Dream Machines (Teaser)

My review of Steven Connor‘s Dream Machines appears in this week’s Times Literary Supplement.

Here’s a little teaser:

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

For Connor, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge, all machines could stand as “preliminary sketches” towards an absolute machine: one that would align perfectly with the process of thinking itself. Examples abound, in both fact or fiction, of schemes for machines whose nuts and bolts evanesce into sheer fancy. Marie Corelli conjures up contraptions in her Romance of Two Worlds (1886) that are really…

The Story of “The Face”

My review of The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture by Paul Gorman. The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Paul Gorman’s The Story of “The Face” charts the rise and fall of the original style magazine, from its launch, on a shoestring, in 1980, to 1999, when it was sold off by its founder to a publishing giant. Nick Logan’s monthly would only survive five more years in the brave new digital world it had foreshadowed with its kaleidoscopic cultural coverage. Right from the start, The Face proved a victim of its own success. Having identified style as the prism through which to observe the zeitgeist — thereby eliding the distinction between men and women’s magazines — it soon spawned a host of imitators, not least among the Sunday supplements. At one stage, art director Neville Brody was producing a brand new typeface for every issue, in a frenetic bid to remain one step beyond.

This coffee-table book, with its hundreds of lavishly reproduced covers and innovative page layouts, does full justice to the “world’s best-dressed magazine”. Flicking through it, one witnesses The Face’s visual identity gradually shifting away from radical graphic design towards slick era-defining photography. The Story of The Face is a paean to its founder who, the author contends, has been airbrushed out of history. Logan’s fascination with the intersection between pop music and street style was rooted in his days as a young mod in the 1960s, which the title of his prime publication would allude to (a face being a top mod). After working for the local press, he graduated to the New Musical Express where he became editor at the age of twenty-six, in 1973, presiding over what was arguably the paper’s most important period. He left, following a breakdown, subsequently launching the hugely successful Smash Hits aimed at the post-punk teenybopper market.

The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

 

The Story of “The Face” (excerpt)

My short review of Paul Gorman‘s excellent The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture features in the latest issue of The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Here’s an extract:

. . . The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.

Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

It Was Bound to Go Wrong

Walton, Stuart. “It Was Bound to Go Wrong.” Review 31, 24 January 2018:

… On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix’s essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was ‘just too bad to be true’, is a pertinent contribution.

The same author’s ‘Unheard Melodies’, on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own.