Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Wanted: Lost Rock

Has anybody seen my pet rock MOLISTAIR?

I left him straddling a coypu by the GEORGE STREET bus stop next to the massive inflatable COCK bestowed upon the capital by Nikolai Urchin (Russian anvil smuggler).

He answers to the nickname JOAN and is identifiable by his scent, his purple sediment, and his massive tracts of BILE against the British government.

See, that British Prime Minister is an INCOMPETENT GOAT. Bumbling his useless Caledonian BUM through cabinet meetings and cocking up the ecomony through his MATHEMATICAL INEPTITUDE. His woeful dour persona casts a looming shadow of DOOM upon the whole nation. The only way is DOWN and Gordon is dragging us with his PSYCHOSMILE to HELL.

Molistair also subscribes to Simon Mayo’s weekly podcast and came first in the German Post-Impressionist Painter Whistling Contest in 1980, beating Max Liebermann to third place with his outstanding rendition of Eric Clapton’s weepie Tears in Heaven.

Please help. We LIKE him. Sometimes.

[Photo taken from Rock Hunks Issue #1689]

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Coot Avoidance Therapy

OK. It’s time to admit it. I have too much hair.

If my hair were a bank balance, it would be overdrawn by a trillion quid. If my hair were a concept album, it would be Sandinista! – the sprawling three-disc set by the Clash. If my hair were a brass instrument, it would be a tuba with mega-bad reeds. If my hair were a yeti, it would be a really hairy yeti. If my hair… OK, you get the point.

I know long hair on males is universally acknowledged as a fashion faux pas. But being fashionable has never been the highest on my list of concerns – it nestles somewhere beneath appreciating graphic novels, attending the opera, and getting a job in telesales.

I like long hair because it keeps my head warm. As someone prone to getting the flu every few minutes, this is a boon in the winter. Also, long hair gives me somewhere to hide when I have to interact with those obnoxious cretins with sweaty thighs known as other people. I also find having long hair diminishes the pouting Scot persona I have when I go short-haired.

Other reasons? Hmm. I like pretending it’s 1970 and dancing to the disco beats of Ottawan (remember D-I-S-C-O – their infectious pop classic reminding us how to properly spell the word disco?) I like the four chaffinches I have nestling in there. I like how it absorbs the rain. I like how pieces of chewing gum or old sausages end up there. It’s a handy snack-stash.

The real reason, of course, is that I HATE the hairdresser-stroke-barber. I loathe sitting in the chair and having the boiling water poured over my weak scalp. I attribute this to childhood, spending hours in the hairdressing salon where my mother worked and dreading my turn. Plus, part of me is still rebelling from sixteen years of getting the SAME haircut every three months. Thanks, Maw.

More importantly, if I go bald in my thirties like my father and brother, I can simply staple the lost hair back on my scalp until I’m a respectable age for baldness. Like sixty or something.

So for the time being I will continue to walk the streets like a crazily coiffed prat, passing off my dreads as an eccentric quirk of my outstanding personality. Or as another attempt to gradually detach myself from any kind of mainstream cultural acceptance.

Viva hairy freakdom!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 6)

This week, we studied Roland Barthes and his effect upon the structuralist theory in radical 1960s literature. I composed this small sampler to help me comprehend the ideas.

The Shambling Structuralist

Although the bridge was distended (bridge in this sense refers to an actual bridge and not the metaphorical bridge that exists between David & Denny: your characters for the evening). David (introduced a moment ago in brackets in a rather pre-emptory manner) pitter-pattered across its imperial shanks (his method of walking was somewhat effeminate, thus throwing his gender into confusion) regardless.

Now, several issues have arisen since the forming of the previous paragraph. Although the parts in brackets were supposed to act as subtle comments upon the structuralist method of meta-analysis, you are now already aware of the author’s attempt to throw the gender of David into confusion, which has somewhat spoiled the surprise reveal later on.

This being the case, we (that is, you the reader and I the author) might as well be complicit in the fact David is really a woman (despite him being described in the masculine earlier on. This was part of the surprise).

We will now continue the story in the knowledge David is a woman. David, as has been described earlier, had an effeminate gait (but we know the reason now, so there’s no need to dwell on that) as he crossed the non-metaphorical but actual bridge. She stopped to tie her shoelace (this is, of course, unlikely – most people would wait until they were off the bridge, but her being on the bridge is integral to the next surprise).

Another issue has arisen in the previous paragraph. I mistakenly revealed that the bridge is integral to the next surprise. Since this has been mentioned, this surprise is now no longer active. This being the case, I should reveal that Denny (introduced earlier) is in fact the bridge. This was going to be a clever twist at the end but is no longer possible.

Since both twists have been revealed, there isn’t much point continuing with this story. This being the case, I’ll stop there.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Life-Changing Book Experience

I’ve been asked to contribute five hundred words or so to the Scottish Book Trust’s essay contest. Participants are required to write a feel-good tale about that one special book that saved their soul from infernal damnation and led them along the path of righteousness. The most gut-wrenching glot of heart-rending bunk earns a place in their anthology.

Do you detect a shade of cynicism in my voice? Yes, you do. Why so? Well, inquisitive voice-in-my-head, I’ll tell thee.

I have yet to read that elusive life-changing book. Perhaps I’m an unfeeling robot with a man-heart made from mashed potato and binder twine, but I don’t really believe in the life-changing book experience.

I read books for the following reasons:

1. Intellectual stimulation and emotional provocation.

2. To be taken on a gallop through the fantabulous superhighways of another person’s imagination.

3. To help understand the unfathomable enigma of the human condition and to help me become a less misanthropic wazzock.

4. To expose myself to the boundless wonder of language and what is achievable through clacking ideas onto a page and binding them together with the beautiful adhesive of words.

5. I have nothing else to do and my social life is practically nonexistent.

Now, one might argue this leaves plentiful scope for a life-changing experience. Not so. See, novels influence my life. They influence my actions, my thoughts, my decisions. However, they don’t physically change anything. That is, for me. I wouldn’t dare express this as a generalisation.

Had I not read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment when I was 16, my life wouldn’t be radically any different to how it is now. I might never have discovered the cockspurting magnificence of the Russian master, but chances are another novelist would have filled his formidable boots. My natural interest in Russian writers would have brought me to him sooner or later.

Crime & Punishment is the one book that qualifies as a ‘life-changing’ experience, though I consider it more the first moment I instantly clicked with an author and understood their work totally and utterly. No life-changing experience. Just blissful comprehension.

Life-changing experiences, not to state the obvious, happen in life. Yes – I stated the obvious. We trip over a brick and get run over by a Ford Focus. Life-changing. We shoot President Bush through the temple with an airgun. Life-changing. We meet our life partners, get married, start our dream jobs, and have three kids all in the same afternoon. Somewhat life-changing.

I suppose I’m envious of the reader who completes a novel, has a eureka moment, then goes on to live their life in the shadow of the book. That’s an experience I would thoroughly dislike to have. Who wants an author to have that much control over their free will?

That’s divine power, sister. Best keep away.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Inconvenience of Hype

I spagged off about this in an earlier post but I have an example that takes the cake. Last night I finished reading Nicola Barker’s monolithic novel Behindlings: an über-manic triumph for the imagination wired on a diet of speedball and Dr. Pepper. Barker is one of the most venerated novelists of her generation, winning the Impac Award at the turn of the millennium, and has been raking in the prizes and wonga ever since.

It’s no surprise, then, that this novel opens with three pages of praise from critics and adoring writers. Each disembodied quoter waxes on Barker’s outstanding prose talent: her stuttering maddening genius, her spellbinding disembowelment of language. This time, I agree. Barker is the sort of writer I adore – the risk-taking experimentalist hurling her talent at the reader in thick black buckets, whose words leave a gluey ecstatic splatter upon the reader, drenching them in daring.

Then again, Behindlings is a throbbing headache of a novel. Her language kept me smiling and giggling for the first 200 pages – when her talent knew no fault, when her loopy plots wrapped me in fuzzy love – but then… I hit a wall of total alienation. Barker had literally been spoon-feeding me so much brilliance, I burst. Each page became a sugary confection I was unable to swallow, lest my gut distend far and yonder.

The criticism in the opening pages, however had little to do with the book. No, the focus was on the writer. This is a common trick in the book-plug biz, of course. Keep the reader sweet by reminding them of the writer’s previous successes without drawing attention to the shortcomings of the novel they are about to read.

Behindlings was published to universally so-so reviews. Alex Clark’s
review in the Guardian was doubting and dubious. Numerous internet hacks expressed disgust at having to wade through the porridge of her prose, probably not even making it to that elusive 534th page.

So what I propose is this. Deep breaths. Honesty. Yes – publish the good and bad reviews inside book sleeves. Let the reader get both sides. If I ever become a successful novelist, I will fight with the publishers to slap a few negative reviews among the positives. I will wrestle with them in vats of custard if need be.

Reading one not-wholly-positive quote amid dozens of positive ones isn’t going to sway me in the slightest. I prefer books that aren’t universally loved by everyone – usually they frustrate me.

So, listen to me, decision-makers. Bias is bunk. Honesty is bloody marvellous.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

tYpOgr(aph)icAL Q*u*i.............rKS!


(Or do you find me a gimmicky gonad?)

In March 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski published the novel House of Leaves to whoops of delight from critics and groans of apprehension from the reading public. His novel was a brain-bending irritant and helped herald in the post-millennial postmodern uprising – novels bending conventions and writhing in glorious indulgence.

My question: Why are writers who experiment with typographical form hailed as scandalous, audacious and fabulous geniuses? Well, because it is – contrary to what you've read – a remarkable achievement to pull off a typographical headache with coherence, profundity, and narrative originality in a work of standard experimental fiction. That’s why.

But surely these mad typographies are an alienating device? Surely having the pages break into clusters, huddled in boxes, or embroidered in linguini backwards in Cyrillic characters is an anti-reader device? Yes. It is. And it is precisely this absolute disregard for the reader, and sheer pig-headed vision, that drives these writers to create their art.

There are three levels of typographical indulgence in texts, and it seems most people are only willing to tolerate the first level. It is this apprehension that bothers me. The three levels:

Level 1

Footnotes: A standard device for typesetters explaining omissions or errata in texts, the footnote was later turned against the critics and typesetters as an object of ridicule. Most notably in Flann O’Brien’s
The Third Policeman, where a footnote famously engulfs the page, leaving the actual text with two lines per page.

Font size, italics, various typefaces: These are commonplace devices now, even in mass market fiction. (Heck!) The humble italic is often applied for entire pages to indicate a shift in time, reality, etc – there are countless examples. The larger font is less common, but isn’t as narksome a technique for the reader. In some cases – for readers with poor eyes – this is encouraged.

Level 2

The surprise: This is where a book drops a surprise typographical quirk on the reader, such as the ‘surround sound’ metafiction in
Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – quotes from books are buffered around the text itself in addition to footnotes. Likewise, in Gray’s 1982 Janine, one page zigzags itself into orgasmic jabberwocky, sealing the protagonist’s airtight descent into alcoholic perversion. These techniques often run on for numerous pages, and risk losing the reader.

The stylistic sadist: This applies to books written in recognisable prose, but which are so persistent in their ‘difficult’ stylistic quirks, the reader usually drowns in the process. Examples include the symbols used in Jonathan Safran Foer’s short
A Primer For the Punctuation of Heart Disease where words are gradually replaced with a complex series of symbols. Or even a novel such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, where the pages are placed in the ‘wrong’ order.

Level 3

This slot is reserved for the visionary lunatics. People who write entire novels based on their unrelenting thirst for endless experimentation and subversive avant-garde wankery. James Joyce’s unkillable
Ulysses will be studied by the next generation, and the generation after that, then the next million generations. If you make it through this book, you have penetrated the pantheon of the literary gods.

Ulysses is atypical, however, in that the plot is very basic – one man goes for a walk around Dublin while Joyce weaves every possible device in the history of the written word around this premise. House of Leaves, on the other hand, revels in its broken pages, its fragments and schizophrenic devilishness.

So, what place has the bizarre typographical whim in contemporary literature? Well, with the invention of Microsoft Word and other associated DIY typographical lovelies, a whole new possibility of page-fucking madness stretches before us. It is easy to dismiss these writers as gimmicky, but you really must be possessed with genius to stubbornly write a novel backwards, in Gaelic, on a cow's arse, don't you? Or, to put it another way:

Your underwear is somewhat soiled, but don't let that put you off.


Friday, 16 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 5)

What is psychogeography?

In short: writers walking around cities getting into scrapes and (occasionally) taking notes.

For a more academic definition, in 1955 French Marxist Guy Debord pinned down the term in a rather impressive feat of conciseness, which read something like this: ‘The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment.’

He formulated the Theory of the Dérive, meaning the writer is required to free-roam the city, dropping their usual motives for ‘movement and action’ in favour of a form of transcendental ‘daze’ – following their instinctive writerly snout for interesting things and exploring their pants off.

My psychogeographical debut took place yesterday at the topmost part of Edinburgh. For six hours, I roamed with my ginger companion around a desolate harbour, a block of abandoned yuppie flats, and many thrillingly bland streets. The aim of the exercise was to get a strong feel for the area of exploration and to become one with the surroundings… or somesuch nonsense.

Basically, it’s designed to hurl the writer from the safe cocoon of their keyboard and out among people. The idea is to have an experience that defines the nature of your surroundings and which makes for a highly entertaining anecdote to blog or write articles about.

Here’s why psychogeographical expeditions are not for me. Firstly, I dislike excessive physical exercise. I’ll take a 20 minute walk every day to keep the wolves of lethargy at bay, but long stretches of exertion make me cranky. Secondly, there’s a reason I like fiction. I dislike the outside world. People, buildings… things. Yuck.

There was a third reason. Oh yes… I don’t like blisters and legs that ache for weeks on end. And I also can’t think of anything remotely remarkable about old Scottish fishing ports populated by nondescript oldies and the occasional feline.

In the end, we had three or four lunches, went to the pub an hour before the agreed completion time, and took photographs of four dead crabs and a miserable guard dog.

On the plus side: the trip did stoke my creative fires and I have a few ideas for stories fermenting now. Which was, presumably, part of the idea in the first place. Ah well. Viva psychogeography!

Album Review With No Home

This should probably be on my music blog. Or elsewhere. Or nowhere. I don’t know. I need to offload it somewhere. So here seems a good place. See me after for cheap Viagra tablets.

Captain Beefheart – Safe as Milk (1967)

For a man as unmusical as Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, to have lasted fifteen years in the music business without succumbing to madness is one of nature’s most baffling questions.

Of course, Mr. Vliet had a head-start in the madness stakes. A child prodigy, Vliet looked set on a prestigious career as a sculptor and artist, until he met a certain Mr. Frank Zappa, who introduced him to the howlin’ outback of ghouls, freaks and assorted dark alleys of blues music. The temperamental artist manqué enjoyed a youth of maternal mollycoddling in his Californian home before taking his Howlin’ Wolf impression out into the world at large, forming The Magic Band.

Following the local success of the cover ‘Diddy Wah Diddy,’ the band were snapped up as the next hottest blues band, and marketed as thus on their debut album, Safe As Milk.

For some people, this album is about as much Captain Beefheart as they can stand. His music from here goes onto abandon the seemingly structured, tight, fast and blues-based sound presented on this album into a form of formless, Dadaist aural assault masquerading often as visionary genius.

For now however, we have this landmark album, released in 1967, notable for its star turn from Ry Cooder on guitar. His unique sound can be heard right from the off on the ultra-cool opening bars of short stomp ‘Sure ‘Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do’. From here on, a range of inspired influences permeate the album – a soundtrack to Vliet’s favourite music and sounds.

The range of this classic album is stunning. There are angular flourishes of psychedelia – the thundering ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ to the bongo-bashing mysticism of ‘Abba Zaba’. Tributes to doo-wop and soul bridge the gaps between the art-rock cacophony, while peppy pop songs such as ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and crunching blues rockers such as ‘Plastic Factory’ keep proceedings eye-socket-bulging.

The stand-out highlight is ‘Autumn’s Child’ (above) with its dramatic theremin build-up and bowel-shifting chorus that splits the brain into fourteen different shards of incomprehensible awe.

So that’s about it. A timeless rock classic and the end of this review. See me after for cheap Viagra capsules.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Songs Wot Have Bad Grammar

Among my many bugbears in life – going to the hairdresser, the humble omelette, nouveau riche ponces, content warnings on blogs, working for a living – there is one that looms over them all like the Leaning Tower of Pez. Yes – improper grammar in music.

This plague of improper speech and incorrect English usage began (on record) in the early days of the blues – Robert Johnson being a prime example. In his intimate, soul-bearing songs, Johnson gives birth to the spate of poor grammar that was to infest the blues for the next 73 years. Take his song ‘Terraplane Blues’ as an example (correct grammar below):

I’m gon’h’ist your hood, mama
I’m bound to check your oil
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for
you-hoo since I been gone

(Should be):

I’m going to lift your hood, mama
I’m going to check your oil
Who has been driving the Terraplane for
you since I have been gone?

Appalling! Now, Mr. Johnson is, of course, exempt from blame. After faxing his soul off to Satan and single-handedly re-inventing the blues for an entire generation of bluesmen, he can be excused. What pumps my pistons, though, is when musicians can’t be bothered to check their grammar before singing their lyrics. Or, in some cases, when a band is so big no one has the balls to correct their crimes against English.

Case in point: the Beatles. Who doesn’t want to bitch-slap George for the missing O in ‘Love You To?’ And some of those song titles: 'Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!' What’s that exclamation point doing there, John? Yuck. Solo Paul McCartney was also criminal. From ‘Live and Let Die’:

But if this ever-changing
World in which we live in…

This can scar a young mind for life. One popular song from my childhood was Deacon Blue’s ‘Real Gone Kid’ which boasted the clunker: ‘I’ll do what I shoulda did.’ Likewise, my father’s country records, with all those horrible uses of ‘ain’t’ and ‘I knew that girl was you’ from the Sun Records bunch. It’s a miracle I didn’t turn out illiterate.

At least we don’t have the Fab Four to blame for the legendary "missing question mark" at the end of songs. This is a sickness. There are millions of songs that, for some inexplicable reason, pose a question but FAIL to use the question mark. ‘Why Did You Leave Me’ or ‘Why Do You Love Me’ being two random examples. Where did this hatred of question marks begin? Which anti-punctuation punk perpetrated this grammatical rape upon the art of song titles? If you find him, ask him (using a question mark).

Unfortunately, there are a million examples of wonky grammar in music I adore. Although these slip-ups don’t ruin the songs, they do demean the artist. Take Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ for example: ‘If you’re lookin’ to get silly you better go back to from where you came.’ Come on, Bob. Proofread your work, mate.

Eep. But I still adore the song. Even Vashti Bunyan, who can’t put a foot wrong and who is immortal, has bent the rules of grammar for her own gain. In ‘Come Wind, Come Rain’ she muddles a tense for the sake of a rhyme: ‘The grass has growed and it’s time we were on the road.’

So what is the point of this blog post? The point is, grammar mistakes for the sake of artistic daring are fine. In popular music, however – music the kiddies listen to in their bedrooms – the writers have a responsibility to at least check the grammar. Even if the songs are a steaming heap of generic old cake, AT LEAST take the time to correct the flippin’ grammar. And I don't mean on Microsoft Word.

I’m waggling my finger at YOU, record company execs.

A Lipogrammatic Snapshot of Youth (Set to the Music of the Kinks)

This is a brief memoir written with the letter ‘I’ abolished. This particular snapshot has been inspired by the Kinks song Do You Remember Walter? The text is included in aural and ocular form for the reader/listener who values the persistence of choice.

‘Uncle Turkeycock’ – Ocular

Mother passes the Camembert. Strong cheese. Rends the coccyx. An uncle, perched on the green-blob futon (the one that honks of menthol fags) squawks about damaged shop stock and the horsebets lost to duff jockeys. He loafs on the settee and brushes the custard cream crumbs from that murderous vest. No one speaks. The seagulls unload lunch upon the louvres. Someone – my mother probably – tuts.

A lone scone rests on the table. The dent turns my stomach. Perhaps the uncle squashed the dough. Those sweaty man-claws: the hands of a worker. That’s what we do, apparently. We become workers. Jobs are clung to desperately. Bacon brought home and slotted between bread. Bacon – the prevalent stench of homemade despondency.

Uncle talks once more. Words leak from that turkeycock neck – blobs of sound, formless, senseless. To me. A remark, made slyly, embarrasses my mother. You’re a wretch, uncle. You smell of Tenants. You’re a dandruffed hump. You make my mother uneasy. We don’t want you here.

The VCR proves better company than the uncle. My toes get sucked through the tape-flap. Perhaps my legs may follow. Then my torso. An uncle-free zone shall unfold. The doldrums smothered through a heave of TV dreams. But… the government. Job cuts. No more scones left. The other half can’t sleep ‘cause of the racket made by the blacks. On and on. Uncle drones.

Maybe, when my day to eat dented scones on settees comes, my words shall be less snoozy. Colours. A range of sounds – no monosyllables or deeply depressed grunts. The rot of the uncle. A memory bleached by the gluey hump of another year. My room reeks of Camembert.

‘Uncle Turkeycock’ – Aural [Read by Fuzzy Pete]

Monday, 12 October 2009

How To Become A Postmodern Genius

Technique A

Order a taxi to Dave Eggers. Once you reach Dave Eggers, scoop his brains out with a dessert spoon. Using the remnants of Dave Eggers’ scooped neurotransmitters, create a washing line and suspend the brainstrings between two buildings. Hang undies and tights on the brainstrings.

In a few months, the undies and tights will be mossed to the gusset in postmodern genius. Ideas to sink ships. Brilliance too sizeable to stuff inside a piper’s pouch.

Taking these ideas, write a sentence. Show the sentence to Microsoft Sam and ask him for a ranking. If the microchipped mook rates it below five-and-a-half guineas, show the sentence to me.

Having read your sentence, I will pass it on to Harold Pumiceous, a leatherbound tsotsi who fiddles tiddle-tots in nurseries, then distil it through the essence of Lydia Millet: postmodern authoress du jour.

Once Lydia’s essence has infected you, pray for the mercy of genius to cease, lest your talent engulf Australia.

Technique A

Spread your completed MS across the floor. Grease your German wife in sauerkraut fat. Get your German wife to writhe over your MS until each page is grease-shamed. Send your German wife outside for a few weeks.

Now, re-read the MS and rewrite the entire shebang using only the non-greasy words. If by some dint of depression, your fatty wife has larded every word in her sour-Kraut ooze, try again with a cousin or neighbour.

You should now have a grease-free work of magnificence, and are ready to approach a publisher. Send one word to Penguin Books with the following missive attached (in blood):

Hark! Pretty Penguins! The futur is myne [sic] & you preshured poo-cees are in luck! Gettouttathaway!

Technique A

Ask Martin Amis around for half a crumpet. Boil his legs in a beef stock while conducting a discussion about the use of defamiliarization in the eisegeses of Baptist Reformers as a method of blurring fiction with cabbage. Sing him the chorus from the Sex Pistols’ hit ‘Seventeen’ – “I’m a lazy sod, I’m a lazy Sid, I’m soooo laaaaaaazy! I can’t even be bovvered!”

When he enters the dazed fortress of the Spooked Croissant, raid his cupboard for words. Steal a ‘boomerang’ here, a ‘truckle’ there. Rob his blog ‘The Haecceity of Veracity’ blind. If his wife comes in, ask her if she has always been that ugly and could she kindly trundle her sluggish spinster arse back out the door, thankya verymuch.

Go home. Slap an ape. Then begin that novel. Title the novel ‘WHEN’ and choose an illustrious typeface, such as GungsuhChe or Wingdings. Open with the following sentence:

‘What is Man? What is there left for Man when the dark nights tear away our immortal souls, wrenching the bloodlust from our lazy legs, sealing the creosote canals in our boxcar hearts? Oh, Björk! It’s oh so quiet! It’s oh so still! Why can’t we start another BIG RIOT?’

Flush the MS down the toilet four times then eat it. Send the publishers excerpts in the form of double-spaced poos (not forgetting page numbers, the title, and your name on each page!)

Technique A

Rent slum accommodation in Görlitz. Invite round a balding sailor named Wilhelm. Ask him a series of questions.

– Do you like Mexican strippers, Wilhelm?
– What’s your position on the canapé, Wilhelm?
– How tall is the average burglar, Wilhelm?
– Which cross-section of Oslo hoards the crepes, Wilhelm?

Wilhelm is your character. Spool his opinions into your novel. Write 4000 words per day. Over the course of three weeks, you’ll amass enough words for a satisfactory MS. Kill (the real) Wilhlem.

Other characters include: Noel the Gnome, Jenny the Janitoress, Klutz the Independent Financial Advisor, and Franco the Rather Obese Nick Cave impersonator. Kill them all when finished.

Send your text to McSweeney’s Offline Tendency: a red-bummed alcoholic swigging Vermouth in a pedal bin. Have a discussion on how you preferred Smog with the brackets. Then shoot him.

It ends here. Enjoy your life as postmodern superstars, friends.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Self-Pluggificationness with Janis Der Von Füberünter

“Howdy! Over here! Read me! I’m fabulous! Read me me me now!” holler the American writers.

“Um… excuse me, if it’s no trouble, I have some writing available, and… no, never mind. Forget I said anything. Goodbye forever,” whimper the British writers.

In my short time bumping noses with American and British writing talent I have noticed two rather predictable trends towards self-marketing. When it comes to advertising one’s writing the transatlantic clichés are true! Americans are vociferous and eager to flaunt their literary acumen, while the Brits suck down their tongues and tell no one they write. Like nervous kiddie-snakes! What pineapples and pickles, ja?

Why should this be, you silly crow-slappers? Brits understand the need for continual self-marketing in the rapaciously overcrowded literary marketplace as well as Americans! And since 90% of writers in Britainland deal with American litrags and publishers, you would think this trend a lazy falsehood. But no. It’s true. I’ve seen it with my own goggles. Ich habe nette Schutzbrillen!

Conversely, it’s more common in Americaland for someone to write something and hurl it off to a publisher without first editing or sharing it with others. Jah Wobble! In Britain, it’s more common for someone to write something, dismiss it as useless toolpoop and leave it to fester in a fusty cupboard forever. Silly planks! There is an equally worrying imbalance in this showiness vs. humility juxtaposition.

So… what is the right amount of self-promotion? Some folks devote their blogs to waggling their literary credits (deeply irritating). Some people turn into self-promoting spambots and suck the occasional pleasure out of reading their work (pointless and unendearing). Some folk tell close friends and no one else (pointless). There is much übülation!

I say… harness the power of the social networking sites and gently point people in the direction of your work when it’s ready! Do not filch the fish when it is not a grown cod, nah? If you’re a mega-talented superstar with stories coming out every week, hold off on the promoting for a few weeks then refresh people’s memories later. Kick the wagnut of selflove into Bootania.

Practice meekness and chaste-love when it comes to plugging the self. As we say in my homeland: Das füvübüm mucha pump! (Do not overfeed the snake who longs for kibblesnot).

Good luck, slippershells!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 4)

Today in my creative writing class, we discussed those quirky and very fine postmodernists, with emphasis on metafiction – that is, fiction about itself, or fiction with a self-conscious bent.

Hurrah! I have nothing much say, other than this was honey to me, since the writers discussed are people whose shoes I would happily lick clean and whose underpants I would nibble until the last few fibres of my dignity collapsed in a muggy heap.

Among these writers include the lesser-known geniuses
Gilbert Sorrentino and Flann O’Brien. The latter was among the first few writers to pick up where Laurence Sterne (the godfather of postmodernism) left off – inscrutable narratives running on hilarious tangents and mad comic energy. The former was a ludicrously gifted stylist, and pioneered the piss-take postmodern novel in his metafictional masterpiece Mulligan Stew.

This novel is ultimate cri de coeur of the struggling experimentalist – a dazzlingly hilarious poke at the pretensions of novelists and the pretensions of publishers. It has the last word to say on the plight of the ‘misunderstood’ writer, and is a must-read for anyone wondering why their writing has hitherto floundered beneath the radar.

Postmodern writing is still invading the cultural landscape. Novels no longer exist as self-contained entities. For the novel to evolve we must embrace metafictional devices and ride the undulating waves upon the ocean of progress. Or words to that effect.

Viva la PoMo revolution!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Procrastinators Anonymous

Hello everyone. My name is Mark, and I’m a procrastinator.

Good procrastination is an art form. It is a technical skill one perfects over time, common among creative folks (writers), and contemned in those who thrive on the immediacy of action (air traffic controllers).

The best procrastinators are those who spend time musing on the best method of wasting time, swallowing up hours and hours through the simple act of doing nothing in particular. I’m not referring to making an extra cup of coffee or vacuuming the ceiling here, oh no. I’m talking a meticulous plan of wanton procrastination designed to annihilate the arse off your day.

The writer’s form of procrastination is built around the fear that at some point you will have to sit before a computer and actually produce something of value over the next few hours. The bottom-dropping dread that your words might flounder like lutefisk in an ocean of cliché fuels this desire to dither. And so, it begins.

Popular procrastinations include checking Facebook, blogs, emails and chatting with friends. But these are for wimps. These still place the procrastinator right before their computer, where they need to be. You’ll never get any proper work avoidance done that way.

No, you need to abandon the house. Get as far away as possible from your computer. Hop on a bus and remain on it until the last stop. Then walk for miles and miles. Eat disgusting food in a roadside café. Get poisoned. Spend the afternoon retching and weeping on the sliproad off the A8. Hitchhike to Trent in the back of a truck with battery chickens. Catch meningitis off a hobo procrastinating the planning of his first novel. Chip away the hours. Then, go home.

The undisciplined form of procrastination is usually the best: it gives us fodder for our stories for when we feel up to writing them (if ever). But making schedules of work/writing avoidance works too. Douglas Adams’ favourite method of procrastinating was running himself baths. He would spend hours soaking and re-soaking himself, hiding from his terrifying manuscript upstairs.

Sometimes it’s easier just to get on with it.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Paedophile For Breakfast, Sir?

I must complain, dear sirs and madams, about the poor quality of paedophile pictures in the news media.

It seems a new child prowler is on the loose every couple of weeks, and the media are implacable when it comes to seeking out grainy, pallid old passport photos of these sex offenders to spook us senseless over our morning Cheerios.

For example, in the news yesterday, convicted paedophile Vanessa George. Now, I know this woman is a paedophile, because you informed me, Mr. News Corporation, and I reserve the right to make my own moral judgements on her in my own home. I do not appreciate seeing a scowling dead-eyed close-up of this beastly being looming out from my TV or computer at 7:30AM. What purpose does this serve other than to test my gag reflex?

No one needs to see pictures of paedophiles on the news. Seeing these dangerous lunatics doesn’t further our satisfaction at seeing them punished, nor does it help the police, having to dish out more manpower for protection if the paedophile in question is being released.

Yes, yes… I know. The media loves to demonise. The media adores manipulating the viewer with police mug-shots of paedos looking menacing and twisted, so we come to view them as the most virulent element of society. Paedophiles are gradually surpassing the humble murderer in the demon stakes. It’s frightening and unnecessary.

So, I suggest – if we must see paedophiles on our enormous digital TVs – put pictures of them looking fine. Not too pleased with themselves, but content and normal. We don’t put pictures of politicians looking deceitful if something leaks in the government, do we? Well, maybe. Anyhow... just put up a picture of a normal human face, and trust the viewer to form their own opinion, unbiased by the evil looming eyes of horror in the background.

Thank you, sirs and madams! The occum:

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Audacity of Hype

Open the first page of any award-winning paperback, and you’re guaranteed to find four to five pages of fawning reviews. A seemingly endless clanjamphrie of newspaper critics, published authors and hacks tripping over one another to declare their unconditional love for the text and author. Among them, not one criticism, as though the work is an Eggersian work of staggering genius.

How then, after wading through four pages of one-note praise, are we supposed to go into the book unbiased? Our expectations have been blown so enormously high, surely anything less than a work of brain-melting brilliance will leave us bitterly disappointed?

You say: “You don’t have to read the reviews.” I say: “Don’t be stupid, disembodied voice! How can you avoid them! They’re plastered on the cover, the back cover, the inside, and the inside back pages! Your curiosity is too strong! Get away from me and take a bath!”

Often, of course, the reviews are right. There are simply books everyone is going to love, pretend to love, or whose prosaic powers of seduction are so strong, the only response is to open one’s legs and receive their thrusting magnificence. Example:
Janice Galloway.

Then again, there are dozens of examples of overhyped tosh, and these books are collected in a handy repository known as the Booker Prize. When a book is nominated for this masturbatory vacuum of talent, it is usually a good idea to run from it, far, far into yonder hills.

A recent example, for me, is James Lever’s decent novel
Me Cheeta. Published (in hardback) anonymously, this amusing spoof Hollywood autobiography, narrated by the chimp from the 1940s Tarzan films, is passable train fodder, but hardly a serious literary watermark. I found the text risible, but since I dislike Hollywood trivia – and chimps – my attention waned.

At no point was I conscious I was reading a ‘spoof of genius’ or a literary masterpiece. The prose was clever, satirical – maybe even touching – but for the most part, rambling and obvious. Maybe I was feeling humourless that day (most likely), but I found myself questioning the narrator’s natural apeness. In a novel such as Will Self’s
Great Apes, our simian friends were written about with remarkably detailed charm and wit. I longed for a greater anthropomorphic kinship with my Darwinian antecedents.

So I ploughed through the spurious anecdotes like that one man who sits in the front row of a comedy gig and laughs at nothing all night. I decided that the book had let me down. Where was that spoof of incredible genius, that touching masterpiece of dazzling originality that the critics promised me? And why is everyone united in their praise of this book? Look for one negative review on the net, and you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

The answer? Either Lever is a complete genius, and I’m a chump, or there are greater forces at work. When a novel is Booker-nominated, a form of collective brainwashing takes place. Books are officially declared ‘genius’ and enter an untouchable pantheon of undeniable greatness. Any fool who dares to criticise these texts is carted off and shot quietly behind the offices of the Times Literary Supplement.

I say: run from overhyped books as though rescuing your child from stampeding wildebeest. Leave the worthy novels to fester on bourgeois trestle tables, and scour the small presses for the true genius. It’s out there in many guises.

And publishers: please stop splattering books with good reviews and building our expectations! You know it’s destructive, you showy animals.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A Brief Declaration of Love

September 22nd 2009 was a special date for mankind. Was it the release of those live shots from Jackie Chan’s new film? No. Was it the leaked details of (another) alleged terror plot on the Pentagon? No. On this Marvellous Monday, Lisa Germano released her latest album, Magic Neighbor.

From the avant-garde wilderness of the American indie scene and the backwater plantations of 1990s alt-rock, there is but one defining female artist of the period. Someone who stands miles ahead of the competition and who smirks serenely from the untouchable echelons of her own sky-high plateau of brilliance. Unsurprisingly, her name is Lisa Germano.

Her music speaks to the listener with a wrenching honesty, communicating complex ideas on a direct and personal level, helping the listener on their treacherous traipse down life’s lonesome highways and byways. Throughout the 1990s, she released a canon of peerless work: dark, beautiful records driven by glorious violins, eerily childish vocals, and haunting synthesisers.

In the finest of her compositions, the lushness of her instrumentation and the naked emotion in the vocals synthesise in perfect unison, lending an otherworldly power to her music. The greatest example of this is in her finest song: the uplifting Around the World (below).

Starting with a synth drone over murky bongo percussion, the song breaks into an everglade of opaque guitars and distant violins, building softly as this gentle tearjerker explodes into magnificent array of colours. Over the almost spiritual rise of the guitars, Germano drawls: “I got to feel my way around the world.”

Indeed. See, doubtful reader, these songs were emotional watermarks for me. Before I heard Germano, I was conscious of this ability to feel things, but it took her remarkable talent to open me up to the full emotional palette available to me: disgust, shame, disgrace, self-hatred, horror, and occasional splashes of love and affection. So, for that, I say – thank you, Lisa Germano.

She should be a millionaire. Her latest album explores her gothic folk side – woozy lullabies of death, murder and inevitability. Terrific.

Worship her.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Waxing Pompous on Video Games

When I was eight years old, I stopped reading books and started playing video games.

My addiction to the quirky horror books of R.L. Stine or the girly sleepover fodder of Jacqueline Wilson came to an end when a blue hedgehog named Sonic opened me up to a world of interactive excitement.

I would spend the next eight years of my life playing video games daily, fragging Japanese spacemen and lusting after female bandicoots, eventually retreating into an introspective realm fuelled by the need to escape the drudgery of my adolescence. Instead of confronting the horrible teenage rituals of booze, fags and furtive snogs, I became the master of my pixellated realm.

My generation had the Sega Mega Drive and the Sony Playstation to distract us from the torture of exercise, girls, and the smirking banality of Blair’s Britain. For whole afternoons, then sometimes whole evenings, I would retreat into bright and boundless universes far removed from the humdrum working class stoicism of my hometown. It was lush.

Nothing as exciting as these games had entered my life before this. As a relatively imaginative child, these worlds far surpassed anything I was able to dream up. Swinging from the propeller of a Hindenburg-like doomsday ship. Running from falling multicoloured icicles summoned from a glacier by an evil Aussie penguin. Guiding a pink beachball around a 3D world of blocks and swirling purple skies. It was hallucinogenic, startling – utterly immersive.

Despite the apparent rapture of these games – and many delirious hours were spent conquering these worlds again and again, wired on OJ and biscuits – I fell victim to the zombie syndrome that effects gamers. It is commonly refuted among gamers that a total immersion in these alternate realities turns the impressionable young player into a social dribbler. I say: If the person is a gregarious and popular teen, this might be the case. But shy, emotional types like me – we get zombified. This is fact, mate.

I became snappy with my parents if I failed to get to a high level on Crash Bandicoot 2. I became paranoid and weird at school among my fellow pupils, and generally cultivated a towering hump for mankind. Of course, these symptoms are common in puberty, but I suspect the games somewhat frazzled my brain too.

So, when the new generation of consoles emerged – the Playstation 2, the Nintendo 64 – I hung up my gamepad. I returned to reading fiction after this criminal absence, swimming in novels and lapping up the power of words, freed from the chokehold of consoles: a crude mainline into the imagination. I bought a typewriter and began exploring the endless possibility fiction presented to me: a more sophisticated alternate reality than the predetermined levels and paper-thin plots of video games.

The neverending question is – do children spend too much time on video games? I say – not necessarily. When you’re eight or nine, the last thing you want to do is sit and read when there are sprawling interactive worlds to prowl around in. Video games act as a primer for the imagination. They open young minds up to the possibilities of creating worlds from nothing. They are creative playgrounds, intellectual paddling pools.

Video games now lack that imaginative fervour. OK, it’s easy to sentimentalise a memory, but today’s games aren’t quite as roguishly charming as back in the 1990s, when the industry was emerging. These days we have blood-curdling horrorshows of violence, which leave nothing to the imagination, franchise games making billions of dirty cash for movie producers, or charmless rehashes of retro games that looked better in 2D.

Simpler games are more charming. They are friendlier, less garish, less mind-blogging and usually more entertaining. The problem is, as technology has evolved and the range of genres has expanded, the imagination has withered. At best, we need fresher writing talent in there, lending these cinematic Leviathan games more originality and charm. Charm is needed badly among your crass shoot-em-ups and dull war games, mate.

These days, I dabble in PC war games, but only as a timefilling exercise in between other unimportant things. My alternate worlds are ably accommodated in my own fiction, books and, for the first time, in the quirks of the real world.

I have emerged from the cave of gaming darkness… my mind has been freed from this pixellated tyranny! Hurrah!

So, my moral for the kiddies: indulge in video games. Endlessly. Probe, prod, stab, maim, kill, zoom, zap, leap, splat and scream. Again and again and again. Then read a book.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 3)

It takes a writer of immense daring and immeasurable talent to create an entirely new language within their work. Especially one with its own complex etymology and sophisticated phonological system, which both resonates clearly in English, and is employed to a significantly devastating effect in the text.

Obvious examples include
Anthony Burgess’s dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange, with its remarkable nadsat dialect. Burgess purloined 200 words from Russian, twisting the roots and phonemes into clever English mock-ups. The most remarkable achievement in this novel was how Burgess – despite presenting the reader with a seemingly impenetrable code – was able to make his language come alive in a disturbingly hilarious and effectively distorting manner. Burgess chose euphonically pleasing words to juxtapose a sense of childishness with detached violence, creating the iconic patois of a degenerative urban nightmare.

Other examples include
Will Self’s recent masterpiece The Book of Dave where the characters speak a hilarious cross between Mockney and Nordic, though the centre of this book lies with beleaguered cabbie Dave – the archetypal misanthrope-cum-doom monger.

The question is – when it is appropriate to cultivate our own private language in a text, and to what purpose?

The greatest examples in popular 20th century literature, which include, among others,
1984 or Riddley Walker, are set in a hypothetical future, usually after a nuclear fallout or a general fallout between power-crazed blokes. Other times we might use this technique would be when communing with a child, someone with an illness, an alien, or someone from Dundee. However, to write in an invented language and to sustain this for the duration of a book, is truly outrageous/outstanding. Depending on your patience.

I think most writers construct their own private language. Each use of a common noun or adjective can take on a different meaning within the surrounding everglade of their prose. Not merely words denoting emotions or altered states, but words unique to their interior mental landscape. With JG Ballard certain words reappear in his novels – mechanised, pelvic, semen – emphasising the forensic distance in the Ballardian world: a perpetual concrete hangover.

There is no real need to construct our own words/languages, unless we are cursed with literary vision. I sometimes merge words, since I find squeezing two nouns together can make for a diffuse contrast, or because it amuses me to put ‘bum’ and ‘flan’ together.

It is equally satisfying to coin our own neologisms or expressions to make our fictional topographies a more varied and enlightening place to roam. Provided these inventions make perfect sense within the context of the story or, even better – prove crucial in the context – making the language your bitch is to be applauded.

Learn it, love it, warp it.