Anemone and Skins

Featured

Rita Indiana – Tentacle (Achy Obejas, translator, & Other Stories, 2019)

A post-apocalyptic Caribbean island. A sacred anemone is stolen from the dictator’s personal obeah and traded for Rainbow Brite; a drug that can change a man to a woman, or a woman to a man.

As far as premises go, Tentacle had me hooked from the start. Then, just like its namesake, it sucked me in and entangled me. It was a book that I couldn’t put down and, more than that, the book wouldn’t put me down either.

Rita Indiana has an amazing ability to switch up tone and direction without it breaking the narrative flow or writing style. We move between the minds of a trans sex worker, a lazy artist and an eighteenth-century skin trader with seamless fluidity. The translator, Achy Obejas, must take some credit for this too. The book is a masterpiece in streetfighting style.

As far as narratives go, Tentacle is refreshingly plot-driven. Despite being primarily literary in her approach to writing, Indiana has smuggled in the dark arts of structure and pacing with her sci-fi genre borrowings. We move from section to section just at the right moment; entering during the action and leaving just before a resolution is offered. Serious momentum is developed as a result.

So, what is the story? Well, the primary narrative concerns the aforementioned transman Acilde who is introduced to Esther, the President’s obeah, by a john. This client is a Cuban doctor who can get access to the transitioning drug Rainbow Brite and so, after some underworld scheming, they concoct a plan to steal the obeah’s rare, sacred, and, most importantly, highly valuable anemone.

The sacredness and rarity of the anemone is due to an environmental catastrophe that, despite being essential to the book’s setting, is nevertheless dealt with lightly. The Caribbean Sea (and perhaps all seas, we are told) have been turned black. A bioweapon was unleashed that destroyed all marine life and the world lingers on in the aftermath.

The smartest part of Tentacle, for me, is its depiction of a “post-apocalyptic” life not too dissimilar from our own. Everything continues, only slightly worse, and refugees from the devastated zones (in this case Haiti) are efficiently disposed of, posing only a minor inconvenience.

There is something more chilling, more real, in this blasé attitude to disaster than anything offered by The Road, for example (another book with black seas).

The disaster explains the anemone’s rarity. Yet to understand its sacredness, Indiana introduces us to a historical narrative. Roque, the cook and captain of a small band of skinners, lands on the island with his men, Argenis and Engombe, accompanying him. They slaughter and skin cattle beside a sacred cave.

In the cave are said to be the “big headed” men and women of the ancient times. To access it, one must dive through a narrow underwater passageway lined with anemones. To do so changes a man.

It is here that we are introduced to the final portrait of our narrative triptych; the artist, Argenis. Also present at the skinning, Argenis has a loose relationship with time, and it is his aimless meandering through the past and the future, call-centres and the fine art world, that provide the connections between Indiana’s overlapping narrative arcs.

Argenis’ journey through art holds the key to understanding Tentacle’s concealed thematic depths. Trained as a promising renaissance painter by a group of Catholic priests, he arrives at art school to discover abstraction, modernism, and postmodernism all at once. This leads to a breakdown at first, a total lack of confidence, before eventually offering a rebirth.

Argenis’ neoclassicism is much in demand from wealthy commissioners, and praised by the fashionable for its kitsch. Argenis is a success, but the terms of his success alienate him from his paintings, his work, and ultimately his own life; preferring weed and porn to his wife and family.

Tentacle is, to my mind, a book that is as much about art as it is about disaster. Indiana might have taken all the best bits from sci-fi to construct her narrative, but its speculative aspects serve a symbolic rather than a predictive function.

Like Argenis’ ironic detachment from his own classical talent, the sacred magic of the anemones is made hollow by the sea’s death, and Acilde’s life too is made hollow by getting what he wants: having achieved a male body, he has no more to pursue. The apocalypse of Tentacle is twenty-first century meaninglessness, and each character meets it, is crushed by it, and becomes post-apocalyptic as a result.

Tentacle is a novel of great depth that also happens to be a great read. These don’t come along very often and I highly recommend checking it out. This is the novel that Olivia Laing’s Crudo was trying to be. If it isn’t granted the same kudos as that unfortunate book then we can be sure that our literary class is corrupt, and we should push them all together, en masse, into the black sea.

– Joe Darlington 

Advertisements

King Cang

Stuart Elden – Canguilhem (Polity)

I went through this book on Georges Canguilhem by Stuart Elden in strides, thanks to his excellent explanatory craft. He lays out detailed research with an engaging narrative style and no gloss or loss. I hadn’t explored ‘King Cang’ in detail before and now I see how important he was.

The Foucault link is the thing many people know about, but the oft-mentioned connection to Foucault’s PhD is actually minimal, at the same time as Canguilhem’s work is Ur-Foucauldian.

The Normal and the Pathological is the key work and Elden maps out the text itself with fascinating asides on the histories of some of the concepts and debates Canguilhem grappled with in his time.

Canguilhem was a historian and philosopher of science, he worked closely with Gaston Bachelard, who is largely known for his book on space in Britain, rather than for being the equally paradigm-challenging individual he was in Europe. Shall I talk about Europe? I better not talk about Europe.

These figures – Foucault included – take you right into the roots of epistemology. For Canguilhem disease is not a diversion from the ‘norm’ of health, but a new type of life. Dead things live, hair grows. Live things have deadness. Mechanism and vitalism – and in fact morbidity and life – are not divided cleanly in two by a scalpel blade. The experimental laboratory is not a normalised situation, but a pathological one. Statistical mean averages normalise. The roots of this lie in metricisation and all the way back to the revolution, Bonaparte. Standard measures that were required to control and for warfare.

Scientists may have their eyes down the microscope, but they all live in a social world and they blindly bring elements of that socialisation to their supposedly neutral objective labour.

The links with Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other works should now be clear to those who know that material. But the kind of thinking Canguilhem executed is exactly that which is under threat in some places as conservatism and a re-kindled fascism shows a clear desire to close down on all but the most instrumentalised philosophy.

Cang’s work was in fact a kind of philosophical Antifa – as Elden shows – even though the explicit terms of those politics were muted in his writings.

These issues are at the heart of the struggle for the independent soft power of the university in Britain. Canguilhem is a crucial figure to keep as that struggle moves on, his critique of science and its epistemologies are as far-reaching as Adorno and Horkheimer’s in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Elden’s book is the perfect introduction and future guide to ‘Cang’ in English. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

Our Laureate of the Concept Collider

Michael Conley – Flare and Falter (Splice)

This author is so far from the mass of average fiction writers, wrapped up in a fantasy idea of their own life, wanting to ‘express themselves’, or even worse, doing that but not even knowing there’s another way to work.

Conley takes two ideas to his giant particle collider brain – it runs the full length of the Mancunian Way if it had been completed – then he lets them go, BANG round the tubes at a million miles an hour. They smash into a trillion infinitely coloured fragments. A snapshot is taken from every possible angle. Conley writes up the report, lab coat on, biros in top pocket – important that – and then he condenses it into a short story. He repeats the process until he has a short story collection which also works as a novel.

Conley knows that to make good art you have to stand further back, not get closer. That you have to squint, not peer in. That you have to look out, not like, hey, inside yourself man.

He also knows that ultimately this will provide a better snapshot of Michael Conley – as well as a cracking work of fiction – than a decade of soul-searching could ever give. He’s also a bloody great poet.

Now, spoilers are very possible with this one – and will ruin your fun – but all I need to tell you is that one short story involves the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned to the next life as a South Manchester pub landlord.

Buy and read immediately.

– Steve Hanson

Fallen Words

Melchior Vischer – Second Through Brain (Equus Press, 2015). Translated by David Vichnar and Tim König

“In fifty years or in fifty minutes will this my good inanity surely become apodictic wisdom”; so predicted Melchior Vischer, writer of the first Dadaist novel, Second Through Brain, in 1920.

Well now it’s almost a hundred years later and far from being apodictic (that is, surely, clearly and indisputably the case), Vischer’s work remains troubling, and in many ways as impenetrable as it was upon first publication.

The novel (if it might be called that) was translated by David Vichnar and Tim König into English for the very first time just over three years ago, and a copy has only recently made its way into my hands. It is a worthy piece of literary recovery, filling a gap in the records that I had not even realised was there, and one conducted in the most rigorous academic manner.

There enough in both the scholarly introduction and annotations to satisfy those with an academic interest in the text, while the text itself is presented in the small, challenging sections that typified the original work. At only 116 pages, it is a work as concise as it is important.

Second Through Brain tells the tale of Jörg, a builder who, while ogling the bountiful bosom of a girl in an office below him, slips and falls forty feet from scaffolding. The manic, linguistically mangled visions that blast into his mind during the one-second duration of his fall constitute the body of the text; ending with the composite image of his last sight, a shop selling eggs, and the cracking of his skull, egglike, onto the pavement.

In the graspable content of the novel, we find a series of dreamlike images. These fray and bend out of shape in the iron wind of broken language. Jörg has little time for the “dumbass languages of the wicked Earthball”, we are told, preferring to present the world, in all its fury and pointlessness, through a slurry of half-images and twisted words.

As a foundational text – the first novel of dada – there are a panoply of techniques on display here that it is tempting to call firsts (although I am no expert). The use of non-sequiturs throughout is reminiscent of automatic writing, although the animals and vegetables of the surrealists are not in as regular attendance here as are soldiers, sex, acts of violence, and language itself.

A favourite trick of Vicher’s is the compounding of nouns and the adverbisation of verbs. “A French victoryofficer” is said to “choke gurglingly”, for example. It is a testament to the translators that such words, and the non-sequiturial sentence constructions that contain them, have been effectively rendered in English despite the many barriers that lie between our own tongue and the German original, especially in terms of approaches to grammar and the use of compounds.

The effect is one of conscious unmeaning. Like the two professors we find wandering through the book at its halfway point, we are left “searching for the point. Yes indeed, the point!”

As the professors are revealed to be deer, watched by “a frog corked with cyanide winking imperceptibly, yet aristocratically”, we can conclude that they never did find the point; nor we neither. Which is precisely the point, after all.

Vischer/Jörg is a Sudetenland German, as German speaking Czechs were known at this time, and is keen throughout the novel to situate himself in the German Dadaist tradition. As if to distinguish himself in the reader’s mind from Slavic contemporaries, he makes reference in numerous places to his “friends” Tristan Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, and expressionist Franz Marc. In Vischer’s own mind he was a bridge between the expressionists and Dada. To the founders of Dada he was a provincial opportunist.

Nevertheless, his most ardent yells are those in the name of Dada: “here still reigns the free, primitive lust of procreation. Da da! Here’s the mother of all culture. Da da!”

It is surprising then to find that, other than Second Through Brain, a novel which constituted both his most important and best received contribution to literary culture, Vischer wrote nothing else in the Dadaist or wider avant garde modes. The “primitive” passions of his twenties burned themselves out chasing abortive careers in the theatre, popular fiction, and then history and literary biography.

In fact, as the well-researched introduction to the text makes clear, Vischer soon dropped everything, including his own name, to join up with the Nazi party and write propaganda under the names Emil Fischer and Heinrich Riedel.

One is tempted to draw a parallel with Hitler’s own failed art career, only Vischer had the added frustration of having had one solitary success, Second Through Brain, and nothing but failures after. That this success was anti-bourgeois, anti-church, and anti-art must have rankled with the later “Fischer”, who lived a buttoned-down, churchgoing, happily married life from the 1930s onward.

So might we consider Vischer’s groundbreaking novel to be apodictic wisdom in another fifty years’ time? The signs suggest not. If, after a hundred years, a novel still has the power to baffle, infuriate, tease, captivate, and offend, then perhaps there is hope yet for the avant gardist mission.

Second Through Brain is nowhere near as elaborately conceived or beautifully executed as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s The Waves, but it reads as far more contemporary. Time hasn’t dulled the blades on the meat grinder of its language. It is still every bit as curious and mocking as it was back in 1920, and now that English readers can get their hands on it I highly recommend that they do so.

– Joe Darlington

The bard of two-for-ones

Colin Herd – click + collect (Boilerhouse Press)

Book of two halves, Click, and then Collect.

Click begins with the TV remote and the trigger, soldiers captured, shown on television, stripped to their underwear and soon to be dead.

Herd’s confidence is detectable in that he – or he appears to – write easily and relatively unencumbered by the dead weight of ancient verse. Pound’s ‘heave’ against pentameter is definitely over here. No sweat.

But he isn’t presenting a cod modernist piece either, that assumes it has to arrive fractured as though a typesetting accident has occured which looks like a Microsoft Word default.

It’s subtle. It’s dark and light at the same time. It’s everyday and slightly otherworldy at the same time. I applaud all those qualities.

Brilliant book, get it. Then you can find out what Collect is all about.

– Steve Hanson

Enter the Gonkaverse

D Harlan Wilson. Natural Complexions. (Equus Press, 2018).

It is not a good time for transgressions. We like our explorations courteous now. We like our politics earnest.

The boundary-pushing, rude and raucous style of writing that we label “transgressive” has a distinct flavor, and it’s one that feels like it’s from another time. The Dadaists, Artaud, Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Bret Easton Ellis; these all fit the transgressive bill.

But there’s a subterranean element to this tradition as well. Small presses and zines, performance poets and conceptual artists all help to keep transgression alive during those downtimes, like the present, when the toleration of outside voices does not extend to the chaotic, the nihilistic, or the flippant.

It’s during these times when people in search of the lewd and the crude, the grotesque and the trashy, should turn to outside sources. The latest hook-up that I’ve stumbled upon comes in the form of Equus Press, a London/Paris/Prague connection that specializes in the esoteric, the dauntless, and the malapert.

The first work of this press that I encountered is the subject of this review: D Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions. With a suitably stomach-churning cover, I was initially trepidatious in my approach to the text. It could contain anything, I realised. There was danger in it. I felt uncomfortable reading it on the tram.

I was right to be nervous, for Wilson’s novel (if we might call it that) takes aim at contemporary mores not so much with a rifle as a blunderbuss. Having written an academic study of J.G. Ballard, Wilson borrows liberally from his techno-apocalyptic imagery. We see a President mown down in a motorcade, L. Ron Hubbard making regular appearances (practicing hypnotism without a license, punching his sleeping wife for dreaming of another man), and the movie star BRIAN GONKA constantly recurs; simultaneously a pick-up artist, a dead man, a police detective, and a host of other manic characters.

The book is structured in four parts, each with a large number of often single-paragraphed sections, all tied together under loose themes and interconnected by recurring characters. These characters are all given highlighted names like Joel Osteen. The visual effect is reminiscent of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, although the piecemeal approach to narrative building is Burroughsian in effect.

Individual lines spring out from the text and surprise you. “Zebras are the primary source of crime”, for example, is hard to beat as an opener. Equally so is Harlan’s reference Greek gastromancy: “they believed the gongs of indigestion might belong to the articulations of the dead, the ghostly, the spectral or the cosmic”. The material bodily lower stratum is never far away from the cerebral, or even the transdimensional in Wilson’s imagination.

Some sections are even laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that only bad taste humour can be. The section “Death Sentences” describes body builder and murderer Maxwell La Fleur, who explains at length his only regret; that he has eaten too many carbs prior to his execution, and thus ruined the final effect of his rippling muscles as they spasm in the electric chair. The innocents he murdered, we are told, deserved it.

“Sisyphus II: The Sequel” is another such piece, funny enough for a stand-up comedian to deliver were it not sandwiched between an email from a Ghanaian scammer and piece of faux scientific speculation. In it, our unlucky speaker describes being shanked from the moment he entered prison. First the other prisoners shank him, then the guards, and then the prison doctor. The journey continues from there, taking in a wide range of shanking situations until our hero is eventually lowered into the grave, the mourners around him all leaning over to shank him on the way down.

By this point in the book I was in hysterics, ruining what little credibility I had left among my fellow tram passengers.

Wilson’s book is a short one at only 76 pages, but it is a slow burn nevertheless. One must push through one’s own reticence in order to find the humour, the satire, and the unfortunate truths that lie behind his often gruesome and gritty takes on the world. For me, the book ended just as I had started to feel at home in Wilsonworld.

It is abrupt, perhaps, but perhaps this is also for the best. For what truly transgressive book would happy to leave its reader walking away untroubled?

Like Burroughs, Acker and Ballard before him, Wilson has written a book that would recommend itself to the atypical reader. If you are a regular consumer of books who is in search of something brazenly original, drawing on known writers but offering something new as well, then this is the book for you.

If you’re a musician or a dreamer, or if you take a lot of drugs, this is also the book for you – although I question why you are reading this book review if you are…

Natural Complexions is a laugh riot that also makes you feel a bit sick, and you can’t ask for more than that in a book. I look forward to tracking down more of Wilson’s writing and I’m glad there are publishers out there like Equus Press who make sure that such writing can still make its way into the hands of prurient reviewers like me.

– Joe Darlington

Green Shoots

Seán Hewitt – Lantern (Offord Road Book, 2019)

I used to love metaphors, but now I’m happiest with a raw noun. Oak. Leaf. Bud. River. Natural stuff that just sits there. These words seem like enough in themselves, like runes. They capture solid living things and print them as symbols, ready for the mind. I can stare at the paper for hours and they stare back, magical: whole and complete.

But the subject of nature is so done at this point, it feels as if to notice a tree is to become instantly anachronistic. Perhaps this is true. There aren’t that many trees left, after all…

Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise when I discovered Seán Hewitt’s collection Lantern. Hewitt has done what, prior to reading his work, I would have doubted was possible, which is to bring new life to the pastoral form.

His poems are dense with foliage. If not explicitly being about trees – “Leaf”, “Oak Glossary”, “Dormancy” – his work engages with fauna – “Barn Owls in Suffolk” – and landscape – “Evening Poem”. In each, the beloved nouns are arranged with precision and elegance.

The originality of the collection lies in what Andrew McMillan describes as a “queering” of natural imagery. In part, this refers to the Ovidian transformations that enfold nature and language into each other, turning solid noun into solid noun through a more fluid stream of verbs.

Yet it also refers to sexual antics taking place in the woods. The woods as a common location for teenage countryside adventures. Nature as a backdrop for sex, with the pantheism of the Romantic poets creeping its way in on top:

                  As I looked up, the sky hidden under a rain

                  Of leaves, each tree stood over me

                  In perfect symmetry with his body.

The initial emergence of this sexuality did, I admit, take me by surprise. It served at first as an imposition but then, on rereading, I felt how it fit in to the verse. Hewitt has a masterful control of language and imagery, with all his poem’s edges being rounded; not exactly smooth, but well-carved.

It’s a thin collection, staple-bound, and one that would benefit from locational reading. I plan to take it away with me to the countryside on my next visit out there as I feel that even more could be found in these poems when read in situ.

Although perhaps, like Wordsworth, these poems are better understood as emotion recollected in tranquillity. Both the lure of the woods and the adventures of youthful sexuality are made beautiful by the writing. Perhaps they are frozen too, or pinned down like butterflies.

Either way, I would very much recommend Hewitt’s poetry for anyone interested in rural verses. It offers a new and exciting voice in an area that struggles with its own stasis. It’s a collection you’ll return to often, and find new things each time.

– Joe Darlington

Babysitting Brecht

Amy Arnold – Slip of a Fish (& Other Stories, 2018)

I didn’t think I’d write this review. When a book frustrates and perplexes me as much as Amy Arnold’s award winning Slip of a Fish did on first reading, I avoid, as a rule, translating this experience into review form.

But here I am, reviewing. It is the day after finishing the book and I find that sections of it are still rattling around in my mind. Certain obtuse imagery refuses to be buried. I find myself missing Arnold’s surprising prose and her protagonist’s, at times very frustrating, voice.

It’s the sensation you get from Brecht. I feel provoked. I Googled other reviews and wonder why they weren’t provoked too.

Slip of a Fish presents the internal monologue of Ash, mother of Charlie, a woman with an obsession with language befitting an Award-Winning Novel’s protagonist (you will find a similar obsession shared by every protagonist on the Booker shortlist). Ash is an outsider in the suburbs, a victim when it comes to sexual advances, and, judging by her interior monologue, is experiencing some form of psychosis. So far, so literary.

The rub comes when Arnold oversteps the unspoken boundaries of boundary-pushing fiction. Her protagonist, obsessing over her daughter, appears to rape her (although the monologue leaves this unclear). When she cheats on her husband with a bisexual, yoga-teaching female lover the experience is portrayed as a rather joyless by-product of her fixated personality.

It was in thinking about these oversteps that I realised the real subversive power of this novel. In its own, obtuse, quasi-Brechtian manner, it both contains and disrupts the usual progressive beats by which we currently measure successful literary fiction.

In Slip of a Fish, Motherhood is plagued by incest. Bisexual polyamory is haunted by the dual ghosts of fidelity and sexual predation.

Even Arnold’s language seems constructed with a willingness to provoke in mind; perhaps even an enthusiasm for it. The sequence preceding the potential rape features Ash swimming far out into the local body of water, losing herself in the experience of wading and paddling, overwhelmed by a Kate Chopin-esque disassociation as she immerses herself in the water.

As she wades further out, becoming freer and freer, we hear her six-year-old daughter crying and screaming at the lakeside. She is terrified of her mother leaving her alone, slipping away forever.

Arnold picks this moment of all moments to introduce compulsive repetition into Ash’s internal monologue. She describes each experience three times. Three times she’ll explain it. It will get explained on three separate occasions.

As a reader, I couldn’t get over how grating this technique was, and how often she was using it. It just kept coming, again and again, in every other paragraph, sometimes more.

I’m definitely not reviewing this book, I told myself. I’ll never find anything nice to say about it.

But now, after the fact, I realise Arnold’s provocative power. What better way to emphasise a character’s self-obsession than to reflect on a formal level her entirely self-absorbed mentality? Arnold creates paragraphs that strain the reader’s patience, anger them even, at just the same moment that this seemingly liberated mother is abandoning and traumatising her child.

When Ash finally returns to dry land, kisses her crying child and opens up her legs, Arnold has perfectly prepared us for our disgust.

As I say, I’ve not found this reading experience reflected in any other reviews. It may be that I am projecting my own lack of progressivism onto a text that, in other eyes, is a celebration of motherhood. The marketing blurb certainly makes it out to be this kind of novel. That it might be more complex than that, however – more provocative, more chilling even – excites me a lot.

It’s the kind of book that would be great for a reading group. A challenging read, ambiguous enough for a range of perspectives to interpret. I challenge you, my fair reader, to read it too, and then tell me exactly why I’m wrong about it.

– Joe Darlington

Water Under the Bridge

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

There’s an academic term; “the new depthiness”. I have no idea what it means, nor do I have any interest in finding out. I mention it only because I found Daisy Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, to explore surfaces and depths in ways that are new and exciting. Any similarities between my excitement and nonsensical jargon are, I assure you, entirely coincidental.

The novel bears a strong relation to British experimental writing of the 1960s (my own personal academic hobbyhorse) and post-nouveau roman literature more generally. It avoids signposting either narrative or character, instead preferring to develop its story through an ever shifting landscape of symbol-ridden scenery, transformative characters and speech-mark-free dialogue. It can be disorienting at times, but the overall effect is magical.

The novel follows an abandoned daughter’s relationship with her run-away mother, her adoptive families and the aquatic folk monster, “canal thief” or “Bonak”, that follows her everywhere. There is a murder in here too, although its reality is often in doubt.

The story itself is patchy, and moves in fits and starts. If it wasn’t for the pure readability of the book I’m not sure it would work. The amazing variety of sentence constructions, however, and the play of language between literary dark and conversational light, makes the prose a joy to read.

All of this would be enough to recommend the book, but what elevates it above a readable and thoughtful tale into something of importance is its complex articulation of notions of depth and surface.

For a start, it is largely set near water; particularly the boatways and canals of the South East. This is the same geographical terrain mined for its symbolic potential so effectively in Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983). Yet, where Swift uses the waterways as a symbol of deep England – of a history and tradition only kept alive by our constant efforts in the present – Johnson’s waterways are more ambiguous, less sure in their designations of depth and surface.

The barriers between what’s on top and what’s under are forever being broken. The Bonak lives in the water, but terrorises those on land. Those on land must venture into the water to hunt for it but, once under, risk losing themselves completely. Our protagonist, Margot/Marcus, is obsessed with fate, her adoptive parents with genes – two depthy determinants – while on the surface (s)he moves between gender performances with little regard for a “true” gender, in the solid sense of identity.

A key scene shows Fiona, “a woman trapped in a man’s body like a fish in the belly of a heron”, shaving away her facial stubble using an old razor. It is the same razor that Margot uses to cut her hair, becoming Marcus. Both use the water as a mirror. The razor on the surface of the skin is reflected on the surface of the water, but what is really at stake lies in the depths below.

Language too, moves for Margot like the surface of a river. Her mother, drunk and antisocial, raises her to speak made-up words and, faced with the definitions Margot later works with as a dictionary compiler, prefers to chew up the paper and swallow it than read. Eating recurs in the novel, as do definitions. There is something voracious in both.

I worry that my points here aren’t clear. Perhaps my own prose has adapted to the novel, being allusive? Despite their binary relation; surface and depth are often too subjective in their determinants to truly signify. Their dialectical relation is itself always in flux, like the waters from which the metaphor draws its ground. Surfaces show depths, depths carry surfaces, and the two mix like mud and silt in the linguistic flow.

Johnson’s use of the river gives new life to our most ancient symbol. She shows us that depth can sometimes be banal, while surfaces can be complex and fascinating. We can seek out depth as a solace when the surfaces scare us or leave us detached.

Heraclitus taught us that life is always moving, like the waters, while the river as such is a trick of the eye. There is permanence in a river and transience in water. The search for meaning, identity, our place in life, our family, are an attempt to see permanence in transience; a desire to see our reflection staring back not only from the surface, but from the depths as well.

Johnson’s prose is enough to assure this book’s power and appeal. It is its complex use of symbolism that renders it important and meaningful. I am glad to see that it received the attention of the Booker Prize judges, although I fear that it’s legacy may depend upon the nature of the academic attention it receives within the next few years.

A true engagement with this text, on its own terms, will produce valuable lessons, I am certain. What it doesn’t need, is the sorts of cursory attention that contemporary lit crit usually specialises in. To reduce it to queer theory, for example, would be an injustice to its lack of certitude, its challenge, its indeterminacy. To measure its “new depthiness”, well… you’d do better to jump in the river.

– Joe Darlington

I Placed a Jar in Tennessee

Andrew Smith – Rabbit & Robot (Simon and Schuster, 2018) 

Andrew Smith, pioneer of ‘weird fiction’, has thoroughly confused and astounded me once again.

Although I love his work, I stress to new readers that he is an acquired taste and it isn’t wise to jump straight in to his catalogue. His latest work, Rabbit & Robot, is perfect proof of this, as it demonstrates his uniqueness but also how close he is to becoming his own parody. From an academic point of view, it was one of his weaker novels, yet it still contained many of the Andrew Smithian elements that I’ve loved in his other work and I was still able to enjoy it. It’s just that maybe Rabbit & Robot takes a little more work that we’re used to.

Rabbit & Robot follows Cager and Billy whose parents have invented two of the most ground-breaking pieces of technology of their lifetimes: the cogs, and the lunar cruise ships. The cogs are robot servants who, despite now being on v.4 of their development, are frozen them in one constant emotional state (happiness, anger, hunger, etc). Cager, Billy, and their guardian Rowan, steal a lunar cruise ship called the Tennessee; home to thousands of malfunctioning cogs.

The premise of this novel is as exciting as his previous ones, and I can never fault Smith for his originality. What I also love about his books is that despite their sheer surrealism, they always have something to say about the world that we reside in.

Rabbit & Robot was essentially a novel that explored ‘us v them’, as well as the question of what it really means to be human. Are our emotions just a form of programming? Do our genes make us nothing but cogs made out of flesh? Some of the imagery here, like the cogs oozing strange coloured liquid, and Cager being completely unfazed by inflicting violence on them, was quite shocking in its inferences.

There are other small things about this novel that I enjoyed, yet I felt weren’t fully explored. The idea that never-ending wars were being waged on the Earth below them, for example. Or the drug, Woz, that Cager is addicted to, being a substance used in schools to neurologically train children and teenagers into obedience.

The fact that Smith is never afraid to openly show homosexuality and homo-eroticism as ordinary behaviour, and actively includes trans and bisexual characters, is something I’d like to see more of. And, finally, the idea of the Tennessee as a ‘jar’. The entire ordeal of the book resembles some sort of scientific experiment, and the revelations of Cager becoming completely irrelevant and detached in relation to the Tennessee present us with nothing but an image of dehumanisation.

What let this book down was a number of loose ends and unnecessary elements that took away from the novel. In the middle of it they are visited by aliens who claimed to have installed the fault in the cogs. Whilst this was an interesting idea, in that it created quite a terrifying image of an ‘us v them’ hierarchy, Smith is better at showing how humans ultimately plot their own downfall.

Grasshopper Jungle, for example, is his apocalyptic novel about humanity’s neglect of nature and toxic use of science. The same really worked for this novel until the arrival of some aliens for about 30 pages, and I don’t think that really fit well into the story. Smith also really needs to work on his female characters, because they are flat and barely exist outside of the male gaze.

So I have very mixed things to say about Rabbit & Robot, but as with all of Smith’s works it can take a lot of time for the messages to really jump out. Whilst these messages are definitely there in the undercurrent, the surface story of Rabbit & Robot wasn’t completely my cup of tea. Andrew Smith is at his best when he doesn’t try so hard to shock, but to scare, and does it by showing us a taste of our own world in destruction rather than too-removed sci-fi we can’t recognise.

– Rachel Louise Atkin