Unheard Melodies

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This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Garageland (issue 8, pp. 30-33).

Unheard Melodies

Andrew Gallix goes in search of the most elusive of the phantom bands — L.U.V.

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“As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music was such a shrewd move,” wrote Simon Reynolds in the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again. More recently, he wondered if “searching for utopia through music” had not been “a mistake” (Totally Wired). To ascribe such doubts to impending middle age alone would be to forget that there was a time when music truly was a matter of life and death, when days were whiled away listening to records and poring over album covers in some ill-defined but all-important quest. Instead of producing plays or paintings, the best and brightest were busy perfecting one-note solos on replica Starways from Woolies. Rock’n’ roll was central to contemporary culture: it was where it was at.

Needless to say, no band could ever totally live up to such high expectations. Malcolm McLaren shrewdly ensured that the Sex Pistols made precious few live appearances in order to enhance their mystique. Spandau Ballet would use a similar trick at the beginning of their career by playing invite-only gigs. Keats (Morrissey notwithstanding) was right: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. After all, bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up. Some — like the Libertines whose Arcadian rhetoric was often far more exciting than their songs — are condemned to remain pale reflections of their Platonic ideals. By the same token, a record is always a compromise: The La’s famously spent two years recording and re-recording their first album without ever achieving the desired effect. Even at its best, music cannot vie with the silence it comes from and returns to — the silence inhabited by phantom bands.

We are not talking dead silence here, but rather something akin to the background noise during a performance of 4′ 33″ or the tinnitus burned on to the mind’s ear by imaginary songs overheard through the static in between radio stations. A living silence, perhaps. According to the great academic and critic George Steiner, “A book unwritten is more than a void”. The same could be said about songs unrecorded or unplayed: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian iPod of Babel. Phantom bands themselves are not complete figments of the imagination either: to qualify, they must have some kind of shadowy existence, leave some kind of (lipstick) trace. The Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few graffiti around Victoria Coach Station in the early seventies, but the idea of forming “a totally unpleasant pop group” designed to subvert showbiz from within would obviously be a major influence on the Pistols project (1). The London SS — whose short lifespan was one long audition bringing together most of the major players on the future London punk scene — is probably the most influential group to have neither released a record nor played a single gig. Synthpunk pioneers The Screamers were described by Jello Biafra as “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll”. Typically, their first photoshoot appeared in a magazine when they were yet to play live (2). At a later stage, they were approached to release an album cover containing no record — an art stunt which never materialised but would have been a fitting metaphor for this textbook phantom outfit from Los Angeles. The Screamers managed to become local legends although — or perhaps because — they only did a handful of gigs and never got round to cutting a record (3). The Nova Mob from Liverpool did not even try to go that far. Fronted by Julian Cope, they were a purely conceptual group dedicated to never playing a single note of music. Instead, they would hang around caffs discussing imaginary songs — a practice they referred to as “rehearsing”. Definitely one for the Borgesian iPod.

“It’s like being in love with a woman you’ve never had,” says Dominique Fury, trying to account for the enduring fascination exerted by the group in which she briefly played guitar more than three decades ago: “The relationship hasn’t been consummated”. She smiles. A ray of sunshine has crept into her artist’s studio near Belleville. Through the open window, I can glimpse the pink apple blossom in the middle of the dappled courtyard. All is quiet. All is still. When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love L-U-V. For me, the most phantomatic of phantom bands has always been L.U.V., an elusive and largely illusive all-girl punk combo from Paris. I remember reading tantalising news snippets about them in the music or mainstream press at regular intervals. A quote here, a namecheck there. Just enough to whet my appetite. And then — nothing. A tale told by an idiot, full of silence and fury, signifying nothing. Nostalgia for a band yet to come.

Only one picture of the complete line-up was ever published (in the long-defunct Matin de Paris). Granted, it is worth a thousand words, but the fact that there seem to be no others speaks volumes about the fragility of L.U.V.’s collective identity. It is also rather paradoxical given that style was all the substance they had. From left to right you can see Aphrodisia Flamingo (the rebel), Dominique Fury (the femme fatale), Liliane Vittori (the cerebral rock chick) and Edwige Belmore (the It girl). Wearing matching sunglasses, Aphrodisia and Dominique — the terrible twins who formed the nucleus of the group — stand very close to each other as if they are an item. Aphrodisia stares the world down, her full mouth a smouldering moue of utter contempt — Bardot gone badass. Dominique, in terrorist chic mode, adopts a far more glamorous, almost provocative pose. Liliane, for her part, seems to be fading into the background, a faraway look on her anguished features. Edwige towers above her like some Teutonic titan, sporting a Billy Idol hairdo and the blank expression of a Galeries Lafayette mannequin.

L.U.V. (4) was the brainchild of Aphrodisia Flamingo (Laurence “Lula” Grumbach) who, having mixed with the likes of Nico, Lou Reed and Patti Smith in New York City, returned to Paris determined to launch a girl group of the punk persuasion. One night, down at the Gibus (France’s answer to CBGB), she caught sight of Dominique Fury (née Jeantet) (5). It was L.U.V. at first sight: “I just made a beeline for her because I instantly knew I wanted her in the band”. The fiery, long-haired brunette and the glacial, short-haired blonde were attracted to each other like polar opposites. Dominique speaks repeatedly of a “magnetic relationship”: “There was chemistry between us — something magical that was more than the mere sum of its parts”. Both came from very wealthy but troubled backgrounds (6). Aphrodisia lost her father when she was only eleven; Fury never really found hers (which may explain her penchant for collective experiences) (7). The latter was a revolutionary heiress who made donations to the Black Panthers and bankrolled a couple of utopian communities that she describes as “a quest for something beautifully wild”. Once the opium fumes of the communal dream had dissipated, she embarked on an equally eventful American road trip (almost meeting her fate near the Mexican border) and was soon drawn towards punk’s “dark and romantic aesthetics” — which brings us back to the Gibus circa early 1977.

Although L.U.V. revolved mainly around these two soul mates, the most famous member at the time was in fact Edwige — a striking bisexual amazon who was already a face on the local clubbing scene and would soon be crowned la reine des punks. For fifteen minutes, Paris was at her feet: she ran the door at the hippest joint this side of Studio 54 (Le Palace), was photographed with Warhol for the cover of Façade magazine, formed an electronic duo called Mathématiques Modernes, posed for Helmut Newton and allegedly had a string of affairs with the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna and Sade (“The Sweetest Taboo” is rumoured to be about her). Given her stature, Edwige seemed destined to bang the drums for L.U.V. As Fury puts it, “The group was primarily an image — a work of art — so it was great to have this iconic figure”.

This conception of the band as tableau vivant or performance art was (and indeed remains) at odds with some of the other members’ more conventional aspirations. “Aphrodisia gave me the opportunity to create something,” says Fury, but that something was not rock’n’roll. When L.U.V. petered out, she joined Bazooka, an art collective (where she famously found herself embroiled in a convoluted ménage à trois with two artists of either gender) rather than another band (8). But Liliane, the bassist (9), simply could not understand why Dominique showed no interest in musical proficiency and insisted on teaching her how to master her instrument. Fury reckons “she just wasn’t mad enough”. “She simply didn’t get it,” concurs Aphrodisia. Whenever journalists or A&R people attended rehearsals, they drafted in Hermann Schwartz — Métal Urbain’s axeman — who would play concealed behind a curtain while Fury struck guitar-heroine poses (10).

Aphrodisia, who is currently writing her autobiography, sees L.U.V. as a missed opportunity: “We never wrote a single song. We wanted to, but were probably too stoned” (11). She explains that rehearsals were constantly interrupted because someone always needed to score. She talks about major label interest. She remembers how Rock & Folk, the top French music magazine, would beg them to play a gig that they could cover in their next issue…

Some of us are still waiting for that next issue. Come, let us dance to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Endnotes:

(1) The eponymous Chris Gray was a member of the English section of the Situationist International (expelled in 1967) and the author of the seminal Leaving the 20th Century anthology (1974) which popularised Situationist ideas in Britain. Like Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, he was involved with political pranksters King Mob.

(2) This is reminiscent of the Flowers of Romance (which included Sid Vicious, Viv Albertine and Keith Levene) who gave an interview to a fanzine although they had never played live (and would never do so). The Pistols would later cover the Flowers’ “Belsen Was a Gas”.

(3) The Screamers’ uncompromising music — all synthesizer, keyboard, drums, screamed vocals and not a guitar in sight — was unlikely to get heavy rotation, but delusions of grandeur were probably the main reason why the big time eluded them. A prime example of this was their decision to turn down a tour with Devo. There were also rumours that Brian Eno wanted to produce them, but the band felt that their histrionic live performance could not possibly be captured on vinyl. Instead, they envisaged a video-only release which would have been commercial suicide pre-MTV. It never saw the light of day anyway.

(4) The band’s name is obviously a reference to The New York Dolls’ “Looking For a Kiss,” but according to Laurence Grumbach it also stands for Ladies United Violently or Lipstick Used Viciously. Laurence’s nom de punk was chosen because she was born on 9 August which is St Amour’s day in the French calendar (hence Aphrodisia) and because she was fond of the Flamin’ Groovies (Flamingo). Apparently, it has nothing to do with John Waters’ 1972 film, Pink Flamingos.

(5) Dominique Jeantet reinvented herself as Fury in reference to Faulkner and the Plymouth Fury automobiles. She once owned a guitar with “Fury” inscribed on it.

(6) Fury recently discovered that her godfather was none other than the then future (and now late) President François Mitterrand.

(7) Fury’s father was a protean character. Among many other things, he was a spy with multiple identities who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Before the war, he had been a member of a far-right terrorist group.

(8) The two artists were Olivia Clavel, who introduced her into the collective, and Loulou Picasso. Bazooka are most famous in Britain for producing the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. Dominique Fury, who was once described as the Parisian Edie Sedgwick, also dated Lenny Kaye and Mick Jones of The Clash.

(9) Liliane was also a talented photographer who worked for the music press.

(10) Hermann Schwartz also acted as L.U.V.’s Pygmalion. It was he, for instance, who introduced the girls to The Shangri-Las.

(11) L.U.V. covered two songs: Nico & The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. Dominique Fury showed me some lyrics, both in French and English, that she had written for the band, but I’m not sure she ever shared them with the other members. Some are reminiscent of X-Ray Spex in that they describe a dystopian consumer society. Others stood out because of their violent imagery: “We’ll take the handle and you’ll take the blade”.

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Tom Bradley mentions me and the Offbeats in his brilliant essay on Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink (a small publishing house) which features in the latest issue of Exquisite Corpse (June 2009). Here’s the relevant extract:

Crossing Enigmatic Ink: Locus of the Enigmatic Polygeneration

“…Weltanschaungen, however earnestly professed by the immediate consciousness, are mere mental fads among scribblers. We’re all just trying to give a few copies of our books the widest possible angle of dispersion, in the hope that someone might accidentally bury a fragment of a page in a jar in the preservative desert, Qumran-wise. All contrived explanations of the world that may or may not obtain on the far side of our dust jackets are just temporary means of distraction from the unscientific horror of being remaindered and pulped. In the meantime we busily concoct for our output critical neologisms that might hawk a few vendible price units. We’re almost as prolific confecting generic tags as we are writing stuff to paste them on. We secrete names of Movements for the mongers to itemize, and busily stake claims to the most squalid promo gimmicks, as we fall prey to the teasefully withheld blandishments of that Babylonian harlot best described by Andrew Gallix

…an increasingly reactionary publishing world driven by marketing departments (who have transformed “literary fiction” into a genre) and their academic lackeys (in thrall to the Booker novel)…

— and Jonathan Penton, of Make It New Media:

And when we live with the sort of impersonal, venal corporations that control Twenty-First Century industry, literature suffers. The so-called “publishers” that currently produce the majority of America’s books don’t understand or care about literature that does not immediately make a clear profit. They put fiction and poetry next to blockbuster movies and celebrity tell-alls, and do not see the point. And they haven’t just purchased our printing presses — they’ve purchased the names of the publishers of yesteryear, and attempt to harness the goodwill once generated by these publishers, portraying themselves as the continuing keepers of culture while pushing books down the eternal spiral of the lowest common denominator.

Either spirit exists or it’s a phantasm — or maybe it constitutes some mentally masturbatory Heisenberg quibble that doesn’t exist but nevertheless obtains. In any case, the most intimate access we have to the collective soul’s ungenerated immateriality comes in, and on, books. In this postlapsarian shit-hole of an earth, the naked spirit is presented as nearly unencumbered with existence as it can be via a thin layer of inky molecules on paper (a hundred-percent green, in Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink’s case). A book is the closest the insensible can come to being sensed, as John of Patmos knew. In his insular malnourishment he made a bagel sandwich of it:

And I saw a mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire. And he had in his hand a little book open…And he said unto me, Take the little book, and eat it up.
— Revelation 10:1-2, 9

Writing, if good, transcends time as handily as space, and constitutes the only human permanence. We have no idea what the kithara sounded like before or after Milesian Timotheus added a string to it. Apelles’ paintings are lost tantalizations. Meanwhile, Plato’s dialogues are realer, more present, than the dork in the next cubicle.

And, just as Soul is captured best in print, so proportionally vast is the sacrilege that occurs when literature gets stolen, raped, pimped, whored-out, used as corporocratic asswipe. This makes resistance to big media nothing less than the most important dharma of generated existence. HarperCollins vulgarizes the only non-ephemeral part of us. And despite the majority of our seven authors’ cries denying the existence of the “s” word, they will all join in the following exhortation —

Extend to “communications corporations” the same malign neglect with which you treat the stupid movies their books are churned out for no other purpose than to be turned into. Wish them entropized into papier mache by the blizzard of broken glass that will result when globally warmed hurricanes move north. Leave them languishing at the bottom of a demolition site to warm the thermically equilibrious heart of GX Jupitter-Larsen himself. Supercellular mesocyclones can blow the Big Apple all the way up the Brahmins’ fart-hole, for all anyone who loves lit cares. Odessos-Schmodessa.

Let proximity itself go down the same municipal sewer system. Digital connectivity has rendered physical locality irrelevant and made polyversality the new thing. A generically schizoid reviewer can be sitting right here in Nagasaki writing an article for a magazine in Baton Rouge about a publisher in a London quantumly bilocated, spookily acted upon, in Ontario — and, throughout the entire transaction neither a single cubic inch of flesh will have been pressed, nor gustable cock sucked.

To the same degree that carefully drafted prose sails above extempore gab, the quality of schmoozing has been enhanced. When a school of scribblers eschews congregation at a specific longitude-latitude, what the PR folks call “the presentation self” gets wholesomely idealized. When, to paraphrase Hugh Fox’s epigraph, the Who gets unsecured by landscape, all the somatic curses of generated existence are stripped away. Once space has been erased by the miracle of email, so has time, in terms of its effects on the human frame.

The envy inspired by exquisitely smooth foreheads and cheeks; the superciliousness engendered by wrinkles and arthritic gaits; the mutual revulsion that results in commingling the disparate B.O.s of maturity and im-; the disharmony of voices cracked with senectitude and late teen hormones; the ambiguous eros ignited when the androgyne grace of late adolescence rubs against grizzled moobs; the subcortical whiffs of the Freudian family-disease that obtrude on every animal awareness when figures substitutable for parent and spawn rub elbows, when personal encounters take place among people separable by more than a sibling’s number of years — none of this signifies through the hermetic medium of the internet.

In a creation where particles can spookily act upon each other at a distance of quadrillions of light years, and, in the meantime, the foreclosed home right next door, upon being scheduled for demolition, spookily begins to sport the name of our fifth planet in disembodied black light — the seven ages of man are as days in the week, and a generation can span an open-ended number of decades.

In a universe ruled by karma and rebirth, “generation” is a bad word, denoting as it does the stifling of spirits in coats of crass skin, the greatest disservice that can be done. Nevertheless, Hugh Fox got to christen the Invisible Generation, Andrew Gallix the Offbeats. So I’ll invent a name to embrace Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink’s stable. It will be a “sticky statement,” many-worldly enough to encompass the catalogue’s quantum proclivities, and will also contain a mnemonicism referring back to the brand name from whose womb this septuple existent is undergoing parturition. I’ll make the name doubly apt, as these writers produce electricity as well as useful heat:

The Enigmatic Polygeneration …”

Interview With Chris Killen

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This interview was published in 3:AM Magazine on 7 June 2009:

Middle Beginning End
Chris Killen interviewed by Andrew Gallix.

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3:AM: I know that you started writing when you were 18 (you’re now 27) — what attracted you in the first place?

CK: After finding a few writers that I really liked, that I wanted to read everything I could find — J.D. Salinger, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Richard Brautigan, etc. — it seemed natural to also start writing things of my own.

3:AM: I was surprised when I read The Bird Room because I was expecting something far more pared down given some of your influences, but your similes, for instance, are to die for (one of the female characters “has a voice like a nail file, one which smoothes away anything rough or unnecessary”). How many drafts did you go through?

CK: There were three main drafts. There was an original 30,000 word one. Then I edited it down to just under 20,000 words. Then, the final draft, probably where I inserted all those similes and things that you liked, brought it back up to about 35,000 words.

But I also edit as I’m writing. I can’t do that thing where you just write a draft straight through and then go back at the end and clean it up. I do a kind of ‘cyclic’ thing where I loop back and edit after about every six sentences or so.

3:AM: On the subject of influences, are you a fan of Dan Rhodes? I think William — the narrator — embodies a very Rhodesque kind of pessimistic and slightly masochistic masculinity…

CK: I am definitely a fan of Dan Rhodes, the person. I have only met him once and emailed a few times, but he seems very nice and genuine. I wouldn’t say he was an influence on my writing, though, because I’ve only read a couple of his books — Gold and Anthropology — and both well after I’d finished The Bird Room. I do like what I’ve read, though.

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3:AM: Could you tell us about the role Steven Hall has played in the publication of The Bird Room?

CK: Steven was instrumental in my deal with Canongate. I met him a couple of times when I was working at Waterstone’s — once at an event for The Raw Shark Texts and once over the counter on a Saturday afternoon. We’d chatted a bit about books we liked, online writing, etc. I mentioned that I had finished a novel (at that point I was on the second draft, the 19,000 word version) and Steven asked if he could read it. He gave me his email address, I sent it to him, and then he passed the first chapter and my email onto his editor, Francis, at Canongate.

3:AM: Gwendoline Riley, Joe Stretch, HP Tinker…there seems to be a thriving literary scene in Manchester — or is this a false impression? Is a scene coalescing around your monthly reading night (No Point in Not Being Friends)?

CK: Both true and false, I think. There are definitely a lot of good, interesting writers in Manchester, but I don’t think they all hang out together all the time. Or if they do, I’m not invited.

I have met lots of nice people through the No Point nights, and there are people who come back again and again and who read regularly. But that’s kind of a worry for me, though, if anything — the idea of a pronounced ‘scene’. To me, that implies that it’s become too cliquey and incestuous to be attractive to nervous outsiders.

3:AM: Do you feel an affinity with other authors writing today?

CK: In terms of other ‘young, British authors’ or something, maybe Richard Milward and Joe Stretch. Not so much in writing style, but in terms of ‘situation’ and meeting them a few times and hanging out and them being nice.

I feel affinity mostly with ‘internet’ writers. I say ‘internet’, but a lot of the people whose blogs I follow — Shane Jones, Sam Pink, Blake Butler, Brandon Scott Gorrell, etc. — are also publishing or have published books this year. Which is great.

I feel a particular affinity with Brandon Scott Gorrell. I have talked to him on gmail chat, corresponded by email, read his blog, his poems, his currently unpublished novel (“My Hair Will Defeat You”), and seen short films he has made. Occasionally I feel like Brandon Scott Gorrell is a more ‘hip’, American version of me or something.

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3:AM: You’re going to be the Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester. Are you looking forward to that?

CK: That’s happening right now. I’m here for one semester, until July, I think. It’s really good — I have my own room to sit in and write. I’m on hand to give extra feedback to the MA and Phd writing students. And due to a sequence of unforeseen events, I am also teaching undergraduate creative writing one day a week.

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3:AM: Do your musical and film activities tie in with your writing?

CK: I don’t know. Not as much as I’d like. I think of the music and film things I’ve done as just sort of ‘making a mess’. Being silly. And then I think of my writing — or at least The Bird Room and current novel-in-progress — as more ‘serious’ somehow. I would like there to be less distinction between the two. I would like to make films that were slightly more ‘serious’ and also not write thinking, ‘No, that’s too stupid, I can’t write that …’ I admire people with a ‘solid, overall aesthetic’ but don’t think I’ve achieved that, or if I ever will.

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3:AM: Moving on to the novel itself… The first paragraph ends with “Oh god, I should start again somewhere else”: had you planned out the structure right from the start?

CK: Not really. The original draft was even more fragmentary. It was just presented as short disconnected scenes, the only real structure or plan being that certain scenes seemed to ‘work’ better next to each other. The idea was that in presenting disconnected scenes it would seem like memories, that when you think about events, you hardly ever do so in a chronological or ‘novelistic’ way. Or at least I don’t.

But that was also pretty impossible to read — I got good early reactions to the writing itself, but no one had a clue what the story was. I settled on a good ‘halfway house’ — the middle/beginning/end structure — by the third big draft.

3:AM: William is a first-person narrator while in the Helen chapters you resort to omniscient, third-person narration. Why the difference between the two? Is it because you can empathise with William and find it more difficult to inhabit a female character’s mind? And is there any significance — a loss of autonomy? — in William’s move from first-person to third-person narration?

CK: That might be true — that I felt less confident in writing a female character first-person. But I also wanted the tone to be different for the Helen sections, and I wasn’t sure that would be as effective with a stylistically different first-person narration, for instance. I don’t tend to like books with lots of different first person voices in them, I don’t know why. Because the William sections are so confined to his viewpoint, somewhat ‘claustrophobic’ I think, it felt good to write the Helen parts third-person — to have more ‘room’ or ‘space’ in them, maybe.

I’m not sure what you mean about William’s shifts into third-person? There’s a moment when he moves into second-person: the ‘wanking scene’. That was supposed to imply a level of ‘removal’; originally a thing I wanted to do with his character was imply a yearning for distance from himself, somehow, and to explore the different ways he tries to achieve this, and how those could be presented. I don’t know.

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3:AM: William is a Billy Liar-style character who lives, to a great extent, in his imagination and in many cases it’s difficult to tell for sure whether what he is describing is fact or fiction. The choice of such an unreliable first-person narrator was deliberate, right? Is he a figure of the writer?

CK: People have commented a lot about the ‘unreliability’ of William. I’m not so sure. I mean, yeah, obviously, he is not a ‘normal’ ‘everyday bloke’ — he is very neurotic and … Oh, I don’t know. I can’t answer this question properly for some reason. Sorry.

3:AM: The Mishima epigraph (“At the same time as looking, I must subject myself to being thoroughly looked at”) is key, isn’t it?

One of the reasons why William desperately tries to track down the home porn movie Alice once featured in is directly linked to the epigraph: “I want to see her without her seeing me”. Being watched is either depicted as painful or shameful. When Alice (who works “in eyes” and wears contact lenses not because she needs to but simply because she enjoys “putting things in [her] eyes”) sleeps with William for the first time, her eyes keep widening until her partner becomes “painfully aware” that he is (or thinks he is) being scrutinised. The bartender who watches Alice getting frisky leads William to feel that “everyone in the bar — everyone in the world — is looking”. The same feeling recurs when the taxi driver winks at William in the rear-view mirror as Alice is about to fellate him. When Alice goes off with William’s mate, he immediately imagines them having shameless sex in public: “She’s out with him again. They’re in public somewhere, fucking. Market Square, probably. A crowd has gathered. Someone is handing out balloons and commemorative plates. A group of tourists is clapping and taking photographs”. When Helen (whose new identity involves wearing coloured contacts) feels she is about to throw up at the hairdresser’s, what she fears most is having “to watch herself do it in the mirror”. The most important scene is probably the one in which William objects to the presence of the bathroom mirror: “Pissing and shitting and being an animal should be enough without having to watch yourself as you do it”. He then carries the mirror outside and leans it against a wall: “Let nature have its stupid cock reflected back at it. See how the leaves and slugs and bottle tops like it for a change”.

Could you talk to us about this central theme? How conscious were you of its importance when you were in the process of writing the book?

CK: Yes, the ‘looking vs. being looked at’ theme is very important. I’m glad you picked up on it. It found it strange, when I was reading some of the reviews of The Bird Room, that they damned it as being very ‘lightweight’ and ‘flimsy’, when I was worried initially if I wasn’t being too ‘heavy’ with that theme.

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I was very conscious of those elements when writing the novel. I wanted to explore feelings of detachment, and the idea that when someone looks at you, they kind of ‘take you away’ with them — the images of you, that they sort of ‘record’ you. So for someone like William, who is so uncomfortable with himself that he occasionally wishes he didn’t exist, the idea of being ‘recorded’/remembered by others is particularly unattractive. I guess that’s where the porn elements come in — for him, porn (and in particular the clip of Alice) is a way in which he can watch others without them seeing him; he can truly express himself and his ‘desires’.

3:AM: Some of the funniest and saddest scenes in The Bird Room are those in which William is totally ignored by his former girlfriend. Throughout the book he seems torn between the desire to disappear and be visible (“I look at my reflection in the back-door window. I’m still here. I still exist”). Is this correct, and is there a correlation between the two?

CK: Yes there is. The feelings I described above — William’s desires to disappear, be ignored, to not have people looking at him/recording him, to not have to live in the world and make mistakes and hurt or influence others… Those work at odds against his other ‘human’ desires; you know: to be loved, to form a relationship (however idealised he has made it in his head), to be wanted, etc. The tension comes from his swings between the two, I think, and how it is pretty much impossible to reconcile two such polar needs or desires.

3:AM: There are two Williams who seem to embody two radically opposed versions of masculinity. The narrator is described by Helen as William or Will as if they were two different personae. Clair has reinvented herself as Helen (who is officially an actress) and has an imaginary sister. At one point, she impersonates her housemate and ekes out a living by embodying men’s sexual fantasies. The two protagonists are very much divided selves, aren’t they?

CK: Absolutely. I think it’s more pronounced and obvious with William and Will — I mean, personally I think of them as two separate characters, so in the ‘world’ of the novel, they are different people. But the idea, when writing them, was to sort of polarise my own personality — my more ‘outgoing’ gregarious side, and my more insular, neurotic side — and turn them into separate people and really ‘go further’ with them. I guess, meaning, I don’t think in real life I am either quite as insecure and neurotic as William or vacant and twattish as Will. But, you know, I am both of those things a bit, sometimes.

With Helen/Clair, that was more about looking at how someone would reconstruct their own identity, if they had decided that they didn’t like who they were anymore.

But yes, then she sort of ‘bleeds’ into Alice towards the end. I know it doesn’t make complete sense; I didn’t want or intend it to be explained in that way, like there is a ‘secret code’ to work out or anything. I like how in fiction you can do things and those things don’t have to make sense like they would in the real world. I am going to stop trying to explain it now, as I feel like I am doing more damage to it rather than helping/justifying it.

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3:AM: In the restaurant scene, William imagines that he is double-clicking on Alice’s head “until she falls in love with [him] again”. He also double-clicks on his rival: “I select and delete him”. In another passage, William imagines Alice with an ex: “Her skin sends something like a text message to her brain…”. Are you highlighting the dangers of living in a kind of virtual reality?

CK: No, I certainly wasn’t setting out to ‘satirise’ the current ‘information age’ or even to say, ‘I think it is dangerous’. I just thought it was a good way to explore those feelings of detachment / ways of becoming a different person / etc. The internet is very much a part of my life and the people I was writing about also use it a lot. William, for instance, uses it so much, as a way of hiding from the real world that it has infiltrated his thought process. That has happened to me in the past. I have thought thoughts with internet words in them, and then gone, ‘Oh’.

3:AM: Please tell us a bit more about the novel’s ornithological theme (not only the title, William’s paintings but also some similes like “Your luck has turned around on itself like an owl’s head”…)

CK: Some of the bird references were just for ‘tone’. But the title, and the main sort of ‘symbolic’ bird episode — Will’s anecdote about biting the head of his sister’s budgie for a dare, and not seeing the influence of that in his own work — that was a possibly heavy-handed way of me saying, ‘There are lots of subconscious factors influencing and determining our lives. Maybe. In my opinion.’

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Patrice Carrer, author of the French translation of Tony O’Neill‘s Notre Dame du Vide, mentions me and the Offbeats in his postface (pp. 237-238). The book was published in June 2009.

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Patrice Carrer, “Repères Critiques,” Notre Dame du Vide by Tony O’Neill (Paris: 13E Note Editions, 2009)

Parmi les principaux mouvements littéraires radicaux comptant de nombreux “amis en ligne” — notamment des figures de la contre-culture tels Dan Fante ou Billy Childish —, on trouve, à part nos Brutalists ou encore le collectif Riot Lit, l’Offbeat Generation, pareillement portée sur Huysmans, Bukowski et la dive bouteille. D’après son porte-parole Andrew Gallix, rédacteur en chef du magazine littéraire en ligne 3:AM, l’âge de ses auteurs s’échelonne de dix-huit à quarante ans; l’O.G. réunit des gens qui se sentent “aliénés dans un monde éditorial dominé par le maketing”. …Phénomène anglo-saxon, ces mouvements cousins sont de plus en plus présents sur le Net. Parmi les auteurs qui montent, retenons les noms de Heidi James-Garwood, Laura Hird, Matthew Coleman, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy, H.P. Tinker, Andrew Gallix… et, d’abord, bien sûr, Tony O’Neill.

Can Artists Create Art By Doing Nothing?

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This appeared in the Art and Design section of the Guardian website on 1 June 2009:

Can Artists Create Art by Doing Nothing?

Félicien Marboeuf, a fictitious author who never wrote a book, is the inspiration for a new exhibition. Andrew Gallix celebrates artists who have turned doing very little into an art form

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More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published — and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.

Jean-Yves Jouannais, the curator of this exhibition, had already placed Marboeuf at the very heart of Artistes sans Oeuvres (Artists without Works), his cult book that first appeared in 1997 and has just been reprinted in an expanded edition. The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life — perhaps even more so.

Jouannais believes that the attempt at an art-life merger, which so preoccupied the avant garde of the 20th century, originated with Walter Pater‘s contention that experience, not “the fruit of experience”, was an end in itself. Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the fabled pugilist poet Arthur Cravan — who kick-started the dada revolution with Francis Picabia before disappearing off the coast of Mexico — embodied (along with Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady) this mutation. Turning one’s existence into poetry was now where it was at.

“I like living, breathing better than working,” Marcel Duchamp famously declared. “My art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.” The time frame of the artwork shifted accordingly, from posterity — Paul Éluard‘s “difficult desire to endure” — to the here and now. Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature — sometimes for several decades — like a fine wine.

Phantom works abound in Jouannais’s book, from Harald Szeemann‘s purely imaginary Museum of Obsessions to the recreation of fictitious exhibitions by Alain Bublex through Stendhal‘s numerous aborted novels or the Brautigan Library‘s collection of rejected manuscripts. There is of course the case of Roland Barthes, whose career as a theorist was partly a means of not writing the novel he dreamed of (Vita Nova). One of my favourite examples is Société Perpendiculaire, co-created by Jouannais with Nicolas Bourriaud and others in the early 80s. This “hyperrealistic bureaucratic structure”, dedicated to the “poetry of virtual events”, had no other function but to produce reams of administrative texts pertaining to projects that would never see the light of day.

The Société Perpendiculaire would have provided a perfect working environment for Flaubert’s cretinous copyists Bouvard and Pécuchet, whose influence looms large in these pages. Just as Jorge Luis Borges‘s Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut set about copying Sentimental Education in its entirety in 1985. Sherrie Levine also reduced artistic production to reproduction by signing famous paintings or photographs by other artists. Erasure is an even more common strategy. Man Ray set the tone with Lautgedicht (1924), his painting of a poem with all the words blanked out, which anticipated Emilio Isgrò’s Cancellature of the 1960s. The most famous examples here are Robert Rauschenberg‘s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and Yves Klein‘s infamous empty exhibition (1958).

Jouannais’s artists without works are essentially of a sunny disposition, totally at odds with the impotent rage of the “failure fundamentalists”, as he calls them.

Displaying a wealth of material — paintings, sketches, collages, photographs and installations — the exhibition focuses on Marboeuf the man rather than the author. Marboeuf as a beautiful child; in middle age, bald as a coot, with a creepy-looking smile on his face; Marboeuf looking suspiciously Proustian on his death bed; Marboeuf’s grave … This biographical angle is hardly surprising given the author’s limited output, but rather more so when you consider that he is purely a figment of Jouannais’s imagination.

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Can artists create art by doing sod all? That’s the question raised in my latest piece for the Guardian‘s website:

“…Jouannais believes that the attempt at an art-life merger, which so preoccupied the avant garde of the 20th century, originated with Walter Pater‘s contention that experience, not “the fruit of experience”, was an end in itself. Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the fabled pugilist poet Arthur Cravan, who kick-started the dada revolution with Francis Picabia before disappearing off the coast of Mexico – embodied (along with Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady) this mutation. Turning one’s existence into poetry was now where it was at. ‘I like living, breathing better than working,’ Marcel Duchamp famously declared. ‘My art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.'”

More here.