Forty Tiddly Winks

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He found it difficult to get up of a morning because he found it difficult to wake up of a morning. The waking-up problem lay in the fact that he did not want to.

Some people cannot go to sleep for fear of passing away in their slumber. Not him, though. Unconsciousness was a state he positively aspired to, and often contrived to reach — through artificial means — whenever nature would not take its course which, truth be told, was more often than not these days.
Others can just doze off as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Not Tim, though. He needed knocking out flat by dint of drinking himself into a stupor. Otherwise, he was condemned to toss and turn till dawn at the thought of Time’s winged chariot hurrying near: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang you’re dead.
Instinctively, Tim would tune into the hypnotic ticking of his wristwatch on the bedside table. Like a clock in a crocodile, it grew closer by the minute with the implacable inevitability of tragedy until the din became truly deafening. Now, he just knocks back another stiff one and waits for the effect to kick in. The clockodial starts melting, Dali-stylee. The ticking gradually fades into a tiny, tinny background backbeat. Soon it is drowned out by Pomme’s sonorous snoring. Forty tiddly winks.

****

Tim is back in the general science class wearing his old school uniform. He cannot see himself wearing it, but a dormant sensation of itchy acrylic chafing skinny white-boy skin is rudely awakened. A remembered forgotten land of man-made fabrics.

That morning after, he emerged more dead than alive from his customary semi-coma. A Caterpillar boot had been moonstomping on his face — for ever. Nothing else could account for the excruciating pain. Straight away, Tim spotted the tell-tale stigmata: skull resonating like a flushing toilet bowl, snail’s trail of saliva smeared across right cheek, dried-up mucus encrusting limp upper lip having seeped nightly from cavernous nostrils. To think that these were the very same orifices in which the breath of life had been breathed thirty-three years earlier! It really did not bear thinking about. Really.

Behold the tiny tots sitting two by two behind dinky desks, all chubby chops and tuck-shop tums, bless ’em.

As a dog returneth to its vomit, so he looked back and noticed a saline snowfall of dandruff liberally sprinkled all over the black pillowcase. He was petrified. God knows how much of his mortal coil ended up in the hoover on a weekly basis — it was a slow shuffling off. Dust bunnies thou art, Tim, and unto dust bunnies shalt thou return along with every creepy-crawly that creepeth and crawleth upon the earth. He yawned: a putrid, piscine stench issued forth from the cesspool of his mouth, as if he had spent the night snogging a siren in the snot-green sea. Or something.

In pursuit of a good blushing, Miss Ramsay wags an incarnadined digit at some dumpling demon cherub. A few vigorous wags are enough to finger-paint him the colour of her nail varnish. Having achieved the desired chromatic merger, she surveys row upon row of wonky ties and concertinaed tights and sees that it is good. Oh, of course, there are socks to pull up, crinkly smirks to wipe off, curly-wurly minds to straighten out and what-not. But she can tell by the smarmy look on their collective face that Nobody Else has forgotten to bring his/her apple as specified, quite audibly and in plain English, on Thursday last at nine o’ clock sharp. To drive the point home, hadn’t she chalked the instructions up there on the blackboard for all to see? The writing was on the wall, for Christ’s sake! In fancy curlicue letters.

And it came to pass that Tim came to piss. Fishing Moby Dick out of his Calvins was a daily battle, a classic struggle between Man and Beast, the outcome of which seemed most uncertain, considering. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou toil in the toilets.

‘A-pples,’ she hisses as she click-clicks past Adam, sh-shaking her head from side to side and tut-tutting for added effect, ‘The lesson of the day is: a-pples.’ (She has a good mind to expel him, cast him into the wilderness.)

After faffing around his nether-nether regions, Tim gave in to what was, by any standard, a formidable, and indeed enviable, gravity-defying pull. A skyscraping tumescence and no mistake. Oh yes, it was at times like this — when up was the only way — that you grasped the true meaning of transcendence. Casting all remnants of dignity to the wind, he dropped his kecks around his ankles, and braced himself for the daunting challenge that still lay ahead. They were both bollock naked, the man and his manhood, and were not ashamed.

‘Don’t let me catch anybody eating during the lesson,’ she roars, ‘or that body will have hell to pay.’ Miss Ramsay paces the classroom, handing out the odd pre-emptive clip round the proverbial earhole.

He stepped back, psyching himself up, mentally gauging distances like a top athlete, stood on tiptoe, took aim and… shshshit. There she blows! A sudden spurt of steamy, spumy liquid came pissing down onto the lid which Pomme — silly moo that she was — would insist on using as a lavatorial fig leaf. Tim tensed his pubococcygeus to stop the flow by way of a damage-limitation exercise. Still effing and blinding, he micturated in the sink, mopped up the spillage with wads of pink toilet paper, was out of there like a flush in the pan.

Miss Ramsay’s is the mother of all fuck-off apples. Genetically modified by a Dr Frankenstein multinational to the specifications of gangsta Eurotwats, it squats obscenely on the daddy desk, complete in its ur-ness, replete in its rotundity, surfing on surfeit. And it puts the fear of God in the tiny tots, who, for some reason, are now hitting puberty. “All right! Welcome to the New World Order, kids. I’m Uncle Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, you’d better believe it baby.” Thus speaks the golden Überapfel in a global twang that tails off into apple-pie American.

Somehow, Tim stumbled into the kitchen, morning glory at half-mast dripping all over the shop. Upon thy belly shalt thou go. His mind was void and without form. His joints felt well rusty, a Tin Woodman in dire need of lubrication. Like some right divvynity, he fumbled for the switch (fiat lux!) and went to pick a mug from the tree in the midst of the IKEA table. It was a toss-up between James Joyce and Gromit. Predictably enough, given his habitual matutinal regression, he plumped for the reassuring cosiness of the latter.

The apples are drawn, quartered, dissected and analysed right down to the very last pip. Mission accomplished, class dismissed. They can stuff their freckly faces now, for all she cares.

After feeding the dog a pyramid-shaped PG Tip, Tim stood before the work surface, scratching his balls, contemplating yesterday’s dirty dishes dotted with miniature bow ties, waiting for the boil to kettle. Over to the right, the leftover soup, primordial-looking in its present enforced-gazpacho incarnation. Click: Tea for Tim. He chose to pour in the milk first although he didn’t make a religion of it. In these small matters, as in others, Tim liked to exercise his free-will.

Shifting all her weight on one cheek, Eve dislodges her wayward panties by plucking the elastic like a harp string — smack! In so doing, she bares her gleaming pearlies. Tim can smell her fragrant bubblegum breath, passion-fruit flavoured. He will write an ode to that west wind with his Magnetic Poetry Kit as soon as he gets a fridge of his own. Eve’s wide-open mouth is moist and warm. Tim’s wily willy will worm itself willy-nilly into the moist warmth of Eve’s yumyum mouth. Her glossed lips quiver over the polished surface of the apple. She dribbles a little, giggles a lot and finally puts it down.

Tim was out of joints. Paranoia was slowly setting in. He switched on the radio to catch the news before the news caught him, and felt relieved when he relived the expected sense of dejà entendu. As always, Today sounded like yesterday or the day before. Different but the same in a same-difference kind of way. Two female critics were discussing a cutting-edge novel which was causing some sort of sensation. If you hadn’t heard of E-Den, it was like, Hello-o, where have you been for the past seven days? basically.
‘It’s very gritty.’
‘Well, he spares us no details, if that’s what you mean.’
‘It’s very nitty gritty.’
As per usual, the reception was crispy-bacon crackly, but simply hearing James Naughtie’s voice in between sonorous slurps microwaved the cockles of his little heart.

Row upon row of crisp, unblemished apples looking sorry for themselves. The word ‘pristine’ springs to mind. It’s all sinking in like a body falling down its own precipice. The tree, the not-eating thereof. Tim’s classmates, their placid, bovine features. His head spins. His heart pounds. It’s like that wrinkled old lady who lives in a shoe or a cupboard or something down the road, you know, the one with the facial hair. Well, she wasn’t always hunched over that walking stick of hers you know. In fact, she was very much like Eve once upon a time, and Eve will be very much like her sooner or later. You know it’s true, of course you do, on a rational level you do, but not deep down you don’t. Deep down you know nothing. This is huge, this is, this is where Mark P meets Socrates. Tim looks round the classroom. ‘Nothing,’ he wants to scream, ‘we don’t know nothing,’ but the words remain stuck in his throat. Pause. They don’t know they don’t know, do they? He knows. He alone. He. Alone. Panic.

Apparently, scientists were flocking in droves to Azerbaijan where hundredsomethings still rear their sheep on a daily basis. The BBC correspondent introduced an elderly couple who could actually remember the Bolshevik revolution. Professor Gordon Bennett claimed that they may have some ‘genetic predisposition’ to living awfully-long lives. The locals who were interviewed reckoned that Nature was an essential part of the equation: simple healthy lifestyles, clean air and smoothies. Then it was the turn of someone else, a young lady whose voice had a very prickly quality which suggested the kind of angular looks a Vorticist would have killed for. She pointed out that even the sheep live longer in that neck of the woods. One of them could actually recall being buggered by Bulgakov, and a bloody good shag it was too, allegedly. ‘The question, at the end of the day, isn’t so much why these good people and their hospitable sheep enjoy exceptionally-long life-spans,’ Mr Bennett concluded, ‘but why they should die at all.’ Tim winked at the mad professor in the battered transistor radio. He was a bit of a winker was old Tim.

Scattergun impact of killer cha-cha heels marching towards the window: stocky stoccado, scatty scattato, click click click. Well Stacked of Stockwell looks up with heaving bosom, erect nipples standing to attention beneath tight lab coat. A plane flutters by like a butterfly high above the playground tree.

One cuppa, of course, was grossly inadequate, especially after getting trolleyed in such a reckless fashion. He needed three or four at best of times to feel halfway awake, which is as awake as he would probably ever feel now. What he knew — he alone, for some inexplicable reason — was simply too much to bear. As a result, Tim no longer rose from the half-dead: he went through life like a somnambulist on a treadmill. This is how he found himself in the bathless bathroom, face to face with a vaguely-familiar figure he couldn’t quite place.

Juicy fruit hang heavy from the branches of the playground tree. Dewy drops glisten metaphysically on the juicy fruit that hang heavy from the branches of the playground tree. Eve wants to climb up the well-hung playground tree. Eve wants to dip the tip of her tongue in the saccharine stickiness of the angel come. ‘Look, the apples are crying,’ says pig-tailed Natasha to pig-faced Saffron. Both, by the way, are ovulating wildly.

Rooted to the suppurating spot, downright rotting upright, Tim grinned ever so painfully at the imperfect stranger who was likewise wreathed in smiles, pushing up daisies. In times past, he would probably have squinted disdainfully at the random combination of atoms through a lorgnette. Instead, he unscrewed his plastic optics, slicing them in half, and dipped a rigid digit deep into the tear-filled, gouged-out sockets. Left, then right. Putting the lenses in orbit brought about a bout of briny blinking, seeing as they clung on to his forefinger for dear life. They looked like circular, ocular shellfish, but felt like spiky sea urchins. A strange thought occured to him at this juncture. Was the Sandman trying to scupper his cuppa by kicking the beach in his face? Or what?

Miss Ramsay is still gazing up into heaven, marmalade head tilted right back. ‘Sod this for a skylark,’ she whispers under her breath.

No sooner had his eyes stopped their stroboscopic lashing than high resolution replaced the impressionistic blur. Picture a Monet with the fog left out. Tim could now recognize the crow’s feet which had been gaining ground at an alarming rate since John Major’s general election victory and the release of Suede’s first single. A river of rivulets branched out symmetrically on either side of his once sacred temples, producing a groovy, deltoid-etching effect. His complexion bore a striking resemblance to a soundly-slapped bare bottom, or a ruddy red-pencil drawing by one of the lesser masters. He stood staring at this receding hair- and life-line as if it were some grizzly road accident. ‘I’m the chosen one,’ he said by way of introduction, ‘can’tcha fuckin see?’

Dappled-shadow camouflage war-dances upon Miss Ramsay’s folicular waterfall; it’s a jolly kind of jig. ‘Mark my words’ — she warns jabbing the air with a menstruous fingernail — ‘the day cometh that shall burn as an oven.’

There was a handy timing device on Tim’s electric toothbrush. You got two minutes flat of serious rotation before a little green light came on indicating that your time was up. Like the green jelly baby at pedestrian crossings telling you when to walk, he often reflected. Sometimes, he was caught with his pants down which made him come over all ubi sunt and carpe diem, unnecessarily so in the eyes of his young wife. Accidents will happen. Today, however, it was like waiting for the second coming. Tim was strongly put in mind of those times when he would pump away at his snoring sleeping beauty way into the small hours, way beyond the call of marital duty. With baking-soda toothpaste dribbling down the hairs of his chinny-chin-chin, he drew back the plastic curtain and glanced at the waterproof fish clock hanging from the shower head. Jeeeesus Christ!

She notices four shadowy figures beyond the plane, silhouetted against the sun of righteousness. Four ghostly figures beyond the pale, skimming candy-floss clouds on foot-propelled micro-scooters.

‘If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean,’ said Tim to the yellow plastic duckling in the chipped polka dot soap dish. He repeated his plea over and over again like a monotonous dirge on a loop until the yellow plastic duckling told him, in no uncertain terms, to cleanse first that which is within. ‘Yeah, right,’ he said, ‘but after such knowledge, what forgiveness, eh?’ Tim often ended up mourning absolution during his morning ablution.

Miss Ramsay’s serpentine locks start coiling and recoiling in anticipation of a summery execution.

He stepped gingerly into the bedroom, a sodden towel wrapped round his waist, mumbling something about the duck being a quack. Pomme’s black stockings lay legless on the rugged rug. He quickly averted his eyes so as not to reawaken The Beast at this crucial stage in his grooming routine. The urge to stick his tongue down her throat got the better of him in the bitter end. After all, he reasoned, it could be the very last time. As he closed the front door behind him, reeking of Escape by Calvin Klein, Tim felt that there was something odd about the apple logo on his old PowerBook Duo 210. He could have sworn that the bitten-off chunk on the right-hand side was missing. Surely it could not have grown back. No time to check.

An apple falls in slo-mo from the playground tree: Tim sees its reflection in the apple of her eye.

The pit bull in the flat opposite started howling as it did almost every bloody morning. They called it Inky Pit because a) it was as black as sin and because b) its howl was the first thing they had heard upon moving into their studio apartment two years earlier. Its real name was Cerberus. It was a he, no doubt about that. He lived at number sixty-six. They called it the six shop. Each time he walked by, Tim felt like adding the third, missing six with a chunky black marker pen: six, six, six. All he ever found at the bottom of his briefcase, though, was this tiny stump of a pencil that had almost been sharpened into non-existence.

Glass, shattered, damage, collateral, moans, despair, guts, gore, everywhere, everywhere. It’s a nightmare. ‘C’est rien, chéri. T’as encore fait un cauchemar. Allez, rendors toi’: Pomme’s soothing tones. She wanks him back to sleep. It is not the most professional of wanks, but it certainly does the trick.

A babel of babble buzzed round Tim’s head. Whenever he could reasonably expect his descent to start grinding to a halt, another flight of steps appeared out of nowhere and the ground floor receded again. The staircase was winding him up as it wound down. He would never get to the bottom, it was symbolic, they knew he understood symbolism, they were fucking with his brain, that’s what they were doing, they wanted him to jump, they did, over the banister and into the bottomless pit. Core instability. Dizziness. The World Trade Center cannot hold.

Next thing he knows, Pomme is trying to wake him up. She is less successful in this endeavour than in the previous one. She is also far less soothing: ‘Allez, debout, tu vas être en retard si ca continue. C’est toujours la même chose, fais chier a la fin.’ Sitting up in bed looking utterly pissed off, she watches him emerge more dead than alive from his customary semi-coma.

The night before, it came to pass that Tim dreamed The Dream. Tim dreamed The Dream the night before it came to pass.

He crossed the cobbled courtyard and opened the heavy blue door with the panting lion’s head poking its tongue out at passers-by on the other side. Rattling his car keys in his khakis, he walked towards the battered old banger, a Cinquecento straight out of the quattrocento that bore more than a passing resemblance to Noddy’s autoymobile. Thing is, it was not there anymore. The car to the keys had vanished as if erased by some postmodern cartoonist alter deus.
Tim stood in the vacant space left by his car like an invisible scar. He was on the horns of a devilish dilemma. If he did not call Pomme on the mobile straight away, well, frankly, his life just would not be worth living. If he did call her, however, she would tell him to go to the police station. He would then have to explain why that was simply out of the question and she, of course, would not understand. He would be convincing: Oh, for fuck’s sake, woman, what kind of fucking fuckwit would nick our fucking car in a street full of fucking Mercs and BMfuckingWs? But she would be unconvinced. He would be moving: the prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream, and Tim would tell her his Dream all over again. But she would be unmoved. He would be argumentative; she would pick an argument. He would remain calm; she would drum her nails on the table. He would be gentle; she would threaten him with the spatula or, worse still, the chopping board.

Tim walked down the street to the metro station, trying to work out how late he would be for his second lecture on Milton.
As he pontificated on auto-pilot, he recalled that vain, inglorious paper he had published in Etudes Anglaises at the beginning of his academic career. The thrust of his argument was that Adam and Eve, or rather Eve and Adam, were in effect committing suicide when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It had made quite a stir in the English Department at the time. He’d even got a few extra-marital fucks out of it. Little did he know, of course, that, contrary to popular belief, Adam and Eve, or rather Eve and Adam, had never eaten of the tree at all. He still did not know why today, why was beside the point, the tree may have been fruitless for all he knew. Back then, though, he had no idea that their eyes were never opened, and that they were never as gods, knowing good and evil. If all this ran counter to received wisdom, it was simply because no wisom had been received in the first place.

Tim was walking up the street from the metro station when, lo and behold, he spotted his car in the very same spot where he had parked it the day before. Inside, there was a letter which, loosely translated, went something like this: We needed wheels, it was an emergency, a matter of life and death, we’re really, really sorry and all, please accept these two tickets to the opera in compensation, ta very much. Pomme, who believed in noble bandits and absolutely adored the opera (‘J’a-dore l’opéra’), thought it was a very romantic story. She whooped. She squealed. She even cried. She cried some more when she found out that the flat had been burgled in their absence.

Tim went straight for the bottle. This time, they were just poking and prying, trying to find out if he had any proof. It was only the beginning. They would not leave him alone. They were closing in on him. After all, he had stumbled upon the greatest genocide in the history of humanity. The genocide of humanity itself.

He knocked back another stiff one and waited for the effect to kick in. Forty tiddly winks.

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Petit Guignol

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Here is my story which appears in 3:AM London, New York, Paris edited by Andrew Stevens and published by Social Disease in February 2008.

Petit Guignol

I was feeling homesick for the event while it was happening
– Douglas Coupland, Generation X

Daintily, a faun-like figure stole across the cluttered room, pirouetting over the bottles and ashtrays that littered the splattered floorboards. She was the first to notice, having been awakened by a muffled squishy sound as of manifold foreskins peeled back in unison.
Fanny sat up and fumbled for her cigarettes which she dimly recalled leaving beside a dog-eared magazine. She pouted outrageously, mimicking Asia Argento on the glossy cover, but feeling (if truth be told) more like Ségolène Royal gone feral. Not that anyone could see her, nor she anyone. Except when she sparked up and caught a glimpse of the other partygoers who had crashed on the rugs. The expensive Persian rugs with their expansive mindfuck designs: it was all coming back now.

Frédéric Beigbeder in hot pursuit of a statuesque demi-mondaine modelling a lampshade hat. That fucking twat, with his sweater knotted around his neck, whose inanities were still audible above Naast. Astrid surrounded by livid creatures of indeterminate gender lapping up the dark glamour of a voluptuous breakaway Zutiste. Patrick Eudeline reclining on a Moroccan pouffe drinking champagne from a shiny boot of leather. An amazon (with a blonde beehive and the blank expression of a blow-up doll) fellating an oversize banana in some dark (dank?) corner. Gérard Genette doing the twist to Klaxons: rather tentatively at first, then letting rip. Some obscure artist (with an impressive pompadour and an unresolved mother fixation) showing off his collection of potato prints to a bemused Chloé Delaume. A boy who looked like a girl almost kissing a girl who looked like a boy before recoiling in sheer horror. Nick Kent, ashen-faced, claiming to have seen the ghost of Alain Pacadis. Astrid astride an up-and-coming neo-Post-Structuralist who kept neighing and bucking bronco-fashion. Jean-Luc Godard describing his new film project as Blake Edwards meets Russ Meyer. Florian Zeller in hot pursuit of a statuesque demi-mondaine modelling a lampshade hat…

…At some point, there had been a blackout. Matches were struck, candles were lit, she could remember that distinctly.
Probing eyes, disembodied, unblinking and bloodshot, trained on her, boring through. Bleeding gashes in the cloak of night.
Writhing couples, vertical, horizontal or higgledy-piggledy, their serpentine hips suddenly illuminated like quattrocento manuscripts. A torch flashed into the deepest recess.
Astrid, bent over a Formica table — Jackie O hairdo in disarray, retro ski pants concertinaed around her ankles — emitting unmistakably teutonic grunts while a rolly-polly Pataphysician with a twirly moustache bobbed up and down behind her in slo-mo.
Wall-to-wall hip young gunslingers, every one a baby Johnny Thunders.
Pointillist ponces in pointy shoes atomised under the strobe light: lithe, lank youths, all floppy fringes and flailing arms, moonstomping to Plastiscines like there was no tomorrow, although tomorrow was today.

Today was tomorrow when Fanny’s angelic features were bathed in gold, her halo melting like fondue cheese, and sparkling fruit carved in dewdrops dangled lasciviously from chandeliers like overripe testes.
How could she ever forget what it was like?

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He had pounced out of nowhere and pinned her by the arms to the soft furnishings, his breath as fresh as a lungful of menthol, his greedy fingers foraging deep and she had put up a feeble show of resistance like a heroine in some cheap novel and the only time he ever smiled was when he slapped her and it only made her wetter still and she was confused because her mum was a feminist and Gülcher were on the stereo and she closed her eyes as soul surrendered to body and the world melted all around.

“You can only take so much beauty,” he said blowing a plume of smoke at the plaster putti on the ceiling, “before you hit the bottle”. Up close, he looked even more like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Same fragile strength. Same studied abandon. A panther in a tonic suit. A pugilist cherub after a few rounds.

Later on that night, Fanny pictured him whizzing by at the speed of light on his shiny Lambretta, pork-pie hat cockily at half-cock, skinny tie flailing the air, high on hormones, bent on being. He was just wind in her hair now. A dot in the distance, merging with the background, at one with the cosmos. Pure life force. …Just wind in her hair. …She closed her eyes, but the world did not melt like it had the first time.
How could she ever forget what it was like? What it was like would never be forgotten — of that she was sure — but what it was like was not what it was.

Yet her heart still pounded to yesterday’s pogobeat. Someone said: Nobody has ever been this young, whereupon Astrid and her fawning retinue had repaired to a dodgy sheesha bar near La Flèche d’Or. In the metro, they mingled with the vanguard of the rush hour. Overground, daylight competed with sodium. Several other revellers had woken up to the dinky farting sound of the faun darting around. As their eyes adjusted to the semi-obscurity, it transpired that he had been dipped, stark naked, in silver greasepaint. It also dawned on them that he was stealing everything his slender frame could carry. They all looked on, entranced, as if he were a cross between Vaslav Nijinsky and Arsène Lupin. A smattering of applause accompanied his final exit while tears rolled down Fanny’s eyes. In that instant, she sensed she had lost something she had never found.

Andrew Gallix is editor of 3:AM Magazine, created the first literary weblog and launched the Offbeat Generation movement.

On Joey Kowalski

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is my entry on Joey Kowalski, the protagonist of Witold Gombrowicz‘s Ferdydurke (p. 270):

Key character: Joey Kowalski
Title: Ferdydurke
Date: 1937
Author: Witold Gombrowicz (1904 – 1969)
Nationality: Polish
Impact: Gombrowicz’s most famous character embodies the prescient idea that modernity is immaturity.

Joey Kowalski provides us with a thinly-disguised portrait of the author as a young man. In the opening pages, we are even told that he has written an unsuccessful book bearing the very same title as Gombrowicz’s 1933 debut. Although he is clearly the (anti-) hero and first-person narrator, one is reluctant to describe Kowalski as the protagonist because he is constantly acted upon. In the most famous passage, this amorphous thirty-year-old is visited by an eminent old professor who treats him like a kid before marching him off to school where — curiouser and curiouser — he fits in as naturally as a pupil half his age. Ferdydurke (1937) could be defined as a deformation, rather than a formation, novel.

If Kowalski embodies the notion (later popularised by Sartre) that identity is in the eye of the beholder, his own sense of immaturity reflects Poland’s cultural inferiority complex which itself symbolises the growing infantilism of society. Gombrowicz’s first novel is not only an existentialist masterpiece, it also chronicles the emergence of the “new Hedonism” Lord Henry had called for in Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf had observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Outwardly, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. Through Joey Kowalski — as well as the schoolgirl and the farmhand — Gombrowicz was able to diagnose this tantalizing tryst with trivia which characterises the modern world.

On Generation X

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is my entry on Douglas Coupland‘s Generation X (p. 680):

Key Event: Generation X
Title: Generation X: Tales For an Accelerated Culture
Date: 1991
Author: Douglas Coupland (1961- )
Nationality: Canadian
Impact: The book that defined a generation

Although its first recorded occurrence dates back to the early 1950s, “Generation X” gained currency as the name of an English punk band (1976) lifted from the title of an early study on youth culture (1964). Billy Idol’s group was later namechecked by Douglas Coupland in one of his zeitgeist-defining articles (1987-89) that developed into a comic strip and, eventually, a book, published in 1991 (the same year as indie film Slackers and another Gen-X classic, American Psycho). Paradoxically, Generation X gave visibility to a nameless ‘X generation’ of post-baby boomers which, according to Coupland, was “purposefully hiding” — not so much a lost generation, then, as one bent on losing itself. Thereafter, the expression became ubiquitous — supplanting “twentysomething” — and the Canadian author was hailed as the poet laureate of grunge (a phenomenon which also went mainstream in 91).

St Martin’s Press had envisaged an updated version of the Yuppie Handbook, but Coupland penned a bittersweet novel about the search for meaning in a world devoid of grand narratives. The result — a kind of Arabian Nights for slackers — accounts for the book’s instant-classic status and enduring impact. Andy, Claire and Dag all experience mid-twenties crises when they realise their existence has become “a series of scary incidents that simply [aren’t] stringing together to make for an interesting book”. In a bid to become latter-day Scheherazades, they “[q]uit everything”, relocate to the Californian desert where they take on McJobs (another neologism popularised by this book) and transform their lives into “worthwhile tales” through storytelling. Their radical take on downshifting can be seen as a quest for the inscription of absence that points to a prelapsarian Neverland called America. It also happens to be one of the oldest, and indeed greatest, themes in American literature.

On Notable American Women

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is the full-length entry on Ben Marcus‘s Notable American Women which was abridged (p. 759).

Key Passage: introduction
Title: Notable American Women
Date: 2002
Author: Ben Marcus (1967 – )
Nationality: American
Impact: The book that sealed Ben Marcus’s reputation as one of the most singular voices in contemporary fiction.

Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women (2002) is a work of baffling originality which often reads like a user’s guide to some weird-but-wonderful contraption that does not exist. Ostensibly, it is a dystopian family drama set on a farm in deepest Ohio. Jane Marcus joins a feminist cult that aims to achieve total silence and stillness. As a result, her son (Ben) is subjected to the mother of all child-rearing experiments while her husband (Michael) is confined to a hole in the backyard.

Most of the action, however, takes place at a linguistic level. The figments of the author’s fertile imagination are couched in legalese and other technical terms culled from how-to handbooks or business manuals. Freed from its utilitarian raison d’être, this affectless — mock-unheroic — prose produces a jarring poetic note which sounds “like nothing at all” and conjures up the dream of a book that “would go without saying”.

One could argue that Notable American Women dramatises the tension between what goes “without saying” and what goes unsaid. The female Silentists’ decision to suppress their own voices is primarily a political act, but it is also reminiscent of the aesthetics of silence which — from Rimbaud’s agraphia to Cioran and beyond — has cast a shadow over contemporary literature. The first part of the novel is a “disclaimer” attributed to Michael that aims to “mute all that follows”. In a bid to pre-empt the symbolic killing of the paterfamilias (the author plays upon this Oedipal dimension by lending his own name to the protagonist), Michael discredits his son’s credentials as a writer and a human being. Ben, we are told, is ugly, weak, neurotic, retarded and — worse still — an unreliable narrator whose book he invites us to burn: “[H]ow can a single word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” For good measure, he exploits the anxiety-of-influence motif by explaining that a father is “the first author” of his son’s work and that the latter’s voice is the product of “sheer ventriloquism”. The struggle to reassert authority which lies at the heart of these notes from underground could be construed as a deranged revenge — beyond the Barthesian grave — of the author over the scriptor.

On My Idea of Fun

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is my original entry for Will Self‘s My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale which I then cut down to size to fit the format of the book (p. 698):

Book: My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale
Date: 1993
Author: Will Self (1961- )
Nationality: British
Impact: The enfant terrible of British letters lives up to the hype.

My Idea of Fun (1993) was greeted with the kind of vein-popping indignation Will Self had probably anticipated when he chose the title. One reviewer famously described it (on the strength of a couple of American Psycho-style scenes) as the “most loathsome” book he had ever read — a verdict the enfant terrible of British letters must have relished. Self’s debut novel was so much more, however, than just another succès de scandale.

Under the tutelage of a gargantuan Svengali called The Fat Controller, Ian Wharton comes to see himself as a “towering superman” whose gratuitous outrages are beyond good and evil. The protagonist’s “divided personality” (marketing executive / serial killer) enables Self to play upon different levels of reality (à la Lewis Carroll) and tap into the rich doppelgänger tradition (which he would revisit almost a decade later in Dorian). Is The Fat Controller simply Ian’s “personified id”? By undermining all ontological certainty, the author gets to grips with the very nature of fiction.

The plot revolves around a Nietzschean struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. Ian is an eidetiker who can “replicate” anything he sees “with near-photoreal accuracy” — a gift which also turns out to be a curse. The Faustian bargain he strikes with the Mephistophelean Fat Controller (“the Dionysian other”) stipulates that penetrating a woman would result in the immediate loss of his penis. Fearing that he may be “suffering from an excess of imagination” — a charge often levelled at Self himself — he attempts to leave behind the world of magic (but also of incest, masturbation and autism) in order to become “generic”. The whole novel is an analeptic account of how this plan fails. The pleasure principle seems about to prevail, in fine, but Ian’s desire to destroy his suburban idyll can also be seen as the impotent rage of the alter deus unable to bridge the gap between fun and the retrospective “idea of fun” which is only a “tired allusion” to the real thing. Replication (read: realism) cannot grasp the essence of things.