The year of living entropically

I don’t really know what to do.

There are great books out in sociology and politics. Les Back and Shamsher Sinha’s book on migrant Britain, Vic Seidler’s book on Brexit. Imogen Tyler. Will Davies’ work. Emma Jackson’s. But if I look away from that and towards the vaguely nominated ‘literatures’ that are Manchester Review of Books’ remit, I feel enervated.

I wonder if Neil Campbell’s Zero Hours (Salt) will change that opinion, but I’ve neither got nor read it yet.

Good things are happening, it’s true. I’m involved, at the fringes, which is probably the best place to be if you want a life too, in some exciting things. But coming to the end of 2018 I feel adrift. I’m all old on the new. I’m popupped out.

I’m still enervated by theory. I think literary theory is up for grabs if someone could be bothered. Metamodernism? The new depthiness? It’s a joke, surely? And that seems to be one of the more concerted efforts.

I watched that film on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn the other night on Mubi. Ben somebody. All those super-posh artist people talking all that. I felt disgusted. It just goes on and on, doesn’t it?

Someone said to me about that film – one of those throwaway two word comments that can destroy a whole epoch – ‘psychogeography’, ‘so you mean that it’s ponderous and fragmented?’ It was one of those comments that stays in your brain like some insect and does things you didn’t necessarily want it to.

Criticism and commentary. I think we’re living in a time in which ponderous and fragmented is all that’s needed to gain applause. There’s a particular sort of politely ponderous and fragmented – hooked to certain aesthetics that in turn hook into the ego to please it – and this became the default replacement for anything like a set of meaningful genres in supposedly serious writing.

It’s become a script like the uncanny and sublime have become a script in undergraduate art school teaching: When was the last time you had an experience you could really call uncanny or sublime, in the full sense? For me, a long time ago. When was the last time you experienced some writing or art that connected you to an experience you could call uncanny or sublime in the full sense? For me, never.

When was the last time the politely ponderous and fragmented shifted you anywhere?

So I was thinking about how to react to my enervation. I was thinking of revisiting some old sites for a re-study. Back to ethnographic work. But then as soon as I considered that I had a primal urge to curate an online log of hours of writing that nobody ever sees the results of. And of burying the things I’ve done that I think are alright in some sort of sealed box ten feet underground and then forgetting all about all of the universes of writing and art that currently exist.

Maybe I’m just very depressed and don’t know it. But I keep experiencing a potent aversion to the supposed obviousness of many of the reactions to the new times. All of the sure and strong voices sound like the opposite to me, because they’re sure and strong. I have an overwhelming feeling, right or wrong, that what’s happening now and into the future will render most things but a few – and none of us know what they are yet – irrelevant. I still don’t really know what to do.

The same thing applies to theoretical positions, when I encounter someone taking one. On the left there is some sort of postpunk-modernist-communist compact that has ditched postmodernism and poststructuralism as though it was an erroneous blip – rather than the slight cultural swell it was – swollen by increased access to credit before the crash of 2008. The rejection seems to tally with the rightwing anti-PC commonsense aggressives far too closely. It wears a bobhat.

I want the left in power in Britain. But the core of my aversion is this: I think much pomo culture was garbage and I want it gone and I claw for something that at least even feels real – like many other people do – but you can’t just get that by loudly denouncing what went on a few years ago, and then running right back to modernity as though it had nothing to do with the most horrific human epoch so far. The search for a more vital real is tangled up with the search for authenticity and the search for authenticity is also badly tangled up with the most horrific human epoch so far, the twentieth century. Now I really don’t know what to do.

Some people say they know what to do but I don’t trust them precisely because they say it. Their saying they know what to do means they don’t.

But it’s worth saying – because people get confused or only read bits of things then react immediately – that the real enemies are the Tories, the fascists, racists, misogynists, climate crisis deniers and capitalists. The Russian state and the Saudi despots and fucking Erdogan et al et al. The rise of the far right is real and a real danger, no matter how small the Tommy Robinson marches have been.

But what I have been doing is writing things that look like poetry and reading a lot of poetry. I’ve written it since the 1990s. But I did so privately as the last thing I wanted to do was call myself a poet. I still don’t and won’t.

What I’m doing is trying to work some things out and this involves experimenting with language. I’ve also been talking to Richard Barrett a lot who I think is brilliant and that dialogue gives me hope.

I don’t assume writing poetry or experimenting with language will change anything and I also hugely distrust people who think their creative activities change things.

I’ve only just fully realised that I switched modes into poetry because of the enervation I describe. I suppose I should just be writing about what I’ve read this year: Just give us the listicle, you miserable sod.

There are great publishers. There’s Boiler House Press and Dostoyevsky Wannabe and manifestos and Fitzcarraldo… I still think Brian Dillon’s Essayism is the most useful book I’ve reviewed here. It’s kind of wonky, but it’s honest in a way that many writers I encounter don’t seem to be. But that came out in 2017. OK, here are some books:

I read Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale and Honorary Consul for the first time this year and dipped into the Complete Short Stories quite a bit. Greene’s characters are often flat, but they are about people pinned in history and how. That short story about those kids destroying that guy’s house that survived the blitz: Greene is now, right now. I also read Robert Hewison’s Under Siege and Tom Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz.

I re-read Sebald’s Emigrants and enjoyed it. Who cares?!

A friend of mine reads a Dickens each year and I took his challenge on – how else to get through them before death – and I stupidly raised him a Shakespeare. So I read Hard Times and King John by Shakespeare. King John is the most Brexity of Shakespeare’s plays, try it. I was tipped off about this by reviewing John Sutherland’s Brexiteer’s Guide to Eng. Lit here (Reaktion).

I’ve made a piece of writing out of King John which came out in a very obscure place. It is derided as one of the poorest of the plays, King John is, but actually I got to like it.

I’ve been reading the journals of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White to fall asleep. MIT publish it – for students of the natural sciences I guess – but it’s beautiful poetry to me. These odd things I find in rubbish dumps always end up being central somehow.

Much of the poetry-poetry I’ve been through I have reviewed here and lots of it published by Carcanet. I have a Michael Hamburger reader they put out that I need to review here. I also read Hamburger’s Truth of Poetry this year.

I’ve discovered the New York Review of Books, which is infinitely more brilliant than the LRB. There was a letter in LRB some time ago from Alan Bennett, and you know, love him, but he was wiffling on about chairs in the National Portrait Gallery. Is that all these people have to do? And then LRB publishes it? New York Review just seems on the ball by comparison.

I’ve dipped, I’ve done a lot of dipping. I end up with a pile of books folded into each other and some writing. Then I get to the end of a thread and pack the books away and the writing ends up in a folder then, on a hard drive. This dipping and writing is just scholarly activity though, it might go somewhere or not.

I’ve been waiting for some things to come out that have been hanging around for a long time, to draw a line under them and free me up. Let me be and get on. The enervation is partly to do with being tied to this. I’m trying to work out what to do about it in future. In other times I would be charging onwards, whether or not the last thing was out yet, but I think… now’s not the time…

More sustained dipping and folding back: I’ve been exploring some literature on utopia I have. This includes a really strange book by Frank and Fritzie Manuel published by Blackwell in 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World it’s called.

I mean, here’s the flipside to that terrible film on Sebald, and my gobby prejudiced comments on it. These two use the fruitiest language, but they know exactly what they’re talking about. ‘Exordia’ and ‘a prophetic peroration’.

It’s like reading Hegel, if he was still hanging about in the late 1970s. I’m still finishing Andrew Shanks’ book on theodicy too. Same goes. Highly intelligent, scholarly excellence, but with a scalpel-like sense of criticism. I’ve been meaning to review it here, but it keeps leading me into other things.

The ‘other things’ include Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel. Now that’s good. Picked it up this year, so it counts. It’s in the same series as Shlomo Avineri’s book on Hegel and The Modern State that I read a few years ago. There’s work to be done here fusing these two books with Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution. I haven’t started this in a sustained or systematic way, but I think there’s a way back into existentialism through these texts.

I’m really wary of sounding like a cliche of someone approaching fifty who has retreated into classical music and ‘the classics’ and probably, you know, chess, except I haven’t even a basic idea of how to play chess. And I always have a copy of Viz hanging about and some Steve Bell If… anthologies. I have read lots of newspapers particularly the Financial Times. I need to wean myself off the FT obsession a bit in 2019.

I read Burgess’s End of the World News for the first time. It reads like reportage now! Just swap Lynx for the combined threats of nuclear war and climate disaster and there you go. I read his anthology of shorts, The Devil’s Mode, too, which is very enjoyable.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I do all the bad things everyone else does but only some admit to. You know, I will read half a Brian Aldiss and never finish it then feel like I committed a mildly serious crime in a previous life when I see it again.

But it’s happening: I’m getting old; although I suspect it’s nothing more than a slightly pretentious version of watching old sci-fi films to escape from the all too close present. I do that too.

What I’m trying to escape from even more is a creeping sense that the future might look like Graham Greene, Hewison’s Under Siege and Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz with Massive Bells On.

I think the main way I can respond to my enervation is to try to shut my gob for an extended period of time. But I’m not sure I can manage it.

I really don’t know what to do. Nor do you, if you’re really honest with yersen.

And that lot o’er there, they certainly don’ know what they’re doin’.

And that bunch in old photographs, from the Edwardian era.

One dressed up like Britannia, the others in togas, they don’ know what they’re in.

You think you do?

– Steve Hanson

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Should a stranger arrive

Various – Wretched Strangers (eds. J.T. Welsch and Agnes Lehoczky, Boiler House Press)

‘Should a stranger arrive, who speaks in a language sounding a bit like a whinnying mare, or a chirruping blackbird, or even a grinding saw that threatens to slice whatever comes near… Should a stranger arrive disturbing the dog and maybe also the rats and it’s winter – give him warm clothes. It could be that his feet are on fire underneath. Say he’s been riding a comet. Therefore don’t blame him if then your poor carpet complains. A refugee carries his home in his arms like an orphan for whom he perhaps needs no more than a grave…’

– Nelly Sachs, translated by Andrew Shanks

This poetry collection, published by UEAs Boiler House Press, is an outstanding contribution to the literature of our time. By ‘our time’ I mean the early millennial period of upheaval, middle eastern war and migration, and our current hideous swing towards populist rightwing demagogues. In Britain, the island has been very seriously torn down the middle by something with a comical name, ‘Brexit’.

One of the key debates following the EU referendum results centred on whether or not Brexit was the ‘revolt of the dispossessed’, a post-industrial rebellion against mainstream politics, bound up with whiteness and identity, racism and resentment, whether Brexit was a generational schism, or a rural revolt against urban cosmopolitanism viewed to operate with disproportionate powers to the small-scale, the regional and the local.

However, the way the referendum results map onto English-identifying citizens suggests that xenophobia was and is present. The spike in hate crimes after the results say it plain. Unfortunately, racism is part of this picture and some of that is definitely coming out of disenfranchised post-industrial places.

Yasmin Gunaratnam et al (2017) began a collaborative analysis of the ‘Go Home vans’ which – as Mark Rainey explains-  ‘were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest.”‘ The text ‘was accompanied by an image of handcuffs.’

‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’ (Gunaratnam et al 2017).

Rainey explains that tabloidesque phrases such as ‘Go Home’ are not just ‘located on government-sponsored billboards’ but ‘are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse.’ Here there is ‘no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism.’

Rainey’s own work with stateless migrants underscores any request for the full complexity of any situation to be at the surface. Rainey found in his own research that:

‘The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive.’

For him, all of this ‘is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.’ The best work in this volume, Wretched Strangers, speaks to that messy, unclear place, where the truth bends like light through a prism because the subject is caught in it, is unable to stand outside it.

In Wretched Strangers, Rachel Blu Dupleiss’s Draft 112: Verge is an extremely powerful polemic regarding – among many other things – the lack of meaningful communication in a world saturated by communication devices. Spivak’s subaltern other is here.

But there are the places in this book where it also becomes clear how poetry can cut to the chase in a way that prose or a research file cannot. It can bring you closer to the real, how it feels, its sweaty, compromised, bleak grey intensities, by making things feel less real. For Derrida – whom Spivak translated – language was the place where things could happen.

The greatest example of this is perhaps Ghazal Mosadeq’s ‘Time Is Of the Essence’, which really gets into the migrant soul – or psyche – the helicopter airlift in the living room, the sea in the living room, nothing is walled off from the experience of total uprooting, nobody and nothing is stable, even in the places where stability is temporarily offered.

James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar’s ‘Myth of the Savage Tribes, Myth of Civilised Nations’ really fuses the history of imperialism and racism with the up-to-date and the near: A visceral raging series of blocks of verse; Prince Phillip watching a native dance, torture, everyday racist commentary on television, Uncle Tom songs, they all build into an utterly damning image of the white western world over hundreds of years.

Fawzi Karim’s excerpt from the Empty Quarter shows the joys and the pains of the migrant city, and the migrant voice – a familiar place rendered unfamiliar to the reader. Khairani Barokka writes of ‘doctors inspecting our bodies as curios’ and ‘laws stamping ancient wisdom as buffoonery’, of ‘languages earmarked for oral extinction’ and ‘ships bearing rape marks on the stern…’

Barokka writes out:

‘bruised boys, labour that made your
sheeted beds, laid down your cobblestones…’

And then:

‘re-taxonomised and thefted ojects de vertue…’

Between these lines lie the sheer abrasive tensions between the collectors of ‘curios’ and their market values and the simultaneous denigration of ‘the primitive’. Don’t forget that one of the centres of Nazi power in Berlin was very close to the museum of ethnography. Not only did its existence not stop anything, but its bad epistemologies aided racism and then genocide. The great power of the work in this volume is often due to the conjunction of the history of imperialism – and its horrors – alongside contemporary migration. Barokka again:

‘incineration of communal safety; a quietude now
when the boats come in with their last-hour eyes
for whom this beacon continent disappears with
raging engulfment, above the waves that built it.’

However, Monika Genova shows the other side we must not forget and that is how hope is always tangled up with the messiness and sinister forces:

‘Beyond the fear and the exhaustion
my dream is right there, waiting…’

How the fragility of the human body is overcome by a robust tenacity:

‘There is really no other way to find out
How much weight my bones can carry
I only have this fragile human body
To make my mortal life extraordinary…’

Kapka Kassabova’s piece is extremely moving. The details shift the emotions somehow, an elastic band around a wad is all that is required to make the place come alive:

‘I pretended it was no big deal to see smugglers sealing deadly deals with the already-robbed of this world by robbing them further. The money came in bundles tied with elastic bands, in exchange for the promise of a lorry ride across the border…’

Ethel Maqueda’s piece ‘Mushrooms for my Mother’ is similarly potent. These two pieces are prose-poems and suggest that form as a very apt vehicle for this subject. But taken as a whole this book should act as a wake-up call for those still slumbering, that the rise of fascism is real and the dangers clear.

More recently, Les Back and Shamser Sinha have described how until recently ‘the question of the “Windrush Generation” was considered resolved.’ The people:

‘…who sailed from the Caribbean to Britain 70 years ago were not migrants. Rather, they were citizens returning to the Empire’s motherland. As the UK cut its ties with former colonies, they were made first into “immigrants”, and then “ethnic minorities”’

This scandal, they say, is ‘indicative of a long-term trend to stem postcolonial movement.’

The thing is, racism is everyday and the power that polices the ‘alien’ body has seeped into all layers of society:

‘Checks no longer only happen at Heathrow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bags. Rather, border control is being in-sourced. Landlords, doctors, health visitors, teachers, university lecturers and more are all being asked to pass on information, through monitoring student attendance or documenting home visits. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of border control, which is is moving into the heart of our social and professional life.’

Poetry – so often dismissed as fluff in an ani-intellectual and utilitarian England – can get to this place where everyone is complicit, although only those considered ‘alien’ are implicit.

This book, then, is essential, because it gives a series of views from outside this emerging ‘natural, naturalised and not’ taxonomy. You already know it, you already feel it; how many times do you produce your passport now? When going for jobs it is often routine to copy the passports of all the interviewees. I have mine in my bag a lot these days, I never used to.

Here, Aodan McCardle makes good use of that world of filing and stamping. He employs the redaction in his contribution, the black line through an official document, and Stephen Mooney uses the official form answer box. These pieces sing of censorship and the reduction of a complex needful human being to the brute grids of officialdom they are forced down, just by including these ciphers. They have taken form literally as in ‘forms’.

There is beauty here, though, even if it is properly sublime. Luna Montenegro’s ‘Everything in the universe is moving in this (in)exact second’, a poem for several voices, using just that text, shows the bigger truth, that we live in a massive explosion and it isn’t going to stop for anyone. An essential book.

– Steve Hanson

Best Foot Forward

Roland Topor – Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Andrew Hodgson, trans. Atlas Press, 2018)

An individual shoe, as Steve Hanson noted, is funny. Why it’s funny is anyone’s guess. More mysteriously, the presence of two shoes is not twice as funny, but entirely mundane.

Feet, shoes, legs, whether in pairs or standing solitary, clearly hold some unconscious power. A potential that surrealists have long tapped into. Think of Dali’s crutches, the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Noises for the Leg”, or Ed Barton’s poetry collection, Bad Leg.

Roland Topor’s surrealist novella, Portrait en pied de Suzanne (1978), is a love letter to the phantasmic foot. A dreamlike journey through an unnamed Eastern European capital, the story follows a gastronomic obsessive as he guzzles eggs, offends crowds, buys shoes that don’t fit, and eventually falls in love.

The journey is surprising, shocking, laugh-out-loud funny and over far too quickly. Topor, a playwright and master satirist, knows always to leave us wanting more.

Topor’s work is little known in the Anglophone world. His bug-eyed, cigar-chomping visage that graces the front cover of the book will feel oddly familiar, especially for fans of Werner Herzog who cast him in his Nosferatu.

Only a small portion of his broad and eccentric body of work – including art, literature, music and theatre – has ever been translated into English. From his early work on Hara-Kiri, the precursor to Charlie Hebdo, to his novel The Tenant that was adapted by Roman Polanski, Topor’s work presents a strange but highly entertaining body of French literature waiting to be discovered.

Andrew Hodgson, the translator of this new book, describes the renewed interest in Topor’s work currently sweeping Paris, Topor’s adopted home city. It is his hope that this new translation will bring Topor-fever across the channel. Fast-paced, clear and uncomplicated, Hodgson’s prose has its own momentum and it carries the reader along with it.

As so much of the Head-to-Toe Portrait depends upon surprise for its effects, I am hesitant to write too much about its contents. Instead, I’ll offer you the image of a sexually agitated fat man pulling his own foot off. Picture this in your mind. If it raises a smile, you’ll love this book.

The journey to this image is hilarious, and the places to which it leads afterwards are even more quirky and enjoyable.

The book itself is short, less than a hundred pages, and is accompanied by Topor’s original illustrations. This makes it the perfect entertainment for a rainy afternoon or a long train journey. The kind of book that you can read in one sitting, or lend to a friend and get back the next day.

At the very least I feel this book will initiate a new Roland Topor cult following within hip circles, although its humour is broad and accessible enough for a wide audience. A seriously wild ride, and a perfect first step into Toporland, Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne is one of the most original works to cross the channel all year.

– Joe Darlington

Love in a warm climate

Stephen Hale – Sigi and the Italian Girl (2018)

The first novel by Manchester-based writer Stephen Hale transports us to the small hillside Italian village of Madonna del Bosco.

Though fictional – or perhaps a composite of real places – it’s grounded in Hale’s own experiences of living and working in Italy. This sensual novel displays a deep knowledge of the region’s landscape and culture and a clear affection for ways of life in rural Italy.

Hale also takes us back in time. Firstly, to 1944, when Madonna del Bosco is occupied by German soldiers – the story is told from the viewpoint of the titular Sigi, a naïve nineteen-year-old army officer – and secondly to 2010, when we’re introduced to his grandson, British single dad Ben, who has his own story to tell.

The characters speak in impressively polyglot voices, and the narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present.

The wartime story is far removed from the frontline. Instead of fighting, we’re presented with bureaucracy and boredom. This war plays out in everyday life, and through small acts of resistance, rather than through direct action.

In the contemporary story, meanwhile, recently widowed Ben has relocated from London in search of a better life for him and his young son, also named Sigi.

Both stories share a sense of being away from home – or finding a home – and navigating the strangeness of a new culture. The importance of friendship comes across strongly, and finding commonality across cultural and generational distances; Hale deals adeptly with memory and its transmission. Both men – grandfather and grandson – fall in love in Madonna del Bosco, each relationship encountering its own challenges, although the outcomes are very different.

Despite its references to Italian neorealism, Sigi and the Italian Girl avoids cliché and sentimentality. Although the ending to old Sigi’s story comes as no particular surprise – I felt myself willing it to end differently – it leaves us to form our own conclusions about the characters’ motivations. The book suggests that there’s no such thing as clear cut goodies or baddies, or rigid ethical and moral codes. Hale passes no judgement on the characters: we are invited to make up our own minds. Sigi and the Italian Girl makes the case that most of us are neither heroic nor cowardly, but somewhere in between.

– Natalie Bradbury

Ziggy Played Guitar

Jason Heller – Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded (Melville House, 2018)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is to say that when it’s done well it is a rare and captivating thing. Who wouldn’t want to see a jitterbug about Vetruvius?

Jason Heller’s new book Strange Stars is a work of thrilling scale and intricacy. A study of science fiction’s influence on 1970s music, it is rammed with fascinating details while still being thoroughly readable. A ballet about Gaudi, if you will.

The study is bookended by Bowie songs. It opens with the first appearance of Major Tom. 1969’s “Space Oddity”, written coincide with the moon landings is a critical moment in the creation of space sound. It ends with Major Tom’s drug-addled return in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”. Bowie is the thread that ties to whole together.

But Bowie is only part of the story. His gender-bending spaceman Ziggy may have popularized the sci-fi song but it was already well on its way to chart recognition in the works of the Byrds, Joe Meek, Jefferson Airplane and even Jimi Hendrix.

“Purple Haze,” as Heller describes in a fascinating first chapter, began its life as a long poem. Hendrix wrote it after being inspired by a 1957 novel, Night of Light, by Philip José Farmer. The former paratrooper and guitar maestro was, like many of his generation, a total sci-fi nut.

The list of sci-fi influenced artists is long and crosses multiple genres and styles. From the jazz of Sun Ra came the funk of George Clinton and late 1970s Afrofuturist electro hits like “Freak-a-zoid”. The sci-fi silliness of the psychedelic 1960s inspired prog (Yes, King Crimson, Rush), hard rock (Deep Purple, Hawkwind), heavy metal (Motorhead, Black Sabbath), and even soft rock in the form of crooner Gary Wright’s catchy pop ballad “Dream Weaver”.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had reading this book, lying on the sofa with YouTube open on your phone, listening to tracks that you thought you knew off by heart only to discover that they were about space ships and moon men all along.

Many of these songs can be written off as 1970s era silliness (especially the many naff disco records made to cash in off Star Wars), but as Heller makes clear, all this stargazing does make a lasting impact on music.

The influence is undeniable when it comes to synths and the progression towards a more electronic sound. Many early synth bands drew inspiration from space and starships (I highly recommend the French band Droid and their single “Do You Have the Force?”). The legacy of New Wave sci-fi is critical here, however.

Michael Moorcock, himself an honorary member of Hawkwind, turned New Worlds into an unusual thing: a sci-fi magazine uninterested in space. Writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John M Harrison gave birth to a new sci-fi, one focused on contemporary visions of apocalypse. Humanity will be unlikely to reach space, they implied. We will destroy ourselves before then.

The most hopeful future for humans in this bleak techno-wasteland comes from posthumanism; the merging of flesh and circuitry. Kraftwerk, electronic pioneers, adopted the posthuman look wholeheartedly, although it was also flirted with by Joy Division and donned in a playful manner by Devo.

Heller makes the convincing case that the development of synths as instruments in their own right is tied inextricably to the rise of sci-fi music. These artists didn’t want to sound like electric versions of existing instruments, they wanted to sound like the future.

In fact, the only musical genre in the 1970s not to feature its own array of space cadets and starship troopers was punk. Even then, the occasional single like the Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” couldn’t help but feature a few rocket ships and supernovas.

Interestingly, for sci-fi fans, musicians seemed disinterested in the civil war that was being fought within the genre at this time. By the late sixties the hard sci-fi of Asimov and Heinlein was displaced by the New Wave. By the end of the next decade, however, shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had made hard science cool again and the works of Robert L Forward and, once again, Robert A Heinlein, were back on top.

David Bowie didn’t take sides. He’d quote Heinlein and Ballard in the same sentence, Burroughs and Orwell in the same song. Where Bowie led, the rest followed, and sci-fi music is all the richer for it.

More than anything, Strange Stars is great fun. Brilliantly written and comprehensive in its scope. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect present for Dad as well!

Forget dancing about architecture, singing about sci-fi is my new jam.

– Joe Darlington

Bombs and Balaclavas

Joseph Darlington – British Terrorists Novels of the 1970s (Palgrave)

I am reading ‘Lorna Doone’
and a life of John Most
terror of the industrialist
a bomb on his desk at all times

– Ferlinghetti, ‘Autobiography’

This is an insightfully produced, thoughtful work for such an explosive subject. Darlington sets up the context well in brief, the creation of the terrorist as we understand it also rose with the nation state as we imagine it.

For me, Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities lurks just under the surface here, as Anderson explains how ‘the world’ comes into being through literature, for a historically unworldly humanity, as modernity develops. Darlington adds that you need a real and imagined state to then have enemies of it.

The structure and clarity of this book is superb. But the journey it takes you on is also entertaining and challenges some of the perhaps more naive habits of the subject. For instance, Darlington refuses to put terrorism in scare quotes as “terrorism”, avoiding the sometimes ludicrous radical posturing to be found in some academic texts.

He sides with granting his readers the intelligence to decide where the distinction lies and is confident in his abilities as a writer to convey his own judgements.

Darlington actually contributes a chapter which I think might explain the origins of some of that radical posturing and it is the relationship between the counterculture and the ‘urban guerrilla’ – many thinkers went through the counterculture and into academia.

This chapter deals with the – by comparison with the RAF in Germany and others – almost pet British leftwing terrorist group The Angry Brigade. The sense of the surface of the 1970s is strongly captured here. It makes me remember that the English rock band Hawkwind produced a single called ‘Urban Guerrilla’ in 1975 which was withdrawn Clockwork Orange-style as it charted:

‘I’m an urban guerrilla, I make bombs in my cellar, I’m a derelict dweller, I’m a potential killer […] So let’s not talk of love and flowers and things that don’t explode, you know we used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.’

It isn’t Joseph Conrad, it isn’t even Tom Sharpe, but it shows that the ‘countercultural nasty’ – Manson and The Family, the bad hippies in Dirty Harry movies – were one thing in America and quite another in Britain. Darlington’s chapter fleshes out my skeletal understanding of this immensely.

Here the link between Darlington’s earlier work – which this book grew out of – becomes clearer. He began by reading popular fiction to take time off from the experimental works of the 60s and 70s which his PhD thesis covers: We have a reading addict on our hands here.

Jeff Nuttall and B.S. Johnson are covered, Snipes’ Spinster by the former and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by the latter. The milder revolt of sticking two fingers up to the establishment are definitely part of the discourse here, what I might coin a ‘Vaudeville of the Absurd’.

But the book doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of the terrorist subject at all, as the excellent chapter on Ireland and the IRA shows. The chapter on The Angry Brigade etc is also carefully judged, it isn’t flippant at all.

A key strength of the book is the way in which it picks up each facet of the subject and examines it, creating a rich view of the whole strange but solid prism. That Darlington shows it to be both solid and light-bending is all of the work, and it is work carried out with erudition, wit and style.

In the chapter on post-colonial terrorist fictions, the structures of feeling this book captures really become explicit. There is a turn to a helpless state agent figure in the face of the shifting world of 1970s oil politics. This figure seems like one of mass psychoanalysis as the cold war slowly thaws in the heat of hot wars in hot places.

This chapter seems to link back to Darlington’s introductory remarks about how terrorism changed across the years during which he wrote this book – from Al-Qaeda to ISIS – and how it will therefore always morph into new shapes in relation to the geopolitical environments of the future. This chapter feels very ‘now’.

The confidence displayed in this book is well-earned and deserved. Darlington makes more modest claims where he needs to and similarly bucks pointless trends. He clearly enjoys the subject, yet has a bird’s eye view of it that is distant enough to see the big contours jutting out through the subject – the discourses that can only be fleetingly glimpsed up close. The conclusion is clear, decisive and compact.

It is useful, too, this book, at lots of different scales. Turn to Netflix and you will find scores of terrorist films, as though the golden age of 1970s terrorist literature is being replayed there, via the big VHS cassette boxes of the 1980s video rental store, now miniaturised as gaudy pixel buttons.

The point to make is that this book is as useful to film studies as it is to literature studies and politics. It would also serve a more avid but non-academic cineaste well.

As Darlington produces his terrorist taxonomy – and I’m sure it isn’t his intention at all – I imagine that one could start to write new terrorist fiction by reading this book. Recalibrate the structures, swap tropes and begin.

But the book has a wider overall effect on me that is a mark of its quality. Some writers, it doesn’t matter what they cover, or how narrowly they focus, always give you the world through any subject.

I finish the book feeling that the limits of my world are the limits of what I can know and that what I can know is seriously restricted by the media environment I am in. A historical and philosophical work then, too. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

The Boy From Hell

Rimbaud – Illuminations (Carcanet, 2018, trans., John Ashbery)

Seth Whidden – Arthur Rimbaud (Reaktion, 2018)

Rimbaud’s Illuminations crashes through the dead wood of its epoch as Baudelaire’s work did, a figure the young poet Rimbaud worshipped as the great seer of modern poetry.

And Rimbaud will only ever be young, he has become a cipher for the beautiful damned youth, too fast to live, too young to die, burning out before fulfilling.

But Seth Whidden’s biography of Rimbaud also impressively chops away some of the myths and clichés that have grown up around Rimbaud’s life like strangling ivy. Rimbaud, who wrote of new urban heavens and hells, sounds like an absolute bloody nightmare.

He was utterly brilliant too, of course, mastering the history of poetry as a schoolboy and then rejecting its slow, traditional and bourgeois forms.

Etienne Carjat destroyed the negatives and remaining prints of the now-iconic portrait of Rimbaud after an altercation with the maniacal youth one evening in Paris. Lucky for us, prints survived elsewhere. The Henri Fantin-Latour painting Un Coin de Table (A Corner of the Table) observes Rimbaud on the very same evening of the spat with Carjat and others.

I was fairly familiar with this painting, but after reading Whidden’s biography, I can now only see an evil brat where I once saw a slightly aloof cherub.

Verlaine too, Rimbaud’s lover, gripped by absinthe mania, is rumoured to have thrown his child against the wall and attacked his wife, eventually imploding into piousness. Before seeking redemption, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a heated argument.

Eventually, nobody would speak to Rimbaud. He kept leaving his stuffy rural home for Paris, only to fly back there as it spat him out yet again.

The account of Rimbaud and Verlaine in London is fascinating, drinking in Soho, followed by the secret police, getting to know the routes and leylines of London we still experience: ‘Monstrous city, endless night!’

Rimbaud stopped writing poetry and headed off to sell in the European Imperial adventure. This may or may not have included guns, and if you want the picture under the clichés – ‘gun runner’ flashes up elsewhere as though it’s a solid fact – Whidden’s biography is the place to go. It’s an impressive piece of work, it manages to be scholarly, thrilling and sober in one. Not easy.

The late great poet John Ashbery learned French precisely to read Rimbaud’s Illuminations after reading it first in English in the 1940s. He then translated it again and Carcanet have put his edition out for some time, only now they have re-issued it with a smart new cover as part of their brilliant classics range.

It takes a little immersion to really get Illuminations, you need some context to understand just how radical the work is. What is explained as utterly modern, can in fact seem very old to us now, particularly if you are new to nineteenth century modernism. The same goes for Manet’s painting and Baudelaire himself.

Certainly, there would be no Bob Dylan without Rimbaud, that bizarre burlesque of an environment where reality seems to have been turned off – the first full experience of the modern city – is originally present in Illuminations.

But this little volume is the best way to take it on, and paired with Whidden’s biography, also released this year, it’s possible to really feel the spirit of the Rimbaud carnival. The alienation and togetherness of the city, its pleasures and hells, are one for the first time in a dreamlike scalding of the senses.

Ashbery’s translation comes in the French with the English translation opposite, to allow us to shuttle between the two. MRB recommends a double purchase here: Read these books simultaneously, but stay off the Absinthe, eh?

– Steve Hanson

Rivers of French Blood

Adam Roberts – The Black Prince (Unbound, 2018)

There are certain things that the novel cannot do without. Character is foremost among these, and a sense of development is another. Books have been known to limp on without them on some theoretical pretext or other, but their progress is usually limited, borne along with false reverence like the coffin of a Soviet dictator.

Anthony Burgess saw this back in the late 1960s. As the whole hip world was turning to the kinds of literary experiments he’d been doing since ’61, he reminded them that, experimental or not, the entire edifice of fiction stands on the unshakeable foundation of character.

By the same measure, with solid characterization and a tight plot in place, a writer can push experiment out to the far reaches, confident in holding their reader’s attention throughout.

Adam Roberts’s new novel is proof of this. Based on a project abandoned by Anthony Burgess, The Black Prince tells the story of its eponymous hero through an interweaving collage of voices. The Prince’s bloody campaigns from his early triumph at Cressy to his final massacre of French peasants at Limoges are presented from a variety of perspectives, some diegetic, some not.

The success of Robert’s novel lies in the sympathy he generates for the Prince; an innocent who, as Roberts also makes clear, can act at times like a genocidal monster. We see him as a product of his time, his father happy for him to die in battle, his first love kept from him by the barriers of royal expectation, and, above all, driven by the quasi-theology of chivalry.

I knew little to nothing about the Black Prince before this novel. By the final page I felt not only familiar with his life story, but with his contested reputation. Whether referred to as the Prince of Wales, Edward the younger, le terrible prince noir, or just plain Ned, Roberts builds up his character through the contrasting perceptions of others. Every character brings their own expectations to their dealings with the would-be monarch, and the Prince is caught between them all.

Among the more interesting perspectives are those of the clairvoyant Joan and her “camera eye”, a murder witnessed through the vision of a faithful dog and a siege as seen by a Cornish miner-turned-sapper. Less convincing are the newsflashes and the faux-Middle English verse, both of which I found to hinder rather than help with the development of a narrative flow.

Roberts embraces anarchronism, as Burgess did in his original plan, with idiosyncratic but ultimately endearing results. Talk of cameras and tape might sit strangely on medieval tongues but it serves to remind us of the constructed, cinematic nature of Roberts’ vision.

It is ultimately the classic cinematic appeal of a warrior hero and his tragic lady love that carries the novel beyond its initial appeal as an exercise in collage. The tale of Joan in particular grants it a real, emotive core. By the final scenes the reader is left with a swelling sensation. The sense of a long and complicated journey coming to an end. The stuff that great costumed epics are made of.

The Black Prince is unusual and brilliant in equal measure. Roberts fulfils the promise of Burgess’ plot and, arguably, even surpasses it with his broader range of styles and approaches. There is plenty of Burgessian wordplay, polyglot etymologies and baroque phonetics throughout, but Roberts can also be concise at times, even Spartan. His violence is more brutal than Burgess’s, less linguistically choreographed.

I highly recommend The Black Prince for its actions scenes alone. The most innovative page-turner you’ll read all year and packed with enough blood, guts and politics to keep even the most jaded reader on the edge of their seats. A prince among novels.

– Joe Darlington 

About Nowt

Martin Demant Frederiksen – An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular (Zero Books, 2018)

For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain.

What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba.

Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise.

It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about.

But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word.

Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency.

Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter.

The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach.

So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it.

As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost.

I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not.

In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something.

You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever…

– Joe Darlington

Hard Symbolism

Cristina Rivera Garza, The Iliac Crest. Sarah Booker, trans. (And Other Stories, 2018)

Magical realism has been around for a while now. Long enough to have its heroic founders, its Nobel Laureates, and its third-generation imitators. The like-Marqueses, like-Borgeses, and like-Carters seem to have turned the form into as much of a genre as are the like-Lovecrafts of horror and the like-Tolkeins of fantasy.

But at its core magical realism has always been a literary form. It seems to separate itself off from genre fiction, elevating the supernatural to a symbolic element. If magical realism is to survive as an innovative rather than derivative form then, I believe, it is this symbolical element that must be emphasized.

Garza’s newly translated novel, The Iliac Crest, is an excellent example of this symbolism elevating narrative in a new and exciting way. It uses magical realism as a way of making symbolic aspects physical; they come to life and walk around the page. Rather than magical realism, it might be better described as Hard Symbolism.

The narrative concerns our male protagonist, a doctor at a sanatorium where political dissidents are quietly silenced, defending his masculinity against the incursions of two women. These young revenants in black are alternately known as the Magpies, False One, the Betrayer or the Betrayed. They are in search of a lost manuscript by Amparo Dávila, a writer who has gone missing in a region infamous for its femicides.

The resulting story plays out as a contest for power, with the unnamed protagonist seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of the women’s accusations and the requirements of his job. Soon he finds that he’s trying to use his medical pacifiers – morphine, restraints – on the women… and that they conspire to use them on him.

As a narrative it wanders around far more than a ghost story would, although its atmosphere is unmistakably that of Gothic mystery. Instead of heart-racing progression, the unease lingers in each scene. The direction of travel is unclear and, as readers, we are left guessing as to where we are going to be led next. The Symbols, it seems, are leading us.

The translation by Sarah Booker is effective in reflecting Garza’s narrative in its prose. She uses long sentences, often with a baroque flavour to their grammar and word choice. What she can’t capture, as she explains in her translator’s note, is the play Garza makes of gendered referents. Spanish, as a highly gendered language, leaves many opportunities for disruption and ambiguity which English doesn’t. Booker nevertheless approximates these effects well by exploring the possibilities of first person.

The Iliac Crest is a fascinating book for these and other reasons. It exhibits the rare capacity to transcend its conceptual innovations and become a compellingly readable tale, all the while never downplaying its own innovations.

A reviewer has already compared it to David Lynch, although to me a more fitting comparison is Rex Warner and his quasi-allegorical tales. The story may be symbolic but, unlike Lynch, this isn’t necessarily its core focus. It is readable, immersive and concise.

I highly recommend the book for reading over a spooky weekend, ideally with a glass of red wine and the sound of ravens tapping at the window.

– Joe Darlington