work would seem to be James Kelman. How important has he been for you in freeing the use of the vernacular in literature?

SS: Kelman is very significant in this regard, as have been other writers like Alan Spence, Raymond Soltysek, Margaret Fulton-Cook, Graeme Fulton, Jim Ferguson, Duncan McLean, Brian Whittingham, Jeff Torrington, Marion Sinclair, Agnes Owens, Janet Paisley, Stephen Mulrine, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and many others, for example, countless live performers whose names I cannot recall, shame on me; Scotland has had a very vibrant and ‘unrestrained’ literary scene, what I call a ‘stand up’ scene and I don’t mean comedy; writers here often stand up to do their readings or at least project their voices as though they standing up; one cannot underestimate the effects of live (breathing, singing) voices, pouring into one’s head.

It’s always struck me as a very egalitarian scene – there are fewer barriers than perhaps exist elsewhere in this field. And I think that may arise from the nature of literate discourse in Scotland going right back to C18th and the Enlightenment as well as from strong (past) trade union and other radical political streams. I mean, you just sit and listen to someone like Alasdair Gray talk (a joy in itself, by the way), and you could be right back there, in Tom Paine’s kitchen (that’s a good title: In Tom Paine’s Kitchen). In this respect, I think Scottish literary discourse comes closer to the certain mainland European literary discourses of ideas (French, Italian or Spanish, for example) than perhaps to the post-nineteenth century, mainstream English version. And many of these writers were, and are, intensely political in their overt lives as well as in their literature.

Right through the 1990s, I was privileged to have been able to listen, watch and read many of these artists in Glasgow especially and this must have had an influence on the development of my abilities in the use of the vernacular in fiction. Of course, people like Kelman, Lochhead and Leonard pioneered the field from the 1970s onwards. And I don’t know it’s at all connected, but during the 1970s I had some very enlightened and exciting teachers of English and History at school, I mean we studied contemporary Scottish texts like work by George Mackay-Brown, for example, and also some left-field stuff, as I recall.

We also studied revolutionary, trade union and industrial history and Scottish history – I mean the colonial Highland Clearances as well as the older stuff, and all of that was invaluable in expanding my mind and also helping it take root. This was important, partly in developing my sense of an infinite canon. There was also a sense of societal change, which actually by that time, we rather took for granted – foolishly, as it turned out, because it all got rolled back during the succeeding decade. I’ve worked with, gone to school with and lived among all social classes in Scotland and am familiar with various West of Scotland accents and this helped, too. I have a broad and deep lake of human life on which to draw. Yet in some senses, I have always felt on the outside and this is probably good for the development of an artistic sensibility, a kind of hyper-awareness. To quote John Lennon: “Your inside is out and your outside is in!”.

In fact, when I started writing, I was partly reacting to the accents all around me, not wanting to just ‘parrot’ the machismo urban style which even then was becoming a little hackneyed in places; I mean, at readings sometimes it was like a fuck, fuck here and a fuck, fuck there, here a fuck, there a fuck, everywhere a fuck, fuck…!!; to some extent it just seemed adolescent and gratuitous and ultimately denuded of any power it might have had, whereas I was exploring more mystical areas and trans-continental stuff, stuff that would take me out of my head. I mean, I was reading people like Gustav Meyrink, Julio Cortazar, Herman Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Yukio Mishima, Jorge Luis Borges, Primo Levi, Juan Rulfo, Ben Okri, Naguib Mahfouz, Italo Calvino, Juan Goytisolo and Thomas Mann as well as Sufi and other mystical/ wisdom literature (Hafez Shirazi, Sheikh Saadi, Jalaluddin Rumi, etc.) and old, old stuff from Arab Andalusia. Also, some experimental and political writing from the USA and elsewhere.

This lot also played well with my love of psychedelic music, which goes back quarter of a century to the Winter of Hate: 1979. I then came back (as it were) to urban Scotland and used some of this mental experience when I wrote Psychoraag and the fiction which preceded it, e.g. some of the stories in The Burning Mirror – you just have to look at very different stories like ‘The Queens of Govan’, ‘The Dancers’ and ‘Solomon’s Jar’ to appreciate this. I once delivered a Burns Immortal Memory speech in which I drew comparisons between themes in ‘The Dancers’ and ‘Tam o’Shanter’. So there you go, whether or not Kilroy was up here, on the Devil’s Bridge, Robert Burns – or at least Nannie the Witch – certainly was, along with all these other people I’ve mentioned and lots more!

NM: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once wrote (in reference to Kafka) that a ‘minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language’, and that, in a minor literature ‘everything is political’. I think this is very relevant to a writer like Kelman, a working-class Glaswegian writing in English, but in your case there is the additional factor of your Asian identity. Would you say that your use of Glaswegian demotic and Urdu subverts the values of ‘literary’ English to an even greater extent?

SS: I agree. It’s called ‘neologistic thought’, well that’s what I’ve called it just now anyway. Every tongue is a universe, so allowing them to dance with one another is like travelling through worm-holes: a raag of lunacy. As Barthes tells us, all language and text is unstable. I’m very aware that writers like Rushdie (not just Rushdie, I mean most mainstream Anglophone writers) cannot seem really to meld languages very well, cannot seem really to grasp that jouissance that is the instability of language, seem incapable, really, of engaging in the dance! I mean, you look at Rushdie, he’s a good writer, no question. Midnight’s Children was ground-breaking in Anglophonia and I really respect some of his other work, including his non-fictional work, but he can’t do dialogue! Especially not demotic dialogue. I reviewed his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown for The Independent (by the way, I’m very grateful to Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor, for asking me to do this and for publishing my review, uncut; Boyd is a very erudite and also a very affable guy) and it’s a good novel, I enjoyed it and it makes some very powerful points, politically – I gave it a good review – but one of its weaknesses resides in Rushdie’s very obviously ineffectual use of demotic. I mean this is a guy who was brought up in India, for God’s sake! As far as I know, he can speak Urdu, though I’ve never heard him actually speak it, or Kashmiri for that matter. I mean, my French is probably better than my Urdu, in terms of speaking – and that’s not very good. My comprehension of Urdu, while better than my speaking, remains very limited. So Rushdie is more multilingual than I am, but tragically he seems unable really to draw on it. It limits his writing. You see, language is everywhere political, but in Britain we have the added ontological nuance that language is very much a mediator of social class. And the dominant groupings, anthropologically speaking, are the white southern English upper and upper-middle classes, what I call the über-class. This class was the driver of empire and across the spectrum it remains in the driving seat. This is what ‘Big Brother’ means, as a concept on the subliminal level. So you start playing around with that and in some sense, you’re playing around with the class and imperial systems. I have never seen a class analysis of Rushdie’s work. There probably is one, somewhere in a literary journal on a dusty shelf in a high tower of academe, but I’ve never seen one in the mass quality press. Nowadays, it’s class, class everywhere, but not a word to read! Of course, as David Crystal, John Stotesbury, Melvyn Bragg and other linguistic and literary luminaries make clear, the burgeoning varieties of English around the globe, various almost musical syncretisations of language, represent hugely exciting developments in the evolution of consciousness. Every language is a set of peculiar takes on the universe. So broadening the range of the sextant enlarges its possible horizons. People like Kelman are like captains of ships – not imperial ships, mind you, more like pirate submarines – they’re always charting new courses. Then maybe, in this ocean of words, I’m a wee bathyscaphe, trying to go ever deeper! Ships? I see no ships!

NM: Why did you choose to include a glossary of non-Standard-English words? Might this not undo some of the equalitarian work of the language?

I know, I know. It’s a long story: I put in a glossary, then I took it out, then I put it in, then I took it out. Then I put it in. Various editors (due to mergers and other gremlins, the book passed through a variety of hands over the several years of its gestation) had opposing views on the matter. In the end, I figured that as most readers would be likely to be unfamiliar with at least some of the non-Standard English words in the text, the glossary would be there if they needed it. At the same time, I’ve written the novel to minimise the need for use of the glossary. But the other point is that the glossary was a fun way – for me, at least – of expounding a little, both etymologically and on the various multilingual expletives as well as it acting as a kind of hypertext. Right, so you’ve got ‘hijaab’, the Arabic word for a Muslim woman’s headscarf (but more correctly, the word for a protective spiritual ‘veil’), next to ‘hijerah’, the Urdu word for ‘transvestite’, or ‘khotay ka lun’ (‘you’re a donkey’s prick’ in Punjabi) nestling up alongside ‘Khuda hafez’ (Farsi and Urdu for, ‘God go with you’) next to ‘khuserah’ (‘an effeminate homosexual’ in Urdu). These juxtapositions are not deliberate, simply alphabetical and I’ve just picked these examples at random – but you see what I mean. Furthermore, there are little digressions and things in the glossary which can be fun to write and to read, little outlets from the psychotic intensity of the narrative itself. It’s not quite Borgesian though, that would be for a different sort of book. Also, I did not want non-Standard English words to be italicised, I felt very strongly about that, but when my publisher sent the book round various booksellers, etc., they all wanted the words italicised, said it would help them understand the text better (as well as being just a formality). So I figured, well, it’s a challenging text already and if they’re representative of readers who, unlike me, are not familiar with many of the words then I’ll go with that – reluctantly though, I have to say!

NM: Moving onto Psychoraag’s reception in the media. I thought it was remarkable how little attention it received in the English broadsheets, given its numerous literary awards and recommendations. Can you fathom as to why this might have been?

SS: Methinks I hear a hobby-horse a’comin…! My kingdom, my kingdom, for a hobby-horse! The crucial thing to remember, Nick, is that colonial hierarchies of power – linguistic, racialist, class-oriented, geographical – remain operative, indeed, remain definitive, even though they are far less obvious than in the past and are seldom acknowledged as existing. Because of this, they are commensurately more difficult to fight. Censorship in the UK today is not monolithic, okay, there’s no wee man with a blue pencil, a group of guys ‘n’ gals doesn’t sit down somewhere and decide: Right, we’re gonna block out this book! Remember, I’m talking only about fiction here, not non-fiction books by, for example, Official Secrets whistleblowers, where there really is a wee man with a blue pencil-and-rubber sitting in Whitehall. Just as, in the internal world of world of fiction, one is constantly shadow-boxing, so it is on the outside as well. I tend to think of it as a series of filters and these are reflective of and intrinsic to the nodes and flows of power in our society. I don’t think there’s any real deliberation involved, it’s just how society is. And that’s depressing, because not only is it far trickier to get a handle on, it’s also much more difficult to change. With the ‘wee man in Whitehall’, once you get access to power (!) and want to change things, you just re-assign him to parking tickets. I guess, in the current climate, being a Muslim male from what statistically is one of the most despised, uneducated and excluded minorities in the UK, that is, the Pakistani minority, living in what is seen (from the point-of-view of the Thamesian elites) as a ‘peripheral’ region of Britain, who writes narratives which sometimes challenge both liberal imperial and multicultural metropolitan received wisdoms and who is neither foreign enough to be deemed exotic nor tamed enough to be seen as ‘one of us’, is pretty close to being at the bottom of the neo-colonial slushpile. Out of sight, out of mind, the British way. It’s like with the bogeyman: “If we ignore him enough, he might just go away”. Well, sorry folks! Don’t fall asleep just yet – Freddie’s baaaack!

And it’s true, the Managing Director at my publisher’s described the process of trying to get the English broadsheets interested in Psychoraag like “bashing one’s head against a brick wall”. This went on right through the trade chain: from pre-publicity, through uncorrected proof copies for reviewers, to hardback and then paperback editions. The situation in Scotland was the diametric opposite; the broadsheets and other print media outlets here were very interested indeed. One might expect that large, corporate publishers would have cosy relationships with large, corporate media outlets. But some of the Scottish broadsheets are also owned by large corporations – The Scotsman, for example, is a Murdoch paper. And some of the English Asian web and print media covered it, too. The Times of India reviewed it, even though it’s not available in bookshops in India, while The Times of London did not, even though it is available in England. So there are other filters at work here. It’s multivalent, complex. But rather than me rambling on, I would strongly advise you to read the following articles, all on the web:

1) M. K. Chakrabarti, Marketplace Multiculturalism, Boston Review, Dec 2003/ Jan 2004. www.bostonreview.net

2) Ali Smith, Life Beyond the M25, The Guardian, Dec 18th 2004. www.guardian.co.uk

3) Chris Dolan, Book Launches – the closest Scotland Gets to Café Society, The Herald, 1st May 2004. www.theherald.co.uk

I’ve pulled out some quotes from these articles, because readers might need to pay to access the entire pieces on the web (additions in square brackets are mine): “That writers as – at the very least – interesting as [Saadi] have to wait so long to get their novels published, despite success in short stories, poetry, articles, is worrying. Have we categorized ourselves into such tight little boxes – ‘Beat’, ‘Political Realist’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Scots’ – that those whose natural element is fusion, synthesis, or something entirely new, no longer have a slot on bookshop shelves? Or, more worrying still, that the name Saadi might be hard to market; or ‘Psychoraag’ too challenging, unconventional, for a literary scene that has become a little staid and predictable?” Chris Dolan, The Herald, 1/5/04.

“How many thousands of books get published a year? How few make it to the top of the publicity slushpile and into the national broadsheet reviewing pages, which all tend to review pretty much the same books. And does the old charge hold true after all these years, that the London papers are naturally metrocentred, or at least England-centric, with little regard for what’s happening in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to what gets reviewed? Maybe the new quarterly Scottish Review of Books will even up the score a little, or at least indicate in a loud voice how uneven things still are. Its first edition has a good variety of features and reviews by and about writers who tend to be overlooked in the south, like Kenneth White, Peter Burnett or Suhayl Saadi, whose ambitious first novel, Psychoraag, an intimate 400-page sprawl covering six early-morning graveyard-shift hours in the life of an on-air Asian-Glaswegian DJ, came out earlier this year and, apart from the TLS, received no reviews south of Scotland. ‘Salaam alaikum, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat, hoat summer’s night! Fae the peaks ae Kirkintilloch tae the dips ae Cambuslang!’ Psychoraag ‘s back-of-the-book glossary has the definitions for Gaidhealtachd and Ganga Jumna side by side; and the critical silence that met it down south is an interesting reaction in itself to a book about race and invisibility, voice and silence, whose central theme is the question of whether anyone out there is actually listening. Ali Smith, Life beyond the M25, The Guardian, Saturday December 18, 2004.

“This same publishing industry has turned a cold shoulder to other, less marketable writers. Very little has been told about Suhayl Saadi’s challenging short story collection, The Burning Mirror. Seventeen major publishing companies rejected The White Family, a frank, disturbing portrait of British racists by white author Maggie Gee, before it was taken up by Saqi Books, a small, specialist [Arab] UK publisher. (Gee was named to the 1983 Granta list and The White Family was later shortlisted for the Orange Prize. However, Gee’s Granta accolade wasn’t enough to prevent 17 rejections by the industry, and the Orange Prize nomination would have never happened if Saqi hadn’t put the book on the shelves.) Above all, neither of these books achieved a fraction of Brick Lane’s sales. Even the means by which Monica Ali’s British publisher, Doubleday, marketed Brick Lane sought to obscure the multiculturalism of her own life. Doubleday granted first interview rights in a national newspaper to the Guardian, but when the paper decided to assign its respected literary critic, the South Asian Maya Jaggi, to the story, Doubleday requested a different journalist, preferably a non-South Asian one, because Monica Ali preferred to be seen as a writer first and a ‘coloured person’ second. The Jaggi byline, it seems, might have ghettoized the review. Jaggi protested and Doubleday promptly issued an apology for the ‘misunderstanding’, but the point had already been made. Another writer did the interview for the Guardian. This, then, is the publishing industry that brings us today’s supposedly multicultural authors. And it is this industry’s efforts and enthusiasm that shape the overall commercial presence and success of today’s ‘multicultural’ books.” M. K. Chakrabarti, Review of ‘Brick Lane’, Boston Review, Dec 2003/ January 2004 [Please also see my response to the question-one-after-the-next.]

NM: When Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994, Simon Jenkins referred to him as an ‘illiterate savage’ (The Times, 15th October 1994). Why do you think the mainstream media is so scared of books written in the demotic?

SS: God! I didn’t know that. That’s disgraceful! And Simon Jenkins, having been editor of The Times and a long-time columnist for that paper, now writes for The Guardian, supposedly a left-of-centre rag. Well, if that’s left-of-centre… You see, this is the problem. Jenkins’s comment is racist, imperialist, vicious, it’s like something from the nineteenth century. If he’d said it of a black person, he’d have had to resign. Yet I’m a writer and I hadn’t even heard of what he’d said. Actually, someone who says that kind of thing is themselves the ‘illiterate (and ignoble) savage’, an ‘attack-dog’ of the English über-class. But obviously that idea still holds sway, if he felt able to write that in a mainstream newspaper so very recently, if the southern English elite think of Jim Kelman, a British white man who hails from, and generally writes about, the working classes, in that way, then what would they think of me and my work? People like this govern the discourse, what they write – and the way in which they write it – millions read and are influenced by. Is it any wonder they are resistant to giving a novel like Psychoraag any coverage? Kelman and his work represent the epitomy of civilisation and are a glimpse of what real democracy in literature could be like. However, at least Jenkins was being honest. This is the class system in the raw. And it’s not a pretty sight. But it’s the quiet savages you have to watch, the polite ones, the dissemblers. The ones who think they have clothes on. All of this illustrates the attitudes which emanate from and contribute towards the war economy, the dehumanising and killing of other peoples throughout the world and the dispatching of British working-class young men and women to die like, well, like the ‘savages’ which the ruling class thinks they are. Fiction is politics, but politics is not fiction. Every letter is a bullet, every word, a bomb.

NM: How do you explain the huge success of ethnic minority writers such as Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith? Do you think their novels adhere to certain value systems that yours doesn’t?

SS: Like most things in a complex society, this is likely to be multi-factorial. Actually, as a kind of chimaera between Job, Jacob and Methuselah, I’ve been rabitting on about this for many years, even back when many of these authors were just twinkles in their editors’ eyes. I remember being interviewed by Sanjeev Kohli (later of Chewing the Fat, Goodness Gracious Me! and Still Game) live on BBC Radio Scotland, yeah in early 1998 it was, and even then I was talking about the same sorts of things. Perhaps this just means that I’m hopelessly obsessed and somewhat deluded: Sisyphus and Don Quixote. But much blood and ice has flowed beneath the bridge since that time. I’ve have much more concrete experience of the whole scene, so my perceptions now are probably based on better authority.

1) The writing has to be of a certain standard and I congratulate any writer who manages to get a novel published and especially black writers. It’s super when black, oppositional or wildly imaginative writers win prizes, etc. – and I’ve won or been short-listed for some myself, so I can only say that I’m glad this kind of thing is happening. Good on them!! I mean, us.

2) Individuals: Most people are fine as individuals, when you meet them and get to know them. I always believe in seeking out the good in people, the common humanity, that is my personality and that is how I deal with people. So this is not an attack on people. My comments below represent an assault on institutions, imperial and economic structures and the power manifested thereby. There are many wonderful people working in these structures and yet still, little changes where it really matters. It’s really a plea. Free your mind and your books will follow! Or maybe it’s the other way around.

3) London: Many of these writers have set their fictions (at least their initial ones) in London. London is iconic in the world; it has a big, very multicultural population, is central to the economy, politics and culture of the UK and the potential readership is more obviously already formed and is enormous. To target this is very sensible of the writers (not like me!). I mean, publishers are into money, of course, they’re big businesses, it’s their raison d’être. So a London novel is a safer bet for a good rollover than a Glasgow one. Also, as with the various US accents, with which through film, popular music and television most of us are familiar internally, in our brains, so it is with London-speak. In spite of all the Scots in London (ah yes, that old chestnut!), it is not so, with Scotland-speak. Stainds ta reason, dannit? The publishing industry and media are situated largely in London. As is the case with New York City, it’s actually a very small world within these circles. As with all walks of life, networking is important.

4) Oxbridge: many of the black and Asian writers who’ve made it big went to Oxbridge (or Ivy League). Check it out yourselves. I mean, again, good on them. Many of the elite, the movers and shakers, in the literary/ cultural/ political/ publishing/ media worlds did, too. More networking is therefore possible. Also, a good education, which is what you get at Oxbridge, really does help, assuming someone is already talented. Plus, I do think that there is a danger that people can emerge from such august institutions holding similar sets of preconceptions and that they may not even realise it. It’s not unlike the process that occurs in private schools. Incubators of imperium. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, but it happens sufficiently frequently for it to be a major dynamic in society. For a black/ Asian person, especially, in whatever field you’re in, a bit of privilege can help you up that greasy pole. It’s not a guarantor of success, of course, but it all adds up. I’ve written about this in Ninety-Nine Kiss-o-Grams, a story from my book, The Burning Mirror, where one of the thoughts of the (dysfunctional) protagonist could be paraphrased as: Study white, marry white, act white – become white. Ever seen the film, Crash? I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the black TV drama director is pressurised by the white producer to make the black actor sound more ‘black’. Well, that’s about the USA in general and LA in particular, but not dissimilar dynamics are at work in the UK, too. This is very risky ground, I know, but it’s the kind of thing my fiction grapples with. The world over, personal contacts are not everything, but they go a hell of a long way. I speak from experience, not prejudice. There are no chips on my shoulders, only one-eyed djinns, and these can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.

5) Standard English: Well, we’ve covered that one already, right? Linguistic Decorum rules OK. Hail Caesar! Well, too bad, Spartacus is here! We’ll come back, and we’ll be millions!

6) Basic Liberal Assumptions: Most novels do not question these. Elites like to think of themselves and their views as being epitomes of tolerance, objectivity and truth, when really, they are simply paragons of power. I say to them: Please, if only for a moment, turn and look into the (burning) mirror!

7) Risk Aversion: a pathological condition, this, requiring Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (e.g. reading Psychoraag backwards in Aramaic). The cartelisation of the publishing industry and of retail bookselling means that innovation (= risk) tends to be avoided, unless of course one has other advantages going for one, in which case it is likely that one will be allowed to write almost anything and be published. It is highly unlikely that the previously unknown groundbreaking equivalents of, say, Kelman and Gray would be published today by ‘major’ publishing houses in the UK.

8) Demographics: A Chinese literary figure told me recently and probably very sensibly: “You know, Suhayl, you have to appeal to white, middle-aged, middle-class Englishwomen as, in the UK, these are the people who buy books”. Well of course, it’s not true that all people in a particularly constructed demographic cohort will think and read the same way, but marketeers tend to behave as though it were an iron law of the universe, and in a kind of quantum mechanical way the thing then tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interesting though that the overwhelming majority of the people in positions of power in the publishing, bookselling and national print media are drawn from a single social class and a single ethnic group.

9) It’s like this, see: Let’s cut to the uncomfortable quick. Assuming that you have the talent and the craft of writing and that you’ve written something of a certain basic standard, the five essentialist totems/ rate-limiting steps seem to be: Class, politics, ethnicity-faith group, language and location. If you and/ or your work have three or more of these on your side, then you’re in with a chance. If you have none (and aren’t, say, married to the commissioning editor, in which case, given the demographics of commissioning editors, you’re likely to have most of them in any case), then regardless of the quality of the writing and the potential saleability of the book, you’re fucked. I’m fucked.

10) In spite of all this: In spite of not having the muscle of a major corporation behind them, Psychoraag and The Burning Mirror have been widely reviewed in Scotland, Pakistan, India, in a couple of literary magazines in England and on the web, and Scottish book groups, schools and universities have studied them and much else good has happened. I’m very grateful to have been invited to so many literary events in Scotland (including the Edinburgh International Book Festival) and also to some far beyond the shores of Albion (Singapore, Ukraine, Pakistan, NYC, Canada, Germany, France, Portugal). Well done, the Lancaster Litfest for being the first ever England-based literary festival to have invited me to read (note to other festival programmers in the Land of the Raven: the world as we know it and ‘our way of life’ did not come to an end as a result). And to Saqi Books (an Arabic publisher) and the British Pakistani Psychiatrists Association for hosting readings in London and Coventry, respectively. And to Brendan McPartlin, of the Leeds-based Wicked Words for kindly agreeing to me reading there, to Sunny Hundal of Asians in the Media, Asjad Nazir of Eastern Eye and to Will Buckingham, editor of Birmingham Words magazine, for writing reviews of Psychoraag. Also, the various London-based specialist medical magazines, who did the same. I have only praise for my small but dynamic publisher and my energetic agent, both of whom are Edinburgh-based and who do take risks, thank goodness. Interestingly, the state, via accountable (and this point is key, they are at least on some level, publicly accountable) bodies like the BBC, the British Council, various Scottish local councils and libraries, the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Poetry Library, has been very helpful to me over the years. This is beginning to sound like an Oscars’ acceptance speech! In a sense, and at the risk of drawing a even more ludicrous parallel, it’s a little like the micro-credit given to small, cottage industries run by women in the economic south. The social payback is enormous. But it goes to show that if there’s the will on the part of agents, publishers, librarians, festival programmers, arts officers, booksellers, etc., a book – even a challenging book by a challenging author like Psychoraag (‘n’ me, haa-haa-haa, hee-hee-hee) – can do things out there with readers, with people, can even turn some sort of tiny wheel, and this again proves that too often corporate entities have their heads screwed on the wrong way, their mouths wide open and their minds tightly shut, waiting for the latest Bollywood dream vindaloo sensation to come along and spice up their taste-buds. What this demonstrates on their part is a lack of knowledge, ambition and imagination, a deep-seated political regressiveness and a tendency to patronise writers and readers alike. Nonetheless, incremental (yawn!) progress does occur. I mean, now at least some black and Asian writers are being published and are making it big. After all, beggars and whores, which even after Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nawal el Saadawi, Che Chevara, Angela Davis and Jim Kelman is still what most of us are at the end of the day, can’t be choosers. So let’s keep on pushing, sisters and brothers! One day, we may even be able to kick out the jams!

NM: Does the lack of publicity surrounding Psychoraag dampen your spirits as a writer, or does it make you more determined to make your voice heard?

SS: Every time I hit this particular brick wall, I get angrier and more determined to kick it in. Trouble is, this cultural war impacts damagingly on all aspects of one’s life. I’m no longer twenty years old and I have a family to support. I can’t just go off to a monastery or sleep on friends’ floors for seven years, or help the natives in some exotic locale, or live in a garret while I pen the masterpiece, or do any of those things about writers put out by romantic publicity departments. You know how much work – blood, sweat and tears – goes into writing a novel in all its drafts? A hell of a lot! No wonder, historically, so many black (and other) artists have self-destructed. I know some of them and have watched them implode, mentally, physically, artistically. But I mean, in many countries today, writers lose their jobs, are poisoned, go to jail, are tortured, get executed. I am hugely privileged to personally know some of these writers, too, people who’ve been locked up three, four times by different regimes. My little travails are nothing compared to all that, absolutely nothing. I try to put it all in perspective. It’s just words, right? Well, then, never have so few done so much with so little for so many. And I shall fight them on the beaches, I shall fight them at the wine parties, I shall fight them on the web, I shall fight them on the bookshelves… now, where did I put my blasted cigar? The (spikey!) point is, as I indicated in my Foreword to a recent anthology which I co-edited of South African and Scottish writing, Freedom Spring: Ten Years On, you have to struggle, and keep struggling, for freedom. It is never just given to you on a plate. Paine, Desmoulins, Fanon, Du Bois, Abbie Hoffman and the rest all knew this. And once the freedoms are achieved, you have to fight on all fronts to keep them, use them and extend them! This is happening, right now, in the UK, with the struggle being waged both outside and within the establishment (I mean, the judiciary and The House of Lords, for goodness sake!) against the current government’s attempt to roll back historic liberties in the name of (that old, hoary chestnut) security (for which, read the war economy and the engendered state of permanent war).

NM: Finally, what are you up to at the moment, and what are your plans or ambitions for the future?

SS: As I say, working 100 hours a week at non-writing stuff, just to make ends meet. If I get a chance to write again, I will try and finish a novel I’d begun in 2002. Quite different from Psychoraag, it aims (among other things) to re-define what we think of as fictional narrative. Before I sank into incipient financial ruin, I penned two new stage performances. One, a pro-peace song-and-dance extravaganza for all the family, draws on folk tales from many cultures and will be staged by Peace Arts in Glasgow in September 2006, and the other, a very dark and potentially extremely controversial, anti-war, expletive-laden, sex-riddled, God-mocking, four-handed black box production, may or may not be staged in (initially) Glasgow in either late 2006 or (more likely) early 2007. Some Pauses for Thought for the Sarah Kennedy Programme on BBC Radio Two and a book review or three. Plus some other miscellaneous stuff like co-organising the Pakistani Film, Media and Arts Festival (www.pakistanifilmfest.com). Thing is, right now I’m listening to acid rock from Turkey, Brazil, Japan, Cambodia, Greece… so hold onto your hats, people, we’re going for a ride!!

Feel free to check out my website: www.suhaylsaadi.com for more information.

It’s been my pleasure, Nick, Spike and everyone! Peace and love be upon you all.

Roger Morris: Taking Comfort

Ian Hocking

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When the Macmillan New Writing imprint was announced late last year, a fault line developed in UK publishing. Hurrahs on one side, boos on the other. Why the rumpus? The imprint is dedicated to the publication of new writers, often unrepresented by literary agencies, who submit their manuscripts through the MNW website. Some commentators have claimed that the books received minimal editing, but a little bird tells me that some titles have received a great deal. It is, however, true enough that the authors command no advance. Critics see this as the birth of a worrying trend towards coolie labour. Supporters, meanwhile, hail it as the future of publishing, now.

The advance guard of the MNW assault comprises six titles of various genre. The publicity cocktail – one part hoopla, two parts fracas, and placed in the apoplectic hand of the literary establishment – ensured that the MNW party got to a flying start, coverage-wise. The length of time it remains airborne, however, will be determined by the sales of its books, and, with luck, the quality of those books.

Late in February, 2006, I requested, via a quiet email, a copy of Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort. Imagine my surprise when all six hardbacks arrived. Lesson one: The full horsepower of the Macmillan marketing machine has been applied to the New Writing Imprint. Fears allay: the lack of advanced payment has not hobbled the publisher’s motivation to get behind these titles. We should expect to see their appearance in the bastions of literary review.

Lesson two: The books are beautifully rendered. Hardback, stitched. And the dust jacket even has those shiny highlights what proper books have. There is no evidence here that the MNW authors have been poorly treated. All the cover designs, too, are professional and attractive. Moody, thoughtful author photographs are found on the inside back cover for those moments when a look at their face might help decipher a particularly weird passage.

So far, this is circumstantial evidence for the legitimacy of the new imprint. Recall that the more serious charge has been levelled at the degree of editorial support. Does the content measure up?

Taking Comfort is the first novel of Roger Morris. He lives in North London and works in marketing. Rob Saunders, the closest thing Taking Comfort has to a protagonist, lives in North London and works in marketing. So we have a novel with an autobiographical flavour. He – Rob – is about to start a new job as a marketing executive with an insurance behemoth called Diamond Life.

The story opens with Rob waiting for his morning train. He’s on the platform sizing up women and hefting his new briefcase, the Di Beradino classic, a king among briefcases. He notices a Japanese girl arguing with a platform guard and, just as his train arrives, watches her leap in front of it. In the chaos that follows, Rob takes her Snoopy ring-binder and continues to his new job, where he arrives late and spends the day in a cloud of befuddlement. The book proceeds in a riff-like fashion from this opening; it finds echoes in further, traumatic events, and Rob develops an obsession for the everyday objects associated with disaster.

There is much to recommend in this novel. The prose has an urgency that persists until the close. Morris is adept at repetition, and manages to harness the mesmeric quality of twisted, rehashed sounds without tiring the reader. He keeps us bound to his characters, even as he skips from one to the next. We are rapidly initiated to the worldview of a given character: the woman who sits beneath the lone tree in the foyer of the Diamond Life building, and who loves her compact; a police officer, who takes pride in his flak jacket; and the protagonist Rob, who finds security in the heft of the Di Beradino classic briefcase, and perhaps some comfort in the trophies he pilfers from those visited by trauma. In short, Morris can write, and write well.

However, the novel has some shortcomings. While we can identify with the protagonist (thanks to some verbal virtuosity and keenly-observed situations), our anguish at his downward spiral is limited because we do not have the opportunity to know Rob before he reaches the crisis point of the Japanese girl’s suicide. Because this progression is absent, there is a difficulty in interpreting Rob’s motivations towards the end of the novel. Was Rob mad, in some sense, at the beginning of the story, or was he driven mad from a sane start? We know the Rob of extraordinary circumstances better than we know the Rob of everyday life. As circumstances become extraordinary, and Rob’s behaviour becomes bizarre, the writer must work extra hard to ‘sell’ the scene to the reader. Later in the book, I confess that I just didn’t buy it.

Another problem comes in the form of coincidence. Bad stuff just seems to happen to Rob, and in another book these events would bear the fingerprints of a clumsy writer. I say ‘another book’ because Morris’s very theme is related to the randomness of life and our attempts to control it through our collection of superficially comforting objects (consumer products, yes, but I suspect Morris would widen these to relationships and jobs). That said, I was uneasy about the chronic bad luck of the main character. Yes, randomness is part of life; yes, it illustrates the disconnection between form and meaning, but it has the paradoxical effect of reminding the reader that this is a work of fiction, that there is a writer puppeteering madly.

Other elements of the book work well. It is conducted entirely in the present tense, and this adds immediacy where, in less capable hands, the reader would grow irritated. Each chapterette is given a consumer item as a title, and Morris uses the item – for example, The Tracy Island movie tie-in toy – as an anchor point around which he moves a character. This technique is effective, but does fade with use, and has greater impact earlier in the book. The insertion of advertising copy is a nice touch. It serves to underline the superficiality of, for example, the Di Beradino classic: it promises to make your life better, but it does not.

Classic styled briefcase from Di Beradino hand crafted in beautiful vegetable tanned leather with satin finished solid brass fittings.

Is Macmillan New Writing the future, now? The shifting sands of publishing are capricious enough for the nay-sayers or the optimists to win. Any vaguely new method of publication (though its novelty is more apparent for the struggling writer than the reader) needs a dose of luck, and if Taking Comfort by Roger Morris is representative of the range, MNW have succeeded in loading the dice. The book is not without faults; it is somewhat experimental; it is often self-conscious. But it aims at literature, and knows the power of small things: not just consumer items like the Di Beradino classic, the Tetley teabag, or the Sabatier Au Carbone chief’s knife, but the Marvelon swallowed by Rob’s girlfriend or the tear-stained Benjys napkin of a betrayed lover. From these, small comfort is drawn.