Painting My Own Departure

George Shaw, “Anarchy in Coventry: George Shaw’s Greatest Hits” by Tim Jonze. The Guardian, 13 February 2019.

“In a sense, I’m painting my own departure — to keep going, until the final painting is empty, and you’re no longer casting any shadow on it.” He muses on this for a while. “That’s when you paint the greatest painting of your life. But the fact is, you’ll never be around to paint it.”

Hazards of Time travel

“We Could Have Had a Haiku Instead of this Doorstop.” Review of Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates. The Irish Times, 22 December 2018, p. 136:

Joyce Carol Oates. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Can a character develop some degree of awareness — however dim — of the book it inhabits? This preposterous question wormed its way into my mind midway through Hazards of Time Travel, haunting me until the final page.

Joyce Carol Oates’s compendious new novel is set 20 years hence in a derivative dystopian world, replete with the habitual initialisms. The RNAS (Reconstituted North American States) is a one-party regime characterised by a rigid caste system based on 10 ST (Skin Tone) categories, permanent warfare conducted by proxy through “robot-missiles” and, of course, ubiquitous high-tech surveillance of the population. At school, where education is limited to the rote learning of undisputed facts — for example, the inferiority of the average female IQ — students “hold back” so as not to stand out by appearing too clever: “In a True Democracy all individuals are equal — no one is better than anyone else”.

Adriane Strohl, the 17-year-old narrator-protagonist, proves more equal than others and is made to suffer the consequences. Given that her scientist father was already an MI (Marked Individual) due to his association with an SI (Subversive Individual), his own brother, who was “deleted” by DDS (Domestic Drone Strike) — although it later transpires, for no obvious reason, that the execution did not take place — she should perhaps have known better. This, however, is the whole point. We are made to understand, by the third sentence, and then relentlessly throughout the rest of the book, that free will is both her tragic flaw and the mark of her humanity. To think that Oates could have produced a haiku instead of a doorstop!

For having the audacity to enquire what came “before the beginning of Time”, which in the RNAS refers to the “Great Terrorist Attacks of 9/11”, Adriane is charged with “Treason-Spech” and exiled in the past — a sentence that strangely provides an answer to the question for which she is punished. Her molecules are dissolved, teleported, and reconstituted in 1959, before her parents were even born. She is now Mary Ellen Enright, a freshman at Wainscotia University in Wisconsin. As an EI (Exiled Individual) she is not allowed to stray beyond a 10-mile radius from her “epicentre”, or reveal her status to anyone, on threat of instant deletion. Worse still, she is exiled from exile: a microchip planted in her head blocks out memories of her past life, which appear like “shadowy shapes” viewed through a “frosted glass window”. This raises one of the central questions in the novel — “What is a human being except the sum of her memories?” — and triggers an extended metaphor (the Nabokovian glass flowers; the “glassy eyes” of the stuffed animals in the Gothic museum scene) that expresses the totalitarian quality of transparency.

Located in Zone 9, an area which does not appear on any map back in the RNAS, Wainscotia — aka the “Happy Place” — provides ample opportunity for Life on Mars-style culture shocks. Scratch the idyllic surface, and you discover a more sinister world of rampant anti-Semitism and misogyny. Pacifists are hounded out of campus, female students aspire to be Stepford Wives and the university is a “hotbed of mediocrity”. The author, revisiting her own youth, evidently wants to show that the seeds of totalitarianism were sown in the 1950s, but Wainscotia seems so wholesome compared with NAS-23 that the strategy all but backfires.

The moral (human beings are not machines and it is always now) is sophomoric. The narrator’s cloying diary style and intemperate deployment of exclamation marks becomes grating after a while. Soliloquies masquerade as dialogue. The fussy descriptions of minor characters seem to come straight out of a middlebrow potboiler circa 1959. Embarrassing repetitions should have been edited out.

For all its flaws, Oates’s 46th novel is a page-turner, with cliffhanger chapter endings that may well have been written with Netflix in mind. Once Adriane and Ira Wolfman — the dashing assistant psychology professor with a fittingly Freudian name — have failed to flee, following a trail that loops back on itself (as in TV drama The Returned), the novelist loses her (Ariadne’s) thread and the plot begins to unravel.

When the heroine laments her inability to suspend disbelief at the cinema — “The actors were so obviously acting. The film was so obviously a film” — or dismisses the unconvincing “realistic” paintings hanging in the Fine Arts Building, she almost seems to sense that her exile in Wainscotia is but a metaphor for being trapped in this novel.

Male Order

“Male Order.” Review of What We’re Teaching Our Children by Owen Booth. Literary Review, December 2018, pp. 72-73:

To misquote Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a man. This is the premise of What We’re Teaching Our Sons, a satire, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, of all those earnest treatises on fatherhood.

Although very accessible, Owen Booth’s debut is as difficult to pin down as the notion of masculinity in an age of female empowerment and gender fluidity. It is a novel with an emotional arc, but one you may also dip into, each chapter being a story unto itself. In fact, it is essentially the same story — sixty-seven variations on dadsplaining — springing from the same template.

The opening sentence of each chapter is invariably ‘We’re teaching our sons about’, followed by the chapter title, which immediately introduces an element of comic repetition. Then comes a précis staking out the territory to be explored. A chapter titled ‘Crime’ begins, ‘We’re teaching our sons about crime. We’re teaching them that crime doesn’t pay, or that mostly it doesn’t pay, or that, in fact, it can sometimes pay quite handsomely’. ‘Drugs’ gets off to a similar start: ‘We’re teaching our sons about drugs. What they do, why people take them, where to find them’.

The dads’ mission to raise ‘a generation of better men’ is undermined by their own confusion and inconsistencies — their compulsion to idealise women, for instance, despite knowing that this raises feminist issues. Much humour is derived from the sons regularly reverting to type (boys will be boys) and puncturing their dads’ politically correct pieties, as well as from their endearing refusal to countenance second best: ‘They’re convinced they’re going to be film stars and astronauts and famous comic book artists. They’re not interested in all the ways we managed to screw up our stupid lives.’

The sins-of-the-fathers trope is introduced early on, when the sons are taken to meet the ‘heartbroken men’. These sad relics from the past, with their beer guts, firearm fetishes and ’embarrassing’ penchants for military or superhero outfits, are prisoners of the patriarchal system they uphold: ‘The fathers of the heartbroken men loom large. Their hard-drinking, angry fathers. And their fathers and their fathers and their fathers before them.’ The grandfathers (to whom a later chapter is devoted) embody a less toxic masculinity, yet their stiff upper lips conceal a sense of loss so deep that it can only be assuaged by railway modelling on a Joycean scale. Having ‘survived wars and fifty-year marriages’, they are now holed up in their attics, where memories are stored away, obsessively reconstructing a childhood scene, right down to the diminutive figures of themselves as little boys, ‘searching desperately through the streets for their own silent, unknowable fathers’. The same formulation recurs in a chapter where, having failed to teach their sons about emotional literacy, the dads end up extolling the virtues of hobbies as a time-honoured means of keeping feelings bottled up. It was ever thus, they explain. This scene takes place on a miniature steam railway operated by middle-aged enthusiasts — ‘all men’ — whose reluctance to share their toy with the public (children in particular) inevitably leads to a confrontation and display of cockmanship.

As this comic tour de force testifies, Booth is a miniaturist. His meticulous craft bears more than a passing resemblance to that of his hobbyists, all those haunted men who seem to pour an excess of emotion into elaborate displacement activities. The novel’s repetitive format and collective narrative voice provide a safety net of impersonality, allowing the tenderest of moments to bloom in the nooks and crannies of its vignettes. In the changing rooms at the swimming pool, for instance, the dads — feeling ‘the terrible responsibility of lost socks, and impending colds’ — try not to contemplate ‘all the upcoming catastrophes’ they will never be able to shield their sons from. In another tale of innocence and experience, the dads tell their lads about the nights they were born, before evoking what was deliberately left unsaid: ‘These are not things we talk about, not even to each other. Especially not to each other. We’re terrified that if we started we wouldn’t know how to stop.’

Cosmic Knitting

My review of Dream Machines by Steven Connor. The Times Literary Supplement, 12 October 2018, p. 29.

Dream Machines is an exercise in technography — an exercise, that is, in what Steven Connor defines as any kind of writing about technology that draws attention to the workings of its own machinery. Writing itself may be thought of as a kind of technology — a “mechanisation of speech”, as Connor puts it — and technology in turn may be thought of, perhaps less obviously, as writing. Demonstrating the latter, more counter-intuitive proposition is the main purpose of this ground-breaking book.

For Connor, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge, all machines could stand as “preliminary sketches” towards an absolute machine: one that would align perfectly with the process of thinking itself. Examples abound, in both fact or fiction, of schemes for machines whose nuts and bolts evanesce into sheer fancy. Marie Corelli conjures up contraptions in her Romance of Two Worlds (1886) that are really avatars of “the most powerful machinery of all, that of fantasy or the thing that makes fantasy actual and able to work on the world, writing”. In 1919 the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published an article on the elaborate imaginary apparatus his schizophrenic patients claimed to be persecuted by: this “Influencing Machine” is, likewise, but “an allegory of the machine of writing that sums and summons it up”. If the “orgone box” — an “accumulator” of “orgone energy” dreamt up by Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s and realized some years later by a student of his — produced any pleasure at all, it was through the wish fulfilment of seeing reality “entirely subjugated to imagination”.

It is this visionary component in all technology — the ghost in every machine  — that Connor attempts to isolate by focusing on deficient or, better still, impossible devices. The perfect machine, he suggests, may well be one that, in always going wrong at some stage, is “endlessly perfectible”: planned obsolescence as ontological necessity. This is a notion best exemplified by the “Ultimate Machine” invented by Claude Shannon, following the examples of Bruno Munari and Marvin Minsky. A small box with a single switch, its sole purpose is to “fail to be what it is”: it is a machine with no purpose other than to turn itself off (which it does via a “hand” that emerges, flips the switch and then “immediately retreats into the box”). Perpetual motion mechanisms, to which Connor  devotes a fascinating final chapter, do something similar not not only out of design but necessity (i.e., the laws of thermodynamics). And then there are Michel Carrouges’s drawings of machines célibataires — wondrous yet useless affairs, “whose function is not to work, but to elaborate non-function” — as well as Novalis’s disquieting vision of a “mill grinding itself” or Joseph Conrad’s nightmarish cosmic knitting machine (in a letter from 1897: “It knits us in and it knits us out”), two haunting images that recur throughout the book.

Machines that can only exist in potentia, and preferably on paper, are Connor’s beau idéal. “‘Imaginary’ work makes us work at imagining the work of imagining”, as he puts it in one of his typically recursive aphorisms. He observes how dreams have a propensity to conjure up machines that, in turn, reflect “the machinery of the act of dreaming itself”. This mise en abyme is critical: machines “mediate us to ourselves”, and hence the author’s definition of technology as “the self’s manner of writing, or making itself known to itself”. Connor speculates that Henry James found the sound of his secretary’s typewriter so soothing because it evoked the smooth operation of his imagination, which would have been disrupted had he focused on it directly.

Steven Connor also observes how medical machines are endowed with symbolic value, functioning as “visible allegories” for the body, its workings envisaged as mechanisms of some kind. This mediatory role of all technology is threatened, however, by the advances of miniaturization and dematerialization, processes which render their machine components increasingly invisible. All machines are dream machines, it turns out, not only because they are of necessity bound up with human affect and fancy (humankind is “Homo mechanicus”), but also because their condition, today, is “essentially to-be-imagined”.

The brilliant dialectical turn of mind on show throughout this book runs the risk of becoming a stylistic tic, as though the kinetic were developing its own momentum, hijacking the author’s rhetoric. The “force of fantasy” morphs, with machine-like predictability, into the “fantasy of force”; the “work of dreaming” into the “dream of working”; the “narrated machinery” into the “machinery of narration”; the “negation of the machine” into the “machinery of negation”; and so on. At times Dream Machines almost seems to be writing itself. And this is, after all, quite fitting.