Monday, 30 November 2009

The Haddock of Truth



The whole point of this blog was to wax shambolic about my progress in Edinburgh Napier University’s Creative Writing course, but I’ve held back for two reasons.

One: It’s irritating when people discuss what they do in the day. I did this, I did that. I screwed him, I fellated her. Gah. So what. The world turns without you, sunshine. Shaddap.

Secondly: I’ve been walloped around the brains with the haddock of truth and it stings. My writing has been torn apart by savage savants and succulent svengalis. I have bruises the size of Nagasaki.

Here are some truths I’ve been forced to confront:

1. I can’t write convincing working class characters.

This is true. I perform better as a scribe when my character has an intellectual curiosity, some quirk of the mind that usually places them as lower-middle class types or richos. I was raised in a working class household but was one of those bookish brats who avoided his parents and siblings in favour of being a stuck-up tosspot. Hence, our current problem.

2. I over-over-over-satirize.

Too much satire and not enough everything else. My constant need to slap the world on the bum 24/7 needs to be contained. Thing is… I dislike most things. Cabbage. Homophobes. Gramophones. People. OK, let me rephrase… I dislike most people. Until I meet them. Then I like them. Then I resent them when they lose interest in me, and go back to hating everyone.

3. I am an unemotional writer.

It’s odd. I have satchels of sorrow and wellfuls of woe within my being. Trouble is, I care little for the emotional punch in stories. I dislike catharses (where characters weep and learn things). Characters who grow. Characters who love, laugh and live. Shaddap. Not interested. The human condition is a short poor man licking the testicles of a giant rich bastard. We are sheep. We are worthless. We come, go, regenerate and repeat. We’re too preoccupied with fast-food, coffee, careers in the media and YouTube to emote.

4. My vision is wonky.

What do I want to SAY as a writer? What gets on my cheese? What do my stories MEAN? These are important and irritating questions. My main preoccupation as a writer has been, thus far, the impossibility of writing. I think right now I’m veering towards a writing that is so self-contained, self-aware, self-critical, that it will exist only in my head as the spectre of an idea. You will have to download each spectral podcast from my brain.

Mainly I write about the same thing as most writers: why the world is a BAD and EVIL place. Sob sob sob sob.

5. I’m impatient and lazy.

I am part of the instant mash, instant whip, instant gratification generation. We want things now. We want to be geniuses now. We want to be Martin JG Will Eggers without doing the work. We want to run before we can take a college course in Basic Crawling. We are Generation Meh.

This was an informative vent. Solutions next time. Positivity! Ideas!

Friday, 27 November 2009

YOU ARE…

  1. Alive.
  2. Related to Martin Amis.
  3. The handsomest cheesemaker in the borough.
  4. Somewhat disappointed when a fat man falls in the canal.
  5. Indifferent to the New Puritan movement.
  6. Afraid of socks.
  7. Unwilling to read George Orwell’s Complete Works.
  8. Nowhere.
  9. Allergic to Qs, Ts and Vs.
  10. Not going to eat the last remaining crouton.
  11. Reading this list and wondering when it’s going to end.
  12. Fond of fondue.
  13. A writer with eight published novels and three unpublished children.
  14. Going to enrol in night school to learn Swiss.
  15. OK with Arabs living in your neighbourhood, as long as they keep away from your twigs.
  16. Amused by carpets.
  17. An avid participant in YouTube culture.
  18. A patchwork megalomaniac.
  19. Not Gore Vidal.
  20. Partial to a mince pie on the patio.
  21. Not having intercourse at this present moment.
  22. Unlikely to use the word lustrous in conversation.
  23. Skilled at disarming nuclear reactors.
  24. About to leave the room to do something unspeakable.
  25. Fond of reading book reviews but have no intention of ever reading the books in question.
  26. Simple but astoundingly clever.
  27. Dead in spirit, alive in presence.
  28. Not fond of the Nazis, but find Keanu Reeves cute.
  29. At some point going to weep for a long time and hate yourself immensely.
  30. Can’t stand up for falling down.
  31. The sort who texts opinions into radio programmes and gets rather worked up about stolen caravans.
  32. The sort who likes rosebuds but dislikes paedophiles.
  33. Willing to eat a chocolate bar, but will not donate 50p to starving children in Newcastle.
  34. Never ever EVER going to Newcastle.
  35. Going to bemoan the corporate charade of Christmas, but participate regardless lest society oust you from its heaving bosom.
  36. Unlikely to become an anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary in the next ten minutes.
  37. Not going out wearing that.
  38. Building to a crescendo.
  39. A walking anticlimax.
  40. Beginning to think this blogger is an unhinged tosser.
  41. 42.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Gold Dust Magazine #16

Gold Dust Magazine is one of the few hip and happening print magazines in the UK. The last vestige of fictional experimentation on this sceptred isle can be found in the pages of these sorts of independently spirited rags up and down the nation. I salute the impoverished bookshop owners who mastermind these endeavours across the land. SALUTE!

Aside from combining an eclectic range of short stories, flash fictions and poems, they also squeeze in some gloriously colourful artwork, book reviews and drama excerpts.

I happen to be in their Winter issue. Of course. You knew there was an ulterior motive. There is an ulterior motive behind most human endeavour, otherwise we would be partaking in those love and dope orgies The Beatles promised us in the ‘60s. Screw you, Ringo.

The embarrassing and ridiculous story of mine that appears on p10, entitled "Boopopper's Last Bop," was written almost two years ago, which explains why the prose honks of turpentine and cheap immature humour. It’s my trademark.

Also included are some fine pieces by James Rawbone, Ruthie Lockyer, Ruth H Russell, Jennifer Marshall and Rick Ewing.

You can acquire (with money) a print edition (ho-ho-ho), or nobble the free PDF
here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Grandpa Facsemolina on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Oi’ve bin pluggin’ me earoles into the kiddie radio again (don’t call the Paedo Police!) and listenin’ to the hip-and-happenin’ (or in me case, replacement hip-and-happenin’) trio de Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

There wizza time when bands from New Yolk made me garter burst (like an ant blowin’ its guts) but me’ve mellowed in me old age and me finds meself takin’ to the thumpsex of these brats wi’ passion.

I first heard dem on me 134th birthday when their self-titled EP came blastin’ from the art-rock hive. I wiz leapin’ about the nursin’ home to the paean-to-porking “Bang” and I snapped a ligament. I took to this braggadocious garage rock like a midshipman to a kennel of fennel. Oosh? This is what the trump looks-a-like (I took de pictcha):


Next in 2003 came their full-funkout LP
Fever to Tell with its naptime love hymn “Maps” and the cell-e-bray-shawn of graverobbing (not me grave – I ain’t dead yet, by gorra!) “Black Tongue.” Oh Nellie, whatta-can-a-tella-thee-bout-dat?

It sent me into a coma o’ art-rock horrificaticadistressiness, friend! Even the free-and-in-love bum-bum of “Modern Romance” kept me in a trance-like squalorous heckhold for a week, ninn-a-ninn-a-noo-noo! It took 999 earthdays to recover, you febrile fancies!

By which time, by a stroke-a coincidence,
Show Your Bones, their 2006 LP spurted free. I responded: “I’ll takey me shirt off… you can see me whole skeleton, ye arty scamps!” Oooo-ooooooww! Huh-huh-huh! I need me meds. Gimme a momento. MEDS!

Thass betta. “Gold Lion” was pervect – a slink-e anthem for wildlife that had been dipped in a dense insert bright yella element that fetches bazillions on the black market. Nice and tooneful. Resta the album helped me t’sleep in those winter nights. Oh, how grandpas need their sleep!

The
Isis EP spoomed in 2007. I tells ya, those imps know how to heart-attack an old bugger! The loud-sex-howl-sleek-hell-nightmare of “Rockers to Swallow” made me long for the WWI trenches again. At least that was quieter! Somethinherewasblowinmearseabout!

It’s Blitz! was reweased this annum. Hoop, me thought – an album about the Blitz! Me comrades who fell in the nine wars me faught in… immortalised in song! Instead Nicko, Kareno and Briano was miftin’ me about like a cudgel lodged in the ribs of a prosthetic Voltaire. Me likes “Heads Will Roll” despite the words bein’ ripped off from me dead bunkmate Miki O.

So thass me lowdown on the Yeah Yum Yucks. Leapin’ and sweatin’ and thumpin’ from a trio o’ gruntin’ ghouls! If ye be a young punk ye’ll no doubt hop-skip-thump the night off to this mess. Us oldies need some Bach O and Beethoven O and Chopin O instead-O.

Lickapumpandstickamump.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Grandpa Facsemolina on Mobile Phones


Let me tell you something about mobile phones!

a) I can’t get outta bed in the morning without these beastie buggers ringin’ in me folkin’ ears! It’s like a-gang-a ASBO kiddies are gatherin’ round me beddies and shoutin’ in me aurals: OI! GRAMPS! GIT DOWNSTAIRS AND EAT YER EGGS!

b) On the folkin’ bus, me hears townies squawkin’ t’their luvvas ‘bout this-and-that, ‘tis-and-tat. Go home and boil a kitten! Theren’t no need t’speak on the metro in da loudvox: ME EARS HEAR YA, SILLY! I wanna cell-a-tape their traps a-shut!

c) I canna dial without reachin’ me sista! I don’t wan-ta-talk t’her, she’s 98-and-a third, FER STREWTH!

d) Dem Jamaicans keep a-stealin’ me Vaseline and me talkback capa-hill-billities! I got me a phone from Vodafone and me ain’t seen no free weekend calls on me tariff. Charlene’s tonnes!

e) Wen I has breakfast with me son or me mum there’s a-swarm-a phone folks ‘round me bed making squawkin’ sounds: GIE US OUR PHONEBILLS, MISTA, OR WE DO YA IN! Most imprecise.

f) When I is at me t’ai chi classes and pullin’ the shapes I get a call from Bobbi-Bee at the dentist, summonin’ me t’git me teeth chipped or me gums suctioned with ‘dem torture implements (WW2 flashbacks in the ghetto, me old codlivermate).

Honestly, hakkas! Honestly!

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#7]

This blog is in danger of becoming a bibliophile’s wet dream, what with the neverending procession of book reviews I’m churning out. In that case, I’d better do something else.

Umm…

Nope. Can’t think of anything.

So, to more books. Three this time. Two quickies and one not-so quickie.

We begin with the sublime Varying Degrees of Hopelessness from my current authorial muse Lucy Ellmann. This novel, like the other two I pimped out, is abundant in mordant wit and scalpel-sharp solipsism. We follow our heroine as she refuses to settle for second best in her suitors, despite being a 32-year-old virgin, and flinch as her flatmate Pol ruts with the man of her dreams.

The novel is a postmodern parody of the Austen romance – a cynic’s re-imagining of Austen in a world stiffened by repression, loose morals, and the degeneration of cultural mores. Ellmann cools it on the CAPITALS in this book and uses a stoic first person narrative for our heroine which, when contrasted with the main third person narrative, creates buckets of tragic humour. Another despairing romp for the terminal realist. Infinitely recommended.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures is a lost gem from the late thirties and was forerunner for the postmodern movement of the ‘60s onward. The novel is a series of interlocking tales wherein characters are redistributed among the manifold Spanish topographies, sometimes for significant contrasts, sometimes for simple mischief.

The novel has more in common with the ancient storytelling tradition, narrated in a fable-like voice, but Alfau is conscious of the limitations of this form and deploys footnotes and authorial corrections to challenge the stiffness of the Great Canonical Novels. Their plots are immutable, whereas his book invites a reading in any order, with any number of interpretations. The stories are a mixed bunch, but
The Necrophil stood out for me: a ghoulish tale about an old crone obsessed with death that leaves a haunting resonance.

Finally, Belgian writer
Amélie Nothomb’s tasteful media satire Sulphuric Acid. Since the invention of reality television, novels have been shooting from every pipe of the cultural sewage works, pouring scorn on greedy TV execs and lazy ignorant viewers. This one-sitting read briskly states the obvious in the form of a gentle fable – the narration is childlike in simplicity, and it dumps its disgust and irritation in the most eloquent way imaginable.

The novel takes place inside a reality TV concentration camp where contestants are voted off to be slaughtered by a panel of dull camp guards (called Kapos). One girl, Pannonique, catches the viewers’ eye and she soon strikes up a rapport with the amoral producers and the Kapo guard Zdena. She is then embroiled in a psychological struggle to liberate the viewers from their depraved inhumanity towards man and so on.

Nothomb has a quietly enraged voice (compared to the outspoken Ellmann) and delivers this mordant fable with enough simmering anger and basic dignity to keep us entertained. It’s not wildly original, but it’s workmanlike and charming. It’s also an important book to refer back to when the inevitable happens and we do end up killing each other on TV. (Japan will be first, I bet).

End.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#6]


You are about to read Mark Nicholls’s review of Italo Calvino’s postmodern classic If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. You might want to position yourself in a comfortable chair before you begin, or place a cushion behind your back, as we know how arduous it can be to read things off the internet. You might also care to prepare a coffee, a light snack, or to switch a light on before beginning.

You might be thinking that this blog post is not going to interest you, since book reviews on books you haven’t read can often be frustrating. For starters, the writer delves into details about the plot which spoil the surprises a blind reading of the book might create, and likewise you are unable to form an opinion yourself and share your thoughts on the text in question.

Conversely, you might have read the text and are familiar with the second person narration that addresses the reader directly and places them as a protagonist in the book. You might think this review an obvious imitation of Calvino’s unique style, and become irate as you read on, wondering when the reviewer is going to get around to summarising the plot.

In fact, you become so irate, you search for the book on Amazon or Goodreads, but are incandescent when you notice each review is also written in the same imitative style, and the gimmick becomes so irritating you have to leave the room for a moment to calm yourself down.

As you leave the room, someone knocks on the door. It is a door-to-door salesman offering copies of Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller at a reduced price. He begins his sale by saying: “You are wondering whether or not this novel is for you, or whether you might find a novel with the beginnings of ten separate novels included as part of the plot somewhat bemusing or distracting. You are unsure whether to slam the door in my face, or to go get your credit card.”


You slam the door in his face. As you return to the living room, you notice that Mark Nicholls has broken into your house and is sitting naked on the couch reading Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. You are very confused and frightened. Feelings of arousal and apoplexy stir up inside you. You decide to call the police, but Mark Nicholls springs up from the chair as you move towards the phone.

“You are wondering whether to phone the police to remove Mark Nicholls from your house. You are deeply confused as to why this blogger whose opinions you find facile and banal is suddenly sitting naked on your couch reading the very book you were reading about,” he says. You look for a blunt instrument to hit him with, but can find only a cup. You throw the cup, but he ducks and it breaks against the wall.

You start to sob. That was your best cup, and there is coffee over the walls and carpet. Furthermore, Mark Nicholls appears to be swinging his penis at you, performing an embarrassing 360° swingaround which slowly hypnotises you into a deep deep sleep.

When you wake up, you are at your desk. Mark Nicholls and the coffee stain has gone. You wonder why there is a grapefruit in your left hand and an antelope on your sofa. Those of you who read only the opening sentence and skipped to the end get a strange feeling of anticlimax.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#5]

The Fall are a post-punk institution: an avant-garde band of shambolic renegades controlled and manipulated by enigmatic Mancunian mastermind Mark E. Smith. Their music is dissonant, unpleasant, thunderous, venomous, cerebral, and remarkably inventive. Smith is widely recognised as being one of the most original writers in the history of rock music.

Smith presaged the legion of cryptic alt-rock wordsmiths that followed in the ‘90s and ‘00s, his influence imprinted upon the songs of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Half Man Half Biscuit and Joanna Newsom. The influence their music has had on the countless "indie" groups formed since the band’s inception in 1977 is incalculable.

The Fall have based their career around a powerful form of awkward and inscrutable cacophony, taking an anti-culture, anti-counterculture stance. The Fall dislike both sides of the cultural fence, defining themselves as themselves: impenetrable, uniquely The Fall.

To me, there have been few bands who can write songs as strange, original, breathtaking and addictive as The Fall. And so, with that preamble, we get to the topic of Dave Simpson’s fantastic book, The Fallen. Dave is your average Fall obsessive: the sort of man who knows the set-list from a 1983 gig in Oslo, or what colour shirt the fifth drummer was wearing at a gig in Brixton 1986. Fairly common behaviour among fans of the definitive cult band.

He’s also a reputable music journalist for the Guardian, but for the purposes of the book, he’s a man on a mission: to track down everyone who was ever in the Fall. The band has a high turnover rate of members to keep the music fresh, you see, and Mark E. Smith (MES) notoriously flings people out the band whenever he feels like it. The premise of Simpson's book is, essentially, an exercise in decrypting the psyche of MES, exploring the reasons why this speed-abusing, alcoholic, foul-mouthed lout is able to keep producing such staggering work.

We meet long-suffering members of the band who discuss the wall of disdain erected between MES and his musicians, the power games he uses to manipulate guitarists into producing such unique sounds, and his numerous public humiliations. Smith’s idol is clearly
Captain Beefheart, from whom he takes the notion that graft, punishing labour, and making musicians uncomfortable yields the greatest results. Simpson expounds on these theories, painting MES as a cult-leader, bully, and bumbling genius. All three are equally valid.

Simpson’s book is a treat for the Fall fans who are familiar with the prominent band members and their contributions to the music. The story of the band is such a whirlwind of hilarious anecdotes, bust-ups and bizarreness, that Simpson rightly keeps a journalistic distance and crafts these tales without too much mock-incredulity. He also introduces an appropriate warning against the Curse of the Fall: those who come into close contact with the band are destined to fall spectacularly from grace.

I think of Fall in terms of the Victorian artists – suffering for their work, spending most of their lives in poverty, being underappreciated in their lifetime. Simpson compares MES to a Victorian taskmaster, another apt image. MES is certainly an unpleasant and bellicose individual – this is quite obvious – though he wields a strange magnetism. We listeners are his battered wives, refusing to let go of our tyrannous love.

The nagging question, then: does this book appeal to non-Fall fans? Yes. There are no bands in existence as interesting and worthy of your attention as The Fall. Rock books are usually fawning tales of millionaires having fun at the expense of their fans. This is the anti-rock book. It’s an avant-garde statement in its own right. Simpson, despite coming from a contrasting world to MES, would have made a great addition to the Fall.

In fact, as the book ends, he too joins the ranks of the Fallen. No spoilers, but I hope the guy’s OK.

We end, appropriately, with a song. This is the slack-snappingly magnificent Eat Y’Self Fitter:

video

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

THE WAR AGAINST CLICHÉ (Pt 1 – Weather)


Cliché is a virus. It seeps into our lives like a plague and fits us like a glove.

Although we might spend weeks perfecting the most cliché-free paragraph ever imagined, at some point the hellhound of hackery will come barking at our door, munching apart our precious manuscripts like a rather rabid creature with teeth that hurt.

I have heard numerous cliché-avoidance theories over the years, many of them wise, many of them unwise. So, assuming I understand SOMETHING about the process of writing at this stage (I hope, I hope), the following are a series of ideas for evading the dreaded Beasts of the Banal.

Weather

1. The rain beat hard against the windows.

No no no! This phrase should be kidnapped, knifed and dumped in a dustbin. Rain neither lashes nor beats against windows. The force of the wind propelling the raindrops might create a lashing or beating effect, but this is irrelevant – it’s still a fusty way to create eeriness.

If heavy rain must be deployed, think about other sounds it makes outside a house. What the rain collides with, for example (though be careful to avoid tin roofs and the like). Better still, why not invert the description? Instead of the rain hitting the window, have the window being sieged by the rain. Inversion is a caring sharing tool. However, rain is a cliché hotspot, esp. in horror.

Learn from gothic windbag Henry James. Centre the action around the suggestion of fear. Use deceiving images or misleading sounds to create basic paranoia and suspense, or keep the action character-centred. For me, real tension resides within the relationship between what a character fears the most and the unpredictability of their surroundings.

2. A blanket of snow lay upon the ground.

Snow might look snug and cosy, but it’s not. It’s bloody freezing without four jackets and thermal gloves. This blanket image is misleading. No one wants to climb into bed and get frostbite. Why not expose snow for the menace it is? We have to extricate our cars from its slush-web, grit our paths and roads all winter, avoid being snowballed by teenage punks, etc.

Why not: An invasion of snow? A persecution of snow? A molestation of snow? An endless white diaspora of frostbite and hassle… of snow?

If the snow must be described favourably, then ignore snow’s cutesy images: penguins, tundra, Christmas. Concentrate on that bizarre human fixation with below-zero conditions, on plunging our hands into crystals of ice and getting colds that last three years, on taking six weeks to get dressed to go outside. We love it, but why? Why, oh why? Avoid referring to how it perches on trees, roofs, cars or the bobble hats of beautiful winter bints.

3. The sun broke through the trees.

There are an infinite number of sun-based clichés, but this one irritates me the most. Why must the sun always break through trees, stream in through windows, or appear on the horizon? The above expression is a nuisance, since it implies a newness about the sun’s appearance, rendering it significant when it is obviously not. The sun is endless. The sun never goes away. Of course it's going to appear from behind some bloody trees.

Why must it always break through trees? Why can’t it break from behind the head of a bald man sitting on a park bench getting rat-arsed? Or, as it does in the city, from behind horrible corporate buildings that keep you locked indoors all day away from the sun? The tree image creates an artificial beauty, when the reality of the sun is this: heat, sweat, exhaustion, irritation, sunburn, cancer.

Like snow, the sun has been misrepresented in fiction. The sun is evil. Consider such phrases as: The sun crept up from behind the trees. The sun ogled through the clouds. The sun prepared its blistering luminosity for another day’s torment of the populace. And so on. My suggestion is to capture that menacing dimension to the sun. It is deceitful in fiction to create the illusion of a benign weather condition and ask readers to ignore the skin cancer/death threat.

4. The wind howled all night long.

Only under very extraordinary circumstances can the wind howl. It makes whooshing and whirling noises to various degrees of extremity. It does not have the ability to do wolf impersonations.

The wind is a difficult weather condition to describe, since the whooshing noises vary in their tone and pitch, and we need words other than ‘whoosh’ to describe the function it performs (blowing things about). Personally, since I find the wind such a banal weather condition, I choose to ignore it unless I need something to auto-happen in a scene. The wind is a good back-up ‘happening’ if nothing else is going on.

E.g. She stood stock still. A man walked past. Umm… umm… umm… a breeze blew around her legs.

Also, remember that breezes ordinarily affect the whole body, but it might feel the strongest around a certain area. I would reserve wind for back-up circumstances only. If you’re writing a twister novel, you might wish to ignore that last piece of priceless advice.

I must retire now. The windows are weeping droplets, the wind is making things wobble, the sun is violating my precious skin, and the snow is freezing my bloody feet off.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Books You’ve Read and the Books You’ve Said You’ve Read

I feel the need for candour. As a man unable to conceal his own general uselessness at things that don’t involve reading, writing or alphabetising books, the truth must be set free. Here are some literary prejudices and unfounded fears I have been saddling for yonks now.

1) Austen & Brontë – I have a degree in English Lit and still cannot appreciate the artistry of these authors. I’m tempted to write this off as a male/female difference, though legendary prose usually speaks for itself. It seems whenever I am confronted with these authors, my insides congeal into pâté and I run behind the sofa. I think it’s the bonnets. I hate bonnets.

2) Shakespeare – There was a time when I looked upon his works as the pinnacle of invention in the English language. Then it occurred to me: I was among the multitude of people who acknowledged his genius, but could not connect with his works. Shakey for me belongs on the stage, in heavily edited form. When I sit down to sift through a play, the whole experience bemuses me. I also feel his comedies are antiquated and are no longer relevant to folks now.

3) Dickens – I began reading Bleak House and aborted ship two or so years ago. I’ve never returned to Charlie since then. I’d like to reconnect with the master of the six-page sentence at some point, though I would really need a definitive Dickens experience. 19th century London doesn’t hold as much historical interest for me as, say, Dostoevsky’s Russia.

4) James Joyce – An unnamed critic informed me recently all Joyce was useless. The nerve! A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a brilliant work – the perfect balance between Joyce’s formless innovation and his talents as a chronicler of the quotidian (wow – how pretentious!)

Ulysses & Finnegans Wake belong to the ‘admiration’ camp – they are impossible to sit down, read and devour, but startling to dip into. It would be thoughtful for the academics to collect the highlights from these books and compile them into one volume. That way, more people could appreciate his finest moments without sifting through 1000 pages.

5) Novels Inviting Me to Emote – I confess, I am a wholly unemotional reader. Studying literature might have deadened my natural emotional responses towards prose. Instead, I acknowledge moments that are profound or significant, without reacting to them in the way I would a moving song or film.

As an emotionally volatile individual, the world itself reduces me to tears on a daily basis – the last thing I seek in books is greater dollops of sadness. I loathe moments I am supposed to react somehow – moments when characters come together in a straight-faced manner that seek to tug the heart strings, regardless with how much panache the author achieves this feat. Yes – I’m heartless. I suppose I appreciate books more on an aesthetic or technical level.

6) Commercial Books – OK, I’m a complete lit-snob. I admit it! If I hear about a book from a friend, then go onto Amazon and see over 100 reviews, a bulb pings in my head: MAINSTREAM! I deliberately go out of my way to read obscure books, and refuse to even contemplate a popular potboiler. Not every commercial book is a Dan Brown, I know, but I’m drawn more to lesser-known works, works from those no can be bothered to read.

I have found myself reading a popular book, getting into the story, then taking against the book for any formulaic imperfection. I loathe the formula in books. Sometimes at night, I have nightmares about computer-written books – detective stories cranked out by an algorithm, or herds of faceless ciphers writing the same
books over and over again in giant skyscrapers. Never. NEVER.

Goodnight. Remember to feed the fish.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#4]

A trio of books this time.

We begin with two anti-memoirs, both essential insights into the torturous practice of life writing. I say ‘torturous’ since I am currently bleeding my heart-rending adolescence onto the page in the noble pursuit of a decent grade. One person who turned her childhood into profit is Janice Galloway in her 2008 anti-memoir
This is Not About Me.

As the title indicates, this is a book about familial ties and the endless desire to sever them. Galloway takes a conventional childhood in Saltcoats, Ayrshire – absent father, weak-willed mother, domineering sister – and transforms these laboured ideas into original and vital prose, crackling with tension, magic, insight and eye-popping characterisation.

Galloway’s novels have always been ludicrously compelling once inside, if somewhat difficult to pitch to the reader. So instead of flailing around like an octopus on speed attempting to explain what makes this a winner, I’ll say this: it’s special. Banalities become bravura. Boredom becomes brilliance. The humdrum becomes a humdinger. And so on. I recommend this for those seeking to be converted to the (anti-)memoir.

Next up is John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father. This is recommended for those seeking the quintessential evil father memoir. The father in this case is an alcoholic, a deadbeat and a Scottish hardman who mistreats his wife and son. The son (the author) then goes on a rebellious rampage of alcohol, sex and drugs. This culminates in a long spate of mental illness.

Uplifting? No. However, Burnside utilises a very poetic and compelling turn of phrase throughout, which lifts the antics from the potential whirlpool of navelgazing. He has a remarkable tale to tell and – because he can actually write with some profundity and wisdom – wipes the floor with the exploitative "misery memoir" market.

Lastly is Raymond Queneau’s comic novel
Zazie in the Metro. This short whimsical novel from the Parisian polymath (and co-founder of the Oulipo) isn’t representative of his phenomenal talent, but is a tittersome romp through a cinematic Paris of the 1950s with the acid-tongued Zazie the charming misfit at its core.

The humour was, for its time, subversive, with its foul-mouthed heroine, the consistent references to ‘homossesuality’ and the playfully childish words spelled phonetically throughout the text. There is no plot as such, minus Zazie’s persistent dissatisfaction at being unable to ride the metro, but Queneau uses witty dialogue and crackling comic prose to keep us entertained.

This novel rightfully takes its place in the canon of classic comic works with the efforts of Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis and Douggie Adams, and has been adapted into a cult French film and a comic strip. So there.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Ember in Wrilogonzia, Part 6


Note: This is a baton-handing blog opera that started here. For previous installments, see the previous installment links below. For a cushion or a soda, consult your sofa or fridge respectively. It is a wise idea to volunteer to write the next part, otherwise the Blog Mafia will hunt you down and extract your teeth.

****

Ember mind-clacked in her mind a series of words – glug gurgle gaggle gulag golliwog – then read them back (in her mind). This code emerged which – if her mind wasn’t deceiving her, which was common around mating season – explained Wyndel’s missing pants debacle:

u
ure
ae
au
oiwi


“You are a… something. What’s the chemical symbol for gold? Of course, Au! Now, Oiwi… what could this mean? Oiwi… oiwi… Kiwi? Is it true? Is Wyndel a Kiwi? That is, a native of New Zealand?”

There was a pause, at which point Wyndel looked around him, wondering whether it was his turn to re-enter the narrative. Frankly, prancing around in Rocky Horror garb was not what he had signed up for in this chain-writing saga. He had expected a spunky sidekick role – perhaps as a romantic subplot to the central adventure – but instead, his todger was limping in the cold air like a soggy peanut dangling from a pub table somewhere in the Real World.

“It’s true. And furthermore, since this narrative began, I’ve been embedding pro-NZ propaganda throughout the narrative. Did you know two New Zealanders invented the zigzag?”

Cassie’s second eye formed through sheer incredulity. Unlike her left peeper, her right peeper was green and was permanently showing the reflection of gothic novel pioneer Washington Irving.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ember said. If Wyndel was a New Zealander, did that mean she was one too? And where was New Zealand? And why hadn’t she eaten anything since beginning the narrative? God, she was starving! Perhaps she could snack on Dean’s pecs? They certainly looked nutritious…

“It’s true. If you tip the capital N on its side, and place it beside the Capital Z, what do you get?” Wyndel asked.

“A burger? A sandwich?”

“No… ZZ! Along with W, the Z is the most crucial letter in forming the zigzag! Haven’t you ever wondered why New Zealanders are so symmetrical? It’s because our forefathers invented the zigzag! The zigzag is in our DNA!” he said. He too wanted something to eat, but he was so involved in this ludicrous theory, that food was sadly off the agenda for the time being.

As he explained how New Zealand had invented socks, cheese, TNT, the Village People, Blogger, the goosestep, geese, almanacs, the internet, the elderly, the harominca, John Lennon, litotes, squares and Texas’s annual Gay Rodeo, Ember wriggled free from the narrative for a moment to have a snack.

Arriving at the Cheese or Get Out cafe, she walked up to the waitress behind the counter, admiring the skinned dalmation draped around her neck, and studied the menu, which read (in alphabetical order):

Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese


“Do you have any cheese?” she asked. The waitress scratched her head and decided that she was going to be remarkably silly in this narrative (she did have a glowing green head and five noses, after all!)

“No, we’re fresh out, sorry. We do have the next installment of this saga, however,” she said.

“Hmm. What does that taste like?”

“You’re about to find out. Well, time-permitting. Anyway, do hang around. In the meantime, have this fistful of fudge to keep your stomach tame,” she said.

Ember thanked her and admired the radioactive chic upon her cheeks. She was beautiful, despite looking like the Incredible Hulk’s anorexic little sister. She decided this character was definitely going to play a very important part in the next installment of the saga – so important that the person responsible for writing it would have to share her remarkable qualities: green head, five noses, eight mouths, seven knuckles and an umbrella for a bum.

*****

Part 5
Part 4
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

Friday, 13 November 2009

BIG Opinions from a BIG Idiot (#1)


When we turn teenagers, we’re expected to form opinions and stances upon the BIG issues – i.e. what politicians are paid to deal with – that we retain for our lives. Trouble is, I spent my teenage period ignoring BIG issues, maintaining a stubborn insouciance toward things that had nothing to do with me getting laid.

So, as I approach the one-third mark of existence, it’s time to form BIG opinions. Though, seeing as I don’t want to get involved in actual grown-up debates and end up discussing things with men in suits – feigning interest while I consume a thin glass of Merlot – I’m going strange, fascist, and evil.

Issue 1: Abortion!

My opinion is this: abortions are granted or denied after a series of psychological evaluations on the abortionee. Basically, the potential parents are assessed, prodded, poked and bothered, then are either deemed fit for purpose or potentially useless. Abortions are also to be made obligatory under the following conditions:

– If someone is unable to financially support, love, or take an interest in their accidental spawn. No point raising a potential bus driver!

– If the father and mother are between 12-24. You can’t raise a child when your main concerns are ipods and dildos.
– If the father and mother are unable to spell the word ‘instrumental’ then no child is allowed.
– If the father or mother is a postmodern writer, then the child will turn into a haggard sump working at Burger King. So no child allowed.
– If the father has forced the mother into getting an abortion, he is to have his genitals removed with clamps and a forklift truck.

Other technicalities: aborted foeti will be turned into a delicious pie, to be consumed by those who napalm clinics or slaughter doctors to put across their dogmatic pro-life views.

Those with the surname Jones or Smith are to undergo a name change before having a child, otherwise abortion is compulsory.

Abortionees are to be given a commemorative plaque stating: CONGRATULATIONS ON NOT REPRODUCING! Upon leaving the clinic, they are to be given a goodie bag including a leaflet on all the things they can now do, such as form a cult, write a postmodern novel about a writer writing a postmodern novel, and get a kitten (adorable picture above).

Next time: the Death Penalty.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Shit Writing Avoidance Therapy (SWAT)


Banal:

The man got out of bed. He walked to his cupboard and put on his dressing gown.

Unrealistic:

The man leapt out of bed. He rushed over to his cupboard and thrust on his dressing gown, desperate to start the day.

Over the top:

The man was blasted from his snoozy-woozy-beddy-byes and rocketed onto his feet for a day of action action action! He hurled on his superslinkysoft dressing gown and howled with happiness! Owww-oooo-oo-oo-ooooo!

Mechanical:

The man opened his eyes. He then stretched his arms and legs, twisted his torso, placed his left hand onto the mattress to support him as he raised his body from the recumbent position, then placed his feet on the floor and yawned. He then stood upright by placing pressure on his legs and winching his upper body skyward, using his left and right legs in a metronomic walking motion to reach his dressing gown.

Rhyme:

The man opened his eyes, it was no big surprise. He was tired, he had perspired, and now he desired breakfast. His dressing gown was upside down, and this made him frown. The fluff – it was enough – now he was in a huff!

Faux-Poetic:

The morning sun streamed through the blinds. He awoke from a dream about Ella – beautiful, celestial Ella – high school sweetheart and possessor of those dark, dangerous eyes. He sat upright and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, musing on the ephemeral nature of man and the deep love he felt for the trees, plants, petunias, rosebuds, weeping willows, and fish around him. He applied his dressing gown: a soft cushion supporting the shoulders of time and the love he carried in his dark heart for dear, sweet, frigid Ella.

Surreal:

The bed got out of the man. The caribou in the mauve-green negligee was puffing on a filter tip and reading Jacques Costeau’s Guide to Snorkelling in Nice. A Mexican bollard floated across the room and ate the pockets of time attempting to form a unity in the room’s self-contained temporal vacuum. Somewhere, a piano farted.

Dan Brown:

The man – that is, Detective John Wilson of Rome’s 4th Division Michelangelo Squad – awoke from his bed. The man – Detective John Wilson – walked to the cupboard. A sizzling fire erupted from the cupboard in the manner of a volcano somewhere deep in Mexico, such as the Popocatépetl (5452m high), or the Ixtaccihuatl (5286m high), and shocked him (Detective John Wilson). He (the Detective) thought that something strange might be happening here, something to do with Jesus being a Sheila.

Minimalist:

The man awoke. Light. Traffic noise. Sweat in armpits. Weariness of purpose. He stood. Cold floor. He walked. Got dressing gown. Had breakfast. Choked on Cornflake. Absence of life. Damn.

Exclamatory:

He woke up! It was bright! The sun was shining! The bed was warm! He spent an extra few minutes in bed! He put on his dressing gown! It was very comfortable! He laughed! Breakfast was delicious! He broke wind!

Cynical Bourgeois Dad Novel:

Edmond Frampton, fast-drinking editor on the cheap TV serial Lazy Satirical Swipe, grumpily rose to his feet. The bloody milkman clanging on the door again. Stupid Asians. The teenage girl he had bedded last night was dribbling on his favourite pillow. When would the young people learn respect? Especially the young people he was sleeping with? He shrugged on his dressing gown and popped back a series of nondescript pills, grumping into the sink. Why was his life as an influential TV director, earning £40K a year, with a high-profile in the business, and opportunities to do better things in the future, so shit?

Shock Novel:

The Iraqi terrorist awoke from his bed and shot a Jewish man seven times in the head with a gun made from the skins of a Muslim, a Catholic, a pro-lifer, an underage teenage girl, a nun and Dave Eggers. The small rabbit he was having sex with then expelled its bowels and made a negative remark about Barack Obama being too idealistic and not fit for office.

More later. Maybe.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 7)

Last week Janice Galloway (contemporary Scottish literary legend) arrived to give a rousing inspirational ramble about writing and her anti-memoir This is Not About Me.

I scribbled some notes under the vague heading ‘writing advice,’ although Janice’s approach to writing is quite straightforward compared to those pros with rituals and regimented weirdness.

She says (paraphrasing – not exact quotes):

1. No ventriloquising. The writer’s voice shouldn’t be ignored, concealed, or festooned with artificial baubles. You might not like your natural writing voice, but it’s self-deception to ignore it.

2. Writing should, under no circumstances, be forced. If your manuscript requires a decade of tinkering and perfection, there’s no point straining to write when the Muses aren’t there.

3. Never overdescribe a scene. There should always be a space for the reader to insert themselves into a scene, to let their own imagination fill in that which goes unsaid.

4. There comes a point when the writer should stop editing and let their manuscript go. There’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript, only a work polished to as good as humanly possible a standard.

5. Let your narrative breathe, get out of its way. A variation on the ‘showing vs. telling’ adage, basically – selective and precise detail when required.

6. You should have very little regard for who you include in your book from real life. It’s the writer’s job to write from life, and that includes putting family, friends or others noteworthy into your text (if necessary), and not disguising them for fear of offending those close to you.

7. The physicality of writing – what rituals do you use to feel your way into your characters? Try acting or thinking like your characters, getting into their skin (adopting their mannerisms as you write etc.)

8. Read Liars in Love, a short story collection by Richard Yates. Just do it.

9. Writing can be an endurance, and even those who struggle and hate the actual process of writing should keep hammering away at their novel. The writer’s task is to write, regardless how tired and disgusted they become with a manuscript!

Those are my (unintelligible and hastily scribbled) notes from her brief talk. She was fabulous, darlings, and expressed the above with lashings more wit and articulacy. For those unfamiliar with her works, add The Trick is to Keep Breathing to your neverending ‘to-read’ lists. I’ll be micro-reviewing her memoir when I get the chance.

Toodle-pop.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#3]

I’ve recently finished Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew and the verdict is this: masterpiece.

The novel centres around arrogant avant-garde novelist Antony Lamont and chronicles his gradual descent into writerly oblivion. Antony considers his first published work, Three Deuces – a standard potboiler crime novel – to be among the great works of American literature. His follow-up novel he labels a Sur-Neofictional mystery – a dreadful piece of indulgent, ponderous hack work – the progress of which we get to read throughout the novel.

This is Sorrentino’s first stroke of genius: his ability to parody bad writing. No writer has exhaustively lampooned the stylistic tics of the hopeless hack with such brutal and hilarious attention to detail. Example (p232):

Suddenly, I adjudged that Daisy had flown swiftly to the ladies’ room. Had I been wrong, after all, about her? Fool! Fool! Blind stupid fool. How I had hurried on, a frail canoe with the current, rushing from the past! And now it was all too clear what a mistake I had made. I bit my knuckles until they hurt me like coals of fire. I mean like if coals of fire had been applied to them. Thus were the sharpness of my teeth. Then she was back, eyeing me narrowly and with a curious stare as if realizing that it was I that she had earlier looked at as if seeing for the first time and not someone that she had indeed seen for the first time.

The novel contains fourteen chapters of this pin-sharp satire – a satire which is so effective, I felt smothered by the sheer awfulness of this manuscript, as though I was being chased by Sorrentino from the book. Which brings me to postmodern pranks at play in the book. The characters in Antony’s novel are desperate to escape the prose and find a home elsewhere in a far less arduous manuscript. We gradually watch Antony’s personnel slipping away from him as he loses complete control of his novel (and mind). Hilarious.

This notion of characters ‘on loan’ from other writers is a crucial seam of the book. Sorrentino has taken characters from James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Dashiell Hammett and employed them in his novel. Understandably then, the style very much mirrors the comic whimsy, relentless invention, and original spirit of these influences, making Mulligan Stew the embodiment of the intertextual novel, as well as a literary critic’s wet dream.

The novel is partly epistolary, comprising of letters Antony writes to his sister Sheila, ranting about his difficulty and loathing for his more successful contemporary Dermot Trellis. There are bizarre parodies of academic mathematical papers, sophomoric erotic poems and SPAM letters – each target exhausted to the height of overindulgence (the masque parody becomes unbearable), but nonetheless comprehensively savaged.

Mulligan Stew is effectively a novel against cliché, bad writing and writer egos. Sorrentino spent his career napalming cliché in his poems, criticism and handful of novels, and this masterpiece demonstrates his spellbinding comic imagination and passion for the unpretentious in books.

Recently reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in an unflattering cover (it looks like a lit textbook), the novel is a Promethean undertaking but is a crucial work for the writer concerned with the faults in their own work – it is instructional as well as inspirational.

Yes. Own it.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Dream Sequences


OK, it’s time to oil up and grapple with the three-backed beast: the Dream Sequence.

Q: How do people really dream?

A: We dream in hazy subconscious images, surreal tapestries of fear and memory, or in cryptic, meaningless bilge. If we’re suppressing deep trauma, our dreams will be unpleasant lakes of fire and smouldering flesh. If we’re dead-brained optimists in white corsets who like candyfloss, our dreams will be about white corsets and candyfloss. Simple, sayeth Dr. Freud.

Q: How do people dream in books?

A: They dream in important facts that are crucial to the plot. They dream in vivid and detailed scenes. They dream in very implausible frightening things – gigantic snakes strangling their mothers or impregnating their unborn children with bearded frothing acids. They dream in imagery consistent with that in the text so far. They dream in profound-sounding images that relate to Greek mythology or that makes us stroke our chins and say, ‘Hmm, how very interesting and reminiscent of Rimbaud.’

Q: How do we put a stop to this ludicrous dream sequence nonsense?

A: Stop our characters from dreaming. Make them dream about normal things: hunks ‘n’ babes, corsets ‘n’ candyfloss, squiggly lines ‘n’ weird green fogs, and crap imitation Hieronymus Bosch paintings.

Here endeth the blog. (Yes, it was all a dream).

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Swearing in Fiction

When I was a small child with pert thighs and a carefree attitude to most things, I was afraid of swear words. Often co-pupils would goad me into uttering the occasional fuck or the offhand shit, but – being of strong moral fibre – I refused to utter an impure word.

This continued throughout my adolescence. When the veils of life began to peel away, and I opened my eyes to the gaping black emptiness at the heart of all human endeavour, it became clearer to me that these fucks and shits served a purpose. They were words we uttered when the riptide of meaninglessness toppled us sideways into a hectare of profoundly unpalatable piss – your time to be singled out for a cosmological rape.

At university, my rebellion arrived at an awkward stage, meaning the whirlwinds of cuss and bluster I summoned up were often mistaken for immaturity and a bad attitude (which was probably true), but the liberation I felt when diagnosing the human condition a bubbling horrorcoat of fucking shit-flan and double-dick cakes was BRILLIANT.

However, I’ve also dragged the cussing habit into my writing. My question is: how lazy is the humble swear? Is it inevitable to include these words in our work given they're so firmly ensconced in our daily parlance? Or should we aspire to purer, cuss-free forms of literary endeavour? And who gives a fuck either way?

I find the swear word entertaining in texts, provided the prose is of substantial artistic merit to get away with using them. Lazy novels about street gangs where cuss words are used every few pages are boredom fests for me. Forty pages of Nabovkian eloquence followed by eight sentences of shit and wank is hilarious and the writer should be knighted.

And I have a new swear: hegghi. It means to be badly attired or badly presented.

[What a hegghi!]

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#2]


The follow-up to Lucy Ellmann’s universally underappreciated masterstroke Dot in the Universe (see below) is another acerbic chunk of life-affirming misery and black comedy.

Doctors & Nurses is, like Dot, marketed in the manner of a chick-lit romp (shame on you, Bloomsbury) but contains a distinctively despicable and disgusted heroine, far removed from the moral cosiness of this genre. Jen (three-letter protagonists seem to be Ellmann’s dish) is an obese self-loathing hump of woman: a nurse, rampant fornicator, and admirer of the disappointingly named Dr. Roger Lewis – “a name full of anticlimax, a name full of COLLAPSE.”

She occupies a small room in the doctor’s surgery, pining for the slothful Dr. Lewis – a man more preoccupied with football than saving the lives of his patients. In fact, he has a penchant for medical malpractice – poking and prodding his patients into their graves while delighting in the squalor of his attic dwellings (a cluttered bunk of decrepitude which contains his irrelevant and mad wife). Jen, it turns out, is equally disinterested in healing the sick.

Jen and the doctor soon lock organs in an awkward sexual grapple, united in their disregard for the human body. As their relationship veers toward marriage, Jen encounters a series of setbacks – her spouse’s mad wife, some cadavers to whom she might be related, and policemen determined to convict her due to her plumpness. In a mad dash, she runs into the woods, sleeps naked, and gets back in touch with her universally loathed body.

What is the novel about, I hear you cry? Pfft. Jen is a caricature of the self-loathing Ellmann sees in modern women. She suggests, in explicit terms, women should appreciate their genitals more, and shows us a modest sample of the vagina on p29. (Hate to ruin the surprise). It also seems to be about the indifference of the NHS – how doctors are more interested in lunch than curing lung cancer. Controversial (and mad).

For the theorists, Ellmann sticks her snout into notions of what a modern novel should contain, throwing in (irrelevant) murders to please her readers and scolding us for our love of blood and death. In Ellmann’s world, blood and death are everywhere – why are we so preoccupied with gruesomeness and gore?

Also, the novel is eminently postmodern, although casually so – apart from the persistent CAPITALS and intertextual asides, the novel runs on sheer contempt. (The GOOD kind!) There is also an overwhelming list of malaises that runs for some six pages: the various ways we can DIE or SUFFER in this miserable life. Though somehow Ellmann makes this spot-your-illness activity FUN!

The most important aspect of the book is the sizzling speed, bile and guts with which Ellmann writes. Her novels appear sporadically (two in this decade so far – two in the 1990s) which suggests a great period of bile-simmering. Imagine someone bottling their spleen for half a decade and releasing it upon their beloved manuscript to cause HAVOC.

When Ellmann releases the hellhounds, it’s so devilishly entertaining.

P.S.
The Independent also informs me this novel is an academic masterpiece, but I’ll leave that for the chattering classes (or Michael Bywater) to decide.

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#1]


Lucy Ellmann’s 2003 novel Dot in the Universe is a blistering tour de force of splenetic human insight, knee-bending satire, relentless stylistic abuse, and profound intelligence.

The novel centres around Dot – a semi-human shell devoid of any discernible life. Dot is a speck of nothingness aware of her basic insignificance in the cosmos and her status as merely another ‘dot’ in the universe. She ekes out a depressive bourgeois existence in the suburb of Jaywick Sands (which is routinely savaged for its suicidal dullness), having unfulfilling sex and bumping off old ladies. She then decides, upon fleeing her philandering husband, to take her life by leaping off the Forth Road Bridge.

Fair enough. Throughout the remaining 150 pages, she enters the bureaucratic nightmare of the underworld, haunts her former lover to retrieve proof of her ID, and wins the most exciting death contest. Her prize (after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a possum) is reincarnation in an equally depressive American suburb. Dot is, it seems, unsuited for this unfathomable world. She finds love, at last, through an incestuous union with her brother, but he – alas – goes on to kill himself despite being a scientific genius. So it goes.

Ellmann punctuates this bleak-sounding tale with shards of LOUD and CAPITALISED humour. The NY Times compares this style to a friend who writes ranting letters which seem to have their own insane logic, and I find this accurate – Lucy wallops the reader with her blunt vitriol, which is wildly entertaining and witty, but which BEGS to be taken seriously.

There is such FURY (I can’t help it – it’s addictive) behind Ellmann’s wit that makes this novel highly re-readable for almost any occasion, but which forces us to confront what despicable, sagging lumps we are. She directs her spite towards scientists (there’s a rant in here that will outrage devout realists) and tears impetuously through the innumerable inane quirks of existence – exposing the fundamental fraud of human endeavour. Often within the same paragraph.

Ellmann’s work is a strange cross between vicious stand-up comedy (Alexei Sayle or Bill Hicks springs to mind), Wodehousian whimsy, and the shrugging misanthropy of Kurt Vonnegut. Quite a cocktail! The packaging of her books suggests postmodern chick-lit, but the scope of this work is too broad, and Dot is too inscrutable a heroine to attract that audience. Plus, the central theme of this novel is DEATH (that old favourite), and the challenge this hurdle presents to people attempting to fill the LIFE portion they are allotted.

Dot in the Universe is almost certainly a modern classic. An infectious and cantankerous romp through quite profound territory, handled with humility, moral outrage and cheeky slabs of misanthropy. Any novel dealing with grand themes that leaves me feeling ELATED when I should be feeling MISERABLE is pulling the right strings. As Ellmann indicates, there is a great deal of mirth to be mined in self-loathing.

So I recommended this book to every mortal. If you’re even remotely human, you’ll take enormous pleasure in this dark, deranged and sublime comédie humaine. Ellmann has the closing WORDS! (From p13):

“Dot in the universe. Dot was insignificant, but who isn’t? So much EFFORT we put into life, all the feeding, clothing, educating, medicating, fornicating, masturbating, cleansing and conversing. All the ANXIETY. When it doesn’t really matter if a single person gets happy. The universe DOESN’T GIVE A DAMN.”

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Sounds of the Slush Pile

I would like to cast the clout of doubt upon books written about albums, namely the 33⅓ series from Continuum Books.

Before I begin, I would like to utter a statement of sweeping banality: music and literature has always had a strange relationship. There. That’s done. Phew. We can hop forwards.

Legions of novels have been inspired by songs or albums, and usually the novels themselves bear little resemblance (topic-wise) to the music. Or vice-versa in songs inspired by novels. There’s no reason the two art forms shouldn’t converge in interesting and creative ways, but I often wonder where music fits into the novel? It seems to me that the two should be kept separate, strumming the same planes of the human psyche, but tingling different receptors.

Writing about music can be dazzling and profound. Pioneering rock critics from the ‘60s and ‘70s such as
Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs wrote humble music reviews, but were literary visionaries in their own right. Music hacks in those days had their own artistic vision – to emulate the genius they heard in the music and to turn their own pieces into free-flowing experimental tapestries of progressive art. As opposed to complaining about the bassline in Under Pressure or laughing at the fifth drummer in AC/DC's middle name (I’m speaking to you, NME!) That art has been lost, sadly, and clear dividers exist these days between MUSICIAN and HACK.

So what about the novelist seeking to turn that golden album they adore into a work of transcendent fiction? It is this upon which I cast the clout of doubt. It’s irrelevant how well a writer describes the music in a novel, as no words can compare to hearing the music in situ. This is a Latin phrase meaning ‘on an ipod’.

And so, we have the 33⅓ series. Now, these books don’t attempt to turn the albums they discuss into brilliant tracts of original fiction. Ho-ho-no! They are books written by people involved in making classic records, insiders willing to shed light on the mythology behind an album, or by hacks eager to heap bursts of gratuitous praise upon their beloved choones.

I’ll admit that it’s interesting to hear how my favourite bands recorded such startling music, but in the case of several albums – these stories are well-documented. Do we need another book about the bizarre inception of Captain Beefheart’s
Trout Mask Replica? Plus, do we want the myths to be shattered? The power of myth cannot be underestimated in making an album a classic. Parts of Trout Mask Replica are inexcusably hideous to the ear, but because the record sits upon this impenetrable throne of monumental weirdness, it is somehow less arduous to sit through (in its own fishfaced way).

Likewise, some albums were recorded in unextraordinary circumstances, leaving the anecdotal fodder somewhat thin. Some records are far too incredible to even merit 200 pages of blah-chat. Magnetic Fields’
69 Love Songs is a whopping pop classic – it was designed, executed and written as such by Stephin Merritt – and the incredible range of music on the record needs no real discussion. The songs are direct, memorable and smashing. Listen to them! Also, they were written by a craftsman from a cosseted New York background. Ergo, no drugs or madness or sex or kicking drummers into swimming pools.

Even worse, some of the books involve writers detailing their own profound experiences with the music, i.e. indulgent rambling that belongs on a blog or in a newspaper. This is true in the book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘religious’ acid-indie smash
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (which I’ve read sections from – eep!) The surreal acid-inspired dream-lyrics of singer Jeff Magnum opens up the pretentious gate for all manner of Barthesian meta-analyses – the sons of the Dylan critics finding their own latter-day Bob to enshrine.

What I do admire about this series are the albums. A huge number of these books are about albums I
love and play constantly! Hurrah! Somehow though, I feel reading about some other bastard loving the record I adore, or having the minutiae of its creation explained to me in ENDLESS detail, would ruin the sheer pleasure of listening to the album. So, although I respect rock criticism when it took itself seriously as a proper literary force, these days I’m inclined to avoid books about music entirely. I leave this stuff to the obsessives, megafans and general rock-celeb snoops.

Forget who made the music, or how it was made. Just enjoy it as the artist intended. After all, the artists themselves won’t be reading this stuff. Spin that old 45 again and get boogieing! Or, em... use an ipod.