The Unknown Writer

Here is my interview with C. D. Rose for 3:AM Magazine, 30 June 2021.


C. D. Rose is an award-winning short story writer and the author of three palimpsestic books that recall the likes of Calvino, Perec or Borges.

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure from 2014 celebrated the lives of writers who had ‘achieved some measure of literary failure’. Naturally, they all turned out to be fictitious with CD Rose (or some homonym) masquerading as the book’s editor.

Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else, which appeared in 2018, revolves around a British academic who, having written a book entitled (what are the odds?) The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure — is invited to deliver a series of ten lectures on lost or forgotten works in a provincial university located somewhere in central Europe. This academic is an authority on Maxim Guyavitch, a cult author so obscure that his very existence is contested.

The Blind Accordionist (Melville House, 2021) is subtitled ‘Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch’. It appears to be the long-lost manuscript that the academic was looking for in the previous novel. These nine tales often revolve around their own telling and seem to occupy a liminal space between potentiality and actuality. Beautifully written and exquisitely crafted, Rose’s fables are, by turns, surreal, hilarious, poetic, poignant, allusive and elusive.

So, to begin with, could you talk to us about your interest in ‘Pseudo and Crypto Bibliography’ and, more generally, ‘parafiction’ — a term you use to describe works about fictitious books or supposedly by fictitious authors…

CDR: Pseudobibliography is the study of fake or non-existent books; Cryptobibliography that of hidden or lost books. Parafiction is neither of these, though may have a pint with them from time to time.

Parafiction is a mode of literary enquiry which seeks to examine the truth status claimed by both fictional and non-fictional tropes, strategies and discourses. Unlike metafiction which lays bare its workings, and is ultimately interested in showing itself off, parafiction lies quietly alongside the established tradition, neither true nor false.

Do you feel a bit like an actor when you assume someone else’s identity to write fiction, as you do here with Maxim Guyavitch?

CDR: No disrespect, but I mistrust actors. The process of adopting a different identity in order to write is sometimes described as ‘ventriloquism,’ too, but I’m not sure about that either. When we sit down to write, we all become someone else. (It may, however, simply be that the word reminds me of nothing more than Keith Harris and Orville the Duck, or Rod Hull and Emu.)

Being Guyavitch allowed me to shed the layers of self-criticism, hyper-awareness, judgment, over-editing, over-caution, self-censorship, doubt and worry from beneath which so many of us attempt to write. It’s a good strategy. I’d recommend it.

You even turn yourself into a fictional character of sorts with the fake critical apparatus (the introduction, the afterword and annotated bibliography). This adds an extra layer of fiction. It also means that the book contains its own exegesis. Could you talk to us about these two aspects: the proliferating ontological uncertainty and the mock-scholarship?

CDR: I am a fictional character. Don’t we all make ourselves up? (That might account for the ontological uncertainty.)

The book contains its own exegesis partly in order to pre-emptively fend off any critics. You want to criticise this book? it asks, Too late — many have been there already.

It’s also there, this ‘mock scholarship,’ not in any way to mock scholars (heaven forbid), but because of Eco’s idea of the ‘open work,’ a work which can engender its own multitude of interpretations, responses, offshoots, parodies. The Blind Accordionist already includes a few, with the hope that the reader will create more.

Is Maxim Guyavitch a kind of Unknown Writer like there is an Unknown Soldier?

CDR: Yes, I think that’s exactly who he is.

That said, I’m not sure he can stand in for ‘all’ writers, but only for one particular strand. What could represent all unknown writers? There should be an abstract sculpture somewhere. Not a solitary flame though. Maybe one of those Sarah Lucas overflowing ashtrays.

There are many recurring images and motifs in your new book — the compression of time, railways, card games, cartography, ghosts, doppelgängers, dreams, pears (especially pear brandy), etc. — but the most obvious and most enigmatic one is the eponymous figure of the blind accordionist, which recurs in various guises in all the stories. Where does this figure come from?

CDR: André Kertész’s photograph of a blind accordionist, from around 1916. It’s a haunting, disturbing picture, as many of the best photographs can be. George Szirtes has written a really good poem about it, but I first came across it in Geoff Dyer’s book The Ongoing Moment. Dyer lists many of the other photographers who have taken pictures of blind accordionists, tracing it as a kind of trope, an ongoing homage or response to Kertész. I was interested in how it persists through time, both as a photographic subject, but also simply in the number of blind accordionists there actually are!

More simply, I thought ‘The Blind Accordionist’ would be a good title for a book. So I wrote it. With no blind accordionists in it.

(I like the sound of accordions, too, and a lot of accordion music — though I realise many object!)

You point out that great art — from Petrarch to Cindy Sherman — is often based on a pattern of repetition with minor variations. In Who’s Who, there were references to the Goldberg Variations, for instance. Here, we have the figure of the blind accordionist (which appears in each story but always under a different form), the two almost identical villages, the doppelgängers who are not ‘quite identical’, the warder’s day which is ‘as similar and as different’ as any other, the card game in which ‘each card should have its twin, although the twin card was not necessarily identical’… Why are you fascinated by this pattern?

CDR: It’s a way of putting order onto chaos, structuring the random happenstance of the world. Categorising and listing, while still allowing for difference, change — chance even. I mean, random chaos can be fascinating, thrilling, especially in an artistic context, but it can also be scary. And it’s bloody difficult to turn into fiction.

The Blind Accordionist is a collection of short stories and a novel. It’s both at the same time (like a rabbit-duck), isn’t it?

CDR: Exactly that. It’s a collection of short stories pretending to be a novel pretending to be a collection of short stories.

In the Introduction, you write that all we know about Guyavitch is that nine stories were published under his name between the beginning of the 20th century and the 1930s, but you then go on to mention a tale you have chosen not to include (admittedly on account of its ‘dubious authenticity’ — but still!). Is this missing story a bit like the missing chapter in Perec’s Life A User’s Manual? Is it an act of sabotage, or a dose of potentiality that has escaped actualisation? Is it one of the ‘volitional’ errors you describe as ‘portals of discovery’?

CDR: It’s a sabotage into potentiality, perhaps, both a hole and an escape route. It refuses the closure of the completed volume. There’s still more, out there somewhere. I like to think it will turn up, one day.

In your brilliant Afterword, you conjure up a lineage for Guyavitch — mainly authors from central or eastern Europe — a kind of School of Kafka. Why this attraction to Mitteleuropa?

In the 1970s — when I was a child — short animated TV programmes were sometimes broadcast between the more popular shows. Many of these were Czech or Polish. During the school holidays there was also morning television, where you might see imported European dramas for children, either badly dubbed or with one single voice telling us what was going on, the actors speaking mutedly in their own language. There were often flutes on the soundtrack, and sometimes a zither.

In the 1980s — when I was a teen — central and eastern Europe seemed as distant as the moon. Prague, now a city of mini-breaks and lads-on-tour stag weekends, I knew of then as little more than expressionist shadows and rumours of dissidents. Music might reach us from Berlin, its eastern part occasionally visited by the intrepid who always returned with a story. Few of us knew that Leningrad was St Petersburg. I listened to side two of Low a lot, perhaps too much.

In the 1980s — when I was a student — I read Kafka’s grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics, then moved on to white-spined translations of Kundera, Hrabal, Škvorecký, and Schulz.

Now I am an adult, and I know that some things which happen to you when you are young never go away.

In the bibliography, you feign to quote from David Kingston’s ‘Notes on the Whimsical’ (unpublished — of course!) in which he supposedly lists the mise en abyme as one of the genre’s attributes. It seems to me that the mise en abyme is your work’s guiding principle. The best example, here, is ‘At the Gallery of National Art’, where many of the paintings depict other stories in the book (the two villages, the man who decides to become a bear, etc.)…

CDR: The idea of framing something, then putting that thing in frame, then putting another frame around that thing becomes addictive — it’s similar to the process of repetition and variation mentioned above, and it becomes vertiginous, dizzying. It calls everything about perception and representation into question. I think it’s funny, too.

Your books have an encyclopaedic quality: they are full of literary references as well as cross-references to your own works. But they are also frequently attracted to nothingness: I’m thinking here of the desolate landscape painting which is ‘a picture of nothing, if that is possible’ or the mirror, in another story, that fails to reflect anything (and could well be the aforementioned painting rather than a mirror)… Tell us about this oscillation between everything and nothing.

CDR: The abyme mentioned above is the abyss. The mise en abyme is the process of piling things up on the edge of that abyss, or over it. It’s about amassing plenitude in an attempt to cover the horror of the void, or to avoid staring into the abyss too long. The Neapolitan actor-director Enzo Moscato claims the baroque as a style is based on a hysterical fear of the abyss, thus acknowledging the inseparability of the two. I think there’s a useful generative tension between the minimal and the baroque.

Do you see your three books as a trilogy now?

CDR: In that they are three connected books which all talk about each other, yes. You can read them in any order, mind, and The Blind Accordionist might actually be the best place to start.

The Netanyahus

Here is my review of The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. The Irish Times, 5 June 2021, p. 17.

In a postface to his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen relates how he befriended Harold Bloom (to whom this book is dedicated) towards the close of his life. The venerable critic regaled Cohen with countless anecdotes — playing chess with Nabokov, skinny-dipping with Derrida — but the one that made the greatest impression was the time he supervised the campus visit of an “obscure Israeli historian” called Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who rocked up with his feral family, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Netanyahu’s second-born child went on to become the longest-serving, and most controversial, prime minister in Israeli history, thus endowing this farcical fait divers with a retrospective patina of world-historical importance: “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”.

The antique cast of this comically prolix, self-deprecating subtitle is redolent of early novels, which frequently masqueraded as authentic documents. The Netanyahus purports to be composed by a retired academic who, sensing the nighness of the end, is prompted to put pen to paper, as established in the opening sentences: “My name is Ruben Blum and I’m, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical”. This transmutation of subject into subject matter is posited as a “more natural, rational incarnation” than the Christian version: “Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word”. It could also be construed as the mission statement of an author at the top of his game who, like Flaubert, has alchemised a rather insignificant real-life incident into fictive gold. Cohen exploits his character’s professional rigour to sport with the conventions of memoir. Quotation marks are “holy to historians”, Ruben explains, vowing “to express only what was expressed to [him], as verbatim as [his] memory is able” — which is ironic given that both he and the dialogue are made up. Beyond his aversion to today’s “culture of grievance”, the character bears no resemblance to Harold Bloom. There is his surname, of course, but Ruben’s year of birth — 1922 — connects him to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and hence the world of fiction, rather than the waking nightmare of his discipline.

The struggle between history and myth provides the novel with its dialectical armature. History is associated with the onward march of progress, which would go on unimpeded “so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself”. Even the revisionist zealot Ben-Zion is depicted, “lotused” on the floor in front of his hosts’ new colour television set, watching Bonanza with rapt attention. Significantly, when events spiral out of control, the tohubohu unleashed by the “Yahus” (as Ruben and his wife, Edith, call them) is likened to technological failure: “the snow was hissing down like static from a world signed-off, ash from the end of broadcast days”.

Ruben opted for “pagan” academia in a bid to flee his “Jewish past” (which returns in the shape of the Yahus), but remains torn between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen”. His teenage daughter Judy — whose agonistic relation to her elders provides a great deal of mirth — chooses rhinoplasty, which may be her own way of leaving behind the stereotypes affixed to her origins. Corbindale, where the Blums relocated from New York City, is so nondescript that their relatives keep calling it “Corbinton” or “Corbinville”. It is also a hotbed of petty anti-Semitism. The mechanic at the local garage pats Ruben’s head to feel his horns and, as the first Jew to be hired by Corbin College, he is expected to don a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas. It is for this very reason too that he is tasked, in 1960, with vetting Mr Netanyahu’s application and preparing his visit. Ben-Zion, whose idiosyncratic interpretation of the Iberian Inquisition I shall not disclose, argues that the Jewish people have been able to endure by abiding in myth, from whence he himself seems to have sprung. When he howls, it is “in the wind’s language, Hebrew” that he does so.

The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays — such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet — are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style — inventive but elegantly understated — is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow.

All in all, this is a veritable triumph.


The Poetics of Non-Space

Here is my interview with Matthew Turner for 3:AM Magazine, 6 April 2021.


Matthew, last year you were Visiting Professor of Architecture and Visual Theory at the University of Bergen, and are currently a Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, as well as an editor at an architectural magazine (LOBBY), so it seems quite natural that both your non-fiction (I’m thinking of your superb piece for frieze on the ‘architecture of fascism’ in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina) and fiction should revolve around architecture, as the title of your first collection of short stories — Other Rooms (Hesterglock Press, 2019/ Dodo Ink, 2020) — attests. Your fiction, in particular, delineates a poetics of space — an architecture of the mind — that often focuses, as we shall see, on the liminal or uncanny.

You seem to be exploring very similar themes — the intersection between built and mental space — through your academic work, criticism and creative writing: could you tell us a little about these different approaches?

MT: I could answer this by describing how they all relate, and they do, but the real reason is pragmatic. It’s difficult to have the time and funding to think and develop new work, and working across these different areas allows for that. The needs of the students and readers come first of course, and unpacking books which have triggered something for me, but a by-product is that the academic work and criticism are a kind of test site for what filters into the fiction. I don’t have the Nevada Desert to experiment in, however, these more immaterial locations work well at the moment.

The precursor to Loom was an essay on what I called ‘Interior Edgelands’ for Icon Magazine (Icon 196: The London Issue), where I showed how the traditional edgelands, those strange areas on the outskirts of cities where the urban met rural, were migrating inwards because of properties bought for investment and left vacant, and all the buildings sites that pollute the small fragments of nature in the city with toxic dust and other detritus. And that was what I initially proposed to Emma Bolland at Gordian Projects.

It was a bizarre proposition really but I set it as a kind of thought problem to myself and hoped someone else might be intrigued. I essentially wrote a proposal describing this perennially exchanging urban condition, and asked whether someone who was on the run could evade capture by using it. And that happens in Loom, an urban myth of a persona called Olian who is on the run and there are rumours of hidden money that apparently nobody can find.

At the time I was thinking about other crime fiction based on changing urban conditions, such as Chinatown (1974) with its backdrop of changing water landscapes, the California water wars, as well as Scarface (1983) which is supposedly set in Miami, though more often the locations are simulated with these brilliantly grotesque wallpapers and plastic palm trees which really capture the unreality of that city, and, how anything is permissible.

These two examples really capture what I’m interested in when it comes to space, something I explored in the Bachmann piece. There is lots of discussion about how spaces can express personalities and dogmas, while I think they are more effective as incubators that create personas. J. G. Ballard usually described his ‘psychic landscapes’ as emanations from his characters’ minds, but really I think his brutal environments are incubators for these characters. They are made by it and for me that makes them more powerful, because they are real and not fitful projections. You can also see it in Patricia Highsmith’s writing, who was well aware of how spaces can be used to uncover disassociated psychological states. Remember that her first protagonist in Strangers on a Train is an architect who becomes paranoid that his guilt will somehow be shown in the buildings he is designing, yet when they are reviewed his peers see only ‘serenity’. Again, Tom, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, people know he’s evil, however, he gains some kind of redemption because of his exquisite taste in clothes, furniture and painting — which is most likely Highsmith toying with the shallow morals of the reader. All this stuff is not an emanation of his good taste at all, rather the environment is Tom Ripley because he has no solid personality of his own. The intense opulence of this incubator he creates for himself only underscores his lack of psyche. Similarly in Loom I wanted to explore how a corrupt built environment can affect the minds of the people who inhabit it. What kind of person does corruption carve out?

Your new novella, Loom (Gordian Projects), is rooted in the reality of contemporary London — or at least one aspect of it: it revolves around an uninhabited residence on a ‘Potemkin’ street (Millionaire’s Row) in a ghost (part of) town, where houses are investments not homes. The book immediately veers into stranger (and, arguably, far more interesting) territory, but I first wanted to ask you where you stand on psychogeography…

MT: Psychogeography is a tricky term for me. I grew up in such a boring and grey town that using your ‘imagination to remake the world’, as the psychogeographers say, was the only way to cope, and I knew that before I could put a name to it. My friends were all skateboarders and they were great at using the city in way that was opposed to how it was designed. We can’t have been alone in doing that.

As a teenager though, I really enjoyed reading Peter Ackroyd, but I think his writing is very different from the other writers using that term, and I’m not even sure he would label himself a psychogeographer. Reading Patrick Keiller’s book of essays The View From the Train was also a turning point, along with Anna Minton’s brilliant assessments of subtle control mechanisms and corrupt flows of wealth in London. Minton’s books come across as surreal quasi-fictions at first, but that is the reality of the city now. Surrealism made concrete.

As for the other writers most often associated with psychogeography, I think they commandeered writing about place, which already had an incredibly rich history in literature, put a name to it and overthought the whole thing into something which is, at its worst, close to trainspotting. They had a tendency to fetishise place and architecture to an extent that it put other people off writing about it who weren’t in the club, or, didn’t want to be associated. It might be why lots of fiction now has a very weak relationship to space and environment, whereas in the past, this link has been rich. I’m thinking of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight — he would have hated psychogeography of course, yet it is a great journey through a ghostly landscape. This sense of movement from place to place is also missing from a lot of current fiction and it makes me feel quite detached from the narrative, like some dimension of it is missing. Maybe this is more to do with seeing IRL spaces like digital spaces, where transitions are fast and seamless. Non-existent almost, without a real journey.

Despite this, there are people at the moment who write about place in a really inventive way. Just to name a few: Nicholas Royle, Joanna Walsh and Chris Power in his new book A Lonely Man, which is very clever in its use of a gentrified Berlin as a setting, tedious and ripe for paranoid delusions, and includes a drunken dérive-like taxi ride through London.

As for Loom, after Emma at Gordian Projects initially expressed an interest, we met and she challenged me by asking whether we needed another book about a man walking around London. This question led to the narrator being repositioned as a blind spot, unsure of who they are, resulting in this blurring of the house with the person that’s inhabiting it. For me, the psychogeographic writers I’ve come across write from a very masculine point of view, whereas when I read people like Marion Shoard and Luke Turner, places such as the edgelands are much more fluid in terms of gender and sexuality. In Loom the gender of the narrator is never mentioned, their pronouns will depend on the default setting the reader has in their mind. It will be interesting to see what this is.

The title Loom seems apt given the pervasive sense of foreboding, but it also refers to the all-important piece of gold thread that finds an echo, for instance, in the electric cables the protagonist attends to like ‘a medical student separating a circulatory system from an old cadaver’…

MT: It works in a few ways to hint at the book’s themes, while also functioning to join the personal events in the narrative to some kind of collective catastrophe. It’s easy to imagine the gold thread in Loom making its way beyond the house into all the invisible infrastructure, drains, pipes, internet cables, that could link it to the rest of the world.

The title also alludes to narrative threads. When I was young my mother made lace gloves for these rich aristocrats that nobody had ever heard of and were still living in a fantasy of the past. I see writing as being a bit like that weaving process, a filigree thing where you lay down threads, or, a machine, a loom.

At the same time, the title is somewhat paradoxical because what seems to be looming has, in a sense, already happened (like the disaster for Maurice Blanchot). Would you agree?

MT: Yes, I think this feeling of constant suspense without conclusion is a much more truthful depiction of the times we live in than, say, moving towards one dramatic event. There are these monumental catastrophes that are so big we can’t see them, and they are so carefully stage-managed that it’s rare for there to be a distinct climax. We’re in a moment of these low-frequency ‘borderless disasters’, as M. John Harrison calls them in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, that are largely unseen and constantly ongoing, but must secretly contribute to a sense of suspense and anxiety that people can’t directly pinpoint. Gilles Deleuze writes about this kind of thing in his Postscript on the Societies of Control, mapping how control has metamorphosed from Foucault’s prisons to a serpentine gas that has infiltrated everything. Again, this relates to the pervasive gold thread you mentioned in the previous question.

The real protagonist is this seemingly sentient house, right?

Yes and no. The protagonist fuses with the environment so they are both parts of each other. As I mentioned previously, the house incubates a kind of person to the point where it’s hard to tell which is which. I was interested in how a house built from corruption can create a person, whether it results in a corrupt person is for the reader to decide.

Buildings, and how we interact with them, are shadows of thoughts and feeling before we become fully conscious of them. A cluttered home can be stream of consciousness made real, which is much more convincing than traditional articulations of that narrative mode, that for me is usually too ordered and well defined. Space in my writing expresses pre-conscious and pre-personal undercurrents which one of my favourite writers, Nathalie Sarraute, defined as ‘tropisms’ — a phrase borrowed from how plants move towards the sun or other stimulus, such as wind, gravity and darkness. I think my characters grow towards walls and objects, and in turn spaces grow inwards around them. Kafka wrote in one of his notebooks that everyone carries a room around inside of them, and we can hear the noises it makes — it’s this kind of relationship.

We are told that this house was modelled on Alfred Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague, which is famously all about its interior. Here, the original is criticised for containing — like many great artworks — ‘too much of its creator’. What are we to make of this remark when applied to the copy?

MT: You mentioned my piece on Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina for frieze in the introduction. While writing that I was working something out on a map of Vienna and realised the house where the majority of events in Malina take place is just five minutes from Adolf Loos’ apartment and he would walk past the address regularly on the way to the headquarters of the newspaper he wrote for. I find these moments where fiction and reality meet really interesting. Many of the psychological control mechanisms described by Bachmann find their physical manifestation in the architecture of Adolf Loos. Loos designed the Villa Müller so the women inhabiting it could only sit on the built-in furniture, giving him complete control over how they inhabited his spaces. The fixed chairs are usually placed below windows and looking away from them, so in effect void the outside world and reality. The Villa Müller was the epicentre of modernism and partial copies of this house are everywhere, along with the misogynistic and racist spatial politics it promoted. And we don’t even need to look far in the first instance, a slightly longer walk from the Malina house is Haus Wittgenstein that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister, continuing Loos’ principles. It’s an incredibly intimidating house with heavy doors made from iron, and his sister never could live there, writing that it was a house for ‘gods’ rather than ‘small mortals’ like her, echoing Bachmann’s unnamed narrator in Malina.

There is a disquieting centripetal force at play in the novella, as well as an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia: the edgelands have migrated to the city centre; the house ‘turns its back on the outside’ and even haunts itself through its negative space. The house — which is already a copy — harbours its own Matryoshka doll-style doppelganger (the kind of doubling which is often indicative of the unheimlich):

A typical house or flat has a whole host of hidden constructional layers; walls sandwiched with carcinogenic chemicals, asbestos and poisonous lead paints; strange dark voids filled with cigarette ends and vodka bottles from those that built it.

Could you tell us a little more about this very original twist on the haunted house trope? I have already mentioned Blanchot, but were you at all influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the il y a (I’m thinking here of the passage where you write that the house ‘obsessively contemplates’ its inhabitants)?

MT: When you invent a ship, you also invent the shipwreck. In some strange way, when you invent a place through writing you also invent its ghost, without really being in control of what that is. This house that haunts itself came about in that way. Its external surfaces are haunted by the secret life of the detritus hidden in its layers of construction. It just happened, but if I were to look back I’m pretty sure Levinas and Blanchot are there.

I was also thinking about how buildings are probably the most effective way to launder money, not just in the sale of whole properties, but all the materials they are constructed from. Due to the complexity of buildings, it’s all very unaccountable and difficult to point fingers at particular individuals when something goes wrong. We are seeing this right now in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Many buildings have ghosts of corruption and potential disaster, we can feel these things intuitively, but don’t really understand them or see them clearly. I think that’s what ghosts really are and why they are such sources of anxiety.

In one of my favourite extracts, the narrator wonders ‘What slips by unnoticed when we’re habitually grasping for a light switch in the dark?’, drawing the conclusion that ‘We dwell in the spatial equivalent of a stranger’. This ties in with the theme of architecture as fiction that runs (like the piece of gold thread) throughout the book, as well as that of hyperobjects. Is architecture a hyperobject like Olian himself?

MT: Hyperobjects are these strange presences that only show themselves through the marks they leave behind. Global warming is a hyperobject and probably the internet in some ways as well. The architecture in Loom could be seen in this way because it only becomes visible in its interactions with the narrator, through the traces they leave on each other.

Loom was written two years before Covid yet the confinement and the emptying of town centres and cities is already there. In this section of the book I was interested in how little of our homes we actually see. If you were to track the parts of your home you actually walk through and interact with, it would be a surprisingly small percentage. You might look at a painting occasionally, but when was the last time you looked at the wall? There are many of these voids. It relates again to what ghosts really are, and for me they are an acknowledgement of all the parts we don’t see or can’t see.

Similar to other themes in Loom this goes beyond the narrative. Work makes us not see things, capitalism doesn’t really require us to be aware of our environment, and this accounts for why the built environment is becoming increasingly boring. Capitalism wants you to keep walking, it doesn’t require you to stop and admire a building. The result is that the places we walk through every day feel as though they are forever someplace else, distant and unreachable, despite the fact that we live in them. A whole city can become a ghost.

Without giving too much away, of course, where did the inspiration for Olian come from?

MT: Olian is an amalgamation of the oligarchs we read about in the news, but he is also based on a real person that Orson Welles lived with for over a year. Similar to the character described in my book, Michel Olian was a Latvian fixer, an international financier of extreme dubiousness. He was in the background of many major political events and one of the richest men in the world. Search his name on google now though and he’s disappeared. In Olian there are also shades of François Genoud, who was a similar individual. All these people had a fog-like ubiquity, an ability to seemingly be in multiple places at once, that makes them all human precursors to the darker side of the internet. They were all centres masquerading as peripheries, the same as the urban condition underpinning Loom, they were also hyperobjects before that term was coined.

If we return to the subject of influences, Loom (for me) conjured up J. G. Ballard, Tom McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, ruin porn and the nouveau roman — but I think there’s also a Huysmans-style element in there. In particular, a tension between surfaces (aestheticism) and depths (decadence)…

MT: Around the time of writing Loom I was re-reading Huysmans’ À rebours and Là-bas. In his decadent phase, spaces are part of the cosmos of his characters’ inner world. The intensity of his prose is something I find really addictive and has the feel of a medieval cathedral, it reminds me of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, where there is so much detail you can’t possibly perceive it all at once — there is something of the internet there. Despite being directed towards the future, the internet weirdly strives for the religious symbolism of the past: immateriality, light, point clouds, the similarity between prayers and algorithms. Huysmans helped me realise this. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was also with me at the time, and you can see that influence clearly in the illustrations.

The beautiful illustrations also have a William Morris wallpaper quality, which may be linked to what we have just said apropos of Huysmans. Could you talk about the interaction between the text and the illustrations?

MT: I don’t really see them as drawings but more as an extensions of the text. They are just single lines because I wanted them as similar to writing on a page as possible. There are minimal passages mixed with those that are more rococo in character and the drawings respond to this pace, texture and complexity without illustrating it directly.

I have an interest in Early Netherlandish painting, a time when the distance between text and painting was incredibly fine. The Arnolfini Portrait, for instance, might appear as a painting, but really it contains a good amount of writing and was seen as a legal contract at the time of its creation.

What’s next?

MT: At the moment I’m working on an article about disaster architecture for Port Magazine and finishing my short story collection, which doesn’t have a publisher yet. I’m also in the current issue of Icon Magazine (Icon 203: Spring 2021) writing about unstable ground in London and how it was never as stable as we might like to think. The issue is available for free on their website.

Chauvo-Feminism

Here is my review of Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills. The Irish Times, 27 February 2021, p. 14:

A performative espousal of feminist principles may be a fig leaf for plain old misogyny. Many of the abusers exposed by the #MeToo movement — including Harvey Weinstein himself — were men of a woke persuasion. Sam Mills calls them chauvo-feminists, among other things. She even dated one, which gave rise to a textbook case of gaslighting. This provides the armature for a coruscating disquisition on the mind games of Jekylls who Hyde in plain sight. Mills corrals a vast array of material, blending poignant memoir and meticulous research to great effect. Bristling with righteous indignation, yet commendably nuanced, her essay is never less than entertaining, as when she remarks that map-reading is not a task she has to ‘strain against [her] vagina to accomplish’.

The Death of Francis Bacon

Here is my review of The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. The Irish Times, 9 January 2021, p. 13:

Porter’s Portrait of the Artist is a Masterpiece in Miniature

Max Porter explores the inner workings of Francis Bacon’s mind as the artist deliriously recalls his life

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what of painting? As Francis Bacon once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Indeed. In his third novel, Max Porter explores what happens when you contemplate canvases to the point of being contemplated by them.

Rather than talk about Bacon’s paintings, he lets them speak — or mutely howl — and what they express is not what they represent, but how they feel: the sensation of their own brute facticity. “I can still feel it, right through me, like a shock,” Bacon says here, remembering the time when he “bit down on shot” while dining out on pheasant stew: “Metal drill in my fillings right down through my urethra. Buzzing in my underbladder.”

Possibly moonlighting as the critic David Sylvester, the author plants a sneaky mission statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where he confesses his longstanding “unfashionable fixation” with the painter as well as his aim “to get art history out of the way”. (Porter once obtained an MA in this very subject at London’s Courtauld.)

Bacon is lying on his deathbed in a Madrid clinic, where he is attended to by a sister whom he addresses as Hermana or Mercedes (she calls him “piggy”) and regularly mistakes for figures from his past, such as his lover and muse Peter Lacy or photographer and Soho habitué John Deakin. Through a series of delirious dreams, his life is depicted in the visceral style of his work.

Tales of turpentine and turpitude, fisting and feasting commingle with children’s stories and striking imagery, while the artist ponders his legacy: “Oh naff off you skag,” he says apropos of one famous critic. Dying itself is leavened with dark levity: “I wonder if I might have no pain. If you’d be so kind.”

The opening section — one page long, text laid out like a poem, copious amounts of blank space — is devoted to a “[N]on-existent” sketch, from which we may infer that all the other works conjured up thereafter are authentic and still extant. Every subsequent chapter proceeds from a different oil on canvas — seven in all — of varying dimensions (the smallest being 14 x 12 inches).

Of little import at first blush, these measurements highlight the art’s materiality, enabling us to track down, with a fair degree of accuracy, most of the pieces Porter has purposely left untitled. They also allow us to ascertain that the sequence in which the paintings are summoned is strictly chronological down to the penultimate chapter, which is in keeping with the narrative’s biographical tenor.

Porter spares us the tiresome ekphrases. Save for the aforementioned sketch, none of the artworks is described. The emphasis is placed firmly on the creative process and how the works “work”. The revelation of the models’ convulsive beauty, for instance, as soon as they twist and turn — a recurrent gesture that echoes Bacon’s retrospection. When the sister turns sitter she suddenly becomes a “handsome prospect”, her “crowded mouth” making the artist yearn to see her snarl: “that’s why she has to sit like that, as if sitting for me, lest those rows of teeth burp out”.

In one instance Bacon juxtaposes the boyish features of Don Carlos, seen on one painting, with Julius Caesar’s punctured body from another: “I folded the head over at the eyes and laid it on the injury.” This is portraiture as vivisection: “Yes, peeling a scab. Lifting the whole clotty lot of it and seeing the root. Verruca stippled. These are a few of my favourite things.”

The non-existent preparatory sketch, which Bacon cannot recall drafting, represents his own deathbed scene. It soon becomes apparent that with each new chapter and canvas, the sketch is being fleshed out. This impression is reinforced by the numerous repetitions: the sister’s incessant “Intenta descansar”, on which the book closes, produces a sort of litany; every chapter beginning with “Take a seat why don’t you” and containing questions pitting the painter against other figures (Edward the Martyr, Caesar, Mussolini, Caravaggio).

All the while, Bacon is painting his own departure until he absents himself through his work, resurfacing in canvases hanging in museums and galleries from whence he can spend an eternity mocking his critical foes. Self-portraiture as auto-autopsy.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a little masterpiece; a slim volume that packs a mean Peter Lacy-style punch. It is as though Porter had bit down on shot, taking the most adventurous passages from his two previous novels and letting rip — painting in words the “deeply ordered chaos” Bacon saw all about him.

The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.

 

 

The Hippest Man in Paris

My tribute to the late Marc Zermati in the Guardian, 17 June 2020:

Marc Zermati: Farewell to the ‘Hippest Man in Paris’

Zermati, who has died aged 74, was an anglophile dandy whose label Skydog crash-landed rock’n’roll into conservative France

Marc Zermati with the Clash’s Joe Strummer. Photograph by Catherine Faux (Dalle/Avalon.red)

Marc Zermati, who died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 74, was a true underground legend: a national treasure France had never heard of and probably did not deserve. Rock Is My Life — the title of a 2008 exhibition celebrating his career on the radical fringes of the music business — would serve as a fitting epitaph.

Skydog, which Zermati co-created with Pieter Meulenbrock in 1972, was the first modern indie label, directly inspiring the launch of Chiswick and Stiff in England — its most successful release was the Stooges’ Metallic KO in 1976. As a promoter Zermati organised the world’s first punk festival, at Mont-de-Marsan, and introduced bands such as the Clash to a French audience. His heroin addiction and wheeler-dealing landed him on the wrong side of the law, and in latter years his curmudgeonly rightwing views alienated many people. But as one of the earliest champions of punk his importance in rock history cannot be overstated; if cut, he would have bled vinyl.

Zermati was born into a family of Sepharadi Jews in Algiers. Growing up against the bloody background of the war of independence, he took refuge in rock’n’roll records imported from the US, which were more readily available — as he often boasted — than in metropolitan France.

Like so many other pieds-noirs (the name given to people of European origin born in Algeria under French rule) the family fled to la métropole in 1962, when the country gained independence. Zermati would always entertain a conflicted relationship with his new homeland, which he deemed backward-looking and inimical to youth culture. Lest we forget, the 1968 student uprising was sparked off by a protest against single-sex halls of residence at Nanterre — France, at the time, was not all nouvelle vague flair and post-structuralists zooming around in sleek Citröens.

It was in fact often very conservative — socially and culturally — and pop music from the US or the UK was frequently met with xenophobic contempt. In interviews, Zermati recalled how the police would constantly harass, and sometimes even arrest him on account of his long hair, and how he would escape to London, where he felt free, as often as possible. In recent years he bemoaned the “Toubon law”, introduced in 1996 to compel radio stations to play at least 40% francophone songs, singling it out as yet another instance of Gallic insularity — further proof that France and authentic rock music were incompatible.

It was not all bad, though. He joined the ranks of the fabled Bande du Drugstore, fashion-conscious members of Paris’s jeunesse dorée who hung out on the Champs-Elysées and were notorious for their hard partying (referenced by Jacques Dutronc on his 1966 hit “Les Play Boys”). These minets, as they were mockingly called, had a great deal of influence on the mod look across the Channel. This week, journalist Nick Kent wrote on his Facebook page that when he first met Zermati, in 1972 (when the New York Dolls were in town with their future manager, Malcolm McLaren), he was the “hippest man in Paris bar none”. Along with Yves Adrien, Patrick Eudeline, Alain Pacadis and a few others, Zermati — whose idea it was to dress the Flamin’ Groovies in sharp Fab Four suits — belonged to a typically French line of anglophile dandies, who would go on to shape the punk and post-punk years.

In the mid-60s Zermati worked in an art gallery in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where he rubbed shoulders with Joan Miró and Henri Michaux, and befriended Max Ernst — the German surrealist encouraged him to explore the burgeoning American counterculture. His first taste of LSD (in Ibiza, where he stayed for a year) was a turning point in his life, and he always claimed to be able to tell people who had experienced its mind-expanding properties from those who had not, however cool they attempted to appear. L’Open Market, the record emporium he opened in 1972 was originally a head shop, where people congregated to peruse the international underground press and smoke dope. The records on sale were few but carefully selected, and it was this loving curation that outlined a rival tradition, bypassing the progressive cul-de-sac and leading straight to punk. Kids who came in asking for the latest Yes or Genesis were shown the door unceremoniously. Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Jon Savage, Chrissie Hynde, Malcolm McLaren and all the local punks-to-be ranked among the customers. Nico could often be found cooking in the apartment above the shop, while bands such as Asphalt Jungle would be rehearsing in the basement.

Zermati’s taste in music, as well as clothes, was always impeccable. The first release on his label was a wild jam session between Jim Morrison, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix (whom he had met in London and venerated), followed by the Flamin’ Groovies’ legendary Grease EP. You would be hard pressed to start on a higher note. As early as 1974, he set up the first independent distribution network in partnership with Larry Debay; alongside the two Mont-de-Marsan festivals, he organised three nocturnal punk gigs at Paris’s Palais des Glaces in April 1977, with an unbeatable lineup featuring the Clash, the Damned, Generation X, the Jam, the Stranglers, Stinky Toys and the Police (still with their French guitarist, Henry Padovani). At one stage in the 80s, he even became the Clash’s de facto manager.

Following a spell in prison, he co-launched another label, Underdog, and went on to promote gigs in Japan (where he took Johnny Thunders). His greatest achievement, however, will always be transforming Paris, for a few short years in the run-up to punk, into what felt like the capital city of the rock world.

Saving Lucia

My review of Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. The Irish Times, 9 May 2020, p. 57:

The pages of Saving Lucia are so joyous and full of life that they seem about to flap away. Reading Anna Vaught’s third novel is akin to catching your first glimpse of London’s parakeets. It produces a similar sense of wonderment and disorientation — a feral flash of exotic technicolour splashed across a monochrome canvas.

The seed for this “more-or-less true story” — as the narrator calls it — was planted when Vaught discovered that Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce had both been inmates of St Andrew’s, a psychiatric hospital in Northampton. History does not say whether the two Irish women ever met, but then this is a book about awaking from its nightmare, not replicating it.

The date is 1956. Violet — daughter of Baron Ashbourne, a former lord chancellor of Ireland — has been locked away for 30 years, following her attempted assassination of Mussolini. Sensing that her time is almost up, this devout Catholic convert with a penchant for profanity (“go fack yourself doctors”) and killer one-liners (“Decorum is essential in a lunatic asylum”) enrols Lucia as her Boswell.

As the title indicates, writing this book will save Lucia — who was committed to St Andrew’s two years earlier — from being reduced to “hearsay and notes in hospital archives” by providing a sounding board for her silenced voice. In fact, the four voices she channels could be construed as different facets of her divided personality. The characters, after all, are often difficult to distinguish, forcing the author to punctuate the text with “I, Lucia” at regular intervals.

Observing Violet muttering to her beloved passerines in the courtyard, Dr Griffith remarks that she seems to be feeding them “with her words”. Little does he know that bird is the word.

Communication between the two female protagonists is pitched at a frequency that blurs the boundary between sound and silence. On one occasion Lucia is astonished when Violet responds to something she has just been thinking; on others, she catches herself speaking out loud instead of ruminating. The medical staff are unable to tune into this illicit wavelength. When Violet starts whispering to Lucia, at the beginning of their adventure, the nurse “hears it only as rustling and is not sure even if it is there”.

A network of associations running throughout the novel connects whispering to murmuration (a keyword) and rustling to both avian wings and writing. All these elements are brought together in the pivotal scene where the women fly away from St Andrew’s, setting off the hospital’s alarms in the process: “This was the bit the staff heard, but they’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil”.

In the beginning was the bird, and the bird was with Violet, and the bird was Violet. Through a process of transubstantiation or recirculation that James Joyce would have approved of, Lady Gibson feeds the birds “with her words” which themselves turn into birds, thus enacting the oft-repeated idea that confinement liberates the powers of the imagination.

“Come to us passerines,” she tells them, “Soon enough, we will come with you” — and so they do, accompanied by Blanche (the so-called Queen of Hysterics, whose antics under hypnosis attracted le tout Paris at the end of the 19th century) and Anna O. (the originator of the talking cure).

The four women travel through time and space, disrupting a seance by Madame Blavatsky or liberating the inmates of La Salpêtrière. These peregrinations climax when they catch up with Mussolini in an attempt to change the course of world history.

Saving Lucia highlights the role played by the patriarchy in defining and weaponising female madness. Is Violet more dangerous than a fascist dictator? Why is Lucia labelled insane whenever the associations she makes become “too lickety-split” while this is deemed a mark of genius in her father, the great author? (The Joycean pastiches are, incidentally, among the most accomplished passages.) And what of Charcot’s exploitative “theatre of neurology”?

“The novel I mentioned? You are reading it,” Lucia explains in the final pages, before adding, “Well I am sure you grasped that. You’re clever.” This is the novel’s major flaw. Despite its inclusive message and celebration of the imagination, everything is relentlessly spelt out. The narrator may well encourage us “to annotate the margins” of her book, but they have all been filled in.

Set against Anna Vaught’s tremendous achievements, however, this criticism is for the birds.

 

 

The Dominant Animal

My review of The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan. The Irish Times, 25 April 2020, p. 60:

A woman cuts her hand while chopping onions. Chilled to the marrow, she passes out, having caught a glimpse of bone: “I saw it, white, swimming in the brimming gash”. This gory incident, which occurs in the collection’s concluding tale, recalls an earlier piece, where an obsessive hunter polishes animal bones “into gleaming white abstractions”. Lean and mean — whittled down to their very viscera — the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone.

As in her novel Aug 9—Fog (2019) — carved out of a found text — Kathryn Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble. “Ta-da!” (as its title advertises) turns this process into something of a joke. It closes — just as dusk darkens the neighbourhood “from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth” — with an Old Testament-style bush giving birth to a figure. An arm, leg and foot gradually emerge, while the female narrator looks on, entranced. “I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories,” she comments, “so I held my breath and waited to see how this one might begin.”

Ending with a beginning (this is the last sentence) is a way of neither beginning nor ending, just like newborns in these pages never seem fully alive while the recently deceased never seem quite dead. It is a ruse to tap into the primal darkness while holding it at bay. The book itself ends on a similar, albeit more sinister, note: a shadow springing forth from a dark corner in the protagonist’s backyard, “like a vision of God, gnashing his great white teeth”. Scanlan’s fiction never strays far from this point of origin that always threatens to reclaim it, as in this mystifying coup de théâtre: “For a while she could be seen in her white nightgown, but then the dark — it swallowed her”. Has the character really vanished, or is she simply obscured from view? The young American author’s audacious deployment of lacunae is a measure of her singular artistry.

Although the setting is usually suburban, a “frontier kind of aroma” hangs over the manicured lawns. The nearby woodlands act as a kind of annexe of the id for the local menfolk: “It drew their blood. It drank their piss. It ate their shit. It hid the light of day. It hid the stars at night. It hid the path to town”. Scanlan’s unsentimental approach to the animal kingdom is exemplified by the vet who gelds a horse and tosses away “what he’d cut” to a pack of hounds.

In the eponymous story, the female narrator notices a sculpture outside a church: two baby boys suckling at a she-wolf’s pendulous teats. This passing reference to Romulus and Remus is a reminder of civilisation’s pagan, animalistic roots. Animals and men are in fact so united in their bestiality that the slippage from the one to the other is almost imperceptible at times. Women suffer terrible abuse, but they give as good as they get, and some of the best stories are morality tales with a sting in their tails showcasing the author’s wicked sense of humour.

Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one. The latter is achieved by shunning all forms of shorthand and cliche: the wealthy father in “The Candidate” is thus introduced as a “professional manipulator of spinal bones”. The wayward narrator of “The First Whiffs of Spring” — seemingly an alcoholic — embodies the former option. She attends a party but only understands why when a “swaddled body” (note the characteristic obliquity) lands in her arms. Having described her elaborate outfit, highlighting the belt “upon which I’d set my hopes of pulling everything together”, she goes outside, where the wind reverses the process, dissolving her social persona: “It undid my hair and lifted my skirt. It scattered me just like I liked”.

The author’s focus on this scattered self and life stripped back to its essence does not result in a defamiliarisation of the world but, on the contrary, in its refamiliarisation — as though we were emerging from a coma. It also lends these tales a timeless quality, enhanced by a style that tends to the irrefutable. These are sentences written in stone — to be read out loud or learned by heart.

The Evil of Banality

My review of Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer. The Stinging Fly, 9 April 2020:

According to one school of thought, authors — whether consciously or not — always write the same book. As they never get it right, they feel compelled to start over again. Some give up the pretence, spending most of their careers toiling away at a single magnum opus. Others, cursed with beginner’s luck, are henceforth condemned to produce inferior iterations of their debuts. Lars Iyer — an enthusiastic exponent of Mark E. Smith’s ‘three Rs’ (‘Repetition repetition repetition’) — both proves and disproves this theory. To say that his first four novels are much of a muchness is an understatement, but their cumulative effect has led to a glorious breakthrough. Imagine the Spurious trilogy (2011-2012) and Wittgenstein Jr (2014) as two identical loops, running at slightly different speeds, falling in and out of sync, and you get a good idea of Nietzsche and the Burbs, which manages to be different from (and superior to) its predecessors, while remaining essentially the same. It may well be the first instance of verbal phase music.

This hilarious but also bittersweet coming-of-age tale chronicles the last ten school weeks of a group of disaffected sixth-formers — Paula, Art, Merv, and Chandra — in a bog-standard English comprehensive. United by their ‘rogue intelligence’ and outsider status among their peers — the beasts, trendies, and hordes of drudges for ever snacking and checking their phones — these self-styled ‘black holes’ form a ‘gang that hates everyone’ (or purports to do so) save for the new boy with the word ‘NIHILISM’ on his notebook. The latter is soon adopted as their intellectual guru and nicknamed Nietzsche, owing, in part, to a vague, but disputed, resemblance to the German philosopher:

Who? Merv asks.
Friedrich Nietzsche — the philosopher, Paula says. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Nietzsche.
Merv, investigating on his phone. Showing us a photo. The new boy doesn’t look anything like him!
You have to look beyond the moustache, Paula says.
How? Merv says. All I can see is moustache.

The resemblance (if there is one) is not merely physical. Nietzsche’s life closely mirrors that of his namesake: he suffers from mental health issues, has a meddling, supercilious sister; falls in love with Lou (Lou Andreas-Salomé) who leaves him for Paula (Paul Rée), etc. Although we do hear his voice in conversation with the other smart-alecs, as well as through his intense blog entries — couched in grandiose, incendiary rhetoric — Nietzsche’s presence always seems distanced, almost spectral, as though he were hovering on the verge of erasure; never quite all there. His real name, significantly, is not disclosed at any stage. He is, above all, a talismanic figure: a figment of the gang’s collective imagination and constant subject of their choric speculation, gossip, and myth-making. ‘Pessimism,’ as Eugene Thacker observes, ‘is the last refuge of hope’ and this is what the new boy seems to offer from the outset: ‘The feeling that Nietzsche is the key to something. But what door will he unlock? The feeling that something’s going to happen. That something important is about to happen’. This feeling even outlasts his presence (he ends up in a mental hospital while the novel plays out without him). In fact, one could argue that he better embodies this feeling once he is no longer there and the gap between fantasy and reality — never more perceptible than when he is spotted behind the deli counter at Asda — is closed:

Nietzsche, in a hair net, taking orders from customers. Slicing meats. Cutting into wheels of brie. Scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs.
How can this be? The best mind of our generation, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs? The great philosopher of our time, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs?

During a heated exchange, Paula tells Nietzsche that he sounds ‘like some self-help guru’: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and all that,’ she adds by way of explanation. The irony, of course, is that she ignores that this last pearl of wisdom actually comes from the real Nietzsche. God, it seems, is not so much dead as endlessly dying, the desecration of the highest values having now reached the German philosopher himself. This may also account for the rather odd choice of epigraph: ‘You must have chaos in yourself to give birth to a dancing star’ has become such a cliché that appending it to this novel is akin to slapping a picture of the Mona Lisa on the cover of a book about Leonardo da Vinci. Iyer, a former philosophy lecturer, was obviously fully aware of this. The quotation — which, incidentally, Marc Almond references in the title of his latest album (Chaos and a Dancing Star) — is even turned into an upbeat disco song (‘Dancin’ Star. No “g”, Merv says’) towards the end of the book: ‘Don’t want your apo-cal-ypse / Just want your lips to kiss’! The true explanation, I feel, is to be found in an earlier passage, where Chandra argues that ‘All adolescents are philosophers. And all philosophers are adolescents at heart’. The author is trying to recapture the detonation that occurs when such aphorisms collide with bright young minds for the very first time, but hindsight allows him to register the attendant po-faced zealotry and accidental comedy, as well as the impossibly beautiful dreams thus conjured up.

Term time provides the novel’s armature, or straitjacket, with almost every chapter subdivided into seven-day entries. Chandra — the narrator, who is of Indian descent (as is the author) and wants to study creative writing (which Iyer teaches at Newcastle University) — comes across like a nihilistic Adrian Mole as a result of this quasi-diary format. The same activities and locales are revisited time and again: school lessons, inevitably, but also band practice (‘The guitar’s not a lead instrument in our band. It’s a texture. It’s part of the mesh’), snippets from Nietzsche’s blog (‘The tagline’s The Uselessness of Everything, Art says’), psychogeographical forays into Thames Valley suburbia (‘Asda — is this where we’ve come? Asda — is this our destination?’), experiments with recreational drugs (‘We’re searching for a North-West Passage of the mind’), nights out at The Ship (‘Why do we come here? Why do we do it to ourselves?’) and The Idiot book club (‘Maybe only an idiot can understand The Idiot, Paula says. You’re our last best hope, Merv’). Plot is almost entirely subsumed into these loops of weekly routine — suburbia’s brand of eternal recurrence. This, then, is a novel in which nothing happens, unless (as Nietzsche conjectures in his blog) ‘the nothing-is-happening is itself an event’.

The budding Übermenschen of Wokingham (Berkshire) have internalised all the anti-suburban tropes peddled by intellectuals — chief among them, the real Nietzsche — since the late 19th century. According to them, suburbia is an experiment in ‘low-meaning living’ that embodies the sheer ‘impossibility of philosophy’ today, the death of God, and the end of history: ‘History ended in the plastic lip of double-glazed doors. It ended in QPVC gutters. It ended in the mock-Georgian division in QPVC windows. In the fake grout between the fake brick of poured driveways…’. Chandra, here, is singing from Zarathustra’s hymn sheet: ‘What do these houses mean? Truly, no great soul put them up in its image! Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box?’ When he and Art relish the prospect of Wokingham’s annihilation — as a result of terrorism or flooding — one inevitably hears an echo of John Betjeman’s ‘friendly bombs’ raining down on Slough. The gang’s main stumbling block, however, is the ‘sheer positivity’ of the leafy English suburbs, how benign and ‘perfectly pleasant’ they are; the way Wokingham ‘smiles back at your despair’, ‘hopes that you’ll have a nice day in your despair’. Tana (one of the two posh girls they regularly smoke spliffs with) points out that, according to the Telegraph, Wokingham is actually the best place to live in England. Chandra attempts to argue, counter-intuitively, that this may be the very reason why a fellow student committed suicide the previous year. Naturally, no one is really convinced. As Noelle (the other posh girl) puts it, ‘most people live in Hell compared to this’. Henley, which the gang visit during a revision break, turns out to be ‘so lovely’ that Paula, Merv, and even Chandra, start dreaming of living there happily ever after, despite Art’s righteous protestations: ‘These are islands of prettiness amidst the horror. But that only makes the horror worse’. Even Reading — rebranded the ‘anti-Paris’ after they discover, much to their disgust, that the Beckett archives are kept at the local university (‘probably the first post-thinking uni’) — has its charm on a sunny day.

What Nietzsche sees, however, is far more sinister: a Ballardian nightmare of ‘infinite sprawl’; endless ‘suburbs without ‘urbs, without a city, without a centre’ orbiting the void. The suburbs — so easily overlooked owing to the evil of banality — grow dangerously uncanny as soon as one pays them close attention. Like his philosophical forebear, Nietzsche resolves to relinquish negative nihilism (the lament that life is meaningless or an aberration) in favour of positive nihilism (the affirmation of the world as it is). His mission becomes ‘to truly enter the suburbs’ by embracing their very nothingness — the eternal recurrence of the same. The closest we get to such an affirmation is through the eponymous band, Nietzsche and the Burbs, whose Dionysian music aspires to a radical transformation of life.

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey analysed how suburbia came to embody everything that was wrong with modernity in the eyes of (mostly) upper-class authors and thinkers. There is, however, an alternative, more recent, more working-class (or lower-middle-class) history of the English suburbs, written by young suburbanites themselves — the Bowies and Siouxsie Sues. In this version, suburbia is the blank space of boredom and conformity from which subversive and flamboyant pop culture springs. The non-place that tells you, once you reach a certain age, that life is elsewhere. In 1991 Jon Savage could still note that ‘The dreamscape of suburbia has a powerful and unrecognized place in England’s pop culture’ (England’s Dreaming). Thankfully, this terrain has been charted by countless writers and artists in the intervening years, most recently by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) in her memoir, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia (2019). Lars Iyer’s anti-heroes recognise that they come too late to be truly part of this tradition — they even reference Simon Reynolds’ Retromania (2011) — but it does not stop them from taking their music very seriously indeed. For Art — whom Paula describes as the band’s Brian Eno — the solution is to embrace their belatedness — ‘to go posthumous’ — and produce ‘the music that comes after music’ (a strategy which recalls the author’s own 2011 post-literary manifesto). Such music cannot just be about music, however; it must be ‘about everything’:

The band’s got to be our whole life, Art says. We should live the band, do nothing else, just write and practice and play. It’s got to be all we think about, day and night. We can’t separate the music from our lives — not anymore. Living — that’s the art. We’ve got to start a new society. That’s what a band has to be: a clue to a new way of life.

The band is construed as an ‘escape-pod’ that will allow its members — should they succeed in crafting a great album — to redeem their suburban lives by making ‘retrospective sense of it all’: ‘There was a direction all along, we could say — our direction. We’ve become masters of time — our time’. Time — reclaimed, regained — is very much of the essence. The entire novel is steeped in impending end-of-school melancholia, which finds an echo in Nietzsche and the Burbs’ approach to music. On one occasion, at the beginning of band practice, the sound of the amplifiers turned up loud — ‘The feeling of forces gathering. Of something about to begin’ — prompts Chandra to reflect that they are only ‘going to ruin it by actually playing something’. Ahead of their first (and possibly last) gig, he wishes time could be frozen just before they cease to be a bedroom band for ever. ‘I like beginnings,’ he explains, ‘When it’s all potential.’ Art wants the band to play that potential without ever actualising it. In other words, he wants them, as he puts it (sounding like a deranged Martin Hannett-style genius producer) to ‘not play’ – to play without ever playing out. To play what they ‘could play, rather than anything [they] actually play’: music in which the songs are merely implied. To play ‘becoming without end’ or resolution: ’It’s like being on the verge of coming but never actually coming,’ he raves, during one particularly joyous rehearsal. This music is also Chandra’s (and hence Iyer’s). His waves of elliptical sentences, shorn of articles. Like jottings. Like language coming to life. In motion. Always provisional.

Above all, Art wants the band to play truant by absconding through the gap it has opened up between potentiality and actuality — that rent in the fabric of time. Nietzsche and the Burbs is a paean to those languorous summer afternoons, on the cusp of adulthood, when time stretches to eternity, allowing us to pull ‘moments out of moments like conjuror’s scarves’:

We learned real things by not paying attention. We heard true things by not listening, by letting our gazes wander. Time was our teacher: time between tests, between lessons.