Sunday, 30 September 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Sep)

9. Arthur Rimbaud — Collected Poems

My forays into the canonical French poets continues with Rimbaud’s collected works. Poems 1869-1871 collects his “early” verses—all politicised fury, snotty swagger and clunky line breaks. Assorted Scribbles (not its real title) collects his vulgar heretical rants, cheeky fantasies and anti-other-poet slapdowns. A Season in Hell reads like the ravings of a melodramatic teenager after his first dumping in the McDonald’s car park. Illuminations is an incredibly mature, visionary work of symbolist poetry that influenced most French poetry that came after, the American Black Mountain poets, and (sort of) Bob Dylan and (definitely) Patti Smith. And this. And this. This volume from Oxford Classics contains the parallel French text, which is useless to me, but might be useful if you . . . speak French. (But then why would you need the English text?) Wondrous.

10. Charles Dickens — Little Dorrit

Having not fallen fully under the sway of Dickens’s longest, Bleak House, we’re back to the savagely impressive corkers with this satirical and tender effort from the Immortal Blighty Scribe (IBS—unfortunate acronym). On a less grandiose scale than the preceding tome, Little Dorrit is much quieter, funnier, more powerfully affecting novel throughout than BH. In two parts, Poverty & Riches, the novel charts the progress of Amy Dorrit, (the token spirit of purity and goodness), and her family from Marshelsea debtors’ prison into a shaky life of infinite riches and never-ending Italian holidays. Central to the novel is her father William, who replaces his memories of destitution with violent hauteur, and whose mental collapse is rendered with masterful swings of wrenching drama. Clenham is the more complex, reticent hero, almost frustratingly dim in spots, but no less than impeccable on the moral scruples front. Apart from a sudden gallop into action-packed melodrama in the last 100pp or so, and a byzantine final-reveal sequence to out-Lost Lost, Little Dorrit goes straight atop the essential-Dickens pile, along with all the others. [And a final warning to Oxford World’s Classics: if you make your fonts any smaller, I will send in the midget assassins].

11. Howard Jacobson — Zoo Time

Are you a suicidal novelist clinging to the hope the power of your debut novel will knock the socks off people who have read it all before, know nothing new has been written post-1980, and will reap you enough profit to quit that grinding office job you haven’t got yet because it’s a recession and no one works anywhere doing anything? Then boy howdy, is this not the novel for you! A scathing satire on the state of contemporary publishing, Jacobson is brutally honest about the futility of it all, and also reassuringly humorous about our slow sad slump into suicide at the same time. Panacea for those quiet nights sobbing into your laptop.

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky — Humiliated & Insulted

A bracing early novel from the most unflinching of the Russian Titans, (The) Humiliated & Insulted is the only Dostoevsky novel with a writer-as-narrator, but not the only based on autobiographical material. Vanya is an up-and-coming literary talent whose first novel—cough not Poor Folk cough—has been critically lauded. He is chummy with Natasha, who is overly chummy with the indecisive blithering imbecile Alyosha, who can’t choose between marrying Nat or a less-attractive Countess with a large fortune. His father, the Prince Valkovsky, the villain of the novel, wants to get his seedy mitts on the money to spend on debauchery and immorality of disgraceful proportions (although nothing you wouldn’t see outside an Essex pub on a Friday night). Toss into this the mercurial orphan Nelly who the narrator takes pity on, and you have an extremely gripping and wrenching novel from a writer who you always forget is so damned entertaining. Ignat Avsey’s controversial translation of The Brothers Karamazov (which he re-titled to The Karamazov Brothers) was not entirely lauded for its sympathy to the Russian original. But this is a very readable, decent translation, albeit with the odd Anglicism and Americanism creeping in here and there.

13. Percival Everett — Glyph

A sublime satirical romp, as if Ishmael Reed had been reincarnated as an angry young grammatologist. Glyph features the nine-month-old mute intellectual Ralph, whose ability to write lucid, illuminating responses to his parents’ requests sends a local doctor spinning with career resentment and rouses the sinister forces of the American government, eager to use the silent poop machine as a robotic appendage of espionage. Told in short, punchy chapters with headings cribbed from Derrida and Barthes (who appears as a character), and full of dazzlingly inventive high-theory spoofery (or homage?), the novel is a wonderfully comic exploration of the world within the word and how literary theory both replenishes and dismantles the possibilities of literature.

14. Mikhail Lermontov — A Hero of Our Time

An early Russian novel, arbitrarily patched together, but still regarded as a canonical work in the Steppes and the Westies. Pechorin is the titular hero, the time being 1840, and the hero being ironical. The most engaging part of the novel is the long epistolary Mary section, an early stab at a society tale mixed with a bracing duel scene. The other parts seem sloppy attempts to reproduce the Walter Scott tradition in a Russian idiom, especially with the spurious preface larks and the chopping and changing of narrators. As a whole, the work is compelling and entertaining but by today’s standards requires a stronger cohesion and purpose. If this were the 1840 Goodreads, my star rating might be five, but alas, we can criticise an older work for what it’s lacking as the novel had already evolved lightyears ahead of this in 1840, if not in Russia, certainly France, England and America.

15. Don Delillo — White Noise

So White Noise seems to divide people entirely on matters of literary style, which is understandable. Once you accept the skewed reality of Delillo’s world, which isn’t particularly hard to do, you can take pleasure from the “unrealistic” dialogue and the surrealistic happenings as they happen, surrealistically. Otherwise, this is a straightforward book “about death”—theme-wise, this about as simple as they come. Delillo’s style for me was incredibly original, utterly engrossing and extremely funny and pleasurable for the duration, especially during the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ section, when it passed from highbrow social satire into something dreamlike and beautiful. Into ‘Dylarama’ the story becomes more Bergmanlike in its warped moribundity and builds to a sensationally lurid and haunting climax. Then again, your experience may differ—it’s that sort of book.

16. Philip Roth Sabbaths Theater

Nerves of steel are required for this 450pp assault on decency, indecency and all things neither decent nor indecent, but which probably involve sexagenarians masturbating a teenage girl’s knicker drawer. Mickey Sabbath is a monster with an unstoppable capacity for sex, lechery and outright molestation, plus a proclivity for sledgehammering all relationships between human beings who aspire to behave like semi-respectable grown-ups. Like Simon Lynxx in D. Keith Mano’s Take Five, he has a convenient knack for speaking in extremely unlikely literary sentences at a level of polished erudition no Harvard graduate-cum-Oscar Wilde descendant could possibly achieve, and is also such a prick of such catastrophic prickliness, your patience and tolerance levels are pushed to absolute snapping point—at no point would this man’s painful death be anything less than welcome. Instead of being locked up within five minutes for being a dangerous sexual deviant, Sabbath has reached his mid-sixties with a backlog of lovers with whom he has fulfilled all his perversions, and is currently lamenting the death of his East European fantasy lover and his sacking from professor of puppetry. A grotesque comedic reverie (and revelry), Sabbath’s Theater should be read as little more than an audacious, linguistically explosive piece of outré comedy. If you read it as a serious novel, you will no doubt aspire to strangle Mr. Roth. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Sep)

1. Charles Dickens — Hard Times

Hard Times opens with the usual Dickens comic brio and sabre-toothed satire. Mr Gradgrind’s pursuit of Facts, Facts, Facts deadens his daughter Louisa’s sense of Fancy and humour, until she relents to a marriage to Mr. Bounderby—surely the progenitor of this Monty Python sketch. As the novel moves into its second half, the melodramatic and laboured Steven Blackpool narrative distracts from the more poignant story of circus orphan Sissy and the Gradgrinds. Steven’s phonetic Lancastrian dialect (which doesn’t apply to his wife Rachael—hmm) is unnecessarily distracting and the social commentary becomes somewhat tedious upon the arrival of the saucy politician. Too much time is devoted to Mrs Sparsit, a bland fallen lady at the mercy of Bounderby, not enough to Sissy. Let’s not forget the phonetically rendered Lisp of Mr. Sleary, or the hysterical (in the wrong way) fate of Stephen. Apart from these complaints Hard Times is fine: the story isn’t dreary, only the individual elements and plotting seemed a little subpar.

2. William Burroughs — Queer

Certain “cult” writing earns this status because the prose is so transparent and simple it instantly appeals to teenage males done with Easton Ellis and Kerouac who want to up their shock quotient before attempting to read Gravity’s Rainbow for the first and last time. Queer fits the bill except, by today’s standards, the book is a little prude in tight Speedos with its danglies between its thighs asking us to love it if we’d only give it a chance. Will Lee is a homosexual-in-training in pursuit of reluctant, disobliging ass that often makes him cry, so unsure is he of his own sexuality. This is a weird piece of tortuousness. But an interesting one.

3. James Baldwin — Giovanni’s Room

Baldwin picked up where Gore Vidal left off in The City & the Pillar. This novel renders Vidal’s effort a tame, breezy vacation at the hotel de homo, sizzling as it does with dirty-realist conflict, torturous identity politics, and one of the whiniest lovers since Courtney Love hooked up with the entire population of Iran. One frustrating conflict—Baldwin wanted to escape the “Negro writer” ghetto, so made his characters (it would seem) white in this novel. Imagine the stink if he’d written about a black man-on-man romantic affair. In escaping his cage he might have bypassed the opportunity of the century. Still, Giovanni’s Room is an audacious, spectacular example of the power of literature to free the repressed, comfort the lost, and nudge the helpless toward some sort of assistance. Love this man.

4. Dennis Copper — God Jr.

An interesting take on grief with computer game ferrets/bears instead of graveside weeping. I didn’t understand why the second part had stand-alone paragraphs on each page, nor did I see the purpose of asterisking off each new paragraph in the other sections. Otherwise, it was a semi-successful experiment. For comment on the content, see Joshua or Nate or Mike or Eddie. The author’s surname reminds me of the prepubescent sitcom Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper which was the highlight of my Sunday morning TV viewing about 9.30 after the sad cancellation of that titan of light comedy, Sister Sister. Oh my tragic youth.

5. Philip Roth — Portnoy’s Complaint

The definitive self-hating Jew novel. A searing literary stand-up performance par excellence. Woody Allen meets Bill Hicks. Explains where the famous inbuilt neurosis in New York Jews comes from. A brutal, universal portrayal of family life. The funniest thing I have read in a long long time. Every young man in his twenties tries at some point to write this novel and fails. Wonderful. Not a work of remarkable human insight and depth, but this is Philip Roth: the psychopathology of sleaze, if you please. (And, in case you’d forgotten the author’s surname, Vintage have clearly printed it on the cover in large letters. ROTH. Thanks Vintage!)

6. Federico García Lorca — Poet in New York

Devastating poems composed during the Andalusian bard’s 1929-30 stay in New York. This edition contains a brilliant introduction and unobtrusive commentaries, plus a lecture (which I read) and letters to his family (which I skipped). My favourite of the cycle is the spinechilling number from Part III, Streets and Dreams.

7. Barbara Ehrenreich — Smile or Die

This Just In

Short paragraphs and emoticons in reviews quadruple reading pleasure. :)

Shiny Happy People

Apparently, forced happiness is crushing the spirit of the American workforce and driving ravenous capitalists to unstoppable heights of self-delusion that contribute to the one hundred trillion dollars or so national debt. :) :)

I Love Your Smile

Millions of unemployed people, many middle-class professionals, have been forced into taking minimum wage jobs, in which any negative comments are met with a swift and firm dismissal. :) :) :)

Happiness is a Warm Gun

In Ehrenreich’s startling book, the spineless manipulative world of corporate blackmailing (Disney oddly absent), is exposed as the contagious ideological malaria it is. :) :) :)

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The disillusioned and depressed in their millions are forced to feign happiness at the workplace despite the rancid capitalist cancer eating out their souls and then be grateful for the chance to work at all. :) :) :) :)

Joy Unlimited

The American Dream has been a con-job from the start but those forever optimistic Americans are made to see layoffs, poverty, bowls of watery gruel and anal lice as challenge. Lying in a pool of your own piss and faeces in a
Harlem gutter? Stop whining! All you have to do is visualise that tuberculosis away, and you’re cured! :) :) :) :) :)

This Just Out

How fortunate to live in a nation where whining and carping is a national characteristic—no corporate policy will come between us and a long self-pitying moan. :( :( :(


A happier review than mine by Lucy Ellmann
here in The Guardian. :p

8. Roberto Bolaño — The Savage Detectives

I am told this novel made some minor splash upon its publication. I see no evidence to support this claim. I see no particular swelling of interest in this lowly text on Goodreads. I see no ecstatic over-the-top declarations of lust for this novel. No effusive dissertations conveying the message “I totally bought into the hype and splooged fifty times over this book like Ron Jeremy catching his reflection in the pupils of a malnourished Cuban trollop.” I see no substantial body of scholarship agglutinating on the first two review pages alone. I see no pitiful deniers, squeaking their dissenting humbuggery about the overrated and overhyped nature of the prose and so on and boo-hoo, swallowed up in box after box of Bolaño devotees on their knees licking the long-dead man’s Chilean loafers as though hoping to absorb some essence of the punchdrunk poet’s furious pace, first-person range and painful aversion to paragraph breaks. I see no evidence of this whatso— Oh no, wait . . . there they are. Oops.

What of this? A structural sandwich. The bread: a road-trip narrative about a poetry nerd with a penchant for obscure technical words for verse forms and metrical structures that explodes into violence. The filling: an
nth number of first-person interview-style intersecting stories about the short-lived Mexican experimental poetry movement visceral realism. More unreliable narrators than the Bible. More icky sex than a caterpillar’s boudoir. More characters per page than Catch-22. A Mexican Thousand and One Nights of tales, yarns, confessions, digressions, hoodwinks, self-reference, neverending stories and long blog-like rambles. A personally insulting deficit of paragraph breaks. An entertained but infuriated MJ. A far-too-long second part which this gringo abandoned on p481 to move into the final section (which he left on p550 due to mounting boredom). A loquacious universe-sized novel of sprawling scope and ambition that collapses under its own weight but leaves an indelible imprint on the reader’s psyche. An aperitif compared to the five-square-meals of 2666.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Legend of Joan Henry’s Hamster

For Willow

Joan Henry’s father woke her up one midnight and said: “They’re making F-level workers obsolete.” She picked the sleep from her eyes. “What?” He sighed. “Do I have to repeat myself, dammit?” Joan blinked and said nothing. “Report came in today. Budget cuts. Can’t afford electricity in the F-quarter anymore, we’re being squeezed so tight our eyeballs are popping out their sockets.” Joan yawned and lay back down.

She wouldn’t get a rational account from her father—he carped at the company in times of boom or bust. Every little hiccup was lazy managers screwing workers out their rights, and so on. “All right, father. Let me get dressed.” The report was clear: F-level redundancies in effect in two weeks dependent on massive turnarounds in departmental expenditure. This meant there was a chance for each department to make internal cuts and appeal to the company board. Joan downed her OJ.

“Suppose I’ll have to sort it out, as usual.” She grabbed her keys, reassured her father, and sped to work. She was the only person in her department who wasn’t wracked with anxiety, hatred or fear. In the day she worked on reception in the marketing offices and at night she helped her father in the processing plant when his arthritis got too painful. If the managers discovered a lapse in his production output, he’d be obsolete. So they managed—got their two paychecks every week—and kept alive.

But these moaners, carpers and haters. They didn’t understand the basic tenet of ‘cutthroat’ capitalism—serve stakeholders, dispense with the rest. To keep their lives, all they had to do was reach their monthly targets and stay within the permitted departmental expenses. First problem: the electric bill in the office was too high. Joan’s solution? To reduce the number of computers being used, have secretaries share two machines on rotation and managers revert to pen or pencil. Use handcrank torches, not overhead lights. More importantly: convert electric power into hamster power.

For two months, Joan had been training her hamster Fidel to run at speeds of two hundred kilometres per hour in his wheel. Using her hamster as an exemplar, the temps, secretaries and managers could train their own hamsters to power computers, desk lights or photocopiers, without recourse to the main grid. This would make the office a self-sustaining department with no encroachment on company power sources, keeping them on the payroll database. It was a way of manipulating the company spreadsheet, known as the Death Grid or the Slaughterbox. Joan laughed off these terms.

Manual workers had a longer grace period to cut their expenses before obsolescence. So Joan expanded her animal retinue to include guinea pigs or cats—pets with more stamina who could fuel large industrial machines through paw power alone. Her office had succeeded in cutting its costs, and the management was impressed by Joan’s enterprising attitude. The exploitation of animals was something they could use to their advantage—humans had been a fungible resource for centuries, but their reluctance to be enslaved had caused so many net losses and growth irregularities over the years.

Joan was called into the office of a company director. Now she was nervous. He was a short man.
“Joan—we’ve been analysing the efficaciousness of your hamster-centred capital abridgement scenario. We find this an exciting new enterprise. Is there any way we could build towards, say, a complete animal-based production situation and a permanent human obsolescence occurrence, say, within forty-eight days?” he asked in one breath.
“You want to replace human workers with animal workers?”
“If I can’t—”
“It will be done.”
“Leave now.”

When Joan got home she bit her knuckles so tight the bite marks bloomed blood. Her casual problem-solving approach had pit her against the very people she was supposed to be helping. She had to decide whether she wanted to be made obsolete along with her F-level co-workers as a useless martyr, or keep her father and herself alive. The latter. She rounded up some tigers from the zoo and trained them in stenography. Macaques made good cleaners and coffee boys. Baboons could sit in for managers. As for temps, a series of rattlesnakes sharing the role would do nicely. She got to work.

In the factories, giraffes were the most effective replacement. They could transfer produce from conveyor belts up to the second floor, where polar bears stored them in the freezers, ready for distribution. Joan tried to solicit help from her co-workers but the truth was difficult to conceal—training a baboon to use Microsoft Excel while managers stood scowling in the corner was hardly a good omen. The time soon came for the workers’ obsolescence. It happened on a Friday, end of the working week. 

 Four brawny guards arrived at the F-level offices to frogmarch obsolescents to the ovens for quick removal. All was going well until Joan was grabbed by the guards and thrown among her colleagues. “I’m not supposed to go. I trained the animals,” she said. “You’re on the list,” the guard said. And there she was—JOAN HENRY, OBSOLESCENT. The company director had tricked her. When the animals saw their master being lead away, they revolted. The baboons clobbered the guards, the lions went straight for their throats. Guts and hair everywhere, blood on the photocopiers. Joan laughed.

“Brilliant!” she said. “Now we can manipulate the forms. You’re all free!” Her co-workers were relieved and conflicted. Did she do that on purpose? Was that her plan all along? Joan saw the advantage of telling a lie at this point and decided to tell the lie. “Of course. You didn’t think I’d let them take you, did I? Come on, you know me better than that!” And she was a heroine to the whole of Level-F, the slipperiest heroine ever. She ticked off all the workers as being ‘obsolete’ and sent them home through the fire exits. She would contact them with further instructions, whatever they were.


It wasn’t easy to devise instructions with her father constantly interrupting her thoughts. “Got the instructions yet?” he’d ask two times an hour. “No father, please give me more time.” Then he’d skulk off, muttering: “We don’t have time.” That really irked her.

She knew that the animals would respond to her commands. She had them at her disposal. Only she needed more to stage a revolt. She needed six or seven departments of trained office animals to take on the company’s security forces and topple the management. So there was only one thing to do: infiltrate the E-level as a panda. 

Plans had already been made to introduce animals into offices and factories, but the department managers were useless at earning the respect of their animal workers, knowing only brutality. Whipping a baboon seven times would not make him turn out a first-rate Sector Q report on Opportunities for Diversification Within the Product Portfolio. Joan snuck in as a panda and quickly trained her lions to eat the department manager. She trained animals for E-level duties, then moved onto the D-level.

This was a laborious process, and since she was no longer on the payroll, she had to sleep in the offices with her father. Other workers who lost their homes were invited into the E- and D-level offices while the training took place. As she completed the D-level animal training she learned from a secretary that her hamster Fidel had expired on the E-level. Her little pet, whose fast wheel-work had sparked this revolution, lay dead in its dynamo, the computer it was powering now completely useless.

She buried Fidel inside her CPU. His image would become the insignia for the revolution.

Once the C-level animals had been set up, she had enough power at her disposal to stage the revolt. Sixty-three lions trained to kill, twenty-eight baboons trained to scratch, and a small army of temp snakes with their own unique defence abilities. They headed for the security zone down in the basement. The plan was that the macaques would wander in there innocently, as though lost, teasing out the amused guards. Then the lions would pounce and maul and savage as many guards as possible.

It was a bloody, victorious battle. Twenty lions were killed and five others were wounded, but the company was useless without its security, so their deaths were seen as heroic, not tragic. The remaining animals took the lifts to the management floors and dispensed with forty-six managing directors, ninety chairmen and one-hundred company stooges. Joan didn’t grandstand at all, even with the company’s founder and leader—she simply dispensed with him as they dispensed with their human workers.

A new order was established, but there was a problem. The animals had become accustomed to their offices and didn’t want to give up their jobs for the human workers. So a compromise was reached—a second company would be built by the animals for the workers, with new jobs for all, and the workers’ paychecks were reinstated.

As head of the company Joan saw the financial foolishness of paying workers for doing nothing while animals slaved to build them a new structure to reinstate their jobs. She had a perfectly good company with free animal labour. The animals loved working there, and were rewarded with fresh food and places to breed and raise their young. Joan had saved the workers’ lives, wasn’t that enough? She aborted the new structure.

There was an outrage. People said Joan had been corrupted by power, and Joan lost her temper. She’d had nothing but grief and moaning from these people, even when she saved their lives. Couldn’t they do anything for themselves and stop hassling her for once? It was her father’s fault she thought this way. Even as a rich co-partner in the company, he was still a nuisance. “Where will the workers go? We can’t pay animals and humans. We’re losing money. We need to make cuts.” So she did.

Joan sacked her father.

Liberated from the nagging insistence of the old man she was free to run the company at her own discretion. After a year, the animals had proved so efficient, there was enough money to open a second structure and give the workers back their jobs. Although she was tempted to fill it with animal workers, her conscience got the better of her. She was unpopular among the humans, of course, and her closest allies were the animals. An enterprising gorilla had worked his way up to be her deputy and her lover.

Animals were more tender, respectful and loyal than humans. Soon after the second building had been constructed, a faction of corrupt humans began to plot against the animals and tried to take over the company. It was exactly what Joan feared might happen. So more lions were bred, and the traitors were dispensed with in a style imitative of the previous company. All humans workers were dismissed. There was no trusting them. It was far safer working with animals who had no concept of greed.

Joan’s company, animal down to the lowliest valet, became the largest grossing company in the world. Sure, there were territorial disputes at times between species, but if she bred them right, there was little incidence of warfare. She hired her father back as a factory worker, because that’s where he was the most comfortable, carping and bitching to the giraffes about his ungrateful daughter. In 2010, the company’s greatest rival lobbied the RSPCA and the company was legally obliged to return its workers to the zoo. This meant either hiring back human workers or declaring the company bankrupt. It was a victory for the company’s biggest rival, who ran a human discontinuation policy modelled on the original company’s own ‘obsolescence’ policy.

Upon receiving this news, Joan fled the country. It is believed she went to live in the Amazon rainforest, or in the Australian outback. She was never heard from again.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Conversations With S. Teri O'Type

To celebrate the release of Christopher Allen’s riotously funny satirical novel Conversations With S. Teri O’Type, I have invited protagonists Curt and Teri to come share my virtual banquette.

MJ: Welcome Curt and Teri. Do you like my banquette? And could you tell me a little about your respective roles in the novel?

Curt: Hey, dude.

Teri: Fam c’est pas trop tôt! A banquette designed with the gay physique in mind. Virtual venison cookies, Batman! Ah, virtual prosecco! I adore you already, whoever you are. Love the accent. May I smoke?

Curt: Hey, dude.

Teri: Curt, honey-darling, please try—who am I kidding?—to be more gayticulate. Introduce yourself. Entertain our host, honey.

Curt: Curt Child. Pleased to meet you, MJ. I’m an accountant in New York City, but I’m originally from North Carolina. I wrote the Conversations to keep track of my progress along the Road to Greater Gayness. Teri here is my gayru.

Teri: Snore. Snore. Virtual snore.

MJ: Um, welcome. Hi Teri. Um, Curt . . . could you tell us—that is, tell me—a little about your journey on the Road to Greater Gayness? What led you to embark on such a metaphorical trip?

Curt: Well—

Teri: Well, just look at him, MJ-honey. He had no choice. One look in the mirror was enough. Does this wrinkled gray suit scream GAY? Do these flaky eyebrows scream GAY? He smells like onions and fried chicken. And take this back fat—

Curt: Let me up. I can’t breathe.

Teri: Curt, honey-darling. You weren’t put on this earth to breathe. You were put here to be the comic relief. Breathing is gravy. MJ—I do love abbreviated names—he really doesn’t get it, you know. Talk about a challenge. This child has more construction sites than Dubai!

MJ: Curt doesn’t need to breathe, Teri, he’s a fictional character. Now, either of you, please tell me the outcome of the Great Belt Loop Debacle.

Teri: You’re preaching to choir, MJ-honey-darling. Tell Mr. Curtis McFurtis here. He’s the one who thinks he needs to breathe. Gay men don’t breathe. We exude.

Curt: MJ, I think I can help you with the—what you’d call it?—the Great Belt Loop Thing. I think that was lesson three. See, belt loops have come a long way since those evenly spaced loops of the 80s. Nowadays we got crazy loops happening all over pants. Double loops, triple loops, slanted loops. Gay men, because we’re trendsetters, are the first to buy pants with loops in odd places. Straight guys miss loops because they don’t expect the loop to be in a different place. Am I right, OMG? You get what I mean, MJ?

Teri: Curt, loop inspection.

Curt: Well, what do you know. Dirnit. I missed one again.

Teri: He’s hopeless. Would you like to adopt him? I’ve brought enough food to keep him alive for a week.

MJ: Have you considered a liquorice belt? It’s both a delicious funtime suck-snack and an effective trouser holder-upper. But enough of that. (Hey Teri, between you and me, how much are you asking for Curt?)

Curt: Hey!

Teri: Buy me a latte macchiato and we’re quits.

Curt: Hey!

Teri: OK, buy Curtastrophe here one too.

Cary Grant: Errrrrrr

Teri: Cary-honey, you know what happens when you drink coffee.

Curt: That liquorice belt sounds nice.

MJ: Sold. I’d like to write Curt into my new sitcom, Two Gays & A Girl. I think it’s a highly original idea that no one has ever done before. Two gay men move into an apartment with a girl who is not gay, and hilarious adventures ensue. There may also be room for a cute pooch in there, and Charlie Sheen. What do you say? Teri, could you direct?

Cary Grant: Errrrrrrr

Teri: Cary Grant won’t work with Sheen. I’ll orchestrate . . . as long as all the actors are attached to strings like marionettes and no one is allowed to eat. Ever. Hmmm. I like—who am I kidding?—the title Two Gays & A Girl, but we’ll have to modify it slightly to Two and a Half Gays. Curt can play the half.

Curt: Hey!

MJ: Umm, why is Cary gnawing on my leg? Now, let’s talk about Conversations With S. Teri O’Type. Oh he’s snapped the ankle off now. Is that normal? Yes, Conversations. Your creator, Christopher Allen. Isn’t he a swell chap? Oh he’s snapped the leg clean off now. Does he think I’m Katherine Hepburn? Oh dear. Do you have a suture, Teri?

Teri: Bad, Cat! Bad, Cat! Cary never attacks without reason. Have you recently been to Botswana? He has a thing for Botswana. Oh, now don’t go bleeding all over us. Who’s going to pay to have this pashmina cleaned?

Curt: Dude, you’re rupturing. Maybe we should move this banquette to a hospital? Just sayin. I’ll grab the weiners.

Teri: Oh, how crass.

MJ: We might not have long left. Or I won’t. Or have. What are your top three tips for those looking to, um . . . ooh, feeling woozy now. What are your top three tips?

Teri: I love the sound of that: toppy tips tips. Moisturize. Moisturize. Moisturize. And don’t ask me again, MJ-Darling. You know I don’t like repeating myself.

Curt: Well, I reckon the main thing is to just be yourself. I know that’s just one tip, but I can’t think of two more.

Cary Grant: Errrrrr. Errrrrr. Errrrrr. 

Conversations With S. Teri O’Type is available from the UK and US and German Amazons. (And Italian and French. And Spanish. That boy gets around).

Friday, 7 September 2012

Letter to the Agent

Dear _____

I received last week a letter refusing representation by your agency, based on the excerpt of my novel Dennis & the Dictaphone. Permit me to explain some of the intricacies of my work in case my intentions were unclear. Firstly, this is an “audiovisual novel”—portions of the text are dictated to the reader (left blank on the page), while other portions are dictated by the reader, forcing the reader to complete various sections for his/herself (using their own pens or computers). The audio effect would be achieved by the inclusion of small audiophonic devices in the text (as in birthday cards, etc).  Also, with each book a free Dictaphone would be issued, containing another novel co-written by five anonymous writers and read by five anonymous actors. The reader’s task is to trace which portions of the novel are written by myself and therefore form an extension of D&tD—the second half has been left blank for this purpose. It is so also unclear from the except I sent that, from p400 onward, most of this novel is written in anagrams, forcing the reader to rearrange the words to decrypt their meanings in the original Greek. I also want to make clear the intricacies in the typography of my novel. Every letter Y after page 67 should flash yellow, every letter V should turn from purple to black. I also want to achieve a “lava lamp” effect on page 628, where a kaleidoscope of colours moves across the text in an ocular swirl. This is achievable with some strategic backlighting on the preceding page. I have received written encouragements from both Jeremy Irons and David Markson (the latter made when he was alive) to publish this text, so I believe it expedient on your side to take another look at the MS. Let’s see if we can make this work.


Callum Hersh

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

If no one reads me, do I exist?

If no one reads me, do I exist?

Could this be the buggiest of the bugbears? I am widely published online and reasonably well-published in small periodicals, right? So who the heck reads my stuff and why is it published? Why have the publications who have published me . . . published me? Why don’t they tell me what they liked about my stories? Why don’t I ask them? Would that seem strange? Why isn’t the new Magnetic Fields album Love at the Bottom of the Sea very good? How do I develop a short story form that fits the über-distractedness of the modern online user, and helps me write more than 1K a week, if lucky? Are people reading my stories in these widely unread periodicals or skipping them for their unappealing and downright repulsive content? Is this blog post coming to end? Is it? Yes?

P.S. My story Writing For Carol was recently published in OneTitle Summer 2012 issue, on p112. You can read me, and I will exist! Maybe . . .

Monday, 3 September 2012

Distraction or, Look at that Shiny Thing

I have come to accept constant distraction as a part of the writing process. Having written with permanent internet access for most of my life, I can’t switch it off and concentrate fully on the open text. Because so many things swirl around in my head from sentence to sentence, I need to be able to click away, to check emails and Goodreads notifications and Facebook every four minutes. Things like: is this sentence as good as the preceding sentence? is this the best word choice here, what about these seven different words instead, is this working in the piece overall, what’s missing from this scene, is this the sort of thing I should be writing, what do I want to say here, do I want to say anything etc, etc, etc.

By keeping the internet on I am distracting all the wagging tongues in my head constantly questioning every word I write, trying to undermine my progress. But recently, I’ve found myself even more restless when writing short stories. Either I am coming around to the usefulness of the short form, or looking to evolve a long-ish short story form for the perpetually distracted reader of these times. I wrote two collage-like pieces called Digressiana that consist of complete microfictions, stories that break off halfway, little weird doodles, self-commenting snarks and bits that run throughout the piece as a whole.

The effect—which I tried last year in a story that simulated channel-hopping—is to create a form that responds to the contemporary attention span—esp. the online attention span (where these pieces may be published, if anyone publishes them at all), where the outcome of (or details pertaining to) one story is not necessarily all the reader cares about. Having many, many stories running at the same time, stories that are dropped or resumed, interrupted, replaced with better or worse ones, might be an interesting response to the distracted reader (and writer) dilemma. Or it might make it worse, by simply encouraging the problem. Who knows. Time will tell as I explore the form. Oh look—a shiny thing!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Past is Tense

I often have moments where, thinking about the past and what could have been, I get pangs of melancholy. More recently, I have found myself aware of these moments and can easily dismiss them with the logic that, being the person I am with the upbringing I had, events would have turned out more or less similar regardless of minor alterations made to specific events in the distant yonder. Large differences in my personality and genetic makeup would need to take place for a more well-rounded person to have emerged to the one that exists now.

What I find strange is that when I was a depressed teenager, aged seventeen or so, I had the notion that I would look back on these moments of depression, of being lost and alone, for the rest of my life, since I knew the significance that ones late teenhood has on the rest of your life—the teenage period as a nostalgia nerve-centre, where a person reflects on how their life turned out the way it did, all the decisions they made in early youth. I was right in that I do dwell on that period often, almost ten years on now, as being a pivotal moment in my life—an unhappy one, which I knew I would never reclaim. I knew I was missing out on the experiences people of my age group were having due to my shyness and fear, and I would never be able to relive this period.

I don’t find myself feeling down for very long—I have moved on in so many ways. In many ways, I am still the same, but I am happy and contended in my life at the moment, touch wood. But I do find myself more interested in exploring this unhappy period in my fiction: it seems so significant in terms of who I am and what I want to communicate to the world. Perhaps I’ll figure out why. In the meantime, let’s lament for nostalgia: it isn’t what it used to be.